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Published: March 29th 2010
The train pulls into Saltburn station with an extended wheezing puff of its brakes, and my arrival on the platform marks the end of what has, on and off, been just over four years of travel. I can't deny that I'm ready for a rest.
I've read many travel blogs over the last few years, mainly ones relating to long-term travel. The majority of the writers were on a career break, taking 6 months to a year out to do some form of RTW trip. There were also others for whom travel was the main thing in the writer's life, with occasional bursts of working to finance it. I spent much time looking for the different reasons that compel people to travel.
And people take many different things away from a long journey. For some it's just a blip - they return to the same life they had before, with the obvious tangibles of photos and souvenirs but not a substantially different outlook. For a smaller number, their return home signifies the start of a sea change in their life - they switch job, alter the balance between work and other activities, maybe even move to a different country. And some never even get back home, attracted by the way of life in a country they'd previously thought they would merely pass through.
For me, my number one reason for getting away was that I hated my job. Good pay on the one hand had ceased to be a justifiable counterweight to a laundry list of irritations on the other. I was neither successful enough to be climbing the ladder nor useless enough to get the sack. At 34, I could see a further three decades of mediocrity ahead of me, leading to a comfortable retirement. Was that the life I would want to look back on at 65?
The obvious solution to this would have been to change job and see if that helped, but there were other thoughts stamping around in my head. Western society encourages a standard route through life - education, job, better job, marriage, house, kids, better job, retirement, golf/cruises/grandchildren, death. And a big issue I had with this was that I didn't like the idea of having to wait until retirement age to have a decent wodge of free time. Apart from the non-negligible risk of not living that long, I couldn't necessarily assume that at 65 I'd be physically or mentally able to take advantage of this leisure. And the urge to see more of the world had been growing stronger.
Leaving a job of your own volition requires effort and not a small amount of worry. Having only had two jobs in my working life, and resigned from the first one when I'd already been offered the second, it seemed ludicrous to think about giving up a stable, comfortable existence for an indeterminate future. I knew that I had enough savings to support myself without work for a while, and enough skills to be able to get another job at some point, even if just as a potato peeler, but such logic seems very slippery and uncertain at 3AM after hours of restlessness in each night of months of unease.
Further, though I'd had my enthusiasm fired by reading travel blogs (I think Ali's was the first one I stumbled across - it took me much longer to realise he had actually created the site), I'd never done any backpacking whatsoever. I'd never been away from home for more than two weeks, and had rarely gone on holiday on my own. I'd always detested public transport. I'd never been particularly gregarious. The life that I was thinking of temporarily swapping for working life had its own world of unknowns.
One big help was seeing someone else make a similar decision, which meant that doing the same thing was no longer so forbidding. On Friday 22nd July 2005, I resigned. Two weeks later, I left the office for the last time. A month later, after selling/throwing away/giving away a large chunk of my possessions, I moved back to the UK. Two months later, I set off for India.
The country statistics of my wanderings aren't particularly impressive given the amount of time I've been away - just 37 countries visited, 5 of which I'd been to before - and the period of time spent in each one varied from the couple of days accorded to Brunei to the 6 months that Australia took up (the latter being a travelling indulgence that I still shake my head at in disbelief). Antarctica is the one continent I have yet to set foot on and, as the one I've had an obsession with for years, it's fitting that I've left it until last.
More importantly, there are some areas of myself that had previously never been explored but now bear many footprints, most my own but some belonging to others - people I've encountered on the road. The buildings, landscapes, animals, and cultures that I've experienced over the last four years have given me plenty of pretty pictures but I could have found very similar shots simply by searching on the Internet. The most irreplaceable part of my travels has been the fact that I've had the opportunity to think, in particular to think about opinions and ideas voiced by people whose like I would never have met if I had simply stayed in the furrow of my pre-travelling life. I can not overstate the tremendous impact that has had.
In my working days, I spent the majority of my time with colleagues, both in the office and out. People's educational backgrounds were all similar, we were all doing related jobs, and we were all living in the same city. Most were in their twenties or early thirties. Not surprisingly, views on a whole variety of topics tended to cluster. It's astounding how this similarity reflects and magnifies one's own feelings, to the point where dissenting, or even just different, points of view are rarely heard. Travel gave me the chance to escape from that confinement (which, at the time, I didn't even realise I was in), and confirm/reject some of the attitudes I had assumed. That's in no way a shot at the people I knew at the time - simply a statement that we had too much in common to create significant mental friction.
Apart from the obvious difference of meeting people from other countries (which was fairly common in London and New York anyway), I encountered people who were much older/younger than me, some with no education and others who were professors, some who worked in banking/IT and some who had never even heard of the firm I used to work for, some extremely liberal and some ultra-conservative, some followers of religions I knew nothing about and some atheists, etc. I met optimists and pessimists, geologists and archaeologists, rich and poor. Sure, there were similar people lurking somewhere in New York, but they were never going to impinge on the various spheres of my life there.
In this regard, travel was a great leveller. Many of the attributes that are used to define you when you live and work somewhere - such as your age, company, income, residence, etc - were completely irrelevant, for the reason that none of these things were what you had in common on the road. The thing that you had in common with other travellers was that you were travelling. The thing that you had in common with locals was that you were in their country. With other travellers, this resulted in a plethora of hackneyed conversational icebreakers (Where have you come from? Where are you going to? What did you think of blah? etc), but it also created an incredibly sociable atmosphere that sucked you in. I met many, many more people in my travels than I'd met since leaving university.
The flip side to this was the transience of the friendships formed. You may go on a five day tour with a small group of people and end up knowing more about them than people you've known for five years, but those brief and intense comings-together in 99%!o(MISSING)f cases will be followed by total radio silence, even in this, the Facebook Age. Building up relationships happens at light speed compared to normal life, but they dissolve just as quickly.
There's a cliche that travel broadens the mind and I've always hated how definite that statement sounds. I met people whose motif seemed to be simply to find cheap places in which to get plastered. I met people whose idea of visiting another country was to stay in 5 star luxury and whose only contact with locals was when summoning the wait staff. Whatever mind-broadening qualities those approaches had probably weren't uppermost in the thoughts of the person who coined the cliche. It would be much more useful to be able to trumpet that travel makes you a better person but the evidence for that is fairly lacking too. Travel can provide an amenable environment for effecting change within yourself but only if you actively attempt this - in that regard, your own front room can be as good an environment as any.
I began my travels with many character flaws, including being unable to start the day without washing my hair. Four years later, a slightly higher degree of tolerance has ameliorated these flaws but certainly hasn't eradicated them. I still advocate summary mob justice for snorers in dorms. However there were a few opinions that only took shape in the heat of travel.
First, I wouldn't consider the world to be a particularly nice place. How anyone can travel for any length of time, seeing the poverty, suppression, prejudice, abuse, and misery "enjoyed" by such a large percentage of the planet's population, then attempt to paint a positive view of it, is somewhere between naive and dishonest (and should be the preserve of guidebooks). Frankly you don't even need to leave your living room to see evidence of this on the TV. The natural world can be harsh and unforgiving but it contains little greed - that peculiarly human trait is our greatest flaw.
Having said that, there are also huge dollops of positive inspiration to be had. I've had my breath caught in my throat by a volcano at sunrise, a pinnacle in architecture, and a loved one's smile. Both Mother Nature and mankind have dotted their masterworks all over the globe - some famous, some unheralded and hence with the added bonus of the thrill of discovery. Experiencing such things can be truly life-affirming.
Second, the impression of a country gained by travelling through it can only be an approximation of what that country is "really" like. Being a foreigner in a country is akin to putting measuring equipment into a scientific experiment - the mere fact of inserting the equipment affects the results. Thus while I have no doubt that the proportion of good/bad, helpful/unhelpful, etc people in the world varies little between countries, as a foreigner you don't always get a chance to see that. Your presence will attract certain people and repel others, and not necessarily in the proportions that you would want.
Third, possessions are massively overrated. When your "stuff" consists of a 50 litre backpack and a shoulder bag, you soon learn what's necessary and important. Once I get my things out of storage, the local charity shops will receive a bonanza.
Fourth, knowledge is power. This was one of the most disconcerting aspects for me when I first started travelling. I assumed that if someone told me that this was the cheapest guesthouse in town, then it was. Or that this was the only bus going to XYZ. Or that the price of these bananas was blah. Sometimes it was true. Sometimes it wasn't. These aren't questions that you need to think about at home, and I soon learned not to be so trusting. The positive aspect of this was actually being forced to analyse the particular information that was being offered, to assess it in the context of previous similar experiences, and to get second (and third, and fourth) opinions if necessary. However, after a lifetime of "do as you would be done by", it's hard not to feel some sense of moral outrage at people anywhere trying to screw you. Which is when you then find yourself trying to haggle in Sainsbury's.
Fifth, the ability to communicate should never be underrated. Before I started travelling, I had always vaguely regretted having only one language at my disposal, however that shortcoming had never substantially impacted on my life. Now, I have a significantly stronger sense of regret at my dismal linguistic ability. English is the universal language but in many places in the world it will only stretch to ordering in a restaurant or booking a room for the night - essential for the hungry and tired traveller, but hardly enabling wide-ranging conversations with local people. Obviously it would have been impossible to learn the tens of languages of the areas I passed through but, for want of a common language, a great deal of potential interaction was left unrealised.
Sixth, the UK really isn't that bad. Having not lived there for a decade, I tended to view the UK as the sum of its worst aspects, in particular the high cost of living. But there was actually so much I was taking for granted that was more than adequate compensation - the NHS and other social services, free and decent education, good transport, mild weather, a general lack of nasties (diseases, life-endangering animals, etc), a government you actually have the option of getting rid of every few years, etc. The view of one's own country tends to veer between the extremes of patriotic pride and a feeling that the grass is greener elsewhere - I would say that the UK is by no means perfect but it beats the vast majority of countries I've been to.
On a related note, I often found myself wondering why I was travelling to far-away climes to be a tourist when there were so many parts of my own country that I'd never set foot in. I've only "done" a third of the "35 things not to miss" in my RG to England (bought, incidentally, while I was travelling), and most of those were accomplished when I was a kid. Spreading the net a little wider, I find that of the 54 countries I've visited in my life, only 9 of those were in Europe.
Seventh, developing countries have an enviable level of flexibility. If you want to do something, then it can usually be done at short notice, without the stifling red tape and litigation culture of Western health and safety regulations. I also loved being able to turn up at accommodation at whatever time of the day and check in, paying the same rate as if I'd reserved in advance - none of this 2PM check-in and ludicrous rack-rate bollocks.
I thought about constructing a series of Top 10s and Bottom 10s to summarise my trip but then realised that that would require so many compromises and qualifications that it would end up being meaningless. However one thing that does stand out from my dozens of memories, both good and bad, is that by far my favourite country was China. Its physical attractions alone (e.g. the rice terraces at Yuanyang, the desert at Dunhuang, the lakes at Jiuzhaigou, umpteen buildings in Beijing, pandas, etc) made a strong case but it was the sense of being on an adventure that clinched it for me. A large part of that was knowing neither the language nor the writing, meaning that even basic interactions weren't trivial, but the combination of a phrasebook, assistance from helpful locals, and blind luck meant it was possible to muddle through. With so few foreign tourists in mainland China outside of Beijing, Shanghai, and Xi'an, there was genuine curiosity about the laowai
, but sadly the language barrier was completely insurmountable. This was definitely the country in which the lack of a common language was most frustrating.
It's hard to answer the question "Well ... what was it like?" that people tend to ask when they hear about a long journey recently completed. The easiest response is to reel off the famous places that you saw, add a sweeping comment about the favourite people that you met, and summarise it all by saying it was great. That's to ignore the majority part that words can only approximate to, the many aspects that made the journey unique to you and which no-one else will ever experience or understand - that unrepeatability is one of travel's most appealing features. I'll leave it to Dickens - it was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Note that best and worst are the two ends of the spectrum.
I won't be blogging on Travelblog as Jabe any more. This blog represents a part of my life that is now over. Of course, I'll travel again in the future, but it won't be for the same reasons as the trip that I've just finished, and hence won't be of a piece with what I've already written. Plus, with 460 blogs behind me, even I find myself looking at the Travelblog front page and thinking "Not another damn blog from that Jabe guy".
At the outset, I had hoped that, by the end of my trip, I'd have some concrete ideas as to where my future lay. However, after just a few months of travelling, I realised that that was an unreasonable expectation. Travel itself was such a stimulating experience that my thinking time was generally tied up in the here and now, rather than what I would be doing at some point hence. Now, after the trip, is the time to be thinking about such things.
After all, it's the journey that matters - right?
After my trip, I wrote a book about what led me to leave my job, and my experiences as a first-time, thirtysomething traveller. The book is called "Out Of Office Male"
and is available as an eBook at Amazon US
, Amazon UK
, Amazon Germany
, and Smashwords
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