I decided I wanted to travel at the age of 17. I remember watching the Discovery Channel and seeing an episode of Globe Trekkers featuring Bolivia. The travel guide featured Ian Wright (not the footballer), an enthusiastic English guy who took everything in his strides and embraced every aspect of the local cultures Bolivia had to offer. He travelled mostly overground and saw Lake Titicaca, visited La Paz, drove a jeep across the salt flats of Salar de Uyuni and took buses, carts and any local transport that was on offer to traverse the harsh local terrains. I hadn't watched a travel documentary that ever moved me, but this immediately caught my attention and changed my view of the world. It made me want to go to the places he had visited and I was determined to make it happen whilst I was young.
So I hatched a plan, and that was to go to University and find someone that after my studies would travel with me. If I am honest (and not many people know this) my reasons to go to University were 50% for this and 50% because I wanted to make it on my own in the world and a degree was essential for this. I got lucky and met Cristabel, who at the time I remember being obsessed with inter-railing around Europe and getting the Trans-Siberian train to Beijing. Nothing remotely near to what I wanted to do, which was solely to travel Bolivia. But I did achieve one aim, which was to find a travel partner. I knew that one day, we would leave England and travel part of the world, together.
It took us nearly 8 years after meeting to finally get ourselves together enough money that would let us see a small slice of the world. That was on the condition that with our year away, we wouldn't get back and have to start-up our lives from scratch. So we saved enough money to travel and enough money to afford a sizeable mortgage deposit (without the governments help!) when the time was right to buy. We had over 4 years of work experience under our belts too, so finding a mid-senior range job shouldn't be a problem when we returned. If I am being honest again, it wasn't until some fortune headed my way with gaining a very reasonable salary, successes in a few share dealings I had going on, a perfectly timed and generous redundancy package (which was technically my choice) that I found I had enough money to achieve both aims within a matter of 12 months.
There was one caveat that still needed solving. I had fears that when we returned, the only reason a job could be hard to come by was the 12 months of ‘backpacking around Asia' that would appear as a blackhole on our CV's. There were 3 options for us.. We either visited Australia / NZ and worked in a dull backpacker job that involved cattle ranching, picking fruit, etc.. Which didn't seem all that appealing and fit what we really wanted to do with our time away. The second option was to become an English teacher abroad for 12 months in China, Malaysia or Taiwan, which could have been a good option, but lacked freedom of travel. The last option was we could find a new skill for our CV's and that's where learning a foreign language came into play.
We figured Chinese would be worthwhile learning, seeing as the world is currently pivoted to the East in business and international trade. Mandarin is the worlds most widely spoken language already and given China's current influence it could become a global language like English one day. Studying in China on short courses is cheap as well, as long as you are OK learning it at a Chinese University, rather than an international language school in Beijing or Shanghai. Also, If you pass the tests, you can get the Chinese government to pay for all of your tuition for up to 3 years, as they are very keen for foreigners to learn it. 5 months of tuition and accommodation in China worked out to be just £1,500 which is £10 per day. That amount of time learning a language and paying very little to be abroad seemed a reasonable justification for at least a small chunk of our time away from the workplace. I think it took us just under 4 months to decide on leaving England to packing our bags and getting onto a plane.
Being away from home for so long clearly has it's ups and downs though. From the immediate culture shock of living in another country, to finally accepting it's differences and then leaving for new shorelines just when you started ‘getting it'.
Being in Vietnam has driven and played with my emotions on an hourly basis on occasion. Arriving in Hanoi and not thinking the experience in Vietnam would be enjoyable and after a day realising it was all a mistake and in my head. Then arriving in Hue and experiencing a sense of fight or flight mentality. After a few days of getting to Vietnam we realised we had been living so long in China that we had been trapped in a bubble and not accepted China for what it was and got along in the country because we had little choice, but to accept it for the way it was. Then switching today to the opposite and actually missing China for the small comforts it provided. You realise that being homesick is never about where you started, but the comforts and familiarities you build into your lives, wherever you are living over time.
Now I don't know what I am really homesick for, is it a London Pride in The Boat down at Berkhamsted canal. Or is it the public buses in Ningbo that were always reliable and took us safely from A to B without fail. I don't miss England as a country particularly, but I miss the idea of having that daily direction that would point the compass to what I needed to be doing. I miss something that isn't tangible or easy to explain.
Then you have the days where you realise what you are doing has some significance and importance. That the world outside our little island is important to discover, see and experience. Getting comfortable at our age isn't something we should consider. We have our lives ahead of us to settle down and get tangled up into life's often monotonous motion.
In China I learned about a popular proverb, it's titled “jǐng dǐ zhī wā” or “Frog in well”.
It is told, that a sea turtle came upon a frog that lived in an old abandoned well. Upon seeing the turtle, the frog boasted: “Look, I am happy and completely at ease here. Why don’t you come down and join me?” The turtle tried, but the well was too small, the turtle couldn’t fit through the opening.
Then, he said to the frog: “Have you ever seen the ocean? It is vast, and you would truly be happy if you lived there.” Upon hearing this, the frog was so surprised he just stood there speechless.
The proverb / fable, is meant as a lesson to be taught to people that are ignorant of the true world that lays around them.
If there is any more than enough reason, simply signing into Facebook and reading the daily news feed on peoples activities reminds me of how monotonous and uneventful life could get. Especially for the young and pretending to be young that lack any regular sobriety, their posts praising their last binge filled evening always generate dozens of likes. Maybe it's a way to handle modern day life in England and post 2008?
We talk a lot about what we will do when we eventually settle down, we have always talked about these things but when your travelling for an extended period of time, future seems a long way off. It's hard to have much direction when we don't know where we will be in 2 months time. It might be romanticised, the idea of travelling to far flung destinations. Just taking a backpack, a passport and some ideas and seeing where life takes you. But it's also not for everyone and can soon become tedious, tiring and you can crave the simple things in life, like cooking your own dinner and settling down and watching some evening TV on the sofa.
I wouldn't say I am a born backpacker, but I was never born to fit into life's monotony either. I know people that wouldn't want it any different! I've even traded in my backpack for a suitcase, because I couldn't stand carrying such a weight anymore and having to juggle putting it on and taking it off constantly.
The one thing that I can take from travelling so far, is that the time will pass quicker than we notice. Before long, we will be back in life's monotony, aiming for a mortgage we can pay off before we're 50 and trying to make a success of ourselves in the ‘real world'.
Sometimes I ask myself, whether one day I will make that trip to Bolivia. It has always been a finance thing that put me off getting there. But my goal is to see the world, all of it in my lifetime. This trip is just a small slice of what's to come and if anything, it has taught me to look outside the water well.