It’s the discomfort of travelling that both terrifies me and attracts me. It’s the “What the fuck am I doing here?” moments. The loneliness of living with a decision that seemed adventurous and exotic and the realisation that adventure is only adventure because it comes at a cost.
So here’s the shameful admission: Half of my adventures have included moments where I’ve felt scared, depressed and lost and then, further, ashamed for being so cowardly. I felt it in Burma, a trip I still regard as my favourite, the one that taught me more than almost any other; 21 years old, detached from the world in a country that was still very much in the same position. Not knowing the language, the place or the people. I remember crying alone in a small guest house room wondering what I was doing there and realising that there was no realistic way to reverse the decision. Genuine, full blown sobbing at the prospect. True discomfort.
I even remember the first time. I was 18 years old and had decisively insisted that travelling round Europe was more important to me than anything else after I had scraped past the end of my mostly unsuccessful A-Levels. I had arrived in Turin late at night on a series of trains from Southern France. I spoke no Italian, didn’t know the city and had little money left in my pocket. I traipsed around, a heavy bag on my back, looking for a youth hostel I was sure existed but had no way of getting to. I had asked cab drivers but my English and GCSE level French were, surprisingly enough, getting me nowhere in Northern Italy. I’m sure they would have had I persisted but the heaviness of how lost I was weighed on me and the first three or four failures put me off. I ended up in a park, late at night. The only other people in the park were the type of people that an antiquated linguist would describe as ne’er-do-wells. There was drinking, aggression and even some open fighting which I tried to avoid looking at lest I draw attention to myself. I wanted to call home. I wanted to call my friends, my family. I’d spent long enough away at that point – in reality only a month or so – to start to miss the comforts of the company of those that I cared about most. I wanted to spend precious coins on an expensive telephone call to say “Look, I’m fucked. I fucked up – I thought I was a traveller, an adventurer but it turns out I’m a scared child and I don’t know what to do”. But what was the sense in that call? Literally the only foreseeable outcome was that I’d remain in the exact same position but I’d have worried someone I cared about. So that was out. So I sat down in this park, exhausted from all the walking and the fact that it was gone 11pm. I closed my eyes and realised I had two options. I could fall asleep there and take my chances at making it through the night with the temperature dropping and the other park dwellers or I could open my eyes, pick myself up and figure out how the hell I was going to sort this out. I chose the latter. Eventually I slept in a real bed that night in a hostel. The way hostels were before wifi and smartphones, where you walked in and made friends instantly over a pack of beers some Dutch dude had bought from the supermarket or a conversation in three languages about the cheapest internet café or best way to get public transport to a small museum someone was recommending.
Today, I put that experience on a pedestal. It was glorious to me and the first time I’d found myself truly alone and squeezed and made it through. In reality it was a tiny thing – teenager gets a bit confused and scared in a strange city, manages to sort it out on his own. Hardly the most heroic of acts, but to me it represented a genuine epiphany. If I have to pinpoint the defining moment of my transition from childhood to adulthood (a process I’m certain is not yet complete as I wade through my early thirties) that would probably be it. But it sucked at the time. It hurt and it pulled me apart and now it’s a cherished memory.
Since then I’ve been a traveller. If there’s been a chance to pick up my bag and put myself through something I’ve done it. And I’ve felt the same crushing feeling dozens more times. In Burma, in Palestine, in Zambia, in Libya, in Nepal. And each time I’ve reacted to it. Not always well. Sometimes I’ve taken the equivalent option of falling asleep in the park. Most of the time I haven’t. Every time I’ve learned something from it.
So now I find myself sitting in a hotel in Navrongo, Ghana. I arrived to Tamale from the capital, Accra, yesterday on one of those tiny planes where you can see the pilot the whole time and where the safety instructions get roundly ignored on the basis that everyone on board knows that if this thing goes down, ain’t no one walking away. I stayed the night there where the entire city had been cut off from the internet. Today we drove North to here and I spent the day in the baking heat of the hot season sitting in the shade of trees or dusty government offices working on a project that spans nearly two dozen villages trying to work with communities to reduce violence against children. It’s work I believe in, and the opportunity to travel to Ghana was always a plus point for me in taking the opportunity to work on it. But now I’m out of my comfort zone again. I’m in a room in a hotel that feels very familiar, even though I’ve never stayed in it before and have never visited the country before yesterday. If you travel in a certain way, you know it well. Concrete, stained walls, cracked tiles on the floor, a rock hard bed with flimsy tattered sheets. A bathroom door that isn’t there, a musty cupboard, the smell of disinfectant and a squeaky ceiling fan the only blessed relief from the heat that sits stubbornly even as the night descends. The power has gone out, as it tends to, and I’m sat in the dark writing by the illumination of the remaining 28% of my laptop battery. I know this place well. I’ve stayed here in Bolivia, in India and in many other places.
And the “What the fuck am I doing here?” factor has just kicked in. It’s tough. Soon there’ll be no light to even read my book by and I’ll go out and take a walk in the early evening air that will still seem oppressive but just cool enough to brave with only a light sweat beading on my forehead. I’ll check out the town, say hello to some folks, explain what I’m doing here and ask how they are. I’ll try to find somewhere to buy a bottle of water to keep me hydrated through the restless night and I’ll wake up early tomorrow and head off out to somewhere even more remote as the schedule demands. I’ll feel lonely tonight. I’ll feel uncomfortable, and rightly so, because that’s what you should feel when you’re in a place you don’t know. Being ignorant is supposed to be uncomfortable – learning makes you stronger. The sadness will send me to sleep and the trepidation will wake me up and there will inevitably be a moment, there’s always this moment, where you look around further into the adventure and you realise you’re spectacularly happy, just to be somewhere or to be doing something. You take sight of yourself from the outside for a second and you say “Here I am. What the fuck am I doing here? What the fuck would I be doing anywhere else? Here is wonderful” and you’ve found your way and it’s worth it. It’s always worth it.