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Travel as a labyrinth in reverse

Clive used to tell me that “somewhere” and “I want to go” were tautological as far as I am concerned. I couldn’t read a travel magazine or watch a tv programme or a film or read a novel without something about the place enticing me, making want to go and see it, taste it, hear it, smell it for myself. Touch it, and let it touch me.

 

I credit my Dad for my wanderlust as for so much else about who I am. He brought me up on books and words and poetry, but he also brought me up on tales of ‘one ship’ he was on and the things he’d seen, he brought me up on maps and atlases, he brought me up on night skies and camping trips, and walks in the hills. He taught me that gold wasn’t a metal that came out of the ground it was an unexpected waterfall caught in a shaft of light, or a field of ripening wheat, or the stories we span for ourselves when we walked among the ruins of the old places.

It was something of a surprise then, when I asked myself this question last summer, where do I want to go? to find myself responding I want to go home.

Reflecting on that these few months on I can see that the longing for home was rooted in loss and in transition. I wanted to go home, because I no longer had such a thing. That sounds over-dramatic. The truth is more mundane. I was unanchored, partly by choice, partly by circumstance. My three points of personal reference were my job, my relationship and my home. I’d quit my job. My partner was dead. And I was renovating the bungalow he’d left me, so I had already emotionally detached from the house I was still living in, but not yet able to move into my new abode. I wasn’t on the streets or in any normally accepted sense ‘homeless’ but emotionally I was – at the very least – between homes.

Now I am home. I’ve been here five months already. The pristine holiday-home feel has worn off. My books are shelved, those which aren’t scattered on random surfaces (including floors), with page-markers, in the process of being (re)read. Vases hold flowers in varying stages of freshness. Shoes lie abandoned in doorways where I scuffed them off. Tables hold reminders of things I’m trying to learn. I’m becoming familiar with the heating and cooling sounds of the house, the sound of the wind and the rain round the corners, and the slow accumulation of lists of things to be done.

Now I am itching to travel again. Plans made in the first stages of grief and recovery have been all-but-abandoned. Maybe they’ll resurface when the time is right, when I am ready. Other plans are made that I am trying not to talk about for fear of jinxing them. So many trips that I’ve gotten excited about have been called off, so I try to stay quiet with fingers secretly crossed that these ones will work.

Big trips. And small ones. There are so many places I want to go – and some I want to go back to. It’s hard knowing how many places I will never see. Harder still knowing how many will not be what they once were, whether I get to see them or not. The world is changing rapidly, and we are losing so much. There are those who would argue that maybe we should not travel at all because of the damage we do in the process.

Personally, I think we have to strike a balance. We must be conscious and aware in our roaming, of the impact it is having, but to stay home is to lose sight of the interconnectedness of everything and everyone. Narrowing our horizons and our experience will serve the planet ill. We will care less.

Our compassion for places and for people and for other animals is strengthened by our own personal experience of them. You might argue that shouldn’t be so, but it is. Having visited some of the poorest countries in the world, I strongly believe that every school-child from our affluent nations should be taken to one of these places, one of these cities or towns or rural communities, or maybe all three, to see how it is.

It is too easy to lose sight of the gift of clean water at the turn of a tap, unless you’ve watched people cleaning their teeth by a leaking hydrant in the street, or you’ve washed your own cooking pot with sand from the riverbed. It is too easy to lose sight of the gift of streetlights, unless you’ve walked truly dark village tracks, where the dogs bark and a flickering fire ahead could be shelter or danger.

Equally, it is too easy to lose sight of the price of our gifts, unless you’ve shared a simple meal in a one-room shack or a small thriving restaurant business full of love and laughter and story-telling and song. Some of the best things I’ve ever eaten came off a spoken menu-choice that amounted to hen, fish or pig? Blind dates with dinner. We don’t treasure what we have, nor miss what we’ve given up in exchange for it, unless we see the alternatives. Only then can we begin to imagine where the middle road might lie. Only then can we begin to think about where the cost of progress is too high and who is paying it, and whether there is some adjustment to be done.

I’m all for science and research and the facts and the figures…but we’re a story-telling animal, and emotional animal, we need to experience the narrative.

I’m itching to head back out into the world, to the places where I know I will be challenged. Where the walking will be harder than I’m used to. Where the food will be strange and not all of it I will love. Where I may not sleep well, and I will have to learn again how to love what I’m seeing and doing no matter how tired I am. Where I may need to share my room with unfamiliar creatures. But where the skies will be stunning, and the music will lift my soul, and the people will share their wisdom.

At the same time, I keep coming back to an idea the Simon Reeve puts out in his book Step by Step. He tells us that if we want travel adventures we don’t have to go to the other side of the world. That might be easy for him to say, given that he adventures for a living, and I do still want to visit a whole list of far-flung destinations, but there is also a truth in what he says which increasingly resonates for me. He suggests we take a local map, up-end a glass upon it, centred on our own home and drawn a circle around its rim. Travel there, he says. That’s your local patch, explore it, learn it, adventure in it. Who knows what you might discover?

I immediately start to wonder: what scale map? How big a glass? Define local, in other words. Eventually I realise it doesn’t matter. Ultimately the drawn ring will encompass the whole planet, but I like the idea of starting small. There may be a series of maps and circles, ever-expanding from home out into the big wide beyond.

Or maybe doing the reverse, narrowing down until we come home.

Travel as a labyrinth in reverse. Rather than a circling to the centre and back out into the world, we go out into the world and then back to our centre. Every journey can be a pilgrimage if we choose it to be, or a quest, or a meditation.

I find I am increasingly thinking not just about where I want to go, but why, and how. Not whether by boat or plane – although that does come into it – but about the mind-set I’m taking with me. Am I looking for history, or culture, or spirit? What am I taking with me on this journey and what do I want to bring home with me? Am I looking for excitement or pleasure? For people or place? Am I journeying outwards or inwards?

Always I’m looking for experience, which for me is in the small things. It’s that sense of being in an unknown place, watching ordinary people do ordinary things, differently. It’s in the markets and on the riverbanks. It’s in the hills and the city parks and hotel lobbies. It’s the flowers and the birds and the wave-sounds on an unfamiliar beach. It’s in the clothes people wear and the food they eat. It’s in the landscape and the weather and the power of the planet that we cannot control.

And of course. if we looked at our own patch with a different perspective, maybe we’d find all of that a lot closer to home.

Where do I want to go? Everywhere and nowhere. My wanderlust mojo has found its way back to me, and I’m getting out there in response, but I am also focussed on ways to spend time at home, enjoying just being at home and treating that as another kind of adventure.

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