It was a Monday morning, I was fourteen years old and the ink had yet to dry on my Japanese exchange student visa. Three things had just crystallized within my culture shocked skull. I was lost, not just a little locationally challenged, but honest to God, ‘which way is north’ confused. I was also utterly surrounded by sensory apocalypse, lost in a raging sea of signs, words, smells and habits that threatened to draw tears – I was wearing my host families toilet slippers. Likewise I knew that I had just taken my virgin hit of the drug called travel.
And I loved it.
It has been twenty-six years since I got lost going to my first day of school in Tokyo, but that instant in Ginza, vivid to this day, has become the pivot point around which my life has since revolved. On that monotone, overcast day, bowing like an autistic puppet to everyone I met, overwhelmed by fear, bewilderment and the desperate need for a cultural anchor, I had my epiphany. ‘Normal’ had just left the building and in its place waltzed opportunity and freedom; the intrepid explorer deep within had been unleashed, shouting, “Welcome to the deep end, now swim!”
The irrevocable and finite nature that is life and the misconception that drawing breath will continue forever is often withheld from youth. The sad, unassailable truth that wisdom and age are common bedfellows means my enlightenment on that day was special. I learnt that the doctrine of my middle-class background of education-occupation-rumination-expiration was an expectation, certainly not a motivation. I could, and would, go on to shatter the mold of the ‘norms’ my society had unwittingly placed upon me, indeed to fashion my own path seemed not only more attractive, but a path to better mental health. My spiritual home became the lack of a physical one.
Many people strive for the next promotion, a bigger house for their growing family or to be well respected among their friends. Noble and rewarding goals in themselves, but not mine. My goal is to again feel that quicksand beneath my esoteric feet; of fear of the unknown and the unbound optimism that comes with accepting a new challenge, more often that not, one that comes unbidden.
As I step out of Mumbai Airport and into the cloying cacophony and eager embrace of a hundred taxi-wallahs screaming for my custom, as I foil a pick-pocket in Kuala Lumpur in a crowded train station or get stopped on my overland bicycle by big men in big jewellery on the outskirts of a Romanian town at night, this is when I feel it again. It’s when I am forced to sleep in a bus shelter during a freak summer blizzard in Cumbria, when I am woken by tarantulas in nefarious hostels in Brazil or threatened with serious jail time in Turkey for having the wrong type of tobacco.
This is when I feel free – moments of pure clarity, to have nudged the boundaries of inquisitiveness into challenge, to pull upon my spiritual and mental resources in order to triumph. Sometimes these moments are pure chance, others, more planned encounters, my arrival to London with nothing more to my name than a bicycle, tent and 20 pence an example. A night enjoying the surprising hospitality of the homeless next to Victoria Street Station was a reward I claim to be genuine.
I will leave it up to others to call me irresponsible; my coin usually falls on ‘calculated’ rather than ‘risk’. If life is what you make it, then an existence lived without riding a motorbike around South America could be, in the words of Billy Connelly, ‘beige’. I thrive on change, movement and challenge, not motivated by ego or Facebook updates. ‘Normality’ leaves me dry of spirit, my creativity withered, my optimism confronted.
There are many reasons to travel, and many not to. The Greeks epitomized it with ‘know thyself’, an aphorism that is not born of travel, but fed by it. I know how to feed my soul. All I need to do is to listen to my inner explorer when I see a picture or read an article and I feel him jumping up and down, shouting ‘Vamos’!
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