The transition back into Melbournian and Australian life after a long hiatus is a particularly exciting time. It is a time of ‘renovation’ with renewed acumen, of putting new-found perspectives and confidences to the fore and weaving new paths through Modern life that all-too-often celebrates and rewards the regularity and predictability of well-managed lives versus the synthesis and judgment of well-lived ones. Perspectives are not given, they are earned, and genuine travel is never a diversion from a centre, but a movement towards a core.
A man travels the world over in search of what he needs and returns home to find it.
― George Moore, The Brook Kerith
I started this journey just over one year ago and in a pragmatic sense, all worked out fine. I returned with the same small backpack that I left with and apart from an expensive mobile phone snatched in Kolkata, and a much-loved Kindle carelessly dropped from my motorcycle in Colombia, I survived for the entire year with the same stuff (see: ‘How to pack for a ‘minimalist’ one year journey). The important lesson here is travel as lightly as possible, with high-quality gear, as travel is one of many contexts where more is not value (just like Café Lattes!).
To be invisible, paint yourself with the direct shade of zero. Leave nothing to chance, by taking nothing with you wherever you go.
― Jarod Kintz, This Book is Not FOR SALE
I visited thirteen countries in twelve months and pretty much followed the loosely sketched route that I originally fashioned (but I never considered that the majority of the time would be spent on a tiny 125 cc motorcycle!). (see: my Itinerary on Google docs). Itineraries are mostly subjective, and unless you understand yourself (and your inner android), you have little chance of discovering the world around you with your own eyes. For instance, people from ‘lots of geography, no culture’ sort of mindsets tend to fly vast distances in airplanes while missing all the good bits in-between. It’s like picking up a book by Dostoyevsky, reading the title, taking a selfie with the book, and then claiming an insight into 19th Century Russian literature. Travel is as much about unlearning as it is about learning and it is not always about where you go, but what you take with you (or do not take with you) that counts.
A good traveler is one who does not know where he is going to, and a perfect traveler does not know where he came from
― Lin Yutang
On the meta-scale, I constructed my itinerary around old paths and new, meaning that the first four months of the journey I visited seven countries that I had visited before and the last eight months I visited six new countries. I have not fully reflected upon what this meant in practice, but re-visiting a country during key junctures of your life is tremendously rewarding on a number of levels. It reminds you that not only do countries change over time, but perspectives change. Countries are largely ‘imagined communities’ and if you do not understand your community and how it and you travel through space and time, you have little chance understanding how others do.
Wherever you go, you take yourself with you.
― Neil Gaiman, The Graveyard Book
In terms of visiting a country for the first time, this is perplexing as like a child you have to wade clumsily through all the bad bits before you get to the good bits (and South America has a lot of bad bits!) Countries are inductive, not reductive, meaning that you need to go to them and move through them to discover how they embrace or resist the world (in a holistic sense, not just via lazy symbols like the Sydney Opera House or the London Eye or trophy skyscrapers in the Middle East). And whilst you are doing this, perhaps you will not only learn something about that particular country but un-learn something about your ‘inner android’ in the process
I can’t think of anything that excites a greater sense of childlike wonder than to be in a country where you are ignorant of almost everything. Suddenly you are five years old again. You can’t read anything, you have only the most rudimentary sense of how things work, you can’t even reliably cross a street without endangering your life. Your whole existence becomes a series of interesting guesses. ― Bill Bryson, Neither Here Nor There: Travels in Europe
One year is an incredibly long time to travel, much longer than I assumed at the beginning of the journey. This is because while doing equivalent things, year-in-year-out, years may seem flavourless and similar and of the same long stretch of highway. It is like traveling across the Australian Nullarbor desert, looking out the window at a landscape that does not appear to change. A hundred kilometres looks like the past one hundred and each new day looks like the previous day.
But a year of traveling is like no other as each and every day is full of challenges, such as finding food and shelter, discovering interesting things to do, building common ground with strangers and continually improving the skills and motivations required to enter into geographical and cultural contexts bigger than oneself. Concerning ‘un-learning’, one year is just about right as one never actually un-learns until about eight months into a journey. This is the time that the imagined communities that we inhabit (with their android views of ‘the other’) are well and truly behind us, and then we can finally discover the world with fresh eyes and a clear intellect.
The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.
― Marcel Proust
I learnt much about scale and distance during the past year as I did not use many airplanes which have become to travel what McDonald’s has become to food! I love walking and at a conservative estimate, I must have walked over two-thousand kilometres in the past year. This includes walking the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal, about 200 KMS, the Camino Portugués in Portugal/Spain, about 240 Kilometres, and the W Trek in Chilean Patagonia, about 80 KMS. Plus there were other, shorter one or multi-days treks in, for instance, Peru, Ecuador and Argentina and days upon days of rambling over the cracked and uneven pavements of major South American, European and Asian cities and towns.
Then there were trains, taxis, jeeps, buses and boats, but most importantly, there was an enduring Yamaha 125 cc motorcycle that hauled my ass twelve thousand kilometres for five unhurried months down the spine of the Andes from Santa Marta in Colombia to someplace near Santiago in Chile. Again, this may not seem like a long way in raw numbers, but remember this was through deserts and snow and over five thousand metre mountain passes, through the relentless winding valleys of Peru, the sweaty and sketchy Amazon, and on the isolated unsealed roads of Bolivia. I think one of the greatest takeaways I got from the journey is that the environmental world is as equally spectacular as the cultural one as it challenges, extends and motivates an individual in a similar, enduring way.
Travel makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.
― Gustave Flaubert
Traveling and reading go hand-in-hand and I read twenty-seven major books over the past year (download .pdf reading list). This may not seem like a lot, but books like Dostoyevsky’s the Brothers Karamazov took a slow reader like me eighty hours, or two weeks, to read! I am attracted to travelers that are well-read, and I think it is one of the best aspects of traveling (and indeed, it gave me something to do during long, lonely nights in dingy hotel rooms). Before I left, I asked many of my friends to suggest a favourite book to read and asked fellow travelers along the way as well. Many of the books I read had little to do with South America, such as Crime and Punishment, but then again had everything to do with a universal human condition.
Books are the plane, and the train, and the road. They are the destination and the journey. They are home.
― Anna Quindlen
The durability of my health was a surprise as I was lot healthier traveling for one year than I usually am during an average ‘industrial’ year (few colds and flues etc.). Plus I was in some pretty toxic and unhealthy environments where it was not always easy to find the healthy eating option. If it were not for inexpensive Menu del Dia for lunch (set menu), ubiquitous in South America, I would have returned emaciated and scraggy. I put good health down to exercise, regularly washing my hands, drinking lots of water, sunscreen and hat, but perhaps more importantly, my body’s adjustment to survival and the next fresh, physical challenge (I think you call this being alive!).
We travel not to escape life, but for life not to escape us. – Anonymous
Analogue guide books such as Lonely Planet are a component of the tired, stodgy and inflexible institutionalised aspect of ‘independent’ travel that should either innovate or die. I have much to say about traveling as a ‘digital humanist’, about how to sensibly apply digital communication tools to enhance twenty-first-century travel. But this deserves its own article that I will write at another date.
Consequently, I took approximately two-thousand photos during the year, wrote hundreds of pages in a digital journal, blogged weekly, and read dozens of e-Books coupled with numerous audiobooks (see photos on Flickr) A small four-hundred dollar tablet helped to sustain me throughout a very long and lonely year, and I am not sure what I would have done without it. Travels with Herodotus became travels with Samsung!
Travel becomes a strategy for accumulating photographs, Susan Sontag