Returning home to a semblance of normality from a journey that rattles one’s bones takes very a long time indeed. In fact, I was in a Fitzroy bar the other night and a nice young chap, who claimed to be an expert on these things, suggested that it would take two years! It has been a year and a half since I got off my cherished 125cc moto, so I am almost ‘there’ I suppose, whatever ‘there’ means.
The main problem with integrating back into Modernista society after a monumental break is that one becomes a messenger, an outsider, an intruder and a stranger. One’s identity changes greatly through the serious engagement with the world and people find it difficult to accept your new hard-won identity as you do theirs. Many people not only fear the world and its people but they also fear those who have had the courage to engage with it on their own terms.
Whilst walking to a cafe for lunch the other day, waiting for the autocratic pedestrian crossing to signal approval, I overheard a rotund, flustered man mumbling about an altercation with a colleague over an office tea-bag. I thought to myself, ‘why does this man exist?’ ‘I wish he would disobey the authority of the pedestrian crossing and suffer at the hands of Modernism’.
It has been a very tough year and a half and along with many people, my global soul has taken a beating. There are a lot of people out there with weak identities who demonise others and aggressively cling to the most reductive and imaginary things at the expense of others. I hope that I haven’t been the beneficiary of a golden age of independent travel and from here on in it is “us and them over and over and over again”.
The use of social software while traveling can either enhance travel or diminish it, depending on the meaning and frequency of the messages. It has become super-easy to send messages to friends or family from almost anywhere in the world, but this shouldn’t be similar to sending an everyday message from a café or bar close to where you live. Exploring the world independently is a major undertaking that comes with a whole set of new perspectives, challenges, and responsibilities. It is important to communicate these in a meaningful way and be considerate of your audience who may not understand the context in which you are writing.
Australian Modernism on the move! Collins St, 5p.m. 1955, John BRACK
The first thing to consider is the frequency of your messages. Yes, it is important to stay in touch with people when you are away, but this shouldn’t be too regular, maybe every week or two is enough, depending on the length and nature of the journey. If you post messages too often, your audience becomes accustomed to it, demanding more of your time and focus when you could be doing much better things. Frequent, bumptious messages from far-away places may also alienate your audience in an online medium with many competing, everyday concerns (and they may ditch you, then you will really be off the grid).
Posting undue, expeditious messages also means you have less time to think about and craft your message, so you are more likely to send shallow self-indulgent snaps of you sitting in a hammock or swimming on a palm-tree-infested beach as though every country of the world, other than your own, only exists for the narrowest of Euro-centric pursuits (in Australia in the 1970s this was called the ‘ocker fantasy’ and we have a whole genre of films of Aussie blokes on beaches in Queensland chasing blonde, scantily clad girls, so if this is your idea of the world, it has been done before so no need to broadcast it again).
Another consideration is the significance of the message. If you only blog or publish a set of photos ever week or two you have time to choose the most significant things you did in this period and reflect upon and write about them. Did you learn anything new; about the world, about yourself (be honest, dark and light and shadows)? Was it humorous, risky, rewarding, or dull? Everyone has a unique perspective, but it may take a while to find it, through reading, through talking to nice, or not-so-nice, people and through challenging and extending yourself by doing activities you wouldn’t normally do. What ‘normalised’ cultural perspective of the world are you traveling with, are you learning through un-learning, are you traveling with too many pre-conceived, instrumentalist ambitions. I come from the world’s ‘most civilised, uncivilised country’ to paraphrase the Australian Modernist painters of the 1940s and 50s and some countries do have more culture and less modernity than us but they also have more bacteria in their cheese that will make you sick.
There is a reason that most people don’t travel, in search of better cheese. They are scared of the bacteria that will make them sick and are satisfied by the cheese that will make them fat (like the orange cheese in the US). It is the orange cheese people you don’t want on your social feed every day, they will stress you out!
The availability of inexpensive, digital communication devices has aided the lonely traveler on the long and absconding road to fresh perspectives in a myriad of ways, but then again, if used unwisely, they can diminish travel and make it yet another expression of day-to-day ordinariness (so leave grumpy cat at home!) That said, travel is not really about where you go, but what you take with you, it is about moving away from familiar perspectives into new and challenging ones and trying to understand and cope with them, inescapably, through references to previous knowledge and experiences.
The same could be said about ‘travel’ in the broader sense, of moving about the myriad of cultural/social/economic contexts in large complex cities. To be effective at this, one must fully recognise that there are in fact innumerable social/cultural/economic contexts, each with their own set of hierarchies, notions of winning and losing, of geographic and social mobility, language, values, religion, consumer patterns, Queen Bees etc. (and some people believe there are only two cultural contexts, ‘us and them’).
The problem with all mobile communication devices is that they are designed generically with little or no appreciation of moving through cultural complexity and far from being advanced and sophisticated, if used indiscriminately, they make one look like a mass-produced zombie, dragging their knuckles on the pavement, walking up London’s Stand drooling and gawking at the red buses in amazement, ringing other zombies on the telephone and telling them about how amazing red buses are. In other words what can appear to be technically advanced can also be culturally primitive, there is a balance to be struck and that balance starts with a curiosity and willingness to understand the cultural world in which we live, zombies and all
I have placed all the photos I took during my travels in 2015 on Flickr. They are simply categorised in order of the countries that I visited but over coming months, I will add descriptions of the places they were taken and other ‘meta-data’. If you are curious about something, please do ask and I will respond.
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
After one year of traveling, it was good to arrive at Mount Fitz Roy, the final destination of this thirteen nation adventure. A year is a long time to travel and those that tell you that the years get shorter as you get older, possibly need to get out of the house more often (i.e., it is a cliché dressing itself up as wisdom). It was good to have a final destination in mind, Mount Fitz Roy (as arbitrary as this was), as it kept something special for the end (and Mount Fitz Roy didn’t disappoint). Long term travel is all about sustainability and individuals have different strategies for sustaining themselves over long periods (and mine involved a hell of a lot of reading and writing and stopping in excellent places for extended periods of time, although I did get a lot grumpier as time passed, which is perhaps not so bad). Arguably those that cannot sustain themselves through Dostoyevsky, the Brothers Karamazov or visualise, plan and implement a large project over time, don’t make good long-term travelers thus, sadly, much of the world will remain inaccessible to them.
As a humanist, I travel at the speed of narratives, some many hundreds of years old, but many people travel at the rate of a text message or the rate of shallow reductive, hierarchical metrics (‘best little town in the world mate’), thus never leave the goldfish bowl which is the Modern airplane (and again the world has not got smaller people have got more miniature and banality is quite innovative in devising new transport and dissemination methods). Hyper Modernity (or excessive industrialisation) is just a period of history like any other and just like an episode of Delhi belly, it will pass and then a hundred flowers will blossom (well, hopefully before all the Patagonian glaciers melt or a hundred flowers will drown). And after you travel independently to fifty or more countries (and some many times), your perspective of the world changes in that cultural uniqueness and cultural interconnectedness becomes much clearer. When a young American backpacker says “Hi I’m Curtis from America” I think to myself, “How do you know?”
And thanks for sticking with me over the past twelve months while I blogged a weekly travelogue. I have never done this before, and only a few short years ago, it wouldn’t have been possible. The last couple of months have been the most lonely and challenging but also the most rewarding regarding “leaving behind and renewal” (in the great Camino de Santiago pilgrim tradition). The highs and lows tend to get much more intense the longer you travel, and this is natural because Modern life tends to over-regulate what it is to be human. And the high of seeing Mount Fitz Roy in Argentina, of walking the four hours from El Chalten, was emotional and intense but didn’t feel like closing a narrative, but opening up a whole new one.
I’ll write a couple of more reflective posts after I return to Australia on Christmas day, but I’m not trying to sell the world to you as the world largely isn’t for sale, at least, the best bits aren’t (like Mount Fitz Roy). To be a truly independent traveler one must first know what controls and influences their thinking and one don’t have to go far to reach the outer limits of an Australian education!
For instance, in Patagonia there are hundreds of glaciers yet many of thousands of people only go to the glacier Perito Moreno in Argentina simply because it is easy (but expensive) to get to and dare I say (perhaps ungenerously), is famous in emergent “global trash” narratives (it is actually only a small piece of a much larger ice sheet or the tip of the iceberg so to speak). A little bit of effort would take the independent traveler deeper into Glacier National Park to see some other glaciers or even Grey Glacier in Chile. I simply looked up some of the millions of photos of Perito Moreno on the Internet and didn’t go as my presence would possible help to make the thing melt anyhow (Australians like Americans and Germans are the world’s filthiest, dirty, polluting people unlike the Bolivians and Bengalis whose teeth may need work but whose greater impact is small).
Anyhow, thanks for sticking with me over the past few months. Blogging an old-fashioned travelogue has been technically challenging in some of the bizarro places that I have been but also rewarding in that it forced me to engage with the location more thoroughly to try and make sense of it. And I have met some fantastic people along the way who have had some fresh, interesting, and innovative ways to see the world in a century where travel is rapidly becoming dull and commonplace.
Chile has a magnificent four thousand kilometers long coastline (and is less than two hundred kilometers wide in places), but similar to the other uber-urbanised countries of Canada and Australia, most of the population is crammed into either one or two vacuum-cleaned dormitory cities with itsy-bitsy people trying to stuff the whole world (and all their hard earnings) into their itsy-bitsy houses. The big, bad and colourful world just won’t fit so perhaps Chileans should relinquish part of their enormous coast back to Bolivia if they lack the political courage to put it to creative use. This is one of the world’s most geographically unique countries but just like the geography of Chile, us Moderns are so very, very narrow.
The metropolis of Santiago is only half way along the Chilean coastline, so I folded up my flaneurial legs and flew Economy on a one-trick pony the remaining two thousand kilometers to Punta Arenas, a town almost at the very bottom of South America (I have now traveled sixteen thousand kilometers from the Caribbean Coast at the very top of the continent). From Punta Arenas, I bused it to the barren, wind-swept town of Puerto Natales where I rented some zip-challenged camping gear, packed some yucky Modernist food, and set off on a four-day trek in nearby Torres del Paine, one of the great jaw-dropping National Parks of this forever-giving continent.
I did the famous “W” Trek in four days. It is called the W Trek simply because the route is in the shape of a W. It is about eighty kilometers long, is an easy to medium physical challenge and is well serviced by hostels and hotels, food facilities and hot showers. I did the route from West to East walking to Torres del Paine on the first day and Grey Glacier on the last day. It is possible to leave your heavy bags at the campsite during the morning of each day and walk to the three highlights of the trek, Torres del Paine, Frances Valley, and Grey Glacier and then return to your camp in the evening. On the last day at the end of the trek, there is an (expensive) one-hour ferry ride across a choppy fjord to connect to a ratty old bus that takes another two dusty hours to get back to Puerto Natales. The trek takes three to five days, and there is also a longer circuit trek that takes about nine days.