Another country, another airport, another city, another hostel, another bathroom, another bed. When you move from place to place, from country to country, seeing one place after the other, it doesn’t necessarily make you gaze in awe at everything you see, as you would expect and it definitely doesn’t make you feel like you are on holiday. However much you wish it would sometimes.
When you are a long term traveller like me, and you have no point of “home” for that much-needed humanity check, you end up treating every destination like another stop. Every country you enter is like living another life. You must learn a new language, new customs and understand the history of the place, and why it is the way it is. Some people barely attempt to do these things in their one life.
You might stay for five days, ten days, a month, however long you are in a new place you will have to go through the processes of human life. Where to stay (live), where to eat and drink, how to save money and how to communicate.
Travelling indefinitely may seem like the ultimate dream, to leave everything behind and take off in a deliberate attempt to “see the world”, but in reality you are actually seeing the realities of the world, not the glammed-up holiday version.
You are faced with the true devastations of world history on places and, more importantly, on people. This year we have been around The Americas – and the more I see of these two greatly troubled continents, the older I grow. Travelling and seeing places doesn’t ease your mind, it doesn’t make you relax, it only bothers it more.
And what’s worse is that everything you learn about the new city, country or continent you are in, you have to forget about it all when you head to the next place. If you don’t you will drive yourself mad with comparisons, implausible comparisons that have no context or relevance really. Your next life, or destination, has to be as pure as the first – and you have to be as open as you were at the beginning.
Only that’s never possible. We are all human, and in every new place you visit, every time you cross a border, you can’t just cut off the past and step into the future, as if your mind has two frontiers. Your last lives are still there, lingering. They may not be at the forefront of this new adventure, but they will always be there.
So I have come to terms with this. The complications of travelling. But what I am really wondering, about three lives in, is after how many lives does travelling become normalised? I am not convinced it ever does.
Some people can probably travel for more than nine lives, they could travel for hundreds and never consider their last, or even their home life once. For me, after nine, I think my head will explode. All of these infractions, complications, people, sites, currencies, cold showers, animals, landscapes, and climates – how many of these can one person really experience?
Maybe I’m not your archetypal traveller? I can’t cut off from the world, not anymore. I want context and I want knowledge. I want to know how people feel about a place, and I want to understand why a place is the way it is.
It’s true that everytime I have a cold, dirty shower it feels are piercing as the first time I took a cold, dirty shower. But after 300 of them, they’ve actually stopped amazing me. The cutting cold is still as cutting as it always was (that’s a fact), but I’m not as fearful of it as I once was, in a former life. I know a lot more about it, where it’s going to feel the coldest, how to wash my hair in it, and how long I can stick it out for. There’s no shock factor anymore, I’ve done it all before.
And as I travel through South America experiencing everything that the profound book The Open Veins of South America highlights almost 60 years after the book was written, am I still feeling shocked? I’m not sure if shocked is now the word.
Imagine if you had lived nine lives, one after the other, each in a different part of the world, how would you feel? Confused, probably, frustrated that you can’t stay long enough to change anything, and angry that you don’t have the power to change anything.
When you wake up in your new life you are, in fact, where you have always been, in the throngs of ordinary society, trying to get what you can for as little money as possible and yet with the inherent knowledge that the bigger picture is out of your hands, that there is nothing you can do. The more lives you lead the more obvious this becomes.
The inferiority of people throughout the world, and especially in South America, is frightening. Not only does it highlight the insignificance of most people, but also the insignificance of yourself. You travel as a voyeur, looking over at people with less than you, wondering how it worked out that you have more than them, and that feeling is often horrific, and an overrated part of seeing the world with real eyes. And yet the impossibility of travelling as anything else is certain.
Even if you live with families, friends, and locals in your new destination, you aren’t really there. You are a passerby. You can dwell on the problems and worry about the future, but in the grand scheme of things you are only dwelling and worrying for a split second, before you pick up and move onto your next life. Throughout every life, every place, you are safe in the knowledge that it isn’t permanent, and that makes you as inferior as everyone else.
You hope that in the next life these feelings will lessen – maybe you can enjoy travelling more like the hippies of the 60s or young gap year students who get drunk on their large savings – but you will never be able to, not now. Once you start wondering how it has happened and where it will end you are permanently stuck as a recorder of other people’s lives, without having any real involvement in them.
Those nine lives are blinkered, unfulfilled. And when you finish on your tenth life back home – what will you do about those lives? I can only hope I will find something to do with them – to leave them to rot and fester in the back of my mind will only make this whole travelling experience something of a failure. Don’t you think?
The people and places of Bolivia that inspired this blog – let’s see what the next life will bring.