Sometimes I’ve got to get away.
Like now. Stuck in England with the November blues. Unemployed. Living in a squalid cupboard in my parents’ poky bungalow because I can’t afford to rent. I’m literally living out of a suitcase because I have nowhere else to put my stuff. My car is falling apart, with more than 100,000 miles on the clock. It brays like a fatigued mule, protesting extinction with its last breath or begging for a bullet to put it out of its misery. My job applications are swallowed up by the void of cyberspace, which occasionally vomits a rejection letter back at me. I’m at the point where I have to consider taking any old rubbish job just to scrape together some capital. My life is on hold. I can’t take the language and software classes I want to take. Can’t do anything much at all.
This whole situation is far from ideal. I feel inspiration ebbing away. I can’t write to save my life. I spend hours trying to thrash my thoughts out. Every sentence leaves me drained, as though I’ve chiselled it into a slab of granite using a toothpick. My words, which creep like inky mould over the pages of my notebook, fail to reflect the turbulence of my mind. I’m dogged by frustration. Smothered by futility. I’m heavily caffeinated but could use a beer or two. Been sitting in Café Nero, headphones on, brutalising my ears with the penetrating beats of Slum Village and A Tribe Called Quest. But my mood calls for something a little more aggressive so I’m switching to Odd Future. This is what it’s come to. I’m a mellow guy and normally Odd Future’s degenerative lyrics repel me.
It’s at times like these where I want to catch a flight to some place or put more miles on the clock of my knackered old Vauxhall Astra. More and more I find myself thinking about Beijing, which was my home for nearly three years until I returned to England in March. Although that life had its own set of inconveniences and disadvantages my mind cunningly glosses over those details and selects the more pleasant experiences with the result that my memories of Beijing are a gilded version of the truth. ‘I was better off there’, I think to myself, ‘that existence was more fulfilling than this one’. And perhaps there is some truth in those thoughts.
But to be honest Beijing has very little to do with how I feel right now. I know Beijing is no Shangri-La. I just want to get away; to ESCAPE to any old place. Recently I remembered I have 21,500 airmiles in my Emirates membership account. Those airmiles can get me to Europe and back. I’m tempted to abandon my job-hunt and get my kicks in the continent. I’ve already accepted an invitation to take a paid trip to Iraq in January. A friend of mine recently started teaching music out there and needs someone to help him move his books and equipment. It was an offer I couldn’t refuse.
The thing is I need some excitement to break up this humdrum existence. I can’t take the monotony anymore. The emptiness is destroying me. The future oppresses me. The prospect of being stuck in a lousy job from nine to five haunts me. The pressures of building up a stable career weigh heavily on me and the thought of getting married and looking after a family doesn’t inspire me too much. Is all this merely indicative of a failure on my part to integrate into society and lead an ordinary settled life? Does this urge to run away make me a coward? Am I simply unable to face the realities of adult life? As a guy saddled with low self-esteem perhaps I travel merely to avoid facing who I am.
I’m reminded of a conversation I had with a high-school friend back in the summer. We were walking down 34th Street in Manhattan, heading for the Staten Island ferry. My friend, who I hadn’t seen in seven years or so, was talking about her recent wanderings around the USA. She’s a New Zealander who grew up in Bangladesh, went to school in India (with me) and is now in Baltimore researching a cure for African sleeping sickness as part of her PhD. Suffice to say she knows a thing or two about travel.
She concluded her tales of American road-trips by saying something like ‘It’s been fun seeing the different parts of this country but now I’m back to reality. I think travel is a form of escapism, don’t you?’ I agreed with her at the time because on the few occasions when I’ve questioned why travel appeals to me I’ve arrived at this same conclusion. But later I began to think more deeply on the matter.
It goes without saying that there is definitely a form of travel which involves nothing more than necking exotic cocktails in a reggae-filled beachside bar. It entails almost no contact with real life and is basically the indulgence of a suburban fantasy.
But that kind of holidaying doesn’t really do anything for me. When I travel I want to see something new. I want to immerse myself in a different culture and see how other people live. I like to be reminded that there is a whole world out there. I try to engage with other ways of thinking. To me it is refreshing to realize that the attitudes and ideas prevalent in my home culture represent the tiniest fraction of humanity. Tradition dictates that any individual society approaches problems from the same angle from generation to generation. But when you get out into other countries you see that there are so many other ways of confronting those same problems.
I think of it like this. The world is vast and brimming with variety and yet the average human lifetime only affords a small window of opportunity to take it all in. Most of us go through our whole lives only seeing the tiniest percentage – perhaps only a fraction of one percent – of what constitutes this planet we call home. Isn’t that ridiculous? Seen in this light travel is not an escape from reality. A backpacker is not a fantasist. It is the person who never ventures beyond the community in which they grew up who is divorced from the wider reality – the reality of the cosmos.
Besides, even if I am motivated to travel by a sense of escapism I find that the stresses and hassles of reality are never far away. And my emotions come with me, including the negative ones. I am a slightly neurotic depressive and my depression soon catches up with me if I try to outrun it. Back in 2007 I experienced one of my most severe attacks of depression while traveling around South China. I felt abject despair to the extent that I couldn’t function properly. The darkness swallowed me whole while I was in one of the most beautiful locations on earth: the dreamy karst mountain peaks of Guilin Province. I could be in the Garden of Eden itself and still have the shit kicked out of me by a violent sense of meaninglessness. What I’m trying to say is this: when I travel the mundane trials of everyday life don’t necessarily get left behind.
Take the USA trip I went on earlier this year for example. I went with my brother to take part in a friend’s wedding in Florida. Don’t get me wrong, the trip was loads of fun and I admit that putting a rental car through its paces on the east coast of the States is a little self-indulgent. But we had plenty of low moments too. Our first night in New York was spent in a YMCA in Harlem. Money was running low. We were exhausted after spending hours in the steamy bowels of the New York subway. We were quickly figuring out that the Big Apple is an expensive place to stay and were pissed off at all the hidden taxes which we kept getting hit with. My brother had just blown a lot of money tripping through the Netherlands and Spain and couldn’t bear the thought of getting home and having to slog his ass off to recuperate everything he’d spent. ‘Life is shit,’ he mused, with the mythical lights of downtown New York framed in the window behind him.
Both of us felt pretty run down and the gritty Harlem streets did little to alleviate this feeling. Weathered bums occupied any recess they could find in the walls lining the pavements. Junkies scrounged for quarters. Everyone seemed to be insane. Down in the subway a dishevelled man clearly under the influence of some nefarious narcotic was hopping and skipping up and down the platform announcing to everyone and no-one that he was going to jump on the tracks. The hardened New Yorkers awaiting their train paid him no attention. They’ve seen it all before. While I went off to check out the Museum of Modern Art my brother sat down to eat in a local Popeye’s among the tattooed, sailor-tongued hustlers who make up the joint’s usual clientele.
New York is pretty full-on, especially when your first introduction to it is Harlem. No-one goes to New York to get away from life. Rather they go there to experience life in its most concentrated form. That vast towering city encompasses nearly the whole spectrum of human existence. It is both tribal and cosmopolitan. It is superficial and infinitely deep at the same time. Its mad streets tell the human story with epic absurdity. It holds up a mirror to our species. In its chaos are found the raw ingredients of the universe. In its neat grid of avenues the mathematics of the heavens are laid out.
And then there was Palm Beach. We ended up there one evening when we decided to head south from Orlando with no specific plan or route in mind. We’d burned through a lot of fuel and incurred a fine after accidentally running a toll gate. The two of us had a petty argument when my brother criticised my dodgy driving. I was still slightly gutted about having smashed the screen of my iPod Touch while fishing in Tampa Bay. We were hungry but the only place we found to eat was a small Dominos next to a gun shop in a featureless middle-of-nowhere town called Titusville. When we got to Palm Beach we were bored and restless. There was a marina full of luxury yachts and the town itself was full of huge gated mansions. But the place seemed dead. Far removed from the manic, frantic energy of New York. To some people Palm Beach might seem peaceful. To ardent successful capitalists it might look like an ideal place to escape from the ugly, tumultuous, proletarian masses. But to me it seemed soulless and sterile. It depressed me. My brother and I went for a dip in the sea to try and make the most of being there. I forgot to take my wallet out of my pocket and we had to drive back to Orlando with soggy dollar bills drying on the dashboard. At a gas station a hillbilly took us for a couple of rich prodigals and tried to get some money from us. Then, in a grimy little Taco Bell on the road a schizophrenic Jamaican lady regaled us with the story of her fast-food addiction.
In the space of that one day I had felt a wide range of emotions and seen the different faces of America – extravagant wealth and desperate poverty. I was out of my usual environment and in that sense I may have been ‘escaping’. But I was not hiding away from life. I was staring right at it, in all its heady confusing glorious reality.
What is this so-called ‘real life’ anyway? Is it a cushy office job – sitting through the daylight hours in front of a computer; or walking between the sanitized aisles of a supermarket; or making small talk at a dinner party? I would suggest that it is actually in our daily lives that we are most shielded from the ‘real world’. We hide behind the seeming order of a routine. We lock ourselves away in the relative safety of a manageable network of like-minded friends and acquaintances while the world outside rages on, wild and messy and raucous, defying our attempts to compartmentalize it.
The truth is life is AMAZING – vibrant, colourful, surprising, farcical, riotous, heart-breaking. Real travel should open our eyes to this. It should confront us with both the joy and the tragedy of being alive. It is the numbing day-to-day career-centric routine which is the illusion.