I AM SAT in the car as I write this, door open, remnants of the morning’s rain spattering the windscreen as the wind ruffles the trees above. In the driver’s side cupholder there’s an empty beer bottle leftover from the night before. Our tent, pinned down by all four of its pegs, sits next to the car, looking about as good as a NZ$30 (£15) tent can. When we erected it for the first time, yesterday, we discovered that, due to a manufacturing error, the entrance had partially been stitched closed. Tomorrow is Christmas Eve.
We’re in a peaceful Department of Conservation campsite somewhere north of Napier, on the east coast of New Zealand’s North Island. We’re basically marking time until tomorrow, when we can decamp to our luxury cottage accommodation in Lake Taupo that we’ve booked for three days over Christmas. That and we’re doggedly attempting to justify the NZ$157 that we optimistically spent on camping gear when we first arrived in New Zealand, six week ago – before we knew about the six weeks of rain that was to come and before we’d realised the LIE of free camping (“yeah man, you can, like, just camp anywhere you want in New Zealand. It’s, like, awesome” – this from pretty much everyone we’ve ever met who’s been to this country).
Instead of sitting in this car, we could be going and doing THINGS, important TOURIST THINGS in this beautiful country. But we’re not – in fact I’m quite enjoying just sitting and doing very little, quite enjoying not spending the day driving around (although I am, ironically, still sat in front of the steering wheel). New Zealand has been one of the best countries we’ve visited. We’ve loved it, from its snow capped Southern Alps to the crashing waves of its West Coast, from its varied craft beers and delicious Sauv Blancs to its unfailingly friendly people and laid back ‘tude. It’s every bit as good as people say. And it’s so far away from anywhere else (our flight home from Auckland to London will take us 30 hours) that there’s a good chance I’ll never come back. In two weeks our year of travelling will be over, and soon after I’ll be back in work. So why not maximise our time seeing the place? Why not revel in our freedom?
This post is an effort to answer those questions. It’s also an effort to recount the impact of long term travelling and, above all, it’s a reminder to my future self about the importance of home. (Future David: remember how you’d grown to hate the uniformly white mugs found in motels, hotels and hostels everywhere? Remember how you just craved a mug with some colour on it? Remember how it bothered you so much that you went out and bought your own mug?).
WHAT’S A NORMAL week in travelling? The glib, cliché answer that’s only half true is that “there is no normal week.” In fact, there are rhythms to travelling, some regardless of who you are, others specific to us.
When I was a student and went travelling in Eastern Europe for a month, we just turned up at places and found accommodation by speaking to people or walking between hostels. This seems to me now to be an incredibly inefficient way of doing things when you have a very heavy backpack. But maybe that’s because I’m a decade older. Without exception, everywhere we stayed in Asia we booked in advance, usually over the internet, often through Airbnb. Thus a portion of our time (and, it has to be said, more of BK-C’s time than mine) was always spent researching accommodation options. Where do we want to stay in the city/region? What’s available? Why have they got such bad photos on their websites? What does tripadvisor say? How long should we book for? Sometimes this could take five minutes, sometimes it could take hours; sometimes we’d book only the day before, sometimes we’d go on accommodation binges and book several stops in a row, gaining breathing space but losing spontaneity. Booking accommodation is a never ending rabbit hole: remember that, Future David.
In Australasia we’ve always had a car and sometimes we’ve been lucky enough to be staying with friends. So we’ve quite often just turned up in places without anywhere booked, and it’s always been fine. However, see below for Transport, specifically travelling by car.
There’s been a lot of this. In Asia, particularly towards the end, we slowed down a lot and thus were able to properly unpack our bags and live out of things like wardrobes and drawers for a while, which was blissful. However, then there was always the hassle of trying to fit everything back into the bag, which often resulted in me sitting on BK-C’s bag (which is marginally smaller than mine) whilst she zipped it up. In Australasia we’ve spent much less time in places – normally one or two nights – and thus there’s been a lot more packing/unpacking, but we’ve had the luxury of cars, so breaking zips has been less of a risk.
When we arrive in a new place now (every night it seems), we have a well oiled routine: BK-C empties the cooler bag and food items, I get the toiletries out of the bags and arrange them in anally straight lines in the bathroom and on bedside tables/the floor. The side of the bed nearest the bathroom will always be mine. That’s just the way it is. (Future David: remember the sinking feeling when you emptied the washbags only to discover that something had leaked over everything else. Remember that one time when it was tiger balm that had melted in the heat, and everything, everything smelled of tiger balm for weeks?)
Actually, this rarely caused us a lot of stress. I researched every country before we came and how much we were likely to spend on a daily basis in each. This has proved to be fairly accurate, so we were prepared for how much things cost. But we’ve also been scrupulous about recording everything that we spend, through the marvellous phone app Trailwallet. Every time we spend money, it goes in the phone. Thus I can tell you, for instance, that on 19 March, a date that I just selected at random, we spent a total of £72.02, or NT$1,858 (Taiwanese Dollars). The financial record reminds me that 19 March was a great day of food – we caught the metro to north of Taipei to Tamshui, where we indulged in a “delicious pasty like thing” (59p), “cheese potato with bacon” (£1.19 – about as bad as it sounds), and “steam dumplings” (£1.19). Then we caught the metro back home via Taipei’s famous night market of Shilin, where we ate “green onion bread” (49p), “stinky tofu and oyster omelette” (£2.67, worse than it sounds) and “delicious sushi” (£7.71). I can also tell you that street food – of the sort that we indulged in on 19 March – made up 3.82% of our total spent budget in Taiwan, at £53.79; our biggest expenditure was, predictably, accommodation, at £689.46; and our smallest expenditure category was laundry, at £2.77 (read into that what you will).
This kind of data is fantastic when you’re trying to stick to a budget, but it’s also great in retrospect: its specificity dredges from my memory a vivid image from when we were sitting by the quayside in Tamshui, enjoying an evening iced coffee (£6.96) at a posh restaurant, watching the simmering orb of an Asian sun dip into the Taiwan Strait, turned a deep crimson by pollution blown over from China.
I’m glad that we recorded everything we spent, and what it went on, simply because it’s meant that we’ve curbed our potential expenditure and because it prompts memories of what were we doing on each day. Putting purchases into the Trailwallet has become second nature. But, I must admit, I’m also looking forward to being able to buy a coffee without assiduously recording it, without making an assessment as to whether it’ll take us over budget for the day. Future David: revel in your ability to choose any of those sandwiches neatly lined up in Pret, without fear that you’ll go over budget.
This one’s up there with accommodation. Whoever you are, you’re going to need to get from place to place. It’s sort of the point of travelling. In Asia, that means buses, trains, planes, boats, tuc-tucs, mopeds, or some ingenious – probably hand built, certainly not safety tested – combination of all of them. Often, you can (and we did) just rock up and get a bus. If you’re in Malaysia then celebrate! For you are blessed with a cheap, well organised and above all easy public transport system. If you’re in Japan, don’t even think about it – the Japanese system is so efficient that they’ve probably heard you were coming and booked everything for you already (except you Tokyo, yes you: please meet my friend London who has a unified transport authority and not A GAZILLION private companies running different lines and routes in a confusing mish mash of colours and acronyms). But if you’re in Burma, well, don’t exactly expect efficiency. You’ll probably have to walk forever to book your bus tickets and then the bus “terminal” will be dozens of kilometres out of town and you’re just expected to know which bus is yours. It’s all part of the fun. In the forty degree heat.
In Australasia we travelled by car. We went where we wanted, when we wanted. It was liberating. But I also realised how much I’d grown to value that time bundled up on public transport – time to read and write, the opportunity to meet locals, or simply the chance to stare at the landscape, thinking big thoughts about the world. In Australia, we drove over 7,000km in two months. After four months of driving for several hours most days, I’m beginning to tire of the road. (Future David: remember how towards the end of travelling you used to get into those moods where nothing was quite right and where your tolerance of other people was equivalent to that of a cat? Remember how you wrote that blogpost to remind you in the future about the wearing parts of travelling, and then instantly regretted it because people would think you were ungrateful?).
I love food. It’s one of the reasons I love to travel. We’ve had so much amazing food this year, from banana leaf curries in Malaysia that really put the “gorge” into “gorgeous” (no, I can’t believe that I just wrote that cheesey line either) to so-fresh-it’s-nearly-still-moving sushi in Japan – we’ve had it all, and then we’ve asked for seconds. But there comes a time when even the most hardened foodie tires of eating out at restaurants, of choosing where and what to eat every night (why is it worse having lots of choice instead of just what’s in the fridge? I don’t know, but after a while it becomes overwhelming – I want less choice, not more). In Asia, there’s always that old staple of noodles-in-a-cup, easily enjoyed in your hostel/hotel room. Yes, there’s the hostel kitchen as well, but if you buy those ingredients you’ve got to carry them around with you and, besides, it’s actually cheaper to eat out and that’s not to mention the fact that all the fresh produce is sold at markets miles away from where you are at times when you’re highly unlikely to be up. So: you’re probably going to be eating out at restaurants. And it turns out that you really can have too much of a good thing. (Future David – think about how much you love eating out at restaurants? It’s one of the Best Things, isn’t it? Now remember how you’d come to resent having to eat out when you were in parts of Asia. It seems like a form of cruel and unusual punishment, doesn’t it?).
In Australasia – and especially in NZ, where we’ve been without family visits – there’s been, blissfully, a lot of self-catering. The facilities with which to cook have, however, been varied – most motels have only a microwave, all have blunt knives, and there’s no guarantee that we’ll have a fridge from night to night. As a lover of cooking this is frustrating, as a shopper for food, it’s limiting: most things that we buy to eat for dinner can be cooked in the microwave. I can’t wait to have my own kitchen again, where the knives are sharp and the spices are neverending. (Future David: remember how you’d grown to quite like tinned STAG Chilli, the best long shelf life microwaveable meal you’d found in the supermarket? Yes, that’s right, hang your head in shame).
The people you meet is one of the best things about travelling. Vincent, the Taiwanese IT consultant turned design-guru surfing hotelier; Francoise, the 71 year old French man with whom we shared accommodation and a love of antiques (“my treasures,” he called them) in Kyoto, and whom I helped with his IT problems: “I wish to send an email to my girlfriend, but I do not wish to send it from this account, because it is my wife’s. Can you help?”; the postcard seller from Yangon, Burma whose name I can’t write here because he dared to talk to us about politics and his hopes for the future of his country; Joslyn, who was our Oregonian tour guide on a trip to Central America and later put us up for the night at her house in Brisbane; Lorette, our French, wise old-soul-in-a-young-person’s-body companion on the two day Tiger Leaping Gorge hike, in China; Tom, the funny, open minded film editor from LA on his own travelling odyssey – these are just some of the amazing people we’ve met this year. But for each Tom and Lorette there’s been a dozen others who we either haven’t clicked with, who have been downright unfriendly or, worse, friendly and the most annoying person alive. Yes, yes this is the joy of travelling – and I’d meet everyone again just to meet those few gems – but after a while you start to ache for shared context. You miss your friends. I miss my friends. And then your patience starts to wear thin, and you become as intolerant as BK-C has become of Other People’s Music, however minimally it may be leaking out of someone’s headphones, and you must, you simply must ask them to be quiet. In short, you begin to Hate Other People. When this happens, Future David, you remember all the good things about home – the way that you don’t have to start conversations with everyone by telling them where you’ve been, where you’re from and where you’re going; the way that you can can say something and the person you’re talking to will just get you (or at least pretend to) without you having to explain just how witty you really are; and you remember how your home friends delayed their New Year celebrations until you got back, and how much that meant to you. At this point, you realise that it may be time to head back.
All These Things Together
INDIVIDUALLY, THESE THINGS are insignificant. But together, taken over time, they start to matter a lot more. Everyone needs something to anchor them – a space to retreat to, a good book to read, a friend to turn to, an ipod to plug into; travelling either takes these things from you or makes them more difficult to control. It’s fine at first, but after a while you’ll go to greater lengths to secure your anchor, and not being able to do so frustrates you more. The good thing is that taking nothing for granted – be it comfy accommodation or the ability to speak to your family – you get a better sense of what’s important to you, something more difficult to achieve in the rhythms of home routine. The bad thing is that after a while the exciting challenges that travelling brings seem only to get in the way of your anchors, not to augment your appreciation for them. Some people are able to spend their lives travelling; I do not know how. For me, to have meaning, all things must have an end. You might say that travelling is a constant series of beginnings and endings, as you depart and arrive from places, greet and leave companions – but sometimes I just want to enjoy being in the middle of the story.
Future David, the things that I’ve written about are not the things that you’ll recall. When the 6.30am alarm goes off telling you to get up for work, you’ll remember having no alarm when you travelled; you’ll remember sunrise over Yellow Water in Kakadu, the way that the birds cut through the mist; you’ll remember walking through the blistering heat of the market in Pyay, Burma, and the friendly, confused smiles of the locals; you’ll remember the exquisite pork dumplings from that place in Hualien, Taiwan where no one spoke English and everyone – yourself included – laughed at your ineptitude in miming what you wanted to eat; you’ll remember the flight over the Great Barrier Reef, the way it stretched out and disappeared beyond the horizon; and you’ll remember feeling free to do whatever you wanted to do, all of the time. But also remember this: there’s a wide range of multi-coloured mugs in your kitchen cupboard, and not a single bloody white one.
Our year of travelling comes to an end on 2 January, when we arrive back in the UK. But don’t fret! I’ve got loads of stuff still to write about, including an oh-so-nearly finished post about PROPER travelling stuff, in Australia, rather than this boring boo hoo I’m ready to come home stuff. So stick with me.