So I hope that by now you all think of me as a slightly more feminine and literate version of Indiana Jones, effortlessly penning witty and insightful prose as I cling to the side of a rumbling volcano, or else partaking in some arcane tribal ritual before flying a helicopter over the Himalayas in search of Bigfoot. But I would have to kill all my friends in order to keep this illusion alive and I can’t be arsed to make new ones, so I might as well level with you.
So here it is: long-term travellers are just as lame and just as awesome as anyone else.
I know! It seems so obvious, right?
So why is it that we only ever talk about the wonderful adventures, crazy parties and new friendships, and keep the moments of exhaustion, sickness, loneliness and good old fashioned misery to ourselves, hoping they will soon be forgotten? In my more cynical moments it looks to me as though, in the era of cheap flights and careful personality curating through Facebook and other social media, travel has turned into little more than a geographically promiscuous exercise in reciprocal ego boosting. “Look at me in this awesome place that you’ve never heard of, hanging out with awesome people that you won’t get to meet, being awesome in ways you couldn’t possibly comprehend!” Sure, people might spin elaborate tales of tedious train journeys or exotic illnesses, but only in a context that highlights their adventurous nature, resilience and general awesomeness, turning them into a badge of honour.
One evening in Kerala I was having dinner with a girl I had only met a couple of hours previously. It was her first time travelling by herself for any length of time and after a couple of drinks both of us ran out of the usual stories that backpackers regale each other with. The silence lengthened.
“But, you know, sometimes I get really… lonely,” she suddenly blurted out. She avoided my eyes, embarrassed as though she had just admitted to eating boogers in her spare time.
»And sometimes it’s, well, boring.«
Her trip was not going according to plan, and she was thinking of going home early. She had expected it to be a montage of Facebook highlights and felt that she was somehow doing it wrong.
We can deal with the hard times – we feel a sense of perverse pleasure in taking on the difficulties of travel and a sense of pride in having come out on the other end just a little bit tougher, just a little bit braver. Besides, they make for great stories after the fact. But the tedium and mind-numbing boredom don’t fit into the narrative of a traveller, despite being an inevitable part of life.
You rip yourself away from everything and everyone you know, stride boldly out into the world and shout “Show me what you’ve got, you bastard!”
And sometimes you end up with a black eye and a new story in your arsenal, and sometimes there’s just silence as you slink back into your little cave, your bravado just a little bit diminished by a world that doesn’t give a shit.
When you leave behind the comforts of home and hit the road you enter into a relationship with the unknown. And, like any relationship, it’s not all laughs and cuddles.
Come to think of it, travel is a lot like sex – when done with heart and passion and abandon, it really doesn’t look all that good. It strips you bare and knocks all those silly ideas you had about yourself right out of your head. Sometimes you find yourself so wildly in love with life that you just might burst out of your skin and sometimes it leaves you wanting to crawl into a dark corner and die for a bit. And every once in a blue moon you have to admit that it really wasn’t worth the hassle and you should have just stayed at home with a tub of Ben & Jerry’s.
And, yes, it’s just about the best thing in the world and you know that you should be glad you’re getting laid when so many people aren’t but, dammit, sometimes you just don’t feel like it!
Travel has been and remains the most enduring and defining love affair of my life and as we were reunited at the beginning of this trip I threw myself into it with all I had. Ever the infatuated mistress, everything else took the back seat and it was months before I came up for air, happy, exhausted and completely disoriented. Slowly we settled back into our old routines, caught up on sleep, had our first catty fights and sullen silences. Six months into the trip the honeymoon was well and truly over as I noticed myself getting annoyed at the little quirks that I used to find endearing. The grubby hotel rooms. The constant hassle of getting from A to B, the crowds, the stares, the streets crawling with mangy curs.
I desperately needed a break, but the timing never seemed quite right. All of April, as I travelled through some of the most beautiful parts of India, I knew that I wasn’t really doing it justice and felt myself teetering on the verge of burnout. In the magical jungle world of Meghalaya we found some of that old spark, but by the time I reached Kohima, the capital of Nagaland, I was running on empty.
The mention of Nagaland might conjure up all sort of exciting ideas about remote tribes, head hunters and skewered rats for dinner, but Kohima is a very vanilla sort of town, pleasant enough in its uneventfulness. Its main attraction is the War Cemetery, which doubles as a hang out spot for the local teenagers. It is not particularly interesting, exotic or sexy. I knew that I would be bored out of my wits. And I knew that was exactly what I needed – to reach such levels of restlessness and boredom that continuing my travels could be nothing short of an orgiastic moment of excitement and joy.
I found a hotel, paid in advance for five nights and ordered myself to stay put, effectively banning myself from any travel-related activities.
In my tiny shoe-box of a room I binged on Neil Gaiman and trashy noir thrillers, spent a lot of time staring at the blank page on my screen, browsed listlessly through the half-dozen drafts eagerly awaiting completion and procrastinated by reading writing tips from famous writers. Then I failed to write some more, told myself off for worrying about it, and settled on reading American Gods instead.
The staff at my hotel looked at me with something uncomfortably close to pity – I doubt any tourist voluntarily stays in Kohima that long. In an urge to justify myself and my lazy ways I made allusions to having been sick, and taking time to recover.
In my more presentable moments I went to Dream Café where I spent hours sipping their better-than-awful coffee and reading the faded National Geographic magazines that were gathering dust on the shelves.
In my darker moments I ate cookies in bed and watched the finale of Pitch Perfect four times in a row, because it’s impossible to feel bad about anything while watching perfectly choreographed a capella mash-ups of cheesy pop songs. The next day I graduated to watching all of Pitch Perfect while eating some pretty strange-tasting cake. In bed.
Afterwards I took a nap, because all that lying around was really exhausting and the cake made me feel ill. In short, I turned being a lazy slob into an art form.
I could not always ignore the uneasy presence in the room – my scorned lover, the travelling life that I was so eager to take a break from. It would sulk in the corner, muttering darkly about missed opportunities, about being taken for granted. A couple of times I almost caved in. But I knew I had to stay strong, for the both of us.
“I’m sorry babe – it’s not you, it’s me!”
My stay in Nagaland, the land of the head hunters, was not particularly exciting, and not even remotely cool. But by the fifth day I found myself missing that unpredictable, infuriating, gorgeous lover of mine. We held hands as we boarded the night train back to West Bengal, and laughed together every time I hit my head on the ceiling when climbing down from the upper berth.
As in any long-term relationship, the travelling life and I still have our ups and downs. We have candle-lit dinners and explosive fights and, every now and then, we get stuck in a really depressing rut when we just can’t seem to muster the energy to put up with each other despite all the love we have for one another.
But in the end I keep going, because no life is perfect, but mine is better than most.
And I really think this one’s a keeper.