So the other day I published Part One of the list of 18 life lessons that I have learned from 18 months of travel.
Before writing Part Two, I relived the memory of the most challenging thing we did – at least I think it was – which was to climb up Mt Trois Pitons on the Caribbean island of Dominica.
It started off fine, with a loping climb up easy stairs hewn into the steep sides of the jungle covered mountain. Then we reached the point of no return. We were faced with a near vertical rock face and the only way to continue was to pull ourselves up using a rope strung to a tree.
We worked up the courage and did it, slowly and carefully, and when we reached the top we carried on, thinking the worst was behind us. Then an hour or so of stair climbing later we reached the second sheer rock wall, this time double the height and the rope looked three times as old. We didn’t want to turn back, we’d come so far. So we climbed again and conquered the heights.
Surely that was the last one? Not a chance. To reach the summit of the mountain we had to climb through the slippery roots of a tree – I’m not kidding – which the mountain path actually passed through. One false move and we would have tumbled down to the bottom like rag dolls. We debated long and hard. It was too dangerous. What if we fell? Then again, we had climbed two tough rock walls. We could do this.
Carmen went first, and somehow she found a way. Seeing her do it made me want to follow, and I don’t remember how I got through but I did. We strolled to the top, sat on a patch of grass and watched the clouds float past below us.
Then I remembered we had to get down, the same way we had come up.
In a lot of ways that climb is a metaphor for the whole of our journey. Lots of challenges and setbacks on a steep path and we’ve had to dig deep to get past them; but the view from the top was worth it, as well as the aches and pains when we got back down again.
So with that in mind, here’s the rest of the road wisdom I’ve managed to gleam.
18 life lessons I’ve learnt travelling for 18 months (Part II)
10. I prefer my mind to shine rather than collect possessions
I love the globetrotting Aussie comedian Barry Humphries, the man behind Dame Edna Everidge and Sir Les Patterson. He once told the BBC’s radio programme Desert Island Discs that the only thing that kept him grounded was his book collection, reputed to be among the largest in the world. He said it was like an anchor that kept him from spinning off the earth.
That really resonated with me, especially when it came time to pack up our flat in London and ship all of my stuff home to Australia. What should I keep? The place was filled to the brim with all of the junk and temporary use purchases that we made and then later wondered why we’d kept them.
In the end, I ditched everything except for my books. They are now at my parents place sitting beside all of my other books, and one day I’ll put them all together in a big library just for me. But that’s for much later.
Right now, I have a backpack with basic clothes, a medicine kit, laptop and chargers and some cameras. That’s it. And I don’t need, or even want, anything else. Travel has taught me to look at most things as tools that enable my experience, not as possessions to have and display.
And I hope that when I do settle down some day I carry this lesson with me, otherwise my home will be a right mess!
11. Art is the only thing that lasts
Painted forms on red rocks in Utah, abandoned sugar mills on Dominica and Guadeloupe, archaeological digs in Bolivia, moss covered guard towers on the Inca Trail, ziggurats poking out from the jungle in the Yucatan; over the last 18 months I’ve sought out the past of all the places I’ve been to and one thing has remained constant. Art is the only thing that survives these lost civilisations.
And I hope it is the only thing that will survive ours – a zillion Facebook photos is a poor legacy for our progeny.
Travel has made me think of what my legacy will be. What will I leave behind? That thought sharpens my work and reminds me to pursue the things I feel that I need to. Because, after all…
112. Honour your dreams, no one else will
The most amazing drive I have ever taken is the Pacific Coast Highway from Seattle in Washington State, through Oregon and Astoria where the Goonies was filmed and down to the Redwood forests of Northern California. There nestled in Crescent City, is a brightly painted home filled with art and love where Patree Sheid lives.
We stayed with her for two nights and she gave us a guided tour of the Redwoods near her home, a place that was so special for her she packed up her old life and moved to California so she could be close to them. People said she was crazy, but she ignored the naysayers and did it. And she couldn’t be happier.
It was a salient lesson for me at a time early in our trip when I was doubting my ability to sustain the momentum of the life decisions I had made. Patree had a dream, and followed it no matter what. It was inspiring and reminded me that although the path through the woods may be tough, no one asked you to walk it. It is you, and you alone, who must blaze the trail. Others may criticise or encourage, but in the end, you must put one foot in front of the other.
So thanks Patree… I still dream about your thin crust sourdough pizza with oven dried tomatoes, oregano and cheese!
13. Resurrect the little rituals; embrace difficulty
I used to shave in the shower. I’d slather on some foam from a can and hack away at my face with a triple blade razor, thinking I was saving lots of time by doing two jobs at once as I scrambled to get ready for work. The result was that I often looked like I’d fought broken glass in a dustbin.
Now that I don’t have to rush to get to work (I flip on my laptop wherever I am) I have found the time to do things properly. I bought an old fashioned shaving brush, a puck of real shaving soap and an old school safety razor and now have the best shaves of my life. Sure, it takes ten minutes rather than one, but shaving is now a ritual that I enjoy rather than a chore I need to get out of the way.
I’ve learned that anything that promises to make your life easier, faster or smoother is often something that takes an enjoyable skill or experience away from you.
Like Ghandi said, there is more to life than increasing its speed.
We are all looking for short cuts in life, but by taking them, we miss a lot. Shaving is just my example; there are scores of others. Takeout instead of cooking, Google Maps instead asking for directions or using your intuition (do you really need an app to find 52nd street in a grid system city?), instant coffee instead of a café long black.
Travel has taught me to slow down, enjoy the little things and reclaim skills like shaving properly that I abandoned for the easy way.
14. Food and drink make the best memories
Smashed Chilli Relleno Tortas in Oaxaca. Roasted plantains, French bakery bread and export strength Guinness on Dominica. That Ruben sandwich in New York City. The ice cream in Cuenca. The craft beers in Portland. Slow roasted pork in Valladolid. German potato salad in Copacabana – the only good meal I had in Bolivia!
I can trace my journey in meals and drinks. And this trip has really shown me that while I am a history buff and love to soak in the culture of the places I see, the best way to get involved is to eat and drink.
The markets in Oaxaca gave me a taste of every day life and a hearty lunch, the rum shacks on Dominica brought me drunk, face to face, with the legendary locals, the true America was revealed to me in the diners that serve BLTs 24 hours a day and the waitress says “more coffee hun?” every five minutes.
Now that I’ve figured this out, I think I should avoid France; the plane home might not be able to take off after I’m done.
15. We walk the plank with our eyes wide open
Right before we left on our big trip, Carmen and I went to see Gotye, the Australian muso, perform at the Hammersmith Apollo in London. A rough woman behind us kept yelling “Come on mate! Sing that one song we all know!” but instead of doing that, he performed a song called “Eyes Wide Open” that blew our minds. The song is about climate change (I think) but it can also be applied to life itself. These lines are particularly resonant:
So this is the end of the story,
Everything we had, everything we did,
Is buried in dust,
And this dust is all that’s left of us.
On the one hand, that’s kind of depressing… but on the other, it’s uplifting. I don’t want to get too Oprah on you, but it reminds that time is short, death is inevitable and in the end, nothing really matters. It is up to us to fill our lives with meaning and make the best use of the very limited time we have.
We recently attended the Day Of The Dead celebrations in Mexico where death is celebrated and used to remind the living that while a long time in the grave waits for all of us; while we have life we must enjoy it. Gotye goes on to say “we walk the plank with our eyes wide open,” acknowledging the fragility of our existence while also being determined to live as fully as possible.
16. We still call Australia home
“Don’t you miss your home?” is a question we get asked quite a lot, especially when we drop the number of months we’ve been travelling. “No, not really,” I usually say. “We’re having too much fun here.’
But I do miss it. I don’t want to admit that, but I do.
Summer, cricket on the radio, the smell of sunscreen, swimming out past the breakers at Scarborough, the immense gum tree in my parent’s backyard, my mates, my family, my parent’s dog, meat pies, vegemite, all of that great stuff – I miss it terribly sometimes.
I still call Australia home. The legendary Aussie expat wrier Clive James wrote it best, thinking of Oz as he watched rain splatter his window in London:
“In Sydney Harbour, twelve thousand miles away and ten hours from now, the yachts will be racing on the crushed diamond water under a sky the texture of powdered sapphires. It would be churlish not to concede that the same abundance of natural blessings which gave us the energy to leave has every right to call us back. All in, the whippy’s taken. Pulsing like a beacon through the days and nights, the birthplace of the fortunate sends out its invisible waves of recollection. It always has and it always will, until even the last of us come home.”
17. There is no day but today
This brings us (almost) full circle to the very first lesson of travel that I wrote down in Part One – that time flies.
When I had a real job, and a work schedule, rent and bills to pay and a garbage bin to put out I thought in terms of weeks. My life was neatly broken up into 52 segments that were filled with regular obligations and scheduled events. Even fun was slotted in neatly. And in no time at all, ten years got behind me and I wondered where all the time went.
Now that I travel for a living, I often forget what day it is. Monday, Sunday, Friday, Wednesday – it doesn’t matter unless I have a plane to catch. What matters is that I am no longer strapped to a runaway train of time steaming to someone else’s schedule. The day is mine, and seeing as that’s all that really exists, that’s all I need. As much as possible I try to live in the present and enjoy the moment.
It’s drummed into our heads since birth to plan ahead, save for a rainy day, get all your ducks in a row etc etc and infinitum. But why plan to enjoy life later? Why not enjoy it now?
Life on the road has taught me to look up from my next step and see the scenery that’s passing by, never to return.
18. Family and friends are everything
This is the last word on everything as far as I’m concerned.
A real joy for me the past few years has been seeing lots of my friends have babies. My Facebook feed is full of first steps, sleepless nights, vomit incidents, birthday parties and the occasional screed from that scary mummy blog about keeping your parenting opinions to yourself.
It’s great seeing new families form and reminds me of how special mine is. It takes guts to be parents, let alone my Mum and Dad. They don’t nag me to come home or harp on at me to have a baby, though I’m sure they feel that way. They just accept what Carmen and I are doing now, and I’m grateful for their unconditional support – the same with Carmen’s parents; and both sets have come to meet us on the journey at different times, mine in Croatia and London and Carmen’s on Dominica.
As we prepare to go home, we’re nervous. Nervous we won’t fit in, that people won’t understand us, that we won’t understand them, that our home has changed beyond our recognition, of being judged. blah, blah, blah.
But that’s just nerves. It won’t matter when we see our families and our friends who we love. And we’ll all get to share what’s happened in the last 18 months.
After all, what is the point of a journey unless you have a destination?
And for me, the end is always at the beginning.