Travel has absolutely not been what I expected. I’m being embarrassingly honest when I tell you that I had a lot of fairly inaccurate preconceptions of what my 6 month trip would most likely entail; preconceptions mostly fed by media depictions of ‘travellers’ and their exciting ‘gap years’. I thought I’d be living this crazy, wild life with these happy, mellow, life enthusiasts who had culture and knowledge tucked firmly under the belt of their kaftans. I thought travel was where all these amazing people lived and moved around – people I wanted to be like – whilst grey-faced office workers, laden with responsibilities, stayed behind in their grey-faced countries. I was half right.
I think I forgot that all these people travelling will have come from somewhere. They existed in my mind as floating entities, never really having a beginning or destination, just sort of, being there. My imagination seemingly forgot to add in the details of these ‘free spirits’ lives – the details like these people being born and where and how they were raised. This slightly forgetful tendency is what I blame my misconceptions on – and the inevitable disappointment I felt when they weren’t met. Because travel is not fun all of the time. Travel is having to stand in a long customs queue alone with a dead phone. It’s getting ill and being bed bound. It’s the boredom and reluctancy of repacking a case almost everyday. It’s filling in immigration forms. It’s having everything you own caked in sand. It’s long bus journeys through bland surroundings. It’s bad weather. It’s someone snoring in your dorm. It’s messily bartering with taxi drivers then being ripped off anyway. It’s meeting people you don’t like. It’s paying money for a meal that ends up being shit. It’s check in desks, and baggage reclaim and wearing clothes that are never clean. It’s toiletries that leak in your bag and it’s dining in restaurants alone. There are boring, horrible parts of travel, because despite it being magical, it’s not magic. And I suppose that’s something I forgot.
When I say my imagination is flawed, I am thinking partly of all of the above things that I have absolutely experienced but never expected, and also my inability to conceive a real life for my supposed travel gurus. But I’m also thinking of how many amazing things I’ve done that my mind couldn’t imagine. Because travel is also lying on a beach and looking up at the Milky Way spread out above you. It’s some of the best food you’ll ever taste. It’s your case closing easily. It’s a coffee shop with walls, floors, ceilings and furniture plastered in notes from strangers all over the world. It’s making friends with people in the bizarrest of circumstances. It’s helping a child get back up to speed with school. It’s lying in a hammock with salty hair eating banana pancakes. It’s hitchhiking motorbike rides with strangers through breathtaking countryside. It’s the first time you stand up on a surf board. It’s boat journeys in the middle of the sea with your favourite songs ringing in your ears. It’s giddily making pancakes in your hostel kitchen at 4am with giggling new roommates. It’s playing the piano to a restaurant of strangers. It’s snorkelling amongst sharks and stingrays. It’s eating coco pops in the back of a Vietnamese public bus. It’s listening to someone you don’t know sing in the shower cubicle next to you. It’s piloting a plane over a wonder of the world. It’s singing and running down a road at night in the pouring rain. It’s realising you remember your passport number. It’s dancing with a new friend to old music on a balcony above the ocean. It’s eating at a street food market in Guatemala whilst thunder and lightning flashes and crashes above you. It’s sleeping on the living room floor of a family you’ve never met. It’s a good night’s sleep. It’s handwritten notes. It’s a person in your dorm buying you breakfast. It’s realising your roommate is your friend for life. It’s laughing with people you didn’t know yesterday and it’s a fresh bag of washing. The best parts of travelling are absolutely unquantifiable, unfathomable even. And so is the happiness you feel.
If people are going to ask me when I get home whether I’ve ‘learnt’ anything whilst being away, up until recently I would have been unable to answer anything particularly interesting or profound. “Make sure you always get in a Blue Bird taxi in Bali?” But recently I have for some reason meditated over my trip much more deliberately. I have seemingly come to some sort of conclusion that may be shamefully obvious to you. Here it is:
Everyone has expectations about their life. Hopes and dreams and aspirations are one thing, expectations are indeed another. An aspiration is a much more abstract substance – a dreamy sort of goal. An aspiration being unmet fills you with a sort of internal, heart sadness that feels heavy and dark. Much more emotional. An expectation being unmet is a much different kind of sadness; colder, sharper, angrier. Not as melancholic, with that sour taste of disappointment and finite betrayal. A much more concrete experience overall.
I thought that travel was a separate experience from life – that you did things travelling that you couldn’t or wouldn’t do in real life. A sort of parallel track – feels similar but the two shall never meet. This is not true; atleast not in full. Travel is life with the brightness turned up. It’s the same track just at a quicker speed. You make stronger bonds and you have worse tantrums and you experience weirder things and eat tastier food. It’s a concentrated little portion of experiences – but it’s still life. Travelling does not exempt you from the shitty things, but it does make you vulnerable to extraordinary things. And the people you meet aren’t the magical, omniscient beings I had ignorantly imagined either – they’re actual proper humans who get sweaty and annoying and might not know that Belize is a country.
The idea of my trip coming to an end fills me with the same sadness as finishing a good book – closing the final page on what feels like a different life. And that’s what my travelling has felt like – a tiny little life. A nervous, naive beginning and a reluctant, wiser end.
My underwhelming point is, having expectations that weren’t met for my travels (my teeny six month life) has showed me that having expectations for your life is silly and, seemingly, the behaviour of beginners. Aspirations are a much more sensible attitude; motivated hopes usually untarnished by prejudice. (And they don’t piss you off as much when they’re not met.)
My gap year has taught me that the aim of your limited time should be that when you’re on that final plane heading up into the sky, readying to meet your maker (or your parents armed with a banner in Arrivals) you should be able to look down at what you’re leaving behind and feel the colourful mosaic of emotions you’ve experienced. Remembering that stray dog that slept on your feet and followed you for days, shuddering at the memory of the fleas you contracted from it. Seeing how the good and the bad have intertwined to create something bright and unique, all the while recognising the weight of your accomplishments, along with the partnering contentment they have given you. And I think I can say that now, finally.