Somewhere over Europe
October 26th, 2010

I’m writing this on a RyanAir flight between Berlin and London. I’ve flown budget airlines before, but this really takes it to a new low. The interior of the plane is plastered in advertising, the PA speakers are used to advertise the delicious beverages you can purchase to quench your thirst (they actually said “quench your thirst”) and right now the flight attendants are trying to hock lottery tickets. There’s also no assigned seating, which is the natural order of things in a movie theatre, but which makes a plane feel more like a bus.

I saw Chris off at Tegel Airport this morning, on his way back to Australia. The fellowship is broken. “I can’t believe the trip is ending like this,” I said. “This is lame.”

“Well, come back to Australia and we’ll start a new trip,” he suggested. “With bikes.”

I’m certainly tempted to, but at the same time I’m committed to London. Whatever I decide to do is irrelevant to this trip and to this blog, however. What I’m trying to do now, in this final post, is reflect on the trip that changed so very, very much from how we envisioned it. You have probably gathered, if you’ve been paying attention, that it did not go to plan.

We are perhaps the only backpackers I have ever heard of who don’t enjoy it. I find it difficult to say whether or not I would have enjoyed it more had I not been with Chris, who is rarely satisfied with anything and who certainly wasn’t satisfied with most of this trip. I don’t mean that in a bitter way; I genuinely don’t know if it would have changed things. Perhaps I would have been happier without him; perhaps I would have been exactly the same. I suspect it’s the latter, but I won’t know until I try travelling alone or with someone else (and, for it to be a fair experiment, try it in Asia).

It’s difficult to reflect on our experience, because it’s such a tangled knot of feelings and reactions that I’ll be sorting through for many years to come, and which is tied into the larger knot of what I want to do with my life. Part of it was that I dislike Asia and Asian culture; part of it was that I dislike any young and drunken party scene, which is what so much of South-East Asia is; part of it was that I like my comfort, and any trip involving squat toilets and twelve hour bus rides needs to have some damn good redeeming features; part of it was that I, like Chris, loathe relinquishing my freedom.

I’ve mentioned before that travelling the world seems to be the very epitome of freedom; but ironically, it is not. In a foreign country you do not understand what is happening most of the time. You are a guest of the government, dependent on a visa and the whims of the local authorities. There’s a decent chance you’re in a dictatorial police state. You do not speak the language, which means you are often reliant on the kindness of strangers. You must devote effort to eating three meals a day and finding a bed to sleep in every night. Your entire life is contained within your backpack, which you will often be lugging around for many kilometres in sweltering heat and rubbish-strewn streets with no idea of where you’re going while people grab your arm and try to sell you things. Somewhere amongst these myriad problems you must try to enjoy yourself.

Compare this to home, where I could drive my car wherever I pleased, where I had a kitchen in which I could cook my own meals, where I spoke the language and always understood what was going on around me. I’m not saying I expected those things – I’m not stupid – but it does puzzle me when people use the word “freedom” to describe travel. Independent travel involves many things, some good and some bad, but freedom is not one of them.

Neither, of course, is organised travel – we went on a guided tour in Ha Long Bay and loathed every second of it. Tourists in general give up a lot of their freedom. Backpackers like to think they’re much more adventurous than package tourists, yet they all read the same Lonely Planet and thus stay at all the same hostels and eat at all the same restaurants.

I’m not trying to disparage group tours either, though. If you’re happy being told what to do and when to do it, that’s great. Good for you. Something I cannot abide – and something which seems to be disappointingly common amongst travel writers, and indeed all people who travel and discuss their experiences in any way – is a certain amount of contempt and arrogance directed at all other travellers. You’re not doing it right, they say. You’re not experiencing the culture, they say. You simply have to do this or must see this. (Closely tied to this attitude is the unparallelled level of reverence accorded to The Locals – as though subsistence farmers below the poverty line are somehow inherently better people than us.) The level of contempt backpackers direct towards package tourists is incredible, and has to be seen to be believed. I don’t know whether package tourists have their own attitudes. I doubt it, since they don’t make a lifestyle of it the way so many backpackers do. I do know that many expats are even more arrogant; just take a look at all the comments during our feud with the Vietnamese crowd, and all the subtle criticisms therein. “Most people couldn’t handle Vietnam,” they sneer, as though they have accomplished something special. (This attitude is discussed here, by a more well-adjusted expat.)

These are observations I made a long time ago and opinions I’ve held for a while now, but it’s only now occurring to me as I write this that perhaps the reason I dislike many other travellers is that they’re a subculture, a clique, just like goths and emos and hipsters and Australian bogans and racist nationalists. They’re people who are desperately clinging to a group identity rather than forging their own.

And I suppose, to some extent, I was one of those people – let’s call them the Lonely Planet crowd. For the last, say, three years I’ve been thinking of nothing but travel. And because I’m a voracious reader, that means I’ve been reading a lot of things on travel – books, Lonely Planet articles, blogs and forum posts.

The LP crowd raves about travel. They talk about how wonderful it is to see the world, to experience other cultures, to “live life untethered.” Without ever having travelled myself, I began to agree with them. In fact, I began to do as they did, and look down at people who simply worked at jobs and lived in their own countries – I even looked down my nose at people who merely travelled to “safe” destinations like Europe, North America and Australia.

Here’s the thing I wonder about travel: what do you get out of it? There are truly some amazing things to be seen, and I’m certainly not trying to discourage people from doing it. But when you go back home – whether it be to Perth, or Liverpool, or Moose Jaw – how have you changed? Because to be quite honest, going to Cambodia and seeing a bunch of dirt-poor orphans sitting around because they have nothing better to do and no employment prospects does nothing but make me think, Phew! Glad I was born in the first world! Can’t wait to get back there!

I’m not criticising travel in and of itself. I’m criticising the concept that travel is essential, or that it somehow makes you a better person, or that travellers are far more intelligent and cultured people than those who never venture beyond their own borders. This is an attitude that is, as far as I can see, completely unchallenged – never spoken aloud, yet acknowledged by anybody who posts on the Thorn Tree Forum or starts a travel blog. It is arrogant, pompous and detestable, and is probably held by a good share of people who never even realise it. It is an attitude I used to hold myself, before I actually went travelling and learned some sharp lessons.

My advice to anybody who considers travelling overseas is to think long and hard about why you want to do it. You want to go to Thailand and get pissed? Awesome, have a great time. You want to go see all the Bhuddist temples and ancient ruins and stunning landscapes? Also awesome, you’ll take some great photos and get some good memories.

But sooner or later the trip has to end, and you have to go back to the real world. Don’t assume that a backpacking trip will change your life or grant you an epiphany. Maybe it will, but don’t bank on it.

Having said all that, I’m not done with travelling. I certainly don’t feel like working again yet. But I doubt I will ever again cram myself on a bus for twelve hours or hop from town to town along the coastline of South-East Asia. In fact, like Chris, I highly doubt I will ever travel again without my own means of transport.

The other way I’ll “travel” – comments about expats aside – is by living in a place. This is by far the best way to experience somewhere. You never stop being a tourist until you live and work in the place you’re visiting, and that’s why I’m forcing myself on to London rather than going home.

But the thing about travel, as I said earlier, is that it’s not the be-all and end-all of life. If I were confined to Australia for the rest of my years, I’d be very disappointed, but it certainly wouldn’t ruin me. If you can’t live a full and happy life in your own country, you can’t live a full and happy life anywhere (unless, y’know, you live in Burundi or something). This probably sounds stupid to almost everyone reading it, but bear in mind that Chris and I had been planning this trip for three years and expected to be on it for two. This was our life. This was everything, and we had nothing more than vague ideas about what we’d do afterwards. The events of the last few months have turned that around and left both of us at fairly directionless, but I guess sometimes you have to learn the hard way.

This has been a very educational six months.