The teabags had run out. It was time to leave. Well, that, and the fact that hurricane season is whirling its way toward the Caribbean. Best try to miss that. But our time in Bogota provided a much needed rest and a lot of time to reflect. Emma and I had very nearly burnt out by the time we got to Bogota. Or maybe even before that, on the side of the road somewhere, covered in sticky mango juice and road grime and convinced we were yet another day from rest.
That was pretty hard to admit, especially with such a long way to go. But this rest period has allowed us to see that burn-out for what it actually is: an integral part of the process of travel. We’ve been lucky enough to watch a fair few brilliant examples of adventure film-making, and sample from the blossoming supply of literature too. And usually at the crux of an adventure story there is suffering, doubt and the ever-present question: “Why the hell am I doing this?” A particularly touching example of this is generously shared by Alastair Humphreys and Leon McCarron in their brilliant film Into the Empty Quarter. At the culmination of a very difficult period of their daring expedition, Alastair, through tears, says:
“What on earth am I constantly pushing myself for? Why can’t I just be happy in one place like normal people?”
I reckon that the reason Alastair and all of these other adventurous folk are doing these things is because they are tapped into a very primal and important urge that us humans possess and, in fact, spawn from: the urge to explore, and to discover. All of us, every human being, has a bloodline that is deeply tied in with exploration. Without it we certainly wouldn’t have started eating meat and growing our brains how we did. Nor would we have such wonderful glutei maximi. I’m not going to pretend to know much(/anything) about ancient human migrations (beyond that they happened), but I am going to suggest that exploration is an integral part of human nature and is literally the reason that we are here.
So many world records and ludicrous achievements are ticked off each year; distant places reached by various means of conveyance (which is awesome, and something I want to be part of). But the true discoveries aren’t neccessarily made at these places (though I did once find 20 Peruvian soles at the top of a huge sand dune). Not at the tops of peaks, magnetic poles, or distant shore-lines do we discover the nuts and bolts, stacked in a neat pile, the answers tucked away in a shiny geo-cache. It’s the places that we can’t see that hold the value, the un-mappable places. Most of the time we won’t even notice these places until we look back and wonder “How on earth did we do that?” And most of the time there’s no rock-face or river, snow peak or depth; most of the time its those obscure, ineffable surfaces that line our souls. Intangible yet indelible. And the only direction we can give to those places is with a broad sweep of the hand, partial stories and a lot of encouragement.
And those physical places, they will get by without us. If we don’t go there, then there will be no impact. And if we do get there, then (hopefully) there will be little or positive impact; only the quickly fading imprints of small mammals succumbing to that urge to explore, to peel back the layers. Importantly, too, most of the adventurers and explorers who we have been following, watching and cheering on, regard the places they go to as sacred. And for me, now, this is perhaps one of the most important aspects of travel.
Travel, exploration and adventure should be an expression of the sacred relationship between humankind and nature. A celebration of our connection with, reliance upon and duty to planet Earth.* Of course it is a celebration of human relationships too. Hand-in-hand with travel comes community. Whether that is a community of fellow travellers, strangers, or your distant loved ones (or distant, strange, fellow travellers). It is this community that will compel you onwards through those what the hell moments. When we were walking through Spain last year I remember moments when I could only think of stopping. And at those moments I would think of my younger sister Caroline who experiences on a daily basis more pain than anyone I know and yet moves through her life with such strength, grace and generosity. And if it’s just you out there, with no physical support network, then you will learn a lot about yourself. I can remember too, times when Emma and I have wanted to just give up and stop and just fucking wash our clothes and eat a pizza in front of the telly. Or catch a bus. It’s at those times that we must stop and remember ourselves and remember why we began things in the first place; remember who we are, what we are capable of and what we are becoming. And where we are.
From the struggle we find that we are in fact inextricably linked to these places. We have poured blood, sweat, tears, vomit and diarrhea onto them. And in turn they have poured something into us; something that immediately validates the difficulty, even if we don’t yet know it; something that will swell and ferment over time, becoming more potent; something that will increase in value when it is shared.
And when community and yourself aren’t up to the job, there is usually luck. Whether that’s the hand-hold that stopped you tumbling down the waterfall, the random gifts of fruit that staved off the scurvy or just the grace of a clear day for the mountain pass. Luck: the Universe’s expression of kindness.
What I am saying is that I believe that by undertaking adventure and perservering through adversity we are in fact paying homage to our roots, celebrating our humanity and learning about our place on this Earth and, perhaps, in this universe. It is all small steps, and I don’t have many of the answers, but I feel now like I’m headed in the right direction. Certainly this adventure with Emma and all of the brilliant people we have crossed paths with has lined my soul with something a little more sturdy. Now, too, I see the murky mists of my future as something exciting to walk through.
I’m not placing myself as an equal with the adventurers and explorers who I admire. But I am certainly inspired by them. Or should I say moved? Because they have moved me emotionally and that, ultimately, will move me physically. That is to say that I’ve succumbed to the typical malady of the traveller: I’ve started planning future expeditions. These are likely to be more me-powered and (at least at first) more local. But that’s getting way ahead. Maybe all of this planning and plotting is also in part a means of distraction from the task at hand.
We really are filled with anxiety for the boat search. Internet communication with skippers has given us some very tenuous leads and one maybe. Hopefully time spent at the docks will prove more productive. If not, tails between legs and dream delayed (not lost, delayed until another time) we’ll be back here to save for flights (eugh)! Whether we end up on a boat or not, we are sure to encounter some difficult times on our long journey home (be they Atlantic storms, shin splints or airports). And at those times I’ll try to remain graceful and realise that it’s all part of it.
For now, well rested, sufficiently fattened up, scurvy-free and with clean, repaired clothes, we’re ready to hit the road again. In fact, as you read this we will already be on that road, and hopefully quite a long way up it.
*I am not against vacations. I completely understand the need and desire for them, particularly in the world-as-it-currently-is. But travel and vactions are not the same thing, and I hope that the distinction is clear here.