January 01, 2005
Hi, the journey that this travel diary describes started in July 2003 and finished in October 2004. Since then I've started a new diary, Suitcasing, but there are a lot of good stories here in No Place As Home - my trip took in North America, Central America, Asia and then a return home to London.
My favourite story of the lot is probably "Homosexuals, bisexuals and small children", describing my trials learning to cook in China's Sichuan province. It is, I should warn you, very long (c.5000 words), but I like the way it captures the loneliness and uncertainty of travelling as well as the marvels and joy.
Other good pieces are maybe:
Into the rainforest, describing my trip into a Borneo nature reserve with a Orangutan research team.
A popular early story was about the fiesta in the Guatemalan mountains, where six or seven people were killed over a weekend and the police fled town. I also wrote a shorter and maybe better version of these events for Escape from America magazine here.
I wrote some how-to advice for would be travellers here - the tone is a bit superior in places, I think now, but see if there's anything useful for you. I still like an older piece I wrote about the travelling life - sometimes you see clearest early on.
I wrote about what coming home felt like in "Foreign Eyes".
Best wishes with any travel plans of your own, hope you will read my new blog Suitcasing, and if you'd like to use any of these stories please contact me at noplaceashome @ yahoo.co.uk.
October 24, 2004
Well, wow, it's been a long journey. This is the concluding piece to the story that began in July 2003, in "A Year and a Day"; I'm surprised at how forceful this last post has turned out, but wanted to post it as is rather than water it down. It's also very focused on first world readers, I must admit - in part it was written as a response to what I experienced going home.
Hope you've enjoyed the journey too, and hope you'll continue reading my blog life, in my next online diary: "Suitcasing".
Leaving England once again, fifteen months after I first left to go travelling, I feel very different. Then I had been in a daze, unable to take in how my life was about to change, largely innocent in the ways of the backpacker. Now I am leaving for parts of the world well known - it is as though England is the unfamiliar, perplexing destination.
At the end of it all, what do I think I've gained from travelling? I do think, in short, that the experience has changed my life - and it has changed me as a person quite considerably.
There is the obvious benefit of travelling that I now know something about the world. Not a huge amount - in most places I'm just a well informed tourist - but now when I find myself sitting next to an old Malaysian couple in Heathrow, we can laugh about how bad the traffic jams in KL are; I know that I prefer Sichuan Chinese food to Cantonese Chinese food; walking around Chiang Mai these last couple of days, various locals recognise me and cry out, "You're back! You look tired!"; and so on. But more importantly, I also know that anywhere I go in the world, sooner or later I'll acquire this level of knowledge and friendship too. It's hard to see "living abroad" in the same way, now I've got friends and know the bus routes in cities in California, Mexico, China. Now the odd option to me would be to stay in England the rest of my life - why choose England as a place to live versus all the other places the world has to offer?
I do also feel, that while travelling shows you the differences between the peoples of the world, and sometimes those differences are all you can see, gradually, travelling also shows you how similar we all are. We all feel the same things (I think), all have the same human problems to surmount. It's the responses that differ. Cleanliness, satisfying physical needs, frustration, looking good in front of others, morality - we all, I think, agree these things exist, it's just that we deal with them in different ways. Just because Thai people smile a lot doesn't mean they don't feel the same frustrations and despairs the rest of us feel.
I think I'm a much stronger, more assertive / pushy person than I was pre-travelling. Part of this came from, I think, just always moving onwards and meeting new people. At first I was very keen that everyone I met liked me - at some point, perhaps in Guatemala, I realised this wasn't actually important. I didn't care what other people thought about me, to a big extent; some people were going to become my friends, some just weren't - in fact people were more likely to get on well with me when I didn't worry about it. The other part of this involved spending time in countries like China and India - I've got used to arguing, haggling, standing up for myself. I've been conned / overcharged so many times and in so many ways, I dislike going through it again.
I've become very happy with myself, happy being myself. I've grown to know myself rather well, been alone for long periods and listened to my brain chatter away, been in quite a few stressful situations and watched myself fluster. I quite like being Daniel, I've realised; I do think of myself, my life, as being special. Not "special" in terms of being better than anyone else's, rather, "special" in terms of my own expectations.
Now for the philosophy.
I feel now that happiness, contentment, these are things you carry with you. Relying or depending on external things or people to make you happy is a route to disappointment - even if you get that promotion or buy that new CD, there are always new external criteria to judge yourself on, new ways to find yourself lacking. The only thing we can hope to control (sometimes) is ourself, how we act in the situations life presents us with. I can't control whether you'll like me, or enjoy what I've written here, or whether it's sunny tomorrow. I think happiness comes from enjoying the moment, taking pleasure in each sip of coffee, each conversation with a friend. Rushing is the antithesis of this attitude - rushing says that some imagined future pay off is worth cheapening the present.
I can't control which employer chooses to give me a job, I can't control whether the company I start up suceeds or fails; but perhaps I can control whether I let this affect my mood, my self image, my ability to laugh at myself and begin planning something else.
Clearly, I will try to influence as much as I can outside events - and if sunny weather is really important to me, perhaps I should move to an area where it doesn't rain so often. But still, in the great majority of times in life, I think a lack of attachment to things, a willingness to be happy regardless of the situation, is the base, the starting point; ambitions and plans build on it, they don't replace it. I wonder how many of the "bad" things that happen to us are bad because we choose to look at them that way, that we have some expectation which reality doesn't match.
Although my handle on this way of looking at the world (an outlook, I notice, that sounds suspiciously like some version of Taoism) is fragile, it is how I am thinking about my future. I don't know what will happen (although I have some goals), and I'm fairly relaxed about that, I'm quite confident things will work out well, one way or another.
Travelling has made me reassess my priorities for my life. Life is such a wonderful, varied experience - I want to live it how I want to. Working long hours for a big company is something I'm not sure I can face anymore - the loss of time and life bite too keenly. I was as keen as most University educated young people to work hard, put in the hours, get noticed by superiors - but what's it all for? Working hard during education made sense to me, as there was an end product, a final exam and a qualification, but what's the end product of life? Retirement?
Whatever one's religious beliefs, authorities seem to agree we are only here once. I will only be alive here as this particular Daniel Wallace once. I think if there is a meaning to life, a purpose, it lies within us: finding a place, a vocation we are each uniquely suited to. Working in a job because you feel you have to surely isn't it.
There are people who do truly love working in a big company - I've met several of them at the Bank of England. They love being in the office from dawn to dusk (or longer), they get energy from being there. Show them a new problem or issue at 4pm and they get more excited, not nervous about whether it will delay their exit that night. Most of us, I suspect, aren't like that - I knew I wasn't, it was one of the reasons I decided to leave the Bank. I think many of us work at corporate jobs in partly in the hope one day we'll be governor / partner. I suspect the people who get those positions are the ones who live for it, who would go crazy if they won the lottery and didn't have anything to do all day. I think I need to accept I'm not that kind of person, no one is going to make me governor of the bank - I have different ambitions.
What struck and shocked me about coming back to London was how people's lives seemed so focused around money as a means of security, yet the majority of us seemed deeply insecure. People are working in jobs they get very little satisfaction / enjoyment from, all in the belief that they must, that a life not focused on keeping hold of money is one destined for starvation and destitution.
This attitude would make sense in a poor country, but we in England are rich, absurdly rich. We simply don't know how rich we are. One small insight I have gained from travelling the world is that, no matter what happens, I can always teach English in Asia. Certainly there are good and bad teachers, but as a native English speaker, you don't need a qualification, you don't even need the right visa - in China the demand is so great, French and Germans were doing it. This is a small thing to note, and I'm not sure I'd want to teach English my whole life, but at least I know now, I will never starve. Whatever happens, whatever goes wrong, as long as I can afford a plane ticket back to Asia, I can work and have a quite nice lifestyle while I decide what next to do.
The tragedy of living one's life for security, of drawing a salary for a big company, is that I don't believe these actually do bring any real security. My experiences of working for big companies is that your job is secure until the company doesn't need you any more. This seemed to often be the case for managers in their forties, whose salaries were now too high to make their employment efficient (a younger person could do their job for less), and they had reached the level they probably were going to stay at - if they were going to get selected for the top jobs, it would have already happened by then. At just the point (children in school etc) when job security became vital in these managers' lives, it vanished.
During the three weeks I was back in the UK, the government's Turner report came out. This was an investigation into pensions, and whether we in the UK will have enough money to retire on in the future. The answer is basically that we don't: not many of us are saving enough, either through state or private pensions. In the future, a higher proportion of us in the developed world will be old, and we will be old for longer, thanks to medical science. Money will probably be very tight, and as the politicians and civil servants all have guaranteed pensions, don't expect much of a solution from them.
So working in a steady job all your life in the hope of a good pension may also be illusionary... You may be thinking ("you" being some imaginary reader with a steady salary) that with all my talk of freedom and finding a vocation, that I am gambling with my future - but you may be the one gambling.
Better to live your life how you would ideally want to live it - doing the thing you love might even make you rich. At the very least you'll have better memories at the end of it all.
[A fair question is this stage would be to ask me how I plan to pay for my pension. The answer is that right now I don't know, I'm in the same situation as everyone else. But my plans are to be putting money aside once I have a job again in Australia, to try to buy some property at some stage, and I'd also like to start my own business in my thirties. I also don't plan to spend my retirement years in an expensive country like England.]
I just feel that there is so much out there in the world, so many possibilities, so many lives to lead. Life, to use a poetic analogy, is an amazing canvas - are we using all the colours we could be? The trip I've just done was not that expensive in first world terms - and I think I've lived pretty well for the last year. My stomach hasn't shrunk much certainly. And far more economical trips / experiences are possible. An example I've told my friends about is the family homestay I lived with in Guatemala. It cost me 25 US dollars a week to live with them in Todosantos, this included my own room and three meals a day. I could have afforded to live with that family for a very long time - and probably could have got a discount for a long term stay... Someone on a first world salary could I'm sure get together enough money to go and live in Guatemala, Mexico, Thailand, China etc for a quite considerable length of time and do nothing except enjoy themselves, if they could keep to a fairly disciplined daily budget.
Some London friends whom I've recounted this last bit to commented, "But where's the meaning in a life like that? What's the value in going somewhere like Thailand just to take yoga classes [or whatever]"? It's a fair question, but the retort is easy: "Where's the greater meaning in your life right now"? What exactly does your working for x company each month gain for the world? The difference you could make in a place like Nicaragua or rural China might be enormous; but there are a thousand other people in London that could do your job if you weren't doing it. Even if you don't like leaving the country, a regular donation focused on a small area in the poorer reaches of the world would make a huge difference. Imagine how it would feel to know that in your last ten years of working, your annual donation kept a village school running in Bolivia (or wherever).
Travelling has given me a huge amount; now I'm looking forward to the next part of my life. I don't know what will happen, although I'm optimistic. Please don't take all the above as an injunction that you "must" go travelling - there may well be something else that would work better for you. I also suspect people shouldn't do things until they feel ready for them - I don't think I would have gained what I have from this trip had I done it aged 18.
But for me, aged 25-26, travelling the world has been a great experience. I only wish the world was a bit smaller, so I could have seen a bit more of it :) I visited fourteen countries in fourteen months - lots more remain to be explored, and many of the ones I've already been to call out for return visits.
Thank you very much for reading this diary and sharing the experience with me. Thanks for all the comments and emails (thanks even for the semi-literate hate mail - they made me feel special too). I never expected this whole internet diary thing to grow as big as it has. I've made some amazing friends through this site, and been really cheered in the tough moments by the encouragement people I've never met have given me. Thank you again, and I hope you'll continue to read my (next) web diary: Suitcasing.
24 October 2004, Chiang Mai
October 17, 2004
Hi everyone, my last few days in England. My flight is booked for Wednesday night, I'm feeling happy. Leaving family and friends once more is going to be desperately sad; leaving London behind will not be.
In the mean time, here is a collage of images of London. I originally planned to do some sweeping overview of all of London, but... the city is so large, so diverse, so fragmented into different groups and friendships... that it would have been absurd, or at the very least a couple of weeks work. So instead, here are some disconnected images from a couple of the areas I know best in London: Hampstead and Camden Town, the "City" and its surrounds.
October 13, 2004
It's noticable how little London is clinging to me. There's been no collapse into depression (yet), I'm quite enjoying being here - but with no sense I should stay. I just don't know what I would do in London. I walk among the streets and shops happy, interested, but essentially untouched.Continue reading "Not very heroic"
October 08, 2004
Back in England, it is a mixture of the instinctively familiar and the disorientating. Being able to drink and brush my teeth in tap water was quite a shock; not being afraid of the midday sun (and needing a siesta) took me by surprise; London seems remarkably clean and architecturally beautiful.Continue reading "Foreign eyes"
October 04, 2004
My last night in India, Gari's flight was very early the next day so we decided to stay up until dawn. We sat on the rooftop bar of our guesthouse all through the dry warm night, at 4.30am Gari left for the airport, and a while later the sun lit up the sky.
Continue reading "India snaps"
September 28, 2004
Today I am to buy a ticket back to England - if everything goes to plan, my round the world trip will end with a return to my home country in a few days time. I'm ready to stop now; and I suddenly realised a trip back to England for about three weeks was what I wanted, before beginning my one month relaxing in Chiang Mai. October in London, November in Chiang Mai, December and onwards in Sydney. Praying my money lasts...
Fourteen months of travelling, the end is imminent; I feel a little sadness but mainly relief and satisfaction. Stopping now is patently the right thing to do, and so regret is hard to muster. And a return home feels perfect as the full stop to this period of travelling, a way of grounding myself again in my home before I set off for Australia and who knows where. And I hope Londoners won't mind me saying this, but I also suspect three weeks in London's rainy, dark October will neatly quench my nostalgia for home, giving me fresh fuel to explore the world.
There is also the positive, a very big positive, of seeing my family and friends from home again.
Early evening in Varanasi, pinkish-grey dull sky stretches out over the wide brown Ganges. India is very unusually subdued, nature seems old here, like a weary god reflected in a sickening world. Our cheap hotel is south of the old city's centre, just off from the waterfront, just off from the steep stone steps leading down to the polluted holy waters of Hinduism's greatest river.Continue reading "Murky enlightenment"
September 25, 2004
The countryside town of Bolpur in West Bengal has been showing us a slightly more relaxed version of India for the last few days.
September 23, 2004
Hello everybody, hope you enjoyed Gari's time as guest writer on the site; it's been great to come back after a few days and read everyone's comments. I spent the time in Darjeeling thinking about when I should finish this round-the-world trip. I'm coming to enjoy India a lot, but still, it feels like the time to call it all day is drawing near.Continue reading "An ending approaches"