I’m writing this in Northumberland, in my Mum and Dad’s house, the house I grew up in. The traffic coming up the bank outside sounds familiar, the washing on the line is hung that way it’s always been hung, the radio is on. Everything feels the same as it has done before. Our travels are over and we’re back with our parents for a while; Moz is in Manchester and I’m in the north-east. It’s good to be back and to see the people I love. Being back in the village is special; the yellow rape is bright in the fields, I’ve been running around the river and it’s nice to bump into neighbours who ask after our time away. I’m excited to see the girls next week and for Jane and Nathan’s wedding, and all that will happen afterwards. I’m not sure if the post-travel blues have kicked in yet, or indeed if they will happen. I feel a sort of stillness, like a pause between two things, unsure quite where I’m at. But this is where I am right now: a week after we landed in Heathrow, back in the village I’ve known my whole life, feeling the May sunshine on my skin, getting silly with my Mum over the royal wedding and thinking back over our time away.
The best things
We’ve been to the most amazing places and experienced the most incredible things. I never thought I would swim with plankton under the stars, visit the roaring mouth of the Iguazu Falls or walk with wild rhinos. We’ve seen beautiful architecture, hiked through untouched jungle, wild camped beneath mountains totally alone, pushed our way through buzzing marketplaces, crossed borders on bus, by boat and by foot. We hitchhiked our way 1000km down the spine of Chile, bathed beneath the full moon in hot springs on the highest desert in the world, met baby elephants, snorkelled in the Indian Ocean, swam in the Nile and had a coffee in the middle of the Masai Mara. I cried tears of amazement when we reached Machu Picchu at sunrise and when we sat just metres away from a silverback and family of gorillas in Uganda. We’ve been greeted with such warmth by people who have so much less than us, and have had such moments of kindness, positivity and humanity. I remember moments of such gratitude – looking out of bus windows, standing beneath a sunset on the salt flats between Bolivia and Chile, walking by ourselves in the Patagonian mountains – and not quite believing how we got there but being glad we did, mentally zooming out and feeling so small. Some people didn’t think we were wise to leave our lives and go travelling but I think it’s the best thing we could have done.
We quit our jobs, left our friends, left London, packed up our stuff and moved out of our flat to live instead out of a rucksack for ten months. We jumped. Yes, we had security blankets – the patience of our parents (and their roomy attics), our loving families back home, the hope that our skills would mean we would find work again and the safety of being with each other – but still, we were jumping.
Before we left, I remember looking at the map we’d pinned to our bedroom wall, with a planned itinerary alongside, and thinking that six months in South America was definitely enough time. How wrong we were. I think you could easily spend a year there, exploring more of these beautiful and diverse countries, and still not scratch the surface. It’s a continent where everyday is an adventure: a continent of mountains and beaches, of rainforests and colonial cities, salt flats and deserts, glaciers and lost Incan civilisations hidden high up in the clouds. It’s set up for travellers and, with only six months to travel there, we definitely found ourselves on the “gringo trail”. In some ways this was nice: you bumped into the same travellers along the way, could swap tips with others going the opposite route and the infrastructure of hostels is perfect for a budget backpacker, but at other times I’d get tired of the same conversations and the one-up-manship that travel brings out in some people (myself included). I loved when we just clicked with people, cut through the crap and actually had good conversations and fun: shout-out to Cleo, Alfie, Michel, Elise, Phil, Immie, Charlotte, Siadhal, Tess and Jellis for the good times.
Africa was a totally different experience. Most people tend to visit the region on a two-week safari / Zanzibar holiday and so travellers are few and far between. Our delight at meeting the only other set of travellers on our journey – the lovely Claire and Richard – was a bit over the top but perhaps justifiable after six weeks just the two of us. We felt more off the beaten track there, two backpackers making our way through four beautiful, warm countries where children ran to touch our hands, where the call of “karibu” (welcome) followed us wherever we went. It’s a region of waterfalls and jungles and wide open plains, a place of huge skies and potholed red dirt roads where women with printed kangas carry newborn babies on their backs. East Africa has been under my skin since I first volunteered in Kenya and then afterwards when I worked in Nairobi and Tanzania but travelling is different to working in one place and it wasn’t easy in the way South America is. To travel there is intense and you’re always a point of interest to people around you who want to know where we’re from and where we’re going and which football team we support and why we don’t have children. Always the two only white travellers on an African bus journey we attracted a lot of attention and people always wanted to talk to us; it made for pretty special moments but also ones that felt tiring and overwhelming. It felt like a world away from Patagonia where we went for days without seeing other people, we never had that in Africa, not even really for a second.
Some things, though, were universal: Despacito in every country, the feeling of putting on my rucksack and feeling free that all I needed was with me, opening a bus window and letting the breeze come in, the slight apprehension every time you step into a new dorm room, how strong women around the world are, the smell of tattered bank notes that have passed through hundreds of hands.
It’s not always rainbows and butterflies
Of course, however, it wasn’t always rainbows and butterflies. We got tired, got sick, plans messed up and we had unsettling moments arriving into bus stations late at night or having to walk around looking for a hostel or campsite to stay the night. I had cravings for simple things – a cup of tea and a hot bath – and for the people in my life that I love: a FaceTime from my Dundee girlfriends tugged at my heart and I missed our families. Christmas photos on social media brought more than a pang of homesickness and there were days when we were quite frankly sick of each other. I remember being in the south of Rwanda with just a month left of our travels and having a fight over something stupid and thinking how much of a vacuum we were in: if the same thing had happened at home we’d have had our own space, one of us would have gone out and we would have had time to breathe, but you can’t have that when it’s just the two of you on the road.
We spent time in some nothing-y places where we felt like we were just filling time and Moz voiced what I’d been thinking but not wanting to say. When you’re not having “the best time ever” and then something little happens – like a fight or an upset stomach – that’s when you question ‘what are we doing here?’ If it happens to be rainy season or one of you is unwell or you’re there’s not the excitement of a great sight or a new adventure that’s when you wonder why you’re sacrificing being at home with those that you love or being in a place where nothing is alien and you know how everything works. But you’ve got to just roll with it, and that’s what we did.
There was a moment when we’d just reached Uganda and were doing our classic traipse around all the different and dodgy looking ATMs in town until we found one that would give us cash without a) swallowing our card and b) charging extortionate rates. I was moaning that why we always had to repeat the same thing just to get cash and Moz turned to me and was like “we’re in a developing country, what do you expect? Of course the ATMs don’t work first time”. It sounds so simple but it hit me hard; he was right. Why, after seven month away, was it still a shock and an annoyance that the ATMs didn’t play ball first time around? It’s a cliche but this was Africa and it was going to take some time. The ATMs weren’t changing anytime soon so I had to and just had to get over it.
Weakness, bravery and change
I was scared of things that I didn’t think I would be and was weak at times. A boat ride in Colombia over bumpy waves in the middle of the night was one of the most terrifying experiences I’ve ever had and I still hesitated when I had to jump into water or go out on a kayak. I cried once when Moz suggested we skip lunch and felt weak when I didn’t eat enough. Not normally the one to say “I don’t think that’s a good idea” I found myself saying it when we were on a trek alone across a landslide – and saying it felt different to who I am at home.
I was also braver than I thought I would be. I swam, not confidently but I still swam, in lots of deep and open water, I put the thought of snakes to the back of my mind. I became relaxed about timings and schedules: if we missed a bus or we didn’t quite make it to somewhere in time, that was fine. We camped out under the stars in Patagonia, I became used to the sound of nature outside our tent and I’m proud that I became stronger during that time.
And we were safe. You do hear horror stories – we had friends have their bags stolen, a guy we knew had a knife pulled on him, people have all their belongings disappear – and yes, we’ve had dodgy buses, dodgy alleyways, dodgy kebabs and dodgy men along the way but we were lucky that that was the extent of it, and that was part of the experience. Walking through Medellin, a city more dangerous than Beirut ten years ago and virtually a no-go zone for tourists, was peaceful, calm, a city free from the cocaine cartels. People would come up to us and thank us for being there. Similarly, on the island of Lamu, close to the Somali border, we found a town that was warm and welcoming, that rang with the sound of the call to prayer and where we could walk the dark alleyways at night completely safely.
For a girl that loves a good bit of broccoli on her plate, it was hard to resign myself to a diet of deep fried food and chips, and lager every night. Often it felt too hot or not safe enough to go for a run so I just had to reconcile myself with not having a routine, that my body would change and being ok with that. There were times when I pushed my body hard – hiking in Patagonia, at altitude in Huaraz, in the heat of Colca Canyon, to the Lost City, and up to Machu Picchu – and I’m proud that I managed to make it everytime. We carried over 20kg each for 35km over the Chile/Argentina border, one of the hardest walks I’ve done, but one I’ll never forget. My hair turned to frizzy straw and the split ends went light, my skin turned brown, my feet turned hard from walking boots and then were scrubbed smooth in the sand of Zanzibar, my nails, normally brittle and flakey at home, turned strong from the sunshine.
And just like your body, travel brings new experiences and interactions that change your mind also.
We were in Bolivia, halfway through our South American journey, when I got a WhatsApp from one of my best friends saying that her mum had a tumour. I remember standing on a corner of the dusty, end-of-the-road road town that is Uyuni, feeling hot tears fall down my cheeks and the wind whipping up sand storms in the middle of the street. I messaged her back trying to convey as much love as I could into pixellated letters, then had to rush out to reach the 4×4 that would take us onto the salt flats. For the next three days we drove through a landscape unlike I have ever experienced; endless white crusts of salt, multicoloured skies of sunsets that fell all around us, the radio playing songs I’ll now always connect with that place – and I thought of her. Before we’d been in Bolivia and at that point, I’d been feeling anxious about money; Peru had been an expensive six weeks and I had had a bit of a freak-out when Moz and I did our monthly money roundup. Getting that news kind of jolted me into how lucky we were being there, how important it felt to be in this vast empty space with endless desert around, and how not much else really matters apart from the people you love and the places you care about. I began to see those money worries as being less important; we were making it work, and we’d be okay and those numbers going down in our bank account were linked with all the amazing experiences we were having. A month later in Chile when we came to add up our spendings, I didn’t care that it had also been a pricey month: we’d had an incredible four weeks and had more good times ahead. It felt like a shift in my outlook and one I’m trying to continue here back in the UK.
Money, though, is never a pretty subject to talk about – especially as Brit – but for the purpose of being transparent and open, we spent about £20k over ten months. I know some people will find this an absolute snip and others will find it scarily high. I’m very aware that this could be the deposit on a house. But it wasn’t.
We were frugal: we cooked, we camped, we stayed in dorm rooms (with snoring Aussies) and we counted pennies. But we also enjoyed ourselves: we went on treks, we sometimes treated ourselves to a hotel, we went on safari and we paid the eye-watering permit to trek to gorillas. I wish we could have splashed out a bit more when Davo was with us, but was aware her not wanting to feel like we were being extravagant for her sake and was mindful that we still had another five months on the road. We’d saved for years, we were given very kind gifts of money as wedding presents, I had some inheritance money and we had support of parents. Would I change any of what we did just so we could have a bit more money now? No way, José.
The wonders of wifi
One major difference I found between being away now and travelling five years ago was that wifi is pretty much everywhere. I remember being in Tanzania and Sarah and I would trot down to the internet cafe and pay for an hour to log onto the slow internet so we could send emails to our families and friends. Now, wifi is pretty much ubiquitous in every hostel we stayed in, every cafe, even some of the fancier overnight buses in South America. It was so helpful to have this instant connection; we could book our next hostel, download podcasts, keep in touch with family, send photos to friends. I liked checking in, keeping in touch, telling our parents we were okay and where we were headed to next – all that felt important. But I didn’t want to be sat scrolling through Instagram or WhatsApping when I should be enjoying myself. I hated those moments, more so when I felt a bit homesick, when I’d be browsing on my phone, find myself in an Instagram rabbit hole, and would have to physically say to myself “this is not what I came travelling to do”. Some of my favourite places were in Patagonia, Zanzibar and the beaches of Colombia where there just wasn’t any wifi and there was no opportunity to connect or to be connected with. I liked not connecting to wifi when we arrived somewhere, leaving it a day or so to connect or just not at all.
That said, the down times – when we we were having a quiet afternoon or were sheltering from rain – to use wifi and check back in with the world felt important. It was how I kept in touch with Lori through her pregnancy, how we got the news when Jane gave birth to the twins, when Katie told me she was having a baby, when Jack and Nina got engaged, when my friend told me about her Mum. The big news. That instancy would just not be possible without the immediacy that wifi provides. And it also brought the little, but just as important, bits of news: the shitty days at work, the funny selfies, a link to an article that everyone was talking about, a daft meme, update photos of frozen drainpipes from my parents during Beast from the East. I wasn’t just going to turn the volume dial down on my relationships for ten months – that would be wrong and it’s not who I am. One of the sweetest things was when the girls sent me the ‘minutes’ from their weekend away to the cottage we always go to as a fivesome. Eagerly I zoomed in and out of their conversations, linked together with arrows and additions as the conversation had progressed. I felt close to them, reading of their snowy weekend in the hills while I sat, sweating, in a cafe in Uganda.
But the flipside is that being in touch through a glass screen will never be a substitute for the real thing, and it was hard not to be there for those life moments: when Arthur was born or when a friend was facing health issues or part of the excitement in the run-up to Jane and Nathan’s wedding. Sometimes a text would make me feel close and I’d be so touched when a friend thought to tell me the big news in their lives. But that same text could also make me feel a long way away: the big news (often ones of people moving on, settling down, big grown up things like houses and babies) felt so distant and alien, whilst we were footloose and fancy free and unsure on what we’d do when we got back.
I can’t really conclude on the wifi/connection issue and I’m still working it around my mind. Whilst the proliferation of wifi is helpful and good, practically and emotionally, it also takes away some of that romantic feeling of escaping and of being free. You lose that element of being ‘off the grid’ when you know people know where you are, or when you can upload a filtered photo onto social media within ten seconds of you taking it. It’s definitely a tricky balance to strike.
A few days before Davo left we were all tired after long day and early start, stressed about finding the bus back to our hostel and I was flapping for money for the conductor. I remember just feeling tired; we’d been five months away and travelling none-stop and I just wished to be home. Or rather, I just wished for the simplicity of home. You know how to pay for a bus ticket at home, you know how to order a coffee without rehearsing how you’re going to ask for it, you instantly recognise the right money by the shape and colour of the coins. Sometimes I craved the easy way that being in your native country brings. Because there are lots of things that travelling may be – but I certainly wouldn’t use “easy” to describe it.
Home felt like something I thought about a lot, a place I sometimes longed for and yet a place I didn’t want to be because it would mean the end of our adventures. WhatsApping, posting photos on Instagram, FaceTiming when the internet was strong enough and writing my blog definitely kept us connected. Pictures of friends at home would make me miss them, seeing photos of autumn leaves felt weird when I was on a beach in a bikini in Peru. From time to time, I’d find myself daydreaming on a long bus, thinking about being back and the little things I would do, making plans for my birthday or dreaming up an ideal outfit for Jane and Nathan’s wedding – and then like a lightning bolt I’d realise what I was doing and berate myself for not being “in the moment”. I didn’t want to look back at our time with any regret that I spend too much time thinking of home, but sometimes it was a bit of light relief in the intensity of being away.
Towards the end of our time in Brazil, when the first leg of our journey was coming to an end, I found myself worrying about the future, home, being ‘homeless’ and the year ahead. We would talk about it a bit and then find ourselves going in circles, a conversation turned into a pointless merry-go-round of ‘what ifs’. I was worried that we would spend our week back in the UK between South America and Africa being asked what our future plans were and it made me feel worried and defensive. I wrote in my blog that week: “this week has felt a bit tough: a stone in my stomach, the rising up of hot tears behind my eyelids. I’m frustrated at myself: in this incredible place where I should feel calm and relaxed and at peace my mind has at times been skittering everywhere, feeling worried without being able to articulate why… and all along I’m surrounded by beautiful beaches and the waves crash on and I think that I’ll probably never be here again and I’m wasting my time by worrying.”I kept telling myself that in worrying about the future, I was wasting that day – but it’s hard to tune out of the anxieties when they seem determined to drown out the noise around you. I felt scared posting that blog, admitting to people reading it at home that was anxious, worried that I’d be pressed to say more than I wanted to when we did actually get back. And, like everything when you talk about it, it feels so much better when you actually get it out.
And travelling does turn a spotlight back on the people at home you miss, makes you appreciate those you’ve left behind. Travelling reminded me so much how much we both value our friends and family: the ones that are so special to us. I missed my Mum and Dad, craved Liz’s baking, wanted to give my mum a call without scheduling a time, felt a twinge missing out on friends’ birthdays and would have loved to have met the twins when they were just born. Absence, and distance, makes the heart grow fonder and I missed and loved those special people even more. I realised in Africa that it’s hard to be a drifter when you constantly feel a connection to where you’re from:I wrote in my diary in March “I had such a strong realisation that that is just not who I am. I’m not a drifter. I have roots and they are strong and that is why I think of home and friends and that’s ok. My roots are who I am“.
Travelling as a couple
And, of course, I wasn’t alone. I was with Moz. I think there will be moments when we’re eighty together and look back at our travels and say “remember that time we swam with plankton?”, “remember when we stroked baby elephants?”, “remember that time you had diarrhoea on the bus in Tanzania?” – these travels will stay with us forever.
There were moments when we were away that I’d look at him and feel like I was about to burst with happiness and love that we were sharing this amazing adventure together. We’d squeeze onto the back of a motorbike in Africa, my arms around his waist, the curls of his hair in my face and the taste of salt from sweat on the back of his neck. We saw amazing parts of the world together, became an aunt and uncle on a bus in the middle of Peru, cried with laughter at something silly in our tent as it rained endlessly around us, went a bit crazy by the end when it had just been the two of us for months and months. We’d bicker about the stupidest of stuff, realise we’d been in just each other’s company for way too long and had one row about burnt toast that was so spectacular I stomped off down the beach and didn’t come back.
Even though we’ve been together for seven years and are married, I think that we still learned things about each other. We became even closer and I feel like we know each other even more intimately (if you know what I mean) than we did before. My tips for travelling as a couple come down to this:
1 Embrace the arguments: it’s natural to fight, it’s going to happen. Arguments almost feel like a rainstorm, brewing over a few days until something breaks, something needed to happen and then afterwards the air is clear. They’re also quite funny and ridiculous when you look back afterwards: burnt toast, being a good example, along with expensive nuts, putting down tents in gail force winds, Scrabble and each other’s families.
2 Play to your strengths: Moz is more practical – he was happy battling cash machines, would always remember to download the right map, would book hostels and record our daily spending (all the useful stuff basically); I was happier to speak to other people in hostels for tips, would give my Swahili a go, liked going to the local markets to get groceries.
3 Give each other space: you can’t be together 24/7, it’s just not healthy. We realised after two months that we literally hadn’t been out of each other’s sight and that we needed some space. Moz would go and find a place to watch City, I’d go to a cafe for coffee and to write, we’d meet up again after a few hours apart and it was like pressing the ‘reset’ button.
4 Be aware of the stress points: Moz is grumpy when he didn’t get enough sleep, I’m get tearful and light-headed when I haven’t eaten enough. Work around those things, be mindful that the other person might not be having such a great day, always make sure you have snacks.
5 Treasure the person you’re with: travel will bring you together, whoever you’re with, sibling, friends, partner or parent, you’ll see new sides of person you’re with, you’ll have the most amazing and memorable moments together. Embrace it and them!
…which leads me nicely onto my best friend Davo who came out to meet us in Argentina in December. I’d been on countdown for her to join us ever since she booked her flights and it felt a little unreal seeing her walk through the arrivals hall at Buenos Aires airport. It was mint having her join us: we went on a drunken wine-tasting bike ride, bathed in mountain hot springs, swam on Christmas Day morning in Santa hats, ate steak in Argentina, rode on many overnight buses, munched on many a cheese and salami sarnie, watched the sunset in Uruguay and saw in the New Year with fireworks, caipirinhas and jumping in the waves in Brazil. It was lush spending an important part of mine and Mozza’s life with such a good friend and though beforehand I was worried about moments of how it would work, it was brilliant. I think we all recognised that Christmas, which seemed to look even more sparklier than normal on social media 6000 miles away, was very different from home but we embraced the new experience and our little Santa Claus brought us miniature bottles of whisky and Baileys and presents from home. It was a special time.
One of Phil’s friends, Lucy, wrote after she’d been in South America, “sometimes you have to be uncomfortable to get comfortable”. Uncomfortable at times we certainly were – but no matter how bumpy the bus or how bad the homesickness or how rough the food, there is no way I would have ever traded in that moment for a normal day of Pret a Manger and the commute to work. I was happy with our rucksacks, all we needed inside, the prospect of something new the next day, and the week after that and the month after that – and then the idea of home and family and friends and then the next chapter of our lives. I’m pretty sure that more travel will be a part of it and we’ll dust off the rucksacks again one day. Travel blogger, Traveling Jackie, whose podcasts I listened to with an almost addicted avidness throughout South America, said “wherever you go, you are: that’s where you’re meant to be” and I like that sense of finding a stillness and a contentment wherever we end up, whether it’s travelling again, or our next home, or the one after that. I heard someone once say, ‘if you think there isn’t something for you on the other side of the world, you’re wrong’ – there’s always something new to find, a new part of yourself to be experienced. I feel like we’ve just scratched the surface.
Just as I spent time thinking about home, travelling made me excited for the future and I found myself making lists of what I wanted to do next. List of the big things (running another marathon, a yoga course I want to do, trips I want to go on), and lists of the little things (dates I want to celebrate, letters I need to send) filled up my travel journal. In the short-term Phil is going back to art school in Glasgow and I’m applying for jobs up there and I’m excited to see more of Scotland, to be closer to my parents and friends in the north, to begin new things.
I’m finishing this blog about two weeks after I started it, I’ve kept coming back to it, adding bits and rejigging them around. It’s long, I do realise that, so if you’ve made it this far, thank you for sticking with my jumbles of thoughts over the past nine months or so. I wrote this last part in the garden of Phil’s Mum and Dad’s house in Manchester, the afternoon sun warming the grass and the sounds of the neighbours’ kids shouting and playing.
I’m reading a book Liz bought for me on women travellers and there’s a quote right at the front from the American frontier writer Willa Carther that reads “One cannot divine nor forecast the conditions that will make happiness; one only stumbles upon them by chance, in a lucky hour, at the world’s end somewhere, and holds fast to the days.” In a lucky hour, at the world’s end. I look up for a second to catch the trails of an airplane tens of thousands of feet above, slicing diagonally through the blue sky onto its way somewhere new.