Why do we travel?

By 20th November 2013 Volunteering
[singlepic id=483 w=320 h=240 float=right]I should travel more. I always want to but my timidity drags me back home.  There are goods and bads of travel, before I launch into the good, I want to mention the bad, it’s too easy to skip over them and swoon about how amaaazing a place was when you’re back home.  To do so overlooks the boredom, that it’s an effort to talk to people in a stunted language (yours or theirs), sunburn, difficultly sleeping in heat or a new bed, nausea-inducing malaria pills, constantly being watched and followed because you’re white, people trying to rip you off, Ethiopian TV (no offence, well a little, but not much), wondering if you can get egg poisoning (I was nudging 21 per week at one point), loneliness, running out of deodorant and having to use insect repellent as a last minute replacement, etc. etc.

BUT.  Travel lets you see a new perspective (you learn much more about your own country and own life back home from being able to see them from the outside).  New experiences appear to take longer, they don’t slip by as quickly into amalgamated memory, but the memories stand out and when reflected on later, fill more space, and apparently more time in your head.  The routine and monotony of daily life is broken – you don’t have time to get stuck in monotony if moving on to new places, while routines are so much easier to break when you’re forced out of them, I often don’t have the strength of will at home.  Then there are the stunning views, new friends, new food and drink, new experiences you wouldn’t dare try at home.  Plus I can grow a beard and wear my cricket hat without looking any more ridiculous than I already appear.

The worst thing is missing people back home.  At times while travelling I’ve felt like a paraphrased version of a Californication quote, “It was the best of times, if only someone had told me.  My family and friends go on without me; while here I am, rotting away in the warm African sun…”

At times, I’ve wondered if I’ve been lonely.  I was sadder than I expected when Sue left after 4 weeks.   It may have been exacerbated by spending half an hour of the same day looking for a copy of a children’s book called “Where is my book?”, but I think it was mostly knowing I would miss her company and having a fluent English speaking companion.  I went back to the accommodation at lunchtime after she’d gone and wandered aimlessly around the house, wondering if Sue had just played a trick and was actually hiding under the broken table.  She wasn’t.  Though checking seemed to help.

In the UK you need not just English-speaking company but company you really get on with, can share what you like with, without the need for any masks.  Abroad it’s often nice having any English speaking company, a break from either your own head, or misunderstandings and communicational effort.  Someone who can easily understand jokes and can relate to experiences compared to home.

I’m long convinced that the phrase ‘You can laugh or cry’ is much more than a throwaway cliché, but a valuable insight.  Here, it is borne out in the choice of laughing at delays, hastily re-hashed or haphazard plans and misunderstandings, or crying at them, being frustrated and irritated by them. I’m so much better at the former when with someone. In fact, with someone I barely get frustrated or irritated at all.  But it seems I, or my ego, needs an audience to bother even trying to make jokes, however dreadful they are, and that they, and the feeling of solidarity they bring, are my main source of relief from petty daily travails.

Perhaps the question of loneliness is easier thought of in terms of opposites; I’m not surrounded by the close friends from back home, but that doesn’t mean I’ve been lonely.  A lot of that is down to the Link staff, they’re friendly and welcoming and kind.  They’ll make jokes with you and do everything they can to make your entire stay as rewarding as possible, not just your time working on Link projects.  Elsa, Zee and Eyayaw took me out to dinner, Haile introduced me to his friends (and hairdresser), the Bishoftu office invited me to Habtamu’s wedding 3 days after arrival.   That’s not to mention their daily help, appreciation and friendship.  The warmth of Link’s staff, here and in London, is undoubtedly one of its strengths.

Elsewhere, as in most of Africa, the parallel to being famous when you’re evidently a foreigner is overt.  People gather round you, shouting, yelling excitedly, the more daring trying to get close enough to touch you, or shake your hand.  And you’re admired for something as fatuous and arbitrary as real fame.  Here it’s because you’re white, rather than because you conform to certain standards of attractiveness, can sing, or hit a ball a long way.  The feeling is therefore as empty, as unwelcome and at times as plain irritating as fame must be to those who see it for what it is.

Perhaps my biggest reason for travel is that it brings my experiences closer to this Christopher Hitchens quote than I can ever really muster for life back home,  “Life on this earth, with all its mystery and beauty and pain, is then to be lived far more intensely: we stumble and get up, we are sad, confident, insecure, feel loneliness and joy and love. There is nothing more; but I want nothing more.”  Thanks to Link for letting me have a bit more of those things.