“We are crooked souls, trying to stay up straight.”
“It’s time to remember what it’s like to feel alive.” – Northlane
“We are crooked souls, trying to stay up straight.”
“It’s time to remember what it’s like to feel alive.” – Northlane
Travel changes everything. The harder the journey the more you learn and by God, India was no picnic… dust, dirt, and chaos. The swarms of people, the pungent air, the constant stares, the rats, the slums, the litter, sitting cross legged on the floor, eating curry with dirty fingers, horned cows and stray dogs roaming every street, the aromas of spices and incense wafting through the air, yoga lessons on the grass, crazy driving, incredible views and food and then there’s me and Tom (my best pal from uni)… a Scottish boy and an Irish girl lost somewhere amongst the madness of southern India.
Day one and a kind local invites us to his home to eat, but we realise too late he’s trouble and we are way too naive, that the world is not all rainbows and butterflies and not everyone is a misunderstood soul, when the “kind local” turns his back on you for the whole night and will only speak to your male friend, when he silences you with the infuriating words ‘ok sweetie’ and puts his hands up to quieten you, his exact and poignant use of pronouns when he refers to you as “she” and “her” are like punches in the gut and his use of flyaway phrases like “even she can teach us something” and all you can do is bite your tongue when you feel like screaming, “I’m right here you sexist twat.” He drives us back on scooters at 1.30am, insisting I ride with him, I can smell the whiskey off his breath as he says it. He drives too fast, a stray cow on the street turns his head and almost annihilates us. He topples his head back in laughter as I ask him meekly to slow down…
In Goa, we rent motorbikes and head off on a day trip to a secret beach with the ultra cool hippies from our hostel; one Indian, two Nepalese, one Mexican, one Portuguese, and one Guatemalan… all men, but this time they are the good kind. We scour the Indian countryside, stopping for a banana shake while they sip ‘holy water’, go skinny dipping (them not me) and we lie back in the white sands sipping beers on the deserted shores. Later, we take a quick ferry across to an island, the most northern point of Goa in the torrential rain for chai, returning at night to a restaurant delightfully known as the Happy Corner to bask in the sound of a cacophony of horns ringing from a Hindu Temple – Indian style live music.
Back on the bikes we hop, weaving down the twisted streets to Arambol to the candle lit beach bars for more beers. It’s all so magical. I am perched on the back of Julio’s bike and we talk and talk and talk as the wind sweeps through our hair and darkness closes in around us. He is a wise man who shares his story with me, with words of wisdom like ‘Never entertain jealousy and boredom is a great thing, because it allows creativity to come to life.” He has been bankrupt three times in his life. He is married but in an open relationship. His wife is working for the Red Cross in Myanmar, while he is setting up a hostel in India. This is why I travel, why conform when you could live like this, without rules or societal pressure, meeting people who live whatever way they feel like. This is freedom, this is life!
Only in India, have I experienced such highs and lows, an incredible day like that is followed by a brutal one… the rules of gender here are so misplaced, the men stare at me but ignore me when I ask a question, and address only Tom, ‘the man’, naturally it drives me insane. There are two prices for everything, one for foreigners, one for locals. Hassle and haggle all day long, a man putting a phone in my face to video me, they are like paparazzi and I am a caged animal in a zoo. Everyone is trying to rip you off, not many are kind just to be kind, everyone has an agenda. I know now how lucky I am to be born a white female from the western world. I have always considered myself working class, with two nurses for parents who have worked their whole lives to provide for me and my sisters. How blind I was, we live like kings and queens compared to the Indian version of working class.
Tonight we board an eleven hour sleeper bus overnight from Goa to Hampi. Packed like sardines on bunk beds. The conductor kindly lets us swap from two single beds to one double so as we are together, but then for his kindness insists we pay him a bribe of 100 rupees… everything has a price and though many preach about karma few seem to practice it. Curtains pulled, windows open on this non-AC sleeper bus, the wind cooling the sweat sticking us to the mat. Shoved and pushed, rolling around freely as the bus chugs on, we know this never would be allowed in the western world. It is like The Knight bus in Harry Potter. We giggle and chat, and try in vain to get some shuteye in this mad world as we are tossed around with every pothole and bump as we hurtle south.
We arrive in Hampi as the sun is setting, the local businessmen swarm us as we try and get off the bus, trying to push us into a rickshaw but we have our wits about us despite our tired eyes and we know it is only a two minute walk to the town. The monuments and temples loom splendidly on the hillside, long tail monkeys run across the electrical wires, while the weary people make their morning pilgrimage to the temple. Hampi is a UNESCO world heritage site, the equivalent of Cambodia’s Angkor Wat. We find a place to rest our aching bodies with a toilet that doesn’t flush and a mosquito net pockmarked with giant holes patched up dismally with plasters, we finally fall asleep to the distant wails of chants happening outside as the rest of the world begins to wake.
We make new friends with people who are staying at the same guest house. Candi a strong, beautiful Argentinian woman who takes no shit from anyone, she is travelling with her best friend the delightful Mati. They have been hitchhiking and couchsurfing their way through India. Then there’s John from London, whose kindness has no limits, all the beggars we meet, he buys them food instead of giving them money. I know instantly the three will be our friends for life.
The food is incredible. It feels amazing to eat pure vegetarian, handfuls of floury parotta and chapatti swabbing up the spicy curry; the Veg Thali, Channa Masala, Masala Dosa, Aloo Gobi, Dal Fry, all slapped onto a plate or banana leaf. Using only our hands, it’s a spectacularly messy and uncivilized way to eat but brilliant in the freedom of it. I love it, I gorge and revel in the joy of food once more. Although, be warned I nearly always found a hair in my dish!
A local bus to Hospet in torrential rain through ‘roads’ that can’t even call themselves roads. We sit on the floor of the train station for four hours. The station reeks of manure, I swallow down the vomit that threatens to come up my throat. The rain makes it worse. Out on the street you see the caste system at work, one massive fancy ass hotel and all around it pure slums. We sit wallowing in the stench, drowned in the rain and the electricity goes. Typical. Everyone is in barefoot walking through the muck and puddles. There is a young girl in a green sari with wide brown eyes huddled in a corner swaddled in blankets staring at me. The lights blink in and out when a group of young boys taunt us and get right up in our faces, I thank my lucky stars that Tom is here with me. I don’t know if I could have done it alone and that thought angers me, why shouldn’t I be able to do this alone? Because this world is so fucked up, that’s why. It breaks my heart.
But alas, we survive the sleeper train, three beds stacked on top of each other. For twelve hours we lay in our caves to arrive in Mysore, where out on the streets we see cultures clash as the Muslim women stroll in their black burkas contrasting brilliantly against the colorful saris of the Hindus. After sleep, we are reunited with the Argentinians and John, we get a tuk tuk to Chimean Hill, five of us squished in the back of one, I on Thomas’ lap, hanging halfway out the tuk tuk, with Bob Marley blaring No Worries on the radio. We climb 1032 steps to a temple. The hike is a pilgrimage, the colours dabbed on each step in a benediction, a silent prayer. We trudge on, chatting, lapsing into silence as we pull ourselves up the steep incline and concentrate on our breathing. It is a stand out moment, one that I will remember forever.
An overnight bus to Kochi, a man sits next to us asks us for our name and our caste? He asks what religion we are, we say none, he says how come? We say you don’t want to know… The European vibes of Kochi are a welcome break. The boys are playing football, when I bump into Carly an old friend from university in the most surreal moment ever, the world is too small! We go for secret beers and catch up on her life, her adventures in Madagascar and Reunion Island and I just think to myself wow I know some cool people.
Its mad how progress seems to have just stopped in the country, like the 21st century just barreled through and they just cant keep up… or perhaps don’t want to? The electricity consistently goes, the utter lack of sanitation, the people in the shops/markets getting pissed off with you when you refuse to cave to their inflated price and push for negotiation, the rickshaw drivers constantly hassling you. A local woman thrusts her few month old baby at me so as the family can take pictures of the white girl holding a baby. Over the course of the three weeks I’ll have been in over fifteen strangers photos. If you can learn to embrace/handle India, nothing will ever faze you again.
Another bus, this time to the Tea Plantations of Munnar and they are incredible, even in the misty rain. We scale the cliff edges in a jeep to see them, passing waterfalls and miles of greenery; it is nature at its best. Then in typical Indian fashion, the country goes on strike and fails to tell the tourists. All restaurants, shops, buses, tuk tuks, national parks – everything shuts down, we have no food and water for the day.
Our days are numbered, on our second last night we sit on a pier back in Kochi, feet dangling, reflecting on life, when a rat runs across my bare feet. There is a frog in the corner, an Indian man pisses on the side of the street facing us… this is India. Back to the hostel to lie on our backs and stare up at the spinning fan, life is a strange and wonderful thing.
There is only one last destination left before home, Mumbai. The city is huge and bustling, here there is the richest of the rich and the poorest of the poor. As I look out the dirty window of the local bus, we pass the shanty towns,there is just people everywhere. Twenty five million people in Mumbai alone. Coming from a country of less than 5 million I just cant comprehend this scale. Then onto an overpacked train, full of men, pressed against them, everyone of them unashamedly staring at me. I cannot wait to be anonymous once more, to blend in with the crowd. The train doesn’t stop, just slows down and people make a run and jump and hope for the best…
Our last night in India, we invite the 19 year old Egyptian kid from our hostel to the bar with us, he drinks a double tequila when he’s never drank before. He is drunk almost instantly, slapping his head, talking to himself, we have to bring him home and put him to bed. I whisper a goodbye to Thomas in the middle of the night, the end is nigh, he is off to Cambodia for a year while I will return home to university for one last stab at that dream career.
The time has come to go home. It’s been a whirlwind, a love affair, highs and lows, both easy and terribly hard… worth it though, so, so worth it. Already my glasses are starting to tint with rose. We only have one life, and you must try really hard to live it. I am back behind the bar pulling pints and dreaming of the dusty roads, the host of colours, the spice, the smell of India and the next adventure.
“I urge you to travel. As far and as much as possible. Work ridiculous shifts to save your money, go without the latest Iphone. Throw yourself out of your comfort zone. Find out how other people live and realize that the world is a much bigger place than the town you live in. And when you come home, home may still be the same and yes you may go back to the same old job but something in your mind will have shifted. And trust me that changes everything.”
We take our bodies so for granted. At full health, what it is capable of doing is astounding; it can climb mountains, swim amongst the tides, sprint through fields of long grass… but what about those who never possessed a body at full health, those people who never had the option? When menial everyday tasks are more difficult, every outing is preplanned and climbing a stairs is an arduous task. How would you live your life if your lungs were your enemy? And your days were made up of physio, medication and hospital visits. When you had to consume 12 to 22 tablets a day just to keep you ticking over. How would you live if you were born with an illness that as of yet has no cure? Would you allow it to define you or would you rally against it in defiance?
Chris stops and sits on an outcropped rock to catch his breath on our 2km walk up to the hut were we will camp tonight. I hear his laboured breath, the painful drag in and out. Around us are dirt tracks and a brutally deforested area of Coillte. It is a muggy evening with a heavy grey sky that hints at an oncoming downpour. Chris pulls his backpack up and we walk on, heading into the trees. After about half an hour we reach our destination, a little green hut perched on a small cliff face overlooking rolling green hills. It is truly an idyllic setting to set up camp for a night’s microadventure, anything to liven up the week. We quickly unburden ourselves from our backpacks and lay down our mats and bags to gather sticks for a fire.
When I was in fifth year of secondary school my friend died from Cystic Fibrosis, he was sick his whole life, obviously sick, wheelchair and oxygen tank kind of sick. He died and we were heartbroken. We his friends continued to maintain contact with his family; his father James, mother Fiona and little brother Chris. We struck up a routine of sorts, dinners, drinks and a chat about the good times. The years passed by and one by one the friends slipped away, caught up with their own lives, their own worries and hardships but somehow I remained. I found his family liberating, strong and inspiring. They taught me so much about life and as I grew up they became my friends too. This family is different than any I’ve ever known. They are a joy to be around because they don’t suffer fools. They let you away with nothing; there is no such thing as I can’t and over the years we have lived a life less ordinary. We have kayaked the Slaney together, made it into the Guinness Book of Records for participating in the world’s longest swim, gone clay pigeon shooting, done countless Rubberman challenges and a few weeks ago we went camping for a night in the Wicklow mountains while Chris who also has Cystic Fibrosis was on IVs.
James throws some jacket potatoes into the ash to cook and we set about boiling water over the open flames. He plucks a bbq rack from those DIY bbq kits and perches it precariously between the rocks and logs to cook the sausages and pork chops on while the beans boil away contently in their tin. It’s a feast by my usual camping standards! Meanwhile Chris sits on a picnic table and lays out his syringes; one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine… all glittering in the sunset on the pristine silver tray. He begins the slow process, filling them up from the glass vials one by one, lifting his t-shirt to expose the various contraptions attached to his body. He doesn’t skip a beat as he slowly injects the meds into his body, continuing the conversation as if this was totally the norm.
The risks are very real for a person with CF to camp while on IV’s; the lack of a sterile environment, the risk of hemoptysis with no easy escape route and a night spent lying on the cold hard ground is not the most comfortable. Three days ago Chris’s lungs were at 46%, the equivalent of me walking with one lung, yet he doesn’t complain. At 19 almost 20 years old, Chris is a breath of fresh air with his no bullshit attitude. CF does not define him or stop him experiencing all the simple pleasures that others his age have. Yes there are risks, but you have to live your life; “A lot of people with CF get caught up with all the treatments. It’s ok to once in a while to skip it. It’s not going to catapult you back,” he says, adding defiantly “Don’t let your treatments dictate your life. There is some leeway. A massive amount is mindset. If your health takes a small hit for a better life, its worth it.”
The sun lowers gradually but the moon is particularly bright tonight. We stare into the orange flames licking the firewood, prodding the embers occasionally. We sip tumblers of vodka and coke and red wine and we just sit and talk. A cold night ensues on hard ground, wrapped tightly in our sleeping bags to stave off the cold. Bedding down, Chris warns us of his coughing; he needn’t have, after a while he falls into a quiet slumber, unlike his father who will scare any potential predators away with his snores.
It is not an easy night and none of us sleep well, we wake the moment light returns, weary, sore and totally spent but exhilarated all the same. We get up groggily and stretch out our aching bodies. The air is crisp and damp and the birds greet us with their dawn chorus. We stuff everything into our backpacks, pull them on and walk briskly out of the woods. Time to go back to reality. A time out every so often is necessary to make you appreciate your cozy bed, the roof over your head, your life and to put those worries that seem so big into perspective. A little midweek adventure to wake us up, shake us up, anything to feel alive to feel normal. If Chris can do it, surely you have no excuse?
A short video of my travels around Oz…
After all that, I am home. Sprawled on the couch in front of the fire with the TV crackling away in the background and Mam and Dad pottering around the house, living their lives.
It’s strange but when I look back on my time in Australia, it is not the touristy things that stand out. In fact it’s the opposite, I found that I was happiest when I was doing normal things, reuniting with old friends… lying in bed sculling tumblers of red wine before a night out with Lori, then watching Netflix hung over the next morning with cups of coffee with a hint of caramel replacing the wine. A meat feast with Josh by the Yarra River followed by a drunken stroll through the botanic gardens, breakfast at Laneway with Pepi, road tripping the Great Ocean Road with him and Cas, sleeping in the back of the car at night, watching the women rip at Bells Beach Rip Curl Pro surf competition, climbing rocks, listening to the Serial podcast as we drive, debating music and politics, discovering the lilting tones of Meg Mac. Pounding the pavements on a run with Lauren, kayaking on the harbour in Sydney with Orla, reminiscing with the other Lauren while sipping sangria and listening to gentle jazz on Darling Harbor…
Nowadays, I tire quickly when living out of a backpack. I become desensitised to the beauty around me, I take it all for granted. Yet I continue to do it because I know I will never regret travelling. It has shaped who I am today. Travel changes how you see people, how you see the world. An innate curiosity is born from it, you question everything, especially what is right and what is wrong. You learn to be kinder, you learn to not care when others mock you for been different, you learn not to be afraid or be ashamed. You learn to look at the bigger picture, to worry about global warming, conservation, politics, rather than the petty things unfolding inside your own little bubble. You learn how to talk to everyone and anyone, how to behave in all kinds of situations, how to feel comfortable in your own skin. You toughen up, get a thicker skin and learn to let go of all that worry and stress you’ve been storing up inside. It flicks a switch in your brain and suddenly you can rub your eyes and see everything as it really is and you can finally see the worlds and your own potential.
I am far from done travelling but for now, in this moment, I am content to be at home for a little while. Nowadays, happiness for me is a hot shower on a cold day, that initial burst when the scalding water turns cold against my frigid skin and eventually seeps in. Hungrily ingesting a great book while sprawled on the carpeted floor in my pyjamas in front of the fire. Those breaths I take after finishing a gruelling run, hands on my knees, dragging air into my lungs, ears pounding. Lying on the couch with my head on my Mammy’s lap, her fingers gently combing through my hair. Driving with the window down and the stereo blasting, and me and my friends screaming out the tunes…
Now I know myself rather well and with a return to routine means I must be on my guard. I must try; really try every day to live. I cannot allow the days and weeks to pass me by without doing anything. I must try to absorb it all, put the phone down, look up, take it in and appreciate those little moments. I must try to get up earlier, camp every few weekends, to learn to cook, to attend talks and lectures about things that matter, to watch more documentaries, to learn something new, to get out on the bike, to live a little more spontaneously. And most importantly, I must not envy others lives but be inspired by them, to allow them to motivate me to do the same. I must try, really try, to just be happy…
Flashbacks of Vietnam flicker behind my eyes with every step I take; litter toppling over the sidewalks, chaotic drivers blasting their scooter horns, the taxi from the airport smashing his car mirror off a parked car and cursing in Indonesian but driving on. The cold showers, the toilets you cant put paper down, the mosquito bites, the monsoon rain as it tumults down…
I find myself once again, alone in a hostel, hauling myself up a ladder to my bunk, tired and agitated with my head pressed against the hard mattress in an attempt to drown out the onslaught of beats pulsing through the wall from the common room next door. I vow to escape Kuta the moment the sun rises, to an island that is more my scene Gili Trawangan.
I am whipped away on a boat to the remote haven, but I feel no thrill as we skate across the sea. I have become a weary traveller with empty pockets and a heavy heart, staying in absolute dumps. This time the dorm room has one single and one double bed. The young locals in charge try to convince two complete strangers to share the same bed, devoid of the knowledge of how our western society works. As I am the only girl I am permitted the single bed, how honoured I am. How do I get myself into these situations I wonder time and time again…
The rain pisses down and the electricity goes. I sit in the darkness, sipping coffee listening to a local strum the ukulele and sing softly. Eventually the generator kicks in like a strimmers cutting hedges beside my head. What you learn about yourself in these situations says it all, to try not to fall into a pit of despair is the key but to embrace the madness that ensues around you. Thunder and lightning clap down around me. The loudspeakers lining the streets call the locals to prayer as I sit in the room with only the bed bugs for company and I sigh. This is hard, how much easier would my life be if I were satisfied to just stay at home. I eventually succumb to sleep against a backdrop of thunder and lightning and Middle Eastern sounding music seeping through the pane less windows.
I venture out for food alone, sitting on a plastic bench in silence chewing slowly, sipping my coffee, and counting the ants crawling around in the sugar jar. There are twelve. I offer to take a picture of a group of adult Indonesians on their holiday. They cannot thank me enough and insist I get in a photo with them for I am and I quote “like a model to them because I am so white…”I laugh and agree in defeat knowing full well I couldn’t look less like a model, greasy hair, smelling of BO, no make up and drenched but I am indeed rather white… I guess I’ll be tucked away in some random photo album forever more.
The everyday life of the locals is beautiful in its rawness and simplicity. The little sacrifice to the Hindu gods of flowers and incense folded in a leaf box left outside their doorstep noon and night. Bicycles and pony drawn carts rattle down the mucky streets, swerving around the puddles or pummeling straight through them. Kids play on their hand built rafts, mischievously tipping it over in the clear turquoise waters of the Pacific and howling with laughter as they melt into its shallow waters. Outside my door boys gather around a guitar strumming youth. Kids cry, mothers bark orders, roosters crow. The sad thing is I know I would love this place normally, it is exactly my cup of tea, the simple life, hard work, engaging your whole body in a task, the wildness, the roughness, the kindness… but I am an outsider and have lost my spark. I am not one of them, a local nor do I fit in amongst the party going tourists blazing a trail of destruction through this solemn piece of paradise. I have succumbed to loneliness, hating the thought of eating another dinner alone. But what are my choices go it alone or don’t go at all?
I long to belong to a community once more. Travelling solo is exhausting. You can’t even go to the toilet without bringing all your bags with you, just in case someone steals them. But you learn so much about yourself as there is no one else to lean on. Everyone should try it at least once in his or her lifetime. But when all you do is travel alone the novelty wears off. I now dread the inevitable times I will spend waiting around for boats, buses, trains, planes with no one to talk to. When you’ve finished your book, taken your pictures, refreshed your newsfeed for the fiftieth time, had a coffee, had a think. It just gets boring. I find myself people watching, envious of others camaraderie, young love or pals having a rant… meanwhile I haven’t spoken to a single human the whole day except for the waiter to order some food. It’s hard, its really fucking hard, no one tells you this in the mountains of inspirational posts online. I know I am lucky, I know I am surrounded by beauty, and wondrous things but sometimes I just wish I had someone to share it with. Plus I burnt my back on the boat back to Bali… just one of the disadvantages of solo travelling, you cant reach your own back to lather some suncream on.
I have come here with a purpose though to tick an item off my bucket list, to do my PADI open water scuba diving course. The amount of bloody theory to wade through before they let us free is not a good omen. I get to the pool part finally but I do not feel entirely comfortable with the goggles on not been able to breath through my nose. But I persist…. And then finally something clicks and we fall off a boat into the open ocean and my mind erupts in awe. The vastness of its crystal waters, the coral reef, all these creatures you’ve seen a million times on TV just chilling before your very eyes. We float through a shipwreck covered in coral, moray eels and puffer fish glide around us. I am weightless; I am wrapped in my own little bubble and this time it’s a good bubble. It really is just you and your thoughts while around you majestic turtles, reef sharks, eagle rays and every fish you’ve seen in Finding Nemo just go on about their daily lives. It is incredible. We must conserve this. We must do something! I emerge elated and finally things begin to take a turn for the better.
From Gili T, I make my way to Ubud and I instantly fall in love. The houses are treehouses built on stilts and nestled amongst the treetops of a jungle, winding streets curve up and down, inclining and declining steeply. I get lost in the graffiti, the painted murals on the walls, the vegetation intertwining with the art, nature and humans colliding… coexisting. Too soon I must leave the place I should have came from day one, and back I go to Denpasar, for a night to catch an early flight.
I convince a fat taxi man to drive me there and quickly discover that he is a beautiful being of a driver. We talk politics, Indonesia’s democratic government, how the people have so little but are so happy with what they have. He tells me about Hinduism, about the upcoming festival of evil spirits which is followed by a day of peace where no one works and everyone stays inside and rests. I can’t help but compare it to our festivals, the partying of our western world. He lectures me like he is my Dad about the dangers of traveling alone as a girl but then slips in that he thinks I’m very brave to ease the rebuff. I asked him has he ever eaten in the restaurant he sits outside of all day everyday waiting for customers. He laughs in my face, “ahaha no, no Indonesians cannot afford to eat in there.” He works three jobs, he runs a Credit Union from seven am to eleven, then is a taxi driver from eleven onwards and in his free time he helps his brother farm the paddy fields. After an hour we arrive in the city it is late and darkness has fallen. The satnav tells him we are here, but I look up and only see a dodgy alleyway, oh god don’t leave me here I beg. “Don’t worry Orla if you don’t like the look of it I wont leave you here, we’ll find you somewhere else…” We continue to search and eventually we find the place, he walks me to the door and asks are you ok here… I smile in gratitude.
As I walk in to the plush hotel (my treat for the night) and the kind taxi man drives away, a young boy holding a balloon approaches me and gestures his hand to his mouth signaling for food. His mother carries a little girl dressed in rags half starved on her hip behind him. I have no cash on me, I have no food. I am momentarily stunned. Who is this poor family? What is there story? How have things gotten so bad that they are reduced to this? I have nothing to offer, I can only apologize and walk away with my head sagging in anger and sadness, while he stares after me hating me, judging me as I hang my head and walk into a place of luxury that he in his lifetime will never experience.
The image haunts my mind that night. I vow to never forget it, to do something, to appreciate my world, what I have but as I step foot back in Australia the next day, back to a world of comfort, back to my reality… the memories start to fade and my worries snap back to the trivial things; back to appearance, back to money, back to gossip and every time my memory is jogged I groan in defeat. I berate myself that I once again was weak and succumbed to a lifetime spent worrying about things that in the grand scheme of things do not matter. I am alive, I am healthy, I can do anything. But already knowing that this is a vicious circle that I have experienced hundreds of times, by this afternoon as the sun sets I will be lying on a couch with a bag of crisps perched on my stomach, watching Made In Chelsea or some other shite and wishing I could be like the people on the screen in front of me…
It is absolutely crazy to me how much my mindset has changed over the last few months… how can you possibly be ‘over’ traveling? Perhaps its just a bad day, or maybe I just need a day off? When you spend your life rebelling against structure, against routine, against normality, against the 9-5… and then you travel and its all so incredible at first. It changes you and expands your mind and you learn so much about who you are and about the world and its people… am I strange to grow tired of it? Perhaps its because I am alone or maybe its because I don’t have disposable income to do all the things I would like to do. The fact that I have to budget, to make cuts, stay in the dingier places, forgo a meal here or there or maybe its simply because I’m growing up?
It happened to me when I was about 7/8 months into my Vietnam trip as well… I was done I wanted comfort so I changed my flight I went home early and once again a few weeks in, my mindset snapped back to its former itchy footed self. I hated home, I hated the routine, I wanted freedom once more. So perhaps too soon, I packed my bags again and departed for Australia. Now, once more I find myself six months in back at that very same point… not happy, not fully satisfied. Jesus, I am hard to please. I’m at all the tourist spots, standing before these iconic buildings and sites that I’ve seen on TV, these incredible beaches and viewpoints that I’ve circled on my map as a teenager and torn out the pages of my travel books. I take my pictures for Instagram, I express my awe but its not quite right… I’m not really appreciating it; it does not excite me like it once would have had. I’m lonely, the bane of every solo travellers existence.
I’m nearly 25, I want a career, I want a group of friends around me, I want to decorate my own little space, I want a local coffee shop and a local pub. I want some pocket money to be able to go to that gig at the weekend. I want a two week holiday in Spain or France. I want a boyfriend. I want to learn how to cook a proper meal, to invite my sisters for dinner at the weekend, to go for a day out with my Mam, to plan another cycle trip with my Dad. How am I back here again, one year on? How have I not learned? Australia is an incredible place but I moved too soon, I do not want to work in a bar here and get hammered every night, I do not want to hop from place to place like a tourist. I want to build a life, here, home, somewhere…I want structure. How things have changed. Once again I rushed into something, made a decision with my heart not my head. That fear of falling behind, of all my friends growing up, settling down before I even figure out who I am or what I want to do. This gnawing feeling constantly leads me to make rash decisions. To book that flight before I’m ready. So afraid I will waste it all.
I’ve learned so much about myself on my adventures and finally I can proudly say I like who I have become. It does not bother me to go out and have lunch or dinner alone, to sit in a movie theatre, to join a club, to be the first to say hello … I am content with myself. But the time has come that I no longer want to be alone, I want to be surrounded by people. For a girl who has come from a huge family, when your aunties are like your second mammy’s and your cousins are like your brothers and sisters… I always thought it was too much as a teenager and I wanted away. Now finally I can appreciate what I had. After five years away and alone I can officially say that I am an independent woman, capable of anything, reliant only on myself… but what if I don’t want to be…where’s the fun in that? What are all these wonderful experiences when you cannot share them with someone? What is that funny/embarrassing moment when you have no one to turn to and laugh about it with? It is not a sign of weakness not to want to be on your own…
I am still not quite the free spirited, fearless, dungaree clad hippy I long to be, but I am getting there. Fear still gets me. And I still can’t find a decent pair of dungarees. But I have time and who’s to say I have to do it the hard way, on my own in a foreign country. I think I deserve a break, a little support system to help me on my way. So I’ve made a decision, I’m starting again, I’ve fucked up but have had such a wonderful time doing so that I’ll never regret it. I’ve travelled a good chunk of the world in the past few years. Yet often it feels like by choosing to travel that I am failing, falling behind. Yes I am 24 and still working shitty jobs, bouncing from place to place, not yet carving out a career for myself and that panics me frequently, but then I look back on what I’ve done in the past two years since graduating and I have not wasted a moment of it. Canada, America, France, Portugal, Spain, Vietnam, Budapest, London, Australia, Cambodia, the Philippines, Edinburgh, Indonesia…
For now the time has come to take a step back and get back on the right path. I’m going to go home to Ireland for a year, I’m going back to college to do a video production course. And it feels right. I think I could really be good at this with a little training. I need a year, to sort my head out, to be around my friends that I have grown up with that I have known my whole life, I want a flat with cute cactuses, arty wall hangings and scented candles, to be able to attend the family functions, the birthdays, the dinners, the weddings, to visit my Grannies, to treat my Mammy to brunch. To do the normal things, the stuff I never even considered that I would be missing out on. I have been away on and off for the last five years and I think, well I hope this time I’m ready to not live out of a suitcase for a little while. Then when May of next year comes about I hope I will finally be able to find my way in this world.
Please do not judge me, I have not failed, I have not given up, I am trying its just going to take me a little longer to get there, but I swear I will get there… in the end.
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” – Theodore Roosevelt
Chris Bray grew up sailing around the world and then leading world-first cart-hauling expeditions across the arctic before becoming an award-winning Australian Geographic photographer, Lowepro ambassador and Canon’s Australian ambassador for five years. Chris’s work has appeared in National Geographic (along with Australian and Canadian Geographic) as well as TIME Magazine and Discovery Channel. He’s written a successful book ‘The 1000 Hour Day’ (now an award-winning documentary ‘The Crossing’), sits on the advisory committee for The Australian Geographic Society and is also founder and CEO of Conservation United, crowd-funding the world’s critical conservation projects. Besides running 1-day photography courses and photo safaris to the world’s most wonderful places, Chris and his wife Jess recently became the first people to sail a junk-rig boat through the Northwest Passage over the arctic.
I am basically just driven by a need to experience new things, to be challenged, to fulfill my potential, to feel like I am getting the most out of this one life that I have. You mention freedom, adventure, health etc – I think these are just factors that need to be in place for me to achieve my broader goal of maximising my life. No one can experience new things without freedom, or be challenged without some adrenaline, or be at their best without being healthy. I certainly don’t go looking for adrenaline though – that’s a common misconception. I always do my best to identify risks and plan how to mitigate them, so as to be as safe as possible. I enjoy life too much to take irresponsible risks.
2. Are there a few key pieces of gear you take with you on every expedition?
I’ve almost always got some kind of camera with me – because I enjoy sharing the experiences almost as much as having them. Anything from a little GoPro right up to my beast of a Canon EOS 1DX DSLR. I usually have a Leatherman handy too, and if I’m in the middle of nowhere, you can’t beat having an Iridium satellite phone just in case things go wrong.
3. Have you ever experienced fear on an expedition? If so, how did you overcome it?
Oh yeah, often! If you’re not at least a little scared every now and again, then it’s not really an adventure – you’re not pushing yourself far enough! Hopefully though, you’ve done all your research and planning, and are properly equipped mentally and physically to deal with any of the possible outcomes. Then, even though you might be scared that X is going to happen, at least you know what you’re going to do if/when it does so that it’s not Game Over. I’ve been in situations (for example in a nasty storm in our little wooden sailboat half way between Canada and Greenland) that have rapidly escalated beyond what I expected to need to prepare for, and in a scenario like that, I think the best thing to do is just constantly think ahead to visualize all the various disasters that could be about to happen, think them through, plan what you’ll do and how to react, and identify things that you could do right now to either prevent them, or if unavoidable, to maximize your chance of survival if it does. This way not only do you keep yourself busy which helps you not to worry, but all this mental and physical preparation will help prevent disaster.
4. You have an engineering degree, yet you are a photographer, a public speaker, an author and you run your own company, where did you pick up all these skills?
I grew up sailing around the world with my family for 5 years so I was always taught to be practical and independent, but to be honest, I was quite a shy, nerdy little kid. At school I feared public speaking more than death, generally had very little self-confidence, especially around other people. It was the effect of going on my first major adventure that started to transform me. Finding myself way outside my comfort zone, learning how to make decisions and live with the consequences, having to be responsible, learning to overcome fear and hardship, the importance of determination and enthusiasm, learning how to break seemingly impossible challenges down into more manageable portions and tackling each in turn until at the end, you come out having seemingly achieved the impossible. The self-confidence & problem solving abilities I gained through my adventures has really opened up all my horizons. I think all skills come slowly though, with practice & patience – and I’m always still improving. Every time I speak in public I feel more comfortable with it, every year I feel like my photography improves, my business skills get better etc.
5. You are a busy man, do you ever have free time to just relax, or are your hobbies now your job so you don’t need time off?
I’m very lucky to be working for myself, in a job that’s my passion. I love it. However that does also mean there’s no escape from it – when you own your own company, especially one where you’re so completely absorbed inside it (eg: away overseas running photo safaris) for 10 months/yr, the brief times when my wife and I are ‘home’ is the only chance we get to work ‘on’ the business instead of ‘in’ it. There’s no such thing as ‘after hours’ or ‘weekends’, it’s just non-stop from when you open your eyes until well after dinner at night. Of course we schedule in time to catch up with friends or go somewhere, but our calendar is usually pretty crammed about 18 months out, so life is a little bit too hectic all the time. To be honest, at the moment, no, I don’t get enough time to even catch up on the backlog of emails, opportunities and chores, let alone catch my breath and take-stock, or plan properly for the future. Jess and I are working on trying to re-shape the business to allow a bit more me and us-time though!
6.Whats the most difficult thing you’ve ever done?
There’s been various physically challenging moments on some of my adventures, but actually, the trickiest thing I’ve ever done was having just graduated as an electrical engineer with a first class honors, awards and great job offers, to decide to turn my back on all that and instead try to follow my passion of adventure and photography and attempt to make a career doing that instead.
7. Have you experienced Type 2 fun? The idea that expeditions/challenges are miserable while enduring them but the fun and the pleasure comes in hindsight, once completed, perhaps in recounting the adventure afterwards?
Oh absolutely, all the time – that’s one of the great benefits of always having a camera with me, so I can laugh about terrible moments later on, and share the experience. It’s the same with wildlife photography, there’s a lot of Type 2 Fun going on there – often I have to endure a lot of annoying waiting, or miserable conditions etc but I do endure them, because I know that the end result, a beautiful photograph of some amazing animal that I can admire later in all it’s fine detail and share with everyone, will be worth it. If you need instant gratification, I would avoid both expeditions and wildlife photography!
8. If you could make money solely out of adventures alone would you give up running the photography courses?
It was a conscious decision I made to stop earning a living from adventure alone. I did live off sponsorship and adventure related incomes like speaking, selling articles etc for years. But after my second arctic expedition, completing the Victoria Island traverse which was a fairly epic, five year project costing more than $250,000, I realized that for adventure to be a career, in order not to go backwards, I’d have to keep somehow doing bigger, bolder, more dangerous expeditions, and eventually I’d either end up totally burnt-out, or more likely dead. Also, it’s very hard to raise enough money to even embark on an expedition, let alone make enough on the side for a decent living – it’s a lot of hard work.
Instead, I decided to devise a business model that would still let me travel to the world’s most wonderful places, get paid for it, and still be able to take chunks of time off to go on personal, more hard-core adventures, such as over the last five northern summers where my wife Jess and I rebuilt the little wooden sailboat and sailed it in stages up over the top of Canada and Alaska through the Northwest Passage. We took four months off work each year for a while there. I do enjoy good friendships with many of the interesting photo safari guests we meet, and I also love the challenge of running a successful business, and expanding it. Even if I won lotto, I’d still keep running my business – I might just employ more people so I could take longer holidays and more of them.
9.Would you say it’s a harder path you have chosen rather than an easier one, by choosing lets say an office job over your lifestyle?
Harder in that it’s required some difficult decisions, hard work, dedication and risk yes, but personally, I’d find it way harder – too hard in fact – to spend my life sitting at a desk with an office job. So it depends what you define as being ‘hard’. I should point out though, that despite seeming from the outside like a glamorous, perpetual-holiday lifestyle that Jess and I enjoy, it is a HUGE amount of work, and without meaning to sound arrogant, I really don’t know anyone who works as hard, or as long as Jess and I do.
10. Do you think having partner changes things, makes you have to reconsider the risk factor involved in some of the things you take on, perhaps say no to something you would have otherwise said yes to?
Yes, and of course your choice of partner has a huge bearing on how much influence it has on your ideal lifestyle I’m super lucky in that Jess is very adventurous also, she’s always up for anything, and together I think we achieve more than we could apart, that’s why I married her. But still, it’s true that when you’re going on (or considering going on) a trip with someone you care for and genuinely feel responsible for, it does affect your decisions but probably for the better. There are things I’d probably have risked myself, but with Jess onboard, who’s depending on me to make the right decision for both of us, I’d opt for the safer one. I don’t see that as a bad thing in the end. Sure, there may be times when I’d like to be able to just set off solo, or do a trip that Jess wouldn’t be keen on, but I actually think if I was keen enough, she’d let me go anyway, and the fact is I’d probably just end up missing her, or making the wrong decision without her input.
11. Do you have any advice for people wanting to break out of their comfort zones?
Just go on an adventure somewhere, anywhere! It doesn’t have to be epic, lengthy or expensive – it’s just gotta be further along some path than you’ve ever been before. Grab some friends, think of something you like doing, and then come up with some crazy exaggeration of that same undertaking. If you like kayaking, pick somewhere on a map and work out how to kayak from A to B. Whatever.
12. Can you tell me more about your conservation work and why you do it?
I’ve always loved nature, wildlife and the outdoors. Initially as a kid watching David Attenborough documentaries while growing up sailing the world, then going on my own adventures to so many beautiful, remote and unspoilt corners of the world, and now every month on my photography safaris it’s the same. It’s all so wonderful, so perfect and often so delicate, and it crushes me to see how quickly so much of it is being damaged or lost, forever. It’s true that on a personal level my business profits from the beauty of the natural world and so I feel it’s only fair that I give back, but more than that, I feel that humans as a whole are being grossly unfair to the natural world, and I feel it’s important to at least do my best to come up with a way to mitigate the losses. So having come up with an idea to attempt to re-structure the rather erratic way the world tends to donate to countless charities, I hope that ‘Conservation United’ will soon be able to start channeling funding to actually start solving some the world’s most critical conservation projects. If I can help prevent just one species from slipping into extinction, then I’ll feel like my effort, my life, was worthwhile, and meant something – made a difference.
13. I hate asking people this question but alas it has to be done, what’s next for you?
More photography courses around Australia and photo safaris all around the world! This year we have a few new destinations too, including Iceland and Greenland, so that’ll be fun! Check out www.ChrisBraynet – I’m also looking into starting up a little eco-lodge, hopefully finally launching Conservation United, trying to sell our sailboat so we can start thinking about upgrading to a bigger, metal one so that we can go back into the arctic, perhaps with kids even! A family might be the next really big adventure I suspect, but we’ve got a bit of re-organizing to do of our current lifestyle before that would work!
Find out more about Chris Bray’s adventures via his website.
I try this ‘new year, new me’ bullshit annually…it never works. Already just a few weeks in and all my vows and promises have spiralled out of control once more. Life got in the way.
When you watch from your window as billowing smoke comes barreling your way from a bushfire started by fork lighting. Hear the drones of the voice from the television tell of the devastation of the town next door, completely flattened by the wicked orange embers. While you wait your turn, waiting for the call to evacuate, to flee… but the call never comes. You are safe. But you never go next door to help them pick up the pieces.
When you read a post on Facebook about a city in Syria that is under siege by its own countrymen, seeing photos of sallow skinned children starving to death before your very eyes and you blink and scroll on by to giggle at the next dumb viral video…
When you laugh nervously at the alarming thought that Donald Trump could become the next President of the US but then you are hungry so your thoughts turn to what to have for lunch instead…
Forever desensitized to the horror unfolding on the news, when finally something seeps in, something clicks. Your eyes absorb what you have always glanced over and for once you really see the horror in all its gritty glory.
Here I sit, albeit a bit dirty and worn having been bitten and head butted by horses, living amongst frogs, cockroaches and ants as I grind my way through my regional work. A little tougher and bedraggled then when I first landed but safe and fortunate all the same.
I ‘like’ these Facebook posts and share them, I frown and shake my fist at the TV and groan about what a horrible world it is, and “I always wondered why somebody didn’t do something about that… then I realized I am somebody.” A quote I read by Lily Tomlin. This realization is so stupidly simple; I cannot fathom how it never occurred to me before. Finally though, it has struck a chord, and it is resonating through me.
New Year, new me… by the end of week one I’d already managed to lock myself out of the apartment and had to walk barefoot to my cousin’s house at 5am, wake him and his pregnant girlfriend up and plea for refuge.
I get so impatient with myself, and my many faults… I am too weak, watch too much television, waste too much time, spend too much money, care too much what others think of me, think myself too fat, too ugly. I always blamed society for putting this pressure on me but I have realized it is me, I am my own worst enemy.
I must stop beating myself up, berating myself for all my flaws. I am only human; I will never be perfect and this year I really hope to stop trying. For too long, I’ve ignored the problems of the world, fretted about my failings instead, about all I don’t have when I have plenty. It is time for me to turn the spotlight off myself and shine it outwards, onto others. Why do I spend my days writing and documenting my own life when others have more important things to say, stories to tell, and issues to be brought to light. It is my turn to give back, to put my hands up, step up and to help. I will turn the lens on the people of the world, learn about their lives, let them tell their stories, help people that really need it and perhaps in doing so I will finally be convinced of my worth.
What do I really want to spend my life doing… not just travelling or doing extreme sports and having a good time but rather in conservation and activism, assisting real change in the world. Therefore anything I do from here on in will have more of a reason behind it then my own selfish delight.
My guilt is foreboding and at times overwhelming. I volunteered for one day this year to help collect clothes for the refugees in Calais, one fucking day out of 365 days this year. Is that really all I could spare? What bullshit have I fed myself? I didn’t donate one drop of blood this year… I was in Vietnam I tell myself, that gets me off the hook. I got a tattoo the year before, so I couldn’t? I spent hundreds of euros and dollars and Vietnamese dong on sculling beers and spirits on the weekends and then told myself I’m too broke to drop a coin in a homeless mans cup or to spare a fiver for that charity. The guilt literally riddles inside me.
This year, things need to change… I need to change. We’re off to a rocky start, but lets face it amn’t I always? Such is life. All the things in this world I don’t agree with, I have not earned the right to complain about unless I try and do something about it. There are so many undocumented tales out there about great cruelty and injustice, of weeping deforestation, of starving children, of slain animals, of racism, of homophobia, of corrupt politics, of bribes and favours, of debt and death, of a crumbling world… but also of magic, of passion, of freedom, of human beings rising up in the face of adversity. This year, I vow to give back. I have had my moment, now its time for others to have theirs…
Happy Belated New Year to you all.