An Ode to the Road

To feel lonely in your own country is a terrible thing.

To have to stand still, when you want to run.

To have to put yourself out there constantly, when you know you are going to get knocked back.

That’s why I miss the road.

I miss the not knowing.

I miss the freedom.

I miss living out of a backpack, sleeping in airports and train stations, over night buses, the chaos of being lost in a country where the language is not your own, the sand on your feet, the itch of a mosquito bite, wearing shorts day in, day out, sunburn peel, sleeping in a different bed/bus/sofa/floor/tent every night…

I miss labouring in the outback, pulling pints in Perth, kayaking in Sydney, sleeping in a hammock in Cambodia, getting caught in the rain in Bali, riding motorbikes in Vietnam, eating with your hands in India, drinking iced coffee in Canada, swimming in turquoise waters in the Philippines, snowboarding in France, camping in Scotland, walking in Portugal…

But most of all, I miss the people…

oh how I miss the people.

A year back in Ireland and I’ve made four new friends tops, a day on the road and I’d make 15. I have no one to make plans with for the weekend, traipse around the mountains with, no one to surf with, or to fawn over maps with. I have had so many of these people in my life over the years … I needed to know that they were still there, somewhere.

So I decided to touch base with a few. All on one day and see where their lives had taken them, see if some would even respond, just to feel connected once more. I asked them to send me a picture of where they were and what they were doing right now…

And man, the photos flooded in. I was transported around the world, breaking the ice with people I haven’t spoken to in a long time. It wasn’t like on Instagram, the perfectly manicured images, it was real.

I was catching up, seeing the world again, laughing, talking politics, discussing their dreams and adventures, talking about their pain and difficulties. Some were brief conversations, some stayed and we talked for hours.

A constant stream of photos and conversations, people getting up, while I was going to bed, me getting up, while they were going to sleep. People chasing their dreams, travelling, struggling, stuck in an office, working their ass off to get the career. I celebrated with people, tried to help some figure out a problem or make a decision.

I wasn’t jealous when the really good ones came, the ones where people were travelling or doing something really worthwhile. I heard stories of people studying climate change, inspiring a generation of surfers, climbing mountains in South America, working their asses off in offices, preserving history in Virginia, drinking in Melbourne, watching a sunrise in Vancouver…

And I was happy for them, so happy for them all. These people that I get to call my friends, people who too, are just trying to make their way in this fucked up world… and in that moment, I wasn’t lonely anymore.

Take a look at what I got back: 

 

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Travels through India

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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

 

The Flip Side of Travel

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?

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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.

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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.

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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…

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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…

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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

 

The Edinburgh Mountain Film Festival

I took my place amongst the crowd in George Square Lecture Theatre. I was alone, as usual so I automatically tuned into the casual banter taking place around me. Common themes arose, travel, adventure, kayaking, cycling….. I looked around and unsurprisingly the words matched that of their owners. They all, myself included, had that rugged look that can’t be faked, the mark of a life outdoors. I realised that I was way too comfortable for an unfamiliar territory. I was settled in to my comfy chair, notepad in hand, listening to people talk about their adventures. I was home.

On cue, the room was plunged into darkness, the laughter stilled and the host Stevie Christie took to the stage. Sunday afternoons agenda at the Edinburgh Mountain Film festival included three diverse films and a lecture by the notorious (in a good way) Alistair Humphreys.

The first film,’ La Logia’, saw four adventurers kayak Norway, India and Nepal, riding the craziest drops I have ever seen, exploring unmarked routes and generally making up their trip as they went along. “The bigger the risk, the better the reward”, is what they were preaching and I quote; “it’s not a test of your paddling capabilities but of how big your balls are”, aka it is a head game. However the film was more than simply watching kayakers doing crazy shit, it was a documentary on risk taking. A successful one, converting the fainthearted into full on adrenaline junkies.

The next two films were composed by local men. The first, ‘The Fastest man in Kashmir’ dealt with skiing in Northern India. The second, Running Wild, obviously dealt with running. Pete Rennie made it about his wife Fiona who runs The West Highland way. Alot.  Her message, “Just do what you want to do and don’t mind other people.”

The films were truly amazing but the finale, Al Humphreys lecture cycled away with the show. He made these grand expeditions accessible, proving that anyone can do them. The self pronounced loser dedicated the lecture to all his fellow losers in the audience. Then, with our guard temporarily down with laughter, he caught us and reeled us in, pulling us with him on his 46,000 mile bike journey across the globe.

According to Al, I think I can call him Al, the best bit of every trip is buying the map, sprawling it across the kitchen table with a cup of tea and imaging yourself as a hero in all these exotic locations.His tale is simple. During university, he scraped up £7,000 and after the four years, degree stowed in his back pocket he mounted a bike alone and left for four years and three months. It was his game, therefore his rules. Being free of sponsors meant he had the added bonus of spontaneity.

What did I learn from this? More than I have in a long time that’s for sure. The following thoughts are probably ridiculously obvious to your genius minds but they had failed to click with me before Mr. Al Humphreys said them.

  • If you cycle all day, every day, you are going to get ridiculously fit. Therefore the actual physical activity itself is no longer the challenge but the mental aspect.
  • The majority of the Middle East’s inhabitants are nice, nicer than us. So ignore what the media are telling us, man up and get over there.
  • In Siberia, ice-cream never melts so you don’t have to bring a portable freezer with you!
  • Don’t be in a hurry to reach the destination or get home, explore it all, enjoy it all. Chill the beans.
  • “In cycling there is no such thing as a tailwind, there is only a headwind and the days that you are a bit of a legend” – Al Humphreys
  • When you are away you will want to be home, you will crave a normal life, but when you are home, you will be bored. Fact.
  • If you need help just ask. What you need to do is phone up local newspapers, radios or get a job in an obvious place (ie if you need a boat, work in a boat shop).  Eventually someone, somewhere will help you. Persistence is the key.

At twenty eight years old he rolled back into Yorkshire, showered, ate and was bored. So he ran the equivalent of six marathons in six days in the Sahara desert, and then he canoed 500 miles down the length of the Yukon River, then he walked across India, and then he did a lap of the M25 motorway.

Nice.