Notes from a cold water swimmer
I’ll slip out of the ice, into the dry air, and my skin will feel aglow. A rush of pleasure will tumble across my body. The pain of the cold will disappear. By Jessica J. Lee.
Back in Germany. We’ve been travelling for a year and a half. Continuously. We return full of stories, having experienced the highs and lows of life on the road. We’ve developed a way of life that is radically different from our existence prior to the journey, which was characterised by routine and dominated by our jobs.
For a year and a half we wrote regular articles, trying to reflect on things and convey the whole emotional cocktail of long-term travel. Now we’re home again.
Generally speaking, travel articles end when the journey does. But not this time.
‘The journey is a caesura. There is a before and an after. And everything in between.’
In fact, it’s only now that the most exciting questions emerge. Has the journey changed us? What did it teach us? What are we looking forward to? What are we afraid of? What do the words ‘wanderlust’ and ‘home’, tossed around so lightly in travel articles, really mean to us?
Fundamentally, travelling is quite an ill-defined concept. Different people travel for different reasons: to experience other cultures, for instance, or to relax. It is only from these individual motivations that travel develops into meaningful action. Many long-distance travellers enjoy the sensation of being at the greatest possible remove from the familiar.
One thing in particular spurs me on: comparing reality with my own preconceptions of the world. Time and again, new experiences on my travels confounded the clichéd images in my head. I was motivated too, of course, by a desire for personal growth. The idea was to test myself on unknown terrain, pushing my limits.
The rhythm of our journey was like us: erratic. Sometimes we moved quickly, sometimes extremely slowly. We had only laid out a rough plan for the first few months, which turned out to be a good move. We were on the verge of setting foot in India, for instance, when some spontaneous instinct led us to turn on our heels and head for Nepal. We realised that, for us, the journey had a lot to do with experiencing freedom. What made our project so wonderful was the unrestricted autonomy, and not having to justify our decisions to anybody else.
Long-term trips are often described as journeys of self-discovery, but in our case this didn’t apply. Sure, we wanted to expand our horizons. We wanted to know and be able to do more things than we did before. But we didn’t have to work through some kind of traumatic event, or dedicate ourselves to searching for a sense of identity.
We were happy people before the journey, and we still are.
Still, we suddenly had an enormous amount of time stretching out before us, as – almost overnight – we were plucked from the proverbial treadmill. This extra time was a real blessing: little by little we became quieter and calmer, as we realised that we were no longer subject to any external constraints. Our free time suddenly freed up space in our heads: we discovered and cultivated new hobbies, philosophising for hours over this and that.
When we were planning the journey, I pictured spectacular things: us standing on perfect beaches, on mountaintops, in the jungle. I was highly motivated, wanting to do absolutely everything, experience everything, absorb everything. That’s relatively normal at first – boundless anticipation for what I thought would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Of course, I hadn’t completely overlooked this fact earlier, but during the journey it became increasingly clear: nobody spends all their time slashing their way through the jungle or trudging through snowstorms in the mountains. We spent a lot of time on everyday things: finding something to eat, looking for a laundrette or ‚going online for a bit‘.
It’s in the nature of travel, of course, and yet it’s worth mentioning that constantly moving around keeps throwing up very fundamental questions.
Where am I going to sleep? What am I going to eat? Who can I trust?
When combined with the fact that you have to orientate yourself geographically, too, it takes more energy than I had thought. I even underestimated the toll of giving up my routine, as well as the lack of familiar faces. When every day is different, when there’s no firm structure in your life, it can be absolutely exhausting. As the journey went on, we carved out – quite subconsciously – little ‚oases‘ of consistency for ourselves: watching films on the computer, cooking for ourselves, slowly drinking coffee, writing…
I found it increasingly difficult to move on right when something great was in the works, be it a new friendship, a favourite bar or simply finding my feet in a new environment. As the journey continued, I became tired of always starting off with people from square one. Even when our new acquaintances were just as nice, I missed the people who already knew me, the people I had a connection with and a shared history.
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It’s hard to say how the journey affected our personal growth. If we’d stayed in Germany for the last year and a half, we (hopefully) wouldn’t have just stagnated. You’re constantly gaining in experience as you go through life. Still, on a long trip you’re nourished by particularly rich soil, so in this chapter we’ve gathered together a few insights gleaned from our journey. One caveat: there were so many insights that it’s impossible to enumerate them all. The more we travelled, the wider and richer the world became. Above all, we learned that we still have much to learn.
The social insight
As members of a prosperous Western European society, our day-to-day problems are generally of the abstract variety. How can I explain the figures in the meeting? Should I get a Mac or a PC? Is that deal at the gym really worth it? Put in crudely simplified terms, that’s more or less how it goes.
Travelling forces you to contend with genuine problems and threats. How does the person I’m talking to feel about me? How can I communicate, when nobody speaks my language?
How do I react when somebody attacks me? Are there bedbugs in this mattress? You’re often preoccupied, especially subconsciously, with finding answers to those sorts of questions. It’s at exactly this point that insights tend to emerge. It’s remarkable, for instance, how far our familiar society back home is from the real, unavoidable challenges that people elsewhere have to face. You might know how to use Excel, but do you have any idea how to survive when there’s a mob of aggressive street dogs running towards you?
Fundamentally, there’s also a good deal of excitement to be had from finding a means of rising to this kind of primal challenge, when you’re unsure of yourself and find it difficult to read a particular situation because the culture is foreign to you. But these are exactly the moments that, in retrospect, become your most exciting stories, and which profoundly affect the intensity of a journey.
‚We’d been walking through the darkness for two hours already. We were obviously lost, when a car drove right up to us. The driver invited us to get in, but it was difficult to judge how trustworthy he was.‘ That’s how you tell it years later. ‚We took the ferry to Liberty Island. The Statue of Liberty was very impressive,‘ just doesn’t have the same ring to it. Isn’t it crazy that the side notes, the ones about failures and threats and uncertainty, are more exciting than the experiences we actually made the journey for?
The sad insight
When you’re travelling you’re always moving in a vacuum. No matter how well you prepared for the journey or how many travel guides you studied, you’re always perceived as a foreigner, and therefore treated differently. It’s not too bad at first, and thankfully we were welcomed all over the world with kindness and open arms. In the end, however, the deepest insight you can gain from visiting a foreign culture is often the insight into your own ignorance. You can look around, amuse yourself, come up with an ‚image‘ of the place. Yet you remain an outside observer, interpreting things simply according to your own store of experiences, your own social constructs and, therefore, your own limitations. I always find statements like, ‚the people here are completely happy, even though they have so few possessions‘ rather bold. There are ethnologists who have to cut short years of unsuccessful research in foreign countries because, as foreigners, they can’t find a way in.
The personal insight
The internet is full of different types of traveller. It seems as if you’re supposed to assign yourself to a category as soon as you set off. Backpacker? Flashpacker? Couch-surfer? Package tourist? Escapist? (Digital) nomad? There are people who can’t stand the word tourist, simply referring to themselves as travellers. I can sort of understand that: obviously people who go to great lengths to push their limits and get to know another culture don’t want to be compared to package tourists. They’re like apples and oranges. Still – and this is a crucial insight – a willingness to slip in and out of those roles during the journey can genuinely enrich it. Monotony is never inspiring, and breaking out of your routine can have a thoroughly invigorating effect even when you’re travelling. Sometimes we’re in the mood for apples, sometimes for oranges, and sometimes even for more exotic fruits.
The cultural insight
Wherever we go, we have to learn anew how to deal with time. Almost every country deals with time in its own way, though we’ve discovered that hardly anywhere is life lived as quickly as in Germany. Bus stops and timetables – precise to the minute – are the classic examples. In Indonesia we once got stuck for two days in a little town called Pare Pare because we couldn’t find out when the bus was leaving. The ironic thing was that we spent those two days sitting with employees in the public transport office, who couldn’t help us either. Instead they cooked for us and called in people they knew to keep us company, clearly enjoying the presence of two exotic foreigners in their midst. They took lots of photos. As day one neared its end, we trudged back to our accommodation with our rucksacks. Waving us off, the employees advised us that the next day we should stand on the main street instead. Maybe the bus driver didn’t feel like driving to the bus station.
In Germany we’re used to getting brownie points for being especially busy. Even the smallest windows of time have to be filled with useful activity.
Time is money?
Simply not doing anything, wasting time, isn’t exactly respectable. In many countries on our journey, however, it was the other way around: those who lumber themselves with too much work, making no time for conversation, family or relaxation, are pitiful weirdos. By now we’ve stopped thinking of our day at the public transport office as a lost day – after all, we spent time with nice people, chatting and eating together.
People who are constantly complaining about how little time they have and celebrate every spare minute might find that hard to understand at first. But having too much time can also feel like a burden sometimes. In the first instance, a long trip is simply an enormous, empty period of time, which you have to fill with activities. You’re constantly preoccupied with new sights, tasks and activities. For us, having no deadlines sometimes brought about a sense of inertia. Whenever we had an infinite amount of time, we forgot to really value it. It therefore seemed sensible to set ourselves goals and artificial time limits now and again. Once we’d booked our return flight, we suddenly started going about our business much more briskly again, dividing up our days very deliberately. Time had suddenly regained its value.
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Wide eyes. A furrowed brow. And then, ‚Bloody hell, you’re brave!‘ Most people reacted along those lines when I told them I was quitting my job to travel the world. That says a lot more, of course, about them than it does about me. Mostly they then came out with, ‚I’d love to do that, BUT…‘, following it up with something about job security, loans they had to pay off, insurance, pensions, lack of money (I mostly got this one from people whose salaries were definitely well above the national average), the usual obligations, the perils of foreign countries, and so on and so forth. No matter what followed the ‚BUT‘, in the end it always came down to fear. And I asked myself:
Am I actually brave, without realising it?
Looking back: the kitchen table, scene of the crime
the apartment? If we settle down somewhere, a balcony would be great.’ Our student flat is comfy, but by now we’ve been confined to 43 square meters for four years. It’s all part and parcel of professional development, of life-planning and all that sort of stuff – of living ‘sensible’ adult lives. We’re not twenty any more, after all. At some point, between the zucchini and the dishes, we get down to the real question: ‘when are we going to take our trip?’ Hm. There’s a pause. We both share a vague desire to go on a major journey at some point, one without a time limit, taking with us curiosity but no firm plan. Suddenly it becomes clear that now – and not ‘some point’ – is the best time. Now, or never.
My parents come to terms with my stubborn plan quite quickly, my soon-to-be ex-colleagues get used to the person who’ll be replacing me, and our few belongings disappear into blue plastic bags. Cancellation confirmations come streaming into the house, and the cupboards gradually empty. And I’m not afraid. Cutting the cord between ourselves and everything permanent, all our contracts, material things, memberships and subscriptions is a joyful process, full of expectation. During this phase – appropriately enough, it was a very pleasant Hamburg summer – we only had room for anticipation, curiosity, optimism and euphoria.
While it was easy to take the initial decision to embark on this journey, it was only once I was on my way that I realised what would really make demands on my courage: coming back.
So I discovered it after all – fear.
It’s not an entirely unfamiliar companion, this dreadful feeling of disorientation and worry about the future. It crept up on me during my studies, a symptom of my generation, perhaps: a generation at once questioning, seeking and disillusioned, yet still optimistic and hopeful. Perpetually walking a tightrope between acquiring job-orientated transferrable skills and studying for the sake of curiosity and fulfilment, I sought an answer to the question, what do I really want to do with my life? With all the choices on offer to at least part of our generation in this flexible, digital, globalised world comes the pressure of making decisions.
Self-fulfilment, the great healing promise of our age, is an eternal maybe: would, could, should
And that’s the thing: every decision precludes other possibilities. Business economists call this the opportunity cost, and it regularly makes me nervous to the point of despair, to put it mildly.
Back to the fear that now overwhelmed me. While prior to the journey it was at least clear what we wanted to do – travel, take photos, write, live – coming back was, for a long time, an uncertain, mysterious, ambiguous future state, which we now had to realise. Evidently I’d been living the maxim carpe diem quite successfully for the past year and a half. Or, to put it somewhat more pessimistically, I’d successfully postponed the future. The end of the journey meant heading into new waters. The great, white, empty void of the future lay directly beyond Frankfurt airport.
So I’m back to square one, sitting at a table laden with possibilities, options and the appetisingly presented promises of our age. But that’s not the only source of my unease. There’s a much deeper, fundamental fear, which is generally only felt obliquely.
Is that the fundamental fear, then? The heart of why going back makes me so afraid?
Are the best years of my life already behind me?
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‘Home. In general usage, home refers to the place (or country) where a person was born and had their early experiences of socialisation, influencing their identity, character, mentality, attitudes and, ultimately, worldview.’ Brockhaus, 1989.
What is home? There have been numerous attempts to define it, but ultimately home is individual. I can clearly remember the feeling as we locked the door to our apartment, our rucksacks full of sweet anticipation, laced with a tinge of melancholy. After all, the last few weeks were full of sunshine and balmy summer evenings, picnics in the meadow, swift bike rides through the bustling city with close friends. Goodbye, Hamburg. Goodbye, home?
While travelling we experience moments of tiredness and lethargy, resolving many times to stay put. We wanted to find something approaching a sense of being at home. But a real home – can there ever be more than one?
Is home a place, a state of being, or simply an emotion? Or all three?
Among all these different definitions, I think only one thing can be said for sure:
Home is individual. Home is existential. Home is subjective.
It might be a concrete place for one person: where you were born, near your favourite slide and a kiosk with gummy candy (you know the ones I mean – the cherry ones, the sour, bright-green snakes, the pink-and-white mushrooms). For others, home comes down to people. Home is family and friends, It’s a place of the past, too; after all, doesn’t a sense of home feed on (good) memories? Then again, maybe home is quite simply where you lay your head, where you can find routine, everyday life, habit and the reassurance of stability in our agitated times? However you define home, it’s an important part of our existence. A point of reference that helps us to orientate ourselves in a world that is increasingly getting both smaller and bigger.
I need home. I need it to go on. To come back.
Taking off my travelling hat was a symbolic act. The journey is over, and the challenges of the near future will be dramatically different from those of our travels. I’d put it on every morning to shield me from the aggressive sunlight. For now, in the German winter, that’s not necessary. I’ll probably have to swap it for a woolly hat. Letting go of the hat symbolises exactly that: you shouldn’t hold on to the past for too long. We’re turning now to an uncertain, exciting future.
And even though the hat remains in Santiago, in Chile, we’ve brought back so much with us: memories, new passions, the confirmation that we have more with less, the knowledge that the world is much larger than we’d realised, and – finally – new goals.
Now we think of it as arriving. And that’s another chapter in itself.
Translation by Caroline Waight
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