Posting this to The Amorati one drizzly January night was the moment I realised I loved to write. And with this, in some rudimentary form, The Journal was born.
* * *
I want to share a few things on the subject of travel. It’s funny I’ve never actually done this in written form; with fifteen years on the road and sixty-five countries under my belt, one would hope I’ve learned a thing or two about the subject. I guess it started, age nineteen, when I took my first trip to Thailand.
It’s nothing rare that a young Englishman lands on the Khao San Road. But this being 2002, and me being the first of my hometown friends to do it, made it all the more adventurous. What motivated me to go in the first place? A chance encounter with an aristocrat DJ at Uni, who’d spent the previous year in In-di-ahhh, and still ate curry with his hands. Well that, and discovering that economically, my final trimester’s student loan equalled three months’ galavanting around South-East Asia. All I had to do was eat rice and tinned vegetables from April til’ June, and the world would be my oyster.
I must’ve arrived on Bangkok’s backpacking quarters with skin white as a sheet, and naïve blue eyes wide like saucers. Nowhere to go, but with photocopied Lonely Planet in hand, I set about doing what a young traveler does: filling his time when he has absolutely no idea about what to fill it up with.
I felt success at bartering my first hotel room down to just one hundred baht, which at the time was a pound and thirty pence. It was the fifth hostel I visited on the Khao San Road, and to shave those extra twenty baht from my expenses was an undeniable achievement for a travel virgin who’d ingested the penny-pinching doctrine of long-term adventurers of old. I didn’t need a window in my room, no. And I firmly believed three cockroaches roaming one’s floor at any given moment to be part of the package.
I spent the next days wandering around, alone, seeing fellow travelers grouped together as old friends; while I felt afraid and too unworthy to even talk to any of them. Luckily though, on my first full morning I made a *friend*, who apart from being a tour guide and a local historian, also knew where Giorgio Armani had their *secret* international base.
Quite why a party-seeking teenage tourist would blow a third of his travel budget on a three-piece suit, when his only intention was to spend three months drinking on ‘full moon beach’, was beyond me. And I believe I cried that night, alone in my cockroach-ridden prison cell, feeling friendless and fiddled of my hard-fought cash.
It’s funny to note that the *Armani* jacket in question actually came out of the closet a decade later, when I met a raucous bunch of ladies’ men and imagined that being ‘suited and booted’ would make me a better seducer. In truth it made little difference, and I threw the jacket away after Pablo, my gigolo friend, greeted me one time with an ecstatic “Hey Luke, you still wearing your Grandpa’s coat!”
Having met a deep, solemn aloneness for the first time in my life, my fortunes changed when I took my first overnight bus (and boat) trip to paradise, a few days later. Again, I haggled my way into a hundred-baht beach-hut — it must have been the cheapest on the island, and the rungs of the ladder that dropped to the sand below each time I climbed back up to my room proved that to be the case. I still remember fighting off wild dogs with sticks and screams as they chased me up the beach one midnight under the full moon.
Although being a successful penny-pincher earned you a twisted kind of kudos on the road in those days, that habit must’ve lasted me a fortnight until I gave into barbecued king prawns and red-snapper, all deliciously cooked for me beside the tropical sea, for just two English pounds per plate.
I made friends. We drank beer and buckets of “joy” and lost our minds to house and techno in open-sided night-clubs on the beach. I felt a part of something.
Now let me be blunt, does a person ever leave for long-term travel without a sly, romantic longing they hope to quench? I wouldn’t have been able to say it in such words at the time, but my hunch was a hundred percent right. When no-one has anywhere to go or anything to do, but stand united in a search for magic and memories, there’s surely no better place to find love or lust than on the traveler’s circuit.
But then, travel is the ultimate microcosm through which to watch your woman habits unfold. And when your possibility for experience is so high, all your shortcomings are heavily exacerbated. I spent nights alone on Had Rin beach. Friendless and shy, I’d return to my hut and read Harry Potter beneath the mosquito net in the torchlight. When I grew in confidence I imagined I had *a thing* with a girl named Alex. She was two years older than me and from Kent. Sadly, “showing up” and “speaking my truth” were not yet part of my lexicon. I think she went off with the rest of the gang to Vietnam.
As the years went by, I discovered that one must possess a kind of “travel cool” if he wants to get girls on the road. Being another plodding ‘farang’ among the crowd will leave you overlooked and forgotten. But even when you don’t know where you’re going, invite with gusto and hatch strong plans on the fly, and you’ll be pursued by a legion of followers. And when those plans get inevitably scuppered? Surrender to the adventure that presents itself instead.
So travel as a microcosm, and insights for life. Even if I considered “nineteen” a failure, I did not return home the same.
* * *
When I was twenty-three, it was a very good year. It was a very good year for Colombian girls with innocent eyes, who came along for a ride. And we’d part nostalgically, when I was twenty-three.
At the time, a lot of people disbelieved my capacity to travel so much, and for so long. “What’s the formula?”, they might ask, as they spent their wages each weekend on a drinking binge in the neighbouring town. “Easy,” I’d respond. “Longing + saving + pig-headed determination.” Most people falter at more than one of these three.
Around this age I’d think a lot about my Grandad, sat in his chair looking off down the street, into the distance. What did he look at each day, though the glass of that same ground-floor window? Did he ever spy anything new, or did he replay with nostalgia the sweet video-tapes of his youth?
I used to imagine that when I reached my eighties, with nothing to do other than to long and look and reminisce, I’d damn well want to make sure that my memories were of the finest pedigree. Nights of salsa on the Cuban coast, romancing señoritas with dough-eyes and fire and languid, loving gestures? Yesss.
Eventually, I passed through Cuba and saw Fidel address the masses on labour day, the last large-scale public address he ever did. I passed through Mexico and picked cactii from the desert, bare-handed, and we ingested its peyote in the midday sun before remounting our horses, tripping our way through galaxies undiscovered, as we galloped off back toward the village, trying to beat sunset. There was a handful of times I tried to figure out who was a prostitute, and who was a ‘real girl’.
At the zenith of my twenty-third year, I hitched a ride through Colombia in the back of a Volkswagen Combi. I’d made friends on the Caribbean coast and together we caressed every inch of Colombia’s curves until Quito; a trip that was sixty days in the making, and remains weaved into my being like an ethereal dream.
One Saturday, in the fresh night air of Salento, I walked into the annual fair of this most charming hillside town, whose surrounds were composed of innocent green hills, stables, and coffee. I checked out everything this fair had to offer me, from eating ants to chucking dynamite to dancing vallenato under the multi-coloured banners of Plaza Bolívar.
And I was actually on my way home when she called out to me. I thought it was a joke. Teenagers. Excitedly calling out in the night, to anyone but not specifically to me. But as I turned to look at her she kept waving. And the more I kept looking the more I thought she was too young. I only approached her out of curiosity, to not limply bail out on the night’s adventure. But as I came close I was captivated by something mysterious. In her eyes, maybe. Or in her thighs.
She told me she was eighteen, and the succulent generosity of her lips and her curves convinced me that — in contrast to my prior assumptions — this were indeed to be true. And she wanted to know me, and she took me horse-riding with her family, and we snuck out together into the long, long grass; kissing, rolling, ecstatically, melting into one, while the burly men of her Caleño family drank beer and aguardiente just moments from where we laid…
How I was not rightfully killed, my face a smoosh of red lipstick as I emerged from that grass, amazes me, as I commit this memory to paper, for the first ever time.
Ay… To be alone in the brisk midnight air of a small South American town. Fear and arousal. Those two crafty bed-fellows who share those opposing sides of that same old treacherous coin. Adventure lurks, and no-one will ever know what you did.
* * *
Nine months later, on arrival in a gnarling and oxygen-starved La Paz, I was taken from a taxi at ten o’clock at night, handcuffed, knifed, pistol-whipped and tied up, blindfolded and hostage, in a gangland apartment.
Their deal was to take our rich gringo bankcards, and bleed them dry over a series of days, as we laid tortured and humiliated on their apartment floor. The gangsters sniffed coke and drank beer — even offering us some. I took a blow to the forehead when I asked them, in my politest Spanish, “so, do you do this often?”
But as we rode the waves of adrenaline, me and my travel buddy responded to the crime with laudable co-operation. They got their pay. We kept our lives. We were released into some back-alley after twenty-four hours of the ordeal, with instructions to flee to Santa Cruz, and later, Argentina. We’d be followed, we were told. And if we didn’t flee, they would kill us.
It’s hard to really quantify or reflect on this experience, even now as I approach its ten-year anniversary. Suffice to say that during 2007, we created the best scary story around the South American backpacking campfire. A decade later, as my research as a thirty-something leads me into the subject of embodiment, I think about seeing a Somatic Experiencing practitioner, to locate and release any residual trauma that may be stored in my body. I wonder…
But we did not flee to Santa Cruz nor to Argentina. We stayed and reported it to the police in the vague hope we could save another pair of travelers a similar fate. We received tabloid stories from friends who’d heard about white-skinned body parts being discovered, chopped and butchered in zipped-up nylon bags, in the jungle. We hung out and drunk beer, got dysentery, and drunk more beer.
We met girls, glistening with a sun-tan made up of a supposed heroism, and drove endless days across the salt flats of Uyuni. This time, we drank wine; and the girl I spent those days with recorded the whole story in a hand-made diary to which she attached the photos, the ticket-stubs, the receipts, everything. She still has this shoe-box sized book, which she showed me in her safe country house in Northern Italy a mere eighteen months ago, where she now lives with her man and three children.
I arrived in Argentina, which I’d selected on a whim to be the ideal place for me to live. The women, I imagined, would all look like Penelope Cruz and I’d be as far away from home as possible. Idyllic. I enrolled in Latin American politic thought and Hispano-American literary theory at the local University. I sipped mate, rented my first apartment, and drank ayahuasca for the first time with a Chileno shaman at my neighbour’s house. I would walk twenty minutes to the nearest internet cafe, where I read text-fomatted emails from David DeAngelo, and downloaded songs onto a USB stick.
My friends would invite me out each night for beers, which turned into quite a habit by the end of my stay. And I learned how to speak Spanish from nine in the night until six in the morning, full of attitude, swagger and seduction. And I fell in love with placing my bare feet on the hot concrete pavement. Hearing the cackle of crickets fill up the endless night sky, and the sound of a neon strobe-light as it did its nightly chore of bringing attention to the billboard that lived below it. And I’d peel the Andes Bock label from my damp, empty bottle, as we’d laugh to yet another round of jokes and stories and imagined futures.
And I fell in love with parrillada; parrishada. Hand-prepared and grilled mere inches from the ground.
But today’s adventurer is greeted with a different panorama, and one must ask: how many of today’s travelers actually catch a glimpse of the treasure they sought when they first left home?
In the days of wifi, is there any discernible difference between evenings at the hostel and evenings at home? Too often, I fear not.
In my formative years, our only entertainment were stories from the edge, drinking games in seedy bars, rounds of “cheat”, and being awoken in the night by the larium-fuelled nightmares of a psychotic bunk-mate.
For the man yet to find his purpose, and bereft of a sense of greater lineage, travel is the pursuit and opportunity for him to be moulded. Shaped. A young man should venture into a kind of quest — something utterly illogical and unfathomable to the feminine — that leaves a mysterious indentation on his aura for life. This is the ‘inner tattoo’: the body-art that’s felt through the air as he enters a room, rather than seen on his skin.
You have to leave your messenger, your camera, your apps, your comforts, your take-away hamburguesa, back in the closet of wherever you’re staying… if you ever take them with you at all. Adventure is intimacy with a wild, unforgiving world. Go out at dusk and do not return until dawn.
* * *
Since a post of a couple of thousand words can only ever capture a fraction of what I’ve experienced, which, of all my excursions, might qualify as the bizarrest?
Well, there was this one time in the Bale Mountains of Ethiopia when I was convinced I’d contracted malaria and would face my doom. T’was sundown and my stinging body ached into a fetal-shaped contraction on the floor of a mountain-top hut; civilisation many miles away and no more fuel to hand than coffee, coca-cola and a sack of dry biscuits. By mid-morning the next day I realised I’d suffered no more than sunstroke and altitude sickness, and as my guide and I trotted into camp number two, I wondered how it’d feel to purchase and slaughter a goat. One of the guiltiest moments of my life, I admit, and it still makes me wretch with anguish; we tasted barely a quarter of it’s tough, poorly cooked meat.
Then, there was a time I tracked down an original shaman in Amazonas. Toothless, sixty-eight and evidently pleased to see me, Don Rogelio took me in with all my heart-break and gave me a dose of the grandmother I’d journeyed so far to seek healing from. My hungry guts (or ego) took a double-dose that night, and frightened and wretching in the corner of that dusty jungle hut, I meekly chose life from the jaws of death, as tropical rain beat down from the night sky.
“Don’t you ever miss your family?”, girls would ask me. Especially the girls of Brazil, who deserve a whole volume dedicated to their charms. “No”, would be my answer, though this is softening and changing with age.
If we place ‘adventure’ on one end of a spectrum, and ‘family’ on the other, we end up with a fascinating polarity. While the family man longs for an encounter with the wild (and his woman needs him to have it, too), scratch the surface of a perpetual traveler and you might find in him a defiant rejection of togetherness that grinds his own voyages into a slow, lonely void. How many years did I live like this, hoping to raid the land of women for a small slice of heaven, when in truth I searched for nothing less than home?
Stuck at only one end of the spectrum, like a volume knob that got snapped and won’t shift back, is there a breed of traveler who’s hard-wired to reject love at all costs? And how many such wayfarers scour the earth — daring, trying, longing — to let love in?
Contrary to the feeling one may have on his maiden voyages, I’ve come to see the visceral power one feels while sat alone at the window of an exotic train as no more than a faint veil at best. Yes, no-one is your ruler until your bank account reads zero and your copper coin collection no longer affords you a snack. But did we ever leave home with genuine hopes of being alone?
Hmmm… Wild, daring travel as a thing to play with; to be integrated. Not as an end unto itself, but perhaps a necessary means. Tis’ with this I sit, on a freezing winter’s night back home, burning the midnight oil.
* * *
At the risk of leaving you strung-out and hyper-reflective, let me finish with one the most bizarre, most free, most spontaneous of all my travels.
When I was thirty-one, I arrived at Seattle International airport sometime near ten o’clock on a Sunday night. My stay in the US expired; my onward ticket I’d yet to buy. I ordered a coffee and put my feet up somewhere in departures, allowing my mind to roam.
Mexico? I’d already done that year. Venezuela? Airport TV showed it was erupting into civil war. Peru, Colombia? Too far, my budget wouldn’t stretch. I hit up skyscanner on my phone and landed in Managua about eighteen hours later. And since I didn’t have ten dollars — in any of my accounts — to pay this country’s entrance tax, I was marched through the Augusto C. Sandino airport by a rifleman, and I approached departing tourists for a few bills of their change.
I felt bliss, freewheeling through the Nicaraguan countryside, placing my faith in the hands of the chicken bus assistants, knowing they’d put me in the van that would lead me to the destination I’d chosen. From time to time I’d meet a single white tourist, a sexy P.h.D. or some sort, collecting data for a project from paradise. At night we’d drink cocktails and ‘quench longings’.
On an afternoon that cooked up about thirty-eight degrees centigrade, somewhere round León, I grew tired of my Pierre Cardin weekend bag and put it into storage, rescuing from it a drawstring sack, six items of clothing, a notepad and my passport. And I took off for the coast with less than five pounds of baggage. Footloose and free, I went by the way of Matagalpa, Muy Muy, Boaco, Juigalpa, El Rama. Otherworldly places such as these.
At Rama I longed to make it to Bluefields, an enclave of Caribbean culture — runaway slaves of two centuries’ prior — nestled into the Eastern Nicaraguan coast. The voyage would be treacherous, they warned me, but I felt free from any attachment to not being robbed, given the size and value of my baggage, and given what I’d both experienced and survived just a few years prior.
At the docks I met a young woman; black, muscular, who worked painstakingly hard for a living and whose heart burst at the seams with compassion. She explained to me the way, in mixed-creole, broken spanish and broken english, and we rented hammocks to tie to the beams of the cargo ship. Anywhere from six to eighteen hours it’d take us, to sail down to the coast, past ole’ pirate town, and onto lickie corn island.
So we huddled up, rocking our way through the night, asses smacking and crunching onto one another as we giggled away, swinging like pendula on the most miserly Nicaraguan cargo boat. And we stopped throughout the night, down river, down jungle, picking up cargo, picking up smells. Picking up things that were of a whole different universe to what I’d once known.
By the time I’d fully woken up we’d reached altamar, swathes of high sea water sweeping onto the deck, soaking us, soaking the cargo, soaking the livestock that accompanied us. The video below shows a glimpse of what I saw that morning as I reached the Southern Caribbean for the first time.
In these waters, piracy, pillage and rape would have occurred.
In these waters, I felt emptiness. Pure void.
And I sit here in horror that I will never get these moments back. I will never get these moments back.
* * *
Want to know more about a different kind of travel?
Join me for this upcoming Masterclass: