Sometimes our goals are achieved in spite of ourselves and our actions.
When i was in my mid-20s, I went backpacking round the world for a year. The core differences between backpacking and holidaymaking are basically that you use a backpack instead of suitcases, you live on a modest budget which enables you to travel for sometimes far longer than the requisite two weeks, you try to be spontaneous and integrate with the local culture rather than experiencing a comfortable ‘home-away-from-home’, and you travel light with the bare minimum of ‘stuff’ to weigh you down. I certainly satisfied some of these criteria but in my preparation I failed miserably on the final point mentioned. I’d read a ‘Before You Go’ book, which was very informative in a lot of areas but seemed to have been written with the presumption that every backpacker was travelling to very remote areas. The upshot was that I arrived in my first stop in South-East Asia with a backpack so crammed full of ‘vital objects’ that my fragile back could scarcely support it. It had a handle on the side so i ended up, rather ironically, carrying it in the manner of a suitcase. When I arrived in Thailand, my first destination, and discovered that i could easily buy most of what i needed, I managed to ‘lose’ a few items out of my pack. I mean, did I really need 8 pairs of socks in a country where the temperature is virtually guaranteed to be 30 degrees every day and, believe it or not, the shops actually sell socks? Deep down, the Englishman brought up on a history of colonisation can never quite believe that those in the Third World can supply him with what he needs in as efficient a manner as back home in the mother country. It’s not genuine racism, just a conditioned sense of superiority hard to shake off.
I embarked on an overland circular tour starting and finishing in Bangkok and taking in Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos in that order. The trip was wonderful, and the moments of discomfort which were anticipated and in fact encouraged did indeed increase my tolerance and resourcefulness. Highlights included an 8-hour journey in Cambodia on the back of a pick-up truck without benches. Next to me was a large tyre, presumably being transported from one place to another, and as we hit a large crater in the uneven dirt road at speed, the tyre was jolted directly into my ribs. With something between a smile and a grimace, I continued the journey without complaint. Later, i pulled out my guitar and an American friend and I serenaded the locals in the truck with a smorgasbord of 90s rock hits, including our speciality, ‘Aeroplane’ by the Red Hot Chili Peppers. In Vietnam, i gritted my teeth through a 14-hour overnight bus trip, bolt upright on hard seats with little chance of substantial sleep, on sometimes treacherous mountain roads.
I’d like to mention at this point that these kind of conditions were not always the norm and this story is not presented in a spirit detrimental to the locals. This was their land and I accepted my humble status of temporary visitor with appropriate respect. Having said all that, the main event of this tale involves a trip along the Mekong Delta in Southwestern Vietnam. The tour involved a combination of bus and boat travel, and to cut a long story short some of the bags somehow got loaded onto the wrong boat belonging to a completely different company. We didn’t find out until the boats were long gone, the chances of their recovery being almost nil and involving a potential wait of many hours or even days. My large backpack and smaller daypack were gone, and all i was left with was my bumbag, which mercifully still contained my money, passport, travellers’ cheques and copies of important documentation. My immediate reaction was desolation at the loss of all my travel possessions, which included clothes, books, fake CDs, a music player, all manner of trinkets and also my as-yet-unused water purification tablets. My head fell into my hands at the loss of these items and the subsequent stress, hassle and inconvenience that would be involved in replacing them. I had been lucky to have met a very nice group of backpackers, with whom i’d had a lot of fun and some great conversations, including one about our huge and densely-loaded backpacks. From the group came the helpful remark, ‘Well, you DID want to travel light, Antony.’
And it hit me. I was travelling light, lighter than i ever could have imagined or would have dared!. I was free! I had nothing to carry and nothing to defend. My new friends immediately offered to lend me clothes and let me borrow their music equipment, and all manner of consolation and friendly offers came in my direction. What’s more, i was finally ‘in the moment’, thinking on my feet instead of making provisions for every eventuality. From memory, i think i rebought some of the items but generally travelled light from there on in. The moral of this story? Ah, forget the moral and enjoy the story!