Here we go…about to embark on an epic journey which will open and expand my mind, challenge my existing perceptions of myself, and take me well out of my comfort zone in so, so many ways. Oh yes, we’re about to write a travel diary.
The blessing or curse of every backpacker embarking on their rite of passage, it appears to be absolutely essential to write one. Tickets; check. Passport; check. Credit card; check. Diary; check.
I daresay some travel diaries are, or will become, genuine works of art. Some will one day see the light of the published day, either in whole or in the shape of magazine articles. However an awful lot more won’t. An awful lot more will be abandoned after a few weeks of inarticulate struggle. And some will be so goddam awful that the beauty truly will be in the eye of only the beholder. After all, we can’t all be Eric Newby or Paul Theroux or even Michael Palin – whose Around the World in Eighty Days played no small part in piquing my interest in what may lay beyond England’s green and pleasant land.
But how on earth do you go about writing one? What do you write? Who are you writing it for? Who, if anyone, is ever going to read your diary? In all likelihood, no one.
Do you just stick to the facts; get down the names of the places you’ve been, the dates, the people you were with, and hope in years to come the old memory will fill in the rest? This sounds like a very practical solution, but doesn’t leave much scope for elaboration or waxing lyrical about something, should the occasion call for it.
Or do you go for excruciating detail; names, dates, people, places, the price of a bus ticket, the daily weather (we are British after all), meals eaten, ingredients within said meals, tastes, flavours, exotic creatures seen, insects bitten by, diseases contracted, etc, etc? I’ve a feeling I’ll become incredibly bored with such attention to detail and doubtless begin to feel guilty about not maintaining the momentum set by an enthusiastic start. There’d be reams of text for the first day, then slightly less, then less still, dwindling to just one line by the end of the first week. And then a lighter backpack as the diary is burned in a ritual sacrifice involving fire-eaters and exotic dancers. Or not.
Or are you supposed to document your innermost feelings, chart your growth as an individual through this coming-of-age experience, doubtless liberally layered with slices of eastern mysticism?
To be honest, I have no idea what I am doing. At the very minimum I will get the essential details, and when the mood strikes, I will go a wee bit further. In other words, I haven’t a clue, and will just make it up as we go along with about as much structure as Newcastle’s United’s defence in the days of Willie McFaul’s management.
One thing is certain however, this is not a voyage of self discovery or any of that kind of nonsense. There’ll be no Buddhist retreats, no spiritual readings, no vows of silence or, perish the thought, abstinence. There’ll subsequently be no lengthy essays on how mystical somewhere is, or how spiritual somewhere else makes you feel, and we’ll doggedly avoid attempting to psycho-analyse myself, or anyone else for that matter.
Let’s keep it simple. A diary of observation.
…and a little Retro
The days preceding departure were quite strange; good fun, but full of apprehension and doubt. With the glorious benefit of hindsight, experience and a little more maturity, it’s fair to say that I thought I was about to embark on the greatest expedition in the history of mankind. Go places no man has ever been before. See things no man has ever seen. When in fact we’re treading a rather well worn path. I think I thought it was all bigger than it actually was.
I seem to recall spending a lot of time shopping with me Mum. Stocking up on toiletries and medical things, buying boots and other bits of clothing I didn’t have, i.e. everything. She seemed to be pretty composed about it all, not trying to force me to take things I didn’t want or didn’t feel I needed, as mothers are prone to do. In truth, she was probably as naïve and bewildered about the whole thing as I was. Her vision of Thailand probably involved Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr.
Myself and Willy Orr, a fellow traveller, seemed to be phoning each other several times a day with important questions like “How many pairs of underpants are you taking?” and “How many malaria tablets do you have?” We seemed to be seeking assurance that we’re taking all the right stuff, conscious of not getting to Thailand and finding that we’re missing something. Or that if we are to be missing something, so will everyone else. It’ll be okay not having any mosquito spray, contracting malaria and dying, if Will and Terry do too. “Are you taking any…? Have you got many…?” Or perhaps we just needed to let each other know that it was all still happening.
Everyone I spoke to seemed to have a piece of advice to impart, even those whose travel experience consists of nothing more than two weeks in Majorca. Most of it I think I politely ignored. Andrew Macrae and Patrick Scott both seemed the most sensible, although given that they have both travelled half the world in the employ of Her Majesty’s Armed Forces, they should know a thing or two. And Mark Stringer weighed in all the way from Australia with the advice to pack your rucksack, unpack it, throw half the stuff away, and take what’s left. Sounds like good advice but it’s easier said than done. Mind you, Stringer should know. The night before he departed on his own backpacking trip, his backpack was so overloaded he could hardly lift it. He got it onto his back, toppled over backwards and lay there like an overturned cockroach, arms and legs waving helplessly as he sought assistance.
In my mind, the packing dilemmas were so much bigger than those of your usual two weeks in Benidorm. I assumed that once it was done, that was it for the year. If I’d missed something out then I’d have to do without. That they wouldn’t sell deodorant in Bangkok. Everything had to be limited. The more you take, the more you carry. But could I survive for a year without The Jam’s entire back catalogue? On vinyl.
Questions like “Where are you going?” and “How long are you going for?” invariably warranted a “Don’t know really” answer from me. Largely because I genuinely did not know. My introduction to all of this had consisted of Terry poring over a map, saying “I’m going here, here, here and here”, and me saying “Yep, I’m in” without really paying too much attention.
It was probably easier for other people to think about Thailand and Indonesia, Malaysia and Australia, safe in the knowledge that they weren’t things they would actually have to confront. Whereas I was faced with the fact that pretty soon I would be standing in Thailand and Indonesia, Malaysia and Australia. These places were about to become very, very real. I didn’t really know where Thailand and Indonesia were, and had certainly done no homework on them. I’d never even heard of Lonely Planet, let alone looked at one. I was going solely on what other people had told me.
And most of that was from Terry Garry…also known as ‘Fuckwitt’.
“Will. It’s me. Have you got any insurance?”