Picture this: It is past midnight. You’ve just entered an unknown town in Bulgaria. The overnight bus you took from Greece was supposed to continue on to Turkey where you have a reservation in a hostel, but it broke down, as often happens in those parts. What do you do next?
If you’re like my wife, Kerry, and I, you rely once again on the graciousness of strangers and allow a man who doesn’t speak a word of English, but you somehow intuitively trust, to take you to a lovely hotel near his home. And you end up staying a week in Bulgaria—and falling madly in love with the place, though, for the life of you, you can’t remember in which town you stayed.
In a nutshell, this incident describes why travel is so special for me. It’s spontaneous; there’s a hint of recklessness about it; it forces you to be constantly present to observe and improvise; but, perhaps most importantly, it strips you of all your baggage of ideas and identity so you’re left with just you. Turn over to read the lessons I learnt in my last 15 years of backpacking.
Travel strips you of all your baggage of ideas and identity so you’re left with just you
1. Travel without a goal
When I first started travelling, I usually carried an agenda—see this castle in Germany or visit that museum in Paris. Over time, I realised that my most satisfying trips were those in which I had no itinerary or plan; in which I let the road tell me what to do next. For example, in 2013, my wife and I travelled from Europe to India by road, letting each day be a new day. We walked, hitchhiked, and took buses and ferries. We went from sleeping outside a train station in Scotland, to walking 50 kilometres when the buses had gone on strike in rural Italy, to making new friends who gave us a villa to stay in Greece for a week. Along the way, we met a lively bunch of characters—from a Spanish couple who was cycling from Portugal to India, to a Romanian Krishna-bhakt who taught us a little yoga in Turkey—all of whom pushed our journey to unexpected places. In travelling this way, you tap into a hidden universe of intuition, covered by layers of right-brained rationality, that unblocks every part of your life.
2. Travel on a dime
How do you know you’ve had a good vacation? You’ve felt something about the location, not just seen the tourist sights. And to truly feel a place you have to connect to its very essence by stripping down the layers of distance between you and the place. For me this means only one thing: always travel on a dime. Stay in hostels, not hotels. No matter one’s age, hostels are the place where backpackers meet to share old stories and to create new ones. Travel by the cheapest mode of transport available, whether it’s dilapidated buses or local ferries. And never eat in a place where the menu is in English [unless you’re in England, of course!]. I backpacked through all of South America, from Rio de Janeiro to Cuzco to the heart of the Amazon River, without speaking a word of Portuguese and Spanish. Even now, many years later, I feel a very visceral sense of connection to that continent every time I meet a South American, for I’ve lived and experienced their countries like the local people do.
To truly feel a place you have to connect to its very essence by stripping down the layers of distance between you and the place
3. Travel to your physical breaking point
I’ve learnt that the harder and more unforgiving the journey, the more singular is my attention to it. When I’ve had tough travels, like hiking Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania or the Concepción volcano in Nicaragua or sitting on a ferry for days in South America, I find the experience completely meditative. All notions of self-identity fall off. I’m no longer a corporate honcho or a struggling artist planning my next career move. I’m just a guy trying to survive in an unknown place, thinking just one step or one minute at a time, fully zoned into the moment. In the process, I am completely liberated from all becoming, and I end up just being. Nothing quite replicates the intensity of those experiences, and every time I find myself getting lost in a whirlpool of thoughts I take a bus or a train to a mountain in a strange location and just start climbing. The answer reveals itself—or more likely, the question ceases to matter.
I’ve learnt that the harder and more unforgiving the journey, the more singular is my attention to it
4. Travel like a monk
And finally, if I’ve learnt one thing about travel, it’s to travel like a monk. I always go with a metaphorical begging bowl, without judgment or pre-conceived notions, without expectations of great joy or release, just accepting whatever the destination gives me. Every experience, good or bad, is a gift, and sometimes it takes many years to understand that. I still recall, for example, backpacking alone through South East Asia after the end of a long relationship. I thought it would lift me up but I hated every moment. I was sad and lonely, and swapping personal stories with other backpackers made me feel lonelier. I had no interest in architecture and history. Nothing, it seemed, could redeem the trip. And yet from that sense of dislocation and loss emerged the seeds of what would become, The Seeker, my most ambitious and deeply personal novel yet. That trip too, like every other trip I’ve ever taken, worked out in the end. To travel truly is to live.
This was first published in the October 2015 issue of Complete Wellbeing.
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