Saturday, September 29, 2007


[Warning, this is a rather long post, so feel free to take breaks in between paragraphs, go for a cuppa, have some biccies, have a nap, or even go on a weekend break to Stockholm.]

So here I am, back home and starting to reintegrate myself into everyday life. There's a stack of letters I need to sift through, I have to get a phone (because in today's society you can't exist without a mobile), I've contacted the job centre, I need to have a look at my finances (or what's left of them) and I had an eye check up yesterday. There's a whole mesh of networks that surround and cosset everyday life that you don't don't notice until you leave and try and reconnect to them. But I suppose that's an adventure in itself, and one that I will perhaps return to in later posts (if people still keep reading). Today's post, however, is to look back at the trip and see what lessons, if any, I have learnt, whether it was worthwhile, or whether I was just wasting my time and money on an expensive and time-consuming prank.

Well, from a purely pragmatic and prosaic point of view I have learnt a good deal of Spanish, a smattering of Russian and Arabic. I have learnt what I am capable of physically; I have tried many different activities that few people get the chance to experience; I have eaten a multitude of exotic foods (I particularly liked the spiders in Cambodia but don't need to try scorpions again) that would be anathema for most Westerners; I can manage to passably feed myself with chopsticks; I have seen some of the most beautiful landscapes in the world; I have learnt that Djibouti is a country to be avoided, if at all possible; and I have acquired the, not unuseful, ability to find a camping spot in urban areas. No bad for three years, and possibly more than I learnt during my three years at university! But that's just being facetious. In fact I would say that my three main subjects for this course have been sociology, geography and psychology.

First sociology. During the trip I've seen how people in different countries and cultures live, tried to understand how and what they think (not always possible I must admit), and get an idea of their circumstances and their past. I think that that is truly important in today's world where communities are interconnected and events on one side of the world affect people on the other. Before leaving I thought I was a well-informed and clever individual who was quite au fait with what was going on in the world, the issues, the grievances, the debates. And in a way I was - I was interested in current affairs and tried to inform myself, and I certainly knew more than most. However, as I travelled I quickly realised that the information that you get second or third hand from the medias gives a heavily skewed, parochial view of the world and its problems. In the same way that every cabbie knows how the country really should be run, it is easy to sit in ones armchair and expound upon the problems afflicting other countries and what should be done about them. But things are always far more complex and nuanced than they seem from a distance with every situation having a long and convoluted history hanging like an albatross around it and pulling it down into a boggy mess. Actually I think that's our biggest mistake when we look at various goings-on in the world we don't see it in the context of a historical continuum (not surprising for us Brits when we can drop history at school at the age of 14). Things are not made any better when you have people, who we ought to trust and really should know better, making black and white pronouncements such as "you're either with us or against us". Indeed, so many problems in the world seem to stem from an inability, or perhaps an unwillingness, to see the common humanity in all of us. A stubborn holding on of the us-against-them mentality that refuses to see that there is no them. I've certainly become more circumspect when it comes to passing judgement on other points of view, other people and other ways of doing things.

As a slight aside, it is interesting to note that many of the more long-term travellers out there have a hippy, romanticised, Noble Savage view of cultures in developing countries, idealising them and rejecting everything Western. Although I believe that there is a lot to learn from other cultures, especially with regards to how we treat others as individuals, there are things we have got right in my opinion, especially with regards to the respect of the rule of law and treatment of women. Actually that's one thing that has marked me quite deeply on this trip - I have become somewhat ashamed of my gender. In many places that I visited women would do the lion's share of the menial, back-breaking work, in the fields, in shops, in the home and even on construction sites, whereas men generally seemed employed with less demanding tasks like moto/taxi/tuk-tuk drivers or touts, but more often than not would sit in cafes smoking sheeshas (in the Middle East) or cigarettes (the Chinese), drinking tea, coffee or beer and possibly reading a paper or two (in the Subcontinent), taking care not to get lumbago. That is certainly one of the greatest blights of the developing world as they are depriving themselves of half their talent (probably more actually) and different ways of looking at things only because men are afraid of losing their iron grip on power. I think this also explains the huge taboo surrounding sex in many disparate cultures that share little except the lowly situation in which the women find themselves - sex is the one area of social life where women hold all (most of) the cards, and so men are beholden to them. Unwilling to accept such a state of affairs men have stigmatised sex so that they can maintain the upper hand. It is therefore not surprising that the countries in which sex ellicits the greatest public revulsion and antipathy one also finds the greatest proportion of prostitution because young men have so little opportunity to interact with the opposite sex. Though of course, sexual activity and promiscuity is almost impossible to detect amongst men and so you get schizophrenic attitudes of men who one day pay for sex and the next denigrate the very prostitutes that they visit (and I met several people like that, in different countries with different religions).

And geography? well you can't help learning where places are on the map when you need to sort out trains, buses and connections, or when you need to navigate mountain passes with poorly marked trails. Though that's not really what I mean when I talk of geography, but more the world around us - the natural world, landscapes and ecosystems. It has been my experience that the most beautiful thing in the world is nature. No matter whether it be mountains, desert, forest, coast or plains nothing we create can come close to the majesty of nature. As soon as we change it by building or digging it becomes less, perverted, defiled. The problem we face today is that not only are areas of true, pristine nature shrinking at an alarming rate, but people are also further removed from them because they lead urban lives. They have no contact with the beauty of the world (which reminds me of a girl I knew in London who was 18 before she saw her first cow), they only see dirty streets, open sewers masquerading as rivers and possibly a few lonely, bedraggled trees in a grey urban park, and so they have no love or respect for it. This leads to the disdain with which the environment is treated by many people (in the developed as well as the developing world), as a great big litter bin, where someone else will clear up the mess, especially if you're just passing through. On the one hand it's a perfectly natural response, the problem is that as a species our actions have a far greater impact than nature devised, and so we must strive to rise above our instinctive behaviour and make sacrifices for benefits that we will never see. It's all a question of education, integrity and will, and to be perfectly honest, from what I have seen I hold out next to no hope for us precisely because we are generally selfish and unable to see beyond our immediate surroundings and future. I fervently hope, however, that humanity will prove me wrong.

And as for myself, well this didn't really start off as a voyage of self-discovery, because I'm far too cynical for that. I just wanted to sate my curiosity of the world and my wanderlust, to see what there is out there, to taste and experience before it's gone (and as I mentioned above, I unfortunately think it will be). But I suppose that along the way I changed, and started to look at things differently. I opened up more than just my eyes, and started to look closer, ask deeper questions and take more of an interest into the why's. The long periods of time alone also gave me plenty of opportunity to just think, to go over problems and ideas and try to figure out my personal answers to my own burning questions (although the answer to the big one may be 42, there are still plenty of other smaller questions that still need answering). Walking through a high street in a German town looking at the shops brought it to the fore for me when I saw the following sign in the window of a shop that specialised in bespoke staircases, it said: "helping you get the stairs you've always dreamt of." I stopped and looked at it for a while. The stairs you've always dreamt of. Personally I have never dreamt of stairs (as an entity in themselves that is, I'm sure I have had dreams in which stairs performed an ascending/descending function, but nothing more) and it made me somewhat depressed. What sort of a society do we live in where people dream of stairs? surely there must be more worthwhile things to dream about and occupy our hopes and aspirations with. There must be something greater we can strive towards than hand-carved, solid pine ballustrades.

When trying to decide upon a set of values and standards I think being an atheist helps because for many people in developing countries it is such an unfathomable concept that you have to explain and justify your beliefs (or lack of them). Although it's not just developing countries where being an infidel raises eyebrows as I found out when I got picked up by a priest whilst I was hitching in France who interrogated me, in a friendly way, getting me to justify my convictions. So what miraculous conclusions have I arrived at? Religion is there to give people a meaning, a sense to their lives, what meaning does my life have without religion my priestly companion asked me. Well, I've come to the conclusion that life has whatever meaning you choose to give it. It is up to every individual to decide what is meaningful for them, whether it be the pursuit of happiness, money, contentment, knowledge or fame. People are not all the same and therefore what is needed to make their lives worthwhile (for themselves) varies as well. There is not one size that fits all of us, and seeking the answers from others is, in my view, a pusillanimous shirking of the challenge of life. Personally, I get my kicks trying to see, learn and understand this fascinating world of ours. Of course, learning is just half the story; knowledge which isn't used or shared is pretty damn useless, gathering cobwebs in the attic of your mind. Part of that sharing is writing this blog (thank you my faithful readers if you've made it this far by the way) and trying to incorporate what I have learn into my everyday life (without getting too preachy). Among the concrete conclusions that I've come to are that a lot of what we consider as important or necessary for happiness is superfluous, shackles us and weighs us down seeming only to serve to make us unhappy when we don't have it. Similarly I believe we in the West are far too engrossed in our own lives and don't engage enough with those around us. Now that doesn't mean that we're all callous bastards, but we just don't want to get involved, perhaps through fear, through selfishness or apathy. But not doing bad is not the same as doing good, and we certainly don't do enough of the latter. We shouldn't just not drop litter, but we ought to pick it up as well; we shouldn't wait until people come up to us to ask for help, but we ought to offer our assistance straight away. And then again it's easy for me to say that, sitting here in front of my computer and pontificating into cyberspace, but will I be able to practice what I preach. Well, I certainly hope so, but I've decided to make a conscious effort to do so.

I would be the first to admit that my revelations certainly aren't particularly new or original, I'm sure you could go into any bookshop and find a dozen self-help titles that would tell you exactly the same thing, although possibly with more psychobabble jargon. So what was the point of the whole exercise? it would have been considerably cheaper to have just bought the books, along with a few travel tomes. True, perhaps, but these same self-help books keep getting published and there seems to be an insatiable demand for them. Surely if they really worked then you would only need to buy one. The fact is that some things have to be experienced to be learnt, for them to be truly taken in, understood and internalised there is no other way than just going out there and getting your hands dirty. So my advice, in general, to anyone, would be don;t be too dependent on other peoples' advice (I wouldn't have much of a career writing self-help books me). Go out, see the world (and that doesn't necessarily mean touring round the globe, but going about with your eyes open and a spirit of curiosity), make decisions, make mistakes, and then make your own mind up.

P.S. That's the end of the trip, but I will be carrying on the blog where you can follow my (mis)adventures as I try and find a job and a niche in the 'normal world'. Those of you who would like to unsubscribe from the email posts just send me an e-mail.

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