I made it.
It wasn’t as if I was wondering around the blizzardy east coast of America determined to find a suitable ‘Love Actually’ quote to dedicate my final blog post with. But that Prime Minister’s (Hugh Grant) opening quote at Heathrow airport arrivals, and the final weeks of the journey that lead up to my own arrival there, do resonate.
You probably remember your whereabouts on Tuesday 11th September 2001. I had returned from college with my eyes glued to the family’s TV screen for the rest of the day. It had been by far the most influential world event in my first 30 years on this planet. The location of ‘9/11’ was at the top of my list of places to explore for this whole adventure and the main reason I wanted to visit America. So as I approached the scene in Lower Manhatten, the underwhelming feeling was quite a surprise.
Three hours later, however, after slowly and silently shuffling along with other visitors in this sombre space and glancing over the accounts, photographs and objects on display, it was a different story. Returning up to ‘Ground Zero’, the emotions of the past now seemed to speak volumes in my own time in that space. My departure from this place was poignant as I walked past the workers clearing the New York snow which was beginning to fall harder.
Desperateness, devastation, helplessness, chaos, shock, anger, mourning. For once these are not my self-pitying words I use to milk my own travel exploits; these mix of emotions make up the 9/11 story which is stubbornly moulded to our modern history like the day’s melted dust still apparent on the surrounding buildings.
Conspiracy theories are aplenty and the museum for me didn’t entirely put these to rest. But regardless of the depressing geopolitics, as I listened to the recordings of endless answer phone messages from the confused husband stuck in the upper levels of the fated buildings, the flight attendant to her boyfriend, and to the late firefighter, when I looked up at the dense collage of ‘Missing’ messages turned mural to the lost; indeed it was the other emotions from that day – love and human connection – which somehow felt like they had been bottled up along with the dismal preserved grey dust on the memorialised shop floor. They were alive and tangible in the museum space that day.
For all the cruelty, injustice, prejudice and hate in the world, if my time in the ‘land of the free’ had demonstrated one thing, it was that, in the end, it is the more positive human emotions that are immortal and most influential. The US is in no way a completed human project of heaven on earth. Division, for example, is visible whether in the racialised distribution of labour or allegiance to political colours. But for me, the rhetoric is right. The ideals are ideal. The sidewalk conversations, monuments, museums and democratic set up all suggest the US and its people at least appear to treasure tradition, rate reflection and promote progress. They hold their hands up to being a ‘work in progress’. And at least in my time there, for me, Americans were friendly and hospitable. For all its criticisms and stereotypes – and yep, sometimes seemingly justified – these are admirable traits that shouldn’t be overlooked in today’s world.
Such traits can generate warmth in what can be a cold world. And this provides a neat metaphor for the last leg of my travels and a blog post. Physically, of course, my time in January was spent wrapped up to survive New York’s negative temperatures, Boston’s blizzards and Iceland’s…ice. But also, like Lesotho, such warmth has been felt through brief encounters with people that have, unexpectedly, ended up colouring this journey of mine.
Back in Hong Kong I was nervous about spending a second day with Alfonso the Argentine. Perhaps my instinct was right. A few weeks later as I walked around Boston’s quaint street scenes in the snow with new acquaintance Aaron – a windows and doors fitter from Nottingham who had just quit his job to start a new year-long travel adventure of his own – we agreed that there is a balance to be found; between spending time on your own to really see those places on the itinerary, and being open to meeting and having your experience shaped with and by others. This was only proven in my final two days in Iceland as I walked and talked with my final traveling encounters.
When I look back, other than a lot of walking, flights and airport terminals, and a couple of mishaps, two things shape my memory of those 5 months:
1. That first moment where you approach some stunning naturally, culturally or historically significant scenery
2. The people I shared an experience, big or small, with.
WASHINGTON’S WARMTH STEALS TIAN’ANMEN’S THUNDER
There I was sitting in New York Senator Kirsten E. Gilliband’s office in the Russell Senate building. Kirstin wasn’t there. I didn’t know who she was. But it was my second full day in Washington and I took up the offer from a fellow spectator at the Washington Pirates Vs. Orlando Thunder basketball game from the night before.
I happily agreed to take a post-game photo of ‘Bo’ with his brother and mentioned how this was my first time in the US and to a basketball game. He invited me to visit his office the next day to collect some free passes for the Houses of Representatives and Congress at Washington’s Capitol. As we got talking in the New York senator’s office the next day, the professional but instantly warm Bo mentioned that he was actually visiting South Africa and Lesotho soon for his first missionary trip. We bonded quickly and before long I was enjoying a personal tour of the historic underground electric train with Bo’s intern colleagues from the New York Senator’s office. I now felt a long way from the trauma of Tian’anmen Square, but was enjoying the rewards of continuing to pursue trust and the adventure of people’s leads despite my fingers’ recent Chinese burn.
Starting conversations, opening up to new possibilities beyond my own making; such things proved challenging to me at times in those five months. But when I have, on most occasions it quickly became rewarding.
Feeling a buzz from the excellent and entertaining NBA game and the encounter with Bo and his bro, I decided to go for a midnight wander around Washington’s landmarks.
That day started with a conversation with a girl from Texas and her Brazilian roommate over the hostel’s free pancakes recommended by my mum via her Trip Advisor search. “We’re quite flexible”, Texan Theresa reassured me after inviting me to join them to explore Washington. We didn’t get through as much as I might have wanted (partly due to Brazilian Kenny struggling with the cold weather), but the conversations, especially with Theresa – an aspiring Psychiatrist of Singaporean parents who was visiting Washington for one of many school entry interviews – made up for this.
Having spent all of the next day enjoying the tour and watching American politics in action at the Capitol complex, I was determined to spend my final full day in Washington passing through the Smithsonian’s museums. The following morning closed my time in Washington with the latest in my series of ‘world travel runs’, feeling good as I past the more modest than imagined White House, circled the now thawing Reflecting Pool and climbed the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. One last time I took in the profound feeling of standing on the exact spot of ‘I Have a Dream’.
After leaving the decent ‘Duo Housing DC’ Hostel, I reached the Greyhound coach and found a seat, only to be joined by Brazilian Kenny who was making the exact same journey to New York. Following the slow start to bonding the day before; our 4 hour bus ride felt more like 4 minutes. After enjoying some real American fast food at Times Square, by the time we separated at the Empire State Building I really appreciated Kenny’s company as I got to know her better, learning about life in Brazil and her year in New York as an au pair for the Italian family she was about to be reunited with.
THE WALK AND TALK THAT THAWED NEW YORK
Portsmouth University graduate to the left of me, former Portsmouth navy officer to my right; this is not how I expected my first New York night to be.
Multiple colourful conversations were crossing the bar that we – the two Portsmouthians, the ex-seaman’s English travel buddy, a Brooklyn artist, a wonderlust Brazilian lawyer and a business analyst from Chicago – were propped up at. This first night at ‘The Local NYC’ hostel in Queens quickly escalated from what was supposed to be at most a short and quiet advantage-take of the hostel’s complementary drink on arrival. It was 2am before we knew it. Tom, the business analyst had passed out, the British lads had gone to bed ready to move on to their year in the southern hemisphere, and Dhruv (the Pompey graduate and boxer, and Southsea resident) and Ken (the local artist who had been offering some wise life and relationship advice) were ready to hit some more bars. Then before I knew it, after having going back to the room to pick up my wallet, I woke up in my bed and it was 4am. This time the sleep disruption wasn’t because of my normal dodgy sleeping patterns. Instead, my bed felt colder and wetter than it should…
Thankfully, despite my fear that this apparent return to my 9 year old self was a consequence of my first drinks on my travels, a rushed and concerned check suggested this had nothing to do with an incontrollable bladder. It apparently had more to do with the drunk Australian sleeping in the bunk above me, his now empty bottle of water on the table next to me, and what I can only guess was a disliking of the snoring of a crashed out Englishman. I guess not every encounter was so warm or comprehensible! Over the next few days, conversation with my Australian roommates (who would sleep in the day, go out at night and aim not to return until the next day) didn’t really progress any further. And I didn’t think it worth it to discuss the slightly cold and wet elephant in the room.
Instead, within hours I found myself in a local restaurant enjoying conversation over a hot curry with my other roommate. I explained my failed Indian travel plans to Adesh from Gujurat who was staying at ‘The Local’ until he’d found himself some accommodation as he began his two year marketing course at NYU. The food and conversation was great and it wasn’t long until Adesh was planning my next trip to India, before I had to return along the snowy streets to the hostel – Carnegie Hall was waiting.
Tom, the Chicago business analyst, had recently graduated in marketing but has a stronger desire to open a cannabis farm for medicinal purposes in one of the states where it has been legalised. He was in New York for the first time to watch an old school friend perform a recital as part of Yale University Percussion Group. The night before at the bar, before he had passed out, Tom returned from a quick trip to his room and presented me with a spare free ticket. If I had learnt anything in Washington from such opportunities it was to take them! Tom seemed happy for the company.
Tom’s friend lifted up his shirt and begun to play the coconuts on his bare chest. This would not be an ordinary percussion performance anywhere, let alone I doubt in this grand historic music venue. Indeed the Musical Director’s welcome mentioned Yale’s tradition of pushing the boundaries of percussion performance. Witnessing Mauricio Kagel’s ‘Dressur’ was indeed that – I started to wonder if Tom’s farm wasn’t already up and running. It was an extraordinary performance in many ways and the more sober walk afterwards with Tom through a cool Central Park was probably needed! Conversation was sometimes a little short between us, possibly at least in part due to Tom feeling the effects of the surprisingly excellent American ales and his tequila shot from the night before. But I learnt how he had recently begun participating in his company’s ‘Biggest Loser’ challenge and was determined to win, losing the last few pounds since his wake up call from a past failed relationship. He also wanted to take up the Banjo.
Just about managing an evening in a local ‘dive’ bar enjoying conversation with the Yale percussionists before grabbing a slice of pizza, with Tom due to fly back home the next morning I started to think on towards some of the planned trips for my time in the Big Apple.
‘Northeast Braces for Historic Blizzard’. These headlines came from the CNN tower across the road away as I sipped my post-run Iced Coffee in a café a couple blocks from 5thAvenue, the next morning. As with my first days in Lesotho, my current location was once again appearing on the BBC News website ‘top stories’ headlines.
Not only were my New York plans likely to be scuppered; was I about to see the final legs of my itinerary also fall apart? With the ‘blizzard’ still seemingly in its early stages, I wanted to at least make sure I experienced the 9/11 memorial. So with a quick subway Express Line ride back to Court Square and 23rd Street, I got showered, changed and back on the subway until the end of the E Line: World Trade Centre.
Humbled by my time in Lower Manhattan, I made my way up the west side of the landmark filled island beside the Hudson River. The New Jersey skyline’s visibility was as lacking as the number of people using the walkway and in stark contrast with the traffic that seemed to all be travelling together in the other direction.
Though the snow really was starting to come down now, I was determined to at least fulfil the second spot on my list of must-dos; ‘The High Line’. A long time ago I was told about this piece of urban gentrification mastery from my Transport Planning colleague Mark. As I anxiously battled the increasingly snowy promenade, I was warmed up by my excitement as I reached the converted elevated freight line. What started as a local voluntary movement in the early 2000s to save the elevated rail tracks from demolition has grown into a striking rejuvenation of a prime Manhatten location now filling with tourists (in the summer), art studios, restaurants and shiny condos. It’s hard to know who the intended or eventual beneficiaries of this gentle gentrification are. I don’t know who was here before it kicked off. As I approached one of the entrance gates, I wasn’t getting closer to knowing the answer.
With the quite intimidating gritters and emergency vehicles out in force and 11pm set as the mayor’s curfew time for roads and closure for the subway in this ‘city that never sleeps’, after grabbing an overpriced but impressive burger and fries I was resigned to an evening in the hostel. The sociability levels of the hostel – like all hostels I stayed in – was mixed with many faces lit up by laptop and mobile screens. Sadly I wasn’t an exception. Putting my phone down, I decided to lie back on the huge comfy sofas and enjoy the films playing on the projector; ‘Karate Kid’ and ‘Stand By Me’. As these American classics were rolling, I was becoming increasingly conscious of a bare-footed brunette laid resting and phone-browsing on the sofa next to me. Feeling the urge to strike up conversation, unfortunately this was one of those occasions where my anxious shyness got the better of me. As the credits rolled for Stand By Me, it was time to head for bed and stand by to see what fortunes would come from the forecasts.
“I’ll go with you”. How these words made me shudder with frustration the next morning. Not quite the open-minded, easy going world wanderer I’d like people to believe hey? And even more shamefully, the words were from my NYU student roommate I had enjoyed warm conversation and hot food with just 24 hours earlier. Maybe I can blame it a little on my English reservation – how dare someone presumptively impose themselves so directly on one’s plans? Why not play by the rules of the social tennis game of hesitantly beating around the bush to slowly work out if both parties desire company? The rest of the blame was attributable to my inescapable introverted preference for solitary adventure on this given day.
My eye contact wavered, I slightly mumbled my bodged pre-planned itinerary. I remembered back in Lesotho Cat telling me of the importance of being true to yourself and honest to others. Then the words “Yeah sure, why not?” left my mouth. Okay so not quite the complete social specimen yet, I said something about quickly needing to check a few things before we get going. ‘Strangely’ I soon found myself sitting at the other end of the hostel, where a quick check of the snow – which fell short of the forecast but created enough media hype for most attractions to close for the day – turned into a drawn out sit down search on my phone for flats at home. All too easily the planned wander with Adesh begun to slip my mind. I don’t write this as some kind of boast but just to try to give a more accurate picture of myself – flaws and all. My social psychological minefield then went into overdrive as I looked up from the ‘Right Move’ App search engine to see that the brunette girl from the night before was now sat down directly across the same table, again scrolling through her phone. Again nerves took over as I tried to decide on a suitable conversation starter and whether she even wanted to hear it.
As if having headphones on and staring at her phone didn’t make the situation confusing enough, my Indian roommate finally returned – but not to join me as I was expecting. Since we agreed to spend the afternoon together about 30 minutes earlier, Adesh had not only introduced himself to his new Brazilian brunette friend but made plans for them to visit East Village together. A kick in my teeth for not starting a conversation the night before? Or for being so antisocial with Adesh? Does he even care? A sign that I shouldn’t be so more willing to talk to someone because she happens to be an attractive girl? Or a reminder that my heart and head actually remains in a distant warm land in the southern hemisphere? These probably shouldn’t even be questions that cross someone’s mind, let alone when they’re on a trip of a lifetime. This may not be so interesting to read but such social situations occupy these pages as much as they did my mind on my travels, starting with the curious escaping Jehovas Witness acquaintance at Dubai airport back in August. At least it meant I finally got to say hello to the brunette as Adesh briefly introduced us before I was reintroduced to my solitude once again! Everybody wins. I guess.
While the social awkwardness and lack of forward planning for the day led to quite a random walk along Williamsburg, a trip on the ferry in an unintended direction and a visit to the unimpressive UN building, I did enjoy Grand Central Station and the first Burrito since the lazy hot political refugee September days in Clarens with Chris, Cat, Moses, Rene-Paul and his Parisians. I was now sure that an extra day in New York was necessary and spent the evening glued to the laptop screen making new accommodation and travel reservations.
Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans
These words have stuck with me ever since the summer of 2006 when an old school friend introduced me to “Beautiful Boy” during our interview for my university dissertation on Britain’s steel band culture. When traveling, as German Tom taught me in Beijing, a fulfilling experience is more likely with an actual plan in place. As the day before demonstrated, while sometimes aimless wandering in a new environment can feel free and lead to new experiences, as they say; “a goal without a plan is just a wish”. The pleasure in trying to fulfil a plan, perhaps, is the unexpected, unplanned, cracks in between, the diversions along the way and the surprises that result when these are pursued.
John Lennon’s famous lyrics from the track were apt for my final day in the city that took his life on the year of its release. I finally took to the re-opened uplifting High Line, gained a clearer view across the Hudson River, reflected on WTC one more time, consumed a disappointing overpriced hot dog on Wall Street, enjoyed a free Statten Island Ferry ride for a bitterly-cold meeting with Lady Liberty and view of the Manhatten skyline, walked passed Brooklyn Bridge, had lunch in the upstairs of a curiously uplifting ‘Whole Foods’ supermarket, had a brief and cautious re-encounter with the Chinese in their ‘town’, warmed my insides with a Union Square market stall’s one dollar ‘Hot Cider’ (boiled Apple Juice), passed Madison Square Park and walked the length of Broadway. I hesitantly pondered for a long time at Times Square’s ‘TKTS’ over whether to buy 50% admission for Jersey Boys (as recommended by a German hostel guest in Washington) or climb Rockefeller (as recommended by a friend back at Christmas). The $83 ‘half-price’ theatre quote decided it for me and so Rockefeller it was – and I was very pleased with the stunning experience resulting from that outcome.
The fulfilling final day was achieved through having at least half a plan in place. But it was the evening spent with my Indian roommate and new Brazilian brunette acquaintance Debora that was perhaps the most memorable and unexpected part. The three of us relaxed on the sofas talking about the pleasure of three people coming together from three different continents, connecting and talking about our similar personal goals and plans. Although Debora told me of her ex-boyfriend she was hoping to return to having finished her stint at Disneyland, we got on well. I didn’t mind. I found that my conversations with like-minded travellers normally revolved around our personal relationships and experiences, and career plans. “You should stay another day” I just about remember Debora saying as I started to get too relaxed and sleepy on The Local’s big sofas. Maybe I should have. But this time my existing bookings for the onward journey and finances suggested that would have been one diversion too many.
After a day of walking it was a real shame I started to doze in and out of Debora’s mobile phone slideshow tour of her Facebook pictures. She was thankfully forgiving, with my last memory being a cartoon with quotes in Portuguese which Debora was explaining to me was about reading signs…
Now it Seems Everyone is Interested – Aaron.
Another hostel; another attractive Brazilian girl. This time I struck up conversation almost immediately and quite confidently as we stood at the muffin stand of the new good quality and ‘sustainable’ ‘HI’ Boston hostel. While comfortable, the encounter was quite short as the girl pointed to one of the ‘many’ Britons she said were staying at this hostel, who arrived from upstairs to join us at the counter.
Nobody believed he would go through with it. Now it seems everyone on Facebook is interested in his life with each post attracting ‘likes’ from a random range of friends and acquaintances, some he hadn’t heard from in years. For the last ten years his window and door fitting occupation left Aaron from Nottingham feeling like there was something more he wanted to do. That was to travel the world. Enjoying the first week of his own year-long adventure plans, the vast majority of his time was set for life in New Zealand after a short trip through America and Canada. We both joined the Freedom Trail tour, finding out about each-others’ circumstances in between the guide’s accounts of Boston and the US’ founding.
With the tour complete, my impulse was to invite Aaron to join me for a good old American ale. More than the fact he seemed a nice guy, maybe quite patronisingly I felt a responsibility and ability on offering some kind of wisdom from one person finishing a life-long dream trip to another just starting out. I felt there was also something I could learn from our conversations. To me, our encounter was another ‘sign’ I was willing to go along with and was something that maybe was supposed to happen for both of us.
Again maybe patronisingly, as we walked around the rivers and streets of Boston, I warmed to Aaron’s commitment to making his trip a reality and got quite engrossed in his story of how the family he knew of recently expanded significantly after being reintroduced to his father. With daytime drawing in we brought our Boston wander to a close, grabbed a Dinky Donut with neither of us eating since breakfast and returned to our conveniently located hostel on Stuart Street. All of a sudden I felt much more a part of this space that was a stranger on my arrival the day before.
This inclusivity was reinforced further as I sat down with my sociable Senegalese roommate ‘Demain’ that I had met before. As I had offered earlier that day, I joined college soccer (football) captain Demain to search for possible accommodation in Boston which would allow him to start his online degree course, funded by a scholarship attached to his promise on the pitch. I had tried to help calm his anxieties and frustration earlier that day having been told he was on the last of his 14 days maximum stay at the hostel and was running out of money. My advice drawn through an account of my traumatic days of the stolen passport – and the eventual passing of the problem – seemed to help. As with Lesotho’s ‘military coup’, my passport palaver and Chinese burn, this is one of a handful of stories that have transitioned over time from shameful episodes of my incompetence and poor judgement that I was going to keep a secret, to elaborate ice-breaking tales I enjoy telling, reflecting on, and in quite a twisted way (probably for those very reasons), am somehow quite glad now did happen. Life is indeed what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.
I was impressed with the smoothness of check-in at Boston airport before embarking on my transatlantic flight. Some of my time on IcelandAir was spent enjoying ‘Hector and the Search for Happiness’, a recently released film about Hector (Simon Pegg), a psychiatrist who puts his job and girlfriend in England on hold and travel the world to research ‘happiness’. Hector experienced exploits in China, Africa and the US before returning home with refreshed eyes and an understanding of how the tapestry of all emotions are where he can find happiness; something that is right in front of him, at home.
I Wear my Heart on my Sleeve – Molly
“That’s my problem too, I wear my heart on my sleeve”, Molly admitted to me as I finished my account of my foolishness in the Tian’anmen trick.
With only a couple of days left of the 5 month adventure, encounters were now coming by thick and fast. It was as if the ‘too-little-too-late’ Debora acquaintance, probably combined with my growing consciousness of the looming journey’s end had given me a much needed wake up call. I was only half-awake as I boarded the airport shuttle bus in the early morning darkness to reach the Hlemmur Square hostel/hotel. But without the normal internal deliberation I immediately said hello to the other minibus passenger.
It turned out that Molly and I had been on the same Icelandair flight, one that I enjoyed with my neighbouring passenger; a friendly Norwegian researcher whose wife is his sister’s husband’s sister, introduced to him by his sister’s husband – a world record holding long-distance runner. “Anything is possible if you want it”; his words in our conversation echoed loudly with those of New York artist Ken’s during that late night in Queens. Molly also almost booked the same hostel. As she left the bus just before my stop, I kind of kicked myself for not exchanging contact details seeing as we both had the same plans of not doing much on the first day.
After a short jetlag-fighting nap in a quiet corner of the Hlummer Square lounge, I stepped out of the front door into the cool Icelandic air, travelled one block, looked to my right and there it was. Stunning. And so unexpected. So unplanned.
In my very brief time there, I felt that Reykjavik was a little like Maseru – although of course also completely the opposite – a capital of a curious country with passionate people surrounded by a beautiful and inspiring natural environment. My planned exploration of the high street diverted almost immediately as I walked down to the waterfront to admire the scenery. I eventually drew myself away again and started to move on, looking up only to see a vaguely familiar face passing the other way. Doubting my own memory and eyesight, I carried on walking but was soon approached by Molly as she turned back to say a hesitant ‘hello’.
Conversation in flow, we agreed to explore town together, introducing each other to our travel circumstances, the reasons and decisions behind them, and our goals and plans, while enjoying more spectacular views. Molly (or Marley, as I thought she was for the first day and a half) was my second Texan travel acquaintance. She said she wouldn’t have seen half of the things we encountered had she not met me that morning. That somehow made me feel good; like a useful travel buddy in the way Rene-Paul was during our early political refugee days at the beginning of this adventure. A cake-maker from Dallas with a love for Ireland, Molly had just accepted a permanent position despite also being offered a place on a furniture making course – her new passion.
Molly decided she wanted to join the same Golden Circle tour that I had planned to be on for the next day. We also agreed to meet up again in the evening and I gave her my mobile number and Facebook name (…my name). Having recalled my Beijing trauma as we walked the Reykjavik streets, I joked that I’d been in this stranger-trusting situation before and that I couldn’t work out how she would make her money from this!
…That evening I sat in the hostel, no Whatsapp or Facebook message…had I put her off? Did Molly get a better offer? Did I fall for more elaborate lies once again? Have I not learnt anything? I went for a walk alone through the attractive night scene of Reykjavik town centre, passing warm looking couple-filled restaurants and buying a new cosy Icelandic headband having now lost both of my woolly hats (one in Beijing then one in Boston). I returned back to Hlemmur Square for a beer before bed and felt a little down that my second to last evening was spent alone. But I soon got over it.
Having picked up most of the tour group from our respective accommodation, the GeoIceland bus stopped outside Molly’s place. There she was. “Well this is awkward”, I thought to myself. Molly sat down behind me, said ‘hello’ and quickly explained her failure to find me among Facebook’s Andy Bullocks or on Whatsapp. Do I believe her? As she mentioned the girls she met the evening before at her hostel, I wasn’t so sure. “I even walked up to your hostel to see if you were there but didn’t want to look like a creep!” Maybe she is telling the truth. Who knows? Really, who cares? As Reykjavik’s late sunrise arrived and we headed for the ‘Golden Circle’ a sleepy GeoIceland full bus were in for a treat of natural phenomena and hysterically dry humorous tour guiding. Molly and I took to the tour together and before long continued where we left off the day before. After the fun of the geysers, we sat down for lunch together as I learnt about rednecks, Dallas politics and her Britney Spears moment (my joke) with her dramatic haircut after her last relationship ended.
A warm round of applause was given to our excellent informative tour guide after completing his introduction to his adopted Iceland, its history, geology and elves. I said a half farewell to Molly not knowing if my rearranged Northern Lights tour would be defeated by a second night of cloud cover but would open up a chance to take her up on the offer to meet up that evening. I returned to my Hlemmur Square 12 bed hostel room to warm up.
The Skies Begin to Clear
She offered me a can of beer as I sat on my bottom bunk, explaining to me how her four-pack was at least cheaper from the store across the road than Reykjavik’s expensive bars. Still awaiting email confirmation on the Northern Light tour, my new German acquaintance Tina – a nose-pierced, dark haired fan of ‘The Smiths’ and other similar English music (but unaware that Bach lay under the cathedral flaw of her hometown) – decided she’d like to join me. Within hours we were sat together in another minibus as another expert and enthusiastic tour guide got to work, this time chasing around snowy western Iceland in search of a cloudless clear sky and the forecasted ‘factor 3’ (of a possible 9) natural light show. Our small group of curious tourists standing outside of the bus staring upwards in hope were, eventually, not to be disappointed. Phenomenal.
My final rest in yet another comfortable and quiet hostel bed was followed by a final morning run. Given the temperatures and having somehow reached this momentous day; the last of my travels, I wasn’t sure if I was going to be in the mood to run. But thankfully I woke up with motivation, thinking of that sea view I could be running alongside. My run circled a frozen lake occupied by early-rising girls playing quite a serious-looking game of football (how different but yet so similar to the likes of Senate and Jabu 10,000 miles south). I then once again reached the scene that greeted my first day in Iceland.
Having returned to Hlemmur Square and packing for the final time in a hurry to not be charged an extra night for a late check-out, I joined Tina for a final wander around town. We enjoyed an Icelandic hotdog from a famous stand in a car park that had once been visited by Bill Clinton. We were impressed with the stand’s modesty – staying so small after all its years of fame – but not so much with the hot dog which only bettered that of Wall Street’s thanks to the sauce. Tina from Leipzig enjoys her travel agent job – sometimes her week is better than her weekend, she told me. She is enrolled in a Human Anthropology though isn’t that bothered by it and loves to travel, including with her family as their only English speaker. My question about her longer-term career plans was met with an observation of her friends who had ‘good’ jobs but were stressed, worked all hours and in the little spare time they had, would try to find things to spend their money on which they then wouldn’t use anyway, or would take all-inclusive package tours somewhere but not actually experienceanywhere. Tina is more than happy to just travel. This was interesting.
I took Tina to the frozen lakes I had discovered that morning before we said our goodbyes at Hlemmur Square with a nice warm hug, and I departed for the airport shuttle bus to embark on my final flight first dreamt up almost a year earlier. As I waited for the plane to join the runway, I emailed a couple of lettings agents about flat viewings and begun to browse the movie menu before deciding on ‘Horrible Bosses’ – Molly’s recommendation the day before.
Life Warmed Up: I Had to Go There to Come Back
I landed at Heathrow Terminal 1 that evening. I came to find pleasure in this part of the journey; arriving at a new airport or station with luggage to hand, moving into a new land. But here at my last stop, like Michael Palin’s end to his 80-day journey that had inspired this trip a long time ago, I was greeted by a distinct lack of fanfare. What refreshment facilities there were in T1 were void of life and overpriced. There was only a trickle of people around, none of course interested or aware about my personal traumatic experiences or triumphant completion of a life-long dream journey. Why would they be?
Although the lone customer service shift workers were friendly enough, there was little to greet me in this absolute contrast to my welcome at King Moshoeshoe 1 from Chris, Livho, Stume and the pre-school onlookers, followed by the whiskey with Moses and Cat at my new Caledon Road home, that amazing food and atmosphere at No.7 – complete with Manax’s shining smile, an introduction to Tess and Wayne and my concern over Chris and Phoka’s increasingly animated debate in Lehakoe over who owed who what for Chris new squad of football kits.
The soon terminating – in the name of national progress in a global marketplace – Terminal One lacked the grandeur of Abu Dhabi’s terminal décor. The National Express driver had as much Customer Service as the tip of the little finger of the Peter Pan bus driver who took me to Boston or the barmaid who made conversation with me in a random pub when I arrived there. The transfer between plane and public transport was in no way like Hong Kong’s seamless shuttle service to Kowloon.
As I sat down on the coach I was greeted by a rattling of old overhead luggage compartments and a trickle of other passengers with eyes fixed on phones and iPads; no friendly conversation as was offered on the Washington Metro. But, unlike my cluelessness at Beijing station or absolute stress and painful helplessness at O.R.Tambo Airport, I did at least feel a sense of comfort in the familiar and predictable. Yes, I know this place and these circumstances are now far less exotic and exciting. But had the adventure really terminated at Reykjavik International Airport?
As I was confronted by the lights of Midtown Manhatten having reached the ‘Top of the Rock’, I was immediately reminded of a conversation I had with my old Geography uni mate Ben as we sat at the top of Tokyo tower. This took place during my visit in 2008 – the year I had embarked on a career in Transport Planning and Ben an English teaching job at a school north of Tokyo – and laid out our aims for our ‘20s’; careers, travel, family. Standing at ‘The top of the Rock’, I thought back to that as I looked over the New York skyline while partly listening in to a couple of apparently newly acquainted curious and open-minded young travellers. The maybe Korean guy and English guy in their early 20s were sharing their own innocent fresh-eyed observations on the world and adventures. Mine and Ben’s own conversation most definitely planted a seed in my head about exploring more of the world and the ’30 Stops’ idea.
I forgot again about the young wonderers, gazed over Manhattans lights, reviewed my life as it now was and wondered, even considering the past 6 months of adventure had I fallen short of my goals set out in Tokyo? On the face of it, maybe. As I try to finally complete this blog post on my thirty first birthday, over a year later, though, my view has changed.
Sure, the trip made me slightly more decisive, assertive and patient as a person, as were my original aims. I was a bit more informed on ‘Development’ now and pleased to be able to put certain global cities into a local geography and some personal context. I certainly came across some staggering sights and humbling people. And while of course not everything went to plan, the two biggest misfortunes became my staple stories in conversations, such that they were no longer regrets. In fact, it was perhaps these moments that I now consider ‘Life savers’. These events found me more desperate, confused and soul searching. They made me dig deep and try to understand the world and my place in it.
I knew it was right to go away, even if I didn’t entirely know what I was looking for. Like Hector’s search for happiness and the Alchemist’s search for his treasure, it is back at home that it has started to make more sense and become clearer.
In fact, it was here all along. But I had to go there to come back.
I returned to work like I had never left. The graduates were thriving and the team’s project load was high. I re-entered the ‘pan room’ and all of its complexities and commitments. The percussion group folded in my absence. Challenges lay ahead. I found this new beautiful spot by the sea on day one of my return.
For each flight I took, the take-off from Johannesburg and its sudden drop and screaming passengers (causing me to instinctively grab the thigh of my fellow tall blonde female German passenger) was fresh in my mind. As each plane reached the runway to take off and my nerves knew of the possible turbulence ahead, I’d make a vow. I prayed. To date, I’ve kept that vow which had its origins in my time with Moses at Maseru’s Pioneer Mall, and grew with all the experiences since. The adventure didn’t stop at Heathrow arrivals.
It was a shame to not use my Indian visa that was a bit of a stress in obtaining before the journey began, and to fail to conjure up some words that could express my gratitude to the No.7 and Social Enterprise team at my ‘leaving party’. I lost a camera, a torch, the four of spades, my passport, drivers’ license, charity petty cash, a coat, my sanity at times, a hat in Beijing and a hat in Boston. But I found a lot more.
Some of my most vivid memories are with the complete uncertainty on my first day of the journey as we headed for the South African border, my panicked rush around Johannesburg Airport, and driving back in silence after a day out that ended with a punch up in the back of the car I was driving, and stopping on the side of a Lesotho road to diffuse the situation in the middle of nowhere. Vivid memories also exist in that late night blog drafting in the Pretoria guest house garden as I awaited my emergency passport; a time of helpless deflation repeated again as I ran back over the afternoon’s conversations while I sat up in the Beijing hostel on my final night in China. I remember the feeling of awkwardness when I failed to overcome my shyness with the Brazilian brunette in the hostel in Queens. If I wrote the script beforehand I doubt any of these events would have happened. But these cracks in the plan – amongst all the many, many happy memories of people, places and events I remember now – provided an invaluable time of growth.
While these might be considered cracks in my plan, they are increasingly clearly part of what I had first heard about in Pioneer Mall’s cinema; that bigger plan for me that I do not control and is already written. These cracks happen while I’m busy making other plans, as John Lennon puts it. They are all emotions – warm and cold – that colour our time here on earth. My job is just to keep the faith (especially in the more testing times and environments), make the effort and look forward to life happening in whatever way, whenever and however it is planned. I am reminded of this with every scene and soul I encounter and must be thankful for along the way. If I keep my eyes and heart open for that, no doubt I will ‘find myself’, after all.