My biggest failing when traveling is overestimating my staying power. I’ll always give myself just a few hours, days or, on occasion, weeks more than I really need. Call it arrogance or a mistaken belief in my own capabilities – or perhaps, sheer idiocy – but it’s the one mistake I never fail to repeat, beating underpacking, undereating and underbudgeting to the top spot. I’ve been at this traveling game for a while now, honing my skills in Spain this year, and in all honesty, it’s a mistake I don’t intend to amend anytime soon.
Why? Because every second counts. Especially the last.
I remember backing out of my last week whilst crossing Spain in the trek of ’13, partly out of fatigue (I’d slept rough in the hills for several nights and lost a shaming amount of weight) and partly out of a harrowing loneliness, the kind of loneliness that really begins to gnaw at you after three weeks alone on the road with only yourself for company (you can only run through the script of your favourite musical with you playing every character twice, apparently…)
I was younger then; quieter, inexperienced, even more shy than I am now. I saw a shot at an early exit and I took it. But those last two days, trying though they might have been, served up some of the most memorable moments: swimming in the crystal waters of the Mediterranean with an entire cove to myself, being chased along the beach at night by men with torches, falling asleep to the sound of the sea and the eerie silence of the lighthouse doing its rounds on the cliffs. Pure Almería. Pure Spain. Pure living.
The same thing happened in Uganda. The last week felt like an eternity when all we really wanted was to be home in time for Christmas, but when the last night rolled around I realized what a fool I’d been to ever want to leave. And my own mother had phoned just days before telling me to make the most of the time I had left. I’ve been kicking myself ever since.
Even in Jordan – dear Jordan – I met my match in our last week. The veil was lifted a little; Amman was no longer the inhuman monster it had first appeared. It was friendly, warm and oh-so-very human. But just as it was starting to bloom, we were on the plane and out of there. Oh, I look back and laugh now; it’s so very easy to do. And trying though it was, I don’t half appreciate it all the more. We all need challenging experiences like that in our lives. And since I don’t go in for drink, drugs, sex or sports, where else am I to find experience but in the open road?
Jordan’s twilight was like a sunset over a battlefield – if you’ll forgive the expression. Suddenly, just for a moment, what was once so terrifying became beautiful. It made sense. The final hours can make all the difference.
Today it was just a couple of hours’ difference: a choice between the 11:25 or the 14:20. As usual I decided on the later bus, assuming I’d find something to do that would fill the hours. That something was looking very much like the first season of Doctor Who at eight o’clock this morning, when my limbs were still recovering from being scratched, scraped and strained in yesterday’s gorse-navigating adventure. A tempting offer.
That is, until I met Roy.
Roy was the only other guest in the hostel this morning. He was bound for Monfragüe for no particular reason beyond that it was a recommended spot, so I told him what he might expect to find and pointed him in the right direction. We’d got talking indirectly – as is so often the case when I’m involved – through a two-way conversation with the friendly hostelier about the impossibility of Spanish accents (a subject on which I consider myself reasonably well-versed). Roy, a native Israeli, had taught himself Spanish through the genius of Michel Tomas during his military service and, after reading Coelho’s The Alchemist, had decided to visit Spain, eschewing the post-military course for India, Australia and the Americas.
Naturally, Israel came up in conversation. I don’t remember how exactly. I think it was because I mentioned that I’d been nearby last year, when I saw the Golan Heights from the Jordanian side. He told me a little about his home, and let me tell you, it was refreshing to hear a little of the other side of the argument for once – or at least, an Israeli approach, as Roy’s was hardly the mainline view. Despite living in the Western World, the last three years have shown me nothing but anti-Israel sentiment. For obvious reasons, Jordan isn’t the best place in the world to go looking for a balanced view on the Israel question, but neither is my own Arabic class. Perhaps the study of Arabic makes us more sympathetic to the plight of Palestine?
I’m not entirely sure what it is, but I was brought up to idolize hooked noses and Jewish perseverance by a mother who spent a very long time searching for her own faith, so I’m not naturally predisposed to see Israel as the enemy it’s often made out to be. Nation and religion should never be mixed, and Israel is the example, but there is something more to a country that still values its faith. I could have visited last year… if I’d been ready. But I wasn’t. For me, Israel is more than just a nation. It’s more than an idea. It’s more than an Instagram on the West Bank. It’s a dream, and when I saw the sun setting over those mountains and went weak at the knees I knew I wasn’t ready. Israel could very easily destroy me… because I fell in love with it. And my track record for destructive love affairs would back me up.
Roy, however, gave me exactly the answer I was looking for. One of hope, understanding, of looking forward rather than back. That, he claimed, was the problem in Israel: there is too much emphasis on the past. The old Holocaust clause; bring it up and you’ve lost the argument. Does Israel deserve the entire landmass? You might ask, does Mexico belong to the Aztecs, or does Britain deserve its former empire? Hardly. Israel has as much right to the West Bank as the Asturian knights did to Granada. These things are gone. History is to be studied and learned from, not brandished as a weapon in court. And speaking of courts, there’s a good deal of finger-pointing going on all over the world, but what good does it ever serve – especially when the culprits are two generations dead and buried and it’s their descendants taking the flak? What is done is done. What is important is to dream and to push on towards a better future… or whatever idealistic tripe should fill this gap.
My apologies. An earthworm could have phrased that better. Personally, I’ve never believed in Utopia, nor would I ever want it. I only believe in hope and the good that it can do. As for the present, I take the Doctor’s approach; the world is perfect the way it is: that is, imperfect. The balance of good and evil, right and wrong. It’s that imperfection that makes us struggle to create a better world, and it’s that struggle that makes us so very human. I see that as perfection. Things could be so much worse than they are now.
Roy’s was a balanced opinion. Here was a man who’d gone through the Israeli military service telling me not of his blind hatred for the Arabs – as a couple of Palestinian cabbies would have had me believe – but of his desire to see the country where The Alchemist began. What is that if not human? There is no “us” and “them”. There never was. There never will be. There is only the future. And it is by looking ahead that we move ahead. Ever tried running backwards?
This is why I travel. This is why I give myself those few extra hours: for conversations like these. For Roy, for Simone and all the other brief and wonderful encounters on the road. It restores my faith in humanity. Trump, you should really give backpacking a try someday. It might just change your world.
I hate to end on a quote, as it seems so abominably unoriginal, but I’ll break my golden rule just this once because a certain Allan Quatermain spiel is simply crying out for this post. BB x
“It is the change, the danger, the hope always of finding something great and new, that attracted and still attracts me.”
Henry Rider Haggard, Child of Storm