The trip of your lifetime (and the very shit bus)

“Your work is to discover your world and then with all your heart give yourself to it"
- Buddha  

It’s a strange impulse, but there it is.  This inclination to board a rickety Thai bus and ascend a couple hundred kilometres of hills in trembling, groaning first gear. Inevitably, I spend an hour on the side of the road sweating in tropical heat courtesy of a blown tyre, and a further hour due to mechanical failure. Then forty minutes while the driver disappears mysteriously into a small shanty. All to end up 9 hours later in a tiny town that no one has really heard of. 

I attempted travel before, beginning in my late teens with a backpack called Bruce for company. I say attempted, because for all my wild adventures in exotic locations, I never made peace with the chaos and wretchedness that is implicitly part of travel. I resented the plastic bottles burning outside my idyllic beach bungalow on the not quite-Robinson-Crusoe-enough beach. Whilst I could laugh off the non-stop-express minibus journeys in Southeast Asia that in reality involved changing vehicles no less than six times as well as an extortion of dollars for an imaginary ‘visa-fee’, it was harder not to be freaked out by the bellboy trying to bang down my door at midnight in Bangalore. And when arriving in a hillside village where there was really very little to do, I restlessly wandered the streets wondering if there was something else I should be doing.

At some point in my twenties, I washed up on a silty green Cambodian beach lined with shoulder-to-shoulder beach shacks, banana lounges and seafood buffets for $5 (food poisoning gratis). I was reeling from a mid-travel break-up with the boy I passionately loved, but was evidentially passionately destroying. Our last night together in a shitty $2 guesthouse the bed shook with the force of his sobbing. Losing him was losing everything I had believed in.

Dismally I checked in alone to a rat-infested bungalow and sat down for a beachside coconut, where a Lesbian couple immediately adopted me. Lisa was a blue-eyed Dutch woman with her peroxide blonde hair shaved short except for a cockatoo Mohawk. Her Israeli partner Ana was all soft brunette curls and warm brown eyes. They introduced me to bisexual Dan, an English man so tanned and toned to perfection that he no longer matched his pasty accent; and Jerry, a shaggy bearded, obese middle aged American who I accidentally gave the wrong impression to one night by drunkenly leaving the key in the door of my bungalow after he walked me home.

Illustration by Kate Gillett
I lived for a month on that very average piece of coastline. A month of late nights under stars and high tides washing in and licking feet dangling from bar stools. We would all sleep until noon, migrate to sea and sand for the afternoon, and roll into dinner and more late nights of conversation, dancing, drinking and smoking. Every so often we’d hire a boat, meander out to an island with a deserted beach and exchange stories of each other's lives. Ana shared her heartbreak about wanting a baby, but how difficult it is for gay couples to do so. Dan tried to explain to my regimented brain just how he fell in love with a person, not their masculinity or femininity. Jerry in general kept us laughing with self-deprecating humour, except for one late night when he poured out his secret sorrow, whose story is forgotten but whose desolation remains poignant and shadowed always in my memory.

In those salt-crusted days, my hair growing into dreadlocks and my eyes washed clear by the ocean, I felt myself unfurling. I was miles from everything I knew. Far away from family, friends and the conservative Christian and Australian communities that had written out my rights and wrongs. Nobody knew who I was. I didn’t know who I was. Unbound, with no fixed references, no identity, I was free to respond to each moment instinctively, as it arose. Without the filters through which I previously strained experience, life gushed into my senses, thick and full.  Meeting no resistance, it laid open my skin, until I was utterly porous and permeable. I saw just for a moment in time the illusory nature of these boundaries, and tasted the possibility of unwinding ceaselessly and who knew to what end?

Paradise isn’t somewhere we catch a bus to. In Cambodia, as in most places, there was still trash drifting in the ocean, rats in my shack, and obnoxious noises over-riding the whispering waves. Even if by some perfect miracle the physical environment paused for a moment of perfection, my own habits, fears, insecurities, tendencies were lurking ready to pull me down into murky places in the midst of my sunbath.

The magic of travel is only that it takes us from the known, to the unknown. It removes us from our world, our network of relationships, our culture, our responsibilities.  Our conceived ideas of who we are. Travel places us in everything we never knew existed. If its really good travel, it takes us somewhere exceptionally uncomfortable.

As many a voyageur has noted, ultimately the only journey we are taking is one within. There is nowhere else to truly go but into our own skin, our own inescapable reality. The bones we clunk around with us wherever we go. And whether it’s on patched up buses in South East Asia, or deep into the night with a screaming newborn baby in our own home, eventually to really live, we must cut ties with the known, travel onwards, and inwards into the unknown.

If we lucky, there are people along the road who comfort us, call us forward, and hold us back from hastening down perilous sidetracks.  Invariably though we must come to stand forsakenly alone, in a wilderness entirely our own.  Naked and bare in the ugliest of places: stuck somewhere between Town-Armpit and God-Damned-Nowhere, an alien solitary woman on the side of the road. Or too many hours isolated with the baby and toddler, the murderous thoughts dreadful. Out of shadows stride all the parts of ourselves we have cleaved away from our conscious sight. Everything we have removed from our awareness, eradicated from our socially-endorsed identity. The parts that have stood waiting to meet us on our journey inwards. For we are all craving wholeness.

We may set off seeking paradise, a domestic bliss, a satiation of success, but what we crave is a homecoming to everything within that we have abandoned.  A reunion with some impossible but true source. The union of course requires an utter surrender, like the act of love and sex, a letting go, a release of the self, a dissolution. You know, in the end…

But for now, this now and every now to come, it’s enough to just drum up the courage to set out. To place one step on a path whose end you cannot imagine but whose destiny lies coiled in your DNA. This is the only journey. The rest is distraction. Comfortable distraction, perhaps, such as poppy fuelled dreams are comfortable. You will delude yourself that you are happy. But while you are busy with enraptured illusions your body will waste into ribs and sallow skin. Your soul will scream achingly beneath the white noise of your minds utterances. You will hunger. But you may slumber on, for there is opium aplenty. And who would choose to leave the hazy warmth of a dream to instead turn and face this body long neglected and now contorted with the wounds of your neglect?

Who would choose to get on that damn rickety bus?

"The result is that you either come to grips with yourself or else turn tail and seek some other spot in which to nourish your illusions. Which leaves a whole universe to roam- and who is to care should you never come face to face with yourself?"
- Henry Miller*
* Because what's a blog post without a little Henry? 

“The longest journey is the journey inwards, for him who has chosen his destiny, who has started upon his quest for the source of his being.” 
– Dag Hammarskjold


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