“Freedom is a strange thing. Once you’ve experienced it, it remains in your heart and no-one can take it away.”
– Ai Weiwei
There are many dreams to be had, out in the void. So dream a little; go on. Cast yourself out.. which will be yours? For there are dreams, and then there are dreams: dreams that inspire and dreams that scare; dreams that offer insight and dreams that serve only to muddy the waters. It almost seems self-evident: that these esoteric adventures would be as varied as the people that dream them. For dreams do much more than distract us from sleep.
Late at night, when your subconscious is hard at work and you drift between worlds, what dreams do you dream? Do you dream of escape and exploration, adventure and freedom? Are they dreams of the open road – stories with no predetermined endings? These are the dreams of lost travellers, waiting to be found. Maybe we’re all waiting.
For all the variations there are some dreams we share – even if they are dressed in different clothes. It doesn’t matter if it’s a week on the beach in Thailand or jungle trekking in India – the allure is the same. It’s the prospect of no work, no obligations, no worries: a holiday to end all holidays. And if we don’t all share it then there are at least enough of us dreaming for it to take on mythical status. Indeed, getting overseas is nigh on a right of passage for antipodeans, isolated as we are down at the bottom of the world.
Year after year sees screeds of us packing a bag (or two – you know who you are), saying teary farewells and flying north in search of all the adventure we can imagine. It doesn’t matter where the plane lands or what you do when you get there; everyone does it differently. It’s about getting out, “seeing the world” and all the excitement that prospect entails.
Travelling, for me at least, has a touch of surrealism to it. It seems to defy the belief we create in our own permanence and, as a corollary, our importance. One day you’re in familiar old Aotearoa, slipping round in your jandals with a Fruju then BAM – a disrupted sleep and some average nosh later and it’s the bustle of Khao San Road, Chennai or London. You haven’t changed but there you are, in a totally foreign locale, feeling different – or at least like you could be different; and, if you’re anything like me, wondering how the fuck you got there. (I know, an Airbus A380… I’m talking metaphysics, ya bish).
At times it really does feel like you’re a different person. All those months of penny-pinching and hard work in the lead in and then you’re free to drift, spend the cash, drink till the sun comes up and then do it all again. I guess this is what life must be like for some people, rock stars and the like. Except they have to perform, deal with media, fans and all the hassle of being famous. I just got to swan around and follow my nose (sometimes literally – whatupmolly), backing up night after night in different cities: London, Berlin, Paris – almost repugnant in my indulgence.
This time travelling was recorded with a tinge of nostalgia already fully in place. I couldn’t help it. Can anyone? Sure, I was in shitter clubs and on shitter drugs than the rock stars, but mine was an existence free from obligation. And so many of the people I met were on the same buzz: a veritable army of drifters, schlepping from hostel to hostel, chasing that dragon.
So we all chased together, sort of, and in its own way it was glorious: new friendships, challenging environments, freedom and perspective. Many of these experiences transcend any particular location, no matter how delicious the local cuisine or nightlife – and I think that this is what makes travel so damn addictive. We can recreate the glory; reach the destination that is the journey – time and time again.
But with the glory comes an associated sadness. This is the paradox of travel: transience as a gift and a curse. Impermanence means that the bad is good, because it cannot last: “All things pass. This too, will pass.” There were many times I repeated the mantra – sick and lonely, hung over on another shitty bus, missing friends and family – and, in the absence of anything else, its tautology was comforting.
But the same sword cuts both ways and that which is good is bad, for it too cannot last. It is what we leave behind that informs the tragedy of travel: friends who will never all be together in the same place; stories that will never be told quite as we intended; and memories that will never get to be shared with the people who understand them best.
And it is this truth that bands nomads into tribes and tribes into towns. We need this permanence and an acceptance of the ill its absence creates; otherwise how could our good times have any substance beyond the moment?
When the time came to come home, I was ready. Or so I thought. It was strange to find myself back at Mum’s place, a year on. It’s the surreal again, creeping in, reminding you that yours is a life characterised by transience. Nothing seemed to have changed in my absence; I slotted in with old friends and soon learnt to hold my tongue. No one cared where I’d been, really, and accounting for my absence soon became tinged with tedium.
I felt like a stuck record, glossing over any formative experiences I might have had with a token “yeah, it was great man – really good times” – as if this window dressing somehow undermined the value of my travel. But it didn’t, and doesn’t – not really. Travel, like any other process of self-exploration, is inherently personal and you don’t have to tell everyone how sick the clubs in Berlin are or how spiritual your time in India was. They probably wouldn’t understand anyway.
So how to deal with this inevitable comedown? Initial struggles fade, and eventually normalisation occurs. You lose yourself in “the dream of daily life” and the teething problems pass, for the most part. This isn’t the dream that pulled you away, but that isn’t to say it doesn’t have its own merits. After all, what is life, if not a series of overlapping and interwoven dreams?
You’ve got your memories and, if you really wanted, you could go back. Things mightn’t be the same the second time round, and there is always the risk that in trying to recreate a feeling you will cheapen the original memory; we mess with the past at our own peril. How does that mantra go again? (All things pass, but nothing is forever).
I’ve adjusted to being back at home, now. Now I just go out on weekends. I get up in the mornings and do my washing weekly, for the most part. The so-called “reality check” called and was answered; life ticks inexorably on. I have a routine, familiarity and process – but I certainly haven’t forgotten the memories.
To drift permanently would be to lose some of what makes the escapism and wanderlust so special. So we come home, regroup and plan our next trip. We talk about the memories to others who get it, who’ve been where we were and who understand the allure of an open road. In the absence of new adventure, these shared memories sustain.
My story isn’t finished yet – no one’s is – and there are always more memories to be made. Somewhere in the wilderness new roads await those eager to explore, and in the minds of those that know, the dream lives on…