This was first published on 1 Dec 2016 as a travel-diary account on http://milestowild.tumblr.com. It was written shortly after the author returned home from a 33-country ride across Europe, Scandinavia, Russia, Central Asia and Iran.
To my dismay there was no serenity to be found in paradise, only an anguished regret that I’d discovered this kingdom of steel and fire just to leave it behind.– excerpt from travel diary, September 2016, Tajikistan.
Half a year on the road, and I was healthy as a bull. Never had to break out the arsenal of medications I packed, never missed the expensive thyroid drugs that I’d left behind. But not a month into my homecoming, I’m delirious with fever and a throat infection, holding rambling half-awake conversations with imaginary Russians in my bedroom. It gets so animated that mom rushes in with a mug of hot porridge water, but then I’m too distressed because I can’t remember how to say ‘cucumber’ in Russian*, and it is as if the last of my hobo skills have abandoned me.
What nobody tells you about coming home, is that your idea of Home is now completely, irreparably changed.
It’s only been months, you say, some people travel for years. Aha, what they’ve also not told you, is that time is relative. It is possible to cram the amount of living that most people do in five years, into five months. This accelerated living is not just about the adrenaline-surging mountain passes, the Kyrgyzstani horseman who caught you peeing recklessly by the hillside, or the magnificent wine-clams that make a killer Instagram feed. It’s also about reclaiming your joy in the mundane. The fragile solitude of your 30-dollar tent. Struggling through laundry after a long, soggy day in the saddle. 50-cent loaves of bread. Repetitive, routine engine oil checks. Yes, a person could very well live a lifetime in a brief few months.
(A side note: Some people go away, then return with newfound Zen equilibrium, and now even the poop floats out their ass on annoyingly righteous clouds of enlightenment. Not me. I’m still as clueless about the mysteries of the universe as any of you – probably more clueless than before I left, because I’ve swallowed too many puzzling sights along the way. So this is certainly not an attempt to dispense wisdom from the imagined heights of some post-travel pedestal. This is just me trying to make sense of me.)
Home is the familiar and the safe. It’s where you feel comfortable squatting around in yesterday’s underpants, tweezing your toe hairs. This is true for my bedroom in the westlands of Singapore, and it is also true for any reasonably dry and bear-free field in the world where I may park my motorcycle and pitch my tent. The difference is, I’ve never woken to a sweaty, suffocating panic in my tent, desperately trying to figure out where I am and what’s become of my bike.
For the first week after my return, my bedroom played host to these night terrors. The panic attacks have stopped, but now I still wake with a hollowness beneath my throat, the result of missing something I could never put a name to in the first place.
The rather un-romantic truth to most real-life adventure stories, is that the hero ventures forth into awesomeness, but inevitably returns to the same place from where he started. The same constellations that baptised you in some wild desert of Tajikistan, now still hold fort overhead, albeit much more veiled and unreachable. The only thing harder than getting your foot out the door into the unknown, is coming home to the familiar and the safe.
Home is an extension of identity. Sure, that’s why we plaster our walls with WWE posters and clutter our fridge doors with cheesy photo-frame magnets, and insist on that punk shade of purple wall paint. It’s also why our answer to “Where are you from?” has such bearing on people’s first impressions of us.
This makes Home a one-way conversation. Travel, on the other hand, creates dialogue.
What should we explore today? Where shall we sleep? Would it be a good idea to dangle my underpants overnight on the bike to dry? Each day on the road is a dialogue with the universe; a question, a challenge, an answer. Oh, and the people you meet! A traveller on a motorcycle wears his vulnerability like an invitation.
To come home is to contend with a few less stations on your internal radio dial. You’ll miss those stations; they had the best DJs and played the best songs.
For all the platitudes about how travel stretches your soul and tenderly refines you into a porcelain teapot from which the milk of human goodness is poured, I shall gently declare that fuck no, travel could very well also make you into a nastier slice of bitchcake after you get home.
Have you ever returned a nomadic shepherd’s gap-toothed grin, fully aware that in his side of the yard, too many people lead a grim, brutish existence only to expire shortly into their prime, probably for want of a simple course of antibiotics?
Also, when did you last stare down a mountain? Nature is beholden to no man nor ideology. She can confront us with a beauty so powerful and terrible that it mocks our pitiful desires for consumption and possession. We are small, small beyond belief, and for all our rage and fury, we may only snatch fragile memories and a vague grief that each moment passed is gone forever.
Being grateful for the privileges of the city doesn’t make you any less aware of the trade-off. And being aware of the privileges and the trade-offs tends to really whittle down your patience for the extravagant wastefulness of city things, and the petty annoyances of city people. I think a classier way to explain this is Perspective. Sometimes I think a more fitting word is Disconnect.
This time two months ago, I was almost accelerating off a cliff, on a nowhere mountain in a nowhere land, somewhere north of Afghanistan. My toes were crusty from boot fungus. I was madly, unreasonably content. I’m not sure when the next adventure will roll up. For now, I am home and life continues its beautiful and terrible trajectory. So much of it is chance.
*if you must know, it’s огурец.
Cherie went to school with overachievers. She grew up to fully embrace her wicked, underachieving ways and made art, rode motorcycles, wore dinosaur costumes to inappropriate places, and was generally awesome. She has recently discovered that the optimal number of underpants to pack for world domination on your motorcycle is 2.5.