One of the questions long-term travellers dread upon their return is: “so how was it?” You’ve spent three months or more out of the loop, straying from most everything which formed the makeup of your life before, and here’s an old acquaintance asking you to sum up your experiences in a few insignificant sentences. I find I can’t quite bring myself to exclaim what is expected of me; a one-word outburst of “amazing!” followed by a stream of overused adjectives, none of which can really do justice to the world I’ve just come from.
Yet do not mistake me: it isn’t through arrogance or ungrateful ness that the prodigal globe-trotter dispells and despairs at such questions. In fact, she wears the world on her sleeve, bearing the marks of her wanderings, inciting and inviting inquiry – but her recoiling is a result of her own disappointment at realising that travelling is something which is a lived experience, and that by comparison, its verbal replicate is a flat balloon, robbed of the elation that comes with seeing new places all the time. It can be hard to come to terms with when every day used to feel like forever.
Because it simply isn’t possible to describe this kind of travel in conventional terms. People ask, “how was it?” – as though multitudes of cities, all the nuanced cultural quirks you’ve picked up on, all the different and indescribable personalities you’ve spent time with, all the otherworldly sights which have met your eyes, can be narrowed down to a single pronoun. It’s almost like asking, “how was the first six months of 2015?” Well how indeed? How is what is simply life? With everyone taking gap years and air travel becoming more affordable year after year, there’s a tendency to view a long period of backpacking as a necessary rite of passage; a life-changing-ly significant but ultimately transitory, one-off experience conducted in the throes of youth, before you take on responsibilities and get serious. As though something life-changing doesn’t have permanent effects, and can be cast off and remembered as a singular “experience”.
In a few days I am returning to London, the place I am so lucky to call home, and I’m expecting such questions. Luckily, I won’t be subjected to reverse culture shock as strongly as if I’d come straight from South America – my past few months in North America and Europe have allowed a mostly painless transition back into the western world. And what better place to touch down? I gave my heart to that city a long time ago, and for this reason there’s a gravitational pull urging my return, to which I’ll always be happy to give in eventually. It’s not somewhere I come back to with the usual dread that things will be exactly as they were when I left – no, London is ever-changing, and it’s continual metamorphosis is what keeps me so excited by it.
Travelling is a wonderful life, and it’s the only life I want. But it’s still a bubble the way work is a bubble, the way being a student is a bubble. You don’t miss anything because you’re so free and happy, yet that freedom still confines you to particular spaces and to a particular life. And it can make you weary. I’m tired constantly; I’m bored with delayed flights and crap, expensive airport food, with not having my own kitchen to cook in, with living out of a bag and having to repack every couple of days just to haul it onto my tired shoulders. I’m exhausted by meeting new people, by always being on the move; by having no money and no purpose other than finding the next place to stay.
I’m not ashamed to admit that travelling is tedious at times. It’s no betrayal to myself, nor to the nomadic lifestyle, to admit that I miss my home comforts. I miss my bicycle, I miss Tesco, I miss reading the newspaper and my Economist subscription. I even miss having some kind of routine, despite this being the main thing I sought to disrupt.
I miss London most of all. London in the summertime, with its outdoor festivals and the sunny splendour of Hampstead Heath. London which has brought together my favourite people, my most beloved and inspiring friends. London with its endless opportunities for exploration, its self-contained diversity; its Sunday markets, its bookshops, its old buildings and 15th century crooked streets, struggling to contain all the modern world. London where I was born, where I came back to, where I wandered as a hapless student and will do so again. London where I fell in love, and fall in love every single day that I ride through it and feel so grateful to be there.
And so as the end of my time abroad draws nearer, I’m actually excited. I know I’ll be planning the next long trip within weeks, yearning to be away again. But I love my city with so much vivacity, I look upon any time I spend there as an adventure in itself. The backpack will be staying at the back of the wardrobe for now.