I got an email a couple of months ago which informed me that my travel insurance was approaching its expiration date. Reading it was slightly surreal, I experienced it as something significantly more than a pinch but much less than a lightning strike: I had originally only planned to be away for six months. How much has changed in that time. How much has changed in that time?
I heard an interview the other day with some old cricket commentator who was retiring. He had one of those accents which makes BBC news reporters sound common, as though his throat was acting as the thumb over a hosepipe of perfectly pronounced words destined to be aired. He had retired and when the interviewer asked him whether it was a sad moment to give up something he’d done for so long he responded that although there were one or two who “blubbed” he was able to remain detached and dispassionate lest everything become “rather untidy”. Which struck me as an almost violently British response.
I’ve never been away from home for this long, 9 months and counting. As time has gone on, and the more I spend time with people from almost everywhere, I’ve become more attuned to moments as “British” as that interview. It immediately struck me as familiar, the ridiculous rejection of a request for a simple display of humanity, and I can’t help but miss it. I hear it’s getting cold at home now. I haven’t been cold for 9 months.
By comparison, when I now go food shopping, I walk into the supermarket and, if I’m feeling emotionally stable, down the “foreign foods” aisle, which is lined with pasta and olives and pretzels and Thornton’s chocolates and it’s all ludicrously expensive. That aisle is a teaser of a level of familiarity so deep, and now so infrequent, it provokes in me the kind of smug smile that only a thick duvet in the depths of winter could help muster.
So I now have tickets back home, I’ll be there from 16th Dec to 6th Jan, message me if you’ll be around. But I guess if I’m essentially “holidaying” back home then that means I live in Medellin now…
This whole trip came about because after being made redundant around the same time the lease on my flat was up, all I really had was redundancy check and a lack of responsibilities. I was looking for work and flats, but in looking for work I had stumbled across the option of volunteering for charities in places like Mozambique and Peru. The company in Peru got back to me first. I figured I had enough money for six months so I told myself I’d volunteer for three months and travel for the other three. Oh, how I’d missed traveling!
I didn’t even know whether I’d go north of Huanchaco after I’d finished volunteering or south. I had no idea what I’d do when I got back to London and I’d been deliberately hasty and rough in my finance calculations so that if it turned out I didn’t have enough I could invert some plausible deniability on myself. Too much diligence in this area might lead me round in a circle to realise I actually didn’t have enough, and that would be to explore the issue too far.
This was almost the first test of traveling, could I still do the no-planning, sort-that-out-if-and-when, fuckit-let’s-see-what-happens approach? And not just in a “shall we go to the pub tonight?” way but in a more “shall I commit at least 6 months and thousands of pounds to something which may well turn out to be detrimental to my career?” way. I think working in an office – thinking through every permutation of decisions, careful career positioning, delicate (or not, in my case) diplomacy and maneuvers – causes one to run in the opposite direction.
I didn’t really know anything about South America. I knew the country names, the fact the Spanish had once taken a trip there, and that there were some big mountains and old ruins. And a sizeable rain forest, right?
I’ve traveled a bunch before, I knew I could meet people and make friends easily, I knew there was a network of hostels loaded with travelers waiting to have fun with whomever walked through the door, I knew not knowing didn’t matter – in fact it’d be an advantage – and that I didn’t need to decide what to do or where to go until the day itself. I knew the infrastructure and personal resources existed not to have to plan. I knew it all without having to think about it. So, off I fucked.
The initial three months volunteering were exactly what I wanted them to be. Scarce familiarity, lots of people to get drunk with, a small surfing town, interesting things to do, new experiences and challenges, no real comfort zone, etc, etc, etc. Then halfway through my stay a flood decimated a series of shanty towns we had been working in. And I was thrown into the best week or two of work I have ever done, and will probably ever do. I remember driving through a shanty town in a pickup truck with water loaded on the back, on our way to dish it out to parched residents of the newly wasted land, thinking “this… is not what I thought I’d be doing when I left.”
I’ve managed to travel half of Peru, Ecuador and half of Colombia so far. Which is only a fraction of the trail which starts in either northern Mexico or southern Argentina and heads toward the other. Traveling was everything I remember it being and everything it was supposed to be. One of traveling’s traits is unpredictability, another is ‘better than you previously had the capacity to imagine’. I knew these two to be true and the potential potency of their combined effect, yet I’m still surprised that these travels have been what they have. I’ve learned things I wanted to know, things I didn’t know it was possible to know and, best of all, utterly useless things. Met some of the best people, who I dearly hope I will be able to meet again, be it by design or happenstance.
As I had been away I clocked on to the idea that I could work online. I was vaguely aware of this “digital nomad” term, but it doesn’t really pan out like it’s portrayed. It takes a colossal amount of work to build a freelance profile to the point where you’re well supplied and well paid enough to doss around traveling. Or it means being a highly skilled software engineer. It’s usually done by people who’ve worked their bollocks off at home, who leave once everything’s ‘up and running’. But the more I thought about it, and the more people I met, the more I realised it might be possible. But, honestly, my attempts were half-hearted.
Somewhere around Ecuador’s southern border Medellin became the point where I’d jump off the traveling train. I’d find work there as an English teacher if nothing else, learning Spanish was proving difficult because there was no one to chuck me in the deep end. Teaching would do the trick. Plus it’d be a way to be far more in touch with the culture. And I’d always wondered what I’d be like as a teacher, I expected I’d learn a lot from it.
But then I arrived here, Medellin, and emailed an online news website which some other traveler had told me about. They weren’t looking for writers but their sister company was a PR firm in the process of building a newsroom. Would I like to be one of the first writers they hired? Despite reservations about what kind of newsroom might ensue from a company starting to hire people with no experience, I accepted.
And it seems to be shaping up well, I’ve realised that all the stuff I used to do – trying to guide and shape the company I was working for – is not actually unenjoyable. It just used to be unenjoyable because I was working in ‘business-to-business marketing technology’. A phrase which brings a little bit of stomach contents to the throat. Moreover, I had to work with leaders of a sales teams, who are, as a concept, arguably one of the business community’s most insidious afflictions on society.
When people left that company and tried to articulate that they’d like to work somewhere they cared about without insulting those who were staying at the company, my response used to be “don’t worry, the phrase ‘i’m passionate about B2B marketing technology’ has never been uttered in sincerity”, which was usually greeted by a knowing smile and a relieved “well… yeah!”
There’s no guarantee of work off the back of anything, journalism must be one of the most oversupplied professions in the history of professions. But, for now, I do know that this is the third time – the first two being my first set of major travels and going to university – I’ve taken a life-decision not because I should or could or because it was “sensible”, but just because I wanted to. And that brings with it a level of contentment unknowable to those who’ve never tried it.
Being away does come with its challenges, things don’t get “shit” or “good”, those concepts don’t exist; circumstances blow right past them to “really fucking shit” or “absolutely fucking brilliant”. At least, on an average day, I can have a cigarette on the balcony looking out over a sunset-lit Colombian valley host to a city so good at being itself. I just need to learn Spanish.