It was 5am, the dirt-streaked, dust-choked city still cloaked in blackness. We sat on a long, weathered-wooden bench, bone coloured in the pale glow of the single dirty light bulb swinging above my head, sipping bitter, watery tea from thick glass mugs. Two women, stern and solid with huge work-reddened forearms resting on their knees sat to my right, perched like brooding hens on huge plastic sacks of vegetables from the morning market we had just driven through. They regarded me stoically, unblinking; both nodding at me quizzically as they chattered away in Bahasa. We had arrived in Jambi around an hour earlier, dumped unceremoniously from our bus onto the side of the road on the outskirts of town like so much rubbish, left to flag down a ride from a cruising truck. We had travelled for 18 hours to get here, and we didn’t even plan to stay.
We were trying to journey overland from Sumatra into Java, making our way through Indonesia slowly on trains, buses and boats. But it seemed that Sumatra, having grasped us in its claws, was reluctant to let us slip away so easily; and we had spent hours and days cramped onto buses, stuck in remote and dusty towns, our plans delayed and cancelled and dead-ended by out of date information and overpriced rooms.
I don’t need or expect travelling to always be easy; in fact I often make an effort to find journeys that offer a challenge, to seek out adventure in places that don’t readily cater to tourists. I don’t have a problem with it being hard. But this was different; it was too hard, and for the first time it didn’t feel like it was worth it. I love the freedom of travel; the rush of waking up in a new city, or the lulling drift of being in transit, allowing myself to be carried to places new and unknown. I am home when I am moving. But here I felt adrift, anchor-less and scattered; lost rather than free.
Eventually, we were so stuck and tired that the only thing we could do was to fly away, and we bought plane tickets to Jakarta. Waiting at the airport, fraught and exhausted but clinging to the tantalising promise of that first step onto new ground and the proximity of all that it held, I watched as the departures board flickered. Our flight appeared, punctuated by red letters – delayed indefinitely. The realisation was there, suddenly, arriving with immediate crystal clarity in the way that reality surfaces a heartbeat after you stop dreaming. I’m not supposed to be here. We’re in the wrong place.
I have never been very good at treading a set path. I change my mind frequently, and I follow my intuition without fail. I am a wanderer, a procrastinator, a buyer of one-way tickets. I believe that the universe has a way of signposting things if you stop long enough to look around, and sometimes you just have to ring the changes, give it up and listen to your soul. It wasn’t the right time for Java, and more than that; after 11 months, it felt like Asia was done with me. I’d pushed it too far, too hard, for too long. I’d seen so many sunsets and journeyed so many miles. When you look up into a sky painted with the gold and pink and orange of a thousand dreams and your heart doesn’t swell with wonder, or you feel the warm water of a glittering azure sea on your skin and you can’t remember how lucky you are; that’s when time’s up. That’s when you know it’s time to change direction.
We changed our course that very night. We flew to Kuala Lumpur, and jumped straight on an over night train to Thailand. We took a ferry to Koh Phangan, found a hut right by the ocean and spent our last days in Asia wandering the deserted beach, zipping around the winding hill roads on a motorbike and eating at the night market. A week later we took the train up to Bangkok, and left Asia the next day on a flight bound for Italy. Three weeks in Rome and Sicily, and the money finally ran out. So I came home.
It’s been an amazing year. A year in which I’ve learned things that my heart and mind still struggle with, and a year of experiences that I don’t yet have the words for. I’m home, and it’s temporary, and it’s ok. I wake every morning longing for the road, and that is what will push me to get back on it as soon as I can. For now though, there are other adventures to have. Finding my feet again in a place which I appreciate so much more now that I know what it is to be anchor-less. Venturing into the next stage, knowing that exploring doesn’t always mean travelling thousands of miles. And planning for the next journey – because even when it’s the end of the road, there is always, always a beginning.