It’s around 8pm and a low, strong wind tugs at the grubby clothes that hang from the line on the opposite roof. There is little sun left, so I pull at the curtains and turn on the light. The atmosphere in the room feels as tender and heavy as the clouds outside the window, trembling with post-storm tension. We have spent most of the day at the embassy in Guatemala City, and most of the evening arguing about what to do next.
Having our passports stolen, as it turns out, isn’t just an isolated bad experience or a future cool travel story to be told with a wry smile over $2 beers. It has been something of a catalyst, a shock that has loosened resolutions and brought to the fore issues which had been present but buried, the way that worms emerge at the surface of wet soil when it rains.
In that one morning, as our plans hairpin-bend and we face the prospect of having to return home to replace our passports, something has folded within each of us and everything is now a question where it had been an assured response.
Our motives, our plans, our purpose in this journey have become question marks as we struggle, yet again, to overcome obstacles placed in our way. My overwhelming feeling is of exhaustion; I’ve done this before. I’ve been left with no money, I’ve had my stuff stolen, I’ve been hospitalised, scammed, delayed, abandoned, poisoned, broke. Enough now, I think. Enough.
It’s more than the passports, the passports are merely a final straw across the back of a donkey who has been hobbling, confused, for miles already. I’m not happy with the way we have been travelling, the loss of purpose. I am not happy with the lack of autonomy, the constantly frustrated attempts at solitude. I am searching for something that we are failing to find, the reason why we travel; adventure. Discovery. The challenge of the unknown. I am searching for authenticity and finding only sanitised, watered down experiences, organised tours and barriers to exploration on our own terms. The question is circling in my mind – why are we here? Why do we travel, if this is all that can be found?
We travel for the moments in between.
In my mind, these places we have travelled to were wildernesses in which to become lost, to be forced to speak Spanish and hack our way through the jungle and discover local bars where people drink tequila and dance on tables. In reality, we are struggling to leave the beaten track, to find the stories and the adventures that we seek. There’s just too many people everywhere for most of it to feel new, and our usual method of unplanned wandering is merely landing us, time and again, where we don’t really want to be – in the midst of somebody else’s plan.
It’s a re-iteration, time and again, of what I already know; the experiences that are worth traveling for are always the ones that occur off the itinerary, away from the tour groups, miles from the ‘must see’ sites. And for whatever reason we haven’t been able to shake off the clutches of organised tourism here, to seek out those reasons why we travel.
We travel for the moments in between. For the Burmese woman who squats opposite me on a train, sombrely cutting slivers from a mango cupped in her calloused palm and offering them to me balanced on the blade of her knife. For the way the morning sun dances through the narrow backstreets of Kathmandu, circling the smoke that rises from cooking pots and temple offerings. For slipping beneath the cold waves of an early morning ocean, coming up tasting salt and looking back at a shoreline that looks nothing like home.
For travelling with purpose and intention, thirsting for knowledge, open to learning, allowing your mindset and beliefs to be challenged and reshaped by others with better understanding. For allowing yourself space and time to grow and breathe, to be outside, meet people who are like no-one you’ve ever met, eat food that sustains a hunger that has nothing to do with your stomach.
After we are done with the Embassy, clutching newly acquired emergency travel documents tightly in anxious fists, we fly back to Mexico and head for the impossible blue-green shores of Isla Holbox where we stay for the next five weeks. We rent an apartment from a local couple who quickly become friends, and sit around a kitchen table with a plastic chequered tablecloth to eat totopos and drink beer. The guys come in from fishing, and carve ceviche right there on the table, piling it with chopped tomatoes and cilantro. The taste is salt and lime and fire, so fresh it makes your tongue curl, and we learn how to wash down the food with shots taken from half a fresh green chilli pepper.
And after almost four months of travelling in Mexico and Guatemala, after a rainy summer month back in England, after trains and boats and planes and buses, Asia is like coming home after a long, long journey and laying my head on a familiarly scented pillow.
In Thailand I walk to the beach through the dripping palms and the still air, syrupy with humidity. Fireflies nod past, lazy and drunk with heat, drifting with the specks of ash from a bonfire the locals have built to burn branches cut with machetes. The beach is bone coloured under a midnight sky scattered with stars, and I sit on the sand to watch the green glow of the fishing boats on the horizon.
This is the place in which I learned how to be a traveler, and it is here that I feel something that was lost returned to me. The desire to go where others aren’t, to stand alone before the wonder of a world that still feels like it holds secrets. The urge to find stories, the need to explore.
In Vietnam, we rent a motorbike and drive, out of the city, through the oil smeared urban sprawl at the outskirts of Hanoi, to the mountains. We drive all day, though the dust on the road shimmers with heat and our bones ache, unused to the distance. We drive until the landscape changes and we are driving through rice paddies turned to gold in the late slanting sun and dotted with workers in conical hats bent at the waist, where water buffalo twist muddy in the rivers and the land reaches in great limestone fists to meet the sky.
And yes, it’s long and arduous and painful, but as we drive, alone and at the mercy of the road, the same thought keeps occurring to me.
This is it.
This is why we travel.