Travelers often debate the relative benefits and disadvantages of going home or of “settling down.” Actually, it’s not a debate at all; it’s a one-sided shitting contest, where settling down are evil words, like “children,” “full-time job,” or “showering consistently.” And I get it. For some, home is anywhere but their ideal place to live, and traveling is an escape from that.
But for these people, as soon as you go home or find a place to call home it’s like you die—or at least all the parts that matter. The drive and optimism is drained out of your system like a kiddy pool with a hole in it, and your soul spreads out on the pavement; it’s only a matter of time before it evaporates.
“It’s just not the same,” they say. “I went back and everything was really great for three weeks or so and then you realize that no one has changed. And you want to go abroad again.”
It’s depressing to hear. I really don’t want all my cool, optimistic parts to die a slow, monotonous death at the local supermarket and the 9-5 job. And I’m sure you don’t either. But as I looked to leave Australia and end my journeys abroad for a while, I was nervous, and the questions ran over in my head.
The Nunnery. As I returned, buzzing the front door and hearing the soft click of lock as the receptionist let me in, I recollected when I first arrived ten months ago—bedraggled and partly cognizant of the fact that I wasn’t making much sense. I clambered to the top of a bunk bed and lay down. I stared up at a ceiling that would continually change for the next year and reflected that no one on a whole continent knew my name. It was a bizarre feeling.
And now I was back ten months later at the same hostel. It has an ambience here, or rather, it feels how a big city hostel should feel with wood floors, curving balustrades, wandering corridors, rooms and doors tucked away at odd intervals—the whole thing is bit too cramped to be considered comfortable. But—as with any hostel—if you really wanted to be comfortable, you would be at a hotel.
That first night several bedraggled and trampish-looking backpackers were smoking hand-rolled cigarettes in the front entry when I arrived. Such was my state of mind that I took quite a romantic view of the wafting smoke and the acrid smell; somehow it fit with the warm night and the cooling pavement of a new country.
There were no smokers outside today, although the truly dismal collection of stray butts showed that they were puffing right along. By this point, I had breathed enough second-hand smoke to cut my life expectancy down by at least six months. I wouldn’t have received the smokers as kindly now, might have thought something to the respect of, God damn smokers.
Nonetheless, as I made my last lap of Australia, I wanted be back here at The Nunnery, as a bookend possibly, an attempt to try to sum up my travel experience by wandering Melbourne’s leafy boulevards, drinking lattes, lying in the parks, and watching the people meander by. Melbourne, like The Nunnery, defined my expectations of Australia, as someone I caught a ride with commented, “You flew into Melbourne? Well, you’ve seen the best already.”
I was ready to swim in that sea of people, ready to be unknown, ready to be back. Many travelers don’t like to return to places they’ve already seen, but as much as travel is focused on new places, there is something to be said for the process of revisiting. Or put another way, the pleasure of knowing where you are going can be equally as thrilling as not knowing where you are going.
It’s much the same with novels. Some you read once, and once is about good enough. Others return to year after year, taking a different, maturing joy to the same sentences and characters. The rush, the what’s-around-this-corner feeling of the first read fades but a deepening appreciation takes place, as you recognize certain characters and returning themes.
It’s a sign of the certainty and depth of novels or cities in your life, if, when you introduce them to others, you experience the same sort of joy and breathless anticipation as introducing someone to a close friend. You hope they’ll love those books, cities, and friends as much as you do, despite the fact that experiences never translate directly.
Melbourne was one of those cities for me, and like a friend, I wanted to see it again. And so I was back, and there was some coffee to be drunk.
The Nunnery. Usually “free” is good in the sense that the box labeled “free” at a garage sale is. The problem is quality and more often than not quantity. Do you really want a world atlas when Russia was still the U.S.S.R. or a broken foosball table? Well, probably not, but… it’s free. Suddenly, that little voice that says you actually don’t have any place or desire for a game you never play shuts up—thank God—and the evolutionary impulse to grab and bury whatever you can takes over. Hell, you’d probably take three foosball tables if they were up for grabs.
At hostels, the concept of “free” is no different. A hostel in Adelaide I stayed in advertised a free breakfast that turned out to be two loafs of white bread and a half empty jar of marmalade. Despite the fact that this was the most miserable, miserly meal to qualify as free I had encountered yet in my travels, I still managed to cram down a fourth of a bread loaf with marmalade. I don’t even like marmalade.
It also happened to be sweltering in Adelaide, the main strategy quickly becoming to lie spread-eagle on top of a bed in your underwear with the fan swaying energetically overhead, and it was where I awoke in thrashing terror, thinking there was a spider in my bed. Both of those things certainly made for an interesting night. There’s nothing like watching a fan careen over your head at two o’clock in the morning, dehydrated, certain there’s a spider the size of a baseball mitt under your bed.
At times, free things can work in your favor, however. The Nunnery had free breakfast—and a good one at that. So at eight o’ clock I made sure to be there before the rest of the greedy hostel mongers could get their hands on it.
I soon encountered my first obstacle of the day in front of the tea and coffee. A large chap with blonde hair and a vast billowing sweatshirt draped like a shawl bent over the instant coffee, effectively blocking the route to everything else. But hey, early in the morning, we’ve all been there. I shoved my hands in my pockets and stared out the window.
After awhile, however, my attention drifted back to see if any progress had been made. As I watched him making his cuppa, I decided he was the closest human equivalent to a sloth that I have ever seen.
The process of making an instant coffee is not, shall we say, difficult. You don’t need a degree, dedication, skill, or even the intelligence of your average golden retriever, but this man took an easy task and made it a study in dogmatic intensity. He painfully gathered sugar into a spoon from the sugar bowl and navigated the distance between bowl and the coffee cup with a tenuous concentration, like a three-year-old trying to write his name. Then another wandering spoonful, then… another… then water…
A girl came and stood next to me for a cup of tea, but seeing the situation, stopped and gave me a questioning look. I recognized her from dinner the previous night; I had tried my damndest to initiate a conversation and to draw something out of her day to distinguish her from everyone other traveler.
Twenty-four hours per day is a fairly long time if you think about it; it’s a long time for something, anything to happen. But even with my truly heroic attempts to siphon anything even marginally interesting out of her (and I have pretty low standards), I failed dismally.
We did, however, share this moment—an interesting moment mind you—of staring at the back of the sloth’s head while we patiently turned impatient.
Finally something must have registered in his brain that people were behind him, waiting for him to move one foot to the left. He turned slowly and looked at us with bleary eyes, as if we had just shined a spotlight in his face.
“Oh… sorry. I’m a bit hung over.”
It was then I decided that it would be really grand if I didn’t have to stay in a hostel anymore. While I understand the concepts of drinking, having a good time, and the subsequent vomiting, headaches, and feelings of regret, I was weary of the repercussions of something I didn’t even get to enjoy.
I was sick of a kitchen full of dishes with caked-on goop, of a bedroom full of backpacking shit, of sleeping with eight people in my room, of the same repeating conversation, of dealing with people. And plastic bags. I was really sick of plastic bags.
Those bags are incredibly useful, and most backpackers, including myself, have a sizeable collection at their disposal. But there’s nothing quite like waking up at midnight to some godforsaken soul crinkling and rustling and mashing his bags; it will turn even the most decent chap into a mass murdering maniac.
One evening I lay awake for at least thirty minutes, eyes clamped shut as visions of shooting the backpacker with increasingly large firearms ran on repeat through my brain. When I awoke in the morning, I glanced at the table in the middle of the dorm and saw that every single item had been wrapped in a little plastic bag. Every single goddamn item.
It seems after ten months in a spread of hostels around Australia, I had become a bit of a grumpy old man—an old man with occasional, irrepressible violent thoughts—which is definitely not something Lonely Planet’s Guide To Australia will warn you about. It was a sign to leave. Yes, time to leave.
The Flying Fox Hostel. As I returned to the Blue Mountains, where I spent eight of my ten months in Australia, I wondered how I would leave. While Melbourne I enjoyed because I didn’t know anyone, because I could melt into the crowd, I enjoyed the Flying Fox because I had connected with the people. I knew individuals from working and living; there were stories behind buildings and faces instead of question marks—the difference between “traveling through” and “living in.”
And it was harder to leave. Living in a hostel, or living anywhere with travelers really, you encounter the question—leave or be left? It’s like the question of when to leave a party, whether to head out early and worry that the party will go on after you leave or risk being the last one with nothing but a half a cup of warm beer and silence as company. Either way, you’re sad the party is over.
A hostel is in constant flux, and you can return relatively easily after traveling the country. However, you may find the place you once knew has completely changed—and not always for the better. Like a footprint on the shoreline, your imprint is washed away with the next wave of people, a story unknown.
I stayed through four distinct generations of long-term travelers, watching them coalesce and disintegrate, as one person decides to leave… then another… then the rest. Each time the hostel reinvented itself, new people came and gave a distinct energy. And with every departure came a goodbye—a process that practice never really made perfect.
The truth is goodbyes are much easier to avoid. They tend to be heavy, filled with memory and nostalgia of past days, the whole process leaving you looking like a washed-up snot rag. It’s much less painful to slip off into the dawn without telling anyone, and I’d done that a few times. But in retrospect, leaving without a farewell said something I didn’t necessarily want to say.
The act of saying “goodbye” is an assertion not only that something happened but that it was good, that the relationship formed was meaningful. Whereas skipping the farewell insinuates nothing happened, at least nothing worthy of note. If a relationship is a sentence, then a goodbye is the period, and leaving without one is the comma, an awkward drifting off into nothing. Goodbyes are hard because the sentence is over, and no one knows if there will be another one. But they are absolutely necessary to complete a sentence.
It took me awhile to realize this, and I’d trailed off into a comma one too many times. But now I was leaving and not looking to come back; and so, this time I made sure to say goodbye.
New Zealand. As I returned to New Zealand—a country I had spent a deeply enriching and enjoyable year before Australia—I was wary of overwhelming nostalgia, of being lost in looking over my shoulder, of… sadness, really.
Walking out of the airport to pick up my rental car, I gazed in wonder at the snow-capped mountains hustling their way in the misty rain and fading light. There’s really no other way to describe it other than wondrous. Even the air is better, earthy and fresh, like what every Febreeze scent aims for but only real Manuka can provide. As a very wise ent once said, “The smell of the air! I could spend a week just breathing.”
I made my way to the small back lot to find my rental, which was called “El Cheapo” on the rental paperwork. I found it parked conspicuously away from the better models, an old Nissan Sunny that wanted in pep or any defining characteristic besides that of being past its former glory. The Sunny was a car that was never designed to look really good; even right of out of the dealership the average consumer squinted and said, “Meh, I guess she’ll do.”
What it lacks in for body design, however, El Cheapo certainly makes up for in price, although they do warn you about the transmission on the rental contract, a five-page packet with print so small the more clauses you read, the more dyslexic you become.
I can’t say for sure that I was adequately prepared to drive on the left side of the road again. The last time had been six months previous in a godforsaken campervan, but I circled “extremely confident” on the agreement they make you sign before leaving—so on paper I was certainly feeling optimistic. And after a brief unexpected lap in the parking lot, I was soon barreling as fast as my car could go, which was not very fast.
The whole experience was unreal. I expect places to stop existing when I leave, as if I’m a child who hasn’t progressed past the object permanence stage. But now I was here, once again driving the roads I’d thought had stopped existing, with locals hounding me up the steep mountain passes. I swear that Kiwis have no concept of how dangerously fast they are going—or how dangerously fast they would be going if I weren’t in front of them.
I peered through the window as my wipers swished occasionally. I’ll admit the mountains were inspirational, which isn’t anything new really; it’s exactly what every prosaic motivational poster says in dentist waiting rooms. They have “REACH HIGHER” in bold font next to a gorgeous shot of Everest but, of course, fail to address the fact that mountains are inanimate objects. How can a vast edifice of rock, dirt and snow inspire anyone? They don’t have any choice to be mountains. They can no more stop what they’re doing than can large heavy pieces of furniture or climate change deniers.
Nonetheless, I felt inspired by those vast, inanimate objects. I felt good about life and all of the things that involved. Rain, no rain, here, there, now, then. I was happy to be back.
“Do you like dogs?”
“I like Bentley.”
Bentley the bull terrier looked at us with doleful, almost bashful eyes, the type of eyes that say “please oh god, pet me, oh please, please, please…”. While I am not prone to loving accolades to dogs, Bentley is my favorite dog and will continue to be so as long as I live.
He doesn’t lick; he doesn’t smell; he doesn’t bark; he doesn’t shove his head in your crotch with the determination of a miner digging for gold. If you do give him a pet—and it’s really all right if you don’t—his tail goes into a barely contained frenzy knocking down whatever happens to be behind him. In essence, he is the best dog I know, and if he still had his balls, I would certainly recommend him to any female dogs I know.
I was bunking with Bentley, so being on good terms with him was a must, as my friend Anke noted,
“If you don’t like sleeping with Bentley, you’re more than welcome to sleep outside.”
It was while curled on the couch, preparing for a night’s sleep without any plastic-bag-shuffling bastards in the room, that I discovered Bentley’s only fault—snoring, the loud grumbling schnucks of an old man. And whenever he’s not snoring, he’s smacking his lips—like he’s in a dream and discovered a giant cache of peanut butter.
The couch itself wasn’t much to speak of either, and I could see why Bentley chose the chair next to it. My feet hung off the side; I could only fit lying down on my side. And it certainly wasn’t the prettiest couch; it was a putrid shade of green popular in the 60s but at no other period in history would have been considered acceptable. The back of the couch curves so that you inevitably have your chin jammed into your sternum, eyes leveled at your crotch—especially when you slouched. And who doesn’t slouch in a couch? That’s what you do in a couch.
And yet despite the fact that the couch was fairly awful and that old man Bentley was suffering a minor nasal meltdown, I was content. The last nights at the hostel had not been kind, more plastic bags and fitful nights of sleep to disconnected music. Not to mention every morning I had awoken at five thirty to greet a Frenchman who was just going to bed, which was fairly bizarre.
More than a night in a room alone, however, I was content with the reconnection with both friends and place. The worry that I couldn’t return or tap into somewhere filled with memory had dissipated. It was an exercise in remembering the past but not being weighed down in it and appreciating who was left here while realizing I wouldn’t stay.
“So how long have you been here?”
I turned a bleary eye to the taxi driver. The warm yellow streetlights passed by outside.
“A couple of weeks… I think.”
It was four thirty in the morning—not a time known for stimulating conversation or feeling optimistic about anything, especially taxi drivers, especially taxi drivers that want to talk.
“And you’ve enjoyed it?”
As I offered less and less in the way of answers, he began to understand that conversation was difficult for me at this stage. He turned his attention to the road and careened wildly towards the airport, getting there in record time, in much less time than I had planned actually.
I don’t know why I always get to the airport so early. Well, I do actually. It’s my parent’s fault, who live in perpetual fear of missing the plane. Over the twenty-four years I’ve been traveling with them, I don’t recollect being late or even having to stroll a bit faster to catch the plane. And still, with the anxiety of a baby without a pacifier, we hustle into the car and rush to the airport at god-awful hours of the morning.
Yep, most people are still pouring a bowl of cornflakes while we’re waiting at the gate, waiting patiently for an airplane which is still over southwest Indiana. I’m not exactly sure what they expect to go wrong that could take all that time—whether the car will break down halfway and we’ll have to walk or we’ll have to haggle down the price of the ticket at the check-in desk.
The terrible irony of the whole thing is I’ve inherited the same fear. As the taxi driver sped away into the night, I realized the airport wasn’t even open. The doors were locked; the check-in terminals empty; there was nothing but stretches of empty carpet.
As I slouched on a bench in the cold dark and stared at the phosphorescent glow of the parking lot lights, I decided I was cold and it was dark. And that this was not a good start for a final journey.
But then, far off in the dark, I heard a blackbird, twittering its blessed heart out, keen to be alive. I was—of course—reminded of The Beatles song, and thinking back on it, I don’t believe I’ve ever heard a blackbird at night. It was a slightly surreal experience to be having at five in the morning—one that made it seem slightly less cold and slightly less dark.
Home. People have always said that certain parts are the climax of your life. Childhood is said to be the best thing, the time of untrammeled enjoyment and innocence. No job; no responsibility. It’s downhill after that. Or maybe it was high school? The rush of the new freedoms of driving and voting and smoking, of friends in your hometown, of not worrying about the future, of looking forward to college. But, wait, what about college? Certainly you can’t beat the closeness of friends, of responsibility without serious repercussions, of being independent, of studying and parties and classes you enjoy. Or maybe the rush of new love? It must certainly be the pits after that. Or after your first child? Parenthood can’t be much fun. And after traveling? Jesus, kiss your freedom and happiness goodbye.
The “greatest time of your life” people and travelers who argue against post-travel are usually the loudest and most persuasive. But quieter voices on the edges of conversation actually like the concept of home (wherever that may be), of returning to a place that may not change as quickly, of being with people who remember and hold a place for you.
It’s strange because to me one of the main reasons “home” is comforting and desirable is exactly the same reason many don’t want to go back—the constancy, the people, the routines of family and work. How long can someone last in an environment of constant movement, of no roots, of no continuing friendships?
As I returned to all the places I had been and loved in some respect, I didn’t feel the need to stay anymore. The constant change of travel had been disorientating; the flow of people in and out made me callous. For home to change as well would be even harder. Imagine if you came back and everyone—all your friends and family—were gone, and it was just an empty place. Imagine a life full of empty places. For what is the soul of a place but the people that inhabit it?
And yet for many people travel has an exalted reputation. Travel seems to be the answer, but many haven’t figured out the questions they’re trying to answer. And that matters quite a bit, if you think about it. Environment certainly contributes to happiness, but as far as your problems are internal, it’s near impossible to escape them, no matter where you are. When travel is used as a band-aid for unhappiness or a sick soul, it usually falls off.
I thought about these things as I approached the end of my journey—having said my farewells to New Zealand and Australia. I walked along the sidewalk to my home, the last segment of a long trip. The sky was blue; the weather warm; the last leaves of autumn still drifting off the winter-ready branches.
After two years with a pack on my back and my front, it was the last walk—for a while at least, and the questions of life lay open. Will it be the end of optimism and fun? Will I spend the rest of my life at a job I dislike? Will I while the rest of my days in a grey denouement?
I don’t think so. The truth is there really isn’t a golden year, a fantastic time for everyone, a one-time, use-it-or-lose-it moment. Even when you’re traveling, life is much more mixed than anyone wants to admit, where peace and happiness can occur at any point as well as depression and pain. And I think realizing that is key, wherever you find yourself in life.