They both looked at the chaotic pile they had created on the floor. I would have asked them what they had packed and why they had packed so much, but I didn’t need to. All I had to do was look at the floor covering an entire section of the hostel room to see the countless possessions of theirs strewn across it. This was the ‘bare minimum‘ they could take with them. After several hours of excruciating packing and unpacking and sorting and re-sorting this is what they had whittled the necessities of their trip down to: two fully packed to the brim bags of pointless belongings that enhanced their lives in no way whatsoever. Innumerable creams, tubs of make-up, 2 hair-dryers and a ten pack of ten packs of tissues. It said it all. Culture had caught them. Consumerism had caught them, by the throat.
Though these were seemingly intelligent girls. They were sharp, indeed they noticed I was about to spill my bottle of wine before I did. They could speak multiple languages. One was an English teacher in Spain for a year as part of a university program and could speak fluent Spanish and French. But they still thought that all the things they were carrying would somehow enhance their trip in some way. Somehow necessary. Perhaps it would make them prettier, feel better, or perhaps it’s just the way which culture and society has told them how to live. It has told them that this is the way that is acceptable and expected and you must follow that rule, you must, or you will be an outcast, a weirdo, doomed to eternal humiliation with no hope of ever finding a mate and passing on your hopeless, non-conforming genes and breeding a family of hopeless weirdos. It will never be, because in this life you must buy the cosmetics and carry a full rucksack of hair-dryers and cream that makes you younger.
“So where have you been on you’re travels?” I said. “You’re travelling, right?”
“Yes, we are travelling around Europe, for ummh” she looked like she was pretending to think, to make it seem more interesting, but in fact she knew exactly how long they had been away, because she had been telling people how long since the day they’d left; only now the longevity of their travels seemed to make it more impressive… “About one month now. One month and two days”, spoken like it was a world record.
There was an unexpected silence. They had expected a response from me and I expected them to elaborate. I spoke first.
“Nice”, I said pretending to be interested. I was interested, just not in the mundane number of days that they had been travelling. “Where have you been?”
“Well”, she began, “We’ve done…Prague, Budapest…”, at that moment I zoned out, partially listening to the places that were being said, only so I could repeat them back later and pretend that I was paying attention.
Prague, Budapest, that was enough, I could go on this. Now my mind shifted to the absolute nail, the spear, that shot right through my brain, cutting through every synapse from ear to ear and destroying any other train of thought. So powerful, it caused me to glaze over, the rest of the world momentarily ceased to exist. It was something she had said, something in the first part of her sentence describing her glorious, life-changing, enlightening experience of travelling around Europe.
It was the words: “We’ve done”.
Hang on, I thought, these are intelligent people, one at least of whom is intelligent enough to not only speak English fluently, clearly and with outstanding confidence, but also possessed the ability to teach this language to other people. Surely she meant, “We’ve been to”, or “We have visited”. Surely at least this must be some slip of the tongue, some anomaly in her speech that was later to be corrected? Not so. It was fully intended as an accurate and precise description of their current travels. They had “done” this city and that, completed them and finished them in their entirety. According to them, they had seen all that was worthwhile and there simply was nothing left to be done.
And as much as I wanted to inform these people that there was more out there, that they hadn’t in fact completed each city they had been to, I couldn’t. Nothing inside me at that time could change their way of thinking. They were both completely and inexcusably lost, caught by the reigns of society and culture, the driving force that was telling them they had to do this in this way, that seeing as many places as possible was better than exploring just a couple. I could not save them. It would have taken me all day. But I will say it now.
The world is not some kind of computer game. It is not a place where simply visiting a location and having a drink surmounts to completing a level and then it’s on to the next one. Going to another city and paying for your drink in a different currency and a different language does not mean that you then achieve some sort of international right to say that you have done that place. Nobody has done that place, not even the people that live there. In my mind, no amount of time could pass causing someone to use that language correctly. You could spend your entire life collecting all the little coins, finding the hidden gems, dodging the bad guys and never at any point will it be “mission complete, new high score”. Sure, you might discover most of what a place has to offer, but certainly not, no, absolutely and universally not, in one. Single. Day.
I am dumbfounded by how many times I hear this phrase amongst travellers or at least the people that call themselves that. I feel terrible that I can never pluck up the courage to interrupt them and inform them that they are mistaken. Or just that I now hate them.
“…and now we’re here and we just have Paris and Brugge left to do”, as a swoosh of deodorant burst into the air from the other girl.
“Sounds like a good trip”, I said, thinking how horrible it would be to accompany them.
I am frequently meeting people so inextricably bound to social norms and behaving in such a way that they have completely forgotten that there is another world out there. It is existing right in front of us and nobody, sometimes barely even myself, can see it. It is the world of nature, it is the world outside of cities and towns and cars and indeed farmland too. It is the sea, the unspoilt forest, the untouched hills, the places man has yet to invade and destroy for his own good. It is the places that are so hard to find that some countries I’ve been to don’t contain any of it at all.
If you do decide to go travelling, or indeed next time you go, ask yourself this: Why am I doing this? Personal gain? To tick off a bucket list? Or could I be doing something more worthwhile whilst I’m visiting all these places? Am I just doing the regular tourist stuff or am I discovering something only a local would know? Or better still, something even a local doesn’t know?? Am I really seeing a city or just seeing the part that is wanting to be seen, the parts that are listed on Lonely Planet? The part that says we shouldn’t go there because it’s only got a one star review in the guidebook?
All I’m saying is this. If you are fortunate enough to have been born on part of the planet that allows you to go travelling, that allows you to save up enough money, and you are lucky and bold enough to find the time and courage to do so; please, please at least make an effort to see outside of the walls that are containing us. Speak to a local at length, arrange to meet someone from the city, and maybe at least once on your trip, don’t visit a city? Perhaps go to the countryside, a mountain, a trail or a river, a castle or a quiet spot on the beach. Read a bit about the culture, read why things are the way they are. Look at the life everywhere and not just in one place, the place that everyone else is going to.
That is the glory of travelling by bicycle. You see the in between. You see the stuff that is hidden away. You don’t even have a choice about it.
And no matter what you do, even if you spend a year exploring one place, don’t ever, ever, say that you’ve done it.