In the end, she became more than what she expected. She became the journey, and like all journeys, she did not end, she just simply changed directions and kept going.
– R.M. Drake
Recently I visited a friend, who I had not seen in about a year. He shares my appetite for travel and adventure. Despite our age difference, we’ve generally bonded over the notion that throwing yourself into the ‘unknown’ is good for the soul. On the promises of lunch and tale-swapping, I set aside my hermit-plans for the day (cooking with whatever I could find in the house, job-seeking online) and walked the few blocks to his place.
Outside with the autumn sun beaming, thermos and mat’e in my backpack and Spanish hip-hop in my ears, I thought perhaps I could still be in a suburb of Buenos Aires. Noticing the freak- orderliness of traffic on the main road, yellow-topped neighbourhood wheelie-bins and the bleak Aldi car-park, I changed my mind, but didn’t let it dampen my spirits – shortly my friend and I would be chatting away, re-visiting towns and cities in Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, passing mat’es and joking about 22 hour-long bus-rides freely.
At his place I was greeted by a flurry of humans and animals. His housemate first to the door I hugged and kissed, the second in the hallway – we hugged and the third hung back, avoiding any onslaught of foreign affection. I haven’t dropped the custom of greeting anyone in the same room with Latin American warmth; probably because hermit-life has meant a delay in re-acclimatizing to more ‘Aussie’ ideas of affection and personal-space, but also because I enjoy maintaining the habit – it costs nothing to share brief human intimacy and I have a covert plan to install more of it in the lives of those around me, where they’ll accept it.
Dave made tea, and we stood in the kitchen, somewhat ignoring the space of time that had passed since we last met up. The dogs and cats danced around us and we talked about housemates come and gone. He soon asked me in affected Spanish if I wanted more tea – and I found myself doing something that I’d generally found rude as it had sometimes been done to me – ignoring the Spanish and answering in English. I was in the privileged position of someone who has come to a better grasp of two languages – and I was snobbing the efforts being extended, as if only this time last year I hadn’t spoken words with the same faltering uncertainty.
Perhaps Dave noticed this unconscious rebuff, because he started talking about a trip he was planning to Tanzania, just to make me jealous. His housemate marvelled that he would be away for a whole twenty-nine days. “I can’t believe it. You know how lucky you are, right?”
We moved onto the couch and I insisted on pouring mat’es. Dave asked about the food I’d tried, my favourite places. I talked about staying in a small jungle town in Bolivia, how I journeyed to Macchu Picchu without spending a dime, my reliance on tarwi and sopa de quinoa and I did my best not to haughtily correct his pronunciation of the names of things and places he remembered.
After handing over the alpaca-wool socks I’d thought to bring him and appreciating the Bolivian poncho he’d changed into for my viewing pleasure, I started to feel quiet and reflective. Something about this suddenly felt a bit forced. Granted, we had both been distracted by his housemate tearing apart the living-room in order to find a harness to take her cat to the pub (…Australia?) and in the awkward shuffle I found myself wondering why I didn’t feel so forthcoming with sharing experiences which had been so personally significant. I felt a bit silly, perched on the couch listening to Dave fill the gap in conversation by mentioning a hostel in Mexico that he’d hated. Wasn’t I meant to be volunteering all my juicy rambling adventures and insights? How the vistas he visto shaped me in the space of time?
My silence must have been persistent, because against his better judgement, Dave tried to verbally elicit a tale out of me. He quickly followed up by giving me an out; “I used to hate it when someone asked me for a story. The stories come in the moment. It’s just not the same to just pull one out of nowhere.” I was glad for the understanding.
One of his housemates sat across from us, absorbed in a game on his phone. The hunt for the cat-harness had graduated to bedrooms. Someone else was softly playing music with a vague samba rhythm.
“Yeah…” I drew out, mind racing with faces, bodies, dust, aguayos, a billion subtle exchanges with people living lives on the other side of the Pacific; “I don’t know what to tell you!”
How ridiculous that only this time last year I had been trying to understand the workings of life in a harsh desert town in northern Chile; completely out of my depth. How silly the privilege of now being ‘home’ – comfortable; certain of a bed, food, company, no language barrier – except one I seemed to be creating for myself.
A sense of ‘strangeness’ at the very least is surely a common experience amongst those who have returned home from any length of time engaging with another country, culture, continent. I am certainly not the first person to write about this, and I will not be the last. The most interesting thing about having been away, though, is not the strangeness of coming back. The most interesting thing is not a dish, an accident, an animal or anecdote. The most interesting thing is not so easily described in the space of a few hours, not so transferable with words. Travel may often be problematic, but the language with which we’re usually expected to frame and share it, is even more so.
It is harder to map internal space than external terrain. Dave and I may have set foot in some of the same towns, in some of the same countries, but the significance of this for us as individuals is probably at least as far apart as Barranquilla and Ushuaia. And that’s ok – it can just make for some pretty awkward pauses in conversation; attempts to assess and remember the geographical through the personal that don’t always match up or translate well. Bumping clunky frames. Like a guitar lugged from one city to another and another – words can be connective, but also cumbersome.
The stories come, as Dave said. At the moment though, I can’t see how. My experiences don’t feel like ‘stories’ – or, I don’t yet have the language to present them as such. My locations, my actions and the happenings over the past year are not isolated, quantifiable, historical samples to be viewed remotely or recalled at whim simply because they took place in other countries. I resent the separation. It seems like a dangerous kind of colonial convenience to imagine travel in this way. The same kind of attitude justifies boorishly ignorant or offensive behaviour; “Oh, you know, what happens in X stays in X…” Dangerous ground.
A month and a half into what we often kindly think of as a ‘grace’ period of returning home, a ‘re-adjustment’; I see that for me, there is actually no such thing. A month and a half of being back in Australia and I am still constantly negotiating my relationship with the places I spent time in and the people I was lucky enough to have met. I have seen parts of the world others don’t get to see outside of, I have seen parts of the world others will never really see into. I don’t kid myself that all of my experiences were unaffected by how I present – tall, white wandering woman – but I also refused to align with the echoes of meaning that came attached to that image in a given place. Paradoxically, it was often the key of language that liberated me. If you’ll grant the reference, continuing to learn and speak Spanish has made me feel like Neo in the Matrix when he says “I know Kung-Fu,” – quietly incredulous and stoic with the potential responsibility and opportunity newly opening.
Maybe I should just be upfront with the fact that half of me still lives in Argentina. Instead of saying “I want to go back” (a familiar refrain), I will say “I’m going back”, because it’s the only thing I’m sure of. Perhaps instead of avoiding the difficulty of condensing intense meaning and alienating myself from questioners about ‘travel experience’, I will prepare lengthy poems to recite at the unsuspecting inquirer: Here’s one about post medicine-ceremony stillness on the night boat from Masisea to Pucallpa, here’s one about love and Incan architecture in Ollantaytambo. I’ve got something here on an existential crisis inspired by a lady speaking in pained Aymara for six hours straight on a bus out of La Paz, or a humble ditty about deserts, vicunas and the discriminatory interference of coca-police going into Jujuy. Take your pick.
Just don’t ask me to separate ‘experience’ from who I am and what I’m doing and thinking in this very moment. Yo soy el camino, y simplemente no fucking puedo.