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A few years ago I found myself one hot, sticky night sitting alone outside a crowded Bangkok (Read more…) bar sipping on a cold beer and watching the throng of Thais making their way home from their daily exertions.
The pungent smell of spices hung heavily in the air, masking the humid funk of the city streets, thanks to an elderly noodle vendor by the roadside trying to hock his wares to the passers-by. I gazed idly at the old man going about his work when another equally aged gentleman of Western origin tapped me on the shoulder and asked if he could join me at my table.
“Sure.” I said, “Go ahead”, I’d been hankering for some English conversation all day. As we spoke, the septuagenarian started to tell me the story of how he had found himself this night sitting at my table.
“I met my wife when I was eighteen years old,” he told me. “We were both young and naïve, but very much in love. Shortly after, we were married. I never remember having being been so happy. Neither of us had much money; we’d both come from poor farming families, but somehow we made ends meet.”
He sipped his beer and stared vacantly out towards the bustling streets, his thoughts obviously weighing on his mind. “A little over a year after we married, our son Charles arrived and then in the following years my two daughters, Sally and Margaret joined us on this earth.”
“My wife and I always wanted to travel. Since we were newly weds we spent hours talking about the fantastic journey that we were going to take. It was going to be incredible. As time went on, one by one our children grew older, left home and got married themselves and then finally the day for my wife and I to embark drew near.”
He paused; I could see tears starting to well in his eyes. “Two months before my wife was due to retire and we were to start the adventure we had spent a lifetime planning, she was diagnosed cancer and within six months she was dead, having never even stepped foot outside the United States.” I smiled sympathetically, unsure how to respond to his woeful tale.
“Now,” he continued in a sombre tone, “I travel alone the journey she and I were to take together, and I do this for her, in her memory.” He turned to look at me squarely in the eyes. “Son, don’t postpone the things you want to do in your life, get out there and seize the world with two hands – if you delay, you might lose your chance forever.“
His words were like a spark to the gasoline fumes of my thoughts. Suddenly my lifestyle seemed vindicated; no longer was I merely a bum coasting along, enjoying an extended holiday in South East Asia. I had found myself on a higher path.
The old man and I shortly thereafter parted ways, but his words have stayed with me ever since. Why should we postpone what we desire in life? I’m not talking about reckless hedonistic abandonment, but consciously planning to enrich and savour our lives on a day by day basis. It is with this in mind that I now try and live my life.
2008 was an incredible year. My travels took me right around the world; from the Arctic Circle through to Western Europe and onward to the Middle East, Africa, Asia, Australia, New Zealand and the US.
During my nine months of travel, I hiked up a volcano in Rwanda and saw a family of gorillas in the wild; I dived a World War II shipwreck in the Red Sea and spent five months in my motherland; finally getting the opportunity to be a tourist in my own country and catch up with my friends and family who have had to endure my absence for so long.
Coming home felt peculiar, it forced me to acknowledge the gulf between the person I was when I left and the person I am now. It feels like I’ve grown a lot in the years since I was the confused, angst-ridden teenager that left New Zealand in 2004 and it made me realise how satisfied I am with the direction my life is moving in, albeit it perhaps being a different direction from many.
Coming home also reminded me of the love that I feel for my family, my friends and the natural beauty of the Land Of The Long White Cloud. Many of my memories of home had faded over the past four years. I’d forgotten how much I actually loved New Zealand. Ironically I’d arrived thinking I’d want to leave almost immediately, but when it came to it, I almost couldn’t bring myself to go.
That said, my time at home has confirmed my suspicions that I am not ready to return to New Zealand permanently, now or in the short term. There is still so much of the world I want to see, so much I want to do and living in New Zealand just doesn’t seem compatible with these goals (sorry Mum).
I always find travelling an enlightening experience. I believe there is much to be learnt by the curious mind. Witnessing the culture and customs of a foreign land illuminates the parallels and contrasts to one’s own society, forcing a new perspective upon the attentive traveller. From this new vantage point of thought I feel that I can see what was transparent before; I can appreciate how much of my own mental make-up is blindly inherited from my home land. I think that it is this new awareness of self that can prove such a catalyst for introspection and growth.
The Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius said “If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself but to your own estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.”
This sentiment is also echoed in the words of Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl, “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space lies our freedom and power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and freedom.”
This seems to be a common thread of thought amongst those of philosophical disposition. Witnessing the serene happiness of poverty stricken Africans despite the constant threat of hunger, thirst and death seems to confirm for me that the joy we derive from life comes more from inside us than from our external surroundings or circumstances.
So once again I find myself sitting in a cold London flat. I’m sleeping on an air bed in a mate’s lounge and I’m practically penniless, but I have many fond memories of an epic year behind me. Shortly I will rejoin responsible society – I’ll find a job, start paying taxes and attempt to get out of bed before 9 AM.
This trip has allowed me a lot of time to reflect on what I’ve been doing, where I’m going and ultimately what I want from life. The next few years are a mystery, I have vague inclinations of where they might lead, but it’s really completely unknown – to be honest, I have no idea where 2009, (let alone the rest of my life), will take me. I feel there is strength in tolerating the uncertainty, casting free the shackles of life sustained by fear, familiarity and the expectations of others. I believe it’s about being open to alternate paths and seeing where life may lead you.
Before I sign off, I want to extend a special thanks to my faithful travel companions Tony, Wendy and Mike – Thanks for everything. Here’s to many more adventures together! - and also to the other faces I met along the way that played such a huge part in making this trip so very memorable (you know who you are.)
I hope you’ve all enjoyed reading about my adventures as much as I have enjoyed having them and writing about them. I’d love to hear any thoughts or feedback you might have.
With love, until next time,