Will restrictions in our heads stop us travelling too far from the familiar – even after the Covid-19 restrictions are done and dusted?
There might be very good reasons to change our travel habits post-pandemic – being hooked on new outdoor activities, not polluting the planet, escaping another home-cooked meal – and after all, we have all travelled in the past for very different reasons.
But if we are confined to our territories by fear – fear of the unclean, fear that others have not eradicated coronavirus, fear that it might happen again – I fear we shall miss out.
Travel to faraway places, in my experience, offers something far deeper than sights or good meals; our cross-cultural friendships and exchanges endure in our memories, influencing our future selves.
Better than taking home recipes or capturing Instagram moments, I collect homilies and stories from people I meet. Words have power and do not have to be the quotes of a Mahatma Gandhi or Maya Angelou to have meaning. A poor villager or a frustrated market trader may have muttered something which reverberates down the years. Or a remembered conversation with a cross-cultural friend suddenly becomes relevant to a situation in a totally different context.
Here are some encounters in faraway places that have been meaningful to me, not just in the moment, but in shaping my core attitudes and beliefs.
“Why do whites like to suffer so?” asked a Cameroonian villager as I struggled with my laden bicycle up a muddy mountain road. “We see whites in air conditioned 4WDs and then we see whites like you who could travel that way, but instead choose to suffer. Why?” Seeing myself as villagers saw me, made me reflect on why I was crossing a continent on a bicycle! Not easy to answer but such a good question! And the memory makes me think about how others see me in many diverse situations.
“This land is so bad; it is too steep and hard to work,” said another villager. I had been standing beside him, in rapture at the beauty of the sunset behind the misty mountain landscape. Village life in Africa is not something to romanticise; life is hard and Africans know it, and his comments were the first to help me see this through their eyes.
‘If you are after something, you must grab it; otherwise you cannot say you are too tired”. This was said by Lydia, a strong Ghanaian village woman, hand watering her rather wilted onions at dawn, hopeful of a crop to pay back her microcredit loan and profit to pay her children’s school fees. I remember her anytime I feel like giving up on a project. If something is important to me, she says in my mind, only you can overcome the obstacles.
“One must suffer to truly appreciate the taste of life.” Ibrahim, a Tuareg friend, said this to me out in the desert north of Timbuktu. He, his family and community were suffering attacks from Malian military and living in fear for their lives, and yet he made this observation about what I might gain through my struggle to cycle alone across Africa. His words have helped me appreciate the personal growth that comes from enduring difficult experiences.
“Black goats must be caught early, before it gets dark.” I love this Nigerian proverb, offered to me by a friend in Lagos when “black goats” had infiltrated my business. Now it always reminds me to stay alert.
“No wahala!” Another Nigerian response, meaning “no problem”, usually offered despite the situation being seemingly full of intractable problems! I say it now to others; it’s a reminder to stay resilient, regardless of what you face, and is especially relevant during this pandemic.
The ghosts of these people and their actions and observations (and those of so many others) have travelled with me back to the United Kingdom, to Australia and beyond. They have become part of the fabric of how I interpret events and make choices; they are a part of me.
So what should I miss most if I did not go back to faraway places? Not a Michelin starred meal or even a Napoli pizza; I would miss the wisdom I gain from encounters with the world.