Every now and again, it’s good to take stock and reflect on things. On the brink of an as-yet-unbooked but planned out 4-5 month adventure in South America, this seems like as good a time as any to look back on the travels I’ve already been on. It’s also a time to be realistic, my head is full of dreams and ideals that I need to get my feet back on the ground and remember what it is really like when things don’t entirely go to plan. Here are three snapshots of my travel past – not the most dazzling or exciting moments perhaps, but just ones that, for one reason or another, stick in my mind.
18 years old, my first trip abroad as a ‘grown-up’, without parents or other responsible adults, was to Marrakesh. While most of my friends opted for summer breaks in Ibiza, Xante or other party destinations, I persuaded one of my closest friends to join me on a Moroccan adventure. I usually credit Marrakesh with giving me the travel bug, but it is clear that I already had a sense of wanderlust, a yearning for the exotic and different – otherwise why would I have chosen an searingly hot, chaotic, dusty city rather than a beach break? Watching the square come to life at night, with sizzling aromas and foreign shouts filling the air, is something I will never forget. Neither is the awful delhi belly I got after eating at the outdoor food stalls, but with the passage of time that’s a funny memory! Most of all though, that square represents the start of my life as a travel junkie.
The storms in Cacahoatan
My foolhardy, adventurous spirit took me to the very south of Mexico a couple of years later, an experience that in some ways I’d rather forget, but in many more I want to remember forever. It was the most extraordinary place, for me the other side of the world. I was staying 5 minutes away from the border with Guatemala, basically in the jungle, in a village of tin shacks housing Mayan families who didn’t see many white people and who had never met someone from England. The mechanic who worked at a garage on the road into the town couldn’t believe I was actually from such a distant – in his mind practically make-believe – land. The town itself consisted of a couple of internet cafes and shops selling a whole hodge-podge of mainly useless items and if I wanted to go there, it had to be in the morning to avoid getting caught in the afternoon rains. Coming from a calm, temperate little island, I had never seen nature’s forces unleashed like this – most afternoons the garden would flood, once even knocking down parts of the low stone wall and we had to turn off the electric items inside the house to avoid lightning strikes. One day one of the children I was looking after was at the sink. The next moment there was a blinding light and a scream. Lightning had come through the tap. Luckily she wasn’t hurt, just scared, quite understandably. It was the most surreal experience and while I would be happy to never experience lightning at such close range again, it was pretty incredible.
Spending a rainy day in Santander
While not quite as dramatic as the rain in Mexico, it can get pretty heavy in Spain on occasion. My Fair Lady lies: the rain in Spain does not fall mainly in the plain, pretty much all of it falls on the mountainous regions of Cantabria, Asturias and Galicia. On this particular day, Santander was particularly wet. It was also a Sunday and we were en-route back to Oviedo after a couple of days in Bilbao. At the time, spending a day in Santander sounded like a great idea, so we had booked on a coach in the morning and another one leaving in the evening. We left Bilbao in glorious sunshine that morning, but as we hit the road, the sky darkened ominously. By the time we arrived in Santander, it was tipping it down and showed no signs of letting up. We ran from the bus station to the nearest cafe and wondered what the hell to do for the next 9 hours. In the end, we had a very enjoyable day, we did get soaked, but we explored a wonderful maritime museum, one of the few places open on a Sunday and visited the lovely cathedral and old town when the rain let up a little. By the end of the day, we were becoming slightly delirious and, having pretty much exhausted the diversions offered on a rainy, out-of-season Sunday, we spent a good hour and a half in a cafe with enough chocolate con churros to make us sick. But unexpected days are often the ones you remember, and I think we made the best we could of the situation!
Maybe if I had a different mindset, I wouldn’t look back on those moments with fondness – in some ways I suppose they could all be characterised as unlucky – but to me they are what travelling is all about. You do get food poisining, it does rain, lightning does strike. However, these are the moments that allow you to see a place as it truly is, not as a picture postcard. If all you want are beautiful images, you can just get the brochures and never leave your own lounge. But seeing places for how they truly are – and still finding reasons to love them – for me that is what travel is all about and that is why I will keep travelling, come what may.