Monday, 18 May 2015

A year of travel: Last thoughts before moving on

Two months ago we arrived back in Edmonton after almost a full year travelling.  It seems a good time to organize some last thoughts before moving on to the next adventure.

After a year, it was interesting what things were easy to remember and what things had been forgotten.  My body took almost two weeks to get over the jet lag of flying from Hong Kong – not quite far enough to gain a whole day, but enough time zones that my brain wanted to be wide awake and doing something in the middle of the night.  Driving was no problem, as a passenger for a year in countries that drove on the left side of the road, my muscle memory still knew the “right” way to drive.  But stopping for gas the first time was a scramble to figure out how to open the gas cap. Mother Nature also gave us snow to drive home in, just to remind us of what we had missed. Getting back into the habit of cooking, with a full kitchen of food and appliances, took a bit of getting used to.  Kati’s planning to get everybody together for Easter caused initial panic (what will the menu be and can I remember how to organize so everything is ready at once) but after a deep breath we all just went with the flow.  After all, do you really need to impress family?

First week home was almost like setting up a house for the first time. We had packed away most of our belongings so that our friends who were house sitting could have room for their things.  Opening up boxes (and remembering where the boxes were) was a bit like Christmas – gifts to be admired and places to be found for things that hadn’t been used for a year. Restocking the kitchen after getting used to shopping on a day to day basis.  Actually, I believe I was in the grocery store daily for two weeks getting one or two essential things that I had assumed were in the cupboard or fridge. Gradually unpacking boxes we had sent home from our travels and deciding where to put things, then working to organize piles of things, then integrating items into our life.

At work, it has also been interesting getting back into a routine.  In some ways, it felt like I had never left, but the reality is that things have changed (more or less) and I have needed to ask a lot of questions and watch carefully to make sure I don’t miss anything.  “So what’s changed” didn’t get a lot of answers from my coworkers.  “Tell me about the new babies” or “Who’s died” worked better.  I’ve needed to attach names to new faces and get used to the fact that things are different.  Funnily, we have had a major change in our electronic documentation software, which has put us all on a level playing field.

People have greeted me with one of two types of questions – “Did you have a good time?  What country did you like best?”  This from people, I suspect, who wonder if they would like to travel as we did.  “Are you glad to be home”, from those who can’t imagine pulling up roots for a year to wander in strange places.  Did I have a good time?  Absolutely, even when I was too cold or too hot or uncomfortable because I was seeing and doing things that I would not be doing at home.  Rather than saying which was my favorite country (they all were for different reasons), I would say that I want to return to southeast Asia because we traveled too quickly through those countries.  I don’t feel a need to return to Australia or New Zealand because they are so similar to Canada where there are many places I have not yet visited.  I also would not return to India because I felt unsafe. Am I glad to be back home?  Absolutely, but that doesn't mean I won't wander off again to explore.

On reflection, I think more helpful questions would be “What did you learn?”  or “How do you think you are different now?”

I learned to live in close quarters with strangers who quickly became fellow travelers, to share skills and knowledge so our time together was enjoyable (even when we were hot and sweaty, tired, sore, craving western food and a shower...).  I met fascinating people who shared the love of their country and I seldom felt afraid for my safety.  I have come to appreciate how special my home is – where I do not have to worry about too much water or not enough, or earthquakes or volcanoes, where it is safe to express an opinion and I can travel if I wish.  Where I was able to feed, clothe and educate my children. At my annual medical, where I was expressing concern about a series of nasty respiratory infections, my family doctor clearly put things into perspective – chest xray to rule out the possibility of tuberculosis because of where I had been travelling (and I am carefully watching for fever and the possibility of malaria).

A year of travel has changed how I see home.  My initial thought on unpacking was that I had way to much stuff – what was I thinking when I thought I needed so many pairs of socks and underwear, and surely one pair of long black pants was sufficient?  On a positive note, I find myself more aware of the beauty around me.  My urge is to pull to the side of the road to take that photo of the sunlight on the puddles in the ditch or the field of swans and then geese as they return north for the summer.  But, my camera is not beside me.  Watching the coming of the green which signals spring in Northern Alberta was a joy – and I did stop part way down the Dunvegan hill to take a photo the day the hills had gone from black and white to new fresh green. I did take photos of our back yard with its last (I hope) spring snow and the tiny leaves of rhubarb breaking the surface of the dirt.

Listening to the news is different as well.  Armenia and Nepal are real places with real people that I have met.  As I have been rereading travel books about the places I visited, it has been fascinating to realize how things change in a few short years.  The (Lonely Planet) Wheelers, travelling from London to Australia in 1973 chose the southern route through Asia (Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan) because it was safer and travel was basically impossible through Russian controlled Asia (Georgia to Kyrgyzstan then into China as we did).  Southeast Asia was still in the midst of a decades long war.  People younger than me who were welcoming me into their country had lived through these troubled times. More recently, the earthquakes in Nepal likely mean that our travel from China through Nepal and into India may have been the last overland trip for some time.

I chanced upon this blog post while we were travelling. Not that we were living abroad, but there are a lot of similarities to what we experienced.

Just to finish off with one last set of quotes about travel.  This had much more meaning to me when I reread this book after returning home than it had the first time I saw it more than a year ago.

“I love travel because you may be uncomfortable, hungry, hot and sweaty, cold and shivering...but damn it all, you will never be bored...the buzz of arriving somewhere new and the thrill of returning to a favourite place.”
Tony Wheeler (Lonely Planet) quoted in the book “Tell them to get Lost”

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