October 14, 2008
In January of this year, I made yet another journey to Rome, this time with my mother - a few days away post Christmas mayhem to relax and soak up once again the beauty and timelessness of this great European city.
Only there for four days, we didn't really plan on doing very much. Having done the tourist thing on numerous occasions in the past, this trip was really more about just spending time together and savouring Rome. Little did I know I would have the privilege of meeting on the world's religious leaders, and even (dare I say it?) celebrities?
While I find myself becoming increasingly spiritual, I would like to be able to say that religion has more of a place in my life right now, but the whole concept confuses me at the best of times, and I find myself adrift from the Catholic Church in which I was firmly raised. The world we live in is a collosal paradox in the sense that the vast majority of our generation so readily rejects religion and all its seeming restrictions and contradictions, yet it is so often religion that divides people and tears our world apart.
On the plane from Dublin to Rome, my mother mentioned that she had heard from someone that it was possible to participate in a papal audience on Wednesday mornings in the Vatican. Having been married there, she and my Dad have always had a wish to do this again, and so I put up no argument. Religious or otherwise, this would still be quite a cool experience I thought. The day before, I went along to the American College to request invitations for both of us. "You're lucky", the nun I met said to me "Tomorrow's audience is ONLY 4,000 people, so there is still some availability".
Next morning, we were up early to get down to the Vatican and queue with everyone else. The hopefuls included bevvies of nuns from all over the worlds, newly married couples, groups of school children, sick people, tourists..you name it. It was a long wait. The atmosphere there was actually really great. I mean, I was expecting it to be very devout and prayerful, but the people queuing were as expectant as a bunch of young people waiting to attend a rock concert. Even the most firmly rooted atheist couldn't help but appreciate the general vibe in the air that morning.
Due to some special circumstances, my Mum and I were ushered in front of this crowd to the front row of the auditorium that morning where we had full view of eveything taking place. Little did we know what was about to come!
Just before the ceremony started, a member of the Pope's security team approached the front row and explained to all seated there that we would have a special opporuntity to go up on stage and meet the Pope in person. "Oh my God", I thought. "One look at me and he's going to know what a heathen I am!" :D Also, I suddenly wished I'd dressed better!
Sure enough, at the end of the main ceremony, the guards came down and guided us up the side of the auditorium and onto stage in front of..yes...4,000 envious people! One by one we filed in front of Pope Benedict. Moments of significance like these in life always seem to pass in something of a blur, and this was exactly the same. Suddenly, I was before him. We had a moment. My lasting memory is that of his eyes - he had exceptionally kind eyes - something that does not come across in his public media appearances. I bent to kiss his ring. He gave me his blessing. And just as quickly as I found myself up there, I found myself on my back off stage again.
And that was it. As I said before, a rare privilege. Even the non-Catholics of this world would cherish such a chance.
Next on my list is his Holiness the Dali Lama. :-D
September 21, 2008
So, why does it pose such problems for us? Aren't we looking forward to getting back and seeing our friends and family again? Haven't we had enough of roughing it in hostels and hauling our lives around on our backs like proverbial snails? In the short-term, the answer to these questions is usually "Yes". Even if we feel forced to return home due to lack of travel funds or personal commitments, there are always the warm fuzzy feelings associated with landing in your home country again, reuniting with your friends in your local pub, seeing the dog again...whatever your favourite things might be...most of us love that feeling of returning to the fold.
Why then it is generally experienced that these feelings are fleeting only, typically lasting a number of weeks before life goes back to normal, being home again loses it lustre and our thoughts wander once more to those places and people we experienced in our recent past.
To bring it to a personal level, upon returning from my own recent 18 month long adventure, I found after just a few short weeks that I had an acute sense of alienation. To some extent, I suppose I had always experienced some feeling of not exactly fitting in with my peers at home, and while travel was in almost all respects the answer to that, in a strange way I felt that alienation even more intensely when I returned. Friends especially now saw me as on a different path to them, and I was. A common complaint from the traveller returned is "I found that none of my friends were really intersted in stories of my travels". And, to be fair, maybe they can't be expected to sit enrapt every evening while we regale them with tales of our adventures and amusing mishaps abroad. For the most part, life has continued as normal for them at home at a somewhat less exciting pace, and, unless they happen to be exceptionally broad-minded and curious individuals, they are only going to listen to so much of it. It's only fair. But where does that leave you? You're like a square shape trying to fit back into a round hole. You've changed, probably quite dramatically. For a long time now, you've been conversing and swopping stories with other equally adventurous souls, and you suddenly find yourself without like minds to which you can relate. And, for most of us, this feeling just deepens as time goes by, leaving us feeling extremely unsettled and yearning for the road again.
Unless you have spent every day on your travels swilling beer in hostel bars and sleeping in, then you will have had some pretty life changing experiences. Not only then will your view of the world have broadened or altered significantly, but you will return to view your homeland with fresh eyes. Maybe you will understand certain aspects of your culture better, or maybe you will scrutinize absolutely everything about your country now under a very large magnifying glass, but for whatever reason, home suddenly now seems a lot different to when you left. On the surface, things generally remain the same, but you have learned to scratch the surface and are looking more intently at what lies beneath. Again, this serves to further delineate your otherness in this place you once called home.
Yet another claim of the prodigal backpacker is "I really just dont have much interest in material things anymore". Most of us embark on our travels because of a general malaise, a dissatisfaction with working 9-5 and living for the weekend. Some will call it escapism, some will call it good sense. It really doesn't matter what your initial impetus may have been for leaving it all. All that is clear when you have experienced travelling in poor/third world countries is that so much of our lives in the Western world revolve around feeding the addicition of materialism. We earn to buy things. It's a commercial carousel that the vast majority of us find ourselves on. We think we can't get off and that it's going faster and faster, but it's really not that difficult. You just have to jump!
So, what's the answer to all this? Is it even worth going travelling to begin with if this is what we can look forward to when we return? This is the trade off friends, the small price you pay for your big life decision. When you take that leap, cut the ties, give up something like a good job, a house, a car, you are making a choice. You are making a real choice to do something significant in your life and this is the trade off. Very few of us can manage to travel at length, balance that with a real career, and still manage to fit back into the life you had before. I would wager that it's next to impossible, and would you even really want that? The deeper rooted reasons for why we travel have less to do with escaping the quotidien, and more to do with really understanding the world and ourselves in the process. With that in mind, when you return with a serious dose of the "coming home blues", try to remember that while you might feel like an alien in many ways at first, deep down this seemingly negative feeling is probably what you are actually looking for. Bring your experiences from your travels back to bear on your life at home and build a better one. Be a better person, be a stronger person. Be all that you can be. And, instead of seeing "coming home" as the end to your travels, try to view it as just a stop along the way to wherever you are going next.
September 14, 2008
Silently and alone
From the shadows of a fifth floor window,
I watch as the New York night
Roars and flashes at me.
Its barbituate heat weighs upon me,
Deadening my thoughts
As I slip slowly in and out of relative space.
I lose my grasp, and as I fall
My last glimpse is of the candle on the sill
Burning in homage
To something unknown.
September 13, 2008
In the city where you can buy anything, I somehow for months have managed to avoid major temptation and significant expenditure....until this week.
After weeks of research and comparing cameras online, and enlisting the help of a few friends in the know, yesterday I succumbed and ordered this - the Nikon D300 - my new best friend.
In addition to the 18-200mm lens, I've also opted to get the 70-300mm telephoto lens. Now the real fun is going to begin in learning how to handle a real camera for the first time in my life rather than just a point & shoot.
It arrives on Monday. It's like Christmas Eve again!
September 12, 2008
One morning not long after I moved in I was brushing my teeth in front of the bathroom mirror. As I opened the cabinet door to replace my tube of toothpaste, my eyes were drawn to a message scrawled on its inside.
"It's all about effort and reward"
Nothing more, just that. A pretty powerful sentiment even for someone in a groggy state at that hour of the morning. Who had left this message - the previous tenant, the workman who installed the bathroom cabinet, or someone else? It struck me as poignant somehow in this spotlessly clean, otherwise ungraffitied apartment.
This sentiment lives in my bathroom, there for consideration whenever I choose to look at it. I like the fact that it is there somehow, this random untraceable pearl of wisdom, something to take with you as you head out to embrace each new day.
Since my most recent blog entry, I've realised how I've moved into a whole new chapter in my life recently, and it got my synapses firing once again about maintaining a regular blog. Reading back over the posts of my last two years' worth of travel, it struck how much more reflective and even serious I have become about this love of mine. It's no longer a hobby, it has become a way of life. When I left Ireland on my first major adventure, I had no real plan, lots of ideas and bundles of nerves. My blog entries over the duration of that entire trip really reflect the highs and lows of someone on their first major solo expedition. Everything was an assault on the senses - new and wonderful, exciting and scary. I was putting my toe in some unchartered water and feeling my way often in the dark. The achievement and sense of accomplishment that brings can do wonders in terms of your personal development, and this is the reason so many of us continue to feed the addiction. Travel is an opiate, but what a wonderful one it is! As the years go by and I live and work in various countries around the world, I find my outlook broadening, my senses becoming keener and my thoughts deepening. As I move along the path of my life, cutting and carving out my own way, I have come to view my existence now not as a series of random events and planned trips, but as one single journey. I may not always love exactly where I am along the way, but wherever I find myself I take the view that I am there for a reason and try to use my experiences during that time to further my progress and lend memory and significance to everything I do.
It's easy in your 20s and 30s to have a mini freak-out about your choices to keep travelling. Work colleagues, friends, and even family on occasions can rekindle in you that Fear that you've tried so far to quench. It's easy sometimes to lose faith in your choices, to lose sight of your dream. But then I think about the older travellers that I had the privilege to know on my own travels. I remember a wonderful couple in their 70s with whom I spent a whole day sitting in a cafe in La Paz swapping stories. On the days when my resolve is shaken I call them to mind and my faith is fully restored in where I am going and what I am trying to achieve in my life. In the short time I spent with these two people, they seemed to me to be the most content, balanced, well travelled individuals with no visible axes to grind or chips on their shoulders. They were rich with memories and the texture of their combined lives was something really tangible. They were in the autumn of their years and yet they were as footloose and happy as I, a third of their age, was. They had simply gotten better and better with age - why? Because they had really lived. A quick comparison to any of their contemporaries in age that I knew back home revealed them to be much happier, healthier and forward-looking individuals. They had long passed the stage where the idea of "success" mattered. She was a photographer, he a saxophone player, and they had travelled the world seperately and together. Like any of us, they were not without their mishaps and misfotunes along the way, but they took the philosophical approach. The depth of understanding and love between them was immediately obvious, and I found myself almost looking forward to that time in my life. Oh to be that travelled, that fulfilled and that mature!
I'm a little incredulous when I look at the date of my last blog entry that it is now a year since I entered anything here. Certainly, this year has whizzed past and has been an extremely eventful one. Having made concrete plans to leave Ireland last January, I had secured a job teaching English in South Korea.. Money was saved, wheels were set in motion, and I was all set to go. And then, totally out of the blue, something entirely unexpected happened....
The company that I used to work for before I went on my RTW offered me a new position within the company - a move to NYC alone to manage their new office in Manhattan! Now most people would kill for this kind of opportunity, and truth be told, Korea suddenly seemed less attractive. So, after a little soul searching, I decided to go for it. One month later I moved to New York and I've been here since.
I suppose the main reason that I dont keep up my blog anymore is two-fold:
1. I'm not travelling as often and the same impetus isn't there
2. Life has become incredibly work-centric these days. When I do find myself with free time I tend to maximise it by experiencing everything this city has to offer...and boy is there a lot to choose from!
It's certainly a trip living here. Every day is a new experience, not so much on the job front (work is work), but otherwise. New York is a city of superlatives - that is the only way I can describe it. Even after 8 months here, I still feel like a total newcomer, still feel like I'm settling in. One thing I'm starting to realise is that you have to be tough to survive in New York...tough and, preferably, rich!
Back in 2006, I started my RTW trip in New York, spending 3 days here before flying south to Lima. My experience and impressions of the city during those three days were entirely differnet to what they are now. Visiting New York and living here are two entirely different things. As a visitor it's easy to fall head over heels with The Big Apple. No matter what time of the year you visit here, it is captivating. As a resident and worker here, I have developed a love/hate relationship with the city. There are days when you look up at the graceful architecture of the Chrysler building or sit at night people watching in Bryant Park and feel that New York is just exactly where you want to be. And then there are days when all you hear are the sirens and the traffic horns, people jostle and bump you in the street, you stand with 200 other people at a street crossing and feel acutely your insignificance on this planet. On occasions you feel the city is full of possibilities, undiscovered treasures and experiences yet to happen. And on others you feel like a nobody here. No-one really looks at anyone in New York - there's just too many people. Yesterday I read in National Geographic a slightly jarring fact: If you moved the entire population of the world to Texas, the population density would still be lower than that of New York City. Think about that for a second......
So there are days when you look around this metropolis and wonder what life is all about, but hand on heart I can say it probably the most exciting place I have lived to date. There's always something to do, someone to hang out with, an exhibitionist on some street corner to watch. New York is a voyeur's paradise, and for the aspiring writer, artist, photographer there is a world of material at your fingertips.
Anyone who knows me will attest to the fact that I always have a plan of some sort in the hatching. Whether I ever actually realise them all is another thing, but I'm certainly always cooking something up. And this year finds me no different. I suspect that I will stay in New York for a while, at least for the next year or so, but while I am I plan to make the most of my time here. I'm glad to say my travel bug hasn't waned one bit, and in the last while I have finally considered how I can arrange my life so that my work facilitates this great passion of mine. I think I have found the answer, and now I just have to try and make it happen, and no better place to make things happen than New York City. ;)