Do you think National Geographic ever have a need for someone to go ahead of the crew and ‘clear the scene’ for the perfect photograph? It appears that the everglades and the outback, the waterfalls and the ravines never have a tourist in sight. What a job that would be.
‘Let me see, what am I doing today? Ah yes, clearing the riff raff from the Gardens of Babylon’. ‘Choose a job you love and you will never have to work a day in your life’. I like to imagine that the clever dick that said that little nugget of wisdom got paid handsomely for it. It is, after all, the perfect business model. Work though, does tend to be just that. Work. Fewer glaciers, more graft. Fewer stalagmites, more spreadsheets.
I had one week off last year. One week! I’m not just hankering for time out, but longing for that all-important something else, something different, something new.
The greatest moments of my life have been when I’ve decided to go off on adventures alone, be it holidays, festivals, or just a day out. Those choices have also contained some of the strangest experiences, but more about that later.
Some of the happiest memories have been when completely alone in nature. I remember once being asked in a flirty text message, ‘When and where were you happiest?’ Without hesitation, I surprised myself with the reply, ‘Philopappos Hill, Athens, September 2004, out of season, completely alone, except for the feral cats resting on the warm stones of the ruins and the butterflies dancing around my head…’
It was absolutely true, but so concerned I was the un-date-able loner, scaring them with purple prose and whimsy, I may have added ‘…then loads of people climbed up on to the hill and we all went partying, Yaaaaay! Parties!’
I’m the person who would prefer the hilltops to The Hacienda. The only time I ever attempted attending an actual retreat though was several years ago in Kerala, India. I was in such a state at the time it doesn’t surprise me, looking back, that it didn’t go well.
To begin with, the long-haul flight is not my friend.
Aeroplanes are clearly unsafe and THAT is why they’re built in the shape of a cross. Fact.
Also, I don’t cope with the heat. In a hot climate I am constantly reassuring people, “It’s ok. I’m not actually wearing tie-dye, it’s just the salt rings from my sweat.”
Most crucially though, when I was en route to India, but still on European soil (Brindisi, Italy, to be precise) I was prescribed an anti-malarial medicine called Larium, in preparation for my trip. Unknown to me, Larium had long been a banned substance in most countries. Why banned? I hear you ask.
Well… Larium makes you hallucinate. You will hallucinate that the book you’re reading is actually a bomb, which you bury after midnight in the garden, digging up the brown earth with your bare little fingers under a full moon, as quietly as you can, so as not to wake the chai-wallahs sleeping on the verandah. You won’t even be worried about being blown up, just that you might be mistaken for a terrorist.
What else? The carved Portuguese chair in your room will cast a shadow on the wall like a giant Hanuman monkey god, but with nasty murderous teeth. You will also be convinced that people are trying to poison you. It’s like having a very bad LSD trip for several weeks.
I didn’t make the connection between my paranoia and the outlawed medication for many weeks to come, by which time all those at the retreat had come to know me as the crazy English girl in the tie dye dress with the dirty fingernails.
I’m much better now.
While on that retreat I did have the good fortune of meeting the actor Adil Hussain who had just finished playing Othello and went on to play the father in Life of Pi. He filled me with many simple nuggets of wisdom, such as, ‘Pain is a tool to carve your heart to contain more joy’ a beautifully reworded extract from Kahlil Gibran’s ‘The Prophet’. He imparted several of these, all of which I madly scribbled in a notebook after he chivalrously delivered me back to my lodgings on the back of his moped in Varkala – where Hanuman the teeth-gnashing monkey god was waiting for me.
Adil was very kind to the crazy English girl and I am grateful for it. A temporary and sweet reprieve because I was still tripping on Larium and the world was a very dangerous place. Added to that, once I had learned that coconuts kill about 11 people a year from falling on their heads, things escalated. I mean, it was an unfamiliar threat. You’re never going to get killed by a coconut in Britain unless you’ve upset the person running the coconut shy at your local féte.
On reflection, travelling is something I have tended to do when running away from a broken heart. There is something about the new experiences of the hustle and bustle of a different city and the aroma of spices I cannot name or the song of a bird I’ve never heard or the cadence of a language I do not speak that eclipses the pain of the heart and its carvings of future joy. But, ‘wherever you go, there you are’ – how true- another simple nugget of wisdom that is less an annoyance these days and more of a pleasure.
The thing that I love and value above all else is my freedom and I am lucky enough to have it, relative to those that do not. If, like me, in the celebration of your freedoms, you seek out solitude in nature, you may on occasion have faced the question, ‘Aren’t you frightened to go off on your own like that?’ This remark fills me with sadness, as it demonstrates that there are many people, especially women, who deprive themselves of the pleasure of so many adventures. There is incredible value in seeking solo adventures and travelling alone. Being afraid of your freedom is a waste of that great privilege. I do understand that point of view and how it can arise, it is important to look after yourself, be wise, be vigilante, but not to the point of not living your life.
Speaking of things that I love and value. You know what else I love? Mountains! Oh boy do I love mountains. I know how much I love mountains because I once chose to go on an internet date with a man whose profile picture was so blurry that he was just a smudge, but featured in the background was a beautiful mountain with the sun setting behind it and a curl of thin blue smoke rising from the valley below. I was smitten. Alas, my date did not arrive with the mountain, nor the setting sun. We just talked for a bit, had some lunch and after he had shown me his third magic trick with a coin, we went our separate ways.
I am hoping to improve the work life balance this year and take more than a week off, with or without an irrational fear of coconuts and strangers, because there are adventures to be had. I have started to hatch a plan to visit one of my best friends in New Zealand. It’s the seed of an idea at the moment and months away from being realised. But I must go, who else will clear the riff raff from the Waitomo caves.