22 December 2008

A bit of an Introduction

It’s funny that when the subject of my forthcoming backpacking trip comes up in conversation, the general response is that I am a very fortunate person. ‘Oh you’re so lucky’ people say ‘I wish I could go there.’ Out of politeness I usually shrug, then nod in agreement that yes some divine inspiration, or even karma, were acting when I walked into the travel agent one day, sat at the counter and booked my around the world ticket.

Admittedly I am in a more fortunate position than some, those with families or mortgages that are unable to take time away from work to travel around the world, but that does not mean that these places that people dream of visiting are not accessible to them.

And that, in my opinion, is the beauty of travelling-it is available to everyone. If somebody wants to visit some far flung corner of the globe, it is no longer the gut-wrenching, cholera-inducing boat trip it once was. It is now a gut-wrenching, diarrhoea-inducing plane journey coupled with, for long haul flights, hours waiting in airport lounges with nothing but tax-free perfume to keep you entertained. But in all seriousness, with improvements in technology and please excuse the cliché, but the world really is getting smaller, a flight to the furthest part of the world, for instance Australia, takes no longer than twenty-four hours. Ok, I am not really selling it too well but trust me on this, it really is worth it once you get there, why do you think I am taking my second gap year? To avoid the responsibility of work I hear you say....Shut up.

Admittedly the reason I first became interested in the world of travelling was due to a boredom of the whole working life and a need to get away. Let’s face it, those sun-kissed beaches half way around the globe look a damn sight more attractive than some gloomy, concrete office just off Orpington High Street. I was eighteen years old when I first went away during a year out between finishing my A-level exams and beginning a university course in Cardiff. When proposing the idea of a Gap Year to my parents the word ‘travelling’ had been brought up a couple of times in order to convince them that taking a year off before continuing my studies was a good one. Don’t get me wrong, as with anything I ever mentioned with passion to my parents they were very supportive, safe in the knowledge that a few weeks, sometimes days, later I would be focussing all of my attention on something else. However this year out needed a unique selling point (sorry, I’ve spent too long in the office) to definitely convince them it was a worthwhile experience. Then no more of it was mentioned until my Dad sat me down one evening in December.

He had noticed that I had been sulking around the house for some few weeks. Most of my mates had left for universities dotted all over the country and I was coming in from work most evenings, heading straight to my room. Coupled with that I had just split up with my girlfriend. In short, my life sucked. He reminded me of my original intentions to travel, or at least to do something productive with the year out I had. If I got to the end of the year with nothing to show for it, he said, I would regret it for some time. A few weeks later I was sat in STA Travel’s Victoria office booking my around the world ticket.

That following April I arrived at Heathrow Airport with a convoy to rival that of the US President. My brother, dad, mum and ex-girlfriend (we had stayed friends) came to wave me off along with my mum’s aunt, uncle, cousin and second cousin. As well as that my dad snapped away on the camera as if a member of the paparazzi and Britney Spears had just arrived. I must have looked like I did not have a clue what I was doing. And in truth I didn’t. I remember walking through security and the sudden realisation hit me that for the next four months I was completely and utterly on my own. I was petrified.

July 31st 2005, my nineteenth birthday, I arrived back in Heathrow to a much smaller waiting party. My mum and dad were the only ones there to meet me four months later. I walked back through the arrivals with a full head of hair, a backpack full of filthy clothes and a different look on life apparently. I had noticed myself growing up a little as I progressed around the world but it was my dad who pointed it out to me on the journey back from the airport. I had spoken about the trip the whole way home in the car and began to discuss some of the cultural experiences I had encountered when my dad stopped me.

‘What have you done with Oli?’ (Did I mention he was a comedian?)

‘Sorry?’

‘Well when we left you at Heathrow back in April all you spoke about was women and beer and here you are talking about culture of all things. Is this a new Oli?’

‘It might well be Dad.’

It was not a new me at all. I may have grown up slightly in that I was able to look after myself and had a slightly deeper appreciation for people that did not live on these islands but it was all an act, I was playing up to what was expected of me. I had not really experienced culture, I had visited a few museums and a couple of temples but ultimately my four months travelling around the world as an eighteen year old involved frequenting more bars and strip clubs than anything else. It was not until a trip to India in August of this year that I began to realise how much travelling can open your eyes.

I had spent three years at university without a great deal to show for it, a slight beer belly, appreciation for American hospital-based sitcoms and an attraction for Welsh girls but nothing I felt was worthwhile. Walking through the university campus one day, I glanced at a poster on the notice board advertising opportunities to raise money for charity as well as visit a new part of the world. I fancied myself as a bit of a hardened traveller after my initial backpacking tour as well as some trips to Newcastle and Warrington while at university and a week later was booked on a two week trip to India with the charity VSO.

The preparation for the trip brought about its own stresses, not least the application for an Indian visa which felt at times like trying to enter Fort Knox and the £3000 fundraising target. I organised a few events to help raise the money and also relied on sponsorships by friends but in the end I, well, sort of cheated really. The remainder of the money was taken from my savings. At the time it felt like it would be something to regret but when I returned from the trip with a new look on the world I realised that it was definitely worth it.

Without wishing to fall into the usual clichés, India really is a nation of contrasts and none more so than the divide between the rich and the poor. While the relatively wealthy, freshly-cleaned tour guides are happy to show you the impressive, British-built government buildings in New Delhi they are not so keen when you ask about the man next to the air-conditioned coach with one leg or whether the main lying by the road really was dead. We complain about hard financial times at the moment but no matter how bad things get, even the poorest people in this country will never experience a level of desperation that millions of people live with everyday in India. Despite all this the people are happy and incredibly friendly. Dwelling on this when I arrived home really brought home to me how much seeing the world can open your eyes.

Four months on from my own epiphany I am travelling around the world again. Along with Nick, my best mate from university, I will be backpacking around the world for a year. The trip will be a similar route to the one I embarked on alone as an eighteen year old, but with a few more years experience behind me and a less healthy bank balance I intend to steer well clear of the sleazy bars that took so much of my money a few years back.

I will use this website to keep you up to date with my stories, trials, tribulations and what-not. Hey, I know you’ll be interested. Do you know how I know? Because you’re still reading this.