It’s pretty accurate that most of the time, pleasure is found first in anticipation and later in memory.
Rarely do we stop, observe and appreciate the smallest moments while they’re happening – the little things you see and experience that set your soul on fire with light, happiness and inspiration – ones that usually occur when you aren’t explicitly looking for them.
Yet here I am, sitting alone, writing this whilst eating dinner and drinking wine in a derelict and deserted street, in a small village in Northern Peru. If you really want to hear about it, I am solitary and as content as can be, and reflecting on everything with as much appreciation as possible. I went travelling some months earlier after having been made redundant from my first full-time writing job at the age of 24, an experience that left me with feelings of anxiety about an uncertain future in a creative field and wanting desperately to fulfil the ‘Australian Dream’ of living the extraordinary, cultured and exciting life we’re all told we can pursue.
Mildly haunted by the persistent trepidation that I’d see out my days doing something I loathed, I decided to pack my things and delay any major life decisions by making a different type of decision – impulsively seeking unplanned adventure. I grabbed my backpack, passport and camera and set off backpacking through Central and South America, until I felt older and wiser.
Although fresh, innocuous and ready for adventure, I set out at the start of this trip with a fair amount of naivety. After a shaky and precarious start in Mexico, I found myself companionless and mildly terrified in an area packed full of people. I was flooded with a sense of forlornness and the startling realisation that no planning or research meant I’d soon be stranded in the middle of nowhere, looking especially Gringo (read: ignorant white traveller) with the idyllic, romanticised picture of travel I’d had in my head, quickly crumbling beneath me. The allure of exploring unknown places was strong but when you wind up in a scenario usually dreamed up for the storyline of a horror film, it’s easy to oscillate between panic and angst.
Looking back retrospectively now, I realise that I had wanted to figure it all out in some uninterrupted, idealised fashion, yet when the opportunity presented itself I was more scared than when I was being followed late at night in Colombia, or lost in the back streets of Guatemala. You can’t force yourself to enjoy isolation until you’re ready, regardless of how much you seek to fill your existential void by claiming you’re facing the big bad world head-on.
The writer Gustave Flaubert said that an infinity of passion can be contained in one minute, and that one of the most significant things to learn is that travel makes one modest – “You see what a tiny space you occupy in the world”. This happens to me in this restaurant, where I find comfort in the clarity of my own thoughts, thinking about the relationship between privilege and travel, and wondering how I got so lucky to be sitting here, doing what I’m doing. Almost beside myself with rapture, I’d finally learned that being out of your comfort zone in foreign places is a way to gain a humbling insight into other people’s way of life, and the dispensations of your own. Witnessing ruthless poverty for example, cuts through any preconceptions you had and gives rise to compassion and tolerance, which is something that cannot be bought or taught.
So what was I in search of those months ago? A connection to a place, a person, serenity, or identity perhaps, I don’t even know. Using travel as the vehicle for self-growth and finding gratitude in simple things meant that in moments like hiking breathless to the top of a snow-capped peak, hours from any human contact and taking in the outrageous scenery in front of me, I truly learned what it means to be alone and content. Yet of all my travels this moment here really stands out. I was completely happy to be surrounded by nothing in particular that I had been looking for, and that was just fine by me.