After a particularly nasty trip to DRC, my boss stated something that rang very true:
Adventure Lies in the Imagination of Others.
A trip into the unknown contains as much wonderful ups as sorrowful and self-pitying downs: much like life in your home country really; just a different setting.
Don’t get me wrong. I love travelling and the quirky experiences associated with it, such as lucky encounters with Colobus Monkeys in a Congolese forest, or accidentally replacing lost water with old Sprite in the water tank of a car in rural Pakistan. Anyone who has travelled has them. In search of new experiences are one of the main reasons why we travel.
However, Life as you are travelling is still Life. You still have those awful journeys where nothing works; meet disagreeable people trying to cheat you of your money, insipid food that will only just about sustain you till the next meal. You just tend not to talk about those, as they do not merit the breath you use to recount them. I guess deep down, you want to project the image that your trip was one of complete and unparalleled beauty.
Travellers are all guilty of selective story-telling, describing the wonderful events, exaggerating the extraordinary experiences and leaving out the boring details about the lack of inspirational food or unwelcoming locals: “Yes Mum, everything went well, I was happy and talkative all the time, the food was amazing and I never got ripped off”.
Yeah right. Stop lying my friend.
I hope you don’t think I am being hypocritical. I do it too, but now that I am conscious of it, I really try to balance it out when recounting my travels. I also don’t think we lie about our travels consciously. We simply talk about the positives because we have invested so much of our time into it that we would look like abject failures if there was nothing impressive to talk about on your return. Also, we believe that an extraordinary experience will be more interesting to listen to. Who wants to hear about a bus journey where nothing happened?
Unfortunately, it incorrectly depicts travelling as a romantic adventure mixed with a pinch of exploration and a soupcon of resourcefulness, where everything is rosy and life is beautiful.
Even before setting off, visions of 1001 nights in the deserts of Rajasthan, rugged mountains in Afghanistan and tropical chaos in DRC will fuel the starry-eyed thoughts. Stories and photos you bring back (along with a bunch of really dirty clothes) further enhance the dream for others.
However, not all travel experiences are cute and cuddly like the millions of kids following you through the villages in African nations. Some are fraught with danger. The latter won’t only be frightening during the event, but will come to define your entire experience after the trip.
The types of adventures that make you feel lucky to tell the tale are not fun. Trust me. You are not thinking about the cool stories you can tell your friends down the pub when you are back, or how it will look on your CV. When you are involved in a dangerous situation, you have to deal with it fully, and most likely freaking out.
I have been stuck in a Congolese jail, stuck in no man’s land between Uganda and DRC, in Kabul during massive firefights between Taliban and Western forces, suffered dangerously high fever, interrogated in small rooms in the Indian high commission, driven through rebel territories and been on dangerous terrain in/on very unsafe vehicles.
I am not going to pretend that I did not feel a thrill when things were occurring. Obviously your senses are heightened, you shake your head and whisper to yourself: “Well, Julien, this is different. Roll with it, do the best you can, keep your chin up, and if you come out the other side, remember it.”
But as a certain friend can attest, talking on the internet during the bombings in Kabul, I was not a “picture of cool”. Nor was I “rolling with the punches” when being thrown in jail. I was maintaining a calm exterior whilst crying like a baby inside.
When you do eventually narrate the story to your friends at a dinner party back in London, the cool parts come out, and as much as you try to describe the emotions you were going through, most of the people around will be thinking: “Wow, that’s adventure right there”.
Yes it is, but not while you are in it.
Adventure definitely lies in the imagination of others. And yours I guess, once you’ve survived…