Monday, 27 May 2013

Coming home

Volunteering at Esther Honey
I left South Pacific Rarotonga with a lump in my throat. My month working as an island vet with the Esther Honey Foundation was a time I will never forget. I met inspiring people and was left with no desire to go home and return to ‘normal life’, more an increasing wanderlust combined with a motivation to go and volunteer wherever in the world I might be useful.

All through this trip we’d met people who were on their last stop before returning home.  They had  made me a bit smug - glad it wasn’t over for us yet. However, I always thought that a time would come when I felt ready to go back, and after 18 months it was a bit surprising to realise that I wasn’t there yet..

Celebrating with Emma on my first night back in Britain
It was probably a good thing that my passport was about to expire, as that meant that I couldn’t even contemplate staying in the Cook Islands, or doing anything other than returning to the UK - the only country that would now let me in with just 2 months left on my passport! We’d stretched out travel for travel’s sake as long as we could realistically afford to, but that didn’t make it any easier to stop.

Flying into London
Of course there were positives about coming home too, and it was lovely to fly into London over a familiar skyline for once, and to head over to my good friend Emma’s flat- not needing a map to get there, everything how I remembered it. I saw friends for the first time in far too long and enjoyed London, one of the best cities in the world after all, in the spring sunshine. Emma lives in Westminster in the heart of the city, surrounded by iconic architecture and green parks. St James Park was full of daffodils and there wasn't a cloud in the sky. It had been a good idea to come home for the spring, and we’d timed it just right. Only a couple of weeks earlier the country had been buried under the latest snowfall, which would have made for quite a shock after the tropics.

Back together in London
Karl and I were reunited in London. His hair was now long enough to tie back, blonder than ever and he was super tanned after his month surfing in Costa Rica.
Together we began our slow journey around the country. We collected our rusty white camper van from friends who’d looked after it in Southampton and travelled northwards over a week, staying with friends, eating lots of delicious roasts and meeting the next generation (four babies having arrived in our absence). People’s lives had definitely moved on while we’d been away, quite a few of our friends buying houses and turning into families.

New families

Food with friends

Birmingham was our last stop, and on what was really the final morning of the trip we woke up to a shock. Our camper van was missing, no longer on the street where we parked it. Inside were many of the things that had survived, unscathed, around the world- dive log books, journals, the beer labels we’d been collecting in every country, shells, maps and souvenirs. Nothing ‘valuable’, but when something like that happens you quickly redefine the word- I would much rather my valuables were taken, and we didn’t even care that much about the van itself. My first thoughts were along the lines of ‘do we really want to stay and live in this country?’.  We'd not been victims of crime anywhere in the world, for it to happen now. We’d been back in the UK less than a week.

We could just about see the funny side though- we were locked out of the friend’s flat we’d been staying in, sitting in a car park in Birmingham with our backpacks and a mattress a friend had given us, and feeling more like tramps than ever before. We tried to reason that if this was the worst to happen to us in a year and a half it wasn’t bad going- it was only stuff after all. But the irony of it being our very last day, so close to making it home, was painful.

Safely back home in Southport with the van
Luckily, later that morning the police informed us they had our van – it had been broken into in the early hours by two guys who didn’t want to pay for a taxi home after a night on the town – so decided to steal a car instead! Someone heard the glass smash and called the police, who arrived in time for a brief, drunken chase by foot.
They had done a fair bit of damage, pulling out electrics in a futile attempt to hot wire it, but the van and the criminals were all safely impounded in Birmingham police station. To cut a long story short, we were able to drive home to Southport that evening, despite wires hanging out around the steering wheel and shattered glass everywhere. The missing window was draped in plastic that flapped noisily and we raced up the motorway to try to beat dusk as we now had no lights or indicators, Karl winding the driver’s window open for hand signals every time we had to overtake. It wasn’t quite how we imagined finishing the trip, but after the shock of the morning we were very glad it had all worked out so well.

Visiting my parents in Ireland
After a week unpacking and settling into our temporary home in Southport (Karl’s old family home, which we are living in while we clear it and put it on the market for his mum) we had a final holiday to Ireland to see my parents in the far corner of County Cork, enjoying rainy dog walks and some sailing in Bantry Bay, and trying to get used to needing coats and even woolly hats again.

A reminder of life on a Thai island last year
So we strung our trip out as long as possible, but now it is definitely, emphatically over!
Without noticing, we’ve slipped back into life in Britain and its novelties have quickly worn off. The first night in a house was quite exciting, wearing slippers and a dressing gown and drinking blackberry brandy. Too quickly though, we’ve started to take things like having a fridge, an oven, a wardrobe and a comfy bed for granted. We’ve found ourselves bogged down in mundane daily tasks as we try to get our life ‘sorted', and are also wondering why we ever needed so much stuff, having become truly adapted to everything in one’s life fitting into a 60 litre backpack.
It is surprisingly easy to forget we ever went away, but I do get a buzz every time a random travel memory pops into my head or an exotic photograph appears on the desktop to remind me. It DID all really happen!

Bringing in the sardine catch in Kerala, India
My advice to anyone who’s thinking of taking a year or so ‘out’ and doing something different that they’ve always dreamed of is DO IT! I know for a lot of people the idea of never knowing where you’ll be sleeping that night is not very appealing at all, and they can’t think of anything worse than leaving the homes and lives they’ve made for something entirely unknown. Fair enough really, it's not everyone's idea of a good time! 

But others are held back by practicalities that are quite easily overcome. Don’t be too scared to leave a job- unless it really is your dream job you’ll find something else, ‘Life is too short to work it all away'....
A road in New Zealand

And don’t think you could never afford it, travel can be a lot cheaper that you might think. The whole trip has cost each of us about the same as a new car, and less than the average house deposit or wedding.
We tried to travel on a pretty small budget of £20 each per day, so that’s about £11,000 each for 18 months away.
It certainly didn’t allow for many luxuries but we still drank beer, took flights, and it even included a rationed amount of expensive activities like scuba diving. In short, we did pretty much everything we wanted to do and never felt particularly limited. We decided not to work on this trip as we didn’t want to be tied down or have to plan work visas and jobs, but that's a good alternative. Many people we met are breaking even, or even making more money than they’re spending, by interspersing travel with periods of work abroad.

Last sunset in Rarotonga
It is intimidating leaving everything familiar for an unpredictable life, but as soon as you take the first step, the world quickly becomes smaller and less scary. Time also becomes distorted, the weeks and months slipping by. 18 months really isn't that long after all, especially when you come home and find that everything is just how you left it.

We will always be glad we went. Travel really does open the eyes and broaden the mind, and I have come to realise that there are many, many different ways to be happy. Life is what you make it!

Right, now it’s time to get a job….