In this edition of my Curious Miscellany I am sharing an extract from what might possibly - I emphasise, possibly - become a my next book. Provisionally entitled 'The Exhausted Traveller’, it’s intended to be a mixture of memoir, self-help and how-to manual. The book aims to show that those who - like me - yearn to explore but have disabilities or chronic conditions that limit their energy, can still have adventures. While the swelling ranks of the exhausted are, of course, the main intended readership, The Exhausted Traveller will have broader things to say about how we can lose and find our place in the world in an age of sickness and anxiety.
Sometime in the late 1990s, I received a package that changed the way I saw myself.
The package had been sent to my parents’ house and forwarded on by my mother to the tiny flat where I was living at the time. When I opened it, I was disconcerted to see a stack of photos of me, topless, looking painfully thin. It was only when I read the covering note that I hazily recalled when the pictures were taken, and who took them.
I met Rudi in a 3-bed dorm in a backpacker’s guesthouse in Vientiane, Laos, in 1995. An intense guy, with a shaven head and a taut physique, he had ridden his mountain bike all the way from his home in Germany. Brutally honest and passionate about everything, the road seemed to have stripped him of all discretion. He found me fascinating and incomprehensible in equal measure. When I told him about my love of death metal he earnestly tried to listen to some of my tapes before shaking his head and giving up. When I told him about my Jewishness, he asked me endless questions in a tortured, apologetic tone. When I joked that he had a ‘blitzkrieg’ attitude to travel he was outraged; ‘No, that is absolutely not funny at all!’.
I liked him. He liked me.
One night we had dinner with a doe-eyed English rose who was in an ambiguous relationship with the Australian guy she was travelling with. When we returned to our room that night, Rudi’s frustration at her unattainability was such that he ranted at me for half an hour before abruptly announcing that he needed to masturbate. But before he could retire to the rough and ready en suite we shared – complete with a door that didn’t completely close, located directly opposite my bed – the third man in our dorm staggered into the room in the midst of a drunken fight with a Laotian taxi driver.
I’ll be honest, I don’t remember his name, only that his business card named his profession as ‘coordinator’. I do remember that one of the things he had coordinated was drugs. A Canadian in his middle years, with a child he never saw, he had served time in prisons in his home country and in Central America. How he made a living now was unclear but he said it involved antiques. Mainly though, he drank and got stoned. He bought a massive bag of grass from the market and, the previous night, we shared a number of the strongest joints I had ever smoked but that seemed to leave him unaffected. My THC-fuelled paranoia was not helped by the guy’s refusing to tell me where he had stashed the grass in our room.
Rudi and I paid off the taxi driver, who seemed to be accusing our roommate of not paying, and he left grumbling. The Canadian then subjected both of us to a drunken stream of abuse that, insofar as it was coherent at all, seemed to take issue with our prim and proper ways. Then we all went to bed, Rudi outraged, his masturbatory plans postponed, me fretting at the possibility of a Laotian police raid, the Canadian blissfully snoring.
I woke after a night’s fitful sleep to the sight - through the uncloseable gap in the door - of the Canadian using the squat toilet, joint in mouth. He seemed hale, hearty and affable. Rudi, last night’s outrage forgotten, was also bright-eyed and bushy tailed. He began taking photos of the Canadian and I….
It was those photos that Rudi sent me, years after we met, to an address I must have given him, never expecting we would be in touch again.
What I saw was a sick young man. There I am lighting a cigarette, hunched over the lighter, sitting on the edge of my bed. Here I am lying on my back, ribs showing, sweating in the Laotian dry season. Here I am trying to coax my mouth into a smile after a restless night of paranoid dreams of Laotian prison cells.
I remembered Vientiane for more than Rudi, the Canadian and the English rose. I remembered a heat so all-encompassing that it left me breathless as I trudged along dusty boulevards. I remembered a thirst that could never be quenched. I remembered desperately seeking out an Australian doctor, who prescribed rehydration salts and whose air-conditioned office I never wanted to leave. I remembered the decrepit dorm in the ancient hotel; the bare mattresses offering no comfort. Although I loved being able to cross a new country off the list, I was bone weary and jealous of the likes of Rudi, who could push their bodies to the limit with barely a thought.
But I also remembered something else, something whose significance eluded me at the time: Rudi told me that I was ‘decadent’. I didn’t understand what he meant. Joints and cigarettes aside, I found the necessities of everyday existence too daunting to have the energy to be dissolute. Rudi clarified, ‘No! You are like Byron or Coleridge – like a romantic poet. They were always ill!’
Looking at the photos, a few years older and now reconciled to the limitations of my body, I finally saw what Rudi meant; kinda. It’s not that I possessed a Byronic beauty, but I did have the Midnight Express thing down cold: A prisoner of my body, I radiated a kind of languid suffering. I, the poet, gradually wasting away, far from home, yet somehow full of tragic grace.
Okay that’s going a bit far. I also looked like a Jewish North Londoner who had bought into the backpacker myth when really he should have been at home taking care of himself.
I hope you get where I am going with this though. Travel isn’t just about the prosaic details of the trip, it’s about fantasy, it’s about the memories we lay down for the future. Somehow, Rudi’s lens helped me to reframe a difficult period in which I was sick and in denial about my limitations, into something beautiful, even mythic. It’s almost besides the point what I actually felt during my Laotian days; what’s important is the place it holds in my memory. And the archetype of the romantically sick poet is definitely something I can buy into.
If we suffer when we travel, it doesn’t mean that the trip isn’t worthwhile. In fact, stories of awful journeys are embedded deep into the cultural bedrock. My people, the Jewish people, were forged through forty years of thirsty desert wanderings, trudging around the Sinai while waiting for the generation that built the golden calf to die off. When we were finally fit to enter the promised land, our venerable leader Moses was allowed one glimpse from Mount Nebo before he too had to die. I grew up with this story, and with others from the age of discovery. Like many boys I was thrilled by lurid stories of the masochism of exploration; of the half-dead remnant of Magellan’s crew finally reaching Lisbon after the round the world journey that finished off their captain; of Captain Scott tragically arriving at the remains of Amundsen’s south pole camp; of Shackleton miraculously leading his men home after his ship was crushed in the polar ice; and so, imperialistically, on. Later in life, the disastrous wanderings of peripatetic writers possessed a tragic cool that my nebbishy self never could: Arthur Rimbaud sickening in Africa, Walter Benjamin expiring after a hopeless attempt to escape from the Nazis over the Pyrenees, all manner of romantic exiles dying far from home.
Other stories of horrendous journeys could not be celebrated; stories of slave ships, of trains to Auschwitz, off death marches at the end of the war.
It is in the nature of stories that tales of terrible voyages involve us and draw us in, even when it feels improper to be so seduced. The journey tests us; it finds us wanting, transforms us, redeems us, destroys us, amuses us, excites us. We may end up where we started from, but we are never the same. That’s as true prosaically as it is mythically. How many children have been born as the result of couplings on city breaks in Prague, later to be celebrated or regretted? How many marriages have been forged or melted down in the crucible of Ayia Napa? And how many of us first took our first steps towards independence on a backpacking trip to South East Asia, finding it more or less liberating than we expected?
What I didn’t realise during my Laotian torpor, and what Rudi did, was that I hadn’t ‘failed’ to be a proper traveller; my suffering and paranoia was actually closer to that of the archetypal traveller than the backpacker who effortlessly glided through Laos or anywhere else. Unwittingly, I had written myself into a story that lurks deep in our cultural bedrock. And now I am here, telling it to you…
Why not write yourself into that story too? Us exhausted travellers arein a privileged position. We don’t have to try very hard to have a bad time. All it takes is an overheated hotel room or a two hour delay on a plane sitting on the tarmac and we become Byronic. In contrast, those who burst with vitality have to seek out extreme experiences if they want to really test themselves. In my backpacking days I once met a traveller who regaled me with the story of how he deliberately went on a trip on an Indonesia ferry precisely because Lonely Planet had warned it was hellishly unsafe and unsanitary. His pride at recounting the size of the cockroaches that crawled over him as he tried to sleep on deck shamed me at the time – but I should have pitied him that he should have had to try so hard to be so uncomfortable. I can be intolerably uncomfortable simply by travelling on the London underground during the rush hour.
The exhausted traveller doesn’t need to suffer of course – we too can experience joy, excitement, rest and recuperation – but we can assimilate the discomfort into the fabric of our journeys. The key is to compare ourselves to the right people. We are not lesser versions of those who have boundless energy, we are the heirs to a richer tradition of travellers who embrace the ordeal. Like every explorer from the dawn of history onwards, we put ourselves through the ordeal because the ordeal is worth it.
Thanks for reading A Curious Miscellany! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
Ah, the joys and tribulations of travel. In my younger days I would deliberately make the minimum of arrangements before leaving, knowing full well that I'd regret not making those arrangements when things started to go pear-shaped.