It can be difficult to begin. I keep new notebooks on my desk and carry them around in my bag for months before I finally dare to pick up a pen and make the first marks on the clean white paper. It’s an act that is irreversible on paper and often I will cheat by leaving 3 or 4 blank pages so that I can get on with writing and note taking without having to find some perfect way of starting, believing that when I do find the perfect way I can come back and cover those initial pages with my brilliant genius.
Of course there is no such thing and more often than not those first few pages remain blank.
In life there are more serious barriers. Beginning something, taking the first steps to live out a fantasy in the real world that has been played out endlessly in your mind, can be terrifying. Our fears seem to increase in number and severity as we grow older. Our lives take root and making changes, no matter how small, seem to require huge shifts and enormous effort. Dreams of starting a new career, moving to a new country, going on some great adventure, and even much, much smaller changes than these, can be destroyed by concerns about money, career, family, failure, ridicule… even by fear of success.
Knowing this, recognising these fears as an adult, I am so grateful that as a boy I was, in these regards at least, fearless. My teenage self demonstrated lessons through the ignorance and naivety of youth that I hope my adult self never forgets.
Around 10 years ago, the end of my school life was almost over. I was nearing 18, final A-Level exams were round the corner, and our collective minds were on the future. Freedom beckoned. Or at least it seemed to. A pretty girl’s eye caught for just a moment long enough to excite the spirit and to sow hope into the heart. A siren call.
I went to 6th Form at the same place I went to High School. Benjamin Britten, Lowestoft. I had had a great childhood in this little seaside town, but by 16 I’d sensed the decay and the rot and the resignation to a life of no opportunity that hung like a cloud over its inhabitants. The town had died with its fishing industry. Alcohol, drugs, pregnancy. These were the escapes for my friends who would stay.
I don’t know when I knew that I would leave. I think perhaps I inherited a wanderlust and that departure was inevitable. Some people certainly seem destined to always be wondering what’s over the horizon, never satisfied with being still for very long, no matter how comfortable the place.
At school, one of the PE teachers came up to me during a break and asked me about my plans. Tall, blonde, and endowed with a massive ego, she had seen me in the papers trying to raise money for charity by being sponsored for my planned exodus.
“I’m going to travel overland to Australia,” I said. “No flying allowed.”
She already knew this of course. For my part I already knew that she was planning her own round the world career break at, I would guess, around 30.
“How much money do you have saved?”
Her tone was insinuating, rather than one of concern or interest.
Unsatisfied, she pursued me: “You’ll need at least 5 grand!” she informed me with some force.
It was clear she was motivated by jealousy. To think that a spotty little school boy could just up sticks and do something that she, presumably, was taking very seriously as a self-affirming, once in a lifetime adventure. How dare I steal her thunder, and get in the papers about it, too!
I wish I had had the wit to have said “You might need £5,000, madame, but don’t presume to tell me how much I will need!” or something equally snobbish. I probably just shrugged and carried on walking.
It turned out she was probably right. But so what. This isn’t a story about her, or about how awesome I was at 18 to just pack a bag and go. I was an idiot. I had literally drawn a line on a map from England to Australia through a bunch of countries I had absolutely no clue about (I still have the map!), and then told everyone about it. In Lowestoft not much happened, so if you got in the papers and on the radio, everyone knew about it. (This, I have learned by the way, is an excellent tactic for avoiding the need for the kind of self-motivation usually needed to actually do things).
I had no money. I think I had about £500. And a credit card for emergencies. I didn’t know anything. I didn’t know how to board the ferry in Dover, or what to do once I got to Calais. I didn’t know how I would travel or where I would stay. I didn’t know how to hitch hike, sleep rough, or ask for help. I didn’t even know how to deal with the opposite sex. In a hostel in Paris I asked a beautiful Mexican girl what she’d like (to drink, you understand). She replied, “sex!”, with half-closed eyes and a wicked smile. I still cringe at the embarrassed laugh and pretense to have thought she was joking! To think I could have lost my virginity to a gorgeous Mexican in Paris instead of to my friend’s sister in a Holiday Inn in Edinburgh!
I was clueless. And I failed. Miserably! At least in the getting to Australia part. And the no flying part, too. I made it to Greece in about a week using trains, buses and ferries, and almost all of my money. I couldn’t find any information about how to find a boat to take me across the med to north Africa. Instead of just going to a port and asking around, I panicked and started considering my options.
Being the ignoramus that I was, I considered my options to be:
- Give up and go home
- Give up and fly to Australia to start my stuntman course early (… man I wish I had done that course!)
- Take one for the team and fly to Egypt to continue my journey from there.
The Australian embassy in Greece wanted proof of funds so I chose number 3 and flew to Egypt.
I arrived in Cairo airport at 1am, imagining it would be similar to Gatwick and that I’d just crash on the floor somewhere. Idiot! The airport was like the busiest, dirtiest bus station you’ve ever seen! I had no guide book, no plan, no idea what to do. In then end I let a taxi driver hustle me to his car with promises of a hotel room.
His car was amazing. The door literally fell off its hinges when I opened it. There was what I thought must be camel skin covering everything, and there were holes in the floor by my feet. I later learned that these taxis are called flying coffins, and if you take one you will understand why.
This taxi ride was the single most exhilarating experience I had ever had, and it still ranks up there over 10 years later. I was taken to a hotel, and probably for a ride over the fare although I don’t remember, and spent a long, very lonely night wondering what I was doing and pining over a mad girl who I had convinced myself I was in love with.
In the morning I explained my plan to the hotel manager.
“I am going to sail down the red sea, maybe as far as Oman or somewhere like that, then I’ll travel overland again.” In my mind it was so simple. It was probably was that simple in reality too, but my confidence in this plan proved to be only skin deep.
The manager, bless him, with either cunning or sympathy, told me regretfully that there were no boats sailing that way at this time of year, and that I would be better off enjoying the delights of Egypt for a little while instead.
No boats! No boats?! And I believed him?! Idiot!
Perhaps he was interested in my well being and didn’t want to be responsible for assisting a young white boy find his early, watery grave in the Red Sea, but I think he was just interested in my wallet, and he made haste to prepare a tour for me to enjoy while I figured out what to do next.
In my memory I did enjoy that tour, but I think at the time I was plagued by the knowledge that I was wasting time and money and was really just stalling because I didn’t have a clue what to do next. One thing that I do remember was being amazed by how many people thought that what I was doing was a big deal. Just being in Egypt, on my own, at 18, was seen by all these grown men and women to be something to be marveled at. To me, being on a tour bus with those people was failing.
In the end, I sort of gave up. I flew back to Paris thinking I would be able to get a job as an English teacher. I was fresh out of school and I didn’t speak French, nor did I have any experience teaching English.
It quickly dawned on me that of all my ideas, this one was particularly stupid, and I ended up flying back to the UK and sneaking my way up to Scotland where I could hide from all of the people who I imagined would mock my failure.
I’m not sure exactly, but the entire trip lasted something like 3 weeks. It’s easy to mock. I simply wasn’t prepared for the challenges. If I had spoken to other people who had done similar trips they would have given me lots of advice, the most important would probably have been to ask for help, and to persist when a solution is not immediately forthcoming. I did neither of these things.
Clearly I was far from awesome! But this post is not about awesome vs. idiot, or success vs. failure. It’s about doing, starting, deciding, beginning. It’s about not letting fear – especially the fear spread by jealous 30-something PE teachers, by nay-sayers and wingers and neg-heads – stop you from doing things that will open up the world to you just a little bit wider than it is right now.
Those were some of the most formative days of my life, because I was lost and out of my comfort zone for every single one of them. 10 years later and I can recall the whole trip mentally, as though I just got back, and write these stories from memory alone. I’m embarrassed by the ineptitude and naivety of my 18 year old self, but I’m also a little proud, and occasionally look back to him for inspiration when, nearing 30 myself, I’m more in danger of becoming a comfortable but jaded PE teacher now than I ever have been or probably ever will be again!
So here’s to the spotty teenage virgin who dared to fail! Long may he live inside all of us!
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