Some say

She was always there for me.

Through break-ups, house moves, failed job interviews, she would sit silently, patiently as I soaked her shoulder with my tears.

I could tell her anything. She showed no judgement, told me no lies.

Every night when I came home and got to bed – however late – she was always there, waiting. Every morning I woke up to her beautiful face greeting mine. So from the moment she entered my life I started every day smiling.

Then one day I decided to go travelling and had to say goodbye to her.

While I was away, she died.

I wasn’t there for her.

I never got to tell her I’m sorry for leaving her.

Sometimes still, in the middle of the night, I think I feel her by my feet.

I don’t talk about her much now.

After all, ‘She was only a cat’, some say.

 

I originally wrote this about a year after Molly’s death and when I had returned from South America.

 

What happens when your travels end

I still regularly receive lovely comments and messages, even though I have sorely neglected Rachel Travels blog for a while now, so I thought it only fair to fill you in on what happened next…

The homesickness didn’t budge. I was torn, as I loved Peru. But my true home was calling. So nearly a year after I had set off from London, I decided there really is no place like home.

Such a journey doesn’t happen overnight when you have been living high in the Andes: a flight from Cusco to Lima, where I peered out the window at those lovely mountains. Then a night in Lima, back at the same hostel where my adventures began. That was very strange; some things had changed a lot since I was last there. But the smell, – always the most evocative of the senses – the smell of the hostel was the same and took me right back to those first, thrilling, nerve-wracking days where I was waiting for my adventure to begin.

Finally the day of my departure from South America had arrived. As the taxi drove me through the traffic-clamoured streets of Lima and the evening sun beamed down, I suddenly wanted to tell the driver to stop and turn back. Am I making the right decision, leaving?

Yet somehow, just like when I came out here, I found my feet taking me to the airport and walking me through the motions. I didn’t look back.

It was time to start my next adventure.

 

Homesickness

It crept in without me noticing, maybe around three months in. At first it just highlighted simple things such as why can’t I get a KitKat in the local shop?? Why does every vehicle I travel in seem to have a death wish???

But soon it was time to move on, so my thoughts got distracted with exciting new sights and scenes. Then Christmas came and I was stuck in Montevideo. That’s when the more serious wave came – thoughts of family, friends, cat, and life left behind. Christmas Eve was almost unbearable as it became a physical tugging on the heart. I watched mothers and daughters, families, and groups of friends hurrying home together with bags of presents. Then the city fell silent.

It was the first Christmas I had ever wished to be over as quickly as possible.

When the New Year came, I thought, was when it would all get better – I could move on again. As you know, that didn’t quite happen. However, I did move on eventually – to the bright lights of Buenos Aires, the thundering Iguazu Falls, a multi-week adventure across Bolivia. But no matter how many sights, smiles and sunbeams the days might bring, the feeling was firmly planted there inside. Sometimes it would come to the fore, with tears and desperate thoughts of running to the nearest airport.

“But no! Don’t give up!” – everyone, and part of me, cried.

So I carried on.

Before I knew it, I had got an apartment in Cusco and was looking for jobs. Weeks went by and the jobs didn’t come. Money dripped away and so did my sanity. Nothing to do, no one to go out with, barely enough food to eat was a cocktail for a rapid descent into depression.

From my apartment window I could see the planes taking off every day from Cusco airport and I would fantasise about being inside one.

The worst thing of all, is I felt guilty and isolated – no one else I saw walking round the streets of Cusco looked unhappy to be here, nobody else looked like they dreamt of home every night. But then a saviour came, in the form of the internet. A tentative quick typing into Google of ‘homesickness’ brought up a torrent of blogs and professional advice. I was not alone!! Hundreds of people all around the world were feeling the same way as me and were all exchanging kind words and support. So it was completely normal how I was feeling! And there were ways to help me feel better!

So it’s only fair I share them for anyone who hasn’t found those blogs, but mine instead:

  1. First of all, know it’s normal, don’t fight it, ride it through. Homesickness is comparable as a type of grief, so expect the same emotions, and know that this too will pass.
  2. Keep busy! This is an excellent cure for any kind of depression. Do something, anything. Go for a walk at least once a day. Get work, study, volunteer, seek out local cultural events, exercise, stream films, read and write, join a club.
  3. Bringing me to – join an expat club so you can chat with like-minded people and create a support network. (See your local Meetup and Craigslist webpages).
  4. Chat with friends and family back home as often as you want – be it by phone, Skype or email – even if to share the silliest, smallest story, that will help you feel as connected to them as if they were down the road.
  5. Finally, don’t be afraid to pack it all up and go back home. If that’s where your heart really lays, then lay it there – life’s too short to be miserable.

I’ve skimmed the surface – check out my lifeline Grit and Glamour’s Getting Over Homesickness and 10 Tips for Managing Homesickness – in particular, scroll down to see readers’ comments and her thoughtful responses.

And what did I do? Did the homesickness fade? Did I stay or did I go? Well that’s another story…

Letting it happen

Just over a year ago, I had arrived in Peru with absolutely no idea of what to do or where to go. It wasn’t long, however, before my adventures began and I found myself (thank you Johannes) in a funny little valley below Cusco with places I’d never heard of soon becoming my home, and people I’d never met soon to become friends.

Here are some of my photos taken within the space of just a few weeks of arriving in this new land. I think they show that sometimes the best laid plans are none at all…

Urubamba cross

The Cross, above Urubamba, solo

Salineras

Las Salineras – salt mines, with Alex

Puma walk

Walking down from Pumamarca, with Tara

Pisac

Discovering Pisac, solo

Phone

Back streets of Cusco, with Veronica

Koricancha, Cusco, Rachel Travels

Taking a break from exploring Cusco, with Jenna

Naupa temple

Naupa temple, with Johannes, Carlos, Juan Carlos

Ollanta

Above Ollantaytambo, solo

moon

The moon, somewhere in the valley, with some people

Kai, with many

Kai, with many

Looking down on the lights of Cusco from Q'enqo ruins at dusk

Looking down on the lights of Cusco from Q’enqo ruins at dusk, with Alex

A survival guide to Buenos Aires’ La Boca

When I was in Buenos Aires, I kept putting off going to the area with all the multicoloured houses that is such an icon of the city. People kept telling me scare stories about the dangerous neighbourhood it’s in, but one day I plucked up the courage to go…check out my experience of La Boca on Stanfords’ blog.

Rachel in El Caminito, La Boca

Rachel in El Caminito, La Boca

Why you should just do it

I had put it off for years. I had made it into a bigger monster than it needed to be. I had missed out doing it in such amazing locations as Ha Long Bay in Vietnam and Koh Phi Phi in Thailand. Then finally, at the age of 28, after a long, frustrated summer spent in the Greek Islands, I got back to London and marched myself into the local leisure centre and did it. I signed up to swimming lessons.

Searching for inspiration on Serifos

Searching for inspiration on Serifos

I don’t know why I had never learnt to swim properly – I grew up spending all summer in the sea and swimming pools. But I never really swam.

Then as I started stepping out into far-flung corners of the world, my lack of ability at staying afloat in water became more and more of a vital issue. What if this rickety boat that’s bouncing across the waves to an isolated Pacific island doesn’t make it? What about on that experience-of-a-lifetime Ha Long Bay trip where everyone else is ecstatically jumping off the wooden junk boat into the aquamarine waters while I dangle nervously from the ladder?

And as for the time just I and a boyfriend were deposited somewhere in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Sumatra to do some snorkelling, only to see our “tour” boat disappear into the horizon…

Waving, not drowning, off the coast of Sumatra

Waving, not drowning, off the coast of Sumatra

So that day back in London was a life-changing one. I had decided to bite the bullet and face those fears of feeling humiliated, of being too old to take lessons, of looking stupid, of wearing a swimsuit in front of the general public, and – naturally – of drowning.

Those 12 weeks I spent – at first thrashing and eventually swimming – under the watchful eye of a patient teacher in a Covent Garden pool were the best investment I ever made.

Being able to swim opens up another 70% of the world to you – how cool is that? And this time when I departed for my travels in South America, I knew I could happily and confidently jump off any boats and plunge into any pools that came my way.

Enjoying a mountain-side farmer's reservoir in a secret location in Peru

Enjoying a mountain-side farmer’s reservoir in a secret location in Peru

If you haven’t learnt to swim yet, just do it.

Here

Here cars run straight at you on zebra crossings
But the locals know they’re just getting on

Here manners are part of nature
And ‘bon appetit’, ‘thank you’ and ‘good day’
Are said by all, always

Here some things take weeks longer than they should
While moving house takes less than an hour

Here there isn’t the choice
To buy in the shops
But you realise you never needed it anyway

Here some houses are left unfinished and unsightly
Baring concrete, breeze blocks and metalwork
But indoors is a warm home with grandparents, parents and young

Here hardly anyone has a car
And carry heavy loads on backs
But they get to work together with friends inside the bus

Here children run wild and grubby
Always close to danger
But gleefully free of imagined fears

Here animals roam without leashes or fences
Living as they were meant to be

Here I don’t agree with things
Here I changed my mind

My love affair with books

Wanderlust Blog of the Week award

I’ve been very generously given files of books to read on my computer. I’ve got all the classics – from Carroll to Chekhov and from Kipling to Dickens; I’ve got all the titles by my favourite author, E M Forster; I’ve got poetry by all the greats, too.

I’d been desperate for a good read for a while, as English-language books are sparse in South America. I came from England last year with a ration of two books that I managed to stretch out over a few months, but by the time I hit Argentina, I was in need of a novel. The bookshops of Buenos Aires had small sections of ‘Pocket Books’– a euphemism for English books – but my eyes scanned and scanned the spines to see nothing but modern trash written by unknown authors. Finally, on a dusty hostel bookcase, I scavenged a 1986 copy of The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles. A young Meryl Streep’s face peering out from the cover reminded me I had seen the film version years back, and somewhat enjoyed it, so the book must be worth a go.

The battered book stayed wedged down the side of my backpack as a mammoth voyage across the continent ensued. When I finally settled in Cusco, had time to unpack, and even more time to sit and read, I at long last opened the cover of The French Lieutenant’s Woman, and turned those first, delightfully aged and yellowed pages. I brought the book up to my nose and drank in the musty smell from the antiquated paper. And I settled down into what was to be one of the best stories I’ve read.

Would I have enjoyed it half as much if I read it on my odourless, clinical laptop screen? I don’t think so.

Since bookless, I have made several attempts to start reading my favourite books from their computer files – A Room with a View, Howard’s End, Through the Looking Glass, Wordsworth’s poems. But something just isn’t quite right.

Of all the books I have read in my life, I can remember the physical book as well as – or even as part of – the actual story. I remember my 1970s series of Famous Five books that lined my childhood bookcase; the big old hardback copy of Peter Pan and Wendy with its colour plates; and then I remember my first borrowed copy of Wuthering Heights; and, for me, A Room with a View will always be associated with a sturdy hardback borrowed from the library that I got sand between all the pages as I read it on the beach one summer between college years.

So now I have a vast digital library full of great books, but will I ever read them? I suspect not in that form.

No, not for me the Kindle, iPad or any other electronic device to read my stories; no, I’m going to wait for the next crumpled, fusty tome abandoned on a shelf and with which I can delve deliciously into another time, another place.

Rachel with The French Lieutenant's Woman in Cusco

Rachel with The French Lieutenant’s Woman in Cusco

 

This post appeared as Wanderlust’s blog of the week.

Dear Driver

Anyone who’s travelled has been there – the rusty vehicle, the splintered windscreen, the hairpin bends, the lack of seatbelts, the honking horns. It’s the aspect of travel I hate most – sitting powerless in a car or bus as the driver hurtles me to certain death (so I convince myself as my white knuckled hands clench the seat tighter). So this is what I would like to say to them:

Dear Driver,

I know you’re in a hurry to drop this lot of people off so you can shoot back and get the next load in – more people, more money. But does it never occur to you that maybe you won’t ever get to enjoy that money if you carry on driving like this? Thought not. So may I be so bold as to drop you a few tips to ensure you – and your passengers – get to see out the rest of your days…

Number 1 – seatbelts aren’t there just to hurriedly put on when you spot a police car, only to take off again once the cops are out of sight. Why not just keep it on? It’s really no trouble. And please ensure all your passengers are wearing theirs, too – if I’m sitting in the front, I don’t want to be crushed by five people from behind me when you brake too hard, as invariably you will (also see number 4).

Number 2 – hairpin bends on precipitous mountainsides are really not the choice spot for overtaking nor for looking at your mobile phone (also see number 3).

Number 3 – could you please not spend a mean average of five minutes with your eyes not on the road but checking your mobile phone at regular intervals? Just a suggestion.

Number 4 – another idea, don’t know what you’ll think, but how about not driving so insanely fast that when something does get in your way or the car in front isn’t going as fast, then you won’t have to brake so aggressively, therefore saving us all a bit of whiplash?

Number 5 – the horn. I don’t know if you’re aware, but the horn is actually not supposed to be used in conjunction with the accelerator. I.e. hooting at pedestrians in the road but not slowing down to avoid hitting them won’t really pass in the eyes of the law. Same goes for overtaking on blind spots – honking the horn does not bring salvation.

Number 6 – ok, I get it – you want to overtake everything else on the road, but if you really must insist on doing so, once you’ve overtaken, is there any chance you could then return to the correct side of the road? It’s not fun to wait until something is coming rapidly towards us in the other direction to then swerve jerkily – and terrifyingly – out of the way at the last second.

Number 7 – finally, the music. If I must spend the entire journey with my life flashing before my eyes, the last thing I need as the soundtrack is a plinky-plonky, wailing cassette tape playing on loop and at top volume for four hours.

Thanks ever so much.

Yours in eternal hope,

Rachel

A bus with half its windscreen missing, on the road between Tupiza and Atocha, Bolivia

A bus with half its windscreen missing, on the road between Tupiza and Atocha, Bolivia

Whizzing perilously along another South American road

Whizzing perilously along another South American road

See also my post on buses from hell

Walking on through the storm

I have been in Montevideo for pretty much four weeks now and it’s unexpectedly become a rocky ride. At first I was hanging out here by choice – I found the city a great place to spend some time, and flung out emails left, right and centre for teaching work and apartment rentals, while planning to head to the beach for the Christmas holiday.

However, as Christmas approached, things suddenly didn’t look so rosy.

A couple of months ago, on my last night in Peru while waiting for the bus, my wallet had been stolen out of my rucksack. Unfortunately my bank card was inside, and for the coming weeks I planned to be on the move almost every day so there was no chance of getting sent a new one without staying put for a good while. Buenos Aires’ post offices refused to do poste restante for me, but thankfully when I arrived in Montevideo they offered the service – and for free.

By then it wasn’t long before my cash supply ran down to zero and my bank card would take 10 days to arrive, so the Christmas and New Year period I spent sat in my cheap hotel room, with supermarket food bought on my credit card.

After New Year, my bank card finally arrived, but I also received devastating news from home that my beloved cat Molly had been run over and died.

By this point I began to wonder why on earth I had given up what was really quite a wonderful life back in England, where I was surrounded by lovely people whom I love very much, had a great home with my cat and my five housemates, had a decent job with a good salary that allowed me to do anything I wanted. Why, why, why did I give up all of that? Was I ungrateful? Greedy? Always wanting more? Never satisfied?

These have been dark days, but slowly I’m coming out to the other side where the sun is breaking through – I know there are good times ahead and that my loved ones will support me all the way. There are mountains I will climb, waterfalls I’ll stand beneath and new four-legged friends whose fur I’ll run my hand through.

No matter what hurdles I must face and sadness I will feel along the way, I had to do this – even long before I stepped on to the plane, it was already part of my life.