Adios, Urubamba

As I prepared to go away on this trip, facing the thought of leaving my life and loved ones in London was hard. What I didn’t expect was that I’d have to do it all again once I was actually out here. Yet here I am, preparing to leave Peru having spent more than three months living in the little town of Urubamba. And I feel sad.

It’s so true that only when you face losing something do you realise how much you love it – now I notice how the sun falls in my pretty little garden at different times of the day; now I spot all the shop and café owners in town who I recognise and who recognise me; I realise all the places I know where to buy exactly what I’m looking for; I know what all the prices should be; I remember how much I’ve changed since I first arrived wide-eyed. Now it’s time to start again, to be the stranger flailing around in the foreign land. It’s time for new adventures, challenges and surprises.

And this time, I don’t think I’ll be coming back to this place that has so warmly been my home.

So adios, Urubamba, gracias por su hospitalidad. Thank you Carlos and Carlos for your hospitality at Kai and the little house in Chajhuar. Thank you Johannes for taking me there to start with. Hasta luego, Cristian (don’t drink or smoke); chau Patrick, thank you for the dinners and the laughs; see you later, Clayton, Shon, Jason, Ronnie, Fran, Elise, Mel, Melinda, Erin, Ali.

Bring it on, Bolivia!

Urubamba's main plaza

Urubambians enjoying sundown in the main plaza

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I can, I do, I travel

Or, why I’m doing this.

I have spoken before about why I’ve set off to South America, but people have pressed me further and so I’ve thought hard for some more answers.

I am a traveller. I have the bug. The itch.

Why? I think it’s greatly thanks to my mum. Virtually a single mother, she scrimped and saved all year when my brother and I were growing up, but we always, always had holidays and day trips. Weekends were spent in the museums of London, or on country excursions; summers were spent on the beach, swimming in the sea, climbing rocks or walking through the meadows of Essex and Suffolk. Our first holidays were in the UK; then as we grew older and mum felt braver, she got us abroad – to Austria, Switzerland, and Italy a few times.

Her providing me these diverse opportunities gave me the invaluable traveller’s skill of being able to adapt. I can talk with people from any background or viewpoint, I can sleep anywhere I need to – a bus floor, the deck of a boat, under a tree, with rats crawling nearby; I don’t care. I enjoy experiences, good and bad. In cities, I love the excitement and possibilities; in the countryside I love the peace and the beauty of nature.

My mum’s passion for seeing places and doing things became instilled in me. I remember poring over pictures in holiday brochures and maps of unknown lands with her, and feeling a sense of urgency to be out there in the world, and that time is precious.

There was another significant influence, again thanks to my mum. She took me several times to the sadly now defunct Commonwealth Institute in London’s Kensington. This massive auditorium-style 1960s building on the edge of Holland Park had fantastic displays and exhibitions on the countries of the British Commonwealth. I remember looking at food packaging from Cameroon, costumes of Rajasthan, taking a helicopter simulator over Kuala Lumpur; and thinking “I want to go and see this for myself, for real.” My mind was opened wide to the world.

So now, some 20 years later, and with many of the places I wanted to see seen – and many more to come – I can only say thank you mum, because if it wasn’t for you, I wouldn’t be sitting here writing this in a mountain valley in Peru.

Finding paradise

When I talk with friends back home, I get very much the feeling that they’re saying, “Oh you’re alright, you’re out there”. There’s a notion that because I’m in a tropical country a million miles from home, I haven’t got a care in the world. When, in fact, my problems came with me, and if anything they are more lucid. I am completely alone with nothing but them for company in a strange and unknown land. At home my friends have the comforts and securities of the people and places they understand and love all around them; out here it’s just me and my backpack.

Someone dear dying of cancer; the relationship with someone special that I started not long enough before I left, not knowing where it will go from here; my mum entering her 60s; my nan entering her 90s; the unsatisfying career that I need to change; the insecurities and fears that plague my mind…they’re all still here, no matter what amazing sights I might see and exotic experiences I might have.

I remember reading Alain de Botton’s take on this in his brilliant book, The Art of Travel, that I studied at university. When we imagine paradise, he said, we don’t imagine that our minds will be there too.

A couple of years ago I travelled for three weeks with friends in Costa Rica, leaving at home a boyfriend with whom I knew, deep down – though didn’t admit it – that our six-year relationship was breaking. Giving us some time apart, I thought, would help us. Looking back now, I think I knew the relationship was already over, as during the entire trip, I had an overwhelming foreboding feeling. Sitting on a Caribbean beach for the first time, my heart was heavy with memories of him and I on a tropical shore during the intoxicatingly happy early days of our relationship. At dusk, I felt panicked at the long hours of darkness ahead without him. The deeper into the luscious jungle of the country we travelled, the more I wanted to turn back, to him, to us. Now, when people ask if I liked Costa Rica, I say no. But I know it’s not the country’s fault, it’s just sometimes no amount of palm-fringed beaches, jungle canopy tours and baby sloths can help how you feel inside.

So now I will go back outside into the sun, look up and smile at the mountains surrounding me, wander down a colonial street, eat and drink whatever I want for lunch, whenever I want to take lunch, catch a bus to somewhere else if I fancy, but don’t think for one minute that I don’t have anything to worry about.

My bike on a lonely Costa Rica beach

My bike on a lonely Costa Rica beach