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

How it happens

I have been in Peru for two months now, and for more or less most of that time I have been hanging out in a small, non-descript town in the Sacred Valley below Cusco. Bystanders might wonder why. I’m supposed to be travelling round South America, aren’t I?

While I was in Lima after my arrival from the UK, I was in a certain amount of turmoil as to how to start my trip. I had made no plans; in fact I’d not particularly given South America much thought in the months since I booked the ticket – I just had too many good things going on in London.

I was still at work right up to the day before my flight, so every minute of lunchtimes, evenings and weekends was spent in the good company of my lovely friends and family. I didn’t even pack until the morning before my flight.

It meant that when I finally arrived at a quiet hostel in a refined neighbourhood of Lima, I didn’t quite know what to do with myself. I knew I needed to catch up on lots of sleep. But I was still running on London adrenaline, plus I had the system of budget travel long installed in me: get going! See stuff! Do stuff! Don’t hang around wasting money on accommodation!

And I nearly did go after a couple of days of long lie-ins, languorous breakfasts at noon, and hours reclining on the hostel’s sofa with my laptop. I nearly stepped onto the backpacker conveyer belt. But something made me wait.

Somehow I calmed down, somehow I realised there was no rush; I needed to work out what it was that I truly wanted to do. And sure enough, good things happened.

I’m looking forward to discussing with you another time about the modern-day backpacker, sitting with their laptops connecting to WiFi but not to each other. And although I’m guilty as charged for being relieved that I brought my Netbook – after spending nine hours of every day of the past seven years as a web editor, I simply couldn’t unplug cold turkey – but I know when to put the machine down, to look up and smile at a real live person in my vicinity.

And this is how I met Johannes, who with a similar opinion, we got talking. He was heading to the Sacred Valley and I knew that’s where I was really craving to get to, too. So after nearly a week in Lima we flew to Cusco, then he generously encouraged me to join him to Urubamba, down in the valley, where he’d spent many times before.

It was hard at first – I knew no one, spoke no Spanish; in truth, I didn’t really know where I was or what I was doing. And Urubamba is not a tourist hub – it’s a real-life, hard-working town, so there are no hostels full of fellow backpackers, or cafes with WiFi to comfort and reassure in times of need.

I nearly left. Many times. But again, something made me wait. And that’s the one big dilemma of travel. I considered that if I move on, I’ll meet other people, have new and possibly better experiences. But might I miss out on opportunities here? By constantly moving, are travellers gaining experiences or losing out on others?

I went up to Cusco to stay with a local family while I attended a Spanish course. The end of the week was my chance to move on – Lake Titicaca, just over the border in Bolivia, beckoned.

But I did something I’ve never done before while travelling – I went back. As I rode the colectivo down the winding mountain road into the valley that night, and the familiar lights of Urubamba appeared, I almost wasn’t surprised when I saw a shooting star in the sky above the town.

I didn’t know what I was going to do, where I was going to stay, if anyone would care that I was back, and if I could actually use any of the Spanish that I’d studied. But something told me to wait – it was going to be wonderful.

The walk that didn’t know it was happening until it did

Originally written by hand at 3.35pm, sitting by a stream at the side of a field.

It’s Friday night back in London. My friends there are heading out to pubs in the city for a night of drinking. I headed out with my book and notebook to sit somewhere quiet in the afternoon sunshine to read and write.

Urubamba doesn’t have many quiet or green spaces – apart from the cemetery – which, nice as it is and as comfortable as I am being around the dead, I fancied being around life on this glorious day.

So I started walking.

I walked to the edge of town, past the cemetery; the road turns to dust here. I walked past the foot of the first mountain outside the town. I walked past schoolchildren on their long trudges home. I walked through the next village. I walked ever upwards past farmers’ fields and nearer the snow-capped peaks and glaciers of the Cordillera Urubamba that cut off the end of this valley.

I stopped to sit down in the shade by the roadside and a curious bull appeared on the other side of the road to look at me. I carried on, ever upwards. I stopped to eat the bread and cheese I’d bought in Urubamba. I stopped in another village to buy a 70c bottle of Kola Real. I stopped to write this.

Somehow the mountains have lured me to keep walking along the dusty, stony road in the beating sun, with quite a heavy rucksack full of books. I don’t know for how long or how far I will go, but I do know this must be complete and true freedom as any human being can expect to obtain in this life.

No one knows where I am or what I’m doing, apart from the country folk I pass. I can walk at the exact speed I wish. I can stop when I want. I can smile and greet anyone I care to. I can go on walking as long as I feel like it. I can return home and no one will ever know what I did and what I saw unless I want them to.

Unless I type this up and share it with you.

Urubamba's cemetery

Urubamba’s cemetery

The bull that looked into my soul

The bull that looked into my soul

The mountain valley with children on swing

The mountain valley with children on swing

Walking back

Walking back

Me

Me

Life learning

Every so often in my life, I find myself faced with a situation, that really I would rather not be faced with, but in time I find that I’m grateful for it in some way.

As I prepare for this time of my life (indeed I already believe I am having a time of my life, there’s no need to fly 10,000km to achieve that), the timing has coincided with the terminal prognosis of an old boyfriend’s dad. During my six-year relationship with Mark, his dad Bill became like the father I never had. Warm, kind and generous, and always up for a joke, I enjoyed spending time with him and missed him after Mark’s and my relationship ended. Bill since developed cancer that has now returned with full force that means he has been given three to six months to live. I went to see him for what is likely to be the last time just before I flew to Peru.

I found him in the corner bed of a hospital ward, the evening sun filtering through the vertical blinds. I had prepared myself for a change in his appearance, inevitable with such severe cancer and chemotherapy. What I wasn’t prepared for, however, was that he would look like a small boy; it was as if I could see exactly what he would have looked like when he was 10 years old. Sitting in bed simply staring into space – the pain so severe he said that he couldn’t even bear to have the TV or radio on. The jolly, jokey man I used to know was no longer visible during my entire visit with him, replaced instead with a man that just seemed to be quietly shouting “Why me?”.

When I got up to leave, I told Bill I’ll see him again soon and slipped my arms round his sweat-soaked back for a long, meaningful hug. He just smiled faintly. I think him and I both know we won’t; but somehow we will.

And all I can do now is never, ever be afraid of anything – a dodgy flight through a mountain valley? Pah! A 12-hour bus journey on a non-existent Bolivian road with hairpin bends? Pah! Being a woman alone in a dark street in a strange city? Pah! I would rather do any of those than be sitting in a hospital bed asking why.

Why parents shouldn’t worry when their offspring head for far-away shores

I think my mum is not alone in trying to suppress her utter horror that I have set off alone to South America. Of our generation of parents, many have not travelled outside of Western countries, so simply cannot visualise nor comprehend what life is like for their son or daughter travelling in anywhere that’s developing.

So when I was sitting in the hostel lounge last night, chatting with young and old people from various nations, I couldn’t help but smile at the thought of our parents’ and loved ones’ imagined fears. The traveller trail really is a bubble; it’s very rare you come into contact with any real danger, any more than you would at home. My brother instructed me before I left: “Don’t go getting into any sticky situations”. I explained just as I avoid these at home, I don’t intend to change this policy just because I’m in foreign climes, and start pursuing a life with gun-toting drug barons.

Backpackers have got it easy; we can move between hostels that are microcosms of home, our only real contact with local people being workers in the hostels and cafes, those herding us on and off the buses, and tour guides. There’s really not much chance of getting in to any more trouble than maybe getting ripped off a little.

So rest assured, dear loved ones, we will be back – a little worn after successive 20-hour journeys, a little smelly with a lack of hot showers, and probably quite poor, but we’ll have lots of stories to tell you. And we’ll be all the more grateful for that first cup of tea that only you can make taste so good.

Why am I going?

Why am I going?

What is your definition of travel?

What is your definition of a traveller?

Someone asked me the other night.

As a veteran traveller, I always thought the answers to these questions were easy. But upon deeper reflection, I’m not so sure. Or maybe it’s because this time, it’s different. This is not so much about the travelling. This is about making the life I want happen.

Do I want to do the travel cliches? Do I want to traipse round ruins and sites, just because they are ‘must dos’; because everyone else does? And then wonder why I am frustrated and exhausted.

The other week when I was back at my mum’s, I looked at my old photo albums of my travels in Asia. I’ve looked at them many a time before with nostalgic pleasure; this time all I could see behind every picture-postcard photo was the negative elements of travelling alone in a foreign country – the strain of the backpack straps; the sweating from parts of the body I never knew possible (backs of knees anyone?); the never feeling properly clean; the arguments over fares with taxi drivers; the inability to communicate with people properly; the sitting alone in cafes for dinner; the different bed each night. Did I actually enjoy travelling, or is it just something I have to do?

And that’s what I answered to my friend who asked the poignant questions – I think I’m going because I can.

Backpacking on a ferry in Sumatra, Indonesia

Trying not to let my backpacks unbalance me when boarding a ferry during previous travels in Sumatra, Indonesia