In Thailand, in September 2008, I took my first tentative steps on my own. Jocky had woken up to heavy rain and told me “Fuck this…I’m off up to Chang Mai.” I’d said I’d come with him if my laundry was ready. Thankfully it wasn’t, as we both knew the time had come to head off alone. It was strange, after being together a couple of months, to walk up to the bus and watch him go. Before leaving London we’d both agreed we wanted to see some places alone, and that we’d know when the time came. The sunny afternoon as the clouds broke over Koh Tao was that time. And it was the best thing we did, any longer together and it would have been too easy to keep going as a pair. Obviously our experiences from then on were vastly different. I took my Rescue Diver course, smashing five ribs in the process, and ended up recuperating on various islands before heading for Australia. Jocky escaped the clutches of a rampant, middle-aged Glaswegian woman (“Nice body on her, like…but…”) in Krabi, and ruined his camera and iPod in the process (wading out to a boat with them in his pockets). He ended up meeting a cute girl and spending a couple of months with her in various beds and hot tubs from Thailand to New Zealand, smoking twice his body weight in weed. I know which experience I’d have preferred. You learn a lot about people when you travel, and it was good that Jocky and I only knew each other vaguely through work; we’re solid mates now.
So self-reliant is the way to go, for me. It’s a challenge, but it presents more opportunities for meeting people. It also forces you to make more of an effort to speak to others. And the most interesting people I met on the road were almost always travelling alone: Karl Biller in the Philippine Cordilleras, Jonathan Brodeur in El Nido. It’s easy to strike up a conversation with someone on their own. And don’t get me wrong, I am not knocking anyone who travels in groups or pairs; I just think the experience of doing it on your own is more rewarding. Of course, there are times when you wish someone was there to share a moment, but sitting alone and isolated on the edge of Bromo’s volcanic crater and watching the sun rise over distant Javan hills will stay with me for the rest of my life. I met an American in Siquijor this year, and he said he has what he calls the Two Week Rule: he’ll travel awhile with anyone he finds interesting, but after a fortnight it’s time to break up the party. So you get the best of both worlds.
You learn a lot about yourself on the road, too; you really see what you are made of. Not in that clichéd “finding yourself’ bollocks kind of way. Just organising yourself, getting around difficult areas unscathed, keeping yourself safe and out of trouble. I think if anyone needs to “find themselves”, they should be heading for the nearest Mental Health Unit, rather than the nearest airport?
Now I’d be lying if I told you travelling alone didn’t get lonely sometimes. It does. There are day you might be wandering a region and not meet anyone to talk to for a day or two. That probably explains my 52 books read in my first year away.
I’d break my rule on solo escapades for the right woman. I imagined I’d meet some hot Latina on my way around last year. Being with the boys didn’t do much for my Spanish, though…and believe me you need it there. And it’s no fun if you can’t communicate properly, is it? I went on a date with a Colombian air hostess on my arrival in Bogota (she'd actually chatted me up), but the prospects didn’t look good: a teenage son, and impending divorce from a hot-headed, jealous Colombian Marine sergeant. Leave well alone, I decided. There were other interesting girls I met on my way around but, like in England, it’s all about timing. They’re either attached, off somewhere else the next day, or not interested. I met a cool architect from Stoke Newington when in Coron. I’d seen her around, but our paths only crossed the day before she left. We arranged to meet up in Bali, but I was waylaid by Javan mushrooms and grass before we could meet up. That’s the way things go. No concrete plans.
Without diving, I don’t know if I’d be heading off as much as I do. There are so many places I want to see, but these could be done in short bursts between contracts. It’s likely I’d be living in Barcelona by now. I’m lucky enough to be able to get enough freelance work both to finance these trips, and also to allow myself as much time out, so for now I’ll go with the flow and literally see where the current takes me. Once the instructor course is out of the way, I may be spending 6 months a year away, or may simple keep going and enjoy that life awhile. Can I be a drifter for much longer, though? Who knows. Anything can happen. That’s the beauty of it.
Time seems to be flying by. Friends are getting married. Having kids. While I love what I’m doing, I’d like to have a Significant Other in my life. Especially if she travelled and dived. This life I’ve chosen leaves me feeling a little rootless: I have no base, no immediate plans to make one. I experience the odd moment of doubt in what I’m doing, but I think it’s just a case of social conditioning nagging at me. I didn’t for a minute think I’d still be single at 40. If you’d told me this as a schoolboy, I’d have laughed at you. It just seems the done thing to meet someone, get a place to live, have kids and watch the waistline expand. So when you choose not to follow suit, people question it. A girl at work, when told of my plans, raised her eyebrows and asked me “Don’t you think you should be settling down at your age?” Kids these days, eh?
The trouble is that the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence; I’ve lost count of the number of married friends who tell me they envy me my adventures. But, equally, I see them in a happy relationship and think that I’d love that, too. It’s been a long time since I split with a long-term girlfriend. So has this wandering life I’ve chosen made it more difficult to find the right girl, as some female friends are endlessly pointing out (and Mum’s given up, she said)? Time will tell. Travel has got a hold on me at the moment. And you only get one life; we’re here for a good time, not a long time, after all. I’ll take it as it comes, for now.