At risk of sounding overly enlightened in the somewhat melancholy haze of my soon-to-be post-gap year nirvana, in this final week of September before I start university my thoughts have turned back to what I have done, not done; achieved, failed at; learned and forgotten, in the past 13 months.
Take care of the world in which we all live.
I fully recognise the hypocrisy in saying the above, having taken boats, trains, planes, cars, busses and even a pooping horse to get around this year, but I mean it, and I say it in the strongest possible terms. I come away from this year with a greater sense than ever before that we owe it to our children, and to the children of others around the planet to look after what we have inherited from our parents, and to ensure that our children inherit the planet in a state in which we would like to inherit it ourselves.
The place where I most strongly developed this sentiment was not, however, travelling around the polluted, litter-strewn cities of South-East Asia. It was in a restaurant on a little island in the Swedish archipelago where I worked as a waiter/runner/bartender over the summer.
I presume pretty much every single restaurant around the world takes the same approach when it comes to left-over food and drink: chuck it in the bin, pour it down the sink.
I am ashamed.
I am personally ashamed at how much food I myself just lobbed in a bin bag, food that was perfectly good to eat. Food which had spent months growing in a field. Food which had had tonnes of water spent on it. Food which had been harvested and transported out to this island. Food which had been cooked using energy harnessed from the burning of fuel, gas, or through other, more sustainable means, only for all of Mother Nature’s valiant efforts to be hurled without consequence or second thought into a rotting pile of ugly modern reality. All in vain.
We owe it to all the children of war, famine and poverty around the world to eat what we have on our plate because others don’t have that luxury.
And if we eat all that we have on our plate for lunch, rather than lob it in the bin, perhaps we might not need so much for dinner.
And perhaps that food we won’t eat at dinnertime will, in a roundabout way, find its way to someone who needs it more than you.
Planet Earth is big, and our world is very, very small.
It might only be a straight line on a map, but a flight from the UK to Thailand will take you 12 hours. On this journey, you will soar, untouchable, over Belgium, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Romania, the Black Sea (night falls), Georgia, Azerbaijan, the Caspian Sea, Turkmenistan, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Myanmar and Thailand (the sun rises as you touch down).
It is a truly mind-boggling distance which you have covered, sitting up there in your metal capsule, ignorant of the hundreds of millions of lives you have left in your contrails.
But they down below, will see you, and a small child will wave and point and ask Daddy where the plane is flying. What will the people on the plane do when they arrive? Who will they meet? What will they see? What are they doing now? How fast are they going?
I live right under the Heathrow airport flight path, and on a clear day in summer a plane will boom overhead at least once every 10 minutes or so – at least. Given this, I reckon the chance of me having looked up to the sky to see a plane that you, my dear reader, are sitting in, or indeed any other person I have met or laid eyes on during my life, is pretty high. Funny that. I find it a puzzling thought. There’s over 7 billion people in the world, God-knows how many houses, and you’re flying over my house.
This takes me on to a different perspective of our planet: the world and how tiny it really is. We all have our own individual positions in space at any given time, and we can all accept that space and time are ginormous.
Given that there are so many people in the world, the chances I will meet others is, sparing nuclear apocalypse, 100%. But what about just one individual?
1 in 7,000,000,000, roughly. So, I ask myself, seeing as the chances I meet just one individual are so minuscule, how on earth did I meet anyone at all?
How on earth did I meet a couple from the same part of the UK as I am from on the top of a viewpoint in Laos? How on earth did I meet the same couple one month later at a restaurant in Hoi An in Vietnam?
How on earth did I meet someone from Newcastle in two different places in Myanmar, only then to bump into him two months later in Hanoi?
How on earth did I meet a guy from County Durham on a train in Thailand, only then to meet him again, through a different friend I’d made along the way, two weeks later in the south of Laos? And speaking of “that other friend I’d made along the way”, how on earth did I meet her again three weeks later, also in Hoi An?
How on earth did I bump into a teacher from my old school, also in Hoi An?
How on earth did I meet a couple from Hungary in Yangshuo, only then to bump into them again a few days later on the top of a mountain a few hundred kilometres away?
How on earth did I manage to take the same train from Beijing to Ulaanbaatar as a woman from the UK and a couple from the Netherlands, who happened to be taking the same flights back home as I in two weeks’ time? Yes, I did meet them again at Domodedovo Airport, and had a good catch-up.
How on earth did I meet a Canadian in the hostel in Ulaanbaatar, only then to meet him again in Moscow two weeks later?
How on earth did I end up working on the same island in Sweden this summer as someone who also studies at Durham University?
How on earth did I bump into a family I know from down the road in Berlin?
How on earth did I bump into someone at the hostel in Berlin, staying in the dorm next to me, whom my older brother somehow met in Shanghai some five months before?
As crazy and as unlikely as these incidences sound, I suppose they are no more unlikely than my having met Stéphanie in Beijing; Alina in Hoi An; Timo in Vang Vieng; Vitaly on the Trans-Siberian Railway; Duc and Chi on the boat to Con Dao; and U Kon Da La the monk, to name but a few.
Help people, and people will help.
I treat other people how I myself would want to be treated. At least I try to. I like to think I don’t deviate from that, though again I recognise that such a mantra can’t hold up when I do or say something stupid, and then regret it.
There is a reason why I always try to be open, warm, talkative, generous, interested in what people have to say, smile and wave over-enthusiastically at those I love. And the reason for doing so is selfish.
I do so in the hope that others will do the same back.
This has, a number of times in my so-far short life, irritated and alienated others around me, and no doubt it does today and will continue to do so well into the future. I would be lying to you if I said I didn’t struggle with it considerably when someone doesn’t quite display the same sentiments back.
A few times this year I have found myself asking, “What have I done to annoy them so much? How could I have got this so wrong? What am I doing wrong? What do I need to change? In my behaviour? In my personality, even?”
This crisis of conscience leads me back to my reasoning for behaving in the way that I do: I do so in the hope that others will do the same back.
Now, I don’t necessarily believe in karma or follow any form of explicit religious teaching. I don’t believe there is any higher power or universal energy or anything down those lines.
Something ought to be said, however, in the name of the following: “What goes around, comes around.” If this is karma, then fine, I believe in karma. Whatever it is, I have come to learn and appreciate this year that this idea is just “how the world works.” It can’t be researched or explained. It’s just “how the world works.”
When I crashed a motorbike and couldn’t walk properly for a week following that, locals, fellow backpackers, total strangers who had no reason to help me, helped me.
Fortunately, I crashed outside a pharmacy. They took every single bottle of distilled water, every single bottle of iodine necessary, to get the dirt out of my cuts. They took every single bandage needed, to have me patched up and on my way.
Yolanda working at the hostel came up to my room every now and again to keep me company, and ordered food for me because I couldn’t bend my knees or put pressure on my ankles to get down the stairs to the kitchen.
Nomi, a trainee doctor, and Bernd, a nurse, worked together to remove my bandages the day after the crash, which was probably more painful than actually crashing in the first place.
(Side anecdote: this whole event was actually fairly amusing as Nomi could speak English, however Bernd’s English was limited as he came from German-speaking Switzerland. The solution? I used my German and English to interpret between the two of them while screaming from behind a pencil during the slow-peeling back of bloody bandages.)
A Vietnamese doctor, who just happened to be in the hostel a couple of days later, also gladly gave me a once-over, and confirmed it looked “good.”
To everyone else at the hostel, staff and guests, whose names I can’t remember, who fetched this and carried that, even though there was no reason why they should, I truly am very, very grateful; I give myself to others because others, in my desperate time of need, did so to me.
Smile, wave, be open, be warm, be positive, be generous, share your crisps, your powerbank, your alcohol, your experiences, your skills, because you never know when you will need others’.
It’s difficult. I hated it. But it’s a necessary evil.
Work is hard.
Half-hour commutes, twice a day, on a bike, rain or shine, and 9-5pm for 5 days a week for 10 weeks, in an unfamiliar job, in an unfamiliar office, with unfamiliar colleagues, staying with a hostile family for most of the time, without a break, with my nearest friend a two-and-a-half hour train journey away, was tough. It was very, very tough.
But, I realise, this was by no means a difficult job or a difficult life; I am young, naive and inexperienced. There are those who might commute upwards of three hours every day, 5 or 6, perhaps 7 days a week, working longer hours, then to support partners, children, elderly parents, all the while paying taxes and settling debts, none of which (aside from paying my taxes, of course!) I had to do.
Work for yourself so you can support yourself and those around you because you can’t expect someone else to do it for you. After all, why should they?
Should work be anything less than hard?
Man didn’t invent the wheel so we could have a nice time. Man invented it to better get the world to work.
Everyone has problems.
Put down your placards.
Every person who has ever lived has gone through trouble, heartache, pain, injustice, at some point in their lives. I am convinced of it. I believe we would all do well to stop and think before we judge others knowing only of trifles. We have no idea what another person is going through.
People’s background, class, politics, likes, dislikes, are meaningless and trivial in the face of a personal struggle which an individual has gone through, is battling with currently, or shall face in the future. And, what is most important in this, is that the personal struggle of one individual should never be viewed to be “more profound” or “more noteworthy” than that of another.
Some will flee war and terror.
Some will battle cancer.
Some will be bullied at school.
Some will endure poverty.
Some will battle depression.
Some will lose a loved one before their time.
It doesn’t matter what your name is, where you come from, what colour your skin is, what school you went to, what job you have, or even what car Mummy and Daddy drive.
We will all have problems that will shape who we are for the rest of our lives.
People are, on the whole, very good.
This is what I have come to appreciate most of all.
Let’s first, but briefly, deal with the “on the whole.”
As I have said before in a previous article, there are people in this world who are bigoted, intolerant, rude, unhelpful, nasty and disparaging. Such folk are, thankfully, very much in the minority.
Almost all I have met, at home or abroad, have shown me a kindness, a generosity, an understanding, an insatiable curiosity, from which I draw great strength, hope, and optimism.
There were no grandiose gestures; there were no proclamations of undying love.
My boss gave me a home for an entire month after I was kicked out.
The man who invigilated my driving test didn’t even give me a minor fault for executing the worst parallel park in automotive history.
A monk welcomed me into his temple and offered me bananas, a chat, and an unforgettable smile and charm.
School kids gave me a carton of pineapple juice to celebrate one of their birthdays. A hotel receptionist gave me the most friendly, loquacious, memorable welcome into any country, his country, I have ever experienced.
I gave a tuk-tuk driver my number and he waited all day for my call back so he could give me a lift home from the hospital.
Another Vietnamese man, with whom I shared a taxi, insisted on paying the whole fare.
A Swiss man gave me sea-sickness tablets to help me cope with a rough night.
People took care of me when I could barely take care of myself.
An elderly Chinese man at Guangzhou South train station gave me tea, biscuits and an egg in exchange for my having spoken English with him.
A bunch of students in Yangshuo invited random foreigners they found strolling around for a BBQ that evening. Victor, at the Zhangjiajie International Youth Hostel, happily loaned me the use of a gadget to get my sodden walking boots dry again.
Thank you to Zhangfei, from Beijing, whose curiosity led to a most eye-opening conversation.
Three different nomadic families welcomed me into their gers, their homes, as a stranger, a foreigner, and treated me as one of their own.
Vitaly came up to me on a platform in Siberia, and so began our lessons in each of our own mother tongues.
Customers and colleagues were patient with my endless mistakes behind the bar or at the table.
Friends gave me a sofa when I didn’t have a home.
And that list doesn’t even begin mention all the others I have met during the last 13 months, whose company I so enjoyed and look forward to enjoying again. Some day.
But I still have an awful lot to learn.
Here’s to the next chapter.
First published: 27th September 2017
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