I”ve been stalling writing this blog for a number of reasons. Please see below:

1) I’m too busy travelling and have a wild old time silly!

2) OK, that’s not strictly a true or valid excuse. There’s been no shortage of moments of paralysis, hiding in cafes and staring gormlessly at my laptop, when I could have hammered out something noteable and marginally interesting…

3) Well you see, here lies the real problem. What is noteable and interesting? What is the point of this blog? I have no travel advice to give. I go to places for reasons so particular to my own foibled obsessions that I daren’t recommend them to anyone else. Besides which, the whole concept of writing about travelling raises ethical and philosophical questions in my mind (yes, yes, that and everything else). We all know that anything off the beaten track doesn’t stay that way when people start writing about it. That’s why it makes me laugh bitterly when the Sunday papers shout on the front of their travel supplements: “TOP 20 SECRET TRAVEL DESTINATIONS”. Bastards. But then I’m not exactly the kind of ballsy explorer who can lay claim to any such discoveries anyway. And if I did, what makes me so special that I deserve to keep these places all to myself? The truth is, whatever I stumble across is usually unspectacular by most people’s standards. Being an introverted sort, my spectacular is in the unspectacular. It’s a subtle something, gentle and pure that creeps in unnoticed, wrapping me up in warm fuzziness and squeezing me tight. When expectation subsides and then the true magic of an experience suddenly hits.  It almost always happens after I feel beaten, overtired and so I stop trying and surrender. And that is the beauty (sometimes) of travelling alone. I can indulge that feeling, stomach flips over nothing, without someone pissing on my parade asking me to explain the unexplainable. At these times, I don’t want to be infected with someone else’s logic, fact and ‘reality’. I want the magic.

4) So what are you going to write about then Becks.. hmm? Weeell, I don’t need you to tell you where to go, what to do and how to do it. There’s umpteen million blogs out there that are all over it. In googling phrases such as ‘travelling solo’ I was always hoping I would stumble across someone writing about how difficult it can be just to move. By which I mean decide. Which way to go? What to do? Am I the only one who gets so tied up in knots with the thinking that I can’t/don’t DO anything? Meh. I’m sensing I need to be open about my geekery and ineptitude if I’m going to write with any conviction. Can’t I just be the character I invented in my head? The cool, carefree, independent, brave, wildly beautiful, determined, generous, indefatiguable, intelligent, witty, interesting chick with fantastic legs in hotpants who moves with grace and ease, capable of almost anything… telling tales of daring feats and epic adventures. Instead we have to make do with a wild-haired, clumsy, apologetic, daydreamer who struggles with this day to day being a human thing and has the dirtiest feet you’ve ever seen. Who hallucinates that she sees wild animals (craftily disguied as rocks and tree stumps) on a regular basis, only serving to feed her paranoia and concoct ridiculous worse case scenarios in her head. Fear and loathing (and paralysis) brought on by excess caffeine. Displacing herself in an attempt to catch up with her own permanent feeling of displacement. And then what?

So, that brings me here. Boulder, Colorado – about an hour North of Denver. Sat in yet another cafe (the best seat in the house, by the window and a plug socket). This time not paralysed but forcing myself to write. I said I’d write so blimmin well write, woman, if you ain’t gonna do anything else. I’m resting, killing time, procrastinating, preparing for my road trip. The trip where I take Sharky the painted, not inconspicuous ’95 Toyota something to his new home in San Francisco, via eye-popping canyons and red rock country. I’m currently staying at his owner’s house, one of three boy-men who inhabit this space. I feel guilty about not leaving the seat up. I have my own room with a proper bed, access to a bicycle, running routes (I’ve run once along the creek), internet and not too much else to distract me from this much needed downtime. Well, apart from the Flatirons, a mammoth line of jagged, rugged rocky stuff calling out to me:  ‘Play with me Becky, play with me’. They keep demanding my attention every time I step out of the door, walk, cycle or drive down the street to nowhere in particular. ‘No, go away’, I sulk. ‘I can see you. You look very nice but I just don’t feel like it right now, ok?’ And anyway, I’m gonna see plenty like them where I’m headed. They’re persistent. But I’m stubborn. And lazy.

Sharky

Sharky

I’ve slept little on this trip so far. Overnight bus rides, pick up truck rides, attempted snoozes in stuffy tents and backseats of cars. Greyhound journeys where I imagined the scrawny tattoo-headed dude behind me was poking a gun in the back of my seat and about to blast my guts all over the blue upholstery. Flashes of being hit over the head and dragged into the bushes, cut to pieces and tossed into the Mississippi. I’ve awoken from vivid post-apocalyptic scenes of smokey pink-orange skies over a vast grey expanse of dirt, no roads, and black record players dotted on the landscape playing giant razor-toothed discs shredding chairs that rained down from the sky. And men. No women, no children, just men, hobbling around, desperate, shouting, angry, spitting and wielding broken weapons… (I’d better stop or my mother if she’s reading this will put me under lock and key until the end of my days on this glorious earth). It’ll be my tent and the back seat of Sharky over the next couple of weeks so I’m indulging this laziness, this obsessive three days of staring at maps and reaching no decisions. Luckily I met a young German Steve McQueen-a-like who needs a ride to the nearby mountains before his friend joins him in a couple of days and they hire a car to take one of my many neon marker highlighted map routes. So as of tomorrow I have to move. And after that I may just follow the Germans (no, not stalk them, it was their suggestion). Depends how solitary I’m feeling.

BUT I almost had the company of a retriever mutt mix who needed a ride from here to Santa Barbara to stay with her auntie and run on the beach. This from an ad in Craigslist after mine offering pooches rides to California had been flagged and removed. Of course I responded right away, unable to comprehend that my dream of travelling at least part of this county with a canine compadre riding shotgun was actually going to come true! But the universe was only teasing me. I never heard back.

I want to tell you my little non-tales of hitchhiking around Iceland, my arrival in the swelter smelter that is New York City and being grateful for a moment of conversation with a bare-chested waistcoated tramp who dropped $15 which I picked up and returned; meeting my heroine and feeling like an awkward mute stalker; staying with Detroit’s answer to Woody Allen and Diane Keaton in Annie Hall; driving around Wisconsin in search of concrete sculpture parks and at each one being the only living human soul around; about being rescued out of another bout of paralysis in New Orleans by a young paramedic with a background in trainhopping, hitching and squatting; walking for miles in the rain with excrutiating blisters rubbing on my flip flops down one interminable street in search of a sushi place I didn’t find; and the day after running for the first time in months alongside the Mississippi and then chasing streetcars in a botched attempt to get fit on the road. I want to tell you about ‘progressive’ America. I may tell you all these things but I’m so far behind it may have to wait for another day, another lifetime.

But I’ve found solitude. All the solitude I could want in the world. It ain’t that hard to find afterall. And sometimes it ain’t all I’ve hyped it up to be. But I’ve also found people. Sweet, kind, funny, genuine warm-hearted people. I’ve been trying to run away from people for years, but sometimes they just have this ability to make everything alright. So now what? If I’m not desperately seeking solitude, what am I seeking? Oh, I don’t know. I do and I don’t. Every place I go I imagine if I could live there. I cut out and keep the bits I like, hoping that one day I can will this mental collage of ‘home’ into being. I just don’t know where I’m going to find it. There’s a place called Truth and Consequences in New Mexico. I’m not going there. I’m just saying.

I still haven’t gotten round to organising my brain farts into a post for The Big Little Trip, my current mission in escapology. It starts in Finland and involves a week-long Icelandic stopover before a shoestring zigzag across North America for two months. Reason for my slackness? I just quite simply haven’t been alone.

So, as I sit here in my cousin’s flat in Helsinki, allowing those thoughts to incubate in my steaming brandy hangover (while everyone else has gone to enjoy the sunshine and beach barbecues on Juhannus – Finnish midsummer’s day. I’m telling myself it’s okay. It is okay), I leave you with an edited version of the first and only e-mail I ended up sending to friends and family during my previous trip, The Big Trip. Why? Because after rewriting countless versions of a post explaining why I’m so addicted to solitude, I realised that I kind of already said it all here.

Posts of Lapland night treks, pink mountains (fells) and all night sun fun to follow. And photos. Maybe.

November 2009: somewhere in China

Siberia smells of dirt. Of unwashed farmers and babushkas with soil ingrained fingernails. Rotting onions and potatoes. And coal dust. More grubby stink than earthy reassurance. Mongolia is shrouded in an aromatic cloud of mutton, camel shit and fermented mare’s milk. China reeks of ammonia and cigarettes. And stinky tofu (renowned and revered for its, um, stinkiness). Further south nose-prickling Sichuan pepper and mule farts are olfactory order of the day. I have a feeling that all this is all odoriferous small-fry compared to what’s going to be journeying through my nasal passages in India.

So much to tell, so much time has passed (over 3 months in travel terms equates to at least 6 months in ‘real’ life terms). But for now, I’m in China. And so I will start my story here, maybe work backwards, then forward a bit, then back. But this is how my mind works, so bear with me (or don’t! go read something linear like… like… a CV!)

16th October 2009 – On the train from Xian to Chengdu

So I have decided that I don’t really deserve to be called a traveller as I am hopelessly inept at it. What am I even travelling for? Oh yeah. That. Out of the window right now. Those monumental steep lush green, mountains. Unruly terraces tumbling all over each other. I feel tiny, like I’m on a toy train. Travelling overland gives me a better sense of scale. Helps me mentally zoom out, feel where I am in relation to the rest of the world. What people do to the land here is incredible. Terrifying but incredible. Am filled with mixed feelings of awe but also of pity for the natural landscape as it’s so violently manipulated and moulded for human ends. I don’t want to acknowledge that something man-made can be so beautiful. They seem to grow stuff on anything here. And the variety. Wow. This is where you really get the sense and can see why and how China is completely self-sufficient in terms of food and labour. Paddy fields, cornfields, wheatfields, orchards, pomegranite trees, orange trees, vegetable fields, a whole load of fields growing different stuff but I don’t know what. I want to know what these little conical clumps of hay type stuff are. Probably hay.

Distracted again. So yes, um, non-traveller. What do I mean? I guess I’m just questioning myself too much because of my present company (asleep in the top bunk at this moment). Present company wants to rush through every city, tick off the sights on his travel shopping list, do something every moment, every day, keeps asking me what’s the plan. There is no plan. This is making me weary. Cue mental image of stubborn snorting donkey, hooves cemented into the ground, teeth exposed, nostrils flaring. I’m supposed to be travelling alone. I want to be alone. I’ve barely been alone. This is all that I’ve written about since I got to China, and as much as I’ve enjoyed my time in Beijing and elsewhere, my head’s been too occupied with how to escape, how to regain my lone traveller status and decide my movements or non-movements based on my waking mood. This was the reason for travelling alone. Ultimate freedom. Right now I’m not free.

17th October  2009: On the train from Chendgu to Kunming

Finally, I really am on my own. That last bit felt like a real struggle. My temporary travel companion was hard to shake, think he forgot the temporary part. I don’t know if that was circumstances or because he was reluctant. He claims all is fine, but I sense he feels snubbed. I had stated early on that I’m doing this trip alone, and as much as the odd mission together here and there had been fun, I wanted to continue alone. I don’t consider dropping an anvil on someone’s head subtle. Bafflingly, he didn’t get the hint. So I got up early and did a runner.

I don’t want to get irritated by people, but I just can’t help it. I’m working on it. I don’t mind genuine fellow freewheelers. Not dependent, expectant, waiting for me to do something or make a decision. This is pressure. Makes me responsible. I have a disproportionate sense of responsibility. The solution? Run away from it. As is evident from these scrawls, I’ve wasted way too much energy and thought on this topic. But at least now I can breathe, swing my arms without twatting someone in the face, get back into my own syncopated rhythm. Who knows what’s next, how this will continue. Will I like it? Will I be disappointed? Now, it doesn’t matter.

Down the side of the tracks in the foliage there are hundreds of white butterflies. I’m guessing they’re pretty big if I can see them from here. Although I’m not sure if they’re actually white or if it’s a trick of the light.

I feel like I need to get back to recording the chronology of this trip so far, but right now I can’t be arsed. I’m still in navel-gazing mode. But then, when am I not? I am revelling in this feeling of relief and freedom, like I can spread my wings, flap em around a bit, or be a lazy sitting duck. Either way, it doesn’t affect anyone. This is bliss. Even if I am on a stinky train. Just staring out of the window.

Unsurprisingly I’m underwhelmed by China’s cities, as I suspected I might be. It was never my intention to spend much time in them. Beijing’s pretty cool – very modern, cosmopolitan, easy to get around on the metro and has some interesting little subculture pockets, which I haven’t had the opportunity to explore, but I know they’re there. I like the low, intimate hutong districts. The old ones. They’re knocking many of these down to make way for reconstructed ones, for what reason I’m not sure. But this seems to be the way in China. Demolish the old and build brand new Disneyland replicas of everything. Even the Great Wall. I could happily go back there for a more focused wander, but perhaps I’d be less enthusiastic in the smog, seeing as the week I spent there was all blue skies, warmth and glorious sunshine – a freak occurrence – brought on by the government shooting chemicals in the sky for the 60th Anniversary of the People’s Republic of China and the October national holiday. Datong, however, (first stop after Beijing) is just a shithole. Ok, so I didn’t see much of it and what I did see was by night or in chilly early morning fog… And most of it seems to be under construction… Plus my opinion may have been coloured by the state of the hostel toilet (hole in the ground, dripping walls, turds floating in open pipes) and the fact that I arrived feeling grubby, cold and damp… I did however enjoy the hidden away local night time food market that we stumbled upon, where I bought some tofu that I was neither going to cook or eat. There were a couple of decent spots to have a beer. And it was only a jumping off point to see awe-inspiring Yungang buddhist caves and piddly but cute and old Hanging Temple. Naah, Datong is still a shithole.

So a theme is emerging here. I am desperately seeking solitude. What is there in solitude that I crave so much? I don’t want it all the time. But I guess I just need the space and freedom to retreat into my own head. To disappear into a world that is a nicer place to be than the real one can be sometimes. Some people would try to persuade me that this is not healthy. I think that the thought of someone genuinely being happy in their own company frightens, even threatens some people. Why? Is it because we need to feel needed? Maybe we only feel validated by our relationship to someone else? When alone, what proof is there that we exist if no-one or nothing is reacting to us? Aloneness = non-existence = death?

Only when alone can I observe, unhampered. Standing on the fringes, outsider looking in, never quite sure what these human beings are, what they’re about and if I really am one. Sneaking peeks into windows, doorways, overhearing conversations, taking pictures of people when they’re unaware: each moment providing a clue, or giving birth to a thought that becomes a clue, leading me closer to the answer, the truth. But the truth is that there is no answer. I continue because it’s fun. Even when it’s not.