Monday, April 09, 2007

No strings attached

When I was 20 my sister and I decided that when she'd finished high school we'd go backpacking and see the world. I was fresh out of undergrad when I signed up for endless days of high-stress, low pay and no need for a brain work to save for the adventure (but with the living on my own and having expenses I never really saved as much as i was supposed to). I was excited about it and I looked forward to the break from school and reality. I did not expect to find myself, or inner peace or any long-lost connection to the third world, but I was curious about what faraway places would look like, how people would be there and about tigers and elephants and altitude sickness and how to avoid getting a rat for dinner and everything I'd just read about up until then. I did not expect it to change my life for more than a few months, but in a way I was never quite the same after I came back.

Like anybody else who have ever done anything slightly outside of their comfort zone (i.e. most functioning adults) I was proud of situations we'd handled well, learned from situations we'd handled poorly and fond of exotic memories and new insights into different ways of life. But that part fades over the years and doesn't really cause any trouble. A much more complicated effect was a constant yearning for doing this again. Not just travel for work and vacations like normal people, not just going back to some of the same places or finding new ones (and God knows I have visited plenty of peculiar new places since then), but having months and months of freedom, no plans and and no strings attached. I guess most people who go backpacking across continents ends up having a great time and remembering the good times. They probably also go travelling again one way or another, but most people seem to put it behind them at some point.

I did not sell everything and head for the roads. I wish I'd done it, if only for a year, just to get it over with. Instead I went back home, went to grad school, got really busy and really serious and very boring, while I was desperate to throw it all overboard and go travelling again. I got a PhD scholarship, travelled a lot, got a little less boring, but all the time there was deadlines and money issues and peer pressure and fieldwork during summers and what not, and then there was the defense and the new job and who on earth goes backpacking across continents while in their thirties and at beginning of their academic career.

Due to some lucky circumstances we happened to have one paid return ticket to South America and I happened to have some money available for spending (that is spending on something else than paying off student loans and awesome-new-house-rent) and the backpacking idea did not seem sooo far away. Not the full version with oodles of time, but the downsized plan with quite a bit of time available and just enough freedom to let the itinerary develop as we went along. One of the perks (and annoyances) of being in government research is that working hours are regulated as if we were factory workers and that overtime is actually registered somewhere. It's not good karma to take it out, but no one has complained so far and an entire field season of twelve hour work days seven days a week last summer nicely earned me the right to four weeks off.

The initial plan was born far far out in the Russian woods on a particularly hot day in mid-June last year. We were miles from anything, had lost our way and sense of direction and were walking through some ├╝ber pristine forest, more akin to jungle than anything else, and it seemed like the right place for the idea of "why not take advantage of this and get some time off at another time of the year" to pop into anyone's mind. I mulled it over for a while, introduced the idea for my boss who did not hate it and time passed and off we went to the southern hemisphere to explore a new country and a new continent.

It was absolutely fantastic. I was completely taken aback at the variety of landscapes, the vast empty spaces, the kindness of people and the roughness of living conditions in parts of the country and the sophisticatedness of other parts. But most of all I loved the freedom of having no set plans, carrying few possesions and moving with the whole lot from place to place from day to day. I think we will be back in Argentina. I hope we will also be back on the road.

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