Wednesday, 13 June 2012

What if . . .

Is this a game you play?

What if I were not in this place, with these people, what would I really want to do? It's a cheats' game really, because you are, for whatever reason, in this place with these people - and you must have made some choices along the way for it to be so.

But play it for a moment - if you could choose anything at all, right now, what would you choose to do?

That is what solo travelling is like. For a start, it's scary. There is no-one helping you to make any decisions - there's just you and your Lonely Planet (or whatever guidebook you are using) and your imagination. What do I want to see? Where do I want to go? How shall I get there? With a world-full of choices and no-one but yourself to fall back on (or blame if it all goes wrong) it can feel terrifying. Every day, every decision, is full of risk - simply by being unknown.

But - once you unpick that general terror, that 'I can't' feeling (left over from childhood, when even crossing the road on your own was an adventure), you will realise that you can. You can walk this street, that street, visit this museum, that palace, or simply sit in the other cafe and watch people.

My days always have a rhythm. I stop three times a day, for food - almost always sitting down. That gives me pausing time - time to reflect on how the day is going, maybe rethink what I'm going to do next. It also gives days a structure, which I need (not everyone does). Plus I need little encouragement to stop for tea or coffee.

But, even then, every day has hours when I face the 'what now?' question. What is it that I want to do, with this time of mine, when all I have to fall back on is my guidebook. It is, truly, liberating. I am free to see what I need to see, hear what I need to hear, write what I need to write, talk to whoever I want to talk to, smell what I don't always want to smell . . .

Indulgent? In some ways, yes. And a privilege.

And it sounds hugely self-absorbing. Yet it isn't. For the only way, really, to make sense of this big world we are in is to talk with other people who live in it. To discover that they have different ways of exploring, and explaining, the world to themselves - and will share that with you if you make time to listen.

Of course there are parallels with writing fiction. We throw our characters into the world and try to walk alongside them through all the challenges we hurl their way. But it's not always so easy to do it for ourselves.

So what if ... you were free to do whatever you wanted, right now? Play along, just for five minutes. Scary? Exhilarating? Who, maybe, is the one person you'd love to have a conversation with? And what might he or she teach you?


  1. I do find this thought scary even though we're only playing pretend but I know that if I were thrown into the big world with just a guidebook I would soon be filled with an overwhelming need to get back home. All my plans and excursions have to start and end with home. I'm half way through reading your amazing book and I keep wanting to shout at you "no, don't go off on that trail. Take the easy option. Go to a cafe and eat." But if you'd listened to me you wouldn't have had the experiences to write the book or to sit by the fire now and dream those memories, would you!

  2. Ros - I can see this isn't the game for you!!

    I'm glad you're enjoying the book - and sometimes I need shouting at before I trot off down another trail!