Bart Och - Travel Journalist

Almost from the moment I boarded my flight, life in England became meaningless. Seat-belt signs lit up; problems switched off. Broken armrests took precedence over broken friendships. My anxieties were gone, replaced by a peculiar emotion. An emotion seeped in balance and possibilities.

I don’t like travelling alone but, sometimes, it is inevitable. I am still learning to appreciate, embrace and enjoy the perks of it. Sure, it can often be scary and challenging, but it can also be quite rewarding in so many ways. As you travel solo, being entirely self-reliant, you will discover just how capable you really are. I know I did.

We fly above the sea of slum dwellings that stretch far beyond my eyes can see. Poverty, for both its victims and those who only witness it, is inescapable. Refugees from India’s rural town areas and people seeking opportunities for a better life arrive each day in the thousands to swell the city which already seems to be bursting at the seams. Mumbai, the mecca of Bollywood, is attracting most of those people who are hoping to make a career.

And what am I doing here? Who knows? Flights were inexpensive, and ever since I can remember, I have been curious about the world on the other side of the big blue marble. A world I only knew from movies, books, and travel magazines. I found it fascinating, colourful and, above all, completely different from mine.

The late evening chaos at Mumbai International Airport surrounds me as soon as I step off the aeroplane. It feels as if I landed on Mars. I notice a few gazing eyes upon me. Did I seem lost or out of place? I suppose I was both. And with my blond-ish, curly hair and blue eyes, I stood out like a sore thumb. It was hard to blend with the predominantly homogeneous crowd.

The heat and mixture of all kinds of exotic smells waft in through the taxi’s cracked window. I take a deep breath that fills my nostrils with a blend of intriguing aromas I fail to pick apart and decipher. Everything seems to be happening at a pace I struggle to wrap my head around. My eyes only catch glimpses of this pandemonium: strange shapes of thin women in their colourful saris and young, black-haired men, arm in arm, grinning with pearly whites. Amongst countless tuk-tuks, motorbikes, and cars all honking like it is going out of fashion – unsynchronised and for no good reason – an occasional cow parades candidly, indifferent to the ceaseless traffic. As it turns out, hardly anyone ever interferes with their lives and odd whims.

It was easy for me to leave everything behind because I didn’t have much to leave: I had no home because I couldn’t afford it, I had no job because I had quit it. Seemingly, everything was in turmoil, everything was in flux, but I was happy. I was finally free with nothing but a small backpack slumped on the backseat seat next to me to remind me what a convenience it is to own nothing but a few clothes, a camera, and a new passport filled with blank pages waiting to be stamped to commemorate the memory of all the amazing places I would have visited.

How cliché … In the French capital, the glorious city of love, while drinking café noisette (a shot of espresso with a drop of milk) and gorging on copious amounts of pain au chocolat, I felt the way you feel when your stomach flip-flops over and drops to the ground when you stare into the eyes of someone you want to spend the rest of your life with. A feeling that can be measured by the enormity of emotions that swell your heart when you hold hands and kiss for the first time.

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Maybe I was naive to think that it is as easily done as it is said. Or maybe I was grasping at straws seeking some kind of revolution in a life that was beginning to feel static. I ached for something to make me feel alive, and I was desperate to find something to live for.

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I was sat on the edge of the half-empty pool. The water turned green and swampy. Burnished blue tiles were now covered with a thin layer of grime, the lifebuoy found its way into the shallow corner, and the volleyball we played with just a few days ago swelled up with moisture in the overflow. I wondered what good this pandemic gave me. The pandemic that took my job, prevented me from realising my passion, erased much of my plans, buried the effects of many sacrifices and efforts, and turned my lifestyle upside down. Did I really need a lockdown to learn what was important to me; to feel connected to nature and recognise the need to take care of our planet and myself? I understood all of this a long time ago, and that is why I followed this path.

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Kneeling on a cold, tiled bathroom floor, with my head in a toilet of doubtful cleanliness, I seemed to have lost all remains of my decency. My only consolation was that, unlike India where a concrete hole in the ground is a rather unavoidable staple, Laos appears to favour western kind of sanitary ware. While I was vomiting my half-digested lunch, it occurred to me that, no, travelling isn’t always fun. And I feel like almost nobody talks about it. I would really like to see more self-proclaimed influencers and travel bloggers share with the public everything they chose not to: the bad, the sad, and the ugly.

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