Pardon the perpendicular pronoun, but I was doomed to glorious wanderlust from birth. My mother left country Queensland to make that time-worn Australian pilgrimage to the UK, but dallied in Malaysia on the way. She met my father, and after her time spent with the embers of old empire she returned to South-east Asia and did not leave for 30 years.
I will never forget the amazement in her voice as she recalled, decades afterwards, the spectacle of seeing coconut trees growing alongside highways. A thing so vast in its ordinariness to people who grew there, but so thrilling to someone who came from foreign shores. So much adventure, in so small a form.
That’s the thing about adventure – it’s everywhere, really. The heady scent of its promise is there in the ads for packaged tours that bombard browsers. It’s there in the deadly queues clogging the precious arteries of Mount Everest, where 11 climbers have died this year chasing that elusive summit. And sure, to the right person, it’s there in a coconut.
Images by Getty Images and Hari Raj.
But why do we seek adventure? Why is there a part of us addicted not just to strange horizons, but the pursuit of them? And how do we find something real, something authentic, when “adventure” is as much a label as an experience, a concept that manages to be both transcendent and disposable?
There’s certainly much to be said about who we are when we’re away from home. Some of us find ourselves when we’re furthest away from the places we know best; too-familiar surroundings have an effect on the brain similar to typoglycemia, the phenomenon of being able to read words despite jumbled letters and the odd error. We see those words, those places, the same as they ever were, minute alterations doing little to colour the impression of the whole.
LIVE FOR THE THRILLS
But being somewhere new is a jolt to the system, an electric thrill. Even the most everyday accoutrements are packed with excitement; going to a supermarket overseas remains one of the cheapest, most fascinating things to do in a new country. So does walking down a street you’ve never been down before, or looking up at constellations new.
I’ve been inordinately lucky. I’ve bartered for food on the Trans-Siberian Railway, and argued with a St Petersburg native who insisted Russians were very unfriendly – only for him to show me around once we got off the train. I’ve slept in a yurt in Mongolia after a day spent looking for wild horses, the snores around me originating everywhere from Mexico to Chile, Berlin to Ulaanbaatar. I’ve verbally sparred with a yogi on Olkhon Island who didn’t believe that I was not also there on a shamanic pursuit, and dined on donkey (delicious, for the unconverted) in the frosty fangs of a Beijing winter.
The one thing most of these experiences have in common is that they were unplanned. Oh, I’m a fiend for detail; there’s nothing like a spreadsheet when, say, you’re trying to book train tickets around England and Scotland to try and catch nine football games in the space of three weeks. But it always pays to leave a little – or an abundance – of breathing room in a schedule for the unexpected. You really never know who you might meet, or where you might end up.
After an idle count on my fingers, which surely revealed the depths of my intellect to the young woman I belatedly realised was watching from across an otherwise empty tram, I realised I’ve moved houses 12 times in the past 13 years. This is a question of privilege, of course, not circumstance – I’ve been lucky enough to have lived in Melbourne, Bali, Beijing, Kuala Lumpur and Hong Kong over the course of that span.
SEE THE REAL WORLD
Travel is one thing, but living somewhere else is quite another. It’s foolish to think that you could ever know a city; they’re funny things, alive and cold and cruel and warm all at once. You don’t get under a city’s skin. It gets under yours. You take little pieces of it with you; you start to see parallels in the way trams run in Wan Chai and Brunswick, the way bicyclists evade traffic in Sanlitun and San Francisco. There’s adventure here too, a more languorous kind, with a whiff of the proprietary satisfaction that comes from being able to show a guest your tiny slice of somewhere, secure in the knowledge that there is so much more to discover than you’re ever going to have time for.
One of the best things I’ve ever done was to spend six months backpacking overland across North America, starting from Vancouver and ending up in Vermont in a big U-shape via Texas. I watched (from an exceedingly safe distance) as a bear investigated food boxes in a Yosemite camp, got lost in a snowstorm in Utah, bumped into a friend from the Trans-Siberian in Portland. Leave Manhattan, and you understand why Bruce Springsteen uses the automobile as a shorthand for freedom; this is a large country, and crossing it requires spending a great deal of time outdoors.
That’s the thing, too – planes are grand, but that’s not travel. That’s teleportation. Trains, on the other hand, are wonderful. There’s something magical, something much larger than any mere human, about watching the landscape melt and molt into different shapes, seeing signs of civilisation cluster and fade, the steady rhythm that comes from being on track and on tracks. Looking for some adventure? If time is on your side, the next time you’re going wherever you’re going, take a train; as a medium it’s a genuinely beautiful confluence of journey and destination.
THE ASCENT OF MAN
The other thing I heartily recommend is climbing mountains. I have been overtaken by octogenarians on the ascents for Gunung Agung, Mount Kinabalu, and Mount Fuji, and have been rescued from plummeting elegantly off a cliff face on Gunung Ledang by a guide who was as sure of foot as he was swift of mind. Oceans can provide the same comforting feeling of insignificance, that we are cocooned in nature, in a world, in a universe that is so much bigger than us – but it is an altogether humbling, uplifting experience to look down and see our portion of the world laid out before us like a patchwork quilt.
Why did I do all this? Why do any of us? It’s difficult to articulate, and the easiest thing in the world. Maybe it’s as simple as realising that home can be a person, or wherever you choose to rest for a while. It’s also important to note that adventure doesn’t have to be making friends with Muslim street vendors in the heart of Xi’an, and or feeling your heart soar unfettered as you soak in the wild, wonderful landscape of Skye.
The point here is that adventure is as far away as you want it to be. Take a new route to work today. Try a different dish at your favourite restaurant. Spend a few months on the Appalachian trail. Spend 10 minutes on a roof, watching the people below, or wait and see the firmament grow dark and sweet and welcoming with the sequinned smile of a thousand stars. Look up, look around, look forward to something.
The mountaineer George Mallory, as the story goes, came down from the great peak of Everest and announced that he had wished to climb it “because it’s there”. There’s an inverse to this, however. We look at a map, we look at a mountain and we look down alleys for a simple reason. We chase adventure not because those new places and experiences are there, but because we are not – or at least, not yet.