It is hard, sometimes, to explain what a pain in the ass travel can be. The conventional wisdom is to not complain about your awesome time gallivanting around the world, because you do tend to come off like an ungrateful turd. Oh, your beautiful month of sun-drenched beach-dozing in Italy was marred by four hours on a bus? Please bathe in the great showers of pity I have for you.
Of course, part of this comes from the different mental idea many people have of travelling.
Now, as people who were backpacking through Asia for months and had already lived there for several years, our trio had a fairly high opinion of ourselves. Certainly we weren’t hiking Kilimanjaro in flipflops or yurting through Mongolia, but we had packed a lot of hardcore into our four months. In our greatest fits of self-congratulations, the three of us would have long talks about the nature of travel vs. the nature of a vacation.
A vacation is all relaxation and releasing pent-up energy, a giant cleanse of stress, a veritable enema for your weary soul. On a vacation, people are shuttled around like hedonistic sacks of meat, supping and drinking and tanning and humping. You never have to worry, as the staff will take care of your every biological and emotional need, and in the future if they find a way to simply siphon out your lower intestines so you never have the tiresome business of going to the bathroom, all the better. Vacationing is respite. Vacationing is recharge. Vacationing means never not having a margarita in your hand.
Travel can be a bit trickier. Travel has problems of all kinds, at all kinds of difficulties. There are buses and trains and taxis to deal with. There are mosquitoes, and bed-bugs, and spiders. There are gastrointestinal mishaps, and malaria scares, and times when you idly google the symptoms of Dengue Fever. There are a dozen languages you don’t speak. There are foods you don’t know how to eat. There are roads you don’t know how to cross, tickets you don’t know how to buy, local niceties you don’t know how to observe. Everywhere there are people of varying degrees of slick capability trying to separate you from your money. Travel is challenge, and failure, and triumph. It is bewildering, terrifying, thrilling.
Ideally, travel has some vacation in there. Still, most of my best stories come from times of hardship and difficulty, rather than when I was dismayed that my beer jug was empty, or that my sunscreen was the wrong SPF. Stories of redolence are usually less fun to tell than stories where you seem like a badass.
But explaining the hardships of travel can seem like a lot of whining. For a lot of people, hearing the word “travel” brings up the word “vacation,” and complaining about a vacation seems like rubbing it in. I didn’t go to Jamaica or Japan, and if you have any complaints about your magical journey you can keep them to yourself.
And yet a significant portion of travel is, indeed, kind of a pain in the ass. There are challenges to overcome, and times when you can seem like you must chew bullets and wear nothing but leather coats, and times when the world spills out before you, and everything seems worth it. Further still, there are entire days you spend wedged into a train or a bus or an airplane. There are empty hours where your buttocks slowly lose all feeling. There are times when you have nothing to do but consider the origin and life story of the cockroaches skittering about your train compartment. You need to get from point A and point B, and every route between them is going to involve a whole lot of dull sitting.
Sometimes, if the transit is particularly Sisyphean or horrendous, it becomes another story to tell. Once we spent about 17 hours wedged into glass coffins on a derelict bus that shuddered its way across the Rajasthani desert. The driver laid on the horn throughout the night, and embraced the brake pedal like a long-lost lover. When we weren’t slamming our heads against the top ridge of our containers, we were freezing to death slowly. In the main compartment, a 4 year-old screamed (rather impressively) for nearly 10 sustained hours. When we finally arrived at our guesthouse, having gotten lost in the streets of Jaipur for nearly three additional hours, the owner, a former general in the Indian army, looked upon us approvingly. “That is a difficult trip, even for Indians.” Suddenly our defeat was our victory.
Most of the time, though, it’s simply days and hours hucked into an abyss. Silent aeons crammed into the backs of buses, lonely hours staring at arrival boards. Miles and miles and miles passing under wheels or wings or rudders. People often say it’s the journey that matters, rather than the destination. But people often haven’t flown coach across the pacific ocean.
One day in Thailand, we were set to make the journey from Koh Mook island to Phuket. It had been advertised to us as a not particularly strenuous run, and so we rose early, said goodbye to our canine companion, and were driven by motorbike to the pier. We dumped our bags on board, and rode to the mainland. Here we jammed our luggage into the back of a van which was already too crowded with Thai people, and thus the transportation company loaded us into the back of a pickup truck to transfer us to Trang. From there, we took a songathaew to the bus station and picked up an intercity bus. Eight hours later we arrived in Phuket, where taxi drivers attempted to fleece us until we found the local bus, which transferred us to a more southern bus station in Phuket, where we got another local bus, and then transferred to another songathaew, and then finally secured a reasonable taxi to our hostel.
Of course, all of this was in glorious Thailand, but it’s fairly easy to lose sight of this after about the 12th hour or the eighth transfer. Often if you voice even a hint of complaint that your special adventure around the world included a snifter of discomfort or inconvenience, people stare you down. You were on vacation, they say as they nearly harpoon you with their eyes. Just tell me about the tigers and how many kinds of rum you drank from coconuts.
And yet, after enough time, even the pains become stories, even the tedious becomes humorous. Other people wince at complaint, and I too come to see it another way. Sure, my butt often ached and I considered, with every passing minute I was wedged between several elderly Cambodian women talking heated into their cellphones, of killing myself. But this interstitial is what I make of it. If every other challenge in travel is just something to overcome, why not the transit? If I can turn every bump in the road into a story, if I can find ways to enjoy the other hardships, why not then the actual, physical road itself?