Blessed to be a witness

Saturday, 15th October

Our travels now are over

30,000 miles. 26 flights. 35 books. 10 countries, but many more nations. And now it's over.

I didn't think this journey would change me much, since I'd already done it once before - and indeed the first time I went away did cause the largest shift of my perceptions of the world and humanity, and allowed me to glimpse my own culture as an outsider - yet this trip has altered me too.

One thing that this journey has done is made me realise is how tenuous humanity's grip on survival actually is. We in the west live in our cities and suburbs, but, terrorism notwithstanding, these are only temporary refuges from danger. The majority of the world is clinging on by a thread, and disaster can strike at any time: the Tibetans scratching a meagre living from the desert in the sky; the Vietnamese up to their waists in the paddies; our Thai friends living in the rubble of their destroyed communities; and latterly New Orleans and the Kashmir earthquake. And I can't help thinking that the past few milennia of development might be a brief interegnum in an otherwise volatile meteorological and seismic status quo. I can't help thinking that 'civilisation' is heading for a fall - whether this will come from the caprice of nature, or at our own hands, I cannot tell. On the uninhabited islands of the Andaman Sea, tsunamis can come and go over the centuries, and a few weeks later you'd never know they were there: trees get knocked over, monkeys drown, then it regrows. As the Moken legends tell, disasters even greater than what happened on December 26th have happened in human memory. Nature will survive; I think that without us, the dents we have put in it in the last century or two would be absorbed and adapted in its unthinking progress.

The journey has also introduced me to my fear. I used to just take things as they come and ignore any worries, but now I am far more aware of their consequences. Perhaps it's just age; perhaps not. I'm now way more scared of the sea than I ever was. I always had respect for it before, but now the crashing of surf gives me the willies. And I'm glad the flying has finished for the time being. During this trip I've gained a growing discomfort with planes. It was probably the terrifying Himalayan flight, followed by stupidly reading Black Box, a book of the cockpit transcripts of dozens of crashes, but I really don't like it now. Over huge oceanic distances or over mountains, I can no longer suspend disbelief about what would happen if we had to put down.

Despite the above nervousness and pessimism, I have also discovered optimism on a human level. The experiences on Phi Phi have shown me that seemingly hopeless situations can be partially reversed and countered, armed with just hope and the support of like-minded companions. Phi Phi is etched into my heart, both good and bad. I love it but I'm also a little scarred by it: the subtle build-up of weeks of trauma-by-proxy and living surrounded by harrowing places of death, and temporarily breaking down due to the overwhelming tragedy; the terror of the tsunami warnings; the joy of experiencing true hope and feeling genuinely useful for a couple of months; and the realisation that such hope and achievement can start with a single person and a single idea. Phi Phi, and what happened there, is with me forever, and I'm going back there as soon and as often as I can.

Then there are the people we've met on the way. The charm and friendship that came from locals out of nowhere, and for no reason, so many times: in Chengdu, Sim and Maki; in KL, Iwa; in Singapore, Muthu; in Patong, Ying; on Phi Phi, Neng, Dam, Tang, Chen, Eef, Hanafi, Mr Lee, and the dozens of others whose names I never knew but whose smiling, suffering faces I saw every day; in Australia, Rory and Merran; in New Zealand, my cousins and uncle and aunt, and Alessio, Emma and Marv; in the US my parents; in London, Sarah and Ferg; in Dublin, Mike and Bernie. And our fellow travellers. And fellow volunteers: Claire, Dion, Emma, Trudy, Tina, Alessio, Simon, James, Jayden, dozens of others, and of course Emiel, who started the whole thing, who gave hope back to the ruined and dispossessed, and inspired thousands of people like me. I may never see many of these people again, but all of them will live in my memories and dreams.

If you're toying with the idea of travelling the world, I'd say do it without a doubt. One of the advantages of this modern life is the ability to travel long and far for next to nothing, relatively speaking. As I said about China, though it's tourism, and self-indulgent, it isn't a holiday. There'll be good times and rotten times, and along the way you might even be able to do a bit of good. Whatever happens to you, you'll never look at home in the same way again. The way fuel supplies and costs are going, it doesn't look like this ability will last for very much longer, so take advantage of it while you can.

Of course, if you do take my advice, you will then have to face reality and its inherent disadvantages: now we have to rebuild our lives. To start afresh in a country that is both familiar and alien - I've been away a long time, and both England and I have changed a lot. I guess it's time to face all the mundane stuff, like importing the car and getting a place to live. To be honest, and I didn't think I'd ever say this, but the way I feel at the moment my wanderlust has been slightly cured. The whole time I was living in Dublin I was anticipating getting on the road again, but now I feel like stopping, at least for a while. I'd still happily live in Asia, but I'm also looking forward to having a base, and being reunited with our cat, and being near friends and family, and growing a garden, and, just maybe, finding somewhere that I can finally call home.

Gi's a job.

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