Why I Travel

“You like punk music, right?”

I looked up mildly confused from my pint of cider, mid conversation with some new people who had just moved to my city. It was a grey concrete kind of a place, and so the tradition was to take new folk out and show them that the people make it worth living in.

“I was just speaking to your friend and he said you liked punk. So do I. Do you wanna talk about it?”

I paused, fully confused, and looked harder at the guy who opens conversations like a brick to the face. He was tall, grinning widely, and had laughter lines at the crinkles of his eyes. He was probably the only person I’d seen all week who didn’t have a drink in their hand.

“Sure,” I said eventually, “pull up a chair”

And from then on, Matt and I were friends.

Matt was a geologist. He was loud, full of energy (caffeine induced or otherwise), and relentlessly positive. Over the years we knew one another it became apparent that we shared a lot of other interests rather than punk music alone. But of all of those interests, my favourite was our shared sense of humour that often left us having to stifle laughs in serious public situations, or choking on giggles trying to get to sleep.

It was a wet and windy winter when Matt died. The rain seemed to start on the first day of November and didn’t let up until Spring. I was at the beginning of my PhD, and frankly, struggling with more things than just that. The news found me with a pint of cider, mid conversation with some colleagues; but devoid of his grin. It’s strange how the patterns of life play out like a worn record sometimes.

My positive rock had gone. (He would have grinned at that because he loved puns. Particularly geology puns.)

And with him, a lot of other things went too. I lost the air in my lungs for a long time, as did everyone who was left behind in his wake. We lost the sound of laughter and of music. We lost who we were for a long time, each in our own different ways. And we were left to cope in whatever ways we could. For me, that catalyst became traveling.

The hardest part of his loss was the realisation of just how much positive impact he had had on my life. I knew it when he was around, and I thanked him for it – but I never realised the true measure, and I was never able to truly express my gratitude. How much he cared, how much he believed in me, how much he encouraged me to be the best person I could be. He believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself, and that is a very powerful thing.

These realisations swelled like storm waters in my mind for a while, before eventually I decided to swim through them and seek sunnier skies.

I didn’t need much reason to travel more, having already been bitten by the wanderlust bug many, many years before. Travel already felt like an old friend. Certainly, breaking up with your partner of five years while neither of you has the money to bail out of the housing contract added to the drive of wanting to leave. A house is a small space when it’s filled with two broken hearts and a pile of unpaid bills.

I had to get out of that house, out of the city, and out of my life. I needed to convince myself that there was still some good left in this world. So, I took whatever little money I had and threw myself at every opportunity that arose. Conferences, mainly, were a great way to get around the globe. I’d write a research paper and institutions would publish it, which meant that my university would pay some of the fees for my travels.

In between conferences I would seek other places and other adventures. Sometimes friends would come with me, and other times I’d travel solo. Sometimes I’d make a bunch of friends along the way. This is where a lot of my real travel experiences came from: the crazy ups and downs of life and adventure, that, looking back, saved my mental health and probably my life in general.

Each time I’d live through something, or be floored by an experience, I’d want to tell Matt. I’d want to share this insane beautiful thing that happened in this vast unfathomable universe, because I knew he’d care. And I knew he’d see the wonder in it. And I knew he’d see things about it that I couldn’t. Sometimes in my head I would still try to articulate it to him – it made the void seem less painful that way.

The more traveling I did, the more I enjoyed it. I’d impulsively come up with goals for each year that would test me. This year I would see if I can see all of the European countries. Next year all my trips will be long haul. Then after that I’ll see if I can spend more time abroad than living in my own country. The list went on… and still does, really.

Each year I’d pick places that would challenge me, and my perspectives, and everything I thought that I’d known. Every time I would make a mistake, I taught myself how to learn from it. It ended up being this unhinged learning curve I don’t think I could have experienced through anything else. It taught me to believe in myself the way that Matt did.

I sat on the top of snow-capped mountains and watched the flickering stars and northern lights veil impossibly vast feats of nature. I ran through deserts that seemed older than time itself, where land and sky merge in shimmering golden blurs. I floated in the crystal clear shallows of tropical island beaches, and watched countless blood-orange suns drop behind the horizon in a blazes of fire.

I saw creatures and ecosystems and the intricate balance of life. I walked in places I’d dreamed of going as a kid. I followed paths as they unfolded in front of me without ever needing to think. I learnt to let go and just be. And, in a comforting and ironic kind of a way, I saw that truly it is people that make a place worth living in. Human nature has always had its positives and negatives, but I started to the see the good more than the bad.

Traveling didn’t allow me to breathe again; it just showed me that the air was in my lungs the whole time. It held me close, and gently let me see on my own that I no longer ran because I was trapped. It allowed me to keep a part of my friend with me wherever I went, knowing that he would have loved to be adventuring alongside me, and remembering our old travel plans we made back when we were giggling kids with wanderlust on the mind, adventure in our hearts, and our futures laid at our feet.

Matt isn’t here anymore – but his legacy is. Even absent he still managed to spark a change in me that will keep burning. And, that spark is in you too.

Set your life on fire. Seek others who fan the flames. Never stop traveling.

 

matt believes

 

Spain: How not to Hike (Travel Tips)

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When I was about 5 years old, I wanted to be an adventurer. Twenty years later, I stumbled upon some old kids books that I used to read and occasionally scribble in. One was about a donkey living in Spain, and, clearly, five-year-old Bri thought that was the best shit ever.

I braced myself to read further. I wondered if I’d now managed to achieve some of the things I used to dream about depicted in the books. Maybe I’d even been to some of the places in real life, or had the kind of adventures that I aspired to.

Upon reflection, I realise that I had no fucking clue what being an ‘adventurer’ meant.

In this book I had scribbled across the pictures of the mountains where the donkey, Morro, would hang out using multi-coloured scented gel pens (remember those?!). I’d managed to identify that the mountains were probably hot, so I’d written a note to ‘water’. Nothing about bringing it or storing it, or how much – just ‘water’.

I’d also managed to identify that mountains were probably big. Bigger than me at least. I’d drawn me next to one of them, some 1/10th of the size (lets not even unpack how wrong that scale is). In my self-portrait I had one much longer and more wibbly leg than the other, so I can only assume this was a warning not to go climbing with unstable footwear.

I was also wearing a tutu.

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Stable footwear, neither leg wibbly.

Fighting uneasiness, I bravely continued to the end of the book. Right after the happy ending – where Morro rescues some kids from the top of the mountain – I’d written some further notes for myself. These seemed to be directly addressed to me in the future, as if I fully intended on finding these mountains and doing a better job than those other idiot kids who were fucking around at the summit and needed to be rescued.

My notes go as follows:

  • Water [I felt the need to write this again]
  • How hot? [a little more specific than last time, at least]
  • Trall trawl trayal trayel tril trail left of the big rock [fucking got there in the end]
  • Tell Sooty at the top [Sooty was my cat at the time]
  • Leave tutu at the bottom

These notes made me feel a lot of weird things, but I suppose at least I didn’t find out I was some sort of psychotic kid: simply one who liked mountains and donkeys, and later on in some other books a bunch of cool mice that hung out in a forest. And this magical rainbow fish in a tropical sea. In hindsight, there was a clear theme throughout my childhood.

Anyway, I did actually go on some mountain adventures in Spain. I did a lot of hiking and kayaking, as well as drinking a lot of gin. So, I figured for all you fellow adventurers I’d add twenty years of wisdom to my original case notes – not that they need improving, but you know – it’s nice to perfect things sometimes.

  • [original note] Water

Yep. That’s still a thing you’re going to need. Yep, you’re going to need a lot of it whether you’re hiking or kayaking. More water equals more adventure.

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“Look at all this water.”
  • [original note] How hot?

Fucking hot. On one of the days in the mountains I made the mistake of hiking to the top of the Zahara (citadel in the mountains) in 45 degree heat, because as my original note suggests, I still didn’t know how hot it would be. Never has the saying ‘only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun’ been more true. It definitely was worth it worth it, though.

  • [original note] trail to the left of the big rock

There are many trails on many mountains, and many to the left of big rocks. Fortunately for five-year-old Bri, older Bri has a degree in geography and much better situational awareness.

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  • [original note] tell Sooty at the top

Sooty is dead, mate. Also how were you ever planning on telling your cat back in England while you were on the summit of a Spanish mountain? Either way, she was never going to know of your Spanish mountain prowess.

  • [original note] leave tutu at the bottom

This is honestly one of the smartest things that five-year-old Bri has ever written. I’m happy to confirm that you should not under any circumstances hike or kayak in the southern Spanish mountains wearing a tutu. They are cumbersome and hot, and those are two things that you could do without in an environment that is hotter than the surface of the sun. Good job.

 

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After I returned from Spain and later found this book I couldn’t help but think of all of the other things that I learnt twenty years later. So, in keeping with the tradition of trying to help my future self, and other fellow adventurers, here are some of my newly tried and tested tips on both surviving and enjoying the Spanish mountains.

  • Don’t hire a smart car as your mode of transport around the mountains. Sure, its the cheapest option, and it seems absolutely fucking hilarious when your friend can’t even fit his head in it. But, trust me, your equipment is more important.
  • Don’t have a hangover and hike. Yeah, I know, usually this is fine and the exercise makes you feel better. But trust me, in 45 degree heat while you’re already dehydrated this is a really stupid idea, and you’re going to make really stupid mistakes. Save your idiocy for a colder, safer hike.

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  • There’s going to be a lot of haze and dust in the summer, and often this can appear to be cloud cover: it is not, and you are still going to get sunburnt. You’re also going to get sunburnt when there is no dust. You’re also going to get sunburnt when you think you’re in the shade. The Spanish mountains are going to teach you a lot about sunburn and the simple solution is to take sunscreen with you wherever you go, no matter how much you don’t want to hike with extra weight.
  • You’re going to want to give yourself as much opportunity to watch the sunsets over the mountains as possible. Trust me, they are unlike anywhere else on earth.

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  • If you go kayaking on a lake that has a petrified forest half submerged in the water, the trees are going to be covered with spiders. There were probably some other insects on it too, but honestly as soon as I touched a branch and 95% of the country’s spider population fell onto my arm I did not stick around to find out what the other bugs were.
  • Don’t kayak with a lot of spiders in your craft.

Spain, I’m glad I finally got to visit your mountains, even if it wasn’t the first time I’ve gotten to see your beautiful country. I think five-year-old me would be satisfied. 10/10 would recommend – and if you do go on an adventure there be sure to let me know, and I will come along for the sunburn. 

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Macedonia: The Godfather of Lake Ohrid

 

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More photos on Instagram @travels_of_bri

Macedonia is a country that most folk don’t know about, let alone can locate on a world map. It’s the kind of destination that Barry from the pub down the road once claimed he visited on a 1980s football world tour, back when he had hair and an entirely misplaced sense of patriotism (cunningly disguised as racism).

And, in fairness, visiting Macedonia is a little like going back in time several decades; especially when it comes to the more rural parts of the country. Driving from the capital city of Skopje to the lakeside tourist destination of Lake Ohrid was certainly an experience*. Despite taking a holiday on the set from ‘Life on Mars’, myself, level-headed Molly, international spokesman Angus and trusted navigator Gord, all rapidly fell in love with the place. The scenery was stunningly beautiful, the way of life was relaxed and exceptionally tolerant, and the people… well the people were the most interesting part**.

To get around the country we had hired a rental car, and had been parking said car in the carpark of a local supermarket***. Each day we’d pick it up in the morning and go off on some adventures, parking it back up in the evening or late afternoon when we returned back to the lakeside settlement. One day, when we attempted to get the car we found that it was totally blocked in by other cars – one in particular. This had put a rather large spanner in the works as our plan for the day was to drive around the lake to a place that we could go scuba diving at.

Cocksparger.

We had a quick conference in front of the blocked car and decided that we would call our airbnb host, Vladimiro. He’d been very helpful in directing us to both the airbnb flat and the parking space, so we figured he may know the locals at the supermarket and be able to do some translations. To our surprise not only was he very helpful, he dropped everything to come over to the carpark himself and stage an intervention.

Vlad rocked up in a full grey tracksuit, sporting a man-bag, some worn out trainers, and stare that said “if you fuck with me your body might not ever be found”.

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Yes, Macedonia really looks like this. Photo by Fabio Dario.

Having never met him face to face before we impolitely stared at him, worrying about the consequences of our call. In a deep and rasping voice, with a thick and heavy accent he asked us about our plans and how long we had been waiting. Politely we replied, and made it very clear that it really wasn’t much bother, we could go diving another day. He nodded thoughtfully with a 1000 yard stare before wandering off into the supermarket to recruit some of the staff to his head-hunting team without saying a word to us. We remained by the blocked car, awkwardly waiting like stereotypical British colonials waiting for a  goddamn tea shipment.

A short while later Vlad came out of the supermarket and informed us that he had not been able to find the car owners. He pulled out an ancient nokia phone and got to work ringing apparently everyone he knew in the city****. We stood and waited for a while before trying to politely reiterate that we were happy to wait and go on an adventure another day instead. He silenced our protests with a slow shake of his head, and explained that he was going “get some contacts in”.

At this point we felt that we were officially in a mafia film.

Our patient and ever so slightly nervous waiting shifted into anxious pacing, occasionally throwing one another uneasy glances. At any point we were expecting to be thrown into the midst of an interrogation. And, being British, we were not well equipped for that level of directness with a stranger. After a few intense minutes Vlad hung up the phone and fixed us with a penetrating stare. Expressionless, he told us that “it was being taken care of”. Fucking hell.

…And then the police show up.

This was a little too much for us and before we knew it we were spouting clear and forceful protests such as “well, you know…”, and “honestly, it’s not a big deal…” to Vlad and the police, hoping that the sheer passive strength of our protests – that had as much structural integrity as a damp piece of toilet paper – would somehow convince them to take pity on us and let us go home for a sit down and a cup of tea. But, they were having none of it. Vlad told us to wait, and so in fear of waking up to a horse’s head in the back of the car the next day we feebly agreed to stay put.

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More pictures on Instagram @travels_of_bri

Five or so minutes later a black car rolls up with tinted windows and specialised hub caps. The carpark becomes deadly silent. The supermarket staff pause their tasks and watch the car. Vlad waits in silence with a jaw that would make a setsquare jealous. Two huge, tattooed tracksuited-up guys get out of the car and slowly begin swaggering up to our car in a motion that put john wayne to shame. We look up at them like rabbits caught in headlights.

They speak in Macedonian. We reply in English, telling them that we’re sorry, we don’t know the language.

They pause, frown. A scowl appears across their colossal brows. Fuck, we think collectively.

Vlad stares on in silence. The tension in the carpark could be cut with a knife…

And then one of them blurts out “We are SO sorry! Goodness, you must think so badly of us!”

We briefly exchange looks with one another, baffled. What on earth was going on…

The Macedonian man continued flamboyantly “Idiot here (camply gesturing to his partner) wasn’t supposed to park the car like this. We are so SO sorry to ruin your day!”

We immediately apologise as well, being British. Honestly, it wasn’t a big deal. No day ruined. Projecting big smiles around the carpark and especially at Vlad in a desperate effort to make the situation end quickly and with no bad blood.

“No, no no. I will not hear it.” The man continues, “We have ruined your day. Stupid is as stupid does, eh?” He playfully punched Angus in the shoulder, knocking him back several feet across the carpark.

We profusely agree. Honestly, we’ll get out of your way now. Vlad slowly nods towards them. They notice Vlad’s signal and one of the men gets into the car and removes it from blocking ours, while the other leaves the car park in the other pimped up car that they arrived in. Vlad remains motionless by the side, expressionless. We leap into the car and start up the engine, Angus manoeuvres us out more quickly than I’ve ever seen him drive before. As we leave the carpark we wind one window down to say thank you to Vlad on our way out. He nods and says, “When you get to the lake, you find a man called Yohan.” –

Fuck. Were we expected to do him a favour now that he had done one for us? Were we officially in the mafia too? How were we going to tell our mothers that we had ended up murdering someone on holiday because we couldn’t leave a carpark?

-“You tell him that Vladimiro of the lake police sent you. He will give you a good price for scuba diving.”

Utterly dumbfounded we couldn’t even muster a response. The police? This is the Macedonian police? Molly took the initiative and leaned out of the window and said a final thank you before whispering to Angus to “start fucking driving”. And so, after the carpark saga and the plot twist of the century we rocked up to the scuba diving centre in the nick of time and had an utterly amazing, adventure-filled day.

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Me, needing to have a break after much adventures. More photos on Instagram @travels_of_bri

*The kind of experience where you wonder if you kept on driving to the other side of the country would you eventually end up in the dark ages, foraging for berries while your family died of the plague.

**The people were unbelievably friendly and welcoming. Unfortunately this did mean that upon meeting one of our airbnb hosts we were unable to get her to stop talking about her cat – Zorro – for several hours while she made us continual rounds of thick, black coffee.

**We had been assured by our airbnb hosts that this was in fact the allocated parking spot that was included with the flat. It was definitely just a supermarket car park.

*** Although Ohrid is technically counted as a city, it is definitely the size of a small town in the UK.