It wasn’t the off-his-face, chanting, gesticulating, bare-chested backpacker in the middle of the road holding up central Darwin traffic and our taxi outside Shenanigans Pub. It also wasn’t having to cough up 30 bucks for 300mb of very limited mobile phone internet where we’d been previously charging up our various unlimited international SIM cards across 18 counties for peanuts.
It was walking into Coles supermarket on our first night in Australia that simply blew us away leaving a lasting feeling similar to the one you get when visiting your former high school. Everything felt so familiar yet completely alien at the same time.
It’s well known that travel opens your mind, even if you bypass Thailand’s mushroom shake-fuelled full moon parties. Depending on your preferred level of adventure, your life’s frame of reference will either be nudged, bent or completely torn apart. Which is a great thing for those who feel life has more to offer and want to challenge themselves, or disastrous for those who need structure to thrive. Cue joining a Tibetan mountaintop monastery for months of silent meditation or dedicating your life to Sea Shepherd and increased narcissistic Facebook posts about how, out of all of your investment banker friends, you’re the only one making a difference, man.
Blasting apart everything your subconscious relies on to make sense of the world results in what the experts frequently refer to as culture shock – just like jumping into a hole hacked into a frozen lake at new years eve in Sweden, your brain goes into overdrive whilst you adjust to your new surroundings. What is not so well discussed is an even weirder phenomenon: reverse culture shock.
We had spent the last two weeks in historically war torn Timor, which we arrived at following a three day public ferry trip tracking young David Attenborough’s steps through Indonesia’s eastern islands accompanied by around 5000 locals sleeping on cardboard on deck. Getting around town in shared micro-busses blaring out trashy techno and eating hand made meals at the side of dusty roads brought us in constant contact to Timor’s lovely, crazy, scarred and sometimes somewhat feral locals and made us appreciate whatever the world threw at us. Not that it was a conscious choice: if you don’t chill out, you go crazy or you go home.
When people only have scraps, they create their houses, pleasures, and lives from scratch, which makes everything unique. Experiences were sometimes wonderful, sometimes infuriating. Meals were sometimes breathtaking, and sometimes they gave you Typhoid (hint, hint: historic #WTFFriday still up for grabs!). Walking into a supermarket for the first time in 3 months was strange, as there seemed to be so much choice/excess, so much assurance you won’t get sick/sanitisation and homogenisation of animals, plants and life. Everything was so familiar (YEY Tim Tams!), yet everything seemed so soulless.
But hang on, dear reader, we’re not out to poo-poo one side and glorify another. In fact experiencing these opposing forces has influenced our experience on Leg 5 of the Epic Journey so profoundly it has shaken up our own understanding of travel and it’s impact it can have on life. It has confronted us directly with such opposing facts and feelings that can only work together, which has taught us a very important thing: you can judge and opinionate about absolutely everything. Or you can see things for what they are and appreciate things on a more rounded level without having to agree 100% all the time.
Of course, most people would like to see war, life-threatening diseases, and dire social injustice eradicated. Imagine all the people, living life in peace and so on, you know the drill. But most other topics of conversation over the last 8 months have come down to opinion and taste.
It’s rather fashionable these days to travel where nobody else has. The words “off the beaten track” are regularly used as a necessary mark of authenticity of a backpacker and assurance of quality for trips. It seems the beaten track is nowadays populated by one single gecko, clinging desperately to a piece of tumbleweed blowing in the breeze.
When you book your newest adventure to be taken seriously on Facebook about, you’re going to be heading off to a Peruvian hill tribe camp, an orphanage in Calcutta or climbing Indonesia’s blue flaming Ijen volcano. But how many Aussies have been to Uluru or Kroombit? How many Brits have been to the Lake District or Scotland? Everyone wants to get a photo eating scorpions in some exotic night market, but very few see the ‘travel moment’ merit in a decent roadhouse burger.
We’re tending to measure ourselves against the intensity of our own and our audience’s culture shock potential. What we have found on Leg 5 though, is not the problem with this ‘spiritual, cultural, political, Gap-Yah’ type of travel, but the under-appreciation for any other type.
Arriving back in the well-travelled first world environment of Australia, we were amazed at the most banal things. The bus the helpful dude on the street told you about actually exists. You can throw toilet paper into the loo. There is toilet paper. You can find out what meat’s in your food. You can’t get fresh fish grilled on the beach at 11pm. You have to pay for parking. You can’t get unlimited internet on your phone.
Australia, so familiar an environment had suddenly become this new world to discover for the sake of it, not just a place to get drunk with a huge amount of German and French backpackers who regularly complained that they’ve actually never met Australians. Granted, we did have 10000km of roads to explore, but we did so with an open mind, without constantly thinking: “oh, yes, we’ve seen this before, we grew up with this, this is normal life, this is not exotic enough for a real travel destination to talk about”.
On our final leg, thanks to all of the experiences on our way to Australia, we were able to enjoy the wonders, incredible landscapes, crazy and eccentric and very ordinary Australians on our journey (read all about it!), that for some, are part of their day-to-day lives. But so are the Dili fish markets, Malaysian street food stalls, Vietnamese dilapidated colonial buildings, Chinese bamboo skyscraper scaffolding and Siberian dog sleds. These are other people’s banal, day-to-day sights.
There are wonders to be experiences when you leave your front doorstep to fly off to a far off country who’s capital you can’t pronounce. But there are also wonders to be experiences just behind your back garden. Don’t measure the value of your trip by your culture shock, but experience the world in its entirety, and the fantastic people you will meet absolutely everywhere. Even in Scotland.