I don’t even know where to start with this. It’s ten days since I came home. Three weeks since I left. But I need to go back even further than that.
I don’t know when my love for travel really started. It probably goes right back to when we were kids, maybe our first holiday in France, when I was seven, and made friends with the girl in the caravan next door, a girl who, thirty years later, is still one of my dearest friends.
Travel has always been in my blood. It’s my ‘thing’. I spent most of my teenage years being motivated by the future possibility of travelling, spent my entire twenties either abroad, or working my ass off to pay for my next trip. At midnight on my 30th birthday, drunk from too many caipirinhas in a Brazilian bar in London, I had a slightly squiffy, but soul-shaking epiphany – I needed to be somewhere else. Three weeks later I was starting a new life in Madrid. A new life that would take me to my final destination – Colombia. Or so I thought.
January 2013: I was living in Bogota, but spending new year in Havana – my ultimate bucket-list holiday – and I was loving it! Whoever would have guessed that after a decade of travel, I wouldn’t travel again for another four years? When I arrived back in Bogota from my holiday in Cuba, I found out my dad had terminal cancer. Six weeks later I was on another plane, going ‘home’.
I haven’t really travelled since. Time was precious, and I was needed. I did plan a few trips, but they never went to plan – feelings of guilt, being selfish and abandoning my responsibilities to my family accompanied every trip I booked; I cancelled most of them. The couple of times I did go away I was usually called home early – a collapsed lung, a doctor’s appointment… It was easier to just not go.
And then he died, and I didn’t want to go away. I wanted to be at home, where I was safe, where I was with my friends and family, where I could see that they were safe.
But even though that’s what I wanted, it felt wrong. I remember the first time I went to bereavement counselling – I expected to talk about my dad. Instead, I talked about travelling – how much I missed it, how it scared me that I didn’t want to go anywhere, how it upset me that the world didn’t interest me anymore. ‘Don’t worry,’ my counsellor told me. ‘It will come back. It’s who you are. It will take time, but it will come back eventually.’
And she was right – it did. A weekend in Paris for work reminded me how much I loved it, and so I started travelling more – to Wales, the Lake District, London to visit friends, Scotland for a weekend. I even went to Spain a couple of times – though always to places I knew, where I knew I could get home if I needed to. Safe travelling.
And then, earlier this year, I started to feel that old familiar feeling – restless, curious, excited. The unknown was calling me. It was time to step back into it. It was time to be a stranger again. Time to get lost.
I booked my flights – Montenegro and Croatia – and reserved a place on a boat – a plan to sail around the Dalmatian coast for a week, something I’d wanted to do for a long time.
But four years without travelling is a long time, and for the first time in my life I started to understand why people have often described me as ‘brave’ for travelling alone. I was terrified – though not for reasons you might think.
The first three days of my holiday I was planning to be alone – Kotor and Dubrovnik. I couldn’t wait for that! Being alone has never worried me, and there’s actually nothing I like better than being on my own in a strange city, and just wandering around, getting lost in the crowds, in the streets, finding my way, sitting in bars with coffee, and wine, and my books and my thoughts and my notepad – a writer is never truly alone. No, I wasn’t nervous about that part. It was the part that came next. The boat. Or, to be more exact, the people on the boat.
It was a strange way to feel. One of my favourite things about travelling has always been the ‘meeting new people’ part. It’s the main reason I always choose to travel alone. Some of my best and closest friends I met travelling.
But over the last few years my life has become pretty mundane – a nine to five job, a mortgage, my dog. I don’t go out much and I avoid seeing people as much as I can. I’ve put weight on, and I don’t feel fun anymore. I’ve lost my confidence. How would I cope on a boat with 30 strangers? What if there was no one I wanted to talk to? What if no one wanted to talk to me? What if it was all couples, or just one big group of friends, or if everyone was a lot older than me, or a lot younger? What if everyone was single, and my age – what would I talk about? What did I have to offer? What if everyone just thought I was really boring?
I’ll admit I nearly cancelled it. Even when I was flying out I considered not getting on board – I could just stay in the city on my own. Safe, with my own thoughts, and my own company.
What a mistake that would have been! Because what followed was one of the best weeks of my life! The boat was beautiful, the scenery spectacular, the sun relentless, but feeling wonderful on my skin. I swam in salt lakes, in waterfalls and the clearest, bluest sea. I drank wine in an ancient vineyard, drove a buggy across rugged terrain, visited picture perfect towns and knocked back shots in the type of sweaty bars I’d have been the last to leave when I was seventeen.
And I did all of this with the most awesome group of people I could possibly have hoped to meet. Fellow Brits, Australians, Kiwis, South Africans, Americans, Icelandics, and of course our Croatian crew. A couple of couples, two sisters, a mother and daughter, old friends, and a bunch of solo travellers like me. And a little brother. It shouldn’t have worked. But somehow it did.
For seven days, the people on the boat became my family – the big, loud, hilarious family that you often see in cheesy American movies, but that I’ve always assumed don’t really exist in real life. I laughed harder, and longer, and louder than I have in a long time – I’d forgotten I could laugh like that. I talked about my dad, listened to stories similar to my own, and stories I couldn’t even begin to relate to. I sang at the top of my voice, danced, smoked, drank beers before noon, walked around in a bikini without feeling too self-conscious (despite hanging out with some of the fittest women I’ve ever met), posed on a wrecking ball – I even had a brief encounter with a boy!
I came back to life!
On the last night I sat on the deck of the boat, in the dark. and held back the tears. I didn’t want it to end. I didn’t want to go back to my normal life, didn’t want to go back to feeling old, feeling boring, feeling bored. For the first time in four years I felt alive! I felt ten years younger! I felt like me again – and I liked it!
And as I fought back the tears and wished it could somehow last forever, I thought of how lucky I was to feel sad. There’s been so many times in my life when I’ve had to say goodbye, and walk away, while wishing I could stay forever. But I’ve never stayed anywhere forever, because hard though it is to leave, I always know that it will be worth it in the end – everything leads to something good – maybe even something better (though what could possibly be better than our week on Almissa I’m still not sure!)
There’s a quote that I love from a writer called Tim Cahill, ‘Measure the journey in friends, not miles’ or something like that. I could google for the exact quote but I can’t be bothered, the exact words don’t matter, the point is that, if I measure this journey in friends, it’s a journey that will go on for a very long time! To sail on that blue, blue sea was truly a privilege, the country itself stole my heart. But it was the people on that boat that made the trip so special. Without them it would have been a holiday – a lovely holiday. But with them? I don’t even know how to describe it… I guess I could just say it was a fucking perfect week! Because it really, really was!
I left a little bit of my heart in Croatia, but I brought back a thousand memories, two thousand photos, thirty new friends, and a bit of my soul that I thought I’d lost forever. How lucky I am to have found so much.