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What I learnt backpacking

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If life coaches and Hollywood are to be believed, then you’re supposed to find yourself backpacking. A solo trek is meant to allow you discover whole new levels of self-reliance and inner-strength that you never knew you had, but between the constant running for busses and uncomfortable hostel beds, what does anyone really learn backpacking?

As someone who spent their formative years sat on a beach, I decided to track down some people who have actually done some serious travelling to ask them what, exactly, did they find out?

Joe Marshall, writer, photographer and award-winning travel blogger

Joe: “In 2013 I did a trek into the Huascaran national park in the high Andes of Peru. It was a 3-4-day hike up one valley, over a high pass and down the next. Tour groups kept away as donkeys couldn’t get up there. I’d heard it was a good place for spotting condors, so I set off alone, hoping for wildlife and solitude.

On the afternoon of day 2 a huge cloud covered the peaks and began to make its way down the valley. The pleasant tropical air vanished as the temperature plummeted and another cloud loomed in from below. I quickly set up camp and got my tent up just as it started snowing. My hands turned blue as I layered-up fast and climbed into my sleeping bag. I’d never seen weather change so fast.

The next day I set off at 5am to make the most of the clear skies. I had another 700m to hike to the pass and didn’t want to be up there if the weather went south.

Occasional small cairns, sometimes just a few rocks piled up, lead the way up the pass. At one point, I got completely lost and scrambled up a steep slope before seeing a cairn marking the path 30m away.

That’s when I spotted the condor.

It was huge. Much bigger than me. I laid on the ground to watch it then saw something move in my peripheral vision. An even bigger condor swooped low towards me and tilted to the side showing off its wingspan. It passed just meters away. Eyeballing me.

Condors are scavengers. They eat carrion. They’re effectively giant vultures. I looked around at the precariousness of my situation. I was almost 5000m up a Peruvian mountain where the weather can go from balmy to blizzard in minutes, I hadn’t seen another person for 2 days, and the world’s largest vulture was sizing me up for a feast. Until that point I’d been plodding along not thinking too much about what might go wrong. I like the mountains but I’m no Edmund Hillary. I suddenly felt quite out of my depth.

A quick assessment led to the conclusion to crack on. So, I got up and walked with extra care as the condors circled above. The view of the brilliant white peaks and glaciers from the pass was one of the most staggering I’d ever seen. But I didn’t hang around too long. With giant birds and mental weather threatening to turn my jolly into a fatal disaster I got my head down and descended. I made the last camp just as snow began to fall.”

Liza Brown, filmmaker and one-time director of BBC2’s Rough Guides

Liza: “It was autumn in the 90’s and I and my boyfriend wanted to start our backpacking trip around Europe on the Turkish Mediterranean. After a frazzled year working in TV, I was thirsty for the calming effects of clear blue water.

In those pre-Internet days you couldn’t book a flight online, you had to go into a travel agents. We went to one in Lewisham where we were told “Turkey was closed”. Undeterred by this pronouncement that a whole country was shut, we bought a flight to Istanbul from what was then known as a bucket shop.

Istanbul is some 800 plus miles from the coast so we had to get the night bus.

Before the journey, I thought I’d unwind at a traditional Turkish bath house.

I was looking forward to my stresses melting away, but what I found inside was like the seven circles of hell: Me and the other tourists were led from a frying room into a baking room, into a roasting room and from here we could hear screams from the next level—the massage room itself.

This was basically a massive marble oven and once in it I was subjected to a right pummeling. Afterwards, sweating and swooning, I was swaddled up in towels, then pushed into a cubicle to rest. Dehydrated, I fell asleep only to wake in panic—I was late for the bus!

The bus station was pitch black; none of the buses were in their correct bays. Ours was about to depart any second. We were exhausted, hungry and totally parched. Racing past at least 20 people selling drinks, there was no time to stop. We found our bus by the skin of our very dry teeth! It was as boiling in the bus as the Hammam. I got more and more dehydrated. There was nothing whatsoever to drink—not a drop. But as I looked out of the window I noticed shiny wet droplets trickling down the glass. “Don’t go there, that’s the recycled sweat of passengers” I thought, but I was soooo thirsty! This didn’t stop me though from, in the end, actually doing it – licking that condensation right off those dirty windows. It was like the juice of god!”

Danielle Galway, urban yogi

Danielle: “People said I was brave for travelling around India on my own but I never really felt like it at the time. I died my hair dark and wore a ring on my finger so people would think I was married. I told people I was a waitress back home so they wouldn’t think I had much money. Which I didn’t. It didn’t work.

I met this particular pest on a night bus that followed the 48-hour train journey from hell. I got ill on that journey. Actually, I got ill almost everywhere. There was a lady going crazy at the train guards who were just laughing at her. She had nowhere to sit so I thought I’d try and stand up for sisterhood and told her she could sit on my bunk. She turned around and started screaming, “I will not sit with a European whore!” I scurried back to my bunk and spent the rest of the night worrying about her attacking me.

When the train journey from hell ended the bus journey from hell started. The man sat next to me and I said “Namaste” to be polite. He took this as an invitation to tell me his life story and his dream to go to England. A dream he thought I could help him with. As the bus rumbled on through the night the passengers all fell asleep as the man kept talking. I closed my eyes and tried to sleep.

“Madam, open your eyes.”

“Dude, everyone’s asleep,” I said. “Look around, it’s sleepy time now. I’m tired.”

“But I am not asleep, madam. I am awake. And what about my dream?”

In the middle of the night the bus came to a stop and everyone piled off to go to the toilet at the side off the road. I was knackered, poorly and bit delirious. The men started peeing and I didn’t know where to go. Then out of nowhere a woman in a sari and headscarf appeared. She took my hand and led me past bushes away from the men. She lifted her sari and squatted, motioning me to do the same. We squatted there together, peeing and giggling. We had no common language but didn’t need it. Two women together, sharing a moment of solidarity. It’s one of my fondest memories of my time there.

I spent several months in India. I stayed in an ashram learning yoga and saw the Himalayas. But it was little moments like that that I’ll never forget. Looking back, I guess that I was quite brave. It was a magical time but a scary one too. I think I loved and hated it in equal measure. I’ve always meant to return but never have. Maybe one day.”

David Lewis, video journalist and stand-up comedian

David: “Ahh, Australia. I was young, free, single and suntanned and thanks to a limited understanding of the world of exchange rates, I was broke.

It was the heady days of 2002. Everyone still loved Tony Blair, England’s Golden Generation of young footballers were (apparently) destined for greatness and I had jetted to the other side of the world to party away my fading youth. Bondi beckoned and I had it all sewn up.

Having saved a princely sum of £1,000 I’d calculated, if I was suitably prudent, I’d be able to enjoy Sydney for six months without working. As it turned out, I drank, ate, smoked, pissed, slept, partied, cried, laughed, screamed and puked through it in three-and-a-half weeks.

My options were scarce. Plead on the phone for money from home (tried, failed) get a job nearby with accommodation thrown in (found, sacked), find a lovely local lady to take me in (fantasised, unrealised). There was one option left. Fruit picking.

With a basic wage, cheap lodgings and suppers on site (notwithstanding the flies, the heat, the snakes, the crocs…) picking fruit in Australia isn’t the worst thing in the world. But getting there is. Farms are hundreds – sometimes thousands – of miles away from the nearest city. The only way I could get from my hostel on the tip of New South Wales to my destination in the Queensland outback was to hitchhike. For days.

My adventure started slowly. I waited by the right service station. And waited. And waited. For six hours, I jutted my thumb out at moving cars. Finally, a big, double-freighted Road Train slowed. Johnny picked me up and said he could drop me pretty near my destination. (About 450 miles away as it turned out.)

I was so relieved I didn’t spot much about the roomy space at the front of the lorry. My driver was cheery, chatty. A good egg. Strangely, I felt we were doing each other the favour; I needed the lift, and he had someone to talk to on the long haul north.

Not too far in, I took more time to look around the cabin space. I spotted Johnny’s arm was badly scarred and missing a digit. A native American style Dream Catcher hung from the ceiling. And then there were the photos…

Above my companion’s head were posted scantily clad pictures of women. And above mine. On the glove box and on the flanks of the dashboard too. It was like The Heff jacked it all in to live as an Aussie trucker.

As we joined the motorway, Johnny told me about his accident. 18 months earlier, he’d been enjoying the soft porn a little too much and ended up misjudging a curve in the road. The truck fishtailed and ended on its side, lopping off the poor chap’s limb in the process. Water off a duck’s back to Johnny though. “Luckily the lorries are made of strong stuff”. He told me. “I think these women were acting as my guardian angels!

“The journeys are long here if you know what I mean,” he giggled. I wasn’t immediately 100% sure I did. I asked him if he’d been spending too much time looking at nudie pics. My man went quiet.

To break the ice, I asked him about the fluttering dream catcher. I always travel with that. I’ve had it for years. It’s brought me nothing but luck! I joshed that it was a shame it wasn’t in his last motor. Ah, it was! he shot back. Another stony silence descended and he turned up the rock ballads as we trundled up the Great Ocean Highway. We have different interpretations of what luck is.

Almost a full day later, Johnny dropped me off where it took me about the same amount of time again to reach my final destination. What did I learn? That Aussie truckers are funny, friendly, generous and tough-as-old-boots. But I’d live without any Jo Guest shots on the dashboard.”

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