A Decade of Departure around the World

 

A Decade of Departures

I left home as soon as I was able. It had never been a happy place and the often violent streets of Belfast offered little respite. I therefore spent much of my childhood in my room, longing for elsewhere, learning to spell the names of countries as I leafed through my father’s well-worn hard-backed atlas.

When I was eighteen I enrolled at university and took the boat to Scotland. I was reasonably happy there, but every night before bed I would sit and gaze at the maps I had pinned on my wall. After graduation my friends all started settling into careers and communities, marriages and mortgages. I, however, made preparations for departure: crossing the sea had failed to cure me of my lust for leaving. So I divested myself of almost everything I owned, packed the remainder into a backpack, and took a train to the airport and a plane to Paris.

But even the city of light soon lost its lustre, and six months later I was standing on the platform of the Gare de Lyon waiting for a train to Geneva. Every morning for the next year I spent staring out of my chalet windows at the seven peaks of Les Dents Du Midi. At first, I found comfort in their permanence but eventually I began to resent them for hemming me in. Once again, it was time to leave. As the primroses and buttercups were starting to fade, I got on a plane bound for the New World.

New York City thrilled me. On my first evening, I walked from my lodgings on 79th St. all the way to Battery Park and back. Everything I’d heard was truer and more real than I’d ever imagined: the streets were straighter, the towers were taller, the crosswalks more crowded. But I grew restive in the restless city and once again packed my bag and boarded a westbound bus.

Some three thousand miles later and I had swum and shivered in Lake Michigan, hiked through the snow to Yellowstone hot-springs, and marvelled at Seattle’s sleepless skyline. But in no place and at no time did I consider stopping, settling.

My momentum impelled me across the Pacific to New Zealand. ‘The land of the long white cloud’ was as beautiful as everyone had said, but its beauty was wasted on me. When I wasn’t at work or out hiking the Hobbited hills, I was at the library poring over travel books and magazines – dreaming once again of elsewhere. Once I’d saved up enough, I bought a ticket to Seoul.

Maybe in Asia I would find the solace I sought.

I hated it at first, this jumble of a city with enough neon to put Vegas to shame. But eventually, I fell in love with its energy, chaos and confusion. Not to mention its food. If I think too much about it, I sometimes wonder why I left, but in the moment, restlessness was reason enough.

Within weeks, I found myself on a ferry from Vancouver to a small island with an entire population comparable to that of my apartment building in Seoul. I tended chickens and ate home-grown, home-cooked food. And even though I was actually quite content I would still wander down to the shore from time to time to think about the world beyond. And soon enough, those thoughts became too powerful to ignore.

As I packed, I took a picture of my belongings laid out on the bed: a few clothes, toothbrush and razor, water-bottle, pencil-case and notebooks. During the months and years that I had been travelling, I hadn’t taken a single photograph of the sights I had seen or the places I had been. It was in this moment that I realised, as Hermann Hesse had once written, that “a magic dwells in every new beginning”. It was not the places that had brought me solace, but the spaces between the places. It was these in-between moments – packing my possessions, closing my bag, hoisting it onto my back – which thrilled me.

And it was in such moments that I was able to hope, breathe and dream.

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