The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - Travel
THE BEAUTY OF AN EPIC JOURNEY
Ticking off the world’s bucket-list attractions is all well and good, but it’s the grand odysseys of travel that change you, says Benedict Allen
So you’ve done the Taj Mahal, you’ve bungee jumped over the Zambezi, and now your sights are set on the Grand Canyon or paragliding in Peru. Amazing! Again, you’ll get the chance to share your selfies with friends, and they’ll reciprocate with theirs. You’re living life to the max, you remind yourself – the adrenaline rush, the brief iconic views of, well, wherever it was. And then back to the daily grind – until you’ve saved up enough to tick off the next big one on the bucket list.
Only sometimes, deep down inside, you wonder if these exciting experiences aren’t rather… what’s the word? Transitory, perhaps? Superficial, even?
Look, I’m all for grabbing life with both hands, but imagine, just for a moment, embarking on something more like a good old-fashioned quest, a lengthy journey that, over many testing days, introduces you to somewhere quite remarkable – both out there and within yourself.
Of course, for many of us such an endeavour just isn’t do-able.
But suppose, for a moment, you do indeed succeed in setting aside enough time for a proper adventure. Gradually, diligently, you prepare for what lies ahead. You research the right footwear; you attend a language class. And now, quelling your last-minute nerves, the time comes.
I remember my own first such journey vividly – parts of it all too vividly. I was barely out of school. I hadn’t even attempted the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, had very little by way of worldly experience, but took it in my head to traverse northern South America, the “mysterious Land of El Dorado”, as I preferred to call it. This transpired to mean a gruelling plod of half a year between the Orinoco and Amazon river mouths, involving some 600 miles of obstructive jungle. Prepared? I hadn’t even got to the end of my BBC Spanish cassette course.
But the region looked great on my little map – a large, blank space coloured green. And on that blank green space, I laid my dreams.
Aged 22, with hardly a penny to my name, I flew to Caracas in Venezuela – not quite the den of despair it is today, though I still managed to get myself held up at gunpoint on arrival at the bus station. The odd thing is, even that unfortunate incident was life-enhancing in its own way. I was rescued by a shoe-shining boy, who profoundly and single-handedly demonstrated the meaning of that phrase “the kindness of strangers”.
Then I was aboard the bus, and eventually, together with overloaded rucksack, escorted by friendly youngsters to a backstreet hotel in Tucupita, on the steamy, forested shores of the mighty Orinoco. Soon, I found myself adopted by local fishermen, who took me out among the mangroves. And there I was mauled by mosquitoes and suffered the disquiet – panic, actually – of the womenfolk of a certain indigenous community as I was deposited at their isolated shack.
With time, I made my first friends. Children taught me how to gut fish and stalk crabs across the mudflats. These early days weren’t easy – and there would be more misadventures as I was bundled, like a slowly unravelling parcel, from community to community. Gradually, however, my confidence grew – as did the breadth and depth of my experience. Along the way I learned to trust, to let go of my world and embrace another.
And I began to realise that whatever else might occur, this first, naive journey of mine, for all its ups and downs, was beautiful, a sort of pilgrimage. The range of people and possibilities encountered along the way would stay with me forever, affecting me as no amount of thrillseeking or sight-seeing could ever do.