Travel can warp the mind. In Mozambique I undertook a typically hellish, thirteen hour bus journey from Maputo to Villanculos alongside a Netherlander named Gabriel. We arrived at our destination exhausted and I asked my new friend how it was that just sitting on a bus all day could tire one out so.
-It’s because you are essentially a biped, he said - designed to walk der earth without mechanized assistance. Technological advances in transportation now enable you to travel to destinations much faster, but your primitive brain is still only conditioned to receive visual images at walking speed. A day spent on der bus with new imagery filtering in at breakneck speed is a sensory overload to der brain. Der brain thus requests sleep in order to contextualize and process this new data.
- That’s what I thought, I said.
Thirteen hours on the bus. He comes out talking like Stephen Hawking and I come out walking like him.
Obviously, Gabriel had smoked a lot of pot in his time. He also told me that “Pinocchio” was a Christ allegory and that I shouldn’t eat peanuts at night because they would lie on my chest. I didn’t really understand what that last point meant, but the biped theory at least made sense to me. Lots of backpackers come off as slightly vacant, waiting-for-the-mothership types, and now there appeared to be some justification for that. Constantly on the move: always new places, new people, new customs, new currency, new languages to contend with every few days...
I try to avoid communal chambers, because I’m borderline sociopathic. But I once took an overnight train from Paris to Madrid. I shared the couchette compartment with two elderly Italians and a young Nigerian lad. The Italians didn’t speak a word of English but I managed to exchange a few basic pleasantries with the Nigerian. I don’t think he’d ever been on a sleeper train before, when I showed him how to pull his bunk out of the wall he regarded me incredulously, as though I were a warlock:
-Back, shaman, back!
The compartment was intoxicatingly warm. That, combined with the gentle, unhurried undulation of the train, soon conspired to send me into a deep sleep. When I later woke, half snoring, half laughing, I had no idea where I was. The Nigerian was staring down at me quizzically from the upper bunk, but he was a very black man and all I could make out was a pair of widened eyes glaring at me through the rumbling night. For those few waking moments, I thought that I was in a woodland copse and was certain that he was an owl.
When I was in your fair land, I travelled from Cairns to Melbourne and engaged in all the usual pursuits that you would probably scoff at and deride as touristic: snorkelling the Great Barrier Reef, sailing through the Whitsundays, camping out on Fraser Island, all the usual suspects. On Fraser Island our party of eight were all housed together in one large, fetid, dingo-encircled tent. In the middle of the night, an Irish girl who was amongst our number shot bolt upright in her sleeping bag and screamed:
-WHERE DA FUCK AM OI?
-Er, you’re in a tent, a nervous Cockney informed her.
-Oh, she said, and immediately fell back to sleep.
I had a similar moment of clarity today myself, Amber. I was thinking about you – as I do every day. I was missing you – as I do every day. I was worried about you – as I have been every day. I wanted to see your pretty face again, so I typed your name into the computer. Once again, your Facebook profile came up. What better place could there be to look for a face? Imagine my surprise when I saw that your old photograph had been replaced with a recent snapshot of you. You were frolicking with your new friends from the Overland tour, oblivious to the concern that your lack of communication has engendered in me.
-Oh, I said, finally waking up.