As any serious traveller will tell you, their passport is a major source of pride – mine included – except now it’s also become an embarrassment, and a source of guilt. I’ve started to use my Maltese passport where I can because it has many less stamps than my Australian one, and therefore raises less eyebrows and less questions at immigration. Being asked, ‘What do you do [for work]?’ has always been my least favourite question, because I’ve never had an easy or simple answer to give. And especially at immigration desks and border crossings, when the officer flips through all the pages in my passport looking for an available page to make their mark, and then flips back again to read some of the stamps from places I’ve been, I wait, knowing what will come.
That accusatory look, asking without words, ‘How do you afford all this travel?’ has upset me more than once. Not because of the insinuation I travel by illegal means – I don’t – but because of the assumption that what I do is wrong, or bad, just because it’s different and not within that person’s realm of understanding. I’ve encountered that attitude most of my life, starting when I took a year off study in my latter years of high school, and was told by a family friend that I was destined to ‘be a bum for the rest of my life’. That was almost 20 years ago, long before a ‘School Gap Year’ was a common term. What I do is what I do, and no, it’s not and never will be, standard or usual or 9 to 5 or acceptable to some people, but it’s what I do. I’m tired of feeling like I have to apologise when someone doesn’t understand the many ways it’s possible to earn money, or why I don’t want to buy a house, or haven’t ‘settled down’ yet, or what job I’m doing now, or why I’m going travelling AGAIN.
I like to learn, see, do and experience new things, meet new people, places, cultures and languages, and travelling is the best education for that. I want to live life now.
Money is just a means to an end, and it doesn’t do you any good just sitting in a bank account forever. Nor do I need much money to travel like I do. That seems to be another thing most people don’t understand – I can travel the world for a few hundred dollars less than what the Australian Government states is the minimum cost for a student to live in Australia for one year.. My average all inclusive spend, calculated over five years of international trips, is $50 per day. That’s all inclusive, meaning airfares and transport, accommodation, food, activities, entertainment and spending money. If I was to be gone a whole year, that would be $18,250 AUD vs the Govt figures of $18,610 AUD. I know some people can blow that much in just a few weeks on a holiday. Which raises another issue – I don’t take holidays, I travel. It’s just living in different areas, and constantly learning, while still experiencing the ups and downs everyone has. My travels are not an escape from reality, my travels are my reality. When someone understands that difference without an explanation, there’s an instant bond and understanding.
Back to my passport.. Australia really is a ‘lucky country’. I’ve always known it, but never really appreciated it until this year, when I was frequently reminded of it everywhere I went in South America. By comparison, in Australia we have more than enough work for everyone, we have a stable economy and society, a non-corrupt Government and armed forces, good public services and amenities, good healthcare and education, and it is a safe place to live. On this trip especially, I’ve felt enormous guilt because of the envious country that I can return to at any time. Most people in South America will never experience all the positives above, and certainly not in the one place or at the one time. For all the things we complain about in Australia, we are on the whole, damn lucky to be able to call it home.
I’ve even experienced slight animosity from some people seeming to wonder why I’m poking my nose around their lives when I have it so good back in Australia. If they actually bothered to ask the question, I’d tell them this: just because things are good in Australia doesn’t mean I want to sit amongst my home comforts and pretend the rest of the world doesn’t exist. I am fascinated by people, and I want to learn about others, not just for curiosity, but also for the chance of helping them. Somehow, in some way, I’d like to have a meaningful impact on other people’s lives. Because of how good we have it in Australia, I see more of a calling to help people outside, in other countries.
Three things struck me early on in this trip, and continued to repeat until I finally made sense of them..
First was the amazement that I am travelling solo, and the perceived fears and dangers associated with being alone – especially as a female. Many Aussies travel by themselves I would tell them, and it annoyed (and still annoys) me when people think I’d be better off travelling with a guy. It was a topic brought up by every person I met, and only after speaking to enough people, did I understand why. In general, people in South America are raised with the belief that the world outside their front door is scary and dangerous and best not to be explored. Especially alone, and especially not if you’re female. Initially I scoffed at the idea, until I learnt more about the continent, and had the experience of an attempted armed robbery in Venezuela, and experiences I’ve not yet written about – of sexual assault in Colombia and in Venezuela, and of something akin to domestic violence (with a gay guy I wasn’t sleeping with) in Brazil. Now I know there is some truth to the claims of many South American parents that the world is scary and dangerous, and although this trip has forever changed me, I will continue to explore and learn. Perhaps just with a bit more caution. Maybe.
The second thing that kept repeating in conversation was my age. I’m 35 years old, and I know people generally think I’m a few years younger, but the shock and amazement from people in South America was bordering on comical at times. Apparently, by comparison to many women there, I look like I’m in my mid 20s. I took that as the compliment it was, especially given the tendency for people to say things as they saw them – it was common to hear someone be told they were fat, or that their hair looked bad etc. No one seemed to get upset, they just accepted it as fact. I finally realised that my age seemed incredulous to many people because, by 35 years old, most women have had at least one child, put on some (or a lot) of weight, and the wear and tear of daily life was visible on their faces and bodies. I would not say my life has been plain sailing, but, by comparison, I’ve had a relatively easy life, and it was most evident in their disbelief of my age.
Lastly, and probably the most continent specific topic, was what I considered to be a lack of aspiration for many young people. I noticed it first in Brazil, and then in Colombia – that many people did not work, and seemed (on the surface), to be enjoying their free time, filling in their days with nothing more than living for that day. Not used to being around so many people who were free during the day, and knowing that people often don’t understand how I support myself working different jobs, I asked what they did for work – and the overwhelming answer was they didn’t work. Initially confused, it took me some time to realise that they didn’t work because there was no work.
Many people study because it gives them something to do each day, and many people find or create other ways of making some little money to scrape by. Everyone has different ways to survive, and most people rely heavily on their family and friends. One person who is earning some money will help others, and when circumstances change, the next person will help everyone else, and so on. My initial assessment of a lack of aspiration was wildly incorrect – most people had many aspirations, they were just different, and possibly more akin to what I take for granted.. Everyone I met actually wanted to work, desperately wished they had work. A job and a uniform was a sense of pride, of purpose, of having a chance to provide for their family.
The aspiration to simply have a good life, and in some cases, to simply have life at all, was an eye opener, and a valuable lesson. For better or worse, people in South America are more skilled than Australians at living in the moment, appreciating and taking each day as it comes, and being thankful for what they already have.