~ What am I doing? ~
I was the only ‘gringo’ on the bus – gringo essentially being the South American term for a ‘white western person’. I was heading out of Bolivia into the north of Argentina. I had just spent a couple of weeks with new friends and was hitting the road again on my own. One friend had headed up to the Amazon and the other had travelled to another place in Argentina. And so there I was: back to riding solo down the highway of life, staring out of those bus windows and wondering what chaos and madness was over the next horizon of space and time. However, I wasn’t totally alone. A little old lady had been sat next to me for the sixteen-hour bus ride. She had been quiet the whole way, but as we pulled into a police checkpoint at the border, she started to shift around in an erratic manner. I kept one eye on her while leaning my head against the window. Outside I could see a group of police officers with machine guns leading people into a room to be searched. The old lady continued to shift around nervously and eventually started tugging on my shirt to get my attention. I turned to face her. My Spanish was still pretty bad despite being in South America for about two months already, but naturally I could understand what ‘co-cai-na’ meant. She said it repeatedly before opening her bag and pulling out what looked like a kilogram of Colombia’s finest in a see-through plastic bag. Slightly taken aback by the situation that was unfolding, I stared at her blankly without knowing quite what to say. She then proceeded to grab my backpack and try to put the cocaine inside of it. Not wanting to end up banged up in a South American jail for the next few years, I politely declined the old lady’s advances. I then grabbed my backpack to get off the bus and join the queue of people who were now being led through the police checkpoint.
While in the queue to get searched, I watched the old lady stand in line on her own. This poor woman, I thought. What was she doing? What was she thinking? She must have been almost seventy and it looked like she was on her remaining years in some hellhole Bolivian prison. There was no way the officers were not going to find her stash in that small handbag of hers. Not a chance in hell. I felt bad for her but there was nothing I could do at this point. Her reckless gamble had failed and her doomed fate was sealed.
The queue continued to go down and eventually the old lady reached the table to be searched. The officers patted her down then took her bag and placed it on the table. Another one then went to open it. This was it, I thought. I was about to witness an old lady have the cuffs slapped on her and get escorted off to jail. I stood there and watched the officer unzip her bag, pull out for the bag of class A drugs, inspect it under the lighting and then toss it aside. Then, to my confusion, I watched as the old lady grabbed her handbag back and passed through freely. There she walked: no cuffs, no arrest, no drama. Off she strolled to get back on the bus.
It was only when I reached the table to be searched that I saw the large stash of cocaine behind the officers. There must have been a dozen bags of drugs all piled on top of each other. It appeared that almost half the people on the bus I was on were trying to smuggle bags of cocaine across the Argentine border. The passengers consisted of elderly people, parents and their kids, but clearly that was just business as normal in this part of the world. In a state of surreal shock, I reached the police officers myself where they took one look at my passport, saw that I was a ‘gringo’ and then ushered me through without even bothering to search my bag. It suddenly hit me why the little old lady was so keen to put the drugs in my backpack. She could have got them through after all. Perhaps we could have formed a partnership and split the profits? Perhaps It could have been the start of a bright new career in the narcotics industry? I dismissed the thought and got back on the bus where me and the old lady both sat in awkward silence. I then pressed my head against the window once more, stared out at the passing countryside of those foreign lands and wondered what the hell it was exactly that I was doing with my life…
Fast forward a few hours later and I’m dropped off in a strange town in the middle of nowhere. It was the place where I was supposed to be catching my connecting bus to Buenos Aires. However, with my original bus arriving two hours late, the departure had been missed and I was now standing alone in the dark of night in a shady bus station. I tried to communicate my problem with a bus driver but naturally my gringo Spanish was of insufficient use. Suddenly I was stranded and in a spot of bother. With a gang of men eyeing me across the street, I quickly decided that the best thing to do was to get on any bus to anywhere. Luckily there was one final bus about to depart before the station closed. I booked myself a ticket to a town called Salta. I got on and arrived about an hour and a half later where I booked myself into a random hostel and proceeded to drink shots of whiskey until the early morning with some Irish guy who was drowning his sorrows after his girlfriend had just broken up with him. As those shots flew back, I stared drunkenly into space and heard that same question once again reverberate around the walls of my skull: what the hell am I doing with my life?
‘What am I doing with my life? What am I doing with my life? What the hell am I doing with my life?’
It was a question that went through my head probably more than any other. I was an introspective and reflective guy anyway, but when you got yourself into as many random scenarios as I did, then it was a question that was frequently at the forefront of all mental musings. On this travelling adventure I had already ended up in so many random situations that left me contemplating my own existence. I had just finished university and my parents had wanted me to use my degree and go out and get a ‘real job’. Yet instead of sitting behind a desk and forming a career of some sort, I’d be in some ridiculous situation thousands of miles from home. Evidently South America was particularly bad for this, hopping from one bizarre scenario to the next. At one point I stopped and lived in Rio de Janeiro for a couple of months with a Brazilian girl I had met on the road. We stayed with her family in an isolated suburb on the outskirts of the city where no one including her family spoke a word of English. She had arrived home from her trip but had decided to stay in holiday mindset; this meant we’d spend the days at the beach before going out to get drunk at random parties, sleep in her car, crash at the apartments of some tourists, or sneak up to the rooftop pool of one of the most expensive hotels in Copacabana. At one point we had an argument and she went off with some other guys to her holiday home somewhere down the coast. In my own dismay, I found myself getting drunk at the beach on my own, staring out at the Atlantic Ocean and thinking about the alternative reality on the other side of that water back in the U.K. That alternative reality where I could have been all suited and booted up like a regular member of the human race – where I would be finishing another hard day at the office before going to have a few pints down the pub with work colleagues. My drunken mind imagined it all. The alarm clocks. The traffic jams. The work desks. The shirts and ties. The small talk. The routine lifestyle. The television screens. The suburban lawns. The high street shopping queues. It all went through my head as I knocked back the beers and passed out on a Brazilian beach.
Such existential thoughts carried on as I left South America and arrived in New Zealand almost one thousand pounds into my overdraft. Arriving to a country on the other side of the world with no money was pretty outrageous, even for my standards, but by this point I was totally lost in the wilderness of life, accepting that I didn’t have a clue what I was doing but just trusting myself to the winds of fate and circumstance. That wind picked up and within a few weeks I was working in a kiwi fruit packhouse, living in a town of a couple of hundred people and renting a house with an eclectic mix of humans which included two guys from Chile, my English friend I had met in Australia a couple of years before, and my sister who was coincidentally travelling in New Zealand at the same time. Days were spent packing boxes of kiwis at a frantic rate as they poured like a tsunami from the conveyor belt, before heading home and sharing a bed with my sister in a freezing cold house in the middle of winter. It was a strange scenario to say the least, and naturally I still had no answer to that pressing question that lingered in my mind.
As that two-year backpacking trip finished and my life went on, there were times where I felt that I was beginning to realise what I was doing with my life – what was happening; where it was going; what it was leading to. Those times included coming home and thinking I was going to stop the travelling and settle down. It included times where I went back to university to study – where I eyed up career options as a journalist or copywriter and began to plot some sort of routine that would lead me safely and smoothly into old age. I should have known such things to be nothing more than mere mental musings. I’d go from having a plan to be writing poetry in the Himalayas. To hitch-hiking around Iceland. To raving beside an erupting volcano in Guatemala. To sleeping on a park bench in Slovenia. To walking across Spain in the midsummer heat (the most defining ‘what the hell am I doing?’ moment definitely being when me and four other hikers spontaneously decided to hike through the night, getting drunk off bottles of red wine before passing out in a farmer’s field). By this point I had learnt to go with the flow of whatever it was that was enfolding and even enjoy the comedy of my own chaotic existence. Hell, I even started to revel in it, smiling and smirking to myself in the most random of scenarios, stopping for a second and soaking it all in while the mess and madness unfolded around me. To some degree, I had managed to rewire my brain to living totally in the sheer anarchy of the moment.
I guess my most recent ‘what am I doing with my life’ moments came travelling in Europe. I had just flown back from Asia to meet my Dutch friend Bryan and head to Corsica to do a two-week trek through the island. However, our timetable wasn’t quite right and we had about three weeks until the snowy conditions made it possible to hike. Consequently, we arranged to travel through Switzerland and Italy in the meanwhile. Taking cheap buses in between destinations, we stopped and stayed with random friends we had each met travelling; we bummed around in cities, getting drunk in bars and parks; we stumbled around famous historic sites such as the Colosseum or the Vatican while cracking inappropriate jokes about history and culture. Bryan was like me in that he also regularly questioned the bizarre situations and scenarios the path of his life had led him to. We had been through a similar journey in life and were both highly philosophical about our own unconventional existence. This sometimes caused us to ask that question simultaneously as we walked down the streets of Rome or Florence, or when we drank beer on a random street corner and observed the human race like we were on safari. It was a very existential time of my life, even more so than usual, and ultimately we came to the conclusion that it was probably best that two manic minds like ours didn’t share paths for too long. Seemingly we were both a bad influence on each other’s lives. When I first met Bryan, he was a clean-cut guy, only having a couple of pints of beer each time we went to a bar; but now – partly due to the influence of myself and partly due to the crushing weight of the world – he was now an even more keen drinker than I was. I thought this would be a good development, but both of us being keen drinkers was a recipe for disaster. I was suffering from insomnia at the time and there was a moment every night where we would both think about being sensible and getting a good night’s rest. Then one of us would hint about going out for a drink to which the other would then utter the trip catchphrase: ‘why not? we’re on holiday…’ Next thing we’d be stumbling out again into the wilderness of the night, getting messed up and sneaking into VIP areas in clubs, before waking up the next day, staring at the hostel room ceiling and wondering that same old life-defining question…
‘What am I doing with my life? What am I doing with my life? What the hell am I doing with my life?’
I thought about it all those times on the road and I think about it now while I am writing these words, living alone in a new city, getting by off medical trials and agency work, not knowing what I’ll be doing in a few months’ time – whether I’ll be back out on that road or trying to write another book. It is a thought that has made itself at home in my head over the last years, but it is also a thought I think I see in the eyes of everyone around me too. I see it in the look of a businessman waiting in his car at the traffic lights. I see it at the look of a woman pushing a pram up the hill. I see it in the look of an elderly person drinking alone at a bar; in the look of a cashier in a store when they have a second to think to themselves. Sometimes I think I see it in my parent’s eyes too – in my father’s eyes as he’s doing the dishes or my mother’s eyes as she waters the plants. I have this suspicion I can’t shake that it’s all a big conspiracy and no one really knows what the hell they are doing. We all just try to follow and fake it – to go with what is expected of us by others and society – but deep down in every man or woman’s heart there are those moments of staring into skies, mirrors and spaces that are often as empty as the existential space they feel inside themselves. Perhaps that is a space that will never be filled no matter what we do or where we go. Sometimes I think I know what I’m doing, but that delusion quickly passes and I return to that bus window or solitary shoreline knowing that I am hopelessly lost in the dream of life as ever. Lost in the cosmic ocean of space and time. Lost in the woods of human existence. And accepting that, I find a sort of faith to keep walking wide-eyed through the wilderness and accept whatever it is that life brings my way. Deep down, no one really knows what the hell is going on, and the ones who do are normally just a divorce or redundancy or midlife crisis away from having their illusions totally blown to pieces. Life at its core is just pure mystery and madness, so why not just accept that? Why not go with the flow? Why not just sit back and enjoy the ride? Hell, go one further. Put the pedal down, wind down the windows, stick your head out into the wind and enjoy this random and chaotic trip of a lifetime.
God knows, somebody has to.