No man ever steps in the same river twice.
Denial is not just a river in Egypt.
-somebody totally said that
2014 was my year of returns.
I revisited a lot of people I’d met back in 2009, during the jolly Dublin times. And back then we were completely not what we are now, but still, although we took different roads to come to this point, we have a lot in common. Perhaps, I could return to Europe at any point of my life and feel safe and at home, in a sweet security bubble where you completely share, or at least know, the mentality of the majority.
3 years ago, I left Europe completely disgusted. ’This mindset pisses me off, this ceaseless desire to complain about stuff, the narrow-minded and short-sighted Eurocentiricity,’ I nagged to one of my friends (lie: actually, to all of my friends, random acquaintances and occasional people in customer support). I kind of sounded like a snobbish travel prick, which I was, but it does not diminish the share of truth in my words.
In the beginning of 2013, I started feeling weary of Asia, so I hopped on the cheapest flight I could find to another continent. I ended up spending over 9 months in Africa, and never before any place have given me so many mixed feelings and vibes.
In the end of 2013, I left Africa and swore my foot would never step on that continent again (it did, just 6 months later). I decided to spend the entire year visiting friends and reconnecting with people from long ago. 2014 was supposed to be the year of my glorious return to the European world, back to Starbucks, chain fast-foods, functional public transportation and familiar languages.
You can often hear people complain about the immigrant’s inability and unwillingness to ‘integrate’. But changing one’s mindset and habits is way more difficult than it seems, wherever you go and wherever you come from.
In Kenya, I had to sit on minibuses squeezed between bananas and somebody’s yelling baby. In Sweden, the first European country I visited upon my return, people were awkwardly waddling away from all half-occupied seats on the bus, and adorably tried to avoid eye contact. We, Europeans, have an enormous personal space, when it comes to socialising. It takes us to know a person for at least half a year to start allowing them to come closer than half a meter for a casual conversation. It takes a year to allow them to grab your hand or accidentally rub their shoulder against you without feeling weird. It takes us some time to warm up to people. But this is on average – social awkwardness varies depending on the country, urban/rural zones, and many other factors.
Most of the people in Europe still live with their head up their arse. It is just a general mood imposed by flunking economy and social awkwardness.
‘Just a few years ago, when we met in Philippines, I could not imagine myself watching TV series all day long, going on a regular shopping spree at IKEA, and occasionally getting drunk with friends. I thought, in my blissful ignorance, that a few years spent away from my comfortable country would change me forever, make me less materialistic, more aware about the rest of the world,’ shared a friend of mine. Last time we met, we talked about dengue fever, typhoon alerts, devastating hurricanes, and the growing rates of child prostitution. Along with that there were a lot beautiful and inspiring moments, such as glowing plankton, whale sharks, green blankets of jungle flora, and the steady rhythm of tropical rain. Two years later, we are sitting on a couch in one of the cosiest European countries, and both whale sharks and dengue fever seem as far away as the International Space Station.
Idealistically speaking, after one trip to a hunger-ridden developing country, one must come back a transformed person, less materialistic, practically a Gandhi, give away all their belongings to charities and start volunteering for a thousand NGOs. But mostly, world travellers come home in hopes of getting fame and fortune for the written and oral accounts of their nomadic adventures. They publish books, sell photographs, and become ’that first person who visited all countries on monocycle without flying’.
Why do we forget everything so soon? Do we actually change? Did 9 months in Africa really make me a different human? Does setting your profile picture to a selfie with a bunch of black children actually change your life forever?
What European community knows about the outside world, is essentially what comes reported by the western media, and a mass of ‘poverty and disaster porn’ spread on social networks. We believe in the power of Twitter hashtags, because apparently they can stop oil drilling in the Arctic, save kidnapping victims and bring down governments. No one doubts the power of social media when Miley Cyrus gives birth to a platypus, and somehow we hope that social media is as powerful in any other aspect of life.
Perhaps we get accustomed to comfort way too quickly. We want to blend in and feel pretty, when the society expects us to. It is easy to keep a low profile in Europe, as long as you know how to dress and how to behave. Buy IKEA furniture, drink coffee from a paper cup with your name misspelt on it, occasionally go to exotic African restaurants and probably even buy fair-trade tea from organic store. It is always cosier to shove your head up your ass and contemplate your beautiful inner world.
This is my European perspective. Of course I came back a different person, having seen what I’ve seen and having done what I’ve done. I can tell you about that time I slept in the middle of the desert at a police station in Pakistan, but in fact, for me this story now feels like it happened to someone else, in another life.
But anyway, is travelling really about changing your perspective and undergoing transformation? Perhaps it is about staying loyal to yourself and your ideals, despite all the ugly things you may witness on the road.
2014 was my year of happy returns.