Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Coda (for now...)

I am now firmly back in London and through the holiday season. I arrived on the morning of Sunday, 19 December from New York. The last few days of my trip were pretty busy with the usual stuff: buying up all the jazz in sight and attending every gig that I could! It was very enjoyable!!!

I left Manhattan on Saturday afternoon at 15:45 for the airport and on the way through Queens the roadside signs made me reflect on the variety of English that Americans had evolved out of their own unique experience – can anyone imagine that the lugubrious sounding LeFrak Apartments or that the grand Harry J. Van Arsdale, Jr. Boulevard could exist anywhere else???

I arrived in plenty of time to get an upgrade to business class (which I paid for – but at $325 and £1 = $1.95 it seemed a good deal), and got back bleary-eyed and not a little ragged at 06:30 on Sunday morning, a half hour early. Breezed through Customs and Immigration and into my waiting mini-cab for the 45 minute journey around the North Circular to Bounds Green, then home.

It felt very strange to be back, both very familiar (exactly as I expected), and yet at one remove (as if I was the observer of a filmic version of my life watching myself return), a feeling that began to dissipate with the first hug and cup of tea, and which has now nearly gone. At first, I realised that I had forgotten fairly everyday things that I was once familiar with – what days the dustmen visited, how to work my mobile phone, how the tube system operated. The last was interesting, as it pointed up an incongruous aspect of my feelings on returning: I could almost feel that I had worked up until I had left on 9 July (when I had, of course, worked up until 28 May) and, after a long trip, was returning just prior to the long Christmas holiday, so that I didn’t have to return to work until 4 January. Another thing that I almost found myself feeling was that I had, like Rip Van Winkle, gone to sleep under a tree for 5 months, and that I awoke during the holidays, and would be going back to work on 4 January!!!

This was reinforced when I visited HSBC headquarters on New Year’s Eve and the first person I saw after the security guard was a former Bank of Bermuda colleague! And it is true that I have not been both unemployed and looking for work simultaneously since 1980, so that the feeling is unfamiliar, and that I do have a cushion until I find permanent employment, both of which serve to reinforce the sense of unreality, that of somehow winning a large amount of money and never need work again. However, as the holiday season ends shortly, these feelings are beginning to unravel as reality begins to assert itself.

So much for the feelings on returning, and onto some big questions: have I changed since being away? I have found it difficult to answer this, as somehow both questioner and question seem to imply that I should have changed. It is true that everything changes all the time, and that most people and most things change the people that they touch, in however subtle a way. I do not feel that I am fundamentally different. If anything, I think I changed before I went away, when I began to feel that I had to do something different, to see more different places and people and to travel more, than I did while I was away.

My 5 months and a fortnight away (I left on Friday, 9 July and returned on Sunday, 19 December) actually divided neatly into three: (i) the first 3 months, until Friday, 8 October, were spent working as a volunteer on attachment at a Delhi not-for-profit organisation dealing with street and working children on one of their projects; (ii) the next 6 weeks, spent on holiday – a week in Delhi, 3 weeks in Australia, 3 weeks in New Zealand, 1 week in Hong Kong; and, (iii) the final two weeks were three big enormous leaps to get home, with stops in Vancouver and New York City, and were a bit of an anti-climax. They were both more convenient stopovers to see friends rather than new discoveries, and by this time I was clearly on the road back, no longer travelling in what was for me new territory.

I think that if I have changed, it is in having greater understanding and knowledge and experience of what other people on the planet are like and what they go through, every day. I’ve semi-seriously lived somewhere else for 3 months and worked at an Indian not-for-profit organisation, and managed to do this and make what I hope is a real, lasting impact. I have lived in Delhi, a marvellous, frustrating, magical, incredible, chaotic city, commuted to and from work, gone shopping and sightseeing and touring, and have found out how many things work and do not work. I have met a kind, wonderful, crew of dedicated persons there and elsewhere, some of whom I hope that I might be able to count as friends, and I have met hundreds of children, from all parts of India and the region, in the course of working on the project. I have had done things which I haven’t done for a long time, or which I have never done, and it has been a tonic, a real break from routine, and something which has given me even more impetus to pursue my chosen career direction. The alternative, three months working for a new organisation 100 times the size of the one I left, doing pretty much the same job as before, pales clearly beside what I have felt and what I have contributed and what gained in India.

Despite not travelling around India while working in Delhi, when the earthquake and tsunami disaster struck South Asia over the holidays, I was immediately thinking of the people that I knew from there, what it must have been like, how terrible the consequences must be…and that is certainly one thing that I hope that I have gained from travel, is knowledge and understanding translating into empathy and feeling. I am not claiming any special knowledge, or even very much knowledge in this case, but I still feel that travel can really broaden one’s horizons in exactly that way. Certainly there were things that I would do differently if I had to do them over. Such as learn more Hindi before going to India, for example. Such as approach some things in a different way.

One thing that my trip definitely has not done is to sate my appetite for travel. It has, in fact, only intensified it as far as India is concerned – I now want to see many of the other faces of this fascinating culture and country, and learn as much as I can about it. I also want to return to the other places that I went, with perhaps a more knowledgeable eye. I feel that a New Zealand trip is a certainty in the next while, as I found the country so refreshing, a revelation, a jewel in the South Pacific with spectacular landscape and delightful people. I would also like to return to Australia, as I enjoyed my time there as well, but of the two New Zealand is the favourite, perhaps unfairly – Australia as a much larger country, a continent, takes much longer to travel around and thus to reveal its multiple wonders. And, of course, not to forget Hong Kong – a magnetic city that I saw more of than before and got to know better than ever. But how could I forget any of what I saw and experienced?

So for now, my mind is more on the everyday or the quotidian: settling back home, picking up the threads of my life here, and finding that elusive first job in a voluntary organisation. If you know of anything going…

And so I would like to close this travelogue, or travelblog, with the shortest entry of the lot, 98 pages on of my deathless prose, and no pictures this week. It has been rewarding to write but, as with all obligations, with its own deadlines and frustrations. I have enjoyed it, and it is wonderful for me to have this record; I have been even more delighted that others say that they too have enjoyed it or looked at it. More than a few have suggested writing for a living, perhaps unaware of my aspirations in that direction for a long time…but I do feel that writing for money and writing for pleasure are two different things which, in delightful (and rare) circumstances, intersect. Secondly, I also feel that, as kind as the comments have been, they overrate what I have done, although I would like to feel that there is something there which could be developed. I certainly think that, like many, I could write what I read in the newspapers everyday, but that’s a different measure again…

I feel lucky to be able to have done what I have done, and I feel lucky to have the friends, family and partner that I have, and I look forward to seeing you or corresponding with you again over the coming months. And, thanks for everything!!!