Was it a break in the norm? Or is this a brief period of stability within movement?
We were gone 18 months and it is almost 18 months since we returned. The blog posts trail off and become sporadic (what would I write about now?), the routines are firmly set, the children back in the groove of school, us back in the groove of living. I know I asked the question a million times – but i ask again. What the hell is normal?
In Cambodia I began a draft blog about this – after we stumbled across a couple travelling with a 10 month old child. Mel didn’t like it as she thought it carried a notion of elitism, or was self indulgent. But what the hell, its historical now – but it means oh so much more as I read it now.
I am going to copy it below…
(Written in Cambodia, 6 months into the trip)
In all pursuits in life there is usually a form of ranking or distribution - or shall we say a normal distribution curve – that is very hard to escape. Whether it’s recreational or professional, public or private it always seems to be there. When you start a new sport or hobby you just enjoy the simple act of exploring something new. Then comes a time when you want to advance or improve so you seek out others more experienced who you can learn from. When you start looking you suddenly discover this whole world of people who have been doing it longer, better, differently, more creatively, more extremely.
It can send me one of two ways – inspire me to improve or make me feel very very average. And I don’t like feeling average.
It’s hardly surprising that hierarchies exist as it is a bedrock of our education system and indeed our society. From the word go we are classified and squeezed into bell curves, ranked and ordered. The low, normal and high achievers are identified.
Now I think of it is a core principle of the entire natural order. Evolution, the food chain, survival – its all a hierarchy. But despite how smart humans have become we can’t remove ourselves from that base instinct to put ourselves into a big fat ranking system or hierarchy – then usually start climbing. You climb, you dominate, you win and the you are treated like a social God. The CEO, the world champion, the medal winner, the school dux.
I don’t know what it is about following the norm that doesn’t sit with me. As long as I can remember I always tried to do something small or symbolic that reaffirmed that I was being different. Aidan and I used to sit in the stairwells at school, away from anyone else, reading, studying, burning incense, hidden in the bowels of the school talking about how we weren’t like the rest. I am sure it was just that adolescent yearning -how to be unique but not TOO unique that you are deemed an outsider. But it has stayed with me – this desire to constantly ask the question of how well worn the path I tread is.
(In this working-for-myself life I have strange work hours that are often outside or in opposing peak hour travel times. I still get a perverse thrill when I drive against traffic jams.)
Would you believe that when I started bicycle commuting into the CBD of Melbourne years ago someone warned me of the commuter “race”. People who get some sort of sense of purpose and self validation as a more hard core cyclist by racing past as many commuters as they can – to prove how different or good they are. To prove that they are not a part of the “norm”. I scoffed at this story until I saw it myself. People racing past you, getting annoyed when you passed them, getting annoyed when you drafted them and always trying to shake you off and accelerate. Sometimes we humans are just plain silly.
Of course there are some beautiful, self actualised souls who are so content with self that they honestly don’t feel part of any need to climb. I love those people. They seem to glow and I always wish I was more like them. But in truth I find hierarchy very hard to ignore. I have just never enjoyed feeling like I was part of the norm.
(I have secretly tried to rage against the dying of the light and educate my daughters that losing or not being “the best” is a normal part of life. That not being the top is OK. It seems that at their school sports carnivals you get a ribbon for coming 5th so they don’t hurt your feelings. At our kids parties when we play pass the parcel all the kids rip open the paper expecting every layer to have a prize. That every child is a winner and no one could possibly lose. I go “old school” and only have one small plastic water pistol at the very last wrapper. The kids love it…..)
The ranking - this being “other than than normal” – sadly even exists amongst travellers. I will never forget my first solo overseas trip to Indonesia as an 18 year old where I found out very quickly (to my amusement) that there was a backpacker “hierarchy” of social status. On the bottom were your two week Bali tourists, then tour groups, then maybe others doing a few months solo travel, then surfers exploring the remote outer islands and then on top the “professional” backpackers. The dreadlocked, bangle jingling, cafe inhabiting, cigarette bumming, “so cool I don’t talk to tourists” travellers.
They always annoyed the hell out of me. They were all so worldly and experienced but they quickly judged you not worthy. A “lower” or less hard core traveller than them. But they sat there pretty happy with the knowledge that they were obviously going to see and experience a lot more of a country than you and it was hard for me not to envy their experiences.
Even on this trip it is hard to escape it. We have encountered the entire spectrum of traveller and it is fascinating. The Chinese tour groups following a flag waving guide as they run through 1100 year old ruins yelling at each other. The Russian bus tours where it is positively de rigeur to be sucking back a beer at 10am as you walk around town. The Pommy lads, the scruffy Aussies, the immaculate Swede girls, the empty nest baby boomers and the professional backpackers. Every one has their story and their reason for travelling the way they do. But it is hard to stop my heirarchy primed mind from judging one form of travel as less than another. I can find myself groaning at the thought of following a running tour guide and catch myself thinking that a tour group is not as real a form of travel. That they are normal and I am not.
Then I realise that if that 66 year old English lady travelling alone did NOT have the tour guide she’d still be back in Twickenham watching day time TV re-runs of Neighbours and eating fish and chips. So bloody good on her for getting out and seeing the world. Amongst her fish and chip eating friends she is so far out of the bell curve it is not funny.
Now Mel and I ignore the hierarchy as best we can but I must admit there is a certain pride I feel when someone on a rushed three week tour of Cambodia or Vietnam asks us “So…..where are you guys headed?” – expecting us to list the 4 to 5 big popular tourist stops. Instead they get a mumbled “Ummm…we are on our way to England.” Which usually gets a knowing head nod based on the assumption that you are flying there next. When you explain that it is overland most are not really sure what to say.
We soon realise that by the sheer scale of the journey you come out near the more adventurous end of the travelling spectrum. You are outside the normal curve. Length of time – tick. Distance – tick. Kids – tick. Three kids – two ticks. Type of travelling – tick. Just as no none likes feeling normal I am sure most people like feeling that they are doing something a little out of the ordinary.
Then every now and again we stumble across someone who makes us feel completely and utterly average. Like we are sitting in the very normal part of the spectrum. That we are sitting in the traffic jam of life. The notion that we are travelling hard, getting off the beaten path or have taken an alternative path in life gets shattered and we look humbly at these people thinking “My god….how do you DO that!?”
It happened one morning, a few months back now, before we stepped on the bus from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh, Cambodia. A few days earlier I had noticed a a lady staying at our hotel travelling with a 12 month boy old who was stumbling around happy and naked. “Wow” I thought. “That’s pretty cool. Three kids who can take care of themselves is a little adventurous but a 12 month old is another level of adventure and challenge.” Then the next day I noticed a guy out the front tinkering with a touring bicycle with a child trailer attached and realised that they were a couple cycle touring Cambodia with a 12 month old.
Now cycle touring gets a whole world of my respect and awe. Hard, slow, remote, risky and totally immersed in the surrounding landscape and culture. Then I saw a dog with them….so now it’s cycle touring Cambodia with a 12 month old and a dog. Then later that morning came the real jolt.
Mel and I were sitting outside the hotel with our mountain of bags about to get on the nice air conditioned bus to Phnom Penh. We were checking out their touring bikes and made the ignorant assumption that a long tour with a 12 month old child and a dog is quite simply impossible so maybe they were here just for a month or so. Yes, that fits our concept of adventure and makes us feel like the real adventurers.
The dad stepped outside and sat with us and after some small talk about bikes I asked how long they were travelling for.
“Four years” he said very matter of factly.
They had riden their bikes from Germany to Cambodia through Eastern Europe, Turkmenistan, Mongolia and China. They started with two dogs, one died on the way. They then had two years living in Cambodia where they had their first son and now they were on the road again.
“How long are you going for?” I asked
“We don’t know” he replied
She writes articles for a dog magazine, he finds antique watches and number plates which he ships back to Germany. Enough to keep them moving indefinitely.
Mel and I just sat there in awe. This unassuming couple had just blown away our concept of what a “normal” life was and left us reeling. We were left wondering if we had bitten off enough. We started questioning ourselves and asking whether we were really taking a risk. Could we EVER break truly away from what we know like these people have? Would we ever have the courage to do what they are doing?
The strangest thing was that we seriously started asking the questions. Out here moving, travelling and living without routine and without the day to day responsibilities from home - these thoughts seem to dig deeper and seem more possible.
Immersed back in the routine and order of our normal life it is hard to see out of it. Back home when I used to read these peoples books and hear their stories I would feel inspiration and longing then after the third early morning alarm for work it would slowly fade away into the “to do later” box.
But on the road something seems possible. The hardest thing was actually leaving the security of our routine. Having jumped out of what we know suddenly even bigger change seems more tangible, possible and real. Suddenly changing our routine is only a step away from altering our concept of what a life is meant to be. It’s a necessary step towards something else. Because without breaking the routine it was just too hard for us to truly see any other possibility.
Or to stop being afraid of it.
What is a life? What is normal? Why do I believe in what I believe? Who actually cares what I do? Who cares what I “am” for a living? We are born into a society that subtly and consistently tells us what is normal. Not in some sinister Orwellian way but in an innocent “this is what we know so we will tell you the same” way. It is really just how cultural differences in groups are perpetuated. This is the way it has always been done around here so that is how it should be done in the future. Meeting these people shakes my core beliefs of what normal is. Who says my concept of normal IS normal.
Aaahh….look at me. Only 6 months in and I have gone and swallowed the red pill. Wait till I step off the flight in Melbourne in an orange robe with a shaved head. That’ll shake it up a bit.
[PS: for those unfamiliar with the greatest sci-fi movie of all time - The Matrix – the red pill reference is about a scene where the main character must make an irreversible choice between two paths. One which will reveal the uncomfortable truth about reality (taking the red pill) or the other path that allows him to remain blind forever within a comfortable illusion (the blue pill).]
[PPS: I generally dislike that writing style of putting PPS in....but I couldn't make it fit into what I wrote above. As we have started travelling we have stumbled across more people doing crazier stuff than I had ever imagined existed. The Irish guy in Australia who had ridden there alone and wasn't sure when he would go home. The 61 year old kiwi Grum spending three years just "riding" around the world - on a mutually agreed 900 day leave pass from his wife back in NZ. Lys the Canadian emergency physician just riding alone across South East Asia for 3 months. The Geelong sisters who have build the most amazing locally run cafe in Siem Reap - training locals to become world class baristas so they have a way of making a living.The list of inspiring individuals goes on and on and on. You never hear of their stories but I reckon it is a better world for having them in it.]
(I am back in Ocean Grove now….)
Well…there you go. I am not sure why I didn’t post that. I think it had something to do with still breaking away. Still wrestling with what the hell normal was and is.
Now it’s all completely clear.
Well, that’s a lie. I was just rolling the words around my head to see if I believed them, which I don’t.
So as we continue our unwinding process these hard questions still roll in upon us fast and unexpected like a Newquay fog. As the children of friends from overseas roll through on their Australian crawls, as people we met send us messages asking how we are, when we are visited by an incredible couple driving around the globe (more about that later) – this all stirs things deeply. Its not all the time, but its frequent for me. Especially as Mels computer (in the main living area) has the screen saver set to the photos from the trip. I will be walking past and an image from that life will flash up on the screen. I will stop, sometimes catch my breath and wonder “Was I really there?”