At some point, in the future, on an unknown date, I’m going to board a plane. I’m going to fly somewhere. That somewhere is preferably Chile, but if the borders are closed there, I’ll settle temporarily for another destination. Temporarily, because even dear Zeus is going to have a hard time keeping me away.
My plans, over the last couple of years, haven’t exactly worked out smoothly. I find myself running a business I hadn’t intended to develop beyond a Saturday job, and surprising myself with my financial self-sufficiency. I’m used to being poor, to dancing through my middle-class existence without the required notes lining my purse, to actually reading the price of a cup of coffee on the menu. Having money surprises me. And it’s less gratifying than freedom.
My plans haven’t behaved themselves. Planes and contracts have been cancelled. The idea of meeting up with friends has become a rather mystical concept. I’m at home, in the same room as when I arrived in England, a year older. One of my students, who had a birthday recently, told me that he wasn’t including the pandemic year in his age. The year has been struck out.
But while my plans mutate, my priorities haven’t. I know exactly what I’m doing and what I want and none of it’s complicated. My sister rings me expecting an emotional outburst at the latest cancellation, but none comes. Instead, I’m calm. I don’t have to fret because eventually I am going to get what I want. Eventually, I’m going to be in Chile. I’ll be immersed in stories, in language, in friendship and life will continue, mutated perhaps, but still resulting in a shape that makes me happy.
For now, I focus on the small things, like suitcases with replaceable wheels, sun-cream which isn’t bad for fish and a handbag that perfectly fits my notebook. The big things, like being honest, writing, and doing good work, have to carry themselves. The big things have to be habitual because they don’t happen overnight. And travelling is there, amongst the habitual in my mind. I might not be able to go anywhere, but I’m packing and repacking in my imagination. I have my stuff organized, ready to leave. Every item I buy is analysed for whether it will travel well. Travelling saturates my conversations.
Being locked down in England doesn’t change the fact that I’m intuitively nomadic. It’s just how I am. Zeus can fling as many lightning bolts as he likes, but that fact is not going to change.
Having no travels to go on other than to the dentist or the supermarket, I am occasionally flicking back through the past, jealous of the sunshine that once pinched my skin. I have kept a journal for many years and I vary in what fascinates me enough to be worth writing about. On my walk in Portugal along the Rota Vicentina with the Grump for company, it’s clear that there was one thing on my mind: food.
These extracts are taken from my journal covering March 2017. They begin early into our trip when I still had faith that the Grump knew how to navigate. He’s an excellent walking partner as he’s always willing to carry more than 50% of the weight, is willing to walk at my slow and steady plod and tolerates me even when my feet hurt and I’m blaming him for everything going wrong. He’s also much more organized than I am.
Italics are my commentary.
Breakfast was very enjoyable
… bread, ham, tomato chutney and apricot jam. I presume I didn’t consume the jam and the chutney together. The coffee machine provided a little challenge but a kindly lady provided assistance and I had both an americano and an espresso, making up for the previous day’s lack of coffee. Today I would be more adept at the coffee machine, I have learnt a few tricks over the last four years. I would also be better prepared; how did I get myself into a situation where I didn’t have coffee for a whole day?
It is wonderful to be surrounded by green
We debate the benefits of being out here in the open in contrast to the grey city and its pollution. I bite my tongue and try to say: The environment which surrounds you is your own choice. Sometimes my tongue becomes quite sore. I eye-roll too. With age, you might have thought I’d grow more tolerant of the human tendency to ‘gruntle’ along rather than act. I haven’t.
The evening is recorded in food
Salad, bread, olives, bread, pate. Beef, rice, grilled pineapple, black beans and homemade vegetable crisps. But the account is written as a backwards glance the next day during a breakfast of a croissant and a half, coffee and orange juice. In the village, nobody seems to have realised that it is morning. The shops have not yet opened. Time wanders free, only occasionally called to attention by the chime of the bells in the church tower. Maybe we should have asked for toast. The lady sitting near us has toast and a latte or something similar. Although the croissants were brioche, not pastry. Hopefully we’ll be able to get a proper lunch in Rogil.
Rogil doesn’t fulfil all my desires
… a long, straight and uninspiring street. We bought bread, ham, fruit and a replacement packet of biscuits since I’d almost finished the packet I’d bought in Faro. No doubt this is a true use of the singular pronoun and it was I, not we, who ate all the biscuits. Normally I’m reasonably controlled about my diet, but when I’m walking I tend to simply eat. If pudding is on offer, chances are that I’ll want it.
The way out of Rogil continues along the irrigation channel and so we stepped up from the path into a crop of pine trees and sat ourselves down on a trunk of a fallen (or felled) tree to make and eat our sandwiches. We’d upped the quantity to three each which was probably a good thing seeing as how long it was before we got to the hostel.
From Rogil we walk to Aljezur
You might think that this meant that I ate nothing until I reached the hostel, but no. In Aljezur, I had a sweet potato and coconut roll. Somewhat like a jam roly-poly. And I drink coffee and we visit a supermarket. Then we took a walk up to the castle to admire the view before finally setting off to Arrifana at 4 pm.
At this point, it’s worth pausing because the map and the address for the evening’s accommodation didn’t all add up and things got a little stressful…
I’ve just got back from Berlin and a friend is curious. What is it like to fly at the moment?
Well the airports are pretty much deserted; the toilets are cleaner than usual and there are many signs and instructions. Wearing a mask is compulsory, as it is in many other locations where you come into close proximity with the public, but security is delightfully much faster to pass through.
Being seated for a couple of hours, my legs ached a bit, and when I finally ‘alighted’ from the train at the end of my journey, I felt relieved to be able to remove my mask. Truthfully though, the familiarity of being on the move and the odd solitary state of flying alone soothed my nomadic need. I was glad to be in the air.
There is a limit to how helpful worrying can be
As analytical thinking creatures, we’re pretty unreliable at recognising the severity and likelihood of the dangers we face. We underestimate and overestimate on a daily basis and all of this effort can be exhausting. To avoid it, we delegate to the media who are financially incentivised to provoke our emotions, and to the government, whose job is to manage the whole of society rather than just us, the individual.
Going with your gut feeling is all very well if your gut feeling has a history of actually being right, and by this I mean actually right, not just all right enough that you could rewrite a storyline to make it feel not so bad. I don’t ignore my gut feeling, going against my stomach’s intuition is generally a bad idea, but nor do I think I should be led by my stomach. If your stomach’s twisting and turning in fretful motion, you probably need to do something (although it might just be something you’ve eaten). You should listen to it. However, that first inclination of how to act may well be wrong.
But from a practical viewpoint, who’s to say that my voyage to Germany is any less safe than spending a day working as a waitress? And who can analyse that with any accuracy, certainly not me.
The siren of warning emanating from your insides is just that, a warning. Your stomach is saying it’s unhappy. Most likely a decision needs to be made and action needs to be taken. It doesn’t excuse the analytical mind; it’s a sign that the analytical mind needs to be used. However, the analytical mind is limited and fallible. No wonder we are confused and overwhelmed.
Some people are much more risk averse than others
Sometimes I feel guilty for my lack of risk aversion. I’m not the sort to seek high adrenaline adventures just for the sake of it. Yet, I’m sceptical of fear. I want to live my life as I want to, not dictated by unfounded and uncertain fears. This isn’t just the post-trauma effect, it’s part of my character, although perhaps the post-trauma reclamation of life has added to my stubbornness. It’s certainly added to my scepticism.
Sometimes I do things that other people are afraid to do, although perhaps slowly as I build up my confidence, but the conclusion is the same. I’m focused on what I want. I’m not driven by the adrenaline, I’m driven by my curiosity, but often fulfilling one’s curiosity comes at a price. It asks that you dare.
Not daring has huge consequences
When I arrived in Berlin and stepped out of the airport into the cold, grey of cityscape autumn I felt lighter. I’d been stabbed in the throat with a cotton bud by a chap in a plastic gown, and I’d rubbed excessive hand sanitizing gel into the crevices of my hands, but I’d arrived. I breathed in the German air and relished in the selfish choice I’d made. It brought me a sense of glee.
It’s really difficult to decide what is best for us, the individual
We face a whole lot of confused messaged and contradictory thoughts, suggested to us by governments and news agencies who focus on their needs to manipulate the population as a whole. Nobody is quite sure what behaviour counts as dangerous. Some people flaunt the rules on masks or mixing households and some don’t leave the house. The psychological cost, being invisible and uncountable, is generally feared, but ignored within the risk assessment.
For me personally, the psychological threat is the one with my attention
It’s a danger I know from up close. When I look at my friends, I’m looking for the light of life in their eyes. I’m listening to the threads of negativity and I worry. I worry about the effect of a general reduction in laughter over the year. The lack of excitement about future plans and the dent in ambitions. It’s all rather saddening.
Psychologically, letting myself unfurl my wings for a brief moment was a precious balm. When I booked the flight, I had no idea whether regulations would let me fly or whether the aeroplane would even take off, but I felt it was worth the risk. Travelling is part of who I am.
“Did you feel comfortable on the flight?”
Yes, I’d go as far as saying that actually I enjoyed it. But I can assure you washed my hands thoroughly when I disembarked.
Things I remember about my tiny adventure in the airport hotel in Miami, the United States:
The food was terrible.
Everything was plastic wrapped.
There was a lot of rubbish floating along the river.
The hotel flooded due to the excessive rain.
But I curled up in bed and watched the film The Two Popes – on my phone due to not having a plug converter as I’d never planned on visiting the United States…. The hotel didn’t have one either, neither for a British or European/Chilean plug. How ill-equipped!
And the film being partly set in Italy made me even hungrier for real food – those Italian pizzas – and a bit nostalgic for the Latin American life I was leaving behind – those crowded Argentinian streets.
Mostly though, I slept and thought about real food and real coffee
I needed the sleep as on the American Airlines flight home – in which not all the staff obeyed the rules about masks – I really failed to sleep. I wish I hadn’t thought so much about food as the meal on the flight was pathetic and just made me think of how much better the LatAm pasta had been. When breakfast came, I was so hungry and so disappointed that my stomach began to growl with frustration. I had no food on me as I didn’t want to get into trouble again for crossing borders with illicit apples – and I’d eaten all my remaining biscuits.
In summary: I left the United States inspired not to return, but to visit Cuba.
The next adventure was Heathrow and I found myself suddenly recalling my 2016 trip back from Egypt. During my Egyptian travels I’d covered my arms and used scarfs around my neck in respect of the customs there. It had become somewhat of a norm for me there although in England I’m the sort of person who if I have long sleeves, I roll them up.
Now I was travelling back from a city where we wore masks or got fined
In Heathrow, the only people wearing masks seemed to be the new arrivals. I stared down at the people unloading the planes in astonishment and mild concern. My stomach rumbled. I’d been wearing masks continuously for the previous 12 hours, and I was still feeling annoyed by the staff member who sauntered up and down the aisles with his posh clip board mask free.
Both on the return from Egypt and the return from Chile I found myself unsettled by the sudden onslaught of bare skin. It was like my internal norm had been somehow set to something non-British. Something more conservative.
Heathrow, being empty, proved surprisingly easy
I walked through immigration, picked my bag straight from the conveyor belt as it passed me and solitarily headed down to the tube. One other chap joined me on the underground platform, and we spread out, taking the opposite ends of the same carriage. A few stops later he departed, someone else got on, then off again. I had a shouting chat with one passenger – only the two of us were sharing the carriage but both wore masks and we social distanced with a dozen chairs between us – we remarked upon the absurdity of the situation. Then he got off.
I passed through central London however entirely alone
In Kings Cross station the cafés were shut, and my stomach was about to despair when I saw the little supermarket shop was open. I went in, bought water, a sandwich and pastries, pastries and more pastries and then sat down on the bench outside and feasted upon the food. Never has a shop bought, plastic wrapped British sandwich tasted so good. Unsurprisingly, given my homesickness, it was a palta, sorry… avocado sandwich. I wondered if the avocado had been grown in Chile and whether, like me it had been flown across the Atlantic.
I also desperately needed a cup of coffee, but none presented themselves. I sought out a helpful member of the station staff and explained my issues with tickets and things not downloading and after showing her my email confirmation was waved through the barrier with the assurance that there would be Wi-Fi on the train.
Finally, I boarded my train to The North and sat in a crowded carriage
There were three of us in it. A couple who sat at the other end of the carriage and me. Busy compared to the tube. Nobody came to check my ticket but I did find the WI-Fi and I did manage to message the father and beg him to bring me a real cup of coffee when he came to collect me from the station.
And then, a few hours later, there my parents were: stood the far side of the station one-way complexity. I bound through the gates and leapt into the arms of my loving family, still wearing my mask.
Finally, hesitantly after hours and hours and hours I removed my own mask
We walked to the car together, me with adrenaline pumping through my system, giddy on sleeplessness and my parents seriously relieved that I’d actually arrived home.
And waiting for me in the car, in a small flask, real coffee.
Miami airport is large. I’m not sure that it’s as large as Madrid airport where you can stand in the hall without seeing the other end of the building because it’s just so incredibly far away from you. However when you leave immigration and exit alone into an empty hall and walk through an empty corridor to find an empty set of facilities, pass alone up and down in some large empty lifts and through some more empty halls, completely lost, Miami airport feels very large indeed.
I sat down and called my dad, he said there was a hotel shuttle.
I called the hotel, a chap said there was no hotel shuttle because of coronavirus.
I went in search of a taxi
There were no taxi’s but a cheerful chap assured me that he could find me a taxi and what’s more I could pay with any card I liked. A bright yellow cab turned up. It was so yellow I laughed. The man who had called it up looked at me as if I might be mad.
I asked the driver to take me to the hotel. He tried. He got a bit lost. He tried some more. I paid. I walked into the hotel. I checked in. I looked for a lift. I found the elevator. I counted the numbers and found my room. I collapsed on the bed.
A short while later I decided that the best thing to do would be to have a shower and go back downstairs and find a cup of coffee. The shower was a good idea, the coffee less so.
I ordered my coffee, which came in a furry plastic cup, and found some of those small UHT plastic carton things which are supposed to contain milk.
This was when my brain finally conked out and I realised that I was going mad. I stared at the plastic carton whilst sipping my plastic coffee and I read the label.
Non-Dairy. Contains Milk.
I read it again
I asked the waitress. She read the label for me and said that she didn’t know what it was. Maybe it was supposed to be healthier than the alternative option, but she wasn’t sure. English wasn’t her first language. I told her that this English wasn’t my first language either because in my English milk is a dairy product.
At this point my day got suddenly much better because we switched to Spanish and everything seemed to make a lot more sense. Suddenly I was having a very real Latin American-esque conversation where I learnt about Cuba and how a certain ‘politician’ has caused some frustration for the Cuban residents of Miami as he’s made going home to visit their mothers a whole lot harder. I sympathised, I was on my way home to see my mother and had unexpectedly found myself spending a night in Miami. Going straight home would have been a whole lot more convenient.
I then returned to my room and ask the rain fell in Miami, I slept.
I landed in the United States of America very early on the Sunday morning. The sun had just risen.
The aeroplane had landed smoothly enough and silently I’d dragged myself from my seat and like obedient cattle we all filed off the plane and trotted down the corridors to immigration control. Here, two men, one in either half of the hall stood and shouted at us in Spanish and English, ordering us what to do, where to stand, when to move etc.
I was exhausted and my little brain wasn’t processing information very well as I put my details into the computer and got ushered into the next queue. I moved along, socially distanced from the rest of the queue, listening to the shouting repeating itself over and over.
It dawned on me at some point in one of the queues that in my rucksack somewhere…
I probably had an apple
I wasn’t sure if I did have an apple or not. I’d certainly eaten one of my apples which I’d bought less than 24 hours previously. I’d bought them for the bus journey. The bus I reflected, would be leaving in a couple of hours, trundling down the Pan-American highway from La Serena to Santiago, my seat empty because I was now in the United States of America.
Maybe, I concluded, I did have an apple. But I couldn’t be sure. In fact, I seemed to have barely any memory of what I’d stuffed in my rucksack on leaving. It had all been such a rush.
I told the security chap who wanted to check all my papers and know exactly which plane I would be escaping the United States of American on. Although he didn’t use the word escape. The security chap explained that apples were banned. Apples were not allowed in the United States of America and as such, my apple must be incinerated.
“How do I incinerate it?” I asked
He tried to explain to me where to go. I was tired. I didn’t understand. He decided that the best thing was to escort me to the special baggage reclaim area for people who accidentally forget to eat their apples before finding themselves in the United States of America.
I collected my suitcase and wheeled it through the door to customs, where a cheerful chap kindly asked me a question. I didn’t understand him, but I said I’d like to please have my apple incinerated because apples are illegal.
He asked me if there was anything else
I shrugged and said I had no idea. Maybe I owned some biscuits, I wasn’t entirely sure. And what about a cereal bar. I might have had a cereal bar in there. I told him I was very tired and that I couldn’t be 100 percent sure.
Thankfully the chap in charge of putting apples in the incinerator said not to worry. He smiled and told me just to pop my luggage through the machine. A Chilean chap who appeared behind me offered to lift my heavy suitcase for me. The bags rolled through the scanner.
Very sure of himself, the security chap told me my apple was in the side pocket of my rucksack.
“It’s not,” I said. “That’s a bottle of water.”
He let me keep my water. He took the apple, remarked upon its large size and told me I was free to go. I could keep my biscuits.