A few months back, after stepping off a sailboat from Colombia to Panama, I met a man in the coastal town of Portobelo. His name was Jack, and he ran a hostel there. Jack is in his sixties now. He has the air of a man at peace with himself.
Things were different fifteen years ago. Jack was vice-president of a big chemicals company in the United States. He was over-worked and out of shape. Eventually he ended up in the hospital having open-heart surgery. He healed well, but the ordeal was a wake-up call.
Jack quit his job and bought a sail boat. He took that boat around the world, stopping off at more than fifty countries along the way. Then he settled in Panama and opened several small businesses.
Jack told me about his circumnavigation. “You have to cross your wake,” he said, referring to the disturbed flow of water left behind a moving sail boat. “It doesn’t count until you cross your wake.”
I write this on the ferry from Cherbourg to Rosslare. It’s been 44 months since I set out from Ireland, in my own attempt to circumnavigate the globe without flying.
Jack took one sailboat. I’ve taken 99 buses, 82 trains, 70 taxis, 27 ferries, 21 tuk-tuks, 10 cars, 7 motorcycles, 3 bicycles, 3 cruises, a sailboat and a cargo ship.
Later today I’ll be home, my trip at an end, my wake having been crossed.
T.S. Eliot once wrote, “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”
I don’t consider this day to be the end of all my exploring, but it’s certainly the end of a significant chapter of my life. I expect I’ll get a sense of what T.S. was waxing on about these next couple of weeks back in Ireland.
The word “wake” has another meaning of course, especially where I’m from.
When an Irish person died back in the day, the body would be kept on display at their house until the burial. Friends and relatives would sit around and tell stories and drink copious amounts of alcohol. It was more a celebration of the life of the deceased than a mourning of their passing.
The past week, traveling up through Spain and France, I’ve been doing a few interviews with newspapers and radio stations back in Ireland. In that wake-like way, it’s keeping my thoughts focused on the joys of a journey gone by when it’s all too easy to get caught up in what comes next.
My cousin once told me about a friend of his in Cork. Back in the 80’s, with all the invincibility of youth, this friend took off cycling from Ireland to Lapland and then all the way down to Sudan. He told my cousin that it wasn’t until years later that he fully appreciated that journey and how it had shaped him.
When you see the word “wake”, you also think of awakening. The last 3.5 years have certainly been that for me.
Having traveled through some of the poorest parts of the world, I’m much more appreciative of the fact that I was a lottery winner at birth, lucky enough to be born a white male to good parents in the Western World, and thereby endowed with more privilege than the vast majority of people living on this giant space rock.
Try being a black man looking for a date in Bangkok, or an Asian-American trying to get a job teaching English in Busan, or a little old Iranian woman trying to move to the front of the line in Bandar Abbas, or a dark-skinned girl in Bombay. Then try being any of those people with shitty parents and little education.
Also, moving through 37 countries in 44 months will give you a different perspective on family and community. In some ways I’m more independent than ever, in other ways less. I’ve endured severe bouts of loneliness the last couple of years, and now want nothing more than to stay in one place for an extended spell and make relationships a priority, to spend significant time with a small group of close friends and laugh and cry together like only good friends can.
You may know that I broke my no-fly rule one time these past 3.5 years. Last August I flew round-trip from Rio to spend a week in Ireland, surprising my dad for his 60th birthday. I hadn’t seen him in three years. If you ask what’s been my favorite memory from this long, crazy trip around the world, I’ll tell you that it’s not the kindness I experienced in Iran or going trekking in the Himalayas or crossing the Pacific Ocean on a cargo ship or any of the other countless adventures I’ve had along the way.
It was ringing the doorbell of my childhood home that August afternoon and seeing the look in one man’s eyes.
A friend once wrote to me that he realized not long after his son was born and his father passed that life is really all about spending time with the people you love. I think we all nod and agree when we hear that but few of us feel it in our daily bones and structure our lives accordingly.
Despite what I’ve written above, let me assure you that I don’t have any regrets from the past 3.5 years. I think regret is a silly thing. We look back and think, “Things would be better now if only I’d done this or that differently,” but there’s every chance that things would be worse. Who’s to know?
Through all my travels and experiences, I’ve become a different man, and I’m quite fond of that man, at peace with the path he chose and where it’s led.
Yes, there are definitely downsides to long-term world travel, some obvious and some less so. I’ll likely write more about them another time. But I hope my mention of such won’t put anyone off pursuing their own big dream, travel-related or otherwise. You lay down a bedrock of self-assurance and self-respect when you take on a big dream and don’t quit until you capture it. Whatever else happens afterward, you can always look back with pride on what you accomplished, your heart kept warm with the memories.
Anyway, I’ll stop there for now.
I’ve crossed my wake, my eyes are open, and I’m finally home.