The world’s worst travel blog: back to our own weird normality
A man, likely in his fifties, cycles past us almost impossibly slowly, wearing a most striking outfit: a pair of white boxer shorts, a white vest, a pair of blue football socks pulled diligently up to his knees, and a blue woolly hat.
He eyes us suspiciously.
It’s 40 degrees and we’re in a park in Santiago, where more than a quarter of Chile’s population lives. The cycling man, in his stubborn but nonchalant oddness, reminds me what it’s like to be in a city, a really big city, after weeks of relative wilderness: all life is here.
If you’re a city person, arrival in a huge metropolis triggers a sudden relief, a sort of reverse agoraphobia; despite relishing the remoteness of our destinations so far, the city offers an antidote — its craziness, its miscellanies, its contradictions. So THIS is where all the people are!
All of the people, and all of the things. And suddenly I’m insatiable — every coffee shop, every nondescript bar entrance that has no name but you instinctively know will be heaving come 10pm, every unexpected side street with more open doors and awnings and signs you can’t quite read — all brimming with possibilities. I want them all to be my familiar things, hard-won familiarity over busy weekdays and lazy weekends and late nights and recommendations and some misses and some hits and some places you stop in expecting nothing and uncover a gem. I want to know their secrets and their menus and their people and their smells and their sounds and their opening hours and what they sell and who they sell it to and where to sit and where not to sit and what it feels like when you walk in there on an unseasonably rainy Saturday afternoon at 5pm when it’s not really got going yet.
The shift in tone and pace our trip has taken, from exploring alien desert moonscapes and lofty mountain ranges to some of South America’s biggest cities feels like something of a soft-landing to our imminent London homecoming.
And, eventually, it’s time to swap South America’s streets for our own.
However many times it happens to you, there’s nothing quite like the shock of being woken from groggy economy class plane sleep by aggressive cabin lighting and the sudden realisation you — casting about to anchor yourself in space and time — are about to be fed a hot meal. I say meal, I mean sandwich — the sort of sandwich you couldn’t find anywhere in the world but on a plane at 3am over a nameless bit of ocean.
We’re briefly in Madrid, or at least on a tarmac square just outside it. The captain tells us it’s 2 degrees outside, and everyone scrambles to find layers they haven’t used in some time. The cabin crew wants us to sit the hell down, but the seatbelt sign isn’t quite enough encouragement, so they pipe jazzy Christmas music at us to politely impose an artificial air of seasonal tranquility and goodwill to all.
A bossa nova cover of Do They Know It’s Christmas? plays , its lazily seductive tones almost at insanely at odds with the lyrical subject matter as the original’s jolly choral rock.
Madrid airport is clean, sterile, Starbucks. We’re back in the land of a million ways to drink your coffee, and I involuntarily woop at the fact I can add soya for 40p again, and at the sight of San Pellegrino in the chiller, and then I hate myself a little bit. There it is, then — back to my life of coffee orders with double-digit syllables, where even water can’t just be water.
I wander back over to our table, triumphantly carrying my tray of be-named coffee cups and excessively expensive sparkling water. John is jotting and casually asks me how to spell “existential”. I have a sad suspicion we won’t need to consider such things once our traveler-brains have been re-polluted with the banality of everyday life. But, existential ponderings won’t put dinner on the table, etc etc.
So, here’s one last one for the road, a parting wistful shot of wanderlust. The world is big and complicated — with more people and places than any of us will ever be able to get our heads around, whose idiosyncrasies it would take a hundred lifetimes to take in. But taking in just a little at a time, just a little that’s so different from your normal life and the tiny patch of world you know, is a long hot, restorative bath for the brain and the soul, and I’m so glad I did it.