How do you begin a travel blog? Paul Theroux, a master of travel writing, usually begins his books with a reflection. Why travel? What’s the purpose? What are you trying to discover, or what are you running away from?
There’s no harm in imitating the best. A reflection is where I will begin. It will be the first chance I have had for a while.
I’ve been in Jerusalem for two and a half years, working for the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI), and I am exhausted. It has been a profound and difficult experience. I worked with hundreds of committed volunteers from 20 countries. I met amazing normal people, farmers, builders, taxi drivers, bravely carrying on with their lives in soul-crushing circumstances. I lived in the heart of a tense, fractious city full of people who love to categorise and condemn. I was a foreign peace activist in a place where local peace activists are shunned and accused of treason.
It has been rewarding – an old Bedouin women told me “we feel safer when the foreigners are here”. More often it was frustrating, and humbling. What do you say when someone serves you coffee on the rubble of their house, demolished by the army that morning? I haven’t reflected much. I’ve drunk a lot of alcohol. I’ve learned to stop criticising myself. Why bother? Leave it to people around you. I’m sick of activism. I want to do something that makes me happy. Like travel.
When I was a teenager, I backpacked around Australia, picking fruit and discovering myself. It was the most important and edifying year of my life. Ten years of study and work later, I need that kind of break again.
Paul Theroux writes about travel as a “disappearing act”. For him, it’s about cutting yourself off from the world, making yourself anonymous and unreachable, distant from the familiar, indulging in being far from home and out of contact, finding freedom in the foreign. I think it ruined a marriage for him (or maybe that was the alcohol – he writes a lot about sitting on trains in remote locations, drinking whiskey or recovering from hangovers).
If I was trying to disappear, this blog wouldn’t exist. But that’s not really what I’m after. I want to disconnect, not from people or places but from politics and the work I’ve been doing. I want to view the past from a distance, to visit places where I’m nothing, not good, not bad, neither with us nor against us, a neutral quantity, an observer, a man at the train window, jotting in a little notebook, or just gazing out at the view. I am sick of the emotional weight of everything you see in Jerusalem: walls, checkpoints and guns, linked to arguments with bigots in cafes, and stupid debates on Facebook. I want to work out what I really want from life. Maybe I don’t want to change the world. Maybe it never changes.
Making You Modest
This blog’s title comes from another famous travel writer, Gustave Flaubert:
“Travel makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.”
Activism is about trying to change the world. You try to be bigger than yourself. You try to change the unchangeable, to swim against the tide. Travel is the opposite: you become smaller, you accept what is there. The tide takes you, and caresses you, or beats you. It’s liberating.
In the last months, I felt Jerusalem was trying to demolish my spirit. Now it’s time to rebuild – aware that I occupy a tiny space in the world. That’s ok. I want to be nothing. I want to float, until I’m rested enough to swim again.
I’m meeting an old friend, the famous DJ Purple Rabbit, in Istanbul on March 30th. He’s a serious party-goer. This is going to be fun, as well as cathartic. We need to be in Baku, Azerbaijan, in time for the Rabbit’s 40th birthday. Then we’ll fly to Tashkent, in Uzbekistan, for Stage Two.
By August, I’ll be back in England for another 40th – my parent’s silver wedding anniversary. The route runs through Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Russia, Poland, Germany and France. That should be enough of a distance for some reflections.