Or, What I Learned About Travel While Hugging A Toilet For 7 Hours.
The door handle twists the wrong way.
In a sane, fair world, it’d go clockwise, allowing a right-handed person like me to open the door smoothly and pass through without losing momentum. Today the world is mad and cruel and hateful, and the door handle doesn’t budge. I rattle it. Nothing. Finally, I try it the other way, and it turns. Oh for…
The word “sinister” comes from the Greek for “left-handed”, and right now I see their point. Whatever southpaw-loving wretch designed this door-handle, they also designed it to look like it’s for right-handers. It’s a stroke of pure evil I literally find myself unable to get past, and now, because of that person, I might not make it to the bathroom on time.
Hallway. Now it’s a race against geography, external and internal. The pressure’s building within me, and pretty soon the gastrointestinal marvel known as retroperistalsis will cause me to yawn explosively in a variety of colours while making a noise like a bull trying to hump an electric fence. I have maybe 10 or 15 seconds before that happens, and the hotel bathroom is maybe 10, maybe 15 seconds away – as long as the door-handles open in the right direction. Oh god, what if Left-handed Bastard designed all of them like that?
He didn’t. This door opens just fine. Second hallway. Not long now. I trip on a loose corner of carpet, bounce off the wall, somehow keep upright. It’s a game of balance. My stomach contents are the air bubble in a spirit-level. If I tip too far in either direction, I will become a cross between Jackson Pollock and a fire-hydrant. But it’s okay, I’m managing it, I’m going to ARGHKAFAAARGH
I didn’t see the steps.
There are only three of them, but that’s enough.
Food poisoning is a beautiful thing.
Obviously this is a controversial statement. If you’d asked me my thoughts as I open the bathroom door with my face, I’d have disagreed. I may have conceded that emesis (the mechanism of chundering) is a biological miracle and usually the smartest thing your body could do under the circumstances. I may have said that in a pure, Platonic sense I even admire the body’s response to food poisoning.
Yes – because we’re used to defining beauty purely in visual terms. In those terms, upchucking is indeed sorely lacking in merit. But the full definition of beauty goes like this:
Having qualities that delight or appeal to the senses and often the mind.
Awareness – also known as “being in the moment” – is deeply fashionable right now, maybe because it’s so difficult to achieve. Everything seems to conspire to make you less aware of where you are and what you’re doing. Are you reading this on your phone? Stop a second and become aware of the piece of metal and plastic you’re holding in your hand, and how your hand feels, and if your arm is tired, and whatever the hell the rest of your body is doing because until you read this paragraph, you didn’t have a damn clue. But who am I kidding? You didn’t even finish that thought because Facebook called.
I blame storytelling. Stories takes us away from being aware of the present, maybe to replace it with something equally or even more meaningful, yes, but you only know after you “get back”. We’re all so easily taken, it’s a wonder we even regard ourselves as mainly “here”.
Discomfort changes all that.
Wild, uncontrollable puking? Wow, are you there! Your senses are ablaze! You are inescapably present, a ringside seat to your own agony. Open letter to Eckhart Tolle: if you want the world to learn the true power of Now, stop writing books and get out there and poison people. They may not thank you for it, and maybe I haven’t thought this through from a business or branding perspective, but it guarantee it’ll work.
So anyway, I knelt on the bathroom floor for a few minutes, and after a while, they became hours.
Looking back, I’ve talked and written about discomfort so much that some people worry about me (and one of those people is me).
A few years back I was part of a panel of speakers for an event in London organised by Gogobot. It was an impressive panel of big-brain people, including legendary travel guide book authors Paul Clammer and Alex Leviton. We were tackling the topic of “travelling like a local”, on which I expounded my thoughts a few years later for Plansify. For some reason (probably my fault) we got onto the topic of discomfort, and I remember Debbie Wosskow of the brilliant LoveHomeSwap saying that associating travel with misery was very “macho”.
At first, I was outraged. “Macho”? Didn’t men and women deal with misery in exactly the same way? (Actually, no, it seems women have the edge on suffering.) But then, I realised that wasn’t her point. She was talking about actually seeking out discomfort when you travel, and then bragging about it to a crowd of people as if it meant something Important.
Oh no, I thought. She’s right. I’m turning into one of those people.
Except – it’s not that simple. As I said here, I’d never argue that the point of travelling was to find reasons to feel awful, same way I’d shout down anyone who said that becoming a writer in the 21st century was about heroically embracing a short, painful life as an under-appreciated hack until something in you snaps and you flee in the direction of merchant banking.
That said – sometimes travel is like laying on a bathroom floor all night.
As I write this, waking up my blog after four months of pretty intensive travel, I’m struck by how much of that time was waiting for something to happen. In Conil in the south of Spain, I got the worst head-cold I’ve had for a decade, and spent a week waiting for antibiotics to stop my lungs from crackling like microwaved popcorn every time I took a breath. I waited for flights (nervously, always nervously) and for trains (always excited out of my tiny mind). There’s a lot of waiting in travel, and it’s often frustrating because of point number 3 here – and therefore, waiting is rarely fun. Waiting is low-grade discomfort, gnawing at your patience and making your feet twitch. And a lot of modern travel is waiting.
Most of the travel I’ve done has been uncomfy. I’m not just talking about the Megabus expeditions or the nights laying in a sack – I mean the normal stuff. Modern travel of all kinds requires a certain stoicism towards mild discomfort that’s hard to learn without dwelling in it for hours, and learning to be OK with that. And you will need to be OK with it. It’s a given.
But take heart. The great thing about discomfort is that it’s memorable (because it’s something you really, truly feel), so it’ll makes great travel stories that will probably be hilarious to everyone except you. And yes, travel is about finding enlightenment, empathy, revelation and joy – but when suck strikes, don’t assume your travel adventures are broken. Moments like this, as unlikely as it may feel at the time, are absolutely not to be feared. They’re a sign you’re still living in the real world.
Embrace them, the same way a violently ill man might embrace a porcelain toilet.
It’s 7am, and daylight is filtering in. I’m clearly going to live, which is something I’m feeling ambivalent about because the smells of multiple Full English Breakfasts are wafting up the stairs. I open the bathroom door and I’m momentarily dazzled by the hallway carpet – a rich, lush range of colours my brain can’t handle after seven hours of beige. It’s a miracle.
I lurch past room 14 – if anyone was in room 14 that night, I am SO, SO SORRY – and head back to my room, hugging the wall the whole way. If I bump into anyone in the state I’m in, it’ll be too awkward – I’ll just have to kill them.
I turn the door handle (no, the other way, Mike) – and it’s over. Every adventure has to end, and sometimes that’s no bad thing.