Travelling on the long term does weird things to your psyche. You’ll be feeling exhilarated and terrified at the same time, spinning dancing while a cave’s where your stomach should be. You’ll see the most amazing things in the day and still wake up empty, aimless, and alone.
It’s part of being uprooted. It’s something I’m realizing now. I’ve been away from home for almost 16 months now. I hadn’t even been counting until October came around, since it hadn’t mattered to me during the whole time I was in Japan; it was always what came next that mattered, where I was going not where I came from.
It didn’t matter until I saw Erika again. When I realized what this whole time I’d been missing.
Erika’s one of those friends who are literally impossible to imagine your life without. From that basterdized trip to the frats in first year where we ended up skipping off to argue over the best Arcade Fire album, to the impossible goodbye-sunrise the day I got on the Tokyo plane, she was central in everything I loved and needed in those crazy four years. We grew up together, through road trips and concerts and all nighters in the misery that’s the Irving K. library—cried together, screamed at each other, made up and changed in ways our 18-er versions never would’ve believed.
I’ve met some incredible backpackers along the way, people whose lives could be written into books as they scratch their name across seven continents. There’s very few places like the sweaty, squished 32-person beds of a hostel where you can make friends at the drop of a pin and the clink of a “cheers” (santé, sloncha, proust, kampai).
Well, friends are one thing, family’s another. And when I think about what I’ve done and been through with the people in Vancouver, family’s the only way to describe what we’d become. And here’s Erika, having hopped across the world to stand in the driveway of a homestay in central Vietnam.
It didn’t take long to realize what I’d been missing these past few months. Why there was a part of me that had been so empty. It wasn’t just the inside jokes we could throw back and forth, or the anecdotes we only needed portions of to tell the whole story— the way we made each other laugh or the depth of the conversations. More, it was the inherent comfortability of the relationship, the understanding that we didn’t need to be anybody but exactly our messy, fucked-up selves. I’d come home.
Home in Hoi An, Vietnam’s prettiest postcard. An old merchant’s town of narrow alleys, vibrantly painted stone homes, art stores and silk merchants, it’s probably the most lazy and laid-back place in the country. And we spent the days biking out to farmstead corners, drinking Vietnamese coffee while it rained, drinking coffee in the sun. Setting lanterns into the water, dancing in shitty hostel-hosted clubs till 4.
It’s not the way I travel, it’s not the way she travels. And it didn’t matter. My glasses were stolen off the table in Ho Chi Minh, and so Hoi An came to me blurry, leaving the things nearest in perfect clarity. And I was always looking at her, discovering with amazement that, for all the length and distance and difference of experience, we’d continued growing up in parallel this past year. Hoi An and Hue were always just the setting for that discovery.
And as we travelled together, another pattern became more and more noticeable: we had a knack for attracting other Canadians. We sat down for breakfast with a group of Albertans, and within minutes we were swapping jokes, trading experiences, talking about these places in the way you do with people who have the same base-line to compare it to. We’d automatically skipped the necessary-but-soul-crushing “where are you from, what’s that like” icebreakers of hostel life.
This kept happening. At first I thought this was funny. Then it got weird. When Erika and I arrived in Hue, we met a lovely group of Western Europeans, mostly Dutch and German, who we got to share some beers and travel stories with. We also met a Canadian couple who were travelling ‘Nam by bike, Prairie kids who’d taken the first chance they could to resettle on the west coast, just like us.
And our perceptions of this complex, frustrating, wonderful country were the same. That we’re amazed at the country’s initracies, history, and lifestyles, while at the same time being uncomfortable about our own position of privilege and power here. How you can meet the most amazing locals, and yet those interactions are always framed in some kind of money-based transaction. What it means to take a photo, especially of a local, and whether that’s objectifying them, and when it’s not. What this all’s supposed to mean in general; where we’re going with this, what we want out of this trip we’ll remember the rest of our lives.
We crashed the party hostel, and instead of skulling beers with the loudest of em like we’d planned, the four of us stayed in the back corner still talking; about life and how lost we all are and how that was gonna be okay as long as we had good music. And when we did make it to the bar they all moved to, the British owner of the bar gave us free shots, because,
“Oh you know, I fucking love Canadians.”
I’ve always wondered what it’d be like to have a mother tongue that’s not English; growing up with the language everyone knows, there’s never that visible pleasure you see with Spaniards or the French or Malaysians, when they realize they’ve got a sibling in their midst and can settle back into something closer to a natural skin. Now I’m beginning to notice I fall into something similar with Canadians on the road: although more subtle, it’s still a language written into the culture, dense with nuance you’ve got to live through to really understand. Get three Vancouverites together, and we’ll launch into a string of anecdotes so rooted in place—the bars, restaraunts, feelings in the weather patterns—that a British guy’ll be scratching his head as much as I would if you threw Portuguese at me.
While I’ve noticed this phenomenon before, it’s always struck me as sad or stifling. Limitations to overcome as I travel more, connect more, and learn as many languages as I can squeeze into my head. But now I’ve learned this: the more you travel, the more you think about home; the more cultures you explore, the more you come to value your own. And that can be a beautiful revelation as much as a comforting one, certainly after Japan, where you’re forced to recognize that no level of fluency will let you be a part of their society, or after China, where you face the long-term consequences of a people taught to hate their own culture.
And I’ve come to value our reputation and our openness. I love that every Canadian I’ve met here tends to value those things as well, often withholding or at least restricting preconceived notions of a place. What is it about Canada, then, that makes us so different that way than so many Americans or Australians (places, you could say, with similar-ish backgrounds) interact?
I don’t want to generalize, and obviously I’ll continue making close friends with people from every corner. But if there’s one statement I can make about everything I’ve seen these 15 months, it’s that culture informs every aspect of how we see the world. And I’m so proud of what my own culture allows me to do and see. Who it’s made me, at 23, out here.
It’s in the sweaty heart of the strangest, possibly most exciting country I’ve ever been to that I’m reminded who I am. Where I come from. Where my mind will always return to.
We reunited about, what I’m guessing will be, halfway through my trip. At the time, I figured I was, perhaps at best a third of the way through: I’d get work in Vietnam, maybe, make enough money to get me all the way to India. The plan was a good one; it had the beautiful symmetry of beginning in one of the Asian giants and ending in the other, exploring the cultural valley existing between. Only problem, it seems, is me.
Because, over the course of admitting to her how much I was missing home, I was admitting it to myself.
Back in our beds, we started talking about the already-legendary last Tragically Hip concert. Up till now, I’d barely registered the concert taking place; it’s an event happening 3000 miles away, and the Hip had never really got me tapping my feet. But she played me “Bobcaygeon,” and even though I’d never heard the song, the song opened within me. I felt the icy chill to the words; brittle woods and wide planes, shining lakes in the brilliant short summers. The warmth behind it, the thoughtfulness and care. A 4 minute shiver, bringing me up against everything I’d been running from. And then I knew.
And when we split and I was dropped into Hanoi’s honking insanity, I felt the most strung out and lost of the whole trip. After two more days of partying and sweat and tension, I had a near-panic attack when none of the ATM’s accepted my debit card, and started to wonder why I was even doing this.
An hour later I was on a bus to an island, and nothing was registering anymore. Don’t look outside, don’t make friends with the lovely Finnish girls sitting behind you. You reach that level of jaded, and something breaks. And I wondered: wait, why am I running? Is this really what I want? Maybe it’s time to think about going home.
It was the magic wand: the moment this country was fleeting, that moment it became beautiful in ways I couldn’t have imagined before. The rice fields, stretching watery towards the sea, the farmers in straw hats, motorbikes weaving between the trucks. And suddenly I don’t want to leave? Well, that’s a debate I’m gonna continue having for the rest of this trip, however long that is. Goddamn, does travelling ever do weird things to your psyche.
But the point is, it’s time I stop calling it a problem. It’s time to accept how much I’m missing home and everyone who makes it one in the first place. To understand how much the Great White North makes me who I am.
It’s time to shout from the Ha Long cliffs: I’M A CANADIAN AND I’M FUCKING PROUD OF IT, OKAY?
And then go home. Maybe?