holland

Shut your eyes and see

It took me three years to realise that I was wrong.

For a really long time, I believed that the most important things in life are captured by the eye. It’s kind of like a window to the soul thing in which your eyes allow for you to discover the world and read people and learn things and expand horizons. I thought that you could feed your soul through feasting your eyes on amazing and beautiful places and things and people.

But I was wrong.

It has been almost three years since I first read James Joyce’s Ulysses. There was a sentence that stood out as if it were being shouted at me…

“Shut your eyes and see.”

I re-read it at least fifteen times before my brain was able to wrap itself around the confusion.

Shut your eyes and see.

I’ve been wrestling with it ever since…

What I see through my eyes are signatures of all the things I have been placed on this planet to read. But somehow there is a limit to that. There is a limit to what can be seen. Limits to discovery. Once you’ve seen it all, you are done. It is done. You have done it. You’ve seen it.

You’ve travelled to Germany and you’ve seen their giant pretzels and now you can tell everyone about it and show them the pictures when you get back home.

But really you did so much more than that.

There is something bigger than seeing everything.

There is something to which there really is no limit.

Something you can never exhaust.

Because there is no limit to what can be felt.

And that is why, when you shut your eyes, you really see.

You discover more. You delve deeper. You understand better.

You comprehend.

That is why, when you shut your eyes and allow yourself to experience and to feel, I imagine you create the most powerful of memories.

It is huddling around that table in the freezing cold enjoying a glass of Glühwein with people who speak in your native tongue.

It is standing in the rain in Amsterdam with a friend you only met twelve weeks ago, but who somehow has become a soul more connected to you than even some of your lifelong friends.

It is climbing trees in the Gooise forest with the sound of summer hissing from the treetops.

It’s not about where you go or where you’ve been or what you’ve been taking pictures of.

It’s about the one thing no-one can take away from you.

It’s the memories.

It’s eating a bowl of bitterballen in a restaurant in Utrecht not because you’re hungry, but because they have heaters that will help bring back the feeling in your hands.

It’s listening to Gorecki’s Symphony No. 3 – the saddest classical symphony of all time – over breakfast with friendly strangers in Belgium.

It’s stroking your fingers across the rough sand of the North Sea.

It’s dancing so joyfully the soles of your shoes tear off.

It’s cycling against gale force winds in aggressive rain and complete darkness through the narrow paths of ‘s-Graveland.

It’s falling off bicycles.

It’s thinking about the people you loved when you were home.

It’s the nostalgia when listening to that song from that drive to the ocean that day.

You must remember this.

It was all I had.

All I’ve ever had.

The only currency.

The only proof that I was alive –

Memory.

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Four of my biggest revelations while travelling

It’s been six months since I left my people and my things and my life behind to venture into the unknown. Six months of brave quests, amazing adventures and priceless friendship. But it’s also been six months filled with numerous challenges and a great amount of fight.

And, of course, a couple of revelations:

Revelation number one: You can’t run away from yourself

The internet places this stigma of joy and fulfillment on the whole idea of travelling.

It has a tendency to fairytale-lise the concept as if travelling is the greatest escape from a monotonous life or an unfulfilling career or heartbreak or depression. As if travelling is the answer to everything that is wrong with the life you lead. As if it will soothe your memories of sitting in traffic for hours or spending your days slaving away behind a computer. As if it will heal your heart. Or re-balance the chemicals in your brain.

And sure, it can be those things. It can heal and it can serve as an escape. It can make you happy. It can fill the empty parts of your soul. But it will not do this automatically. There is much more to the story. There is much more reality buried beneath the happy Instagram posts and the ambitious Facebook feed. Because no matter how far you run and no matter how many people you meet and places you see, you are still there as you.  The you with the past that you have. The you with your memories. The you with the need to make sense of it all.

It kind of gets that Bob Marley song stuck in your head … “You’re running and you’re running but you can’t run away from yourself”.

At some point, no matter where you are in the world, you will have to look yourself in the mirror and accept your defeats and accept yourself. You are human. You are not perfect. Some things you are great at and some things you inherently suck at. That’s just the way it is. And it’s okay. And it’s gonna be okay.

Revelation number 2: The gap between the first and third worlds is ENORMOUS

To me, this venture was all about getting out of my country for a while.

I know most posts you read about travelling are written by people from first-world countries visiting the third world so they can again appreciate what they have back home. So that they can see how the “other half” lives and gain some perspective on their lives and their privilege and their luxury.

But it’s been quite a different experience being a third-world born venturing into the first world. I’ve had many discussions with fellow travelling third-world nationals in an attempt to grasp how they experience the first world and what it will be like returning to our countries – countries much less developed and functioning than the ones we find ourselves in now.

I have no water restrictions and no electricity outages in The Netherlands. I’ve only been approached by two homeless people in the past six months. I confidently cycle 5km through to the neighbouring town without constantly looking behind me in fear of being a target. I, to some extent, have stopped clutching my handbag with furious protection when travelling by train.

How do I go back to living in a country that switches my electricity off for sometimes 24 hours at a time, has an incredibly corrupt government, is suffering through one of the worst droughts in centuries causing for multiple towns to have no water for weeks, and one that is so riddled with crime and violence that I basically never leave the house by foot?

Not to mention, one that is so divided on the basis of race that people hate each other so much they publicly declare that their fellow South Africans, as a race, be murdered out completely.

There is no doubt that my heart lies with my country. That I love being South African, that I love its vibrancy, its culture, its diversity, its languages, its nature and its beautiful chaos. I just have the biggest hope that, at some point, by the grace of peace and love, it will live up to its potential and be the South Africa we all desperately wish for.

Revelation number three: A place is only as good as the people in it

I am not a rock. I am not an island.

Without the amazing people I find myself surrounded with in this country, this would’ve been a completely different experience. It’s not that I struggle with being alone or that I need to surround myself with people in order to be happy. I am quite content by myself. And I’ve ventured to various places and countries by myself since I’ve been here.

But there’s something about sharing an experience with another person that tends to enhance the memories you make. When you travel alone, your memories are your own and it’s hard to explain to others how epic that journey is. Not that they don’t care or won’t listen, but because their eyes didn’t quite capture the things yours did. And their hearts didn’t quite change in awe of their surroundings alongside yours.

Experiencing epic things with friends by your side, even if you’ve only just met, gives you something amazing to share and connects and enhances your souls on a level far beyond what you could ever imagine.

Revelation number four: It is what you make it

The journey is only as good as you believe it can be.

I never imagined I’d find the corny kind of happiness I have. It’s not that I was unhappy before I started this quest, but there’s something about waking up with a smile and laughing as much as I do lately that is a little bit unfamiliar. And the more I wake up with smiles and laugh ‘til tears stream down my face, the bigger this happiness grows and the bolder my joy becomes.

But it’s not like happy mornings and laughter just happened naturally.

There’s a switch in the mind that allows you to feel and experience things more deeply. It’s a switch that allows you to appreciate stupid little things like autumn leaves falling from tall trees and snowflakes blinding you as you cycle to the supermarket.

It’s noticing how a ladybug’s wings curve perfectly over its tiny body and seeing a spider’s web illuminated by thousands of tiny water droplets. It’s laughing at the things kids say and appreciating the people around you for their quirks and their faults and their drinking habits.

You make your own happiness. And you get to choose how you go about making that happen for yourself.

It’s all up to you in the end.