Sitting on a wine-coloured bench in the main dining hall of a French bistrot we sip a drink that alone would have cost us the equivalent of half a day’s food budget on our word tour. What a contrast! How many lovers’ trysts, business discussions, meetings of old friends have served to wear these seats smooth while we have been away? Patrice Franceschi, the French adventurer and writer, was keen to entertain us to talk about writing. He assured us with a confident smile: “In general, if the journey went well, so does the return home.”
“A dream you dream alone is only a dream. A dream you dream together is reality.” Yoko Ono.
The first few days after the return home are a bit like the end of a holiday: the brain, fired up with oxygen, finds it hard to concentrate on the big picture: it is difficult to sit still and one tends to talk only about the final few days shared with one’s fellow travelers. And yet people don’t always appreciate the full intensity of certain episodes; Siphay coming across his brother in Chile, or Morgan living the dream of a lifetime exploring Antarctica in the footsteps of his father. This is only human. People may understand but, without the shared memory, cannot internalize the experience as a part their own lives. The people who seem to have the best grasp of the profound effects of what we have been through, predict a bottomless pit of boredom to follow, while others, understanding nothing of our experience, imagine that the “holidays” are over and that the Job Centre will now become the focus of our daily lives. So someone alone, confronted by these two escape routes, may easily surprise himself acting a role: the role of the informed cynic, the one who knows best, the ambassador of “Things are better elsewhere”; or else an essentially conventional role of the man pleased with himself for completing his little tour but the ambassador of “Now we must get down to a “normal” life”. The truth, in our case, lies somewhere between these two extremes.
Morgan: ‘After six months back in France I am still amazed at some of the preconceived ideas about our return home. Why do most people bring up the subject expecting a nostalgic and pessimistic answer? The most frequently asked question is: “Not too tough back here in the real world?” to which my ready answer is “No, it’s a real pleasure to be reunited with my loved ones. Also, after the experiences we have gone through I realise how lucky I am to live in France. I appreciate French cuisine all the more – and the scenery of the Camargues has never seemed more beautiful to my eyes.”
It takes courage to set off on a journey alone, and perhaps a little less to go as a team. But in order for us to return as a team, it had to be a solidly based one, with its members reliant on one another in solidarity. But to remain a team after the return took the power of a certain attitude of mind established over several years during the journey itself, creating an immense collective confidence. For some of us, it has lasted well past our return home, and will probably never leave us. In fact it is as if the journey had never ended. Even after it has run its course, it is still a reality for us. The lone traveller who has covered great distances to return to the world of petty regulations and social pressures that make up our society, soon sees his liberty turn into eaten distress, rather as an astronaut returning from a mission rediscovers gravity. By understanding one another and cooperating in a common project things became a great deal more simple for us; we wanted to create a book illustrated with our photographs, and we did it and we are proud of it (thank you, Transboréal); we wanted to make a film, and it is well on the way. In short, even if we have chosen a way of life which in France would be seen as precarious, waiting for the various projects to come to fruition, we are happy to be able to go on acting as a team and sharing our vision of the world with sincerity and simplicity.
A frustrating return ?
Siphay: During our trip I was able to distance myself from the generally pessimistic impact of the media on my fears of the unknown world and its “other” peoples. Now that we are back home we have re-established a certain stability. We regularly cultivate our old friends and other people close to us and discuss daily events with them. And yet, I feel less serene than I did while we were on or just back from our travels. Of late with my feet on French soil I have not felt at peace! I have the feeling that it exudes a global stress, a generalised fear. This certainly does not appear to affect every individual living there. But it’s what I feel myself, that I have lost my serenity. I thought I had left these negative sensations behind me. I have taken up a social life again and I feel its pull. I had managed perfectly well before without it. That said, isn’t it better to put one’s trust in the unknown, at the risk of seeming a little naïve, without being more of an idiot than one already is?”
A few years on the world’s roads assuredly change one’s attitudes. And these attitudes are what remain after all the time spent discovering things, like the more commanding viewpoint afforded to the climber willing to keep going until he reaches the top of the mountain. When all is said and done it is perfectly logical: one becomes a traveller the moment one puts into practice the desire to be somewhere else. So when people talk to us about the frustrations of the return home, we are the ones who don’t understand; how can a traveller become frustrated to the point of losing the curiosity which made him set out in the first place? Conversely the adventurer who took on the challenge of forests, mountains, and deserts – can he really return home without some appreciation of his family, his country, his friends, and domestic comfort?
“Setting off on a journey entails an appreciation of the infinite range of man’s sensibilities.” Pascal Bruckner tells us in The Tears of the White Man: Compassion As Contempt. The possibilities opened up by a big journey are not just those of the spirit, but of the senses as well. One becomes more responsive to the small pleasures of life, the welcomes from people as well as from the elements. This heightened sensibility in turn opens up an infinite range of activities. And someone who has made a journey around the world inevitably realises that it is a journey with no end. Even if some make the trip just for the sake of doing it themselves, they soon realise that it is not they who are making the trip, but that the trip is making them; or un-making them Nicholas Bouvier reminds us in The Way Of The World.
Brian: “Today I experience pure pleasure running on the magnificent Camargue beaches at l’Espiguette, near where I live. I look carefully in every direction. As I run I gaze at the Cevennes in the distance behind Montpellier. I admire them because they appear to be within my reach. I am even surprised, on a clear day, to be able to make out the Pyrenees, pink under the morning sun at the farthest end of the Gulf of Lion. I had never seen them before. This is something I developed during our trip: the lengthening of my vision, both literally and figuratively. In all my actions I try to see beyond their immediate implications.
Travelling, a capital that never disappears
When a photographed scene is too lacklustre, one increases the contrast. If all life was a film, travel is an excellent way of showing it. Life becomes richer and offers itself to us like an inexhaustible painter’s palate from which to choose a new passion; everything becomes possible; it is just a matter of choosing what one wants, in the same way that one stopped in wonderment at a Cambodian smile, or a 4,000 metre view in Szechwan or the peaceful flow of the Yukon. This is true reality – the reality one has heightened oneself – further heightened, without the need for artificial tools. The experience of travelling teaches us that it is not easy: days even weeks of self-denial on long stretches leave their mark, teach us to endure the minor setbacks, and not to forget the true goal at the end of the journey. But if it was too easy, nothing would seem as worthwhile appreciating. So the trick is to pick a route where the driving passion is greater than the effort undertaken and the effort itself becomes less painful.
When one slips back once again into the sedentary way of life – which happens all too easily – one is forcibly reminded on waking up one day that one is becoming more listless. It is then that the earlier first experience of distant lands, different ways, things never seen before, that opened our eyes, now provokes in us a fresh set of dreams. This is all a part of the magical side of being a human being and having the capacity to dream. From the dream state comes desire, and desire leads to action. Whether it involves a journey or some other project is immaterial, but one knows one will find the wherewithal from inside oneself. This great departure once initiated, enables us to see dust as gold on which to walk to Turkey, the macadam on the road as a red carpet all the way to Capetown.
To conclude: travel acts as a catalyst for the emotions and comforts us in the certainty that we chose the right effort. In fact it makes us more alive.
“I shall be gone and live, or stay and die”, Shakespeare