Tulum: And so here we are at the end of this journey – 5000 miles from London, where it all started, but we’ll do the final push from Mexico by plane.
We’re finishing on the white-gold sands of Tulum, a stunning wild beach on the Yucatán’s Caribbean coast, where we’ve rented a stick and thatch cabin a few metres from the ocean. At night, the huge supermoon floods through the gaps in our cabin’s stick-sides and the roar and shhh of the waves lull us to sleep in our bed, which swings, suspended by ropes from the roof beam. Our little cluster of cabañas are separated from the big wide beaches by rocks, which protect our own secluded beach from other holidaymakers. We share our space with very few other people even when the weekenders descend.
Tulum was, until relatively recently, a Mayan walled-city, the ruins of which stand on a prominent cliff overlooking the beach. With such a stunning location, it would definitely have been my city of choice as a Mayan. The fortified port city traded obsidian along river, road and sea routes (a shrine marks a break in the reef where canoes can pass through) and survived for at least 70 years after the Spanish arrived. It fell because of introduced diseases.
In 2007, the Mexican government bought up privately owned Mayan sites and declared the area a national park. The few hotels and guesthouses located in this new park (ours included) are now the subject of closure orders and there is an ongoing court battle to settle the issue.
We spend our time reading, staring into the advertiser’s perfect turquoise sea, bracing against sandblasting winds and enjoying the golden sun on our pale skin. Michelle returns home, leaving me a brick of a book – the perfect traveller’s present. And I prepare myself also for the comforts and entertainments of a Western metropolis, its speed and its anger and hostility, its wonderful anonymity but also (and in all senses) its coldness.
What a great adventure it’s been, these past 27 months and 2 weeks! What a lot of the world we’ve seen – 37 countries! – but what a great, great part we have still to see.
It is time to go back – Nick knows this more than I, but my other travelling companion, my backpack, is also telling me. Over the last couple of weeks, one by one, my well-worn possessions have given up the fight as though they know their use is coming to an end: my t-shirts have become too raggedy to wear in public, my handbag has split so that it can’t be resewed, my knickers have holes, my scarf is lost, my hat string has broken and my much-scratched sunglasses snapped today…
Nick has been ready to return for a while, his bags are already packed in excitement, but for me it’s more difficult. To travel for this long, to live as a wanderer from a bag, from bed to bed, village to village, bus to bus, to rely on the hospitality and kindness of people we meet transiently and can never repay, is humbling and utterly exhilarating.
The journey has taught me much. Before we set off, I’m ashamed to say that I even took a certain pride in my cynicism and hardness – after all, what decent journalist isn’t so equipped? – but having my cynicism met so often by open kindness, generosity and a ‘naïve’ eagerness to help is rather like wearing armour to a beach party – inappropriate, to say the least.
We have visited the most desperate slums, the poorest people – some of whom are literally starving – stayed in dodgy, grubby places with no security, and yet, despite our obvious wealth, nothing has been stolen from us, we have never been physically threatened or robbed. People have responded to their duty of hospitality and made us feel safe and welcomed.
Not that I’m now completely uncynical, only that now it’s not a forefront impulse when meeting strangers, even if it remains at the fore when dealing with governments and other bureaucracies. Every new friend we’ve made has opened a new place in my heart that turns out not to be as full-up as I thought.
We’ve learned a lot of other things, too, during this journey, such as:
- The poorest people are often the most generous
- The world’s best breakfast is in south India: masala dosa
- The best coffee is in Ethiopia
- Every tribe has its own greeting method, from the Indian head-wiggle to the Guatemalan edge of hand-to-forehead – learning it makes you instant friends
- But a smile is universal
- The best fruit selection in in Amazonia (Columbia and Brazil)
- The most consciously sexy are in Rio
- The best place for an ordinary person to get a taste of filmstar celebrity is Bangladesh
- The dandiest men are the Samburu tribe of northern Kenya
- The best food is found at local eating holes, not tourist restaurants EXCEPT in east and central Africa, where foreign restaurants often provide the only decent meals and are wonderfully lacking in ugali
- The best place to get laundry done is India
- And the worst place to get laundry done is India
- Best mangostines (my favourite fruit) are in Indonesia
- There are always more stray dogs than seems possible and they start their barking just as you fall asleep
- Brazilians on the beach: in yer face with their bums; surprisingly coy with their boobs
- The worst driving is in Bangladesh
- Tropical deserts get much colder than you’d imagine
- There is no one cockier and more nimble than a developing-world bus-boy
- Bed bugs haunt even the nicer hotels
- Water purification tablets are your friend
- Carrying cipro can bring a swift end to runnybum episodes
- Always add at least 1 hour to all quoted journey times
- NEVER try to outstare an Indian (you will lose)
- Choosing your bus seat according to the sun’s passage can make for a shadier, cooler journey
- An African bus-boy can fit in 6 times as many passengers than there are seats
- Different societies have very different concepts of time and distance
- Always carry emergency biscuits/fruit and water
- Bolivians love a good strike almost as much as the French
- People can and do carry impossible loads despite the laws of physics
- If you don’t have a religion, invent one
- Likewise a spouse and children, if you are over the age of 25
- Most of the world has black hair. People are very interested in other-colour hair
- Travelling puts a lot of dirt under the fingernails
- Speaking even a few words of someone’s language makes you a quick friend
- A little (or lot) of brown-nosing at borders and embassies can smooth a difficult passage
- Never start a conversation without the appropriate greeting first – it’s like shouting at an Englishman in German
- The idea of travelling is alien to most people – they may feel sorry for you
- Scorpions can appear from nowhere
- You can never have too much patience
- Don’t let a simple misunderstanding/miscommunication turn into an argument
- Avoid shaming someone in their own country
- Hot water is often just a concept hoteliers dream up but rarely a reality
- Remember to charge your torch battery when it’s light outside
- People are all the same and everyone is different
- The world is a fantastically, fascinatingly big place
Oops, too many already, I’ll stop here!
This is not the end of my wanderings, just the end of this journey chapter and the beginning of a new adventure in perhaps the world’s greatest city, London.