SITTING PRETTY: THE WRITER, GAVIN CARVER, AT DAWN ATOP ACATENANGO VOLCANO, GUATEMALA.
“ I hadn’t heard of most of the places I visited, so everywhere I went was a surprise”
WHO’S LOST? Not much fun, right? That was me. Well, it’s still me. But this isn’t a story about being lost and finding yourself. It’s a story about learning to be okay with being lost. Forever.
Who cares? I was a creative strategist at Facebook. The job of jobs. I was never going to leave it. What a job! So lucky. But the more I told myself this, the less I believed it. The truth was, I felt stuck.
The signs were impossible to ignore. They started with a painting a friend gave me of a man leaping off a cliff, though I’m still not sure whether he was jumping to his death or about to fly. Then there were billboards, songs and T-shirts, all advocating some kind of leap of faith.
So, at the age of 46, I quit my job. Just like that, with no plan other than to travel. Central and South America, here I come. Here’s what I learned about life.
I heard the warnings about travelling in these parts – kidnappings, muggings, murders. But I never felt unsafe and met lots of young, female backpackers travelling alone with ease. I think women are the braver sex when it comes to travel. Sure, wherever you are, there are going to be unscrupulous types. But Peruvians, Columbians, Guatemalans – they’re beautiful, friendly, warm, helpful people.
The lesson: you have to make up your own mind about things. You can never be sure about anything until you try it.
I’ve never been one for too much planning or research. I chose one destination at a time, then decided on the next based on the thoughts of fellow backpackers. I hadn’t heard of most of the places I visited, so everywhere I went was a surprise. Had I planned every detail, I never would have discovered the divine beauty of Chiapas in Mexico, nor experienced the vibrant colours of Punta Gallinas in the Columbian desert. Who knew?
I was used to staying in expensive hotels. It was one of the perks of my job. But on this trip I always stayed in hostels. I sometimes took a private room but often shared a dorm for $7 a night. Hostels are the greatest source of travel intel and an easy setting in which to make new friends. So get out of your ivory tower from time to time. Even a hammock will do.
I always had preconceptions about the places I went. And never was the reality even close to the pictures in my mind. The more I travelled, the more open and blank my mind was on arrival. In life it’s the same: work, relationships – you can never know what’s coming until the moment arrives. And there’s no point worrying because you can’t control it. You control nothing.
My first few hostels were intimidating. I’m a bit of a social battler and expected to be uncomfortable in big groups of backpackers half my age. When I tried too hard to make friends, I felt like the dad crashing the party. But when I stopped trying to make friends and relaxed into my environment, conversations were easy. I realised it was okay to sit alone and just soak up the scene, watching the characters in the play. Like finds like. You will find your gang. If it’s easy, they’re your gang. If it’s hard, why waste your time? Some people may not like you and that’s okay. That’s their business. Not yours.
If you do, then you’re just acting, right? I became great friends with and travelled alongside people 20 years my junior. Connections are ageless. Be young. Be silly. Be mature. Be wise. Be whatever you like. Be all of it. But just be. Laugh a lot and joke around. Loosen up. Find your child-like sense of wonder. Isn’t that why we’re all here?
How is it possible to enjoy a place when you’re trapped in your own head? I treated every new experience as an exercise in mindfulness. When my thoughts drifted into worrying about work or where I should go next, I would come back to my breath. Or a single sound. I’d feel the moment in my body, not in my head. This moment is all we have. All we have is now. And now. And now.
At the start of my travels, I obsessed about trying to see everything. I couldn’t get out of Guatemala because there was so much to see. The more I travelled, the more relaxed I became about missing out. “You have to see this!” or, “You must go there!” Well, no, you don’t. FOMO is for the paranoid. Relax, and the decision will be made inside of you.
It will come when you least expect it, in the most unexpected way, in the most unexpected place. I met a beautiful, smart, warm, one-in-a-billion Norwegian girl at the start of my travels in Peru and fell for her instantly. She says things like, “My phone is running out of electricity”.
There was this Mexican guy called Roberto, a larger-than-life party animal with a tough-guy swagger. It was in San Cristobel, Mexico where he hopped on my bus. He hadn’t slept and was still drunk from the night before, and he was arguing with the driver. We met later over a Michelada (look it up, they’re delicious) and he invited me to travel into the jungle with him for a few days. I was wary but I agreed and thank God I did because we became great friends. You couldn’t meet a gentler tough guy. He opened up and let his guard down and I did the same. How many people do you have a negative opinion about at work? I bet you’re wrong about them. It’s their mask and armour you’re judging them by.
I was in Real De Cartorce in Mexico and wanted to get to the next town 40 kilometres away. The bridge was down so there was no transport. The only option was to walk across the desert and hitch. Standing on the side of the road with my thumb out, I couldn’t help but wonder if I was being stupid. But I got a ride in the back of a truck. Then I was picked up by a couple from Spain who made ends meet selling homemade wine on the street. They drove a small hatchback up an impossible, narrow mountain pass. I nearly jumped a few times. But the experience taught me that fear can get in the way of ever trying anything. What’s the use in playing this game of life if you don’t take risks?
I knew in my bones I just had to leap and the net would appear. I’m still falling. And to be honest, I can’t see the net yet. But I’m in a relaxed freefall. Soon, I’m moving to Norway. I don’t know what happens when I get there. I just know I have to get there. To my love. The rest will follow. ■