About a year ago, I went on a date with someone who failed to fall for my grace, beauty and buckets of charm. I know this because he never called me again. He did, however, make clear his disdain for women who “like to control everything”. At some point during the course of the evening he suggested I watch a Katherine Heigl movie called The Ugly Truth.
(I watched the movie out of curiosity and loved it. Katherine Heigl plays a woman who, er, tries to control everything but, hey, it’s Katherine Heigl so you love her anyway)
Now, I am not one for using travel as a process of self discovery. My friends and I tried this six years ago when 14 of us went to Thailand to “find ourselves”. It was hilarious; we spent two weeks giggling about unleashing our inner hippie, while getting merrily drunk on brightly-coloured cocktails and dancing on the beach until dawn. Self discovery has lain in a dusty corner of my mind ever since.
No, I travel because I’m nosey; because I love hiking, dancing and taking photographs; because travel inspires you to read new books and debate new politics; because meeting new people veers between the uncomfortable and the electric and you never know which to expect.
I certainly don’t travel because I want to know anything about my personality – especially not an uncomfortable truth, even an ugly one, that I might not be able to change.
Since I was a child I’ve hated rollercoasters; happily holding bags and eating ice-creams while other people get high on fear. As I’ve grown older this has diverged into anything vaguely thrill-seeking; I sat in a field and watched my friend sky dive in Australia, I spent a day by the pool when another friend white-water rafted in Ecuador. I wouldn’t bungee jump for love nor money. My best friends have called me “health and safety girl” since the day I refused to climb a mountain in Snowdonia, convinced the strong winds meant a storm was coming.
Indeed I’ve wanted to travel South America since I was 18. I spent almost 10 years collecting money in a savings account before silently wondering if perhaps the time had come. I called my mother, wondering if I was insane to risk everything on the trip. “My dear daughter,” she said in the way only mothers can. “You’re the most sensible person I’ve ever met. And that’s not always a good thing.”
I don’t take drugs on account of their illegality; not because I believe they are any worse for the world than alcohol or tobacco. I don’t have one night stands because I think I might get hurt; even though as a staunch feminist I believe a liberated woman should be able to do what she wants. Sometimes I think the reason I don’t particularly want to get married is because I hate the thought of getting divorced. It turns out I am completely, 100 per cent, opposed to risk of any sort.
(You might think I would have tied all of these things together before and realised what I am, but who does that? I just assumed I was a girl who wasn’t into extreme sports, who was too smart and responsible to be reckless. Who, as a journalist, knew the fragility of life all too well.)
Unwittingly, I hope, I fell in love with a country that panders to me. Colombians are generally against risk too – one of my friends once berated me for taking an overnight bus to Bucaramanga. The driver, she reasoned, would be more likely to fall asleep or crash at night. I believe civil war and other lurking dangers, most of which have passed, remain as spectres in the national consciousness. Colombians keep their heads down. They know what happens if you don’t.
And so it fell to the bloody Argentines (too European to learn the Latin art of tactful lying). I told one porteño I wouldn’t sleep with him even if I didn’t have a boyfriend. “Why?” he said, in haughty amazement. “I’m just not like that,” I replied truthfully. “Oh, you’re one of those people who has to control everything,” he sniffed. “I bet you don’t even like it when other people drive.”
(Of course I don’t like it when other people drive. My foot is always ready on the imaginary brake)
And so this remark, from a philanderer who went on to cajole other blonde girls when his boldness failed with me, shook me. I’ve thought about it for days. Everything has suddenly fallen into place. I’ve only gone and ‘found myself’ while travelling and I don’t like what I see: I’m a control freak. I’m a risk-averse Katherine Heigl but the ugly truth is – I’m real.
The question is what on earth do I do about it? Is there therapy designed to make people let go and live a little? Should I take up acid? Start going home with handsome strangers? Heaven forbid, should I jump out of a plane? Never listen to your mother. I hate travelling. I knew I should have stayed at home.