Every time I am on a plane and I feel that little bump which means the wheels have touched down at El Dorado airport, I feel so relieved. It’s always good to be home; returning to a place that you love and understand, where you feel loved and wanted, where you have hopes and dreams and something that vaguely resembles a plan of how to achieve them.
Sometimes I wonder if I even like travelling. My journey home from Asia was horrendous – 26 hours in the air, 20 hours at airports, my body clock set 13 hours in the future, 2,600m of altitude waiting in my present. That first night I dreamed of flight attendants and check-in desks and ground staff and boarding times and all week I have felt a bit, well, absent.
And it is not even the physical act of travelling. I am not sure if I am a good traveller. I get fatigued by sight-seeing and landmarks. By the end of my time in Burma I couldn’t face entering another temple, instead I craved tea and watching the world go by. My favourite memories are not of sights and sunsets but people, beautiful people who are still delighted to see tourists in their country and will do anything to make them feel at home.
But it’s not even that. That is what you are supposed to do – meet local people, get addicted to their tea. It is more that I meet travellers while I am away who seem completely at home in the country they are visiting. They are utterly absorbed by it. But I always feel like an outsider – a person who constantly observes yet fails to grasp their new reality. That is why I take loads of photographs and write my stories. I know in about six months I will finally understand where I have been, what I have seen and what I have felt and by then, of course, it will be far too late.
I have been to many countries but I only hold a few in my heart. Colombia, of course, is part of me. The others are Sri Lanka, Cuba and, now, Burma. Those countries got to me. I worry about them, I read about them, I feel a strange pain in the event of natural disasters and political upheaval and I keep a sort of distant watch on their progress – like a mad Auntie overseas who never comes home, but still treasures the annual Christmas card.
It is no surprise to me that Sri Lanka tops that list because it really was the country that “broke me” – at 22-years-old I thought I knew everything about the world and then you see the after effects of a disaster like the tsunami, you meet people who behave in a way you could never comprehend, you find emotions in yourself that cause you physical pain. I remember one man whose experience of the disaster was so terrible I can’t write it here because it will make my heart and hands too heavy, but I have often thought of him over the years and wondered if he is still alive. It was 10 years ago now. I prefer not to know.
So when a lady who reads Banana Skin Flip Flops wrote to me this week from Sri Lanka (she found my blog by accident but became absorbed because of the similarities between Colombia and Sri Lanka – from the conflict to the corruption – and indeed it is often uncanny) her letter awakened those feelings in me. And when she said: “Sometimes I think about what a friend said to me recently: You love your country but it is not reciprocated,” it was poignant for me, especially when I am tired and out-of-sorts. Because we talk so much about loving our country, don’t we? It is a bit like loving our family. We didn’t choose either but somehow, if everyone loves unconditionally what they were born into, life will work itself out. And as much as we acknowledge the absurdity of that (Is your mother really the best because she gave birth to you? Is your country really the best because you were born in it?) it takes a lot –something grave indeed – for us to over-ride that unconditional love. It’s basically a given.
But do our countries love us? I love England and I love Colombia and if they love me back, they do it very differently. England will look after me and protect me in ways that would have been unthinkable half a century ago. It will do everything to keep me healthy, it will put a roof over my head in the event of disaster, it will punch above its weight to educate me, fix my teeth, battle valiantly to solve and prevent crimes against me – in fact, it will keep me safe in ways so pernickity the average Englishman now permanently associates the words “health and safety” with “killjoy”.
Yet here I am in Colombia, the country I chose, which I always argue says far more about a person, but which arguably doesn’t love me at all. Not because it doesn’t want to – but because it can’t. If it was just the country and me, I would be very much on my own. Everything is down to you miss, nothing we can do. But I’m not alone, am I? Not for a second. I am loved so fiercely by this country I am relieved every time I feel that bump. In fact I can’t list the ways I have been heartened, encouraged, defended, rescued, helped, supported and protected by Colombians.
Maybe there are just different types of love and they all come with benefits and pitfalls and it is just a case of accepting the one that is right for you. Or just not thinking about it, but instead just getting on with loving unconditionally because the whole “unconditional” part means not expecting so much in return. I really have no idea. All I know is that I am dazed and confused, I am not too sure what day of the week it is, but I am home and that is what matters.
Like this? You’ll love Colombia a comedy of errors.