I sat on my bed in New Orleans, staring at my lap top, fretting over my financial situation: how was I going to afford another two months of this trip? I sat there, annoyed with my own bloody mindedness. Six months, I’d planned. Six months… Would I do it?
There’s a nagging dialogue in my head; it’s a conversation between me and a person with raised eyebrows, and a holier-than-thou scowl on their face. It could be me. Or it could be those that I put on pedestals when I was younger and more impressionable: those that I deemed ‘cooler’ than me. They’d left the country after high school and weren’t seen again for years. I subscribed to the idea of leaving one’s hometown for long periods of time; I daydreamed of being that person, returning much more windswept and interesting, commenting on all the substantial changes that had taken place in my absence, posturing with a far-off look, remembering that one time in the Sahara when I had to milk my camel to feed the pillaged settlement’s remaining, starving children. The conversation goes something like this:
“You came home early?” they ask me, eyebrows disappearing into their hairline.
“I know.” I look at my shoes, the corners of my mouth trying to reach them. “I couldn’t hack it.”
“You couldn’t hack it,” they say. “You weren’t doing it right. You should’ve been sailing with a crew of marine biologists trying to find the near-extinct, golden-cloaca porpoise. Why didn’t you prolong your stay in the slums of Calcutta and build an orphanage? You call climbing that mountain an adventure? You were still a Chrysler building length below base-camp, you truly pathetic excuse for a ‘traveller’.”
“I went to supermarkets and tried new things?” I plead.
Their expression changes from derision to pity. I try to picture myself in a fedora riding a horse towards the sunset, but I remember that horses make me sneeze uncontrollably, so the scene changes to me standing in a hot shower for twenty minutes using all the boutique soaps the hotel has on offer.
It’s a shameful epilogue to the romanticised version of travelling the world. It’s also an immature way to conduct oneself – always doing what you think others expect of you. No one is going to judge me on how I spend time overseas – only myself.
I’m glad I can intercept this dialogue with that gem of wisdom.
So I did what I wanted: I emailed my travel agent and my friend Renee, adjusting my trip to be shorter and to get to Mexico sooner. The next step was to find a cheap way to get to Mexico, and to allow Renee enough time to organise her life around me. The answer: take Amtrak to Atlanta from New Orleans, and stay there for a few nights before flying to Mexico City.
I booked three nights in a hotel near the airport in Atlanta (the busiest airport in the world – passenger-based), through a hot deal on the net which gave me a large room with bathroom and fridge, microwave, and coffee maker – luxury time alone. From my room I could see nearly every fast-food and hotel chain ever invented along the motorway, but luckily the suburban sprawl of the city crept up to the hotel on the other side, which meant there’d be a supermarket somewhere nearby offering more than eleven herbs and spices.
Atlanta is probably most famous to Australians for having hosted the 1996 Olympic Games (I know, I’d never heard of it before then, either), but it’s a substantial city – by which I mean it’s a huge metropolis of 5.4 million people – the second biggest city in what is generally known as The South, or south-eastern United States. It has an aquarium, the World of Coca-Cola, a Civil War Museum, and an enormous shopping centre underneath downtown, called Underground Atlanta. And I saw none of these things.
My new friends in New Orleans had hooked me up with a friend of theirs in Atlanta, but I just didn’t have the energy or inclination to charm a stranger. And I was also feeling pretty good now I had Mexico in near-sight, so I decided to stay in the hotel and use the private and luxurious space to write.
I had a great time.
My days consisted of buying food, eating, writing, and watching TV, showering, going for small walks, and sleeping. I watched the planes take-off and land, and caved in to trying new fast-food chains. I delighted in post-mix Dr. Pepper and Mountain Dew (not the taste, but the novelty), and even the curly fries. On the first day of writing, I took the stress of finding decent meals (and thus breaking my concentration) to a new level by buying two foot-long sandwiches (with all salads) and storing them in my fridge for meal times. I used the coffee maker in my room as much as I could; never quite figuring out how it made the water so hot, so quickly.
I chuckled to myself a lot. Here I was, in a brand, new place, and I was listening to my desire to flip the bird at it. It was nothing personal; I just couldn’t give a good-God-damn. I guess I felt powerful in a way. I had conquered that supercilious voice, and the anxious reply: I was still travelling, but now more spontaneously, with burning curiosity lighting the way. Now, the trip was no longer “shopping for a new place to live” but a trip to see what I desperately wanted to see. I wasn’t homesick, but travelling without that curiosity was draining and almost worthless, so going home early seemed like the most rational thing to do.
It was with a renewed sense of purpose that I boarded my plane for Mexico City. I’ve been dreaming of Mexico for most of my life. It’s strange how I’ve gone to other places first, but finally I was on my way. Having spent a few days anti-travelling, I was ready for the next adventure – and I felt OK doing it my way.