2017 has been a big year for travel. Maybe not by some people’s standards, but for me, I feel as though my bum has hardly touched my own second-hand saggy* sofa.
*for ‘saggy’, read: incredibly comfy but also impossible to get out of after you’ve had a glass of wine or two.
But I’ve learned something about myself this year. I’ve learned about how I like to travel, and also about how I like to record that travel experience – and both of these are things I intend to build on in the new year.
This year, my biggest trip was undoubtedly my 4-week journey through Cambodia and Vietnam, back in the spring. I started in Siem Reap, then took a boat down the Mekong, through Cambodia and across the Vietnamese border, finishing up in Saigon. From there, I flew up to Hoi An for a few days, then took an unforgettable (not for all the right reasons) train ride up to Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital city. Following a few days exploring the city, I went on a 3-day trekking tour in the Sapa region (and didn’t fall over or die from too much exercise, which was a surprising bonus), followed by a relaxing few days on a boat exploring Ha Long Bay and Bai Tu Long.
I was barely back from South-East Asia a week before I was off to Dublin for two days, for a quick tour of the city before attending a poetry prizegiving, where I was shortlisted for the prestigious Ballymaloe International Poetry Prize.
From Dublin to the South Downs for a poetry residential, then a few days in London before heading up to Cambridge for another award ceremony, this time for the Jane Martin Poetry Prize.
A month later, and I’m picking myself back up off the squishy sofa and heading to Iceland, for a wonderful road trip with friend, fellow writer, and epic travel buddy Jessi. After a few days in Reykjavik, we headed off to fulfill my long-held dream of driving around Iceland’s Route 1, or Ring Road, taking us all around the country. Incredible!
Things calmed down after that… sort of. Though work-wise they picked up hugely. I spent most of August in Edinburgh at the Fringe Festival, with my musical, The Inevitable Quiet of the Crash, which premiered there this summer – then rounded the year off with a 3-day trip to Vienna to eat, drink and shop my heart out at the Christmas markets.
So that’s the rough break-down. But what were my highlights? And what did I learn?
Foodie Tour of Saigon with XO Tours: discovering Saigon from the back of a Scooter, through the medium of delicious food, with fantastic company XO Tours, which employs all-female driver-guides. BLOG POST HERE
Seeing Icebergs in Iceland: I’ve always wanted to see icebergs, and taking a boat ride around the glacial lake at Fjallsarlon certainly did not disappoint. BLOG POST HERE
Trekking through Sapa: I’ve already mentioned this, but this was one of the things I was most afraid of on my trip to Cambodia and Vietnam. Not because of any security risks, but because I was scared I wouldn’t be up to the task. After all, writing is a fairly sedentary line of work, and I’m not great at spending enough time outdoors. But as it happened, I needn’t have worried, and it was one of the best sections of my trip! (Blog post to follow in the new year.)
Watching the world float by from the Mekong: There’s something so idyllic about travelling by boat – particularly along a river. You get to watch the world drift by at such a leisurely pace, seeing into people’s lives in a way that just isn’t possible when you’re speeding by in a car or train. Seeing the sunrise over the Mekong, as the fishing boats headed out and people started their days, was a particular highlight. (Blog post to follow in the new year.)
Road tripping with Jessi: There are some people who just make travel easy. And some people who make every moment an adventure. And then there are the rare ones who do both. Road tripping around Iceland’s Route 1 with Jessi just reminded me how much I love this style of travel: the freedom of being in a stunning landscape with your own 4 wheels, and a good friend to help you decide where to take them.
WHAT DID I LEARN?
For one thing this year, I reaffirmed by belief that I’m not one of those people who’d like to be completely nomadic. I just love home too much, and I like stopping to rest in a familiar place, and spending time with familiar faces. I also learned that travel isn’t about grand narrative, most of the time. After all, travel is largely about having experiences and making memories, and the brain tends to store these as vignettes, not epic sagas. Travel, for me, is about moments.
So I’m planning to reflect this in the blog posts I write in the new year.
Some of these will be opinion pieces – ‘Tea Break Thoughts’, which I’ve started writing this year, and which I’ve enjoyed experimenting with. I’m also planning to write more descriptive pieces, trying to capture the essence of a place through words. After all, this is how I tend to record my travels in the first place, and I like the idea of being able to translate the feel of being in a particular place at a particular time into words. It speaks to the creative writer in me.
Of course, I’m still going to take photos. Taking photos helps me focus visually when I travel. It helps me notice the detail, by thinking about what to frame. And for me, the whole purpose of this blog is encouraging myself to observe and engage more when I travel.
And, because I’ve loved it so much this year, I’m going to keep eating (and writing about) food! It may feel like I’ve eaten a feast for 50 over Christmas, but I love exploring a place through its food, and I love trying new flavours and textures (even when it is fermented shark in Iceland…) – so bring on the eating!
SO WHAT’S IN STORE FOR 2018?
Well, I’m planning to dial it back a bit this year – at least in terms of the long haul trips. I’m saving, you see, for something big in a couple of years time…
But for now, that means it’s all about more local travel. I’ve got UK road trip planned for the early summer, and potentially some time exploring a bit more of my own back yard. (When your own back yard happens to be the Lake District National Park – now a UNESCO heritage site, that’s no bad thing.)
I’m also hoping to start combining travel with my writing career. In a few weeks, I’m heading to St Ives on a writing retreat with some amazing poets. And I’m also applying for residencies overseas. Whether any of these applications will come good is very much up in the air, but at least if I apply then I’m in with a chance.
In the meantime, I’m going to spend the start of the year looking back – and looking forward. After all, that’s the meaning of January: it comes from ‘Janus’, the Roman god with two faces. One to look forward, one to look back. So with that in mind, I’m going to be giving the blog a bit of a makeover, giving more priority to the posts (which after all is what the blog is all about) and less to all the other random pages that don’t really matter so much. That’s the looking forward. Then the looking back will be a few reflective pieces about travel, more about the places I’ve visited in 2017, and hopefully a little bit about my own home country.
Happy end of 2017, and see you in the new year!