By Madeleine Forbes Ten years ago I said goodbye to my parents at Heathrow Airport. I remember they bought me breakfast, a dry croissant that stuck to the roof of my mouth. Later, I wrote in my diary that I felt “removed, relaxed, a slight sick feeling in my stomach”. I did not cry, I noted proudly, until I was walking through the tunnel from the gate.
I was eighteen years old and it was the first time I had ever been on a plane.
I feel sad when I think about that time. Sad for all the things I thought might happen that never did. The possibilities that once seemed to stretch over the horizon have gradually dissolved. That’s not a complaint, it’s just the way life is. With every year that passes, opportunities pass too. I will not, in all probability, have published my first novel before I’m thirty. I’m too old to be a prodigy, and unlikely to be a millionaire at any point: I’ve made too many choices in other directions. Ten years ago these were still things that had yet to be decided.
I thought I was an adult. I had stayed out all night at grimy raves in East London. I had been assistant director of a play which we took to the Edinburgh Fringe festival, sleeping in bunks in a hostel in the depths of the city. I’d spent three days in Paris with a boy I loved, who had subsequently broken my heart. I thought that one of the things that the trip would achieve would be finally moving on from him.
I had been waitressing and working front of house at a children’s theatre, so I was financially independent. Kind of. I had saved for the trip myself but as I was still living with my parents and paying no rent or bills, I now see this for the delusion it was. I knew how to roll a joint, flirt, write essays, and drive a car. I had secured a place at Oxford University to read English Literature, and now I was off on my requisite gap year travels. I was going to become a Well Rounded Person and Find Myself, and write some kind of Great Work in the process.
So when the volunteer program in Northern India, which I’d written about lovingly on my university applications, fell through, I was unfazed. I’d read a lot of Lonely Planets by then and Southeast Asia sounded easy. A piece of cake. I don’t remember feeling any fear as I found the cheapest flight, which happened to feature a change of planes in Kuwait. In 2003 the second gulf war was just starting and I remember that I was worried a US invasion of Iraq might disrupt my plans. I felt kind of glamorous as I speculated about it, as though I had already gained something of what I wanted from traveling, without actually having gone anywhere.
I had nothing booked and no contacts. I read and read, my way of making sense of the world back then when I still trusted words above all else. I had memorized almost every aspect of my potential route, train connections and visa requirements and areas to avoid. I had a tiny first aid kit and a travel towel and a money belt and a mosquito net. I had reduced my possessions, as advised by the Lonely Planet, to the bare minimum. I had I think one pair of shorts, one pair of trousers, a couple of t shirts. I planned to be away for at least six months.
As things turned out, the boy I was getting over is the same one I’m planning our wedding with now. I thought I was starting my career as a writer, filling notebook after notebook with smudges and stains from the cheap blotchy biros I bought on the road. This year, finally writing again, I finished the stack of blank books I brought home with me, like little neon tiles, adorned with kitschy asian cartoons. It was like picking up a baton from eighteen year old me.
There was that long patch in between. A decade, in fact. When I tried out wanting other things. I tried so hard I went full circle and had to go away again. That’s another story, involving bicycles, wild boar and a Uruguyan nomad, and that’s how I find myself here.
All those miles later, back where I started. Eighteen and stupid. I didn’t understand anything then, and yet I knew more than I thought I did. In a funny way, I already knew everything.