Until recently, I never thought I was the kind of person who liked to travel. For starters, I never had anyone to go with. My friends either had children or 9-to-5 jobs which meant they couldn’t pack up and go on some off-season adventure (the only types I could afford). Those who could preferred to spend a weekend on the beach, tanning, drinking and ‘being still’ – my idea of total hell – instead of exploring ruins or learning things in a museum or hunting down famous art pieces that were hidden amongst the masses. Add on the fact that it would mean I would be forced to leave my comfort zone. All of these things combined always lead to the same conclusion: traveling was a huge ‘no-no’ for me.
Last January, a writer friend invited me to hear her speak at The Hague in the Netherlands at the end of April. I politely replied that I would look into it, all the while adamant that it would be forgotten and never be spoken of again. An hour later, she had sent me e-mails packed with information: flight plans, train timetables, things to do in the area, even details of how to obtain an iAmsterdam city card so I could actually do them. She would put me up for a week, she explained. That way I wouldn’t have to pay for food or a roof over my head. As for the talk in The Hague? Her and her husband were driving there with an extra seat in the car, and she could secure me a ticket without any problem.
Before the night was over, my tickets were booked, my iAmsterdam card ordered and my suitcase open and ready to be packed. I don’t know if it was an inability to say ‘no’ to her that made it happen or the fact that the trip was potentially inexpensive. Maybe I had just lost control of my senses for a moment, after all I’d met her through Twitter, didn’t know whether she or her husband were really who they said they were (they could have been Hannibal Lecter worshipers for all I knew!) and was planning on leaving the country by myself for the very first time.
Looking back on it now, it’s safe to say that uncharacteristic leap of faith changed my life. It created and solidified what is now one of my most cherished relationships. In fact, we’ve only just come home from travelling around Belgium together and are already planning another adventure for the end of the year. My leap of faith has unlocked in me a curiosity I didn’t realise I had. For someone who never liked to even go to the cinema alone, I’m now willing to explore entire cities without someone holding my hand. Is it still scary? sometimes, yes. But damn is it worth it.
And the best bit? It’s making me a better writer!
WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW
I used to hate the phrase ‘write what you know’. I used to think of it as a restriction. I’ve never had a child, does that mean I’m not allowed to write about them? I come from an Indian-African family, does that mean I can’t write about a Caucasian American? Through my travels I’ve learned that I was wrong. ‘Write what you know’ isn’t the restriction. The real restriction is writing only what you know about your own life, the group of people in it and the small fraction of the world around you.
I’m a Londoner, born and bred. I love everything about London. I love the sights, the sounds, the smells. I love that it’s a multicultural city, filled with people of all faiths, backgrounds, orientations. But I live here. London is my home. I know the regulars at the BFI (British Film Institute), I know the Starbucks baristas for the braches I frequent, I know the women who walk past my house to pick and drop their kids up from school. The majority of people around here are either people like me, born and bred in London, or who left their home countries so long ago that they’re practically native Londoners. I can’t write a character from Saudi Arabia based on a Saudi friend that has never been to her motherland.
I can pop into the British Museum and learn about Egypt, but I won’t REALLY know it until I’ve been there, until I’ve experienced it first-hand. Which way does the water swirl when the toilets flush in Egypt? Clockwise or anticlockwise? It may not be relevant to writing a character, but the point is that you won’t really know unless you’ve experienced it. We can research things, we can make things up, but when it comes to the details, the feeling, the smells, our authenticity gets flushed down that toilet – clockwise or anticlockwise, we can’t be entirely sure.
No two people are the same. They each have their own stories to tell and travelling, I’ve learnt, teaches you to pay attention to them. I once met a woman named Vera. I was heading up to Scotland to visit my sister, and Vera, along with her husband and her handicapped son, Philip, were heading up to celebrate her mother’s 96th birthday. We talked for hours about how she was one of nine siblings born in Ireland and now lived in Australia, how her and her husband had been travelling the world since retiring a few years before. She gleefully shared an anecdote about how a visit to a café in Wales where a black cat jumped onto their table and started drinking the milk straight from the milk jar had caused her husband to detest all cats.
For some inexplicable reason, I wrote everything I remembered of Vera’s story as soon as I got off the train. I confess, I’ve never used any of the details, but I’ve often thought about her as I write characters. A character might share her openness or use one of the pet names that she called (she never once asked me my name). In many ways, Vera has stayed with me. She may not be in the novel I’m writing at the moment, but you never know when her story about planning to fly to Adelaide with her son in order to avoid a long car or boat journey, only to discover that their flight had been cancelled, will find its way into one of my books. She didn’t grow up in London like my friends and I did. She didn’t speak the same way as we do or laugh at the same jokes. She was completely unique. I once read that ‘stories live inside other stories’. The stories you hear will join a plot that you already have and make it complex, nuanced and far more interesting!
WHEN IN ROME, DO AS THE ROMANS DO
When you’re around the people you know, you have a reputation to keep, an image to maintain. When you’re travelling though, none of that matters! The world opens up and the possibilities suddenly become endless. Those things that you’re afraid to do, that dress you’re too shy to wear, that thing you’re too nervous to try because you may look stupid doing it? They’re all things you can finally do! Why? Because you’re never going see those people again. And if you do, they may end up becoming some of the most important people in your life: your soul sister, your brother from another mother, the love of your life.
The point is to get out there. Explore. Take risks. Learn. Go to Rome and figure out what the hell the Romans do that makes the saying ‘when in Rome, do as the Romans do’ so significant! Travelling is good for the soul, it makes us more tolerant and understanding and, if you’re doing it right, it just makes you a better person all together. Get off your chair, escape the confines of your room, and see something new. Talk to new people. Absorb information. Bonus points for the fact that all of these things will exponentially add to your writing arsenal!