I wrote this after a rather dismal day in the office. Inside. Not outside. Enjoy. Then leave the house.
It’s a beautiful day outside and when I see the blue sky, I think of the many times I’ve been out of doors enjoying beautiful weather. I think of sailing in the Mediterranean, I think of tennis, of working in Bolivia, of hiking, of swimming in the summer, of cycling holidays with Tim, of windsurfing, of skiing. In fact I think of all those joys that come from being outdoors under a beautiful blue sky. I look up at the sky and wish to be outside, out there, not in here. I long to be at the beach or on a boat or drinking lemonade in the shade next to the tennis court. I long to be looking down at the skiers and snowboarders from the chairlift that is taking me high up into the mountains.
I long to be working with the Bolivian maestros (foremen), wiping sweat from my brow as I take a pause from the digging that we’ve been doing all morning. I long to drink in the view over La Paz that takes my breath away again and again and again. Illimani sits majestic in the distance, like a mother watching over her brood below. We’re so high, I feel as though I can actually reach out and touch the sky. As we hike up to Chacaltaya, we are as close to the sky as I have ever been on land. We’re at 15 thousand feet and in two different directions I can see mountains over 20,000 feet. I can see all the way to Chile, over a hundred miles away but the air is so clear I can see mountains in that country. The wind picks up and threatens to blow us over the edge. We are atop the highest ski slope in the world, though you would have to have had your brain removed to even contemplate skiing on the sheer ice that stretches down as far as the eye can see.
I am sitting on the roof of an Ecuadorian bus. Why am I sitting on the roof? Because life tastes better up here. We travelers are wedged between our rucksacks and the huge sacks that the locals have heaved onto the racks. We’re clinging on for dear life as the bus lurches round bends on its way along the valley. We can peer up the cliff above and we can catch glimpses down into the valley floor where far below the river is wending its way to the ocean. It has begun to rain and we are starting to get cold. We wonder why we chose to sit up top but we know why. It is because the pull of traveling outdoors is as potent as whisky to the alcoholic. When the bus gets up speed, we are almost blown off. The rain pelts our faces and we squint our eyes to see. Our hands are turning numb with the exertion of holding on and we are loving every minute. We wave at passers-by like children on a school trip. We shout enquiries and strain to hear answers that are blown away in the wind. Periodically, the bus will stop to pick up passengers and we are given relief from the fierce wind. More and more sacks with grain and beans and corn are piled up with us. It is becoming cramped. Some of us decide to go inside. I am one of the few who remain. I will cling to the outdoors until I am forced to retreat.
I am on my father’s boat in the Mediterranean and there is one overriding presence that fills the whole day. It is the sun. We bathe in it, we shelter from it, we protect ourselves from it. We dive into the water and swim around the boat. We haul ourselves out and sit under the awning to eat our lunch. Bread, cheese, tomatoes, beer. More suntan cream is needed. The sun is relentless. In fact it seems hotter now that it is 2.30pm. We take off for the next anchorage. The wind in our faces, the sun on our backs, we watch the coastline gradually change as we motor past. Cliffs turn to beaches turn to rocky shorelines. We are in the open and the indoor life couldn’t be further away. The sky is our ceiling, the boat is our office.
I am drinking deeply from the glass of lemonade. I wipe my brow and turn to John, my partner. We are up by one set. We need the second to secure victory for our team. The opposition is talented but they lack the burning desire to win. We steal points, scrap for them, run a little faster, dive a little further and we know we must continue in this way to win. The grass on which we play is soft and firm. It is the queen of tennis surfaces. It raises our standard. The sun is high in the sky but clouds are gathering. The school towers over us, watching, expecting. We serve, retrieve, volley and play beyond our own ability. We cajole each other, encourage, urge each other on. The last serve is returned. John moves in and volleys it powerfully at the feet of the startled boy from who knows where. We don’t care. We simply enjoy the satisfaction that is called ‘winning’. The shadows are beginning to form across the lawns. It is late afternoon. An English summer day is drawing to a close.
And now I am cycling up a hill towards Bath with my friend Tim. As with most English summers, the weather has been changeable. For now it is sunny but puffy white clouds are forming. The wheat fields that we pass are golden, ready for harvest. Soon the hedgerows are too tall for us to see the fields. We find a small village shop, where we park our bikes against the wall. We buy some drinks and sit down against the wall and rest our weary legs. We close our eyes and enjoy the sensation of tiredness borne of healthy exercise. We chat with the shopkeeper, a middle-aged woman, about the local area, the people who live here, the route we should take. We thank her, climb onto our tottering bikes laden with panniers full of luggage, and push on towards the next hill. We chat about nonsense mostly. We sing silly songs. Tim is fit and I am struggling but in a few years time, that is reversed. We each have our season. We are outdoors, we are bounded by the sky, the road and hedgerows. We feel the wind in our faces, the rain at times. We feel the exhilaration of speed, the agony of strained muscles, the sheer joy of travel in the open. And it is the latter that stirs us the most. To travel in the open, to move through God’s earth and to observe it and enjoy its ever-changing face is to enjoy travel to the full. Perhaps this is why I have traveled so much. It delights so much, rewards so much, fills me with wonder. And to do it in the open, that truly is the best travel of all, to experience the elements, however they may confront.
Were the great explorers of the past hooked on outdoor travel? Probably. I’m sure some were addicted. Livingston, Shackleton, the Portuguese of the 15C and 16C, explorers like Dias, Vasco da Gama and Magellan. I am not Shackleton and certainly no seeker after greatness and the pursuit of breeching the next physical boundary. It is enough for me simply to be outdoors, to enjoy the wonder of this earth and for the opportunities to do this I am truly thankful.