A Fair Crack Of The Whip

A few nights ago I couldn’t sleep. Try as I might, I couldn’t drift off.
This isn’t the first time I’ve struggled to get my forty winks since I’ve been away. Sometimes I’ve stayed awake all night due to inadvertently reversing my sleeping patterns by not getting to bed til daylight of that morning. Once in particular I was kept awake by a particularly noisy couple getting down to business.

This time was different. The only reason I couldn’t sleep was because I started thinking all about the fun I’ve had in the last eight months and for hours I couldn’t relax.

Since the first of May I’ve flown somewhere close to thirty thousand miles round the globe and travelled about another 20 thousand more overland.

I’ve been to 10 different countries, travelling on buses, trains, monorails, coaches, minibuses, yachts, ferries, riverboats, motorbikes, mopeds, hire cars, taxis, vans, tuk tuks, rickshaws, planes and helicopters.

I’ve been through electric monsoon storms, snow and blazing sunshine.

I’ve gone up the Empire State Building, wandered round the Sydney Opera House, the Grand Palace in Bangkok and the Ancient Angkor Ruins in Cambodia, and crossed the skybridge of the Petronas Towers in Malaysia.

I’ve walked underneath the Sydney Harbour Bridge, crossed The Bridge Over the River Kwai in Kanchanaburi and the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.

I’ve cruised round the Whitsunday Islands on a Catamaran, I’ve been kayaking and bamboo rafting in oceans and rivers. I’ve floated on inflated tyre tubes down two different rivers in two different hemispheres and travelled for two days on a boat down the mighty Mekong River.

I’ve relaxed on beaches that tourist boards would not unfairly describe as ‘Paradise’ in 3 different continents. I’ve trekked through rainforests in Fiji and Australia and round lakes and over glaciers and volcanoes in New Zealand.

I’ve swum in the plunge pools of waterfalls in Laos and Fiji and the crystal clear lakes of Fraser Island.

I’ve learnt a lot more about the countries I’ve been to than I ever thought I would. I’ve seen displays of traditional Maori, Lao, Fijian and Aboriginal cultures and eaten the traditional cuisines of every country I’ve been to, including one ill-advised drunken moment with a fried cricket in Bangkok.

I’ve crossed a border where, in the same 24 hours, terrorists shot five police dead and set off a bomb. I’ve been to the prison museums of Alcatraz and S21. I’ve wandered round the mass execution site of the Killing Fields in Cambodia and been to an island that only months previously was decimated by the Tsunami of Boxing Day 2004.

I’ve seen Crocodiles, Monkeys, Whales, Dolphins, Turtles, Kangaroos, Iguanas, Elephants, Buffalo, Kookaburras and Koalas in their natural environment.

I’ve stroked Tigers, fed Kangaroos, chased giant Lizards, ducked giant Butterflies and stamped on giant Cockroaches.

At the Westpac stadium in Wellington I watched The British Lions take on Wellington on their tour of NZ. I went to a Muay Thai (kickboxing) fight in Bangkok, and got my photo taken with the new Champion.

I’ve met some of the most amazing people, both locals and fellow travellers, and have made some very good friends along the way.

All that, and I’ve hardly even mentioned the dangerous activities yet. I’ve been whitewater rafting on grade 5 rapids, spent two weeks snowboarding on the mountains of New Zealand, been luging in Rotorua and thrown myself off cliffs, rickety wooden platforms and waterfalls into rivers with reckless abandon.

I’ve flown over the Whitsunday Islands in a tiny bubble helicopter and jetboated round the Buller River at breakneck speed. I’ve crawled over 100 metres down pitch dark tunnels used during the Vietnam war, scarcely wide enough to fit my shoulders in, experiencing a nasty dose of claustrophobia for the first time in my life.

I’ve skydived out of an aeroplane flying 12,000 feet above the ground, somewhat unwisely putting my life in the hands of a man who wears a Kiss haircut and a golf visor without irony.

Finally, I bungy jumped 47 metres off a platform 400 metres up a mountain, wait for it, in the dark.

What on earth was I thinking?

Eight Months. How did I fit it all in? I experienced all of this, and probably a lot more that I can’t even remember off the top of my head, and somehow completely avoided serious injury, illness or disease. I also avoided being robbed, conned, and at one point, shot or blown up. Basically, I lived to tell the tale.

So you can see how, with only a few days left of my journey, I got carried away thinking about my experiences and temporarily forgot how to sleep. The eight months I spent before going away involved 50 hours a week of work, football on a Wednesday night, maybe a couple of beers at the Richmond Arms on a Sunday afternoon and not much else. I’ve been to places where if not the sense of suffering, then just the sheer poverty alone, made me realise just how lucky I was to have even the monotony of that routine. To have travelled the circumference of the world and seen sights and experienced things that I will remember for the rest of my life has been a dream come true, and I am so grateful to have had the chance to do it.

Unfortunately, now I’ve come home this is the last you’ll all be hearing from Big Joe, which for me is a crying shame. If only one person has enjoyed reading this diary half as much as I’ve enjoyed writing it, then it’s all been worthwhile. If I’ve inspired people to do some of the things I’ve done or go to the places I’ve been, then even better.

So anyway, on the 17th of December, a couple of days after the sleepless night, I was due to fly home. Not that my family knew that of course.

I had originally been booked to fly home on the 7th of December, but since I came away my friends and ex-housemates Mike and Elaine have organised a trip of their own, and were due to fly into Bangkok on the 9th, so I put my flight home back by ten days so that I could stay out to see them. However, I told the folks I’d postponed it for a month, and would be home on the 7th of January. In the meantime I had a suit fitted, and met up with Mike and Elaine. After a couple of days chilling with them on Ko Samet, we got back to Bangkok.

On the 16th of December I picked up my suit, put it on, packed my bag and headed to the airport, with the plan of turning up in Ipswich wearing my suit and surprising the family by coming home for Christmas.

After a long flight home, and a nice easy train journey, I rolled up in the taxi down the hill from my house. I had planned to phone them, tell them I was calling from Bangkok to wish them a happy Christmas, because we were going to be spending it on an island and I didn’t know if I’d be able to phone from there, and while I was on the phone to them, I’d let myself in and stroll in through the door.

I tried to phone and nobody picked up. Balls. I strolled up the hill and Dad was talking to the neighbour over the front wall. I called out to him and he turned to look at me with a frown of confusion on his face. The seconds ticked by as I smiled at him. After about ten or fifteen seconds, literally, his eyebrows raised as he worked out who I was. ‘Joe!’ he called, and after another extended pause ‘What the bloody hell are you doing home?’

We went inside and Oz, our pet dog, didn’t have the same trouble recognising me. I had to do a few deft sidesteps to stop him ruining my new threads by jumping up at me.

Over a superb cup of tea (one of the main things I’ve missed) Dad told me the reason it’d taken him so long to work out it was me. He’d apparently seen the suit and the long dark overcoat and immediately thought ‘Oh no, it’s the bloody mormons come to preach at me’. Charming. He didn’t even recognise his own son!

Later on my Mum and Sister came in. They both looked at me with the same confused expression, although they were both a bit quicker on the uptake than the old man.

After eight months away, visiting all the places I’ve visited and seeing all the things I’ve seen, I can now fully confirm the old proverb. There is officially No Place Like Home.

However, ask me in a few weeks and I may well have itchy feet again.

All that’s left for me to say is so long, and thanks for reading.

Joe Bloomfield: Retired Diarist, Trainee Thumb-Twiddler.

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