A lesson I never seem to learn: Headphones are ESSENTIAL for all public transport journeys. No matter where you are in the world, there will always be someone with boogers rattling round in their nasal cavities like socks in a tumble dryer. There will always be the equivalent of an 80-year-old man shouting at his newspaper in Russian, spitting on his fingers before he turns each page, muttering to himself as he snaps his briefcase open shut open shut, slurping on chocolate bars so loudly you can hear his dentures rattle, all without a break for four hundred freaking kilometres!
So, after all that we got back to Latvia this morning, and now I keep thinking about potatoes. Yesterday we were on yet another bus scooting around the south-east corner of Lithuania, just me and Rhi and a driver with gigantic shoulders and a slightly nutty guide. An organised tour was the most straightforward way to reach this particular location. There were only the two of us on the tour. There was nowhere to hide, so we were extra keen to pay attention to every story and express awe at every item in every museum.
Anyway, back to the potatoes. This area of the country was all about agriculture. But it was also extremely poor. Our bright shiny bus whizzed past locals hunched over potato crops, headscarves shielding them from the relentless sun. Others worked the earth with crumbly tools, some drove carts, the horses ambling slowly on dusty lanes. I spotted one solitary tractor all day, two puffs of black smoke hanging in the sky.
The guide caught me looking and said, “This is very poor part of Lithuania. They have to work very hard.”
“Would you like us to take you somewhere nice for lunch?”
She asked us a lot about our lives, asked us what it was like in Australia, asked us how we could be so young and afford to travel so far. She asked us if we were rich. What do you say to that? I could have said how we had scrimped and saved to come here, but how ridiculous would that have sounded with the potato people right there? I felt apologetic and guilty and cranky all at the same time.
At one stage the guide got the driver to stop the bus. She skipped across the road and pulled some strange wildflower out of the ground. She crushed the little brown pods in her hand so a tiny seed was revealed.
“What you call these in English?”
“I’ve honestly haven’t seen them before.”
“Yes, you must! Children eat them.”
“Umm… I guess we haven’t got them in Australia.”
“Ha!” she smiled, “There is nothing you have not got in Australia.”
Last night back in our dodgy hotel I flicked on BBC World to see what was happening back home. There was a story on suicide, and how Lithuania had the highest rate in the world. 30 people every week in a country of just 3.7 million.
I know a lot of you people out there have travelled a lot, and wonder anyone feels this same bewildered frustration about the world that I am struggling with right now. I’ve been away from Britain for nearly two weeks now and feel like I have learned so much about this Baltic chunk of the planet, about its complicated history and politics. It’s nice to build this tiny awareness and understanding of a place you barely thought of before.
But at the same time, you’re in a complete vacuum when you travel. You are so wrapped up in your cushy and privileged travellers world, absorbing new places and experiences, that you can start losing perspective. You can fall out of touch with what’s happening elsewhere. When I heard about the Jakarta bombing I felt this sinking, horrible feeling of being so far away from everyone. Then I thought of how it’s been almost 18 months since we left Australia, how out of touch I am with the issues of the upcoming election. I even started worrying about family and friends and if I have done enough to stay in touch with them and make sure they know they’re missed.
None of this makes any sense and no doubt sounds like a pile of wank. I’m just confused and homesick, for Scotland and Australia.
Sometimes I just lay awake at night, squinting at the ceiling and feeling so excited about life, dizzy with this appetite for the world, feeling ever more alive and aware since I left home. But sometimes I think I am just as ignorant and indulgent as ever, and in danger of disappearing up my own arse.