words & images simon ochen
I hiked along the coast, carrying my 65-liter backpack, a small day-pack, and my guitar. I was stopping at every hotel along the way, sure that the sun was out to dehydrate me. But even though nearly ten hotels said "No," I left them all with a smile, saying “Thanks for your time.” I kept walking, knowing that there was a place out there that would accept my request.
If it’s low season in the town or if there simply aren’t enough guests in a hotel, I know that I can always go to the police station and camp out there. It happened to me during my first night in Namibia. I had hitched over four days through the Western Cape to reach the oldest desert in the world—the Namib.
It was late afternoon as I hung around the border gate, chatting with the guard who organized a ride for me with a Spaniard. He was heading to a town called Aus. The sun had already set when I approached the only hotel in town. It was fully booked. They gave me a slice of cake and a coffee and directed me to the police station up the hill.
Not only did the police put me up for the night, but they also took me out to the local bar where I got my ass whooped at pool by the station chief. The cops bought me drinks, and I played guitar for a few hours to make it worth their while—I hope (What I call singing, most people call, ‘Shut up!’).
Later, hitching through Tanzania, I arrived at Mwanza, on the shores of Lake Victoria. It was no easy feat to spend two days on a truck covering 941 kilometers. I may as well have taken a long-haul flight. After I fought off an attempt by some beggars who trying to pick the wrong pocket, a local man said, “Hello, welcome to Mwanza.”
We talked for a bit and, after I explained my travel ways, he invited me to stay with his family. They lived in a tiny house where an entire room (that doubled as the kitchen) was cleared out just for me. I stayed for a week and volunteered as a teacher at his school.
Abandoning conventional methods of travel, I love nothing more than starting the day without knowing how I’ll get to where I’m going. I’ll hit the road and start to hitchhike. I may get a ride within ten minutes, or it may take a few hours—my longest wait was four hours and twenty minutes.
My belief is that there’s a reason why a certain someone will stop for you out of the hundreds of cars that zip by at 120 kilometers an hour. I always laugh when some of the cars pull into the furthest lane, as if you might just jump on them as they speed by. And eventually, when someone does stop—and they will, because they always do—you’ll get the ride that you were supposed to get. This is whether they feed you, offer you a place to stay, or simply go out of their way to make sure that you’ve arrived safely at your destination.
Still in Tanzania, I was hiking on the road outside of Arusha, trying to get a ride to Nairobi, Kenya. A Landcruiser stopped, but the driver said that he was just around and left. I managed to get a lift with another car that took me about thirty kilometers down the road. As I began to hike again, the same Landcruiser that had appeared before now stopped again, heading in the opposite direction.
“Come on, I’ll take you to the border,” the driver said. “I have some stuff to do there.”
We U-turned and talked about life, marriage, philosophy and music as we made our way down the stretch of road. Back in Arusha, I had said ‘Hello’ and we had established a connection that paid off in the end. Since being in Africa for over a year, I’ve said ‘Hello’ to almost everyone on the street, with almost everyone greeting me back.
Sometimes the greetings turn into conversations that lead to a beer, a smoke, an adventure. It’s astounding to me that in most Western cities, if you say ‘Hello’ randomly to people, the majority will look at you like you’ve just escaped from an asylum.
It was two years ago when my mum and her partner came down to visit me in Melbourne over Easter weekend. We flew down to Tasmania along with my uncle and aunt, and rented a car to travel around. My uncle and aunt had to leave after the weekend, while I spent another week with my mum and her partner driving around the island and hiking Cradle Mountain.
We reached a tiny town called Hamilton, where we decided to spend the night. I was in the shower, with the hot water running, steaming up the mirrors and glass, and all I could think about was how my attempt at running a business was failing back in Melbourne.
Physically, I was on holiday. Mentally? I was going insane with worry about materialistic things: the car, supplies, building up enough to hire people, salaries, worrying about the traffic that I’d have to deal with in the city everyday, and pleasing my business partner.
And then it hit me—the bathroom shelf as it dislodged from the wall. I rubbed my head and my thoughts started to race:
"I don’t get why you keep teetering on the edge, mate. You’ve always wanted to travel, so what? You’re gonna work your ass off until you’re sixty-five, and retire physically and mentally drained? You’ll never be able to climb mountains, trek long paths, or surf epic waves when you’re dishing out for medication every week. You can play guitar, you can write, you can do anything you put your mind to. You’re still young, relatively good-lookin’ and fit. You’ve got no commitments. No partner, no mortgage, no contract—even on your current rental.”
Indeed, the only contract that I was bound to was with my mobile phone service provider, which I knew that I could easily discard.
"Jump off the edge, mate."
Four weeks later, I sat behind the wheel of my small Hyundai Excel hatchback, the key in the ignition, the engine silent. I had loaded my belongings the night before, and now here I was on a dark, typically cold Melbourne morning. I couldn't hear the sparse traffic on the nearly empty street, as my head was overflowing with the realization of what I was about to do: I was about to go nomadic.
My thoughts bulldozed all of my other senses: "Are you serious? Is this really what you wanna do? Will we really be able to survive on nothing? How are you gonna cross the ocean? You’ve never sailed in your life! What is that burning sensation in your pinky toe?"
Two years later, I stand by the side of the road, my thumb out, watching the hundreds of cars and trucks barreling past, wondering where the next trip will take me.
Plan nothing and you’ll never be disappointed. Let the road take you on the adventure of your life. You’ll never look back in regret.