Which of your life’s firsts do you treasure the most?
First beer, first kiss, first car?
I spent so many of my formative years mentally preparing for these moments that they never engendered in me any kind of deep fondness for them; they all just wilted in the winters that followed their bloom.
My life’s great firsts have always come without any warning, forethought or planning; the first time I pulled a Tom Waits record from my dads collection and sat cross-legged and mesmerised for hours, the first time I saw Eric Cantona control a football at Old Trafford, the first dawning of psilocybin induced euphoria, the first time i read House of Leaves, The Aleph or Ham on Rye. These firsts are the stalwarts that serve to punctuate all the great epochs of my time on earth thus far.
I carried this mentality with me on my foray into world travel and it paid off like a charm. I planned only the first nights accommodation of a four month adventure around South America three years ago, this may seem like a daunting endeavor to most but trust me it is the only way to truly have an adventure.
Too much staring at photographs of great landmarks can leave you thoroughly underwhelmed when you actually come face to face with them; booking accommodation too far in advance will leave you stuck somewhere whilst the new friends you will definitely make (everyone makes new friends on the road) travel onwards. On that note, don’t look too much into what there is to do in a country, there is no match for the experiences of other travellers, drink in their knowledge, it will take you places you know nothing of and thus increasing the element of surprise infinitely, and it’ll almost certainly save you some money (guidebook prices are almost always out of date).
The best times you will have will be spontaneous; a night out with new friends in a strange city, finding out the ocean glows like a Disney movie when you disturb it at night, stepping off a night bus in the middle of nowhere to witness a night sky completely unaffected by man made light (see further down), or a seven hour trip to a desert oasis not mentioned in any guidebooks, too much planning or too organised a tour always leaves me feeling like I haven’t really experienced what i needed too.
Once again completely by chance, I added another of my life’s great firsts in the dead of night just outside Villazon, high on the Bolivian plains a few hours from the Argentinian border. Travelling south with Dave, a lad from Yorkshire i had become friends with on the road; we were riding in the front two seats of a horrendous night bus, oversold (expect nothing less from Bolivian travel) and perilously humid, bodies were strewn throughout the bus, a young girl lay in the aisle by my feet, occasionally resting her head on my leg, the woman behind travelling with two dead chickens in a bag. I tried to sleep through the turmoil, but the state of the roads and the vehicle conspired to noose that dreams neck up real tight. Around 1am i drifted off, sleep had befallen most of the carriage like a carbon monoxide leak. “BANOS, BANOS”, like a starter’s pistol the bodies ignited and drained our metal carriage. Dave left with them, i stayed in the hope of another five minutes of sleep, and the thought of thirty Bolivians expelling their insides within ear shot did nothing to maneuver my feet in that direction.
“You should see that sky out there” Dave said in passing as he shuffled in front of me to his seat, my interest peaked.
Now, ever since I first read A Brief History of Time in my mid twenties, my love of the universe has grown exponentially. The year leading up to my trip I spent almost every day reading, watching and listening to anything and everything related to planetary science, from audio recordings of Richard Feynman lectures on quantum mechanics to Carl Sagan’s tour de force ‘Cosmos’. A passion had been forged within me, and that passion begat a need (for want of a better word, need doesn’t really do it justice) to survey the undisturbed heavens, just the way our ancestors have for many a millenia before us. The Milky Way, completely devoid of light pollution was my holy grail, my mecca, and now here it was, illuminating the shit and piss of several dozen third world night travellers.
Such is life.
My eyes never fell below the horizon from the very second I stepped off that bus, bleary eyed and half asleep my life changed forever. In my wildest dreams the Milky Way split the sky like a thin sliver of silver and grey, like an equator on the night. But what I saw, seemed for a moment impossible. Our neighbourhood arm of the Milky Way postured and dominated an abundance of the night sky, a billion iridescent beacons of solar mass dispersed amongst the gas clouds illuminated bright green, purple, yellow and silver. Swollen around the belly with ancient light, coming to a point around two horizons. I couldn’t help but think what civilisation would be like if this is what we all bathed in every night, how fickle our petty disputes would seem, how ephemeral our time here would seem when faced with the blinding echoes of deep space-time, how ridiculous our separation of creeds and religions must seem looking out at an apparently infinite number of beds for creation.
How humble our primitive selves must have been.
I marvelled for several minutes, slack jawed at this masterpiece painted on black, until the engine of the bus growled and my moment in paradise was gone, as quick as it came. I took my seat back amongst the bodies and reeled at what I had just bare witness to. I do not remember the rest of that journey to the border, I could have ridden a black serpent to the gates of Hedes and been completely none the wiser.
That was a moment that i definitely couldn’t have planned.