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A Return to Required Reading

Outside the window, never-ending rain is making the fields swampy and the sheep soggy. The weather’s a good reason, in my mind, to stay curled up in this Kangaroo Island hostel, scribbling in my travel journal. All my latest entries deal with the fact that my visa is expiring – it’s time to think about going home. Two years ago, in a dormitory room at my Canadian university, I stayed up late listing all the foreign places I wanted to visit. Now I’m making another list. Take a bath; shop for furniture; pet the cat: a list of all the familiarities I want to embrace.

Required reading: don't forget a fly net
Required reading: don’t forget a fly net
Not on the list, though, is back to school, even though I will be going. Yes, I took this trip to Australia in an effort to regain my academic focus. As did a lot of other travelers I met on the road. Over plates of pasta in hostel kitchens we talked about why we’d come overseas (burnout, boredom, lack of direction). The problem is, whatever my trip has taught me, it isn’t how to love homework. After a year where required reading was the beer menu in bars and a deadline meant climbing to the top of a sand dune before the sun set, somehow textbooks and overdue essays don’t appeal.

When I came to Australia I thought I’d be six months, done, rejuvenated and back to the academic life. It was two months before I first wondered what would happen if I never went home. I was at a garden party, chatting with an attractive Irish lad who expressed an interest in visiting Western Australia with me. Suddenly the six month trip didn’t feel half long enough. The first time I said it out loud — “What would happen if I never went home?” — I was in Western Australia, Irish lad nowhere in sight. Forget kickstarting academic focus. I was greedy for more travel.

It’s a common affliction, this youthful wanderlust. School grabs hold of us early; when a decade passes and it hasn’t let go, it’s hard not to believe we wouldn’t learn more (or at the very least have more fun) by seeing a bit of the world. The British are smart, addressing this longing with their gap year between high school and university. The travelers I met on their gap years wanted to go home when their time was up; for them, university was just as unknown and exciting as traveling overseas. Most North Americans (although many are starting to see the wisdom of the British tradition) speed straight into post-secondary. It took me three years to figure out that I’d had enough.

Deadlines: 3, 2, 1, jump!
Deadlines: 3, 2, 1, jump!
It was also the worst possible moment to take a break. My momentum should have been picking up, driving towards graduation like a freight train. Instead I’d derailed. I went to the library and picked up guidebooks, not research texts. Elaborate dreams – around the world, the Caribbean, the Mediterranean, New York, northern Russia – eventually simplified. Six months, Australia, working holiday.

My parents were skeptical. “How are you going to afford this?” my dad asked, laughing. The year off wasn’t without precedent in our family. My parents took six months mid-way through university to drive a panel van around Mexico. A lot of their stories involved Montezuma’s Revenge and crab bites on the beach. This ruled them out as a source of travel advice.

“I have a budget,” I said. One that assigned ten dollars a night to cover lodging costs, but I had one. In the summer I moved home, took on two jobs, and carried a third one into the fall. I made enough to cover airfare, a bus pass, and three thousand dollars in spending money. Maybe I should’ve listened to some of that parental wisdom. I was broke two months after arrival. I guess something about living on campus on a scholarship hadn’t quite wised me up about modern-day economics. But I got things together and got a job, at which point it became believable: I’d never have to go home.

Maybe my subconscious took that idea seriously. Four months into my trip, I forgot to sign up for courses for the next school year. When I remembered, and shot a flustered email off to my department, it was too late. Sorry, courses are all full. It looked like I’d gotten my wish: I’d be in Australia more than six months after all. Some of the people I’d shared drop-out sentiments with did go back. Their first emails from home were all the same — “wish I was still in Australia, things are so boring here” – like they’d copied them from a book called Your Return Home: How to Regret It.

Eventually the emails changed, though, to talking about new opportunities and the pleasures of home. Now (although maybe it’s just the rain outside) I feel ready to go. The small things that trouble travelers all over the world have made me weary: no privacy, economic stress, the transient nature of friendships. But the prospect of returning to school is daunting. While I’ve been away, all of my friends have graduated; money woes mean I’ll have to live at home for this final semester. There’s one up side. My chosen major is really what I want to do. I guess you might say that traveling helped me find clarity on that small issue.

Despite the bad timing, I don’t regret taking a break when I did. Earlier might have been easier, but I think I chose the right time for my life – when I was ready, and when it was necessary. If I’d waited until after graduation, the focus would have shifted to jobs, making money, stability. After all, is there ever a good time to say “stop” to life? Anyone wanting to travel long term has to leave things behind and eventually struggle to pick those things up again.

I close my journal and get up to go outside. The wind and the rain have picked up a bit, but I jog along the green edge of Flinders Chase Park anyways. Might as well see what I still can, before I’m thrown nose-deep back into required reading.