AN EVENING WITH LEVISON WOOD

Levison Wood is a British writer, explorer and photographer. Last night, I ventured to the Hall for Cornwall – fighting against the ‘Beast from the East’ snowstorm, to experience an evening with Levison Wood and his good friend Alberto Caceres. Levison gave a talk about travel and why we put ourselves through the trials and tribulations of adventure. He shared video clips from his journeys around the world, and comical tales from his many encounters with the people he met along the way. Levison discussed the DRD4-7r gene, nicknamed the “wanderlust gene,” because of its link with increased levels of impatience and curiosity. About twenty percent of the population have this gene, and it’s associated with risk-taking in all avenues of life – including travel. For myself, a woman who spent close to a decade travelling to far flung corners of the globe – solo on a number of occasions, this topic fascinates me.

So why do we travel? Why do we spend months planning trips to strange and unusual places, where we don’t understand the local dialect or customs? Why do we take time out of our ordinary and safe lives, to place ourselves in a position of risk and face the unknown? Because, as Levison Wood writes in Walking the Himalayas, “The simplicity, the lack of choice, of having to make do, that’s what happiness is all about.” And perhaps by taking ourselves out of our normal reality – our day-to-day lives, we become more sympathetic to the lives of others.

I have spent time in the cave communities of Granada, I have spent long evenings talking to Balinese local people in the street and conversing with indigenous women in Taiwan about their lives – their struggles. I have also volunteered around the world, helping wildlife and community projects. The main lesson I’ve taken home with me is that we are all connected, we all have the ability to suffer, we all desire love and compassion. And our connection to one another is more important - more sacred - than the collection of material belongings, of wealth, of competition and success. I believe by travelling, by stepping outside our routine lives, it can help us become more compassionate and understanding of people from a different background, culture and social status than ourselves. Empathy grows. Cultural barriers break down.

Levison Wood is also an advocate for wildlife conservation. He has seen first-hand the devastation and destruction of the environment, through his travels. Last night, he shared a frightening statistic that if elephant poaching continues at the rate it’s going, these animals will be extinct within ten years. When we spend time in countries where we see the damage occurring due to our own over-consumerist lifestyles, and expose ourselves to the problems in real time, statistics on a screen become a more burdensome reality.

In the question and answer session, Levison was asked what he thought about women travelling alone on such adventures as his. He respectfully replied that it would be a good idea for a woman to have a local guide with them – as Levison’s guides have been invaluable to him on numerous occasions. He admitted that he wouldn’t travel completely alone in many places. Dervla Murphy is an Irish travel writer. This woman is robust and hardy around the edges. In 1963, Dervla cycled from Ireland to India with her trusty bicycle, Roz. Dervla was completely alone, with a .25 pistol in her pocket. In her book Full Tilt: Ireland to India with a Bicycle, in the early part of her travels, she had two men try to assault her and a trio of men try to rob her. With her gun and sheer might, Dervla fought back and got away on every occasion – but not all women have been so lucky. I’m in awe of women like Dervla Murphy, they stir a sense of adventure and courage in my soul. But sadly, women do have the added burden of being harassed by men when they travel. It’s just a part of adventure that we have to deal with. It’s not fun, it’s not pleasant, it’s a reality.

When I watch Levison Wood hike across the Himalayas, trek through the Americas and navigate the length of the Nile, I sometimes wish I was in his boots. I picture myself as a six-foot hairy man (I’m actually a petite five-foot woman in her thirties), traversing mountainsides, swimming through rivers and trekking through jungle. I imagine being able to fight off any scary men, big snakes or large spiders which cross my path. I think about getting rid of all my belongings except a rucksack of essentials and tackling the open road – alone. And then I look around me and feel grateful for a warm bed, a cup of tea and slippers in the winter. As Alberto Caceres comically shared, the one thing he missed the most was his toilet. He never knew how a piece of plastic could bring such pleasure into his life – all too often, we take these home comforts for granted.

I will continue to adventure, but perhaps I can stop giving myself a hard time for not hiking Mount Everest alone, or cycling through conflict zones solo, except for an old bicycle. As with everything in life, we must live our own adventure and enjoy our own story. As Levison said last night, each person’s travel journey will be unique to them. Even if you walk along the same path Levison took, your voyage will be completely different. So, enjoy your own journey – I’m sure you’ll have beautiful, inspiring stories to share at the end of the day.