We know nothing about her beyond the scant clues on three pieces of paper that we stumbled upon in a backpacker hostel in Bali. Even the assumption that ‘she’ is a ‘she’ is pure guesswork.
Two of the papers were ticket stubs but since they were just ‘Ekonomi’ bus tickets for a journey from Kuala Lumpur to Kuantan to Johor Bahru they didn’t even give us a name. It wasn’t the tickets that intrigued us however. Tucked between the pages of the book I picked up was a sheet torn from an exercise book. The words ‘Travel Ambitions’ were printed in neat handwriting across the top of the page.
If a name had been displayed anywhere on the page I would probably not be writing this and might have felt uncomfortably voyeuristic just about reading the list. But the very fact that the mystery traveller remains a complete enigma meant that ‘she’ continued to play on our minds.
We knew that she shared our taste in hotels (or was at least travelling on a similar budget) since, some time in the past two months, she’d arrived at the Berlian Inn, one of our regular hangouts in Kuta. Presumably she’d flown here from Singapore after that bus dropped her at Johor. Her handwriting and grammar showed that she was educated and we knew also that she had good taste in books since she’d mislaid her carefully laid-out ‘Travel Ambitions’ between the pages of George Orwell’s Burmese Days. (I’d read it years before and was delighted to find again here among the beach novels and German thrillers on the shelf at Berlian).
The mystery traveller certainly was ambitious. In Wk1 she planned to visit Bali, Lombok and Gili Islands and in Wk2 she was heading to Aus and had given herself 6 months to see Melbourne, Sydney, Perth, Cairns and ‘Taz’. She wrote familiarly of Aus and added clues on the flipside of the page – headed simply ‘Ambitions’ – made me wonder if she had family in Melbourne: she had plans during this same period to find a job and to have ‘created happiness through like-minded friends and a rewarding schedule of work, exercise and going out.’
Something in her phrasing made me think she was English. Only the English ‘go out’ instead of partying or raging. (We don’t get angry either. We just get ‘a trifle peeved’…or at the most ‘downright miffed’.)
I read on. By now I was thoroughly intrigued and it would have been almost painful to put the page down. The next line confirmed the mystery girl’s nationality. On the 9th month she would ‘go home’. But arrival back in England was far from the end of her travels. ‘Home’ would just be a base from which to fulfil more travel ambitions. I flipped the page over and traced my finger down to the section marked ‘9-12mth’: in which period she hoped to visit Dubai, Sweden, Norway, Germany, Poland, Denmark, England, Ireland, Scotland, France, Spain, Italy, Croatia, Greece, Portugal, Switzerland, Berlin, Belgium, Holland, Iceland and Turkey. Her listing was neat and tidy with nothing scratched out or misspelled but I wondered why Berlin in particular should be listed when she had already included Germany. Also, were the destinations in order of preference or with a route in mind…?
Not only was the mystery girl scrupulously neat in her planning but she seemed to be utterly tireless. I imagined her sitting in a backpacker dive in Kuta mapping out her life for trips through US and South America. By year 2 she planned to be ‘chest high in Latin countries and still going’.
It made intoxicating reading and I almost wished I still had a completely unknown and virgin world in front of me….along with the limitless youthful hunger to want to go absolutely everywhere. I still have that feeling but the sheer desperation for travel seemed to drip off that dog-eared page.
The 1-3yr section started with a slightly random zigzagging around most of the Andean countries but then cut straight to Belize, Guatemala and Mexico. I knew Central America well from several trips and wondered what it was it about those countries that attracted her while she seemed to shun Costa Rica, Panama and Nicaragua? Then followed a complex wish-list of US states listed in abbreviations (HW, AK, CN, NH) by someone who knows their way around that neighbourhood far better than I do. Austin, Nashville and Hawaii didn’t surprise me since by this time I already had another clue about our mystery traveller. Underneath the ‘Ambitions’ section there was an equally well laid out 6mnth plan for ‘Ukulele Ambitions’. Something else we had in common…although I could tell even from her 1mth plan (‘have mastered Breakdown and Postcards from Italy’) that she was already ahead of me on this. (I still haven’t ‘mastered’ anything.)
The list went on through years 3-6 which would see her in Eastern Europe, Central Asia and finally the Burma that she had presumably so recently been reading about in Orwell’s book. By years 6-9 it seemed that her energy would be waning and all she hoped to cover in that period would be Pacific Islands, Micronesia, Vanuatu, Samoa, Fiji.
But the last line of her Travel Ambitions held just one phrase. I wished I could have asked her why in the whole of Africa she had one ambition ‘Africa: climb Mt. Kilimanjaro’. Was that envisaged as the last victorious trip that she would make? Her swansong before settling down.
I found something unsettling in her urge to map things out so far in advance and yet, even if she only fulfils a fraction of these ambitions, the next decade will be full of enough spontaneity to last a lifetime. It was far from a random, naive wish list – just a grown-up’s letter to Santa. The girl knew what she wanted to see…and I could imagine that there was a chance she might even do it.
I wonder where she is now and whether her plans changed dramatically having lost this precious list. I’ll keep it safe on the off-chance that the mystery girl ever reads this and recognises herself.
It’s rare that you ever gain such an honest insight into the secret yearnings of a complete stranger and it makes you wonder. Turn and look at the person next to you now. Think you can imagine what it is that they really want from life…?