I wake up on a bus station bench in Liverpool. I’d taken an overnight Eurolines from Dublin and arrived at 3am. Now it was 5am, close enough to sunrise that I decide to venture out, all my worldly possessions on my back. I have several hours to kill before I’m due to meet a friend.
By chance I end up at a John Lennon memorial a short time later, watching the sun come up as I scoff three bananas. My epic journey has just begun. There’s no suppressing the warm thrill rising through my bones.
My three-week stint in Amsterdam starts in much the same way. I arrive via a bus from London before the dawn, and a few hours later find myself watching the sun come up from a park bench, bananas accompanied by peanut butter this time, the favourite foodstuff of a vegetarian vagabond.
I leave the park on a mission to find an apartment. Having nothing prearranged and knowing not a soul in town, I nonetheless step optimistic into the uncertainty.
Thirty-six hours later and I’m moving into a nice apartment near Westerpark. The owner has agreed to me paying half the asking price and staying until the end of the month. There’s fast wifi and a hammock in the living room.
Living situation sorted, I now set my sights on becoming an outrageous flirt. For too long I’d been the type of guy who’d see an attractive woman and do absolutely nothing.
As a result, I’d built up thousands of tiny regrets over the years. I’d realised that all those wimpy what-ifs were slowly eating away at me, and I was determined to do something about it.
Two weeks later, having made myself go out every day and flirt with at least five attractive women, I’d hit on more than a hundred ladies in the streets and bars of Amsterdam. Through it all, I’d experienced lots of awkward moments and gut-wrenching rejection, but had emerged as a fun-loving flirt who could comfortably strike up a conversation with an attractive stranger and often come away with at least her phone number.
Big strides, good memories. This is what I’m thinking as I hop on a bus to Frankfurt.
My friend Selina meets me near the train station in Zurich. I’m kindly hosted by her and her husband at their comfy apartment for the next week.
It proves a busy few days for me, as I present a workshop on blogging, catch up on numerous work projects, and do an interview with a German TV station about minimalism. My week in Switzerland ends as I climb aboard a sleeper train bound for Vienna.
I’ve been stuck in Budapest for two months, waiting for visas to come through. Pakistan is proving impossible, but I’ve finally been given clearance to visit India and Iran. In a few days I’ll wave the Magyars goodbye and catch a train to Romania.
But right now I find myself dining with a lovely Hungarian girl. It’s been an unusual three-week relationship. Since she lives with her parents and I’m staying at a hostel, privacy has been hard to come by. Several times she’s called over to my digs and we’ve snuggled up on the common room couch to watch a movie.
Surprisingly enough, I find I’m not craving sex. The intimacy we share is plenty fulfilling.
It’s been three days since I arrived in Istanbul, having finally escaped the coldest winter Romania has seen for 60 years.
I’m eager to get out and experience this magical city, but my work keeps me tied to my laptop. Such is life when you work from the road. You arrive ready to explore new surroundings, only to find that you have dozens of emails awaiting reply and several clients requesting additions to their spiffy new websites.
While I’m grateful I can work from anywhere with an internet connection, it’s not quite the prolonged picnic most folks imagine. It’s like I have a full-time job, just with my office ever-changing.
On the whole though, I can’t complain. This is the life I chose, and the highs far outnumber the lows. I’ve visited more countries in the past five months than I had in the previous three decades. Still in the early stages of my journey, I’ve met many a remarkable person, see many an unforgettable sight, and feel freer than most men ever will.
I arrive in Bandar Abbas, a gritty port town on the south coast of Iran, with $10 and a phone number. I’ve got 36 hours to kill before my ferry departs for Dubai. The $10 is enough for a hotel room or food, but not both.
It’s my ninth day in a country I learned too late operates a cash-only economy. My bank and credit cards are useless here. I’ve been hustling through Tehran and Isfahan for the past week, trying to cobble together enough cash to stay afloat, suppressing my independent nature to accept much-needed assistance from local couchsurfers and fellow travellers.
The phone number proves golden. Through Mohamad’s network I end up with a private tour of the city, four free meals, and a comfortable place to stay the night.
I board that ferry better understanding both sides of generosity, and with a stronger conviction that most people are good, regardless of location. I also leave feeling extremely privileged for all I was able to experience in Iran. In just ten days I’ve seen these people laugh, dance, pray and cry.
It’s 1am as I leave Leopold’s, perhaps the most famous pub in Mumbai (formerly Bombay). I cross the road and begin the 20-minute walk back to my hostel, stepping over a young mother and five children asleep on the footpath, tattered strips of cardboard serving poorly as their bedding. I’d seen them huddled outside the entrance to Leopold’s earlier, hands out, hoping for a few rupees to fall their way.
Rats dive in and out of the shadows as I continue on up the road. Stray dogs are everywhere, some laid out on the concrete, others snarling and scuffling amongst each other. I pass sleeping bodies every minute or so. I find myself wondering how they fare when the monsoon comes.
I turn the last corner towards my air-conditioned hostel. Relief from the muggy night awaits. As I walk the final stretch, I realise for the umpteenth time just how lucky and privileged I am. Born healthy to good parents, educated well, and endowed with the freedom to live my life however I please.
People often ask me why I’ve embarked on this trip. No matter what answer I give, they seldom seem satisfied. I’ve come to accept that those of us who go all out to live our wildest dreams will rarely be understood by those who don’t. And that’s fine. At the end of it all, us dream chasers will have as compensation our stories unforgettable, our lives unregrettable.
* See Niall's blog here.
Niall Doherty hopes to make it to Brazil for the 2014 World Cup