I once had a boyfriend who loved to travel and did so pretty regularly. A side effect of this moving around was a syndrome I liked to call “traveller’s bracelets.” On my boyfriend, this affliction extended all the way from wrist to elbow on the left hand side: a piece of jewellery, from a single thread to a silver chain, from every place he had been. He clinked gently when he moved. I thought it was pretentious, but I was also fascinated. I could count my way along his arm from Ethiopia to Egypt, to Thailand and France, and hear stories about the people who had given him these gifts, or how he had bought them in a market in some — for me — unimaginable place.
Eventually, he and I parted ways — just before a trip to Africa we had been planning for several months. I was left with a whole blank year before my “real life” would start again. I panicked. It was at the end of my bachelor’s degree, and it seemed as though the world had fallen down. I had lost my boyfriend; by graduating and moving the 200 miles back to my parents’ home, I also lost my job as a barmaid, regular contact with most of my friends, my lectures and seminars. All I could think of was the coming year, gaping its maw ahead of me. I had to find something to fill it up.
I remember the turning point, sitting on the stairs at the house of my now-ex-boyfriend, following an attempt to patch things up. I’d phoned my mother to tell her that, no, I wouldn’t be going to Africa after all, and she sighed in relief. There was a short pause, then she mentioned that my cousin was living in Australia — why not go there instead?
A year before, I would have laughed at the idea. People like me don’t just pick up and go somewhere, do they? But this boyfriend had changed me without me realizing it. If western Africa wasn’t a problem, then Australia sure as hell wouldn’t be.
And it really wasn’t. True, sometimes I did panic, and I did want to go home, but these moments were rare. I spent more of my time falling off surfboards and in love with my new-found land. I even found the courage to take a unscheduled detour through Thailand on my way home.
When I got back to England in early summer, I discovered I had developed traveller’s bracelets, too. This one from the jungle trek in Thailand, this one from that too-hot afternoon in Singapore, this one from Anna (who made the best steak ever), this one from Maija (who convinced me to get my nose pierced). And the reason I was wearing them all at once was that there was no room left in my backpack.
I wear my bracelets one at a time, now. The reason my old boyfriend didn’t was because, in his mind, he was always waiting to move on, always wearing the backpack. I never wanted that — my internal chains hold me tighter to the places I love than any external shackle could.