I saw his tattoo before I saw his face. It was etched on the top of his back; the world engraved in his skin.
His back was facing me and all I could make out was his short black hair and tanned skin. His grey shirt was slick with sweat, not surprising in the humid air. I felt drawn to him and to my surprise, found myself walking towards him, something out of character for my usually reserved self.
“Is this seat free?” I asked, gesturing to the empty seat beside him. Once he nodded, a small smile on his face, I sat down beside him.
The music pulsed all around us, permeating the air and sweeping through our bodies. My friends were on the dance floor, dancing to the music. It was upbeat, seductive, and I found myself tapping my feet to it as well.
I drew my attention back to the boy next to me. I couldn’t really tell his age. He had an air of someone young and old at the same time, and he looked at me with uncharacteristically sophisticated eyes that drew a stark contrast to his youthful face.
There was a small smile on his face. I found myself smiling back as he held out his hand for me to shake.
His name was Jai, a boy from south-east Asia, who hadn’t been home in over 3 years and who carried everything he owned in the world in a huge backpack, left at his hostel that night.
I had never left home before, and here in front of me was a young man who had been gone for what seemed like forever to me. I looked at my friends on the dance floor, and the thought of not just seeing them, but not having their familiarity, security and comfort around me, made me feel quite exposed.
“That’s the point.” He remarked when I told him this.
“Leaving home means finding your place without your friends, family or comforts from home to hide behind. Your vulnerability is what makes you strong.”
He took a sip of his beer before continuing.
“It is addictive. That feeling of getting on a plane, or a train or even a boat and not knowing what to expect. And getting off that plane, train or boat and realising that even though you didn’t know what to expect, everything that you may have expected was completely wrong. It’s having to rely on yourself to navigate through the world, learning to trust not only strangers but yourself. Knowing that when it comes down to it, you will be okay because you, and only you, will make sure that you will be.”
I nodded, although it was an experience unfamiliar to me. I had always hidden in the comforts of my own home and what I knew. I liked it there.
It was safe. It was secure.
“Everything I need, in practical terms, is in my backpack. Money, water, passport, a change of clothes. It’s easy to carry that with you. Everything else is superfluous. It’s that belief that you need these extra possessions when you really don’t. People collect things; I collect memories, experiences and knowledge.”
“How many countries have you been to?” I asked him curiously. In reply, he gave a short chuckle.
“I lost count, to be honest. I tried to at first but then I realised that there was no point. I don’t want to count the places I’ve been to. I’m only focused on the places I have yet to travel to.”
I felt a pang of sadness in my chest. He had lost count of countries he had been to and I haven’t even gotten one ticked off the list.
“And yourself?” He tilted his head to the side as he looked at me, as though he already knew the answer.
“I haven’t been anywhere yet. Never really been out of the country, though I did travel interstate once, for a school trip.” I quickly added at the end.
He replied, “That’s the beauty of travel. No matter what age you go, or when you go, or even if you visit the same place two, three or four times, you have a different experience every single time. So it’s never too late to start.”
We sat in silence for a while. I wasn’t sure what he was thinking about. Maybe his next destination or maybe about the girl sitting next to him who was his complete antithesis, while he embodied everything she wanted to be and more.
“It’s easy to be scared.” He suddenly commented, as if he knew what was stopping me. “And it’s easy to focus on what you will miss – your family, your friends, the security of knowing where you will be sleeping that night, or who to call when you are lost or even how to speak the common language.”
He stops, deep in thought. “I just choose to think about the things that I will miss if I don’t do it. If I don’t get on that plane, if I don’t wake up in the morning in a foreign country with new places to explore at my feet. That’s what I fear the most. That feeling of missing out on that and not knowing that I had.
“That’s why I decided to mark the occasion,” he said with a laugh as he saw me looking at his tattoo. From my angle, I could only see the edge of Australia.
“Lots of people have a tattoo of the world somewhere on their bodies but it means something different to everyone. For me, it symbolises all the places I have been to and how each one has left their own unique mark on me, and of course, of all the places yet to.”
He glanced at me, with his brown eyes. I realised that he was probably the same age as me but had seen so much more of the world than I had that he seemed older.
“You learn a lot, by leaving home.”
“About the world?” I asked.
“Yes”, he replied, “and about yourself.”
He smiled, crinkling the skin around his eyes, and held his beer up at me.
“Cheers”, he said.
For the rest of the night, we sat in the bar, slowing sipping our drinks with the music pulsing through our bodies; a boy with the world on his back and the girl who had yet to see it.