Freedom of Travel

Freedom of Travel

In 2018, we commissioned 51 authors from 25 countries to write essays exploring ideas about freedom for The Freedom Papers, a publication produced in partnership with Gutter Magazine. The essay below was written jointly by Gavin Francis and his partner Esa Aldegheri. Read on for their essay, and visit to purchase a copy of The Freedom Papers.

The rocks of Orkney witnessed our agreement
to travel together, equal companions, bonded
by free choice. We formed a plan, a path
across the sea and half
the world: from Scotland to New Zealand.

We settled on a motorcycle as our means of travel: strong, steady, blood-red. Laughing off fear we learned first to drive and maintain her, then to rely on her. One December night we sailed beneath the iron lattice of the Forth Bridge, bound for Belgium.

We followed the swallows south.
Across Europe she swooped, wheels for wings.
We passed over open borders –
our freedom of travel war-born, peace-built, fragile.
Northern fog unfurled into warmth, the smell of salt and thyme.
Birds changed. We crossed the story-dark seas of
Europa, Io, Aeneas, Odysseus.
Now the same waters are the last escape
of many unsung people, forced
from their lands to seek safety in ours.
Sunlit olives fell on our tent
in Greece, snow in Anatolia.

Our passports unlocked most borders, and only once were we refused – by Iran. Time and money liberated us to change plans, and find new paths south and east: Syria, Lebanon, Jordan; Aleppo, Damascus, Palmyra, Al-Raqqa, Deir-ez-Zor. We slipped into a new language like birds changing air currents.

Hurriya means ‘freedom’ in Arabic,
its word-roots shared with ‘heat’:
hurr, free; harr, hot.
We drove under the sun in our motorbike gear
and overheated. A man sold us water.
We poured it on our wrists. He smiled
and said, ‘Remember!
Wherever you travel, the Holy Qur’an says,
God is closer to you than the great vein in your neck’

At every border crossing
prayer-beads clicked in the heat.
The soft pulse-place in all our throats
drummed with fear, anger, relief.

Man-made map-lines
defeated our overland plans.  
We flew from Jordan to Pakistan, from desert to mountains
and met the monsoon: another limit
to movement, nature-sent;
another freedom to decide a new way.

We looped a path through China by bus and train: motorcycle travel was permitted only in the company of a government agent. We preferred the limitations of timetables and ticket costs.

China: our Europe-bred minds couldn’t grasp the size of it, the vast scale of its history, its distances. Once we travelled for thirty-six hours and the landscape changed twice. We attempted words but were mocked for it. We managed to pronounce ‘white rice and red aubergines’, then for ten weeks ate nothing else. A boat up the Yangtze dropped us in a city of five million, too small to register on our map. Our liberty lay in time travel, learning a history whose scale and numbers shook us into new perspectives. Some freedoms mean little if their price is hunger.

Back across the Himalayas, the bike
tackled mountain roads beneath
rock-perched monasteries:
through Himachal, Ladakh, Kashmir
to Dharamsala, where Tibetans
live the sad freedom of exile.
There we heard the story
of the monk held 30 years in Chinese jail,
tortured, blinded.
He escaped to India and said:
‘I was lucky to have such a long time
to freely practice choosing
for my torturers.’

Potholed bridges crossed the five rivers of the Punjab. The Indus and Ganges plains lay beneath sunsets thick with the smoke of a million kitchen fires. Everywhere people, trucks, mopeds, free-ranging cows. For six months we trundled South via Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, until we stood at the peninsula’s tip. In the tropical heat we remembered Himalayan snow, the dense green of Kerala, the Virgin Mary in a sari.

In India our minds were filled
with newness: unimaginable
variety of lives, languages,
sights, sounds, smells,
a daily kaleidoscope.

We saw too
what we might be if we chose
to keep on travelling, rootless:
people free to live indefinitely
‘abroad where life is cheap’,
mouths loud with travellers’ tales
eyes restless, far from finding peace.

When the land ran out we shipped the bike across the Bay of Bengal and hop-scotched to Indochina by way of the Andaman Islands. In Singapore we walked over an iron bridge, Empire-built in Glasgow, and remembered the red ironwork of the Forth Bridge more than a year before.

Australia was the freedom of space and speed:
the release of bipeds transformed to a streak of motion.
Limitless road.
Our motorbike flew through the desert.
Rusty land stretched
North to our left for hundreds of miles,
thousands of years. We camped in the bush. In the night
the land spread around us like a silence. The stars
were upside down in our minds: Orion
hung from his heels.

Kangaroos rotted in the heat, crushed by the road-trains that thundered across the continent. City lawns were watered under the midday sun, rivers inland choked dry. Our pale skin, that had brought so many freedoms, fried. In an outback petrol station a red-faced, blue-eyed man greeted us warmly, but froze with hostility when an Aboriginal person walked in. We edged around unspoken tensions.

The Great Australian Bight opened
into austerity, blue magnificence,
proof of forces that split
continents. Antarctic vessels moored
in Hobart harbour
beneath slopes of ancient forest.

New Zealand approached under a long grey cloud. We stood at Te Rerenga Wairua, the tip of North Island, where Maori spirits depart on their final journey. Our eyes followed its blues and greens into memories of Scotland. We skirted volcanoes, tracked Kiwis, saw avocados grow wild. We stood on an eastern shore facing north towards Fiji, Midway, the Bering Strait, and felt the span of half the world.

Dolphins raced the ship,
a blessing on the passage
to South Island.

South, finding more traces of Scots who'd crossed the world to find a climate bad enough for their comfort. In Dunedin, Rabbie Burns frowned at Edinburgh street names scrambled out of place: Grange Street near Leith Street, Clyde Street crossing the Water of Leith.

We boarded our last boat in silence
to Stewart Island: next stop south,
Long ago
Island lairds,
the Traills,
had come by sea from Orkney.
Under the Southern Cross we
stood and chose the freedom of returning
home to grow: journey’s end,
beginning of
what next.


Copyright © 2018, Esa Aldegheri & Gavin Francis. All rights reserved.

Supported by the Scottish Government’s Edinburgh Festivals Expo Fund through Creative Scotland.

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