There are times when life’s serendipitous moments just take my breath away.
The night that chatting to a random friend of a friend at a dinner party in London many years ago kick-started my career in a way that I could scarcely believe, for instance, or the passing comment on a Tube ride that lead to me moving to Australia a couple of years later. The time that taking a split-second decision to veer through the rice fields lead to finding a side of Vietnam that had previously eluded me, or how accidentally becoming separated from a girlfriend in Italy lead to seeing Venice in a totally unexpected way. And then there’s the day a few weeks ago that started with going for a wander to check out a local market and finishes with me writing this review.
To backtrack a little, about a year ago I happened to pick up one of the titles on display in a city bookshop. I’d never heard of it before, but the title intrigued me and the blurb on the back sealed the deal.
“Three times during his twenties Patrick O’Neil threw in a desk job, ended relationships and flung himself at the world. With the words of his literary heroes ringing in his ears, he set off determined to pursue adventure and a grander, more romantic vision of life.”
If that wasn’t enough to get someone like me interested in a book, then I don’t know what was. I happily handed over the credit card and walked home, placing my new copy of Sideways – Travels With Kafka, Hunter S. and Kerouac on the bookshelf where it sat for a few weeks before I found the time to start it.
When I finally did open the front cover, I was immediately hooked. The author has a similarly dry sense of humour and slightly warped view of life as me, and his observations on being a young, angst-ridden Arts student had me in stiches within seconds. Once the narrative moved from the streets of Melbourne to the sands of the Sahara, the jungles of Brazil and the mountains of Bolivia, however, I knew that this wasn’t merely a good travel yarn. It was an exceptional piece of work, tying in highly poignant thoughts on one man’s search for the meaning of life with tales of utter madness, copious drug taking, incredible adventures and exceptional people around the world. Despite all of the difficulties that the road throws at him, however, one of the biggest challenges of all was returning home to so-called normality at the end of each adventure – something that resonated strongly with me given the way that my own life has gone over the years.
One of the many things that I loved about it was that in between the crazy stories of peyote-fuelled escapades in the Mexican desert or antagonising an obsessive-compulsive flatmate in the depths of a New York winter, the reader gets to experience the highs and lows, the dreams, desires and ultimately the lessons learned by the author on his travels through life and around the planet. The book doesn’t try to sugar-coat the realities of spending months on the road or the difficulties of following an unconventional path, nor does it try to oversell the benefits. It doesn’t need to. When you throw yourself out into the world without a lifeline anything and everything is possible, and it is that boundless possibility that leaps out at you from every page. Life should always be an incredible journey, but we all need a reminder of that at times as we sit in our cubicle or stand in line at the supermarket.
Sideways is that reminder.
Given the subject matter, this book was always likely to appeal. That I found myself one afternoon busily transcribing paragraphs and quotes from the last chapter, however, came as a hell of a surprise – I hadn’t done that since I was too poor to afford the photocopying on some terrible reference book back in my own student days, and certainly not with anything like the same degree of zeal. Sideways was obviously something very special indeed.
After finishing it I ended up giving the book away to a friend, and other than buying it again as a Christmas gift for someone else last year or mentioning it to the occasional other travel addict that I met, thought little more of it for months. One sunny Saturday recently however, with coffee in hand and no particular plans, I decided to check out a small local market that had started up in my neighbourhood. Much of the stuff on display held next to no interest for me, and I was just about to head for home when I noticed a guy selling some printed t-shirts and figured I’d take a quick look. The shirts were pretty good – I ended up buying a couple – but more interesting by far was the fact that there were also a few copies of Sideways for sale as well. These versions of the book (the second edition) had a photo of the author on the front, and after a few dumbstruck seconds of looking at the book … and the seller … and the book … and the seller, I uttered the immortal line: “Um – excuse me mate … is that you?“
Yeah, good one Dave. Standing in front of one of your favourite travel authors ever, and that’s the best you can come up with?! Anyway, to his credit, Patrick (for of course it was him) forgave my impersonation of a star struck teenager and we talked about life for a while before swapping contact details and carrying on with our respective days. That could easily have been the end of it, but one thing led to another and we ended up having a much longer, coffee fuelled catch-up a couple of weeks later, of the type you can only enjoy with those few wonderful people that you meet who approach their time on this planet in a very different way to the masses. Those who approach it sideways, perhaps.
When the caffeine buzz had finally worn off after our chat, Patrick was gracious enough to answer a few other questions by email. Even better, he has also kindly offered to autograph a brand-spanking-new copy of Sideways: Travels with Kafka, Hunter S. and Kerouac for one fortunate reader and send it to them, anywhere in the world! For your chance to win a personalised copy of this brilliant book, simply leave a comment below recounting your craziest travel experience ever. The lucky winner will be drawn randomly a week from now (Monday 31 May), and the book will be in the mail shortly afterwards. How fantastic is that?!
If you aren’t fortunate enough to have your name pulled out of the hat, or just can’t wait that long to read Sideways, please do buy a copy directly from the author at http://www.patrickoneil.com.au/ or from all good bookstores. You’ll never regret doing so – although given the inspiration it provides, I can’t promise you won’t be heading straight for airport shortly after finishing it. His site also has several other interviews and reviews of the book to check out, as well as some particularly interesting burlesque dancing footage. Of course. If you use Twitter, I’d highly recommend following him there as well.
Many thanks to Patrick O’Neil for his time, generosity and inspiration, and also just for being a great fellow traveller to sit and swap random life experiences with outside a Melbourne cafe.
Serendipity truly is a wonderful thing.
Don’t forget to leave your crazy travel story below for a chance to win, and also check out the Q and A session with Patrick here.