Harrie and I decide to go to South America at about four in the morning, in June 2014, as we pass back and forth a bottle of something that was either rum, whiskey or a mixture of both. We’re in Devon on the trip my uni mates and I have attempted every year: a long weekend that’s little more than an excuse for us to be fed by our friend Leon and drink ourselves into a stupour. It’s the highlight of my summer and Harrie and I are feeling melancholy about how things will change now we’ve finished university. We’ve lived together for a year and our friendship is like breathing – always there, resolutely unnoticeable until I stop to think about it and am suddenly hyperaware of every breath, of how it keeps me going. But Harrie will be going to Oxford for a Masters in September and I will stay in London and attempt to survive as a freelance writer. So, we decide: using our final student-loan payment, she and I buy last-minute tickets for a six-week trip from July until our graduation ceremony at the end of August.
We pick Peru because, despite a soon-to-be-booked two-week crash course (of which I miss the last three days), our Spanish is non-existent and Google tells us Peruvian Spanish is slower than that of its neighbours. The week before I book the flights, I’m suddenly terrified – what if travelling together makes us hate each other? We’re opposites in lots of ways and I was scared the trip would throw these parallels into the spotlight, make us examine the differences usually hidden in darker corners behind fond memories of parties and trips to the pub. Instead, the opposite. Travelling, sharing an adventure with one of your best friends, can be like stepping off the cliff edge, holding someone’s hand, knowing that, no matter what happens, they’ll still be there when you fall. Female friendships can have a funny, inexplicable closeness and, in another country, our camaraderie became something else, something tangible, something almost real enough to hold.
We travel the length of Peru, starting in the middle, working our way down, then back to the top via a series of comically bad, but fun, bus journeys. We meet lots of people, try even more food and explore villages and towns and churches and museums as if our lives depended on it. We walk, a lot. We take a boat down the Amazon River, paddling along the bank and dolphin-spotting, and it’s possibly the best week of my life. We are catcalled or stared at every day (her blonde hair a beacon, my dark brown skin a spotlight). We visit beaches, party with various new friends, spend time with a shaman who tells us dirty jokes that our translator tells us anyway.
On the flight back to London, we drink wine and watch Titanic in unison, already too drunk by the time the plane takes off to spend less than five minutes trying to both press play on our screens at the same time. I am deeply afraid of flying while she loves it, so she distracts me with the film and her unsubtle attempts to get more wine from the cabin crew. On the trip, we both get violently ill: Harrie with a mysterious bug and me with altitude sickness, halfway up a mountain on the first day of a week-long trek (I go back to Cuzco and recover enough to meet her at Machu Picchu days later).
Female friendships can have a funny, inexplicable closeness and, in another country, our camaraderie became something else, something tangible, something almost real enough to hold
There’s something very scary but also beautiful about knowing you’re ill and there’s only one person within 100 miles who is guaranteed to have your back. We spent a lot of time with other people, but it always came down to the two of us, not against the world, but deep inside of it, side by side and unafraid of what was coming next.
Peru taught me a lot about itself, a lot about a country I knew relatively little about before I landed in Lima. But Peru also taught me about my friend Harrie, as well as about myself. I always thought I was the more sociable one, but it’s Harrie who always speaks first in Peru, who bravely tests out broken Spanish while I keep my overcautious mouth firmly shut. Watching the other pairs of travellers, I learn that, while we can argue furiously about politics, we don’t actually fight and we never say hurtful things or verbalise the faults we might find in one another. I’ve always known I’m an awkward talker, someone who fills anxious silences with unnecessary chatter, but I also realise Harrie is someone I can sit in silence next to – something I can do with almost no one else I know.
It made me think a lot about how I don’t remember the first time we spoke, unlike the way I have vivid memories of the initial conversation I had with all my other close friends. I can remember introducing myself to Leon as we sit next to each other at the university welcome lecture, asking Tara about her name on the back of the 432 bus to Crystal Palace on the second day of secondary school, smiling at Tom five days into university when he makes a random comment about liking my sandals as we sit drinking coffee in the sun. But Harrie? I don’t know. I barely remember us becoming friends until we suddenly were close enough for her to suggest living together in third year. Perhaps, I think, perhaps our friendship has always been this way. Like breathing: noticeable, but also not. Maybe our friendship has always been something so large it’s easy not to see where it begins or ends. It’s never seemed to care if we were suddenly halfway across the world, I think, because it’s always been far too large to be bothered by something as simple as distance.
It's #JourneyWoman week on The Pool and all this week, we will be discussing travel, boundaries and self-exploration