I’m not sure I’ve worked out this whole travel thing actually. In my younger travelling days, I always chose to do things the good old-fashioned proper way. That is, I’d set myself the task of getting from one end of the world to the other without resorting to air-travel, or of seeing how far I could get a dilapidated wooden dinghy, pretending it was the Golden Hind or something similar. Despite the fact that this approach has led to a couple of books and an undeserved status of minor eccentric and explorer, I’ve never been really convinced that this was actually a good way to travel.
“I went through Laos,” I’d explain to some interested chap in a bar.
“Ah, Laos! Now there’s a marvellous country for you,” the chap would enthuse. “How about the Plain of Jars, eh? Astonishing, eh? Good for you!”
Tentatively I would admit that I hadn’t actually visited the Plain of Jars and there would be a stunned silence.
“But surely… I mean… the Plain of Jars? Are you SURE it was Laos you went through?”
And I would slowly gather that the whole point of visiting Laos in the first place is solely to see the Plain of Jars. Why else would you go? How could you have missed them?
In vain would I explain that they weren’t actually on my route, that if one drew a straight line from Vientiane on the Thai border to Mengla on the Chinese border, then the Plain of Jars were a bit off to one side of that line and so therefore not something I had time to swerve aside for, being too busy at the time finding out which sampan, train or explosives-truck was heading north in the next hour.
Conversations like these have left me feeling that for all the adventurous potential of my self-imposed travel rules, it’s not actually a very good way of seeing all that a country has to offer. It’s a bit like someone arriving in Port Adelaide, hopping on the first train to Alice, catching a Greyhound coach to Darwin and utterly failing to see the Flinders Ranges, Uluru or Kings Canyon on the way. Surely you took in the Barossa Valley? Nup. Katherine Gorge? Nup.
Straight to the shipping terminal and a tanker out of there… but it seems a nice enough place, Australia. Did I miss much?
So as I say, I’ve never been entirely confident about choosing to travel the hard way and thus devoting ninety percent of my time to arguments with truck-drivers. But now, I’ve just had the luxury of travelling for three months on Long Service Leave, of travelling as the rest of the world do – a cruise up the Norwegian fjords, a driving-tour down the entire west coast of the United States, a there-and-back-again expedition to Morocco, an idle plane-hopping ramble through Switzerland, Spain and Holland and much, much more – and I am equally doubtful about this type of travelling as well.
Don’t get me wrong. And please don’t think that I’m pretty bloody difficult to satisfy. The three months of travelling were packed with beauty, friendships old and new, extraordinary sights and old familiar favourites. But I have also felt such a fraud. I hated being asked by a chance-met stranger where I was off to next, knowing that the reply was something bland and all too easy – something along the lines of having a flight booked that afternoon from Marrakech to Oslo, or a hire-car waiting at Gatwick, or that I thought I might swing by Maine before jetting to London. I so wanted to be able to look into the distance with a steely look in my eye and mutter between pursed lips that I was due to meet a camel-salesman here an hour ago to organise the next leg down through Mali and that if he didn’t show up soon, it would have to be the old mule-train after all.
So I remain confused. Are faraway places and foreign lands to be dipped into at will, no more obstinate than a tray of milk-chocolates, as we hover over the Taj Mahals and the hazelnut swirls, dive in and sample, and then out again Business Class to the next succulent and foil-wrapped delight? Should the In-Flight magazine replace the compass and dodgy roadmap as our guide to exploring the world? Or should we re-kindle the romance of travel again by eschewing the conveniences of the world.
Romance? What a foolishly inappropriate word. The toughness of travel, the incorrigibility of travel, the sweaty-shirted, camel-dunged, loose-bowelled exasperation of travel, is more accurate perhaps. But then again, oh the wonders. The sudden hoopoe flying to hide in an orange tree against a wall. The haze and the seabirds shrouding the loom of the Rock of Gibraltar seen over the stern of a churning ferry. The darkening moors and the first fine spatter of rain and still four miles to walk before any chance of a fire and a beer or two with an old friend and much to talk about.
So hey ho, what to do? And it must be admitted that even in the tamest travel there is a feeling of intrepid resolve. Air travel might have become easier but there will always still be the immigration official who looks at your passport thirty seconds more than is absolutely necessary and has one wondering if someone has scribbled ‘Viva la Revolucion!’ across the title page while one’s back was turned. And there are still items on foreign menus that baffle and intimidate and result in an unexpected dose of fish-head soup. And if all else fails, one can thoroughly rely on New Yorkers to be breathtakingly rude at the drop of a hat and leave one feeling bristlingly indignant and alive for the next three days.
So long live travel, however it’s done - and cheers to the big wide world.