Nice Place you have

posted May 13, 2012, 11:32 PM by Bhutan Jurmii   [ updated May 13, 2012, 11:34 PM ]
Much of our planet is now well tramped and deeply-mapped, yet travellers continue to disappear into the peaks, jungles and deserts only to emerge out of the mist, out of the blue, back from the dead. They have tales to tell, or more likely these days, documentaries to sell.

In the past, many individuals preferred their own star to guide them. A few took companions, others hired guides; most just took their chances. While some were rendered speechless by the experience, many wrote down what they had gone through. And we are much richer for it.

Literature and travel are the most effective ways of expanding our horizons. Not only are they two of life’s great joys, they are also legal. Visitors to many a country often see all its faults on arrival and spend the rest of their stay discovering its virtues. Of all the things that travel offers, perhaps the most instructive is the sense of being a foreigner, a temporary refugee in a strange place. Nothing alters your perception of who you are and where you belong as being somewhere else.

Through travel we escape the deadening effects of habit. Travel should question, not confirm. It should excite, not relax. Our senses are never more open than during our first days in a new place. The hiss of gas fires in Turkish railway stations or the tinkle of yak bells in the high mountains - all add up to the backing soundtrack of a culture. Travel doesn’t just expand the mind, it also narrows the gap. We may dress, talk and eat differently, but there is always far more that binds us than separates us.

However, for those who now commute across continents in order to work, the reality of travel is totally different. I remember being on a flight and suddenly realizing that here were 400 people at 35,000 feet flying across the Swiss Alps in glorious sunshine, and not one person was looking out of the window. They were either gazing down at their laptops, or up at the movie. For a split second I felt incredibly sad.

To go travelling in my youth meant leaving for months, or longer. It was that kind of time. People weren’t just roaming, they were searching. The only way to do this was to go out and earn money; that meant hard labour and long hours. There were choices in the UK: the North Sea oil rigs, or huge steel smelters in Manchester. I chose to work on the Isle of Anglesey off North Wales, where I met a man who had a wooden staircase in his home, looted from a wrecked ship from the Spanish Armada in the year 1588. I headed for the mighty Rio Tinto Aluminium plant, with its huge chimneys that spat fire and belched smoke like some promotional travel poster for Mordor. I worked 12 hour night shifts, seven days a week, for six months. I lived cheap and only saw daylight on Sundays.

“Oh, you’ll love Wales,” my big brother said in a mocking tone.
“It will be hell. Rain sodden, dwarfs everywhere, mining excessively.”

One friend went off to teach English in some dismal, camelchewed town in Morocco where he knew there would be no drink, no women, and no distractions. He saved a sackful of cash, and made one friend, a local, who had never been in a town with a building taller than a giraffe. But my friend did stay one weekend in a Bedouin tent. An Arab burst in while he was undressing:
“Get out of my tent or I’ll call the manager...!”
“But I am the manager.”
“Oh, nice place you got here sheik.”
“Just came to inform you that tonight we are serving camel spit soup and sheep’s eyeballs…”

We’d drool over classifieds like: “Mongolian-Siberian Travel Adventure: Assistants needed for documentary. 1,500 miles on horseback around Lake Baikal. Five months intimate contact with locals high and low.” The fact neither of us knew anything about Mongolia was dismissed as a minor inconvenience. We had the spirit. We could leave now. But the plan was abandoned as the closest I’d ever got to a horse was a nasty moment in an Italian restaurant outside Liverpool.

And how should we behave when travelling? We are, after all, ambassadors of our own cultures. A well-travelled English friend once boasted to me that he could ask, “Do you take me for a fool?” in nine languages. I was obliged to remind him that yes, they had. Although I am somewhat ashamed to say it, off the top of my head, I can’t exactly remember where Captain William Pakenham was in 1837, when he disembarked from his ship and instructed his interpreter, “Tell these ugly bastards that I am not going to tolerate any more of their bestial habits”, whether he was in China, Nigeria, or perhaps even Wales. It was just immediately apparent to him, that as an Englishman, he was qualified and entitled to put things right among foreigners.

And let’s not forget Robert Clive of India who, when called before the English parliament to answer charges of excessive greed regarding the looting of a maharajah’s palace, said:
“When I entered that treasure room and saw all the gold and jewellery, I was amazed at my own restraint.”
The charges were dropped. There are also moments of sheer awe that leave a traveller, or an invader, truly gobsmacked. Forever. During Napoleon Bonaparte’s disastrous 1798 campaign in Egypt, an entire regiment snapped to attention when they first glimpsed the Temple of Karnak at Luxor, just after sunrise, without any orders to do so. A spontaneous moment of group respect.

Meanwhile, British historians learned Sanskrit so they could pore over the rich literature in Bengal and were staggered to find just how ancient and extraordinary India really was. But as the early philosophy of Empire changed from trade to rule, so the ruler changed his view of those with whom he formally traded. It was a view from above, with a mind to impose. The muffled, foggy bellow of the ships in the bay; the menace and power. Victorian arrogance at its most breathtaking.

But I prefer to remember the bespectacled Cambridge undergraduate, standing outside an Egyptian tomb, shirtsleeves rolled up, and just days before he was part one of the greatest discoveries ever made, about which he said simply: “Tutankhamen’s death mask is the most beautiful thing ever made by anyone, anywhere, at any time.” I agree.

A member of a British expedition to Antarctica wrote: “The snow looks like it’s scattered with diamonds and there’s glitter in the air because of the ice crystals. It’s a very, very dangerous and hostile environment, but the beauty is just incredible.” He never made it home.

For most of us, expeditions are the stuff of dreams; mad undertakings by driven individuals who set off into the unknown, and until quite recently, were often festooned with butterfly nets, jam jars, harpoons and zoological dictionaries. In those days you needed gold, courage, God’s blessing and a decent brandy.

The desert calls for a different breed. A good example is “The Worst Desert on Earth: Crossing the Taklimakan”, by Charles Blackmore. Everything about the vast oval shaped desert in northwest China is obscure. Few people have heard of it, fewer still have gone into it. There’s a very good reason for this: there are perfectly good ways around it. Blackmore’s book vividly reminds us that even with GPS navigating equipment (which clogged up) and Pinz Gauer vehicles (which bogged down), in the end it all came down to the old fashioned ingredients: water, legs, camels and guts. The reader is left in no doubt that while the Taklimakan Desert could be beautiful with its star-filled nights and magical dawns; it also demanded everything from the men who were attempting to cross it.

I also like the crisp, neat style of Alice Thompson, who wrote in the Spectator magazine: “Paul, a white South African guide meets us and introduces us to our tracker, a cook, 350 square miles of Africa, two tents and a Landrover.” And then says, “See ya.”

I have been fortunate enough to experience breathtaking vistas, surprising honour, random cruelty, unexpected hospitality and cheap cunning; humanity and nature at its finest and most annoying. I am also astonished by the unfading memory of the people I’ve met: the Tunisian herdsman offering me a bowl of warm cow’s blood and then asking if I had met David Beckham, and being utterly shocked when he discovered I hadn’t. Or the pretty teenager in the guesthouse in Kandahar, who wanted me to help her with her English homework and solemnly intonated in the correct tenses, “My dog hasn’t eaten my sock, the parrot has.”

But in a delicious twist of irony, people often travel only to discover that what they really need is already at home, but are unable to recognize this truth until they have travelled. It is only hindsight that gives travel any meaning. That’s the deal.

I believe that all travellers are optimists. In a way, travel is optimism in action. It’s why I always order vegetarian food on an aircraft: you have no idea what you will get, but at least you get it first.

Every time I have set off for the unknown, I’ve always felt everything is going to be okay, and even if it isn’t, it will be worth writing down in order to make the personal universal. I won’t fall off a mountain, be squashed by a truck, or kidnapped by an Islamic militant. I can’t shake the feeling, instilled in childhood, that whatever happens, I am just incredibly lucky to have been able to experience this world and that, at the end of the day, there will always be a room at the inn. So far, so good.