Blog News

1. Comments are still disabled though I am thinking of enabling them again.

2. There are now several extra pages - Poetry Index, Travel, Education, Childish Things - accessible at the top of the page. They index entires before October 2013.

3. I will, in the next few weeks, be adding new pages with other indexes.

Monday, 31 March 2008

How I like to travel

Robert Browning wrote a rather famous poem called "Home Thoughts From Abroad". Everybody knows it, or more precisely everybody knows the opening bit of it – "Oh to be in England/Now that April's there". It's poem filled with longing and wistfulness, the daydream of a homesick traveller. I stood in a classroom last week invigilating an exam and occasionally gazing out of the classroom window at the giant silver space-doughnut that is the new Birmingham Bull Ring and wondered idly if anyone had ever written the inverse poem – the daydream of an erstwhile traveller now stuck at home.

I suppose I'm being a little unfair. I love my job and my life is pretty good but I do miss the travelling. I miss the knowledge that tomorrow I will be seeing things I have never seen before. I miss the sensation of waking up in a different place each day, preferably somewhere that I arrived after dark so that I can view everything with new eyes. I miss the motion.

Another poem that I wrote for the Wolverhampton City Arts Festival (one that didn't even make runner up status) was called "The Road That Runs Through".

Under my skin the itching is growing

I've spent too long here, it's time to be going.

I have to be moving, and I really don't care

Where the road leads or how I'll get there.

It isn't important, my next port of call.

The motion's the thing, the journey is all.

Though the mountains and deserts are wondrous to see

It's the road that runs through them that's important to me.

I still get Christmas cards from people I met when I was out and about in the world and I may be projecting my own feelings but I sometimes seem to detect in them a similar regret that they too are now settled in their various locations. I've written a lot about my travels elsewhere and there are a lot of travel tales from my friend Manu* (who I spent six months with in the Americas) on his web site. Unlike mine, his includes a counter of how long he has been at home with his family. I'm sure that that's pride in his home-life, but if I were to include one it would definitely be nostalgia for the old days.

My students are mainly refugees and asylum seekers and I talk to them a lot about the world, the places we have been, the things we have seen. They inevitably ask me which was my favourite country and I usually answer that it was China. I have been there twice – the second time spending a couple of months crossing from Pakistan to Hong Kong. There was so much about it that I loved (though obviously not the Government – a sentiment shared by most of the people I met) that I could write a thousand pages about it and probably shall on another day, but if truth be told it's a convenient fiction. I don't have a favourite place. I've loved (almost) everywhere I've ever been but mostly I've loved travelling between places.

Most of my travel, airline trips to get to the start points and from the end points notwithstanding, most of my travel has been resolutely low budget. When I spent six months travelling from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego it was all by road. I travelled with a couple of overlanding companies for most of it. Now if you haven't travelled much you may not have encountered overlanding but basically someone else provides the route and the vehicle and you do everything else. You travel as a group and take it in turns to cook, wash up and so on. You sleep in tents or out under the stars or, if in a city, in a cheap hotel (often that you need to find for yourself). The trucks vary depending on which company you are using. They usually vary from basic to extremely basic. It's all great fun.

At other times I've travelled on local trains (derailed four times in one day in Peru), local busses, ferries (both seaworthy and otherwise) with a cabin, ferries without a cabin, tractor (it's a long story, I'll tell it another time), taxis driven by clinically insane drivers, tuk-tuks, jeepneys and in the back of cattle trucks. This kind of description horrifies some of my friends who feel that travel should involved luxury air-conditioned coaches, spacious and elegant en-suite bedrooms and plenty of fluffy towels. It's what I like though.

There is nothing that makes you feel more like a real traveller – an explorer even – than spending an hour or two digging your truck out of a mud hole or watching helplessly as the train crew try to use leaves and branches to get the wheels back on the tracks.

This idea that there are "travellers" and "tourists" is quite prevalent among a certain section of the public. There is a fashion to be sneering and supercilious about ‘tourists’ who are not proper travellers. Overlanders, travelling together on an organised trip, are considered to be scarcely better. After all it isn’t proper travel unless you’re doing it on your own, making the arrangements yourself, dealing with the authorities yourself and finding a doctor yourself when that nasty bowel problem is still persisting after two weeks of regular emergency dashes. It’s at places like Riobamba Station that you realise how little difference there actually is between the ‘wouldn’t catch me on a package tour’ brigade and the rest of us who actually form the majority these days. Riding on the roof of the train from Riobamba to Alausi and then down to Devil’s Nose sounds like something terribly adventurous and I suppose if your annual holiday is a week in a caravan in Rhyll it probably is but when you realise that the train has several very long carriages and the people on the roof are shoulder to shoulder all the way along - all of them tourists ( the locals have the sense to travel inside) you start to suspect that adventure it might be, uncommon it’s not. Practically everyone who goes to Riobamba makes this train journey whether they arrived hitchhiking, by local bus or on an overland truck. It may have been the province of ‘real travellers’ in the days before such mass travel became almost commonplace but nowadays it is definitely a tourist experience. No-one rides this train because they want to get to Alausi, they are riding it so that they can say that they did. Kids with trays full of sweets and chocolate, or paper cones full of sweetened nuts walk along the rows of the captive audience. Railway employees sell hats and T-shirts. At the stations women climb up with their hot empanadas and their roast bananas and men with buckets of ice follow them selling bottles of beer. If this isn’t tourism then, forgive me, I don’t know what is.

All of which is not to deny the excitement of the journey, or the unpredictable nature of travel. We were less than half an hour out of Riobamba, heading through some lovely scenery that seemed even better from this unusual viewpoint, when we had our first derailment. The train had slowed down which, given that it hadn’t been travelling very quickly to begin with, had brought us to little more than a quick walking pace. Suddenly there was a lurch, not a very big one, and as momentum carried the train forward it was obvious that our wheels were no longer on the tracks. Everyone instantly climbed down from the roof for photographs - more proof that inside every ‘real traveller’ a tourist is waiting to get out. The train driver and the guards crawled underneath and assessed the situation and then set about getting it back on the tracks. Their tools for this consisted of leaves, twigs, lumps of trackside stone and a curved piece of iron that was clearly purpose built for the job. They seemed very practised and skilled at it and although the whole process of edging forwards and backwards repeatedly, took over an hour, I couldn’t help wondering how often they had had to do this. Finally, it was done. The main difficulty had been that as each section of train went over the faulty piece of track it derailed in turn and had to be sorted out. Still eventually we were on our way. The second derailment came about an hour later.

By the time we reached Alausi the train had been off the tracks for about as long as it had been on them with four derailments in total - the last coming when in a fit of ‘oh no not again’ pique the driver had taken a fast run at a bad section and succeeded in simultaneously derailing the engine and every one of the coaches. I passed the time waiting for it to be put right in conversation with ten year old Sixto Ivan, one of the many children hawking sweets and cigarettes on the train roof. He was, he told me the fifth of a family of seven brothers and sisters and wants, when he leaves school, to be a mechanic. When I asked him why he wasn’t at school he told me indignantly that he goes on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. He had spent the journey running along the roof selling his goods and asking people if they would give him their cushions at the end of the journey. He wasn’t alone in this, every one of the children - and there were quite a few - was doing the same thing, getting the promise of as many cushions as possible. I asked Sixto why and he told me that at Alausi they would be able to get money for them by selling them back to the cushion salesmen to be used again.

It wasn’t a very long journey but it had been made longer by all the problems so that when we reached Alausi it was already quite late and there was still the ride down to and back from Devil’s Nose before we rejoined the truck. I was apprehensive, having done this section of the ride a few weeks ago I knew how steep it was and with the four derailments still nagging at me I hoped it wouldn’t fall off the track again. If it did the consequences could be disastrous. I didn’t think there was any chance of it going fast enough to cause any injury but I did think that if it happened on this section it was going to be a whole lot harder to put right than at any time so far.

We pulled out of Alausi and started down and it became obvious that we were going to see very little through the low lying cloud that filled the valley. I was glad I’d been here before, I could imagine the glorious views of ever receding ranges of mountains and the dramatic drops down to the valley floor but the reality was a series of tantalising glimpses through the occasionally shifting cloud. On the return journey the rain, which had been stopping and starting all day finally decided to start properly and the kids, Sixto included, all snuggled down in among the adults trying to shelter from it’s sting. Nevertheless ten minutes out of Alausi, with the rain still falling sharply, all of them started to run about the roof gathering their treasure trove of cushions. There were dozens of disputes as two or more insisted that the same person had promised their cushion to each of them. There were scuffles and scrambles but in the end everyone was satisfied that they had got something for their trouble and we all climbed down from the train. The kids forgot us as soon as we were on the ground, ignoring us totally as they ran off to find someone to buy their booty before the train went back to Riobamba, taking them with it.

I'll stop quoting from my diaries now and finish off with another poem – actually not an especially good one. I came across it among my piles of papers about a week ago. I have been going through trying to sort everything out and this was a poem that I think I wrote – or at least started to write – at a writers' group that I was a member of. It describes a particular truck journey in Greece.


There's more pot-hole than road
And the truck smells of goats,
But at least it's a road –
And it's straight.
Then THUMP and then BOUNCE
And then OUCH and then CRUNCH
As we turn off the road through a gate;
And onto a track.
Slide right, then slide left –
The wheels find no grip on the mud
We fall on each other.
The air's filled with fright
As each lurch jars our spines with a thud.
The driver shouts wildly
With evident glee
And points out the shrines where the accidents were.
He lets go of the wheel
It's spinning quite free
As he fingers the rosary he has hanging there.
He revs up the engine.
We slide down the banks.
Some of us whimper, some of us squawk.
Then he slams on the brakes
And we all give our thanks.
That for the next week we are going to walk.


(* Coincidentally, after I started writing this, the post arrived and brought with it a postcard from Manu who is currently holidaying on one of the Thai Islands.)


3 comments:

zmjezhd said...

Welcome back to the blogging side. One thing I like to do when traveling is to tag along with tour groups in museums and such. Also doing natively touristy things is fun, too. I once was an ad hoc chaperon for a German high school senior class' two-week trip to Cornwall. (Most of them had never been outside of the Rhineland, let alone Germany.)

Nancy said...

Oh, that sounds very much like my husband, z.

It's great to see your new blog, Bob, and I will check in every so often. Interestingly, I have one at work that is for our members only. Since our members are either too busy or too non-savvy to read the Blog, I mainly talk to myself. To me, it all seems to go against the whole purpose of a Blog! Perhaps I will start my own one of these days...for all to see!

Kalleh

arnie said...

I've subscribed, Bob. Keep these essays coming! Speaking as someone who has rarely ventured outside the UK, let alone tried overlanding. The perspective you give is very interesting.