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A song for the crossroads

 

What is it that motivates us to travel? It seems we often come to it when our life is at a Crossroads – and on the journey we take time to step back and assess our options, to process things that have happened to us. Sometimes when we feel stuck in our lives, we take a physical journey, hoping it will lead to psychological progression and life change. And sometimes the more we’re at a crossroads, the more we’re attracted to extreme destinations. None more so for me than on my trip across the Nullarbor Plain at the height of the Australian summer.

When I think of that trip I remember vast flat lands and wide skies. From the Bunda Cliffs, where you feel like you could run and then just drop off the edge of the world, to swathes of sand dunes at Fowlers Bay and the vast treeless plain of the Nullarbor. When you’re wrestling internally, the vast landscape has a calming effect. And sometimes it takes getting out of normal routine to show you what direction you really want to head in, to give you motivation to commit or re-commit to something or someone.

This is the only trip I’ve been on where I’ve slept in a swag – out under the stars in a big canvas bag, where you could look straight up at the domed sky as you fell asleep (with a slight sense of trepidation about possible snakes, spiders or scorpions deciding to slip into the swag spend the night with you). The wide expanse of the sky brings perspective and context to the decisions of individual human beings.

Everyone in our original Nullarbor tour group who braved the hottest part of the journey together, travelling for hours at a time in a minibus with malfunctioning air conditioning through 46 degree days, was at some sort of life junction. An overseas student finishing studies and about to return to her own country, an interracial student couple, a single mother and her son, an accident survior and his partner from another country, a woman who had nearly died and the friend and colleague who saved her, a traveller in search of love, a rural new couple, a widow on a first big trip without her husband, a man devoted to photography and me, and our guide. As we travelled we shared our stories between bus seats and we experienced many firsts together. Posing in front of the iconic Nullarbor signs, huddling under a cattle grid waiting for a road train to drive overhead, sleeping in swags on the empty plain at Afghan Rocks, swimming with dolphins and sea lions at Baird Bay, seeing the Big Galah, spotting yellow footed rock wallabies, Running down the sand dunes at Fowlers Bay and frolicking in the welcome cool of the sea at Streaky Bay.

I just heard last week that our guide on this trip, an excitement loving, well travelled, world weary man, had died. He died living a lifestyle he wanted to live. We were such children when he guided us across the plain: in awe of the sights, questioning the dangers and he drove, cooked, advised, entertained. He could certainly tell the tallest stories. I think of the song that somehow became our bus song on that trip: Starships (a song with some dubious lyrical content that I’d never heard before that trip). Whenever the chorus came on, ‘Starships were meant to fly, hands up and touch the sky’, we’d all do actions. It almost felt like our outstretched arms were flying us across the Nullarbor. When I’m stuck at a crossroads, I remind myself, ‘starships were meant to fly’. It tells me I’m meant for something new, a new life journey, a new life experience and I’m meant to embrace it, to fly. No matter what the lyrics meant originally, in the midst of the mundane they also remind me of the highs of life, the moments in the sun. Such as those minutes spent standing atop a perfect sanddune or singing with arms stretched wide as we moved through a landscape that stretched on farther than the eye could see. And when I need the impetus to move forward from life’s crossroads, I say to myself: ‘let’s do this one more time oh oh oh oh’.

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The silver lining of travel disappointment

Outside Versailles with a crowd of people

In travel as in life there are Disappointments. They may not be quite as deep as the disappointment Buffy the Vampire Slayer felt when her friends brought her back from the dead, thinking they were rescuing her from hell, only to discover that they actually yanked her our of heaven, but they are disappointments none the less. Sometimes disappointments occur when we have expectations that are not met, and the opposite is true; the things we didn’t know about beforehand, or had low expectations of, can turn out to be amongst the best surprises of our trip. Sometimes we are disappointed because an attraction is just downright shabby or dodgy – but even this does provide us with some funny stories to tell later, once we’ve gotten over cursing ourselves for having shelled out money for the attraction in the first place.

Here are ten travel disappointments I’ve identified on my travels:

  1. The Mona Lisa

Spoiler alert: she is really very small. Also, she is likely to be surrounded by a large crowd. The silver lining is that she is a far more intimate portrait than I had imagined, and I now further admire the skill required to paint such detail on that small scale.

2. Crowds

Versailles is by far the most crowded place I have ever visited (although Barcelona comes close). Inside the buildings I was swept along in a sea of people, barely able to see the furnishings and treasures in the rooms and lost my friend temporarily in the crowds. The silver lining is that I have greatly appreciated every place I have ever visited since that I have had to myself, or only shared with a few people.

3. Weather

Obviously this is not something you have control over (unless you’re Weather Wizard from The Flash), but it can certainly turn a visit somewhere into a disappointing time. Especially if that somewhere is a garden, a boat trip, a hike, or if you were hoping to see sunlight flooding though strained glass and showering a rainbow of colours on the floor. The upside is that dark or moody days can make for better (and easier) photography than when the weather is brilliantly sunny. Plus you’re less likely to get sunburnt! Additionally the weather can certainly make a situation more dramatic and atmospheric. On a recent trip to Spain, our group walked the last 20km or so of the Camino de Santiago. As three of us entered the outskirts of Santiago de Compostela, the weather chose that moment for the heavens to open and visit a dramatic storm on us. We had to shelter under a building and debate whether to go on or not. Although we only walked 20km of the Camino, we certainly experienced in miniature what pilgrims have to face.

4. Dodgy tourist attractions

I once visited a castle in England that was privately run. Instead of curated historically significant items on display, there was a collection of oddments: a kind of cross between an op shop and the kind of tacky ornaments someone might have at home. They were certainly not period pieces. In this same castle there was a very odd guide who literally flew at us and made me put on an antique metal helmet. She then proceeded to hit me in the side of the helmet (head) with a plastic He-man type sword to show me how well the helmet would have protected my face. If I have brain damage today, I could trace it back to the helmet banging and clanging against the sides of my head. Sure the helmet protected my head from the sword, but my head wasn’t protected from the helmet itself. My friend who I was with at the time declined to have this authentic ancient wartime experience herself. Silver lining: I’ve certainly appreciated all the well-run National Trust or Heritage sites that I’ve visited since.

In a town in France my friend and I paid to enter a historic site, which turned out to be just pretty much an empty corridor. Ah, nice bricks? I suppose at least we were putting money into the local economy.

Sometimes it is really, as they say, the journey and not the destination. In South Korea we spent a lot of effort to climb a mountain peak, scaling ladders in a piercing wind, all the time expecting a spectacular view from the top. It’s true the view one way was quite good, but on the other side of the peak there was a large plain featuring a hotel – not quite the wilderness I’d been expecting to gaze on. Also we felt proud of our effort to climb the peak, only to discover men selling coffee and souvenirs on the top, who probably trot up there every day. But the epic journey up was very photogenic, and it was good exercise!

5. Tacky souvenirs and terrible postcards

When you want an authentic sample of local craftsmanship, or a decent book on a historical attraction and all you can buy are tacky badly painted figurines and postcards with yellowing photos that look like they were taken in the 60’s, you experience disappointment. On these ocassions you either have to rely on your own photos for memories of what you saw, or you are left with your impression of a place in memory only. In either case you’ve certainly saved money – and you’ve certainly saved your friends and relations from feeling obliged to display a bad postcard on their fridge for an undefined period of time.

6. Stonehenge

I admit, I had built up in my mind an idea that Stonehenge would be a place of atmosphere and mystery and that I would be able to wander among the stone plinths and imagine ancient rituals there. What I didn’t anticipate was the rope that only allows visitors to skirt a perimeter around the outside of the stone circle. I also didn’t anticipate the multitude of other visitors, so there was certainly no disappearing into another world like Claire in Outlander. Thirdly it poured rain – which did provide a moody atmosphere – but made it difficult to juggle cameras and protect your clothes and hair from getting wet. However I managed to take a number of photos showing no other people and no rope, so I have continued to perteptuate the myth that visitors to Stonehenge can have an up-close people-free atmospheric experience. Silver lining? Well I made it to Stonehenge and came away with some iconic images. It also makes me think more about preservation of historical sites. We can’t all tread the paths and touch the stones at sites without serious wear and tear, so it’s a good thing when organisations are far-sighted and work to preserve sites for future generations.

7. Other travellers

I remember standing in one of the chapels in the Church of the Holy Blood in Bruges and attempting to reverently drink in the atmosphere. All around me were tourists trying to snap a photo of everything in sight. Often tourists defy the ‘No flash photography’ or ‘No photography’ signs and sneak photos anyway, as if they had some special exemption from the rules. Sometimes in art galleries you can’t get near the paintings for the number of people who want to pose for a selfie next to every single picture. Sometimes other travellers do things or utter words that are blatantly culturally offensive and you just want to crawl under a bench.

So I’ve pointed the finger at others, but I’m sure there are also times when I knowingly or unknowingly did or said the wrong thing while travelling. And sometimes travel wears us down and we’re not at our best when ultra tired. Sometimes we get sick or feel tired and can’t make the most of an opportunity.

8. Queues

It can certainly ruin your day to have to stand in an interminable queue, especially if you get to the end of it only to find you are in the wrong queue. I never knew queueing was an art in itself until I stood in line to go to the tennis at Wimbledon. That day did contain a particualar disappointment as we stood in line for quite a while (maybe a few hours) and when we finally got in we did not even see any tennis before the covers were pulled over the courts due to the rain. However I did pick up some Wimbledon merchandise and learnt a lot about queue etiquette (unfortuantely the entry fee was non-refundable).

9. Closures

On the only day you can visit there, they are closed. Whether it’s the Vatican, where they reserve the right to close Museums from day to day without notice, or whether it’s a palace in Thailand and it’s a public holiday that was previously unknown to you, you can turn up somewhere and find it closed on the day, when it was open the day before and may also be open the next day – it’s just not open on the only day you can get there. This has happened to me a number of times. On these ocassions you have to improvise, move on to plan B and sometimes this provides you with a surprising treat.

10. Shonky accommodation

Perhaps you, like Lucy Honeychurch in Room with a view experience disappointment when you don’t get the room with a view (and your companion doesn’t agree with you changing rooms with a man in case it puts you under some kind of inappropriate obligation). I’ve certainly been disappointed by the size of some hotel rooms, particulary when sharing a room with a friend or fellow tour member. One memorable night was spent in an Italian hotel room where we were kept awake all night by a medieval parade through the city, only to be woken early the next day by the sound of broken glass and building rubble cascading down a rubble shoot and smashing in a pile  opposite our window. You don’t always have a good night’s sleep when you travel, so its fortunate when you’re super tired from traipsing around all day and you can’t help but sleep despite it all. In the end you do appreciate your own bed at home a lot once you get back to it.

 As they say, it’s not so much the disappointment, but what we do with it that counts. And even if it’s just rich fodder for blog posts, those travel disappointments have done their work. I find travel makes me reflect on my own society too – it makes me more thankful for certain things, while also appreciating new things I’ve learned while away.

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A walk in the autumn leaves

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“Come with me for a walk in the autumn leaves” are some of the forcefully sung lyrics about a relationship at crunch-point that accompany the viseral guitar sound of the Huxton Creepers in their song  Autumn Leaves. Keats wrote more tranquilly of a “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness” in his poem To Autumn. Despite living in Australia where indigenous plants are not seasonally desiduous, my picture of autumn is still shaped by deciduous trees losing their now coloured leaves and by the sight of children and animals frolicking in piles of fallen foliage. Another Australian 80’s band Pseudo Echo’s album Autumnal Park (which didn’t originally contain the title track) has a cover that shows a park in autumn as seen through horizontal slat blinds. What they were inferring with this title I’m not sure – it certainly wasn’t the end of their career, but rather the beginning; perhaps a sense of varied musical tracks like leaves with different colours, or perhaps they just liked the sound of the words. I certainly find a park of deciduous trees beautiful in autumn.

Each autumn I try to make a local pilgrimage to somewhere my senses can drink in the range of red, orange and yellow hues in the cooling air and where I can admire the variety of coloured shapes that cover the ground. Ashes, maples, oaks, liquid ambers, forest pansies, poplars and other trees provide an autumnal feast for the eyes. It is more than just the leaves I want to absorb at this time of year. In a world where we have largely lost a sense of seasons in our disconnection from the agrarian, from religious calendars and other seasonal differentiators, many things that were once special – being only available at one particular time of year -can now be found year-round. Autumn is a transitional season in my mind, it signals the end of hot summers and prepares us for the early darkness and cold of winter days. Autumn is still a sign that plants, animals and humans experience seasonal changes, year by year and throughout each lifespan.

Autumn can be poignant – a metaphor or elegy for lives or relationships drawing to a close, as in the Huxton Creepers song – but as a season where fruit ripen and are ready to harvest, where trees change their state, it can also alude to change; to growth and maturity. In Gilmore Girls, Rory’s first kiss with her beau Dean comes during her hometown Stars Hollow’s autumn festival as the leaves are changing colour. Her mother Lorelai has to process her daughter’s growing independence and adulthood as Rory confides this life first to her friend Lane before her mother and Rory has to negotiate the awkwardness of her first boyfriend becoming a part of her traditional mother/daughter movie night.

Wherever you find yourself in autumn, find a park where the leaves are falling and take stock of what season your life is in. Whether you find yourself weeping at an ending as the leaves fall and the trees are laid bare or whether you’re feeling joyful in the midst of your life, all the more completely as you spy the exquisite shades of the autumn leaves, find a park in autumn and mark your season.

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Travelling conqueror or guest?

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I was reminded recently about the board game ‘Risk’, which I used to play with friends and on the computer. If you’ve never played it, the basic premise is for each player to try to conquer the world, one continent at a time. As Westerners I feel like we often travel in this same spirit of trying to conquer the world. Without worrying about the fact that many of our ancestors or countries of origin already decimated peoples, languages, cultures, cuisine, environments and more, we take on some kind of ‘divine right of travel’ and tramp everywhere and anywhere it takes our fancy. Now I have to admit to being someone with wanderlust who likes to visit other lands, but I ask myself as well as our western travel culture, do we go as conqueror or guest to a foreign land?

To me a traveling conqueror wants to go anywhere, regardless of local advice, sensibilities or beliefs. This traveler has expectations that language, food, customer service and other aspects of life will be tailored to suit them, rather than them fitting in with the local way of life. The conqueror believes that their money should buy their way anywhere they want to go.

A guest on the other hand is respectful, unsure of their place and dependant on the welcome of those they visit. Hopefully a guest will be treated well, but this cannot be guaranteed. A guest hopes to fit in with their hosts, to learn their way of life, try out their language. A guest wants to discover local practices and sensibilities and pay regard to them.

A conqueror is like a Zoo visitor – peering at a foreign country through the windows of a tour bus of their own compatriots, always guided by someone who provides a shield between them and the locals, who interprets for you. Looking in on, but never part of, the people and place they visit.

I was in a city recently where there was graffiti that read (in English) ‘Tourists go home’. I can’t say I’m surprised. When I see tour buses pull up filled with identically dressed people with cameras at the ready I shudder too. No wonder people dream up businesses to fleece tourists and pickpockets gather with itching fingers at the ready. If I felt like my way of life was being disrupted and my country’s most treasured or sacred places were being overrun by insensitive dolts and if I had people trying to take a photo of me, my family, my house, my washing on the line all the time, I too would be very resentful. Even outraged. Wouldn’t you?

As with everything in life, the issue of ethical travel is a complex one. In one of his chapters in The Wonder box, Roman Krznaric reflects on the different ways to travel, including as a pilgrim, and raises questions about the ethics of travel.We know that in some places locals have stopped traditional ways of earning a living in favour of running businesses that depend on tourists, which often brings them more money for less physical effort. The way we travel has changed these places and their economies probably permanently and now we all have to live with the results.

True Risk taking is to risk becoming immersed in another culture, to risk getting to know local people and practices and to venture out of your western protective bubble to get into a culture, rather than wandering past it and gawking as if at animals in a zoo.

How can we travel as guests rather than conquerors? Here are ten ideas. Feel free to comment with your own:

  1. Learn at least some basic language before you travel to a country and try to use it, even if you stumble and sound stupid, even if they laugh at you.
  2. Read up on the culture, customs, language, religion/s etc before you visit and go in the spirit of being a fortunate guest in someone else’s house.
  3. Wander around on your own or in small groups to increase your chances of interacting with locals.
  4. Eat at small local restaurants and shop at small local businesses rather than big chain stores or shops you are familiar with from your own country. If you come from a country where tipping is optional, make sure you know what the expectations are in the country you’re visiting.
  5. Stay with locals or in accommodation frequented by locals rather than big tourist hotels or hostels
  6. Observe how locals dress and sometimes go out without your hiking jacket, wide-brimmed hat, bum bag, camera and other obviously touristy attire and try to blend in a bit more. Decide not to take photos of people or places where it seems inappropriate or insensitive or make sure you ask permission.
  7. Visit less-popular attractions rather than just the standard tourist hit list. This will lessen environmental and other impacts on over-touristed sites.
  8. Travel as part of a cultural exchange or hobby program that partners with local groups that you can meet and exchange knowledge or practices with, rather than on a standard tour.
  9. Donate to the up-keep of local national parks, historic attractions and other sites that suffer from tourist impact.
  10. Ask locals what they would like tourists to do and not do in their country and take this on board.

 

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Discarding Tess and other travel reading tales

 

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When I travel I like to try to immerse myself in cultures or countries by reading fiction or non-fiction that is set where I’m visiting. I finally finished a Hemingway novel recently while on a tour in Northern Spain. As we progressed from Pamplona to Logrongo and on to San Sebastián, the trials and tribulations of Hemingway’s emotionally tortured ex-pats Jake Barnes and Lady Brett Ashley dwelt in my mind. As we reached the yard in Pamplona that holds the penned bulls and progressed along the then empty streets, echoes of the real running of the bulls and of Hemingway’s young matador, Romero, came to me. Inevitably reading (or watching) a tale that’s set somewhere you’ve been gives you a thrill, or brings a deeper understanding of characters, context and story. Especially where place is a strong character in itself. Some stories could be set anywhere for all the effort the author makes to ground the tale in a particular place and time, but others are inextricably linked to their setting. 

 The first and only time (so far) that I’ve visited England, I brought along Hardy’s iconic Tess of the d’Ubervilles, which I’d never managed to read before (despite taking a Hardy elective in literature at Uni). My friend and I wound our way past hedgerows and along backroads to Higher Bockhampton in Dorset, where we came to the cob and thatch cottage home of Hardy’s childhood and stooped our heads (a lot, in the case of my friend) to fit under the doorway and shuffled up the narrow, rickety staircase. Visiting the house of Hardy’s beginnings helped me picture a life and times far distant from my own. It also helped me picture the author at work. However in regards to his books, unfortunately, the victimisation of Tess and the looming sense of deep tragedy was too much for me, wandering far from home and to stop myself descending into a depressed stupor I had to get rid of that book half-finished. One day I hope to have the stamina to reach the Stonehenge scene, but after ten years, I still haven’t resumed Tess’ story since I abandoned her in Bath. In my mind she is perpetually stuck in the middle of her sad tale.

 At the time, I moved on from Tess to a book about the Georgian princesses. This was also somewhat depressing, but more in the manner of a ghoulish accident that you can’t help stopping to gawk at. I discovered just how many wives of Georgian kings were made unhappy, locked up and declared insane (to get them out of the way) and how many sisters of the kings remained spinsters. All in all they were not a happy lot, although nor were their dissolute husbands and brothers. Certainly the lives of royals otherwise just names and numbers came to life through the pages and, coupled with visits to places such as the Tower of London, gave me a greater sense of gratitude about being born when and where I was. Sometimes western freedoms of job choice, living situations, hobbies and products available can almost seem a burden of choice, but in contrast so many people’s lives have been so constricted by culture, family and circumstances of birth that I was faced anew with the amazing gift of the freedoms I enjoy. 

 On my recent trip to Europe I determined to read a book relating to each country I visited. Travelers in the 19th century had available to them the ‘Miniature Library’, which included seminal works such as The Bible, poetry and French and German Dictionaries, cultural touchstones to take with them into new situations. For this trip I mainly traveled with e-books on my tablet and rather than carrying the familiar or the exalted with me, looked to gain insights into another cultural mind through the porthole of the book. My main criteria for the books I chose to download was that they should provide factual information about the country, its people and culture, intertwined with highly readable personal memoir or travel anecdotes or well-written literary fiction. The first book I chose was The almost nearly perfect people by Michael Booth, a non-fiction analysis which covers five ‘nordic’ countries and so covered off three that I was visiting: Denmark, Sweden and Finland. The author, as an ex-pat married to a Dane, was observing one culture he’d married into and a country he’d lived in, and other countries he had traveled to and spent various time in. I gleaned a lot of social observations and was able to delve further into the history and motivations behind these cultural expressions through this book. Everything from the hot tub phenomenon to Santa Claus was covered in the pages. I’m not sure if it helped me relate to those I met more sensitively but it certainly kept me informed – and his reflection about the prevalence of hot tubs in Swedish households did prove true in my personal experience. I was also supplied with various trivia I could raise later in conversations, although I must admit to having forgotten a large part of it 6 months on, perhaps I was too distracted by all the wonderful art galleries I visited in those countries and need to re-read his book now I’m back in the midst of ordinary life. 

 Most important of all in travel writing is humour. Whether an author is writing about their own country or a country they travel through, if they can do it with a humorous perspective they’ve succeeded in my book. All that I ever knew about the phenomenon known as Nordic Walking, I learnt from the relevant chapter in Adam Fletcher’s Make me German. I purchased a dual German/English version of the book for some friends who had just moved to Germany. This book definitely provided the most humorous observations of any book I read this trip. I have an attraction to strange cultural practices and so take delight in other people’s observations of them in all their splendidly eccentric minute detail. Michael Moran’s descriptions of attending and running training conferences at a location in rural 1990’s Poland in A country in the moon were also humorous and prove how much stranger truth can be than fiction. 

 When we’re back at home travel writing can help take us on a journey of the imagination or provide destinations to add to our real world travel wish lists. So what can reading travel writing do for us while we’re actually traveling? Sometimes it provides information about places we’ve been, in addition to tours or guide books, or it explains practices or sights that were culturally strange to us. Good travel writing provides more than just the present moment, it gives us the wider historical and perhaps political and social context that we need to understand why a nation and its people are the way they are, and where this is a world a way from our own experience, it gives us hints as to how to relate to people. Most of all it does put us in the shoes of actual people and show something of what it is like to be a citizen of a particular country, it helps us get inside an experience we will never fully be able to have for ourselves as someone born elsewhere speaking another language with a different experience of family, work, war and peace. Good travel writing should help us be human.

 

For my last trip I hoped to read one book for each of the eleven countries I visited. I’m still looking for books that fit my criteria that cover the Netherlands, Belgium and Estonia. If you have any suggestions, please let me know. 

 
Some books I’ve read while traveling: 

ENGLAND

  • The Georgian Princesses – John Van der Kiste
  • Tess of the d’Urbervilles – Thomas Hardy

SWEDEN, DENMARK, NORWAY, FINLAND, ICELAND

  • The almost nearly perfect people – Michael Booth

POLAND

  • A country in the moon – Michael Moran

GERMANY

  • Make me German – Adam Fletcher
  • Germania – 

CZECH REPUBLIC

  • Me, myself and Prague – Rachael Weiss

PORTUGAL

  • Journey to Portugal – José Saramago

SPAIN

  • Spain – Jan Morris
  • The Sun also rises – Ernest Hemingway
  • Tales of the Alhambra – Washington Irving

Reading around on blogs I just discovered the weekly travel themes over at Where’s my backpack and realise my post fits the weekly Travel theme: Books https://wheresmybackpack.com/2016/04/15/travel-theme-books/

 

 

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