Against Travel


I’m finished with overseas travel. It’s a big decision for someone who has been a traveller for over 40 years, but it’s taken me that long to understand what an old friend meant when he remarked that the main reason for travel was to find out what you aren’t missing.

I recently bought a new atlas it provided a sobering reminder of how much ground I’ve covered since I first boarded a rundown Italian liner in 1964 and set off for Europe. Nonetheless, every year, out of habit, I pore through range of travel brochures.

Robert Louis Stevenson had a point when he wrote that ‘to travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive.’ For me (and I suspect for most of us) planning a holiday is a major element in the enjoyment of the whole exercise, especially these days when so much pleasurable research can be done on the internet.

Lately I’ve noticed a tendency for travel to become a kind of competition a desperate battle to be the first to go to as yet undiscovered places. ‘You mean you’ve never been to Uzbekistan (or Burkina Faso or Tierra del Fuego)?’ is the cry. ‘You haven’t seen a mosque till you’ve been to Samarkand!’

It’s not a competition I want to participate in any longer. Overcome by the range of trips on offer in the brochures, I began to wonder why I was considering more travel at all.

Paul Theroux, who should know, said that travel is glamorous only in retrospect. In practice, the great sights of the travel pantheon often leave less of a long term impression than quite trivial things; which linger in the mind more sharply than dutiful visits to great museums or monuments.

Many celebrated sights apart from indisputable marvels like the Taj Mahal, Uluru, Macchu Picchu, Chartres Cathedral, Pompeii and the Great Wall fail to live up to expectations. Simple, cheap pleasures like the Circle Line boat trip around Manhattan or the Stanley bus in Hong Kong are incomparable ways of getting a handle on both those islands. Small museums and galleries in Paris can prove more rewarding than a week in the overwhelming abundance of the Louvre.

A mid-winter train trip across Siberia in the 1970s, through endless vistas of snowy taiga and bare birches, was, for me, the most memorable of trips. A bevy of heavily-padded babushkas one stationed in each carriage to provide tea from large samovars leapt out at each stop armed with a crowbar. Their job was to bash the frozen icicles of urine off the underside of the toilets. One could only imagine the impact on these stations during the summer thaw.

China in 1978-9 was a country emerging from the horrors of the Cultural Revolution. Facilities for travellers were minimal, and outside the cities food was scanty and basic. But it was exciting tourists felt like pioneers. I have little desire to see the glittering metropolises that are Shanghai and Beijing today.

My memories are of seeing uniformed sailors embracing on the Bund, to be told later by our guide, Mr Li, that China had ‘abolished’ homosexuality; a group of ageing cooks being lined up to shake our hands after they had produced a full English-style Christmas dinner, delighted to once again use the skills they had learned in colonial times; and a tiny, wispy-bearded man in Suzhou who, dropping the shafts of his wooden cart, greeted us in perfect English: ‘A very good evening, sir and madam.’ The sight of Westerners in China was then fairly rare. It’s hard to forget the children in a remote village amazed at the sight of a white-haired member of our party.

Vietnam is a delightful country, with charming people apparently devoid of resentment towards recent enemies. Sadly, much of its ancientry has been destroyed by war and insensitive development. Floating rubbish, all too visible to kayaking tourists, mars the breathtaking natural beauty of Halong Bay. But none of my guidebooks mentioned the extraordinary domestic architecture tall thin houses, crammed together in cities or standing alone like sentinels on a rural block, waiting for some companions. Equally spectacular is the frequent sighting of whole families as many as six people, or several pigs, even an ox being transported on a small motorcycle.

Sometimes it’s the contrast between the sights that you have travelled to see and the lives of the people living there that you remember most. In Peru in the 1980s, for example, en route to Macchu Picchu, I saw poverty worse and more degrading even than in India, and understood why the ultra-Left Shining Path guerrillas had attracted support among these despairing people. The contrast between Australian affluence and the extreme poverty in some countries has become for me another disincentive to travel.

In my lifetime the availability of cheaper air travel and packaged holidays has opened up overseas travel to many more Australians. The young, particularly, will no doubt always want to find out what they’re not missing. But increasingly, air travel has become an ordeal hours queuing to check in, cramped conditions, and more hours queuing for customs and immigration formalities at the end of long flights. By all accounts, cruise boats are far from an attractive alternative unless you don’t mind being confined for weeks with mobs of drunken yobbos or a bunch of elderly American billionaires.

Perhaps it is time to think seriously about the impact of our mania to see the rest of the world. Almost everywhere we want to go, however good our intentions, means taking those great fuel-guzzling, carbon-emitting planes. This has been another factor in my change of heart about travel.

It would not surprise me if more Australians have been to Bali, Singapore or Hong Kong than have seen Central Australia, Kakadu or the Kimberley. City dwellers who pronounce on Aboriginal issues may never have met an Aboriginal person. White Australians can gain a significant new perspective on ‘their’ country by visiting areas where Aboriginal people outnumber them. The possibilities for travel within this country are limitless just ask any Irish backpacker or Grey Nomad.

Because of modern communications, we have lost one of the best things about overseas travel the thrilling sense of freedom that used to engulf us as the plane lifted off from Mascot or Tullamarine, knowing that for weeks or months we would be out of contact and the demands of home, work, family, friends, pets. These days the smallest Indian village boasts an internet café and phones are ubiquitous, whether it’s our own mobiles or satellite phones that work even on the summit of Everest.

As far as I’m concerned, just one more good reason to stay at home.

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