I’ve started reading, or more accurately rereading Paul Theroux’s ‘Old Patagonia Express’.
I first read it about thirty years ago, when it first came out in paperback, and didn’t much like it then, in part because it didn’t seem as amazingly romantically fascinating as Bruce Chatwin’s ‘In Patagonia’ and in part because of the way Theroux’s character shone through - that amazing mix of bumptious pretentiousness and ignorance one finds in some arts and literature graduates from upscale US universities. Knowing about fourteenth century literature does not equip one to deal successfully with a monoglot Italian train conductor at three in the morning
Well I’m still finding his character irritating, but overall I like the book better now, perhaps because I’m older, have travelled more, and perhaps because it captures a world now vanished, without cellphones, email and discount airlines.
Like Theroux I have always been fascinated by the idea that one can put a notebook and some clothes in a bag, go to a train station and end up, well, wherever one can get a train to.
Of course in Australia, it doesn’t really work. We don’t really do trains any more. From Canberra the only direct train is to Sydney, or one can get a bus and connect with the Sydney Melbourne train.
However, when I lived in England it was different. And impossibly romantic. Bus to the station, train to London, and in pre-Eurostar days, the boat train from Victoria to Newhaven, and then rattling across France in the dark of early morning, and across Paris as the sun came out to catch the train south to Spain and the Basque Lands.
This was travel, humping bags, customs officers, discussions with railway officials in bad French and worse Spanish, standing all the way from Paris to Irun in an impossibly crowded over booked train.
And the chance encounters. The man who gave me some apples from his garden and a spare metro ticket when he found I was going on to London, or the blonde girl who spent all night on the ferry talking to me about organic smallholdings and Bhuddism. We could have become lovers but our only shared intimacy was coffee and Gauloises in a cafe opposite the Gare d’Austerlitz as we waited for our separate early morning trains.
And there were sleepers - in pre-easyjet days the simple idea of a night’s sleep on a rattling train saved a day or two off a journey making longer trips possible. When I moved from Scotland to Wales I packed up my gear on my touring bike, rode to the station one January evening, checked my bike in and rattled by various trains to Shrewsbury on a cold winter’s morning before catching a train to Lllandrindod through a cold frozen early morning rural landscape straight out of Kilvert’s Diary.
Of course there were downsides as well - hours spent in cold station waiting rooms waiting for the early morning train from somewhere to somewhere else, trying to find somewhere for a shower after a long sweaty un air conditioned journey, but it was still fun.
Fun in a way that that you don’t get if you only travel by air and just pick up a rental car. On planes people do not move around, talk to each other much, or anything much. Mostly you sit there, watch someone else’s choice of movie, eat indifferent food, and try to sleep when possible. Solitary air travel is, well solitary, and if one travels with one’s companera it may be more companionable, but it’s still tedious and boring.
The fun bits of air travel really revolve around missed connections and delays, like the time we went to Brunei for the afternoon. We were supposed to connect with local flight to Kota Kinabalu in Sabah, Malaysia, but our flight was hopelessly late.
We had to meet some people in KK so the airline’s suggestion of a hotel and a flight the next day didn’t work. In the end it was through immigration, into a battered Holden mini-cab - the driver had to hold the gear change in drive to stop it jumping out - for a mad dash across Brunei to a highspeed passenger ferry to Labuan, other cab and wait in the airport for an onward flight.
Or more accurately wait outside the airport. The security guards locked themselves inside the air conditioned terminal to watch ‘Who wants to be a millionaire?’ in Malay while we sat in a taxi shelter in a tropical downpour waiting for them to open the terminal building for the next flight.
Or being bumped off a flight from Turkey, and flying back via Berlin, overnighting in a very strange discount hotel I always suspected of having been a Stasi barracks in a previous life and then doorstepping an airline office to cram onto the next available flight to London as they couldn’t book us through all the way from Istanbul.
Car trips are similarly insulating divorcing you from interaction - and while we’ve had good times, including rattling round Crete looking at Minoan ruins in a dented Fiat with a dodgy gear change, - you’re just another pair of people on a road trip.
Likewise we’ve taken some small group tours to cram travel in - basically if someone has a tour organised of Hellenistic sites in Turkey it can be quicker and less of a hassle to travel on one of those - preferably the travel oriented ones - the rougher the better staying in cheap local hotels and eating in local cafes - because the company has usually sorted the logistics out. Also the people attracted to that sort of tour tend to be more adventurous and interesting.
Real travel is something else, travelling on local public transport sometimes, like our trip to Laos with the rattling sleeper to the border and the insane bus journey across the north of Thailand from the Mekong to Chiang Mai with 150 people crammed into a fifty seater bus, trying to find/organise hotels in advance, or wandering round strange cities trying to find somewhere to eat - which sometimes can be surprisingly difficult.
However, it’s fun, in a perverse, sustaining. stimulating way that lets you experience a country, and how other people live. When they say that travel broadens the mind this is the sort of travel they mean, the dirty grubby stimulating sort. And irritated as I may be by Paul Theroux, I appreciate and admire his sense of adventure