How to travel in an age of global tourism is less obvious than it looks. How do you travel?
How to travel: leech horrors
Climbing Mount Lesong on Bali in January, we are keen to avoid guides. ‘It is too rainy,’ our host at the hotel says. ‘Too cloudy. On the mountain are many leeches.’ He gives us a tiny bottle of oil for our exposed ankles.
We pad through deep forest. Birds tweet, animals rustle in the undergrowth. Trees soar, thick with lianas and epiphytes. We begin our ascent on steep, muddy paths, pushing through undergrowth. We are delighted to find our own way, using a walking app and common sense. The route is deserted.
We spot the first leech about half way up. Blood streams down my son’s ankle from where it has attached itself. We detach the leech and continue. The path becomes steeper, slipperier and fainter. More leeches appear, arching their bodies to climb up my son’s trainers (my shoes, although filthy, are white, and either that or the fact my socks are tucked into my long trousers seems to discourage the leeches). Mist cloaks the mountain. Two-thirds of the way up, we decide we’ve done enough, and descend for a snack at a nearby warung.
Checking our feet and ankles, we find another leech has somehow penetrated inside a shoe and through a thick sock, leaving the fabric matted with blood. The leech has got its snack in early. The wound bleeds for hours.
Sound gruesome? It was. Yet the experience is a memorable highlight of our travels in Bali. Why?
How to travel is not obvious
We think we know how to travel. Buy your tickets, grab your passport and go. But the resumption of travel after COVID, and environmental concerns about climate impact, raise questions. What exactly are we looking for, when we journey? Different travellers have different goals. Do we seek rest, or thrills? Do we want to discover new cultures and fascinating foods? If so, why was Mamma Pizza on Gili Air in Lombok so packed all the time? Do we crave luxury, or want to rough it? Do we want to meet locals or fellow travellers? Or is a comfortable bubble just right?
In my forthcoming book The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Diplomacy, I praise travel. I quote Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, who sings in “Moon River” that “There’s such a lot of world to see”. But being clear what we’re looking for may help us have a better time.
Meeting people is right
Your wonderful Komodo blog raises for me the issues that my Iceland trip raised. Once we are on the road there are three options: foreign young people’s tourism (like your boat trip, like – at a lower level of stretch – my bus trips); middle aged people’s tourism (self contained on their own boats, in their own camper vans); and rich people’s tourism (cruises, whatever). If you like meeting people who are different from you, as we both do, then the young people’s is the best of these three. But the people we actually want to meet are Indonesians or Icelanders, aren’t they? To meet them I think we have to go to the places that are not beautiful; and to walk. Back in the day it was from hitching that we got what we needed. Maybe the thing to do is to hitchhike again?
I find meeting people while travelling harder than it used to be. Maybe I’m older. People spend hours staring at their phones. When I was gazing at my own phone in a cafe on Bali and someone addressed me in a friendly way, I felt mildly violated – but we then had a great conversation. Other people wear headphones – radiating a powerful “do not speak to me” vibe. I could sit around people for hours in a cafe or common area without striking up a conversation. Have I changed, or is it society?
The death of hitchhiking
Hitchhiking was of course a brilliant way to meet people – see my tale What are Americans like? Hitching was a bit like a dating app. With a dating app, you know that everyone on the system wants to meet someone. With hitching, every driver who stops wants to have a chat. But changing mores and road structures, especially the rise of the motorway intersection where hitchhikers have nowhere to stand, have destroyed hitchhiking in most countries.
How to travel: visiting Delphi
I first asked myself “how to travel” and “how to see somewhere” when I visited Delphi, in Greece, in 1978. The temple complex in its dramatic setting impressed me, but was packed with tourists.
I climbed the hill and found a deserted stadium. The soaring mountains and solitude filled me with happiness. I hesitated. Did the absence of people mean the site was not important, or worth visiting? Should I take a photograph to seal my visit, or perhaps walk down to the centre of the stadium and stand there? I did both. Later, all my photos were stolen, along with my rucksack, in Italy. But I can still picture the scene.
India: an unforgettable train
In 2015, I visited Kerala in India, with my girlfriend. Travelling to Goa, we decided to take an overnight train from Cochin – a trip of around 16 hours. At our posh hotel, people told us the train was dirty, and crowded. The toilets left much to be desired. But we decided the alternative – to fly on two planes via Delhi – would take just as long, and be less fun. When we reached the station, we needed help to find our carriage and reserved seats.
We could see why luxury travellers avoided the train. Cockroaches were plentiful. We shared an open carriage with many local travellers. Our sleeping cots were open. The toilets left much to be desired.
Yet our overnight train ride was the highlight of our visit to India. Fellow passengers were delighted to meet and talk to us, and offered us food. The landscapes we traversed were magnificent. We awoke with the dawn to find the train grinding across a mighty, swampy delta (possibly the Netravathi river). By the time we arrived in Goa, we felt as though to have reached our destination via Delhi would have been a crime.
How to travel: forging memories
Leeches, Delphi, Indian trains and the Komodo trip are all reminders that knowing how to travel is not straightforward. What experiences will form the most intense memories? How can we give ourselves more of them? I love luxury: my voyage on the Queen Mary literary cruise in 2019 was unforgettable. But pure luxury travel cannot be the answer.
I would welcome a discussion about this. What do you look for when you set off on a journey, or on holiday? Here are some starters:
- are you concerned by environmental factors? Would you go to a beach halfway round the world, if there was one nearby?
- do you set out to interact with people? If so, with whom, and how?
- what is the best blend of luxury and slumming it? Or is 100% luxury best?
- what kind of holiday experiences give you the most intense memories?
- do you find taking photos, or putting everything on social media, helps or hinders your holiday?
- what are the merits of travelling alone, or with others?
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