How to travel: adventures with leeches

Leigh Turner
Leigh Turner

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.

How to travel: jungle
In the forest

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.

a leech
A leech (centre bottom) climbing up

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

During my recent travels in Indonesia I took a disastrous boat trip to Komodo Island. Many people commented, including my friend Paul, whose thoughtful and entertaining site is here:

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? 

How to travel: Meeting people
How to meet people: alcohol may help

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.

Route 66 USA
Hitching west on I-40, 1979

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.

Delphi temple, 1978 – Photo SF

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.

Up a mountain at Epidavros, 1978 – Photo SF

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.

How to travel: Indian train
Our train to Goa, arriving in Cochin

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?

You can put your comments under “Leave a reply” below.



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14 Responses

  1. I think we want it all… travel far but not to have a big environmental impact… Carbon offsetting ?
    We want to meet new people but don’t want to take too much risk and keep our privacy. We don’t want to be a slave to social media and enjoy the moment but we want to show the World what we are enjoying at the moment… When it comes to luxury, if your own clean bathroom with plush towels counts as luxury yes please !!! Glamping my be a good alternative 😉

  2. I think we want difference from travel – at lush and optimistic times of life, a bit of roughing it can be fun; when we’re feeling fragile there’s nothing to beat high-end pampering – and in the end we want to come home, bringing our stories with us…with bonus exciting scars (you beat me on that one, Leigh – no leeches have ever got near my dermis, though I still bear the silvery aftermath on my left forearm of climbing over a barbed wire fence in the Republic as a wild teen and, characteristically, slipping)

  3. When traveling i want first and foremost to share. Mainly with those who matter, just as they were with me in the luggage. Can’t i be happy alone and therefore “use” my virtual companions? Happiness “through others”? Is it show-off of a world i am just a spectator on the side line? Can’t i do without vizualising everything? Well, i just love embracing mother Earth, trying to use a vigilant eye and sometimes cut the crap of too much thought. Which doesn’t come always easy. Keep going Leigh and Lukuum too! Lovely reading your posts!

  4. I am frozen with fear about arranging to travel now that all those things that I relied on in the 20th century are gone, things like travel agents on every high street, where I could walk in and have a chat and get them to plan all my connections, factoring in things like potential delays between connections. I need paper tickets, and a human being to check me in and wish me happy travels. The older I get the more imagination I have for things that can go awry. I do not miss travel though. All the wonderful 21st century technology lets me enjoy the travels of others. Luckily, I live in London and people from all over the world travel here one way or another so I still get to meet them on platforms and at bus stops.

    1. I know what you mean about travel agents. To have someone organise your tickets and arrangements for you… wouldn’t that be handy? I found on my recent Indonesia trip (see previous post) that you have to get used to independent travelling again.

  5. The climate emergency being what it is, I have given up all air travel, full stop. No more airports, customs searches, luggage hauling, jet lag.
    I’m walking more, and when driving is unavoidable, making sure I’m driving an all-electric car. I can’t tell you how grateful I am that I actually own one. Not a pricey Tesla, mind you, but an affordable and perfectly delightful Nissan Leaf. Snagging one took some doing, but what an amazing machine. It’s the most comfortable, spunky, silent, and safety-oriented vehicle I’ve ever had. A “happy machine.” There’s nothing like it; makes you feel like you’re cloud-skimming.

    1. Yes please to no more jet lag! I seem to take longer to adjust these days. Maybe the Queen Mary would be a good way for you to visit Europe (see earlier post)? We’re considering doing that again… Hope we can coincide sometime somehow!

  6. I realise that the endless need to take selfies gives photography a bad name. But, for me, the whole process of taking pictures of people in new and sometimes challenging places creates significance in my life. I hope that doesn’t sound too pretentious! Taking pics is as near as I can get to living my remaining days to the full – aka living in the moment – because I have to think on my feet, to be fully aware of what’s going on around me, and to pay thoughtful attention to the sometimes guarded and occasionally downright hostile signals that people are giving out, quite apart from the process of taking pictures.

    And, because every day is different from the last, not only do I have a day-by-day, almost second-by-second, record of where I was and what I was doing at any time but I also find that the lack of routine mean that, when I’m travelling, time passes in a much slower way. I find that this is life-enhancing because the constant stream of new challenges pushes back my comfort zone – you learn so much about yourself and your travelling companions, especially when things go wrong!

    1. Pushing back the comfort zone must be right sometimes. Do you have a website somewhere where you put all your fabulous pictures? Feel free to include a website address!

  7. Leigh, you argue that people’s propensity to start talking with us when we are travelling alone is less than it used to be. I’m not sure you are right. On my recent trip I found people in the Faroes reticent; but in Iceland, and on the ferry to and fro, I had lots of good conversations. For example I chatted on a bus with an elderly Icelandic lady, she speaking German, me speaking Dutch. Apart from anything else, I think this must be something quite culturally specific.

    1. I’m not sure they have changed – it may be that I have become more reserved about initiating contact! In my 20s I would never fly anywhere without getting talking to the person sitting next to me; now I almost never do. But yes there is a lot of cultural specificity here.

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