Print Edition - 2019-03-23  |  On Saturday

The many faces of travel

  • If one were to decide on the best way to travel, what would come out on top?
- Thomas Heaton

Mar 23, 2019-

Opting for a tuk tuk to circumnavigate Sri Lanka, scooters through Myanmar, or trains and buses to cross the continent of Europe, I have long erred on the side of adventure when travelling. I have always yearned for gnarly experiences that provide secondary fun.

I’ve longed for the pleasure one has while not actually having it—those uncomfortable experiences that make for great stories, and those that result in exhausted elation.

In pursuit of these experiences, I’ve found myself in dubious situations: sleeping on the roof of a half-built Marrakech hotel with a sketchy host, searching for gas for my scooter in the heart of a roadless Myanmar countryside, and fleeing dodgy dive bars in eastern Europe. In Nepal, I did my best to find lesser-known trails to climb, where I sweated as if I had suffered through a KGB interrogation in a Russian sauna.  

But, as I’ve encountered, there are many types of traveller. Some are high-paced, frenetic, book-at-the-last second, lone travelers; others indulge in a sedentary style of travel, basking on a sunny beach with a cocktail and book in hand. For some, travel means going to museum after monument after museum while others want to mindlessly follow a flag, leaving decision-making at home. None of these styles of travel are incorrect—except for, in my opinion, flag-following mouth breathers—and none are really any better than the other, given that travel and experience is subjective.

But having recently crossed Europe and spent many months exploring Nepal’s dazzling crannies, I have come to learn what is important and have had my suspicions confirmed. Over three weeks in December, I travelled from Baku, Azerbaijan, to Madrid, Spain. In that distance, I took two flights and visited nine countries. The flights were less than two hours each, and the remaining kilometres were travelled on roads or train tracks. It was pleasurable, but it was exhausting. In Nepal, I have limited the majority of my travel to the country’s hellish and perilous roads because trains do not exist, and I see planes as floating and rattling tubes of doom.

These travel experiences have led me to find, however, that we should all take a leaf from each other’s travel books. Adventurous travel is exhausting and, from what I’ve come to understand, it’s important to make sure travel comes second to destinations. Travel means movement, but the concept is all about the destination. Unless you’re a train- or plane-lover, travel is not about the grind between sites. In the almost

5, 000km I travelled in Europe, I didn’t spend more than three days in one location. I didn’t spend more than 12 hours in some cities. I tried to fit in the most important locations, but a lot of my time ended up being research for the next place to stay.

That’s where the geeky travellers’ work comes in. While they might be content with a day in a museum, learning about the turbulent history of Nepal, that would be an entire day wasted without swatting monkeys at Swayambhunath or savouring juju dhau in Bhaktapur. That’s also not taking into account the fact that there’s mountains to trek and white water to be paddled. But, the geeks gain context and an understanding of the country, city or site that many people might not have. A visit without context, or some understanding of history, is about as good as becoming president of a country without experience.

Then there’s the sedentary traveller, who tan and embalm themselves with bottomless cocktails on foreign beaches. Where I come from, we call vacations holidays. Holidays are for relaxation and recuperation, but the adventurous ones can be left needing a holiday following our holidays. There are the hardcore, who I once aspired to be, who are refreshed after trekking Annapurna Circuit or to Everest, but that’s only a small fraternity. So there needs to be a buffer period, where one can download past experiences and reinvigorate for incoming experiences. On the other hand, the sedentary traveller should also be self-aware enough to say they’ve been to Thailand, but never really went, because they stayed in a resort and ate western slop.

But, all said and done, people are everything when it comes to travel. There are some of us who are happy to take solo adventures, but that is always contingent on finding people along the way. The people you meet for short amounts of time can invigorate you, like the local man in Bamboo on the Annapurna Base Camp trek, who swore I was 55 years old, or the old Azeri lady watching her favourite movie, Transformers, on the train from Baku to Tbilisi, Georgia.

For backpackers too, the hostel is the perfect place to find friends, but not everywhere lends itself to a backpacking culture. Being comfortable in your own company becomes increasingly important, and if you’re not, things get lonely quite quickly. Seeing the faces of old friends from New Zealand at the end of my European journey was a godsend, as I grew tired of my own company quickly. The ability to bounce ideas off, laugh with, share stories with, drink with, eat with, and confide in, is something so important you can only know when you’ve plunged yourself into a solitary situation.

At the end of the day, as trite as it may sound, it’s all about balance. Balancing company with doing your own thing; trawling museums and geeking about, with spontaneity; relaxation and bacchanalian behaviour, with adventure. It’s all balance, and if it’s achieved, it’s more than a wonderful thing—it’s a life changing experience.

Published: 23-03-2019 20:59

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