I find myself, more often than not, looking at travel experiences through a writer’s lens. Every meal, every trek, every chance meeting has the potential to be material for a travel piece. On boat rides, I think about phrasing. On long bus rides, I scroll through pictures, looking for the right one to go with the idea in my head. In cars, I pass the time by writing down thoughts that pop into my head as potential pieces.
I want to share. I want others to know what this traveling life looks like- beautiful, challenging, freeing, and difficult.
So, I plot and plan and jot down ideas. I get excited when a new experience brings up images of perfectly worded paragraphs on a screen. When I snap just the right picture, I rejoice! It’s lovely when the ideas and the words come easily.
But sometimes they don’t.
Sometimes I feel as though I have reached the absolute corners of my mind and I have nothing left to write about. Nothing of value or interest. My world starts to look quite average and I wonder who could possibly care about my excitement over finding vegetarian food in Central America.
Those are the days I most need to stop writing. Those are the days I need to get back to enjoying each moment for what it is and not worry about how I will weave it into a well-crafted article. Perfect adjectives to describe the moments take a back seat to actually experiencing the moments, as they should.
It is nice to share tales from the road. Connecting with like-minded people through the written word is wonderful. But without a connection to and enjoyment of the actual moments that are behind those stories, it’s just empty talk.
Sometimes we need to put down the pen, the computer, the camera and focus on being present.
There is no test at the end of our journey. No judgement on whether we wrote enough words or took the right pictures. There is just our own perception of what we have experienced. We need to be present for those experiences.
How do you make sure you are engaged in the experience while on the road? Do you ever get the urge to put the pen and the camera down and get reconnected with the experience of living?
Cost per day?
For us it could have been cheap, very cheap but we decided to splash out. We hadn’t found a campsite to park on but decided to park on the sea front. Granted this wasn’t a designated spot but in such a small town no-one battered an eye lid at us. If you brought your own food then Robe has no expense.
Describe a typical day
Our stay in Robe was far from typical in any sense of the word, the town like most coastal towns in South Australia thrive on its fishing port. We rolled into town from the Princes Highway just for a place to stop for the night. A small port location with panoramic views of the ocean. Today was going to be the day that we put our heads together and plan the next steps in our trip. We also had postcards to send and books to read. Above all we had every intention of exploring some of the local sites and attractions. As we had simply stumbled upon this quaint town we knew we needed to gain a little insight.
The trouble with being on the road and sometimes almost a liberation but Wi-Fi can be hard to come by. We searched the local area to find a small café to sit and drink coffee and browse the web and check emails. Feeling like I had stepped back 30 years most outlets didn’t provide Wi-Fi. The local library and information center was closed for the weekend. Fortunately and gratefully the local pub The Caledonian Inn 5 mins walk from our camper had the only internet we could use. So we snuck in to this old very cozy but very rustic public house. The structure was made up of wooden beams and old brick. We felt like we had stepped into an old country pub in Britain.
Tummies rumbling we order in a Chicken Parmagana. Australians love there parmagana you won’t fail to find a pub that does this chicken delight. Chicken in breadcrumb top with cheese, sauce, meat, veg on a layer of chips. In Australia drinks glasses are smaller, Schooners and Midis are just two names given to minature glasses, what we had been missing on our travels was a full size British (imperial) pint. It just so happens that this pub were prepared for two British backpackers to wonder in. From the top shelf they dusted of these pint glasses and filled them up with sweet nectar. The landlady was lovely we spoke about the difference between English pubs and Australian pubs and what life in robe was like.
Then the rain started.
The list of all we wanted to see had just become null and void, we couldn’t wander around Robe in the pouring rain, as the wind picked up it was coming in sideways. So we did nothing more than carry on drinking. By this point we had found a new friend in the landlady who in turn introduced us to her team. Each young person behind the bar had become fascinated in our worldwide expedition. None of them had ever strayed very far from robe or beyond a state border. A holiday for them would be a couple of hours drive in a UTE (pickup truck) and surfing for a weekend up or down the coast. Each had been to the same schools, had the same friends and hung out in the pub they worked in. Unlike us and our small-town upbringing they were happy with this small town mentality and found comfort and solace in living in a tight community.
As the night went on we were passed around each local as the new thing on the block, old women to young men each wanted to meet and talk. They all tried their best pommie (British) accent on us, many failed miserably taking to sounding more like Dick van Dyke than the Queen herself. We sank more and more drink from our imperial pints. A log fire roared and the music began. We danced in a crowded room with many strangers who had become passing friends, swapping more stories jokes and alcohol shots. Hours felt like minutes but we had found friends in Robe and staggered out the doors together into the pouring rain. The caravan rocked with the mighty winds but the Alcohol had set in and we fell right to sleep.
On a schedule and the continuing to rain the following afternoon (once we were legally able and safe to drive) we set off on our road trip
Describe an interesting conversation you had?
As I mentioned before it was great to meet then young men and women who worked behind the bar. What really struck me was there attitude to the simple pleasures in life. For me I love the sense of community that comes from a small town, having friends on your doorstep and being close to your family. The downside of a small town is the secluded nature of it and from an early age it was engrained into me that there is more to the world than the place you were born. This is why I am doing what I am doing today and travelling the world. However I look at small town life objectively, the eye opener for me was the idea that all these young people were adamant that if you have all the comforts you need and friends and family to share it with what else do you need. As much as I learned from them and their level of intrigue I hope that my stories and ambitions rubbed off on them and maybe one day they will set out on their own adventures.
What did you like? Dislike?
The rain was a dislike as it was unfortunate that we couldn’t make our way round to visit much of the Robes history. What I liked is the my fresh outlook that you don’t need to see the biggest monuments or the most beautiful beaches, in order to explore a country, meeting an Australian doesn’t let me qualify the right to know an Australian. That night gave us great insight into what the rest of the population outside of Sydney, Melbourne, Perth etc. do and how they live. We shared in the similarities of home blended with the many interesting and sometimes quirky differences. It opened our eyes to the warming nature that Australians have and to quote Jerry the guitarists, A man is a man until he’s an ar*****e then you can call him your mate.
A little advice
If time is on your side which it often is when your travelling, turn off once in a while, Robe was one of many great place we simply stumbled upon. You’ll never find the whole experience in a cosmopolitan enviroment, the diversity of Sydney or any big city even that of Uluru is not the authentic reality that we all desire. So once in a while pick a signpost and follow it, you can always turn around but you may never know what you may find at the end of that road
Where Next: Port Lincoln!!!!
Nine years ago, bedridden with a debilitating case of chronic Lyme disease, I examined my life. For 36 years I’d slaved away in jobs I detested because they provided me with a good living, but despite having all the material things that money could buy, I was miserable. In that rare moment of clarity, I thought, Is this all there is?
Three-plus decades after entering the work force, I was no closer to achieving my dreams of being a travel writer and photographer. Instead, I’d become ensnared in a web of mortgages, car payments, and a seeming unending desire for more “stuff.” I promised myself that, if I recovered, I would walk away from corporate life to pursue the only thing I’d ever wanted to do.
A year later, at the age of 54, I slung a backpack over my shoulder and headed out on my first round-the-world trip. I was excited and a little scared. Vietnam was my first destination, and for weeks my friends and family had been alarming me with stories of the dangers of the country. My first night did not go smoothly. I checked into my guest house, found an Internet cafe down the street, and settled in to work. A couple of hours later I stepped back onto the street, only to find that metal shutters had been rolled down over all the storefronts. Everything looked the same.
By the time I’d spent two weeks traveling solo around Vietnam by bus, I was confident in my ability to travel the world solo.
Rather than panic, I calmed myself with the idea that, at worst, I would have to move to another hotel for the night. I did eventually locate my guest house and, after a few minutes of banging on the metal door, woke the night watchman, who let me in. It was my first lesson in rolling with the punches. By the time I’d spent two weeks traveling around Vietnam by bus, I was confident in my ability to travel the world solo.
My second experience in Vietnam was even more profound. In Hanoi, I visited the War Museum and was shocked to learn that Vietnamese refer to the 20-year conflict as “The American War.” This one small fact translated into a fascination for the differences between cultures that has influenced all my subsequent travels.
In the eight years since my initial round-the-world trip, I’ve visited more than 50 countries, traveling slowly whenever possible in order to immerse in the local cultures. In 2009, I gave up my apartment and became a perpetual traveler, with no permanent home base, and I have no plans to stop anytime soon.
When people learn what I do, they often exclaim, “You’re so brave,” or ask, “Aren’t you afraid?” I tell them there is no reason to be afraid, that people the world over are more similar than they are different. Though we may wear different clothes, speak different languages, and practice different religions, at our core we all want the same things: a safe place to live, enough food to eat, freedom from oppression, and a better life for our children.
“Travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living.” Miriam Beard
Miriam Beard, daughter of the American historians Charles and Mary Beard, said “Travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living.” Without a doubt, travel has irrevocably changed me. I have no interest in owning a home and never purchase souvenirs. My wardrobe is limited to what fits in a 25” suitcase. Material possessions are of no interest to me. And I have never felt so free.
I now realize that my initial fears were foolish. Travel is not dangerous. Despite traveling solo to numerous developing countries where poverty is rife, I have never felt the least bit threatened. Strangers have gone out of their way to help me and even welcomed me into their homes. Lifelong friendships have resulted. Travel, more than any other activity, eliminates the fear of others whom we see as different from ourselves.
Perpetual travel is not for everyone, however, long-term travel is becoming popular with more than just ‘gap year’ travelers. Baby boomers especially, who are healthier and more active than ever before, are looking for ways to make valuable contributions in retirement, and many are opting to do so by volunteering overseas. Having mastered the art of long-term travel, I plan to share my wealth of knowledge in this monthly column. So, whether you’re an armchair traveler or are contemplating long-term travels of your own, be sure to watch for my future articles. It should be an insightful journey.
When Barbara Weibel realized she felt like the proverbial “hole in the donut” – solid on the outside but empty on the inside, she walked away from corporate life and set out to see the world. Read first-hand accounts of the places she visits and the people she meets at Hole in the Donut Cultural Travels. Follow her on Facebook or Twitter (@holeinthedonut).
“It is safe to say that the lasting travel accounts are quite subjective, that — within limits — the more subjective they are, the more readable, the more “valuable” they are. Travelers, like novelists, learned long ago the truth of Todorov’s statement of a universal law: “The best description…is the one which is not description all the way.” That is, the best description is combined with, cannot really be separated from, narration, reflection, interpretation.”
–Percy G. Adams, Travel Literature and the Evolution of the Novel (1983)
Ray, a bearded New Yorker who had recently dropped out of college to travel the world, was convinced that southern Laos was turning into a horrific cesspool of death and disease.
“I’m telling you,” he said to me as we stood outside the small ice-cream stand near the Phonsavanh Hotel in Pakse. “Cholera is completely out of control down here. A French guy I talked to in Savannakhet said the Pakse hospital was full of dead bodies.”
“Did the French guy see the dead bodies?” I asked.
“No, but he talked to a guy who saw the dead bodies.”
“And you’re sure he didn’t just talk to a guy who talked to another guy who saw the dead bodies?”
Ray looked at me with irritation. “Look, I have a sense for this kind of thing. I could tell he was serious.”
I decided to drop the big question. “So if you’re sure he was telling the truth about dead bodies in the Pakse hospital, what are you doing in Pakse right now?”
“Fuck it, man,” Ray said enthusiastically. “This is where the action is.”
By this point, I had been in Pakse for 24 hours and I was at my wits’ end. I’d been hearing the cholera rumors since coming overland from Vietnam, but I couldn’t get any hard facts. Nearly every traveler I’d met had heard there was a cholera epidemic on the Mekong flood plain south of Pakse, but not a single person had gotten this information from an official source. Many travelers were aborting their Laos travel plans and moving on, but others — like Ray — were embracing the cholera rumors with vicarious zeal. For these people, the very notion of the epidemic was enough to turn an otherwise normal trip into an adventure.
On the other hand, all the Laotian government offices and agencies in Pakse were categorically denying the existence of cholera. I visited two different government travel agencies in Pakse, and both insisted there was no problem with traveling south along the Mekong. The woman at the local health office laughed at the idea. “There are some people who have diarrhea,” she said, “but there is no cholera.” Even the officials I phoned at the U.S. Embassy in Vientiane knew nothing of the cholera rumor.
Since there was no hard evidence of an epidemic — and knowing how travelers tend to exaggerate — I continued with my plans to head downriver. As I hiked down to the river pier on the morning of my second day in Pakse, I met a Lao man named Kumsing who was working on a rural electrification project in the area. He was uncommonly friendly, and he spoke great English.
“Where are you headed?” he asked me.
“South,” I said. “I’m going to visit the 4000 Islands on the Mekong.”
Kumsing clicked his tongue. “That’s a nice area, but you have to be careful these days. I was there last week, and many of my workers got sick.”
“Was it cholera?”
“Yes, cholera. You won’t catch it if you’re careful. Not all of my workers got sick, just the careless ones.”
“How many workers were careless?”
Kumsing did some quick math. “Sixteen. But none of them died.”
“But everyone else stayed healthy — no cholera?”
“Yes, the other two are fine.”
“Yes. Plus I didn’t get sick, either!”
On paper, my trip to the 4000 Islands of Laos should have been the easiest journey I’d taken all year. Not only was I returning to familiar territory (I’d traveled the Laotian Mekong in my own boat a few months previously), but I’d also come to write a story on the area for a well-paying glossy print magazine. Instead of randomly vagabonding my way down the Mekong, I would be visiting pre-selected places and interviewing people I already knew. Since southern Laos is a peaceful, enchanting region, my magazine assignment promised no hardships beyond the simple process of collecting story information.
With the objectives so clear-cut, my return to the 4000 Islands was supposed to be — as the pilots in “Catch-22″ said when referring to easy missions — a “milk run.”
In reality, it had been quite the opposite of a milk run. Before I’d ever heard rumors of cholera, the mere process of traveling overland to Laos from Vietnam had been a headache in itself. On a map it looked easy to cross into the south of Laos from the Vietnamese Central Highlands — but there were no legal customs stations along this border. So to get to Laos from the Central Highlands, I first had to take a day-long trip out of the highlands and up the coast to Danang, then wait for the next available bus to Laos via Lao Bao.
Since this road to Laos follows a treacherous route over the Annamite Mountains, I opted to take the smaller, safer, air-conditioned bus offered by a travel office in Danang. Unfortunately, the air-con bus existed only in the travel office photograph; after purchasing my ticket, I was unceremoniously dumped off at the local transit station and ushered into a huge, decrepit old DeSoto bus.
I spent 22 hours on the DeSoto, including a three-hour delay in rural Laos when the drivers stopped to unload a cache of smuggled items into two separate Nissan pickups. I arrived in Savannakhet just in time to eat, sleep and board a morning bus to Pakse, which (including a four-hour stop when the drivers dropped the transmission onto the road and had to reassemble it) took 11 hours.
I arrived in Pakse exhausted, and spent the next couple days trying to confirm the cholera rumors. When I heard Kumsing’s tale, I postponed my boat trip and went back to check with the health department.
“I just met a man from the electric company who says that 16 people got cholera last week,” I said to the woman in the office.
“That wasn’t cholera,” she told me. “Those men just had diarrhea.”
“All 16 men just happened to get diarrhea at the same time?”
“Yes,” she said. “Maybe it was food poisoning. There is no cholera in Laos.”
This sounded a tad suspicious to me, but I felt I had come too far to abandon my journey to the 4000 Islands. Grimly resolved, I returned to the pier and boarded a mid-morning freight boat bound for the island of Don Khong. Granted, I was no longer on my idealized milk-run vacation, but — whatever the facts were about cholera — I figured I’d be safe if I kept myself religiously clean and avoided the local food.
Furthermore, I was personally convinced — after six months on the road in Southeast Asia — that cholera couldn’t touch me. As with Yossarian in “Catch-22,” avoiding doom seemed a mere matter of will power, milk run or not.
Cholera couldn’t touch me, I reasoned, because I had a pure body and was as strong as an ox. Cholera couldn’t touch me because I was Tarzan, Mandrake, Flash Gordon. I was Bill Shakespeare. I was Cain, Ulysses, the Flying Dutchman; I was Lot in Sodom, Deirdre of Sorrows, Sweeny in the nightingales among trees.
I, like Yossarian in “Catch-22,” was miracle ingredient Z-247.
My journey to the 4000 Islands of Laos started splendidly. After spending the first night on Don Khong, I continued downriver to Khone island on the Cambodian border — where freshwater dolphins haunt deep pools and the Mekong suddenly crashes down into the largest complex of waterfalls in Asia. As I hiked around collecting information for my article, I sustained myself on bottled water, peeled fruit and an enormous bag of roasted peanuts. After a couple of peaceful, slow-paced days in the 4000 Islands, the notion of cholera had ceased to be a concern for me.
I probably would have forgotten about cholera entirely had I not suddenly vomited onto my shoes the morning after returning to Don Khong. I had come back to the island to tie up a few loose ends of my story, and at first it didn’t occur to me what was happening. When I vomited again a few minutes later, the gravity of the situation began to dawn on me. After I threw up for the third time, I took out my phrase book and started asking directions to the hospital.
I remember the next part only in bits and pieces. I know I kept asking people where the hospital was, and people kept pointing me up the road — but the hospital never materialized. It had rained the day before, and the humidity made the air quiver in the sunlight. As I walked, my brain rattled inside my skull like a sodden lump of clay; psychedelic fireworks burst behind my eyelids every time I doubled over with stomach cramps.
Though I didn’t know it at the time, the Don Khong hospital was nearly two kilometers outside of Khong Village. By the time a Lao motorcyclist found me squatting beneath a tree on the side of the road, I was still 200 meters away from my goal. The motorcyclist helped me to the concrete-floored hospital reception room, and I sat on a wooden bench while the staff debated what to do with me.
The hospital was constructed entirely of cinderblocks and had no window panes. Since there was no electricity on Don Khong during daylight hours, I sat in the half-light and waited. A nurse gave me a plastic bag so I wouldn’t have to run outside to vomit. Each time I retched, a few more patients wandered in from adjoining rooms to watch me. Before long, about 20 people had gathered to watch me expectorate a clear, stringy gelatin from the bottom of my stomach. As I sat there clutching my plastic bag, I half-expected one of them to ask me for my autograph.
Finally, a young Swedish doctor named Michael arrived. Michael was not really named Michael, and he wasn’t actually Swedish. But, since he was technically not supposed to be treating cholera cases in southern Laos, Michael will be Michael for the sake of this narrative.
“I see you’ve been vomiting,” Michael said, gesturing to my plastic bag. “Do you also have diarrhea?”
“Yeah, it’s killing me,” I said. “Does the hospital have anything that can stop it?”
“This hospital doesn’t have much by Western standards. Nor does this country, for that matter. Your ideal health option would be to get out of Laos as soon as possible.”
“Can the cholera kill me?”
“Technically, we can’t prove it’s cholera without doing a culture test, first. Whatever it is, it won’t kill you.”
“But we know it’s cholera,” I said. “There’s an epidemic going around, right?”
“I think the best thing for you to do right now is get out of this hospital. First we’ll find you a comfortable guest house, and there you can take oral rehydration salts until you get your strength back.”
“Has anyone died from the cholera this year? There’s lots of stories going around Pakse.”
Michael gave me a nervous look. “Like I said, we can’t call it cholera without a culture test. I know of 16 deaths so far. But those are mostly the very young and the very old. This is not something you should worry about.”
Michael got me some oral rehydration salts from the hospital storeroom and had an orderly motor me back to my room at the guest house. I stayed there and drank salt water for two days while the cholera bugs had their way with my intestines.
Though I could describe in colorful detail what cholera does to the inner workings of the human body, such exposition would be neither necessary nor tasteful. In a euphemistic nutshell, cholera renders everything that enters your body — water, bread, strawberry Pop-Tarts, etc. — into pond water. Furthermore, this pond water creation/expulsion process happens at such a terrifyingly rapid speed that I suspect Einstein himself must have suffered from cholera around the time he came up with his relativity theory. I went for hours at a time without leaving the bathroom.
When I wasn’t in the bathroom performing glorious acts of gastrointestinal alchemy, I spent my time stretched out on my bed, staring at the ceiling, which was mint green. The mint-green ceiling featured a brown metal ceiling fan — which didn’t move in the heat of the day, since the electricity didn’t come on until sunset. My bedspread was orange.
I pondered these things continuously for 48 hours.
Michael came to check on me each morning and evening. After two days, he concluded that I was strong enough to leave, and he arranged a ride to take me back to Pakse. I can’t recall ever having been so happy to see a Toyota Landcruiser.
Since my late-afternoon arrival in Pakse didn’t leave me enough time to make it to the Thai border station, I checked in to a hotel and set off to inform the local health department of my demise.
“I just caught cholera in the 4000 Islands,” I told the lady in the office. “Maybe you should warn people about going there.”
“It’s probably not cholera,” she said. “If you’re sick, maybe you should go to the hospital.”
“I’ve been to the hospital. I’ve been vomiting and I’ve had diarrhea for two days now. Trust me: I have cholera.”
“I don’t think you have cholera. Did the doctor do a culture test?”
“Look,” I cried, exasperated, “if what I have isn’t cholera, then what the hell is it?”
“Well,” she said diplomatically, “it’s probably just diarrhea, with some vomiting.”
Retreating from the health office in defeat, I walked to the Sedone restaurant and drowned my frustrations in a glass of lemonade. Keeping in mind my condition, I got a seat near the toilet. After a while, I got up and introduced myself to a guy named Doug, whom I’d overheard warning a table full of travelers about the epidemic. Doug, a Canadian on vacation from his job as an aid worker in Thailand, seemed almost pleased when I told him that I had cholera.
“I knew it would happen!” he said. “You’re the first tourist to catch it, but there’ll be more.”
“Why aren’t there official warnings?” I asked. “I tried to get some solid information before I left for the 4000 Islands, but all the government agencies were denying that cholera existed. They’re still denying it, for that matter.”
Doug smirked. “Of course they’re denying it. I have friends doing volunteer work in this part of Laos — cholera passed the culture tests a month ago. The government is keeping it quiet because this is Visit Laos Year. They don’t want to rain on the tourist parade.”
“This is the first time I’ve ever heard of a communist government lying to promote independent tourism.”
“In a way, it’s hard to blame the government for doing it. The West has encouraged Laos to go capitalist — and one of the principles of capitalism is supply and demand. In a poor country like Laos, tourism may very well be the number-one source of hard currency. Back when the epidemic started, some paper-pusher in Vientiane took one look at tourist revenues and decided right then and there that cholera did not and would not exist. Now people like you are getting exposed to cholera because the Laotian government is afraid to discourage you from coming to Laos.”
“Catch-22,” I said.
“Right. The same thing happened with AIDS in Thailand in the late 1980s. And just like in Thailand, the people who live here will bear the brunt of the problem. It’s the people living in the 4000 Islands — not you — who are going to suffer the most when doctors aren’t allowed to go down and treat them properly.”
“Sure,” I said. “I don’t need to worry about the quality of local health care when I can just go home.”
Doug grinned. “Well, technically, you can’t go home. Under international law, you aren’t allowed to cross the Thai border if you have cholera.”
“But technically,” I said, “cholera doesn’t exist in Laos.”
“Catch-22″ had finally done me a favor.
I crossed into Thailand at Chong Mek the following day. Continuing to Ubon Ratachani, I caught a night train to Bangkok. There, I checked into the modern confines of a medical clinic and began my slow recovery.
Originally published August 24, 1999 on Salon.com
Hometown: St. John’s, Newfoundland, CANADA
Quote: “Cover the earth before it covers you.”
Hometown: St. Louis, Missouri USA
Quote: “[Her] goal in life was to be an echo
Riding alone, town after town, toll after toll….Remember to remember me
Standing still, in your past
Floating fast like a hummingbird.” – Wilco “Hummingbird”
(I even got a tattoo to honor it – http://indecisivetraveler.com/remember-to-remember-me)
Hometown: Antibes, France and Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin
Quote: “We all know that Art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth at least the truth that is given us to understand” Picasso
“I’ve found that, for expatriates, America-bashing can become a kind of recreational activity (“re-creating,” in a the process, a sense of home), a way of both justifying your choices and reminding yourself, in a playful and not-too-disturbing way, of the country and culture that — despite anything and all you may do to have it otherwise — are yours. Part of the pride and pleasure of being an American, after all, is that there’s so much to make fun of.”
–Michael Blumenthal, “Western Union,” from In Brief: Short Takes on the Personal (1999)
Veterans’ Day in the US and the UK is replete with ceremonies (concerts and parades in the US, red poppies in the UK) to commemorate those who served their country in uniform. Aside from a great opportunity to thank those that fought in foreign lands, it’s a great opportunity to remember some of the historic sites that can give testament to the events they witnessed.
While some sites are now little more than quiet fields that have been reclaimed by nature, many places can still pack an educational punch that leaves the visitor still give the visitor a sense of the enormity and ruthlessness of war.
Here are a couple of my recent favorites:
Duxford Airbase and Imperial War Museum, Duxford, England
Revered as a major Royal Air Force (RAF) base during the legendary “Battle of Britain”, RAF Duxford also boasts an Imperial War Museum. With more than 200 historic aircraft ranging from rickety World War I biplanes to the B-17 Flying Fortress to the SR-71 Blackbird, the collection is arguably the finest in Europe. Also on display is part of the Imperial War Museum’s vast trove of historic photographs, uniforms and documents.
RAF Duxford, situated in bucolic countryside outside Cambridge, was founded during World War I but earned its place in history during the darkest days of World War II. In preparation for his planned invasion of Britain, Hitler launched the full might of the Luftwaffe at England’s factories and cities in 1940.
The bombs killed indiscriminately. His aim was as psychological as it was practical; he sought to terrorize the population and break Britain’s will to fight. It fell to the undermanned RAF to defend the homeland.
As the sector station for Fighter Command’s No. 12 Group, Duxford Air Base was in the thick of the battle. Casualties were immense. The pilots who fought in the Battle were enshrined in lore as “The Few”.
In June 1944 the planes launched from the same runways would protect the Allied fleet as it steamed toward Normandy. It would also gain fame as one of the homes of the fighter escorts for the Allied bombers that pulverized Nazi Germany’s industrial might.
RAF Duxford continued as a fighter station after the war and was decommissioned in the 1970’s. With over thirty authentic buildings recognized by the British government for their historical significance, the base was granted to the Imperial War Museum (IWM) in 1976 and has been a world-class center of exhibits and education ever since.
Mulberry Harbors and Museum, Arromanches, France
The tiny French coastal town of Arromanches, perched on the sands of Normandy, holds another of my favorite war sites. Not far from the immaculate rows of gleaming marble headstones of the US cemetery at Omaha Beach, the beach village had its fate permanently altered when it was chosen to be the main port of the Allies.
One of the most vexing logistical challenges for D-Day planners was the issue of transferring the move millions of pounds of Allied soldiers, vehicles, weapons, and supplies from ship to shore once the troops had established a beachhead. At Churchill’s order, engineers were set to the monumental task of constructing giant ports nicknamed “Mulberry Harbors”, designed to accomplish the feat.
Before the blood had washed away from the Normandy sand, the ports were unloaded from ships and attached by brave engineers under enemy fire. While bullets still flew the ports were operational and offloading tons of materiel per hour for the final push against Hitler’s Riech.
Today, a very well done museum perches above the coast and describes the incredible engineering task undertaken to build the ports. It gives even a layman like me a good idea of how this was pulled off, and of the massive challenges (storms, waves, German gunfire) that the Mulberry builders had to contend with.
But this isn’t the most moving part of the area; the really evocative sights are sitting just off the coast and demand no entrance fee. Still visible in the surf are the ghostly hulks of the prefabricated ports themselves. The skeletal iron beasts, now rusted and worn away by decades of tide and salt water, serve as a silent reminder of the world-changing event that came to Normandy’s shores. And they remind us of the ordinary people—most now passed away—who found themselves swept up in the gale force of history.