We’ve all heard horror stories from our friends—and have many of our own—about certain airline experiences. With the sheer volume of flights scheduled around the world on any given day, it is a statistical certainty that there will be the occasion snafu, and sometimes it’s your flight’s turn to have the bad day, and sometimes it isn’t. So, it’s generally wise to not let one friend’s horror story or isolated incident inform your opinion of an airline.
That’s what I thought when I head of a friend’s troubles with Air Berlin the other day. Living in Copenhagen, she was scheduled to fly to Miami for a short vacation to see family. Due to an epic screw-up on the airline’s part, she has found that the soonest she could reach her destination would be in two days, thus destroying her much-anticipated visit. This was compounded by the fact that they were reportedly rude and unhelpful.
She was crushed and angry, so I took her rant about the airline with a grain of salt, especially considering the sterling reputation of the normally efficient Germans. She was crushed and angry, so I took her rant about the airline with a grain of salt—until I read this.
In fairness, other friends who have flown the airline reported nothing but positive experiences. But when a major magazine runs a story about an airline’s slow-motion meltdown and includes the line, “Germany’s second-largest airline has become a mesmerizing spectacle of shaming and apology” in the first paragraph, there is definitely grounds for warning my fellow travelers to think twice before booking until the company sorts itself out.
Recently I was asked by a magazine to look at possibilities for a travel article. Specifically about some Western European locale that featured prominently in World War II, but hadn’t been covered too widely. Turns out it was not an easy task. While scouring my map of Western Europe looking for places that hadn’t been done a thousand times already, the thought entered my mind, “has it all been done before?” Just as when I’m playing my guitar and writing a tune, I wonder if every possible permutation of chords has already been explored.
The more I stared at the map, my eyes raking over familiar place names, the more I began to despair at the thought of “it all having been done.” Later that day, while talking to a friend, she mentioned in an off-hand way how her grandpa, who’d recently died, and was given a deeply moving military burial. “Oh,” I said. “I’m sorry to hear that. He was really nice. Actually, I had no idea he’d been in the military.”
“Neither did I”, she said. “He only mentioned it a couple times that I recall, and I was a kid, so I didn’t really care.” Evidently she found out while talking to his friends and other relatives at the funeral. She proceeded to tell me the harrowing and sometimes grisly story about her granddad’s exploits in World War Two, where as a young man he fought bravely in France and Germany, and was awarded medals for valor.
“I didn’t know this stuff till recently,” she said, a tone of amazement in her voice. “And I never saw the medals or knew about them till they were taken out of a drawer and put in his coffin with him. He had lots of them. He was always so quiet; he kept all of that stuff inside.”
Reflecting on the conversation, I realized that, yes, there are still great stories to be told about amazing lives; stories that often go unknown until that life is extinguished. It’s just a matter of asking; of seeking. Every location holds its own stories too, just like people. I recall the many times I have found that a flower-blanketed field was the scene of an epic medieval battle that decided the fate of nations, or that a pile of stones in the countryside was once a soaring abbey that witnessed a coronation of a great king beneath its vaulted ceilings.
And that is our job as travel writers, and as people fortunate enough to be able to tell these stories: We need to seek, we need to ask. Because there are stories worth telling, and they hide in the most unlikely of places, like a quiet valley, a broken-down complex of haunted stones, and a kind old man’s heart.
If you’ve been traveling for any length of time then you’ve been asked the same questions a million times:
The questions get tiresome sometimes, but I understand why people ask. To be honest, I ask them, of other travelers, myself more often than I should. People are interested. They’re curious. The life of a traveler is one that seems shrouded in mystery and romance, when really it’s more likely to be dust and exhaustion on any given day. And so we answer: enthusiastically on the days when we feel like world conquers and the last of the free people. Patiently on the days when it feels tiresome. Philosophically on the days when we’ve had too much wine or the news from someplace we love brings sad tidings and we remember a place that no longer exists.
There is one question that I truly cannot bear. Every time it is asked, I’m at a loss. I have no idea how to answer. It stumps me without fail.
How was your trip?
My internal monologue runs something akin to this:
Memories run like old movie tape through my head in a flickering parade of colour, sound and smells: things there really are no words for. I remember a hundred people and a thousand conversations and those handful of life changing moments, none of whom or which can be done justice in a trite answer. How do I sum up the awe of sunrise over Angkor Wat, with the ghosts of hundreds of years of history watching with me? Or the deep meaning of one sentence gifted by an ancient Vietnamese man who took an afternoon to teach our children brush drawing: Life is short, but art is long. How can I sum up the depth of my aversion to Jakarta? Or the absolute relief of sinking into the cool waters of Chieow Laan Lake? Or the physical joy of finding salad in Bali? It’s impossible to communicate the internal lessons absorbed by climbing a 75 meter high tree with no safety gear in Australia, or found on the bamboo floor of a meditation room in Ubud, or standing beneath the killing tree in Cambodia, or lighting incense sticks at the feet of a giant golden Buddha on a sweltering afternoon.
How was your trip?
Great question. Terrible question.
How was your entire year while I was gone? Quick, sum it up for me in three snappy sentences. Can’t do it? Indeed.
And so, I do my best. I can recite the stats and the stories. I can play back the highlights reel; but that’s not really answering the question. I can’t tell you how my trip was, because it has nothing to do with the quantifiable externals, and it has everything to do with all of the things I learned, the ways I changed, and what the world taught me that I hadn’t seen yet. If you have a day, and you really want to know, a traveler can begin to scratch the surface in answer to that question.
More to the point: my journey isn’t over, and neither is my “trip.” Perhaps it never will be, which makes the question a hard one to answer.
There is one voyage, the first, the last, the only one.
— Thomas Wolfe
A good traveler knows that it isn’t the number of places you’ve been that counts, it’s the number of meaningful experiences. Just like the saying, “it’s not the number of breaths you take that matters, it’s the number of moments that take your breath away.” Same with traveling. Miles mean little, so do stamps in your passport. That stuff is ancillary to the true story: the adventures themselves (be they emotional, fun, or just plain interesting) and the souls you were lucky enough to encounter along the way.
For example, a friend asked me today, “So how many places have you been to?” I get asked question a lot. My answer is always, “I don’t know. Never counted. But you know what? I’ve got a scar from Scotland, some friends from Florence and a parking bill from Budapest.”
All true, and all linked to great travel memories. All the best travelers use this sort of yardstick to measure their experiences abroad. The key is perspective: think qualitatively, not quantitatively.
Having said that, I think it’s safe to assume the Hungarian police have given up expecting me to pay that stupid fine they left on my windshield. To this day I’m not quite sure what it says on that thing, but it looks cool in a frame. As for the scar from Scotland, that’s another story altogether.
My travels in northern France have always provided vivid reminders of the battle for Normandy, which raged from D-Day through the summer of 1944. Though partially healed by the decades, scars still remain in the rolling countryside, picturesque villages, and gentle beaches.
Sixty-nine years ago today, the Allies waded ashore on the beaches of Normandy, France, and began the liberation of Europe from Hitler. A US veteran of the Normandy campaign said recently, “Out of my squad of 13, only 3 survived.” His story was not unique. The fighting was ferocious, and casualties on both sides were severe.
On each of my visits to this beautiful area, I have been struck by the locals’ affection for Americans. The French are not normally known for their liking of the US tourist, but in Normandy, the appreciation for the US sacrifice is strong. Several coastal villages fly American flags and bear plaques in the town square commemorating the day of their liberation by US troops in June of 1944.
Some reminders are particularly evocative for me. For example, I find few sites as poignant as the rusted ports lurking in the waves just off the coast of Arromanches-les-Bains.
Not far from the immaculate rows of gleaming marble headstones of the US cemetery at Omaha Beach, the tiny beach village of Arromanches-les-Bains was chosen to be the main port of the Allies. Still visible in the surf are the ghostly hulks of the prefabricated ports known as “Mulberry Harbors”, designed to move those millions of pounds of Allied men, vehicles, and supplies from ship to shore in the fight against Hitler.
The skeletal iron beasts, now rusted and worn away by decades of tide and salt water, serve as a 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.
The years go on, but the echoes remain.
As a fan of great museums, England, and historical stuff in general, I’m excited about a brand new museum that has just opened this week.
Located in the historic dockyard of Portsmouth on England’s picturesque south coast, the Mary Rose Museum houses the sixteenth-century hulk of the HMS Mary Rose, the pride of Henry VIII’s navy. Built in 1511, the massive warship sank off the coast of England in 1545 while fighting the French fleet. After ages under the waves, her remains were resurrected from the sea by marine archaeologists and installed in the new museum. A museum that, incidentally, is situated in the very dockyard in which the ship herself was constructed.
But it’s the collection of objects from within the ship—thousands of sixteenth-century items being called the largest trove of Tudor-era artifacts ever assembled—that are the real stars of the museum. By a stroke of fate, the silt of the sea floor created a virtually airtight tomb for the small objects within the vessel. The resulting collection of relics is so well preserved that it has been dubbed “the English Pompeii” for its quality and poignancy.
The artifacts on display within the hull include miraculously preserved musical instruments, rosaries, board games, silverware, weapons, book covers, medical equipment, furniture, coins, and even the remains of several of the Mary Rose’s sailors. Facial reconstructions of the recovered skulls put a human dimension to the 500 men who perished with the ship, as do the everyday items they used. Combs with Tudor-era lice still trapped in them are also in the exhibit, as are the remains of the ship’s dog.
Taken together they are sure to tell a story of lives lived and lost within a sixteenth-century ship’s creaking timbers.
I can wait to see this for myself.
The following story happened too many times along the back roads of deep Asia. And today, it got me inspired…
They offered me a cup full of hot water and they poured some tea leaves in there, too. It was too hot to handle so I put it down first while I kept observing the surroundings; so many people living in such a small room, kind of bound to it, but blessed by the unique rural environment of families providing for each other. I emptied my glass slowly as it was very hot, as I felt warm eyes all over me and my friends. When it was time to go, the family asked me to take a picture with them and we posed in front of the doorstep, smiling. When I look back at that picture today, I can’t help but laugh looking at the crown of tiny limbs creating a forest of motion behind me. Those naughty kids…
Then, it was time to go back on the road. We passed next to a column of women dressed in traditional clothing and head scarves. They transported wooden baskets full of weeds or small stones on their backs. Observing them, I tried to figure out if in my home country of Italy such kind of menial work is still conducted the way those women did. I quickly came to the conclusion that no, it belongs to the past. Or to an undefined dimension that makes some parts of Asia places where a bad wizard has cast a strong spell, and time just slipped down the crack in between the third and a fourth, incredible dimension.
In these moments, you feel lucky to be able to witness a relic of a world that is gradually losing its very own differences.
Please, if you go to such places, try to preserve the spell. Or just don’t go. It would be too sad for me to return one day, and see begging hands, instead of friendly locals willing to share a little part of their world with me, the incautious foreigner that just stumbled in their world.
There seems to be an interesting trend starting in the theatre world, one which has history lovers and travel addicts like me very, very intrigued.
Theatrical companies are facing declining audiences as many now flock to the more realistic experiences of the modern digitally-enhanced blockbuster, and they have been forced to get creative in their choice of staging. This has prompted some to do away with the stage altogether; catering to people’s interest in a more, shall we say, “immersive” theatre experience. As a result, some highly respected British drama companies are beginning to hold performances of historically-based plays on the very sites where those stories actually took place.
The latest—and largest—to follow this new trend is none other than Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. The revered drama company recently announced plans to spend its new season performing the Bard’s three Henry VI plays, which cover the tumultuous and violent reign of Henry VI and the medieval War of the Roses, on the sites where the plays’ historic battles took place. The drenched-in-history surroundings of Tewkesbury, St Albans, Barnet, and Towton (no, NOT Downton) will see productions of the classic works set where the fifteenth-century king and his knights duked it out with his rivals for the crown.
A similar performance was also held at the Bosworth battlefield in a production of Shakespeare’s epic Richard III, the main character of which has recently gained new fame after his remains were unearthed in a car park near the site of his death in combat. Across the Channel, a performance of Henry V—famous for his victory over the French and his “Band of Brothers” speech riling up his hopelessly outnumbered troops—will take place in Agincourt, the site of his unlikely triumph.
So, if you find yourself near any of these historic and serene locales this year, you might just be able to experience a world-class performance of a classic play—on the soil upon which it all happened.
Suddenly, a night at the theatre doesn’t sound so boring, does it?
Picture credit: Flickr/ubuntunewsru
When I get to know that such horrors still happen despite all of the effort we make to keep this world a fairer place, I feel very sad inside.
However, there is really no one to blame. And I want to be as far as I can from using this space to rant against the Chinese. A useless attempt to fortify a jaded stereotype.
I only want to look at events like Tubbataha’s smuggling of protected species’ meat with the critical eye of someone who loves this world, and is sickened by human attempts to make it a bad place for their cash hunger. We, as travelers, may be very far away from committing such deeds, but I believe we should reflect that it is also because of the influence of our own actions that places, cultures and once-called paradises continuously change. They change for worst, most often forever.
I have been living in Southeast Asia long enough to notice some of these changes. One example is the shifting attitude towards the foreigner in different countries and cultures. And no, I want to avoid the “walking wallet” stereotypes. But I can easily refer to episodes of extreme violence in Kuala Lumpur, for example. This was not happening a few years ago, at least, not to travelers. There used to be some kind of respect, some sort of value to human life that I find progressively fading away. Such events fuel the fire that burns our prospected tropical paradises into tiny pieces of scorching charcoal. It hurts when it flies into our naïve eyes. I believe that it is time to acknowledge that if we have the power to do something to change, we may as well start. Losing the pangolin is just another step towards losing ourselves, progressively, into oblivion.
Milton was right: the paradise is really lost.
BootsnAll has been publishing RTW Wednesday articles for almost two years now, with a plethora of writers contributing to offer stories, tips, and advice about long-term travel.
We’re excited to announce that Vagablogging contributor Jenn Miller has joined us and will be the sole contributor to the RTW Wednesday column going forward. Her debut article, Lessons from Jakarta, was published this past week. Jenn has been on the road with her family for over five years now and can offer an interesting perspective on long-term travel. Be sure to check her column out each Wednesday, where she’ll offer practical planning and traveling advice, from choosing an itinerary to road schooling. Be on the lookout for inspirational, philosophical, and family-travel related articles as well.
We like to highlight cool indie trips we create on our trip planner. Check out these five fares we’ve found this month on Indie, BootsnAll’s Multi-Stop Trip Planner:
If you are looking for something a little different in your round the world trip, then go ahead and plan your own trip on Indie, our multi-stop trip planner. And don’t forget to sign up for BootsnAll’s RTW newsletter, delivering special deals, RTW trip planning advice, and resources via email every single month. We also have a Facebook fan page and Twitter page, so be sure to like and follow those to keep up to date on all your RTW travel needs.