I was quite moved to read your opening words, as you introduced yourself to the assembled masses and admitted that, despite your advanced years, you have seen nothing of our world, that you have always lived in the same town, with the same surroundings, the same neighbours, the same friends, classmates and acquaintances. It brought to mind my early years, before I began travelling, before the bug bit me and I dropped everything to see the world first hand although, just as an aside and without meaning to appear arrogant, my experiences in places away from home began in earnest when I was eleven, as I was packed off without so much as a by-your-leave, away from the safe, secure surroundings of my London home to be sent into the wilds of darkest North Yorkshire. I was forced into doing something I would have volunteered to do a few years later anyway and, as a result, gained a few precious years over those who would call themselves my contemporaries. Not, sadly, that those who went to school with me or who I came into contact with over the years travelled a great deal; some of them were proud of the fact that they’d never left the village of their birth aside from when the duties of the weekly grocery run made it absolutely necessary.
Please, don’t get me wrong, my opening is merely poking a little fun without meaning to make fun of you in any way. We all have different opportunities in life, and take advantage of them as best we can. You have the distinct advantage of youth, whereas I have the disadvantage of age. Nevertheless, I am able to write:
I am a witness to them, for I have seen them, and have written this account, insignificant though it is
which, I sincerely hope, you will be able to write in forty or fifty years time, as an unknown traveller, recalling his time exploring Jerusalem and the surrounding area, wrote sometime between 1099 CE and 1103 CE. And I sincerely hope that you will take every opportunity to travel whenever it arises; if not abroad, at the very least throughout Australia which, as we both know and appreciate, has a wonderful history and some of the most beautiful sites to visit.
My own travels began within the limited confines of mainland Britain, sometimes with family during the school holidays, or on a weekend designated for parental visits, one of the banes of living in a boarding school was the lack of freedom we had, and masters in this school, which was theoretically a very liberal one, tended to be extreme in their restrictions and, when we were caught disobeying such an order, punishments. I think it was this highly restricted, and restrictive, atmosphere which bred a desire to rebel inside me, even if that rebellion was simply to walk from the school grounds and buy fish and chips across the road outside the allotted hours. A fine example of how conservative this school was, despite what it claimed, was the library, where I spent a good deal of my time. They were liberal enough to have a copy of The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, by T. E. Lawrence, but kept it hidden from sight because of the belief that it was not patriotic – Lawrence of Arabia criticised his military superiors and the government for their actions in the Arabian countries – and because of a certain level of homoerotic content. For this latter, the Bible has more sexual content than this particular Lawrence ever considered writing about. In order to read such books, as I was considered too young at twelve – and with eighteen we would have been told it was unsuitable – I applied to become a school librarian, the only people with access to those wonderful, hidden titles behind the counter.
The greatest present anyone ever gave me and, aside from book tokens where I could pick and choose my own titles, the only one I have been proud to accept, was a life membership in the Youth Hostels Association. This was the guarantee of my freedom! What could a youth not do, not realise with this small booklet in his pocket, a bed-sheet and a few pounds to buy food? I have to be gender specific here, because it was unheard of, at that time, that women travelled alone. It made no difference how safe the overnight accommodation might be, or whether the young woman was a six foot bodybuilder whose favourite pastime was beating up wimpy boys on the rugby pitch, young women travelled in groups. Men went into business and politics, fought wars and went on crusades while women looked after the children and embroidered pretty pictures. In my (liberal) school, girls did domestic science and cookery, men wood and metal work. Just so that you can see how much of a rebel I was – aside from the little matter of the library – I signed up for and managed to complete all the courses available in wood and metal work, as well as domestic science and cookery. Expectations and reality can sometimes mix, even if it means that my father, back then, had to travel from London to North Yorkshire for an urge conversation with the school principal over the suitability of my educational choices. And I can tell you, I still cook a mean omelette.
Why do we travel? What is the draw of foreign lands where customs and people are often so different from us? And why don’t we ever appear satisfied with what we have around us when, as was pointed out to me, practically all nations are represented in the area where we live anyway. I suspect it is rather like holding a picture book from National Geographic, or watching the Discovery Channel: the photographs and moving pictures are wonderful, inspiring, eye-opening, but the smells, the life, the atmosphere are all missing. We’re at home on our couch, a six-pack in easy reach, popcorn still warm from the microwave, and other people are out there stroking elephants and riding white water rapids in a flimsy dingy. I’d rather buy my meals from an elderly couple serving rice and beans in the middle of a Belizean high street in the former slave quarter of the city on a humid evening, than eat a Chinese take-away in front of the television in an over-heated sitting room while watching Jacques Cousteau and his team dive into the Great Blue Hole at Lighthouse Reef Atoll in Belize. Come to that, if I want a beer I’d rather drink it on the Half Moon Caye than anywhere else, but any of the other Cayes along the coast would do too!
I had the good fortune to live in Belize for six months, and the chance to explore quite a large area of central America while I was there. I lived on the South Side of Belize City, which was the former slave quarter back when the British were in charge and called the country British Honduras, in an old wooden house completely lacking in all facilities. It was said that the way to spot someone who was rich, in the South Side at least, and that meant mainly those who controlled the drug traffic, was to look at his house. If it was wooden, he was poor. Made of concrete with a strong wall around it, wrought iron bars on the windows and a gate, perhaps even freshly painted: rich and powerful. But I was content in my hovel. It had two rooms, a bed, a fan to move the still air about during the night, a table and a chair, and a galvanised steel bucket. The local bar was open when the garage owner was there, which was pretty much all through the night, and there was a plentiful supply of home-made alcohol in Johnnie Walker bottles. The old couple were in the middle of the street with their cooking pot and rice and bean meals most evenings of the week, or there was a posh and well-visited Chinese restaurant on the North Side, usually visited by the affluent white population, the embassy and government officials. Anyone who cooked for themselves could go across the canal to the North Side and shop in the supermarket, which was air-conditioned and quite a shock to the system first time round, or one of the smaller kiosk with their barred windows along the canal. There was even a cinema across the canal, where I was on one evening the only white person watching Mississippi Burning while eating a fresh mango from a street vendor directly outside the entrance. And we had a disco there, but I can’t remember much of it since every single time I went in I was mobbed, and came out having hardly spent a dime, but full to the top with home-made alcohol and coke – the liquid kind, I hasten to add.
My two-room apartment had no running water, but there was a cold water faucet in the dirt pathway directly outside my door and a small wooden hut in the yard out back. I’d fill up my bucket in the mornings, go out to the hut and pour the refreshingly cold water over my head, wash and shave, pour some more, and be practically dry by the time I got back to my room. Cleaning the apartment? Fill the bucket, wash the floor, tip the contents out into the canal. Everything had its own way of being done, and it was easy enough to fit in, to learn and to adapt. Now, I daresay you’re wondering about this lack of running water and the shower being in the yard, whether we… well, no, there was no toilet in the house or even nearby. But we had a bucket.
The imagination invests the beloved object with a thousand superlative charms
as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote in Hyperion, although neither one of us are referring to the infamous bucket. What we imagine of a place is often completely removed from reality, and I am sure anyone who watched the television series with Cousteau off the coast of Belize would have a completely different idea of what the country is like, to one who has been there and lived its reality.
I, for example, had a set view of what France would be like when I first travelled there alone. I had seen it during earlier camping trips with family and, of course, learned about it at school. Except that these camping trips, I have come to realise, could not possibly have given me a fair and balanced view of the entire country, especially since the camping sites, along the south coast, were populated by British campers, and the only French people there were those who cleaned up after us, and I am certain most of them were not French in the sense that a Frenchman would call himself French. And as to what I was taught in school: it bore no resemblance to reality whatsoever. I suspect the last time our French teacher was in France was just before, and our history teacher during the Second World War. Not exactly the best people to be influencing young minds.
My view of the French people was totally destroyed when I got there, on an unannounced and certainly neither from parents nor school cleared trip during one of the longer school holidays. I had my sleeping bag, a change of underwear and socks and enough money to see me through at least three days of high living; saved pocket money. Luckily the pound was quite high at the time, unlike today, and was worth something. I doubt very much I could do the same thing today, but not just because of the finances, also my decision not to take advantage of numerous sleeping facilities, and follow the ancient and noble tradition of the tramp. Here I must note that back in the day, when I was younger, a tramp was not just a homeless person or a person of lower than desirable hygienic standards. It was, in some quarters, a highly thought of profession carried out by people within a small circle of comrades. The Sixties, with everyone sleeping rough and taking advantage of the state benefits and later years, when real homelessness took sway in the major cities and elsewhere, has changed all this. A tramp, back then, was a person who travelled. Not a gypsy, but someone who tramped along the streets and had no set down or area to call home. A tramp lived in the whole country, and not just one cardboard box under a bridge, or a dank doorway in some rancid smelling back alley. I, of course, was not a tramp being only on holiday for two weeks, but adopted some of their ideals and sought out my places to sleep, to eat and do all the other necessary ablutions of life wherever it was convenient, wherever the need or desire took me. The car park next to the Gare du Nord was my home for a while, and I had the inestimable chance to explore the darker side of Paris, as well as the better known tourist areas, an opportunity I was not going to turn down.
I don’t recommend it, not now. Times have changed since I was young, and a youth hostel is by far the better option when compared against the risk of being set on fire, arrested for being homeless, or simply chased away from wherever you happen to be, sleeping or otherwise. I also have the feeling, although I cannot prove it, that the streets, the alleyways, the car park stairs were a lot cleaner then. They definitely didn’t smell like neglected public toilets, of that I am certain.
My trip to France was the beginning of a learning process which I do not regret in any way at all. When I returned I could challenge much of what was told us in the school from personal experience, if not aloud at least in my mind. The French people, the ordinary people on the street, I discovered to be just like us, with the same problems and concerns, the same work stress, the same interests in fashion, technology, travel, family, politics. This realisation hit me at the time, at the tender age of fourteen, like a massive and solid sledgehammer right between the eyes.
These days I look back at those times and revel in the thought that a person could – and probably still can – simply pack together a few necessities and hit the road. We live in adventurous times, although the greatest adventures, the explorations, were done long before we appeared on the scene and our trips, our experiences, are really just for us. Imagine living back in 1582 and preparing for a trip overseas. Richard Madox, a Fellow of All Souls, did just that during the times of Elizabeth, and his diary records among many other things over many weeks:
I gave M. Slater my ox and my tynker, M. Beamunt my black pot, had a new key for my study and an other for the dore 10ͩ, M. Dabb my belloes.
Imagine a man living in the centre of Oxford having an ox. The bellows I can well understand; a far better way of keeping the fire in your study hot than blowing on it!