The Travel Bug bit me – part 1

Travelling! My first inclination to travel to remote regions came from my Grandmother, when I was probably six or seven years old, despite the fact that she had never travelled very far at all in her whole life. In fact, I don’t think that she ever left England.

But she would tell me stories of China, inducing images of Emperors and pig-tailed mandarins, peasants and bandits, and this was coupled with a children’s book; an encyclopaedia I presume, with grainy, black and white pictures of strange scenery. It was extremely evocative, although at the time I did not understand that. I was just excited by the mysterious, the strange and the unknown.  I was hooked, and wanted to go there! Ever since then, the places where I’ve most wanted to travel, other than Britain and Europe, have almost all been in Asia.

The list of places that I have at the moment that I would like to visit, are almost exclusively Asian.

Yes, she has a lot to answer for, that sweet old lady.

hill station 2

When I was a teenager, I began to use maps, although in rather an ad hoc, hit and miss manner.

They were there for me when I was really stuck, or I just wanted to know in which general direction something lay. It would be a very long time before I began to use them in a skillful way, able to predict the exact lie of the land, navigate in the fog or the dark, or find my way through complicated landscapes with the map and compass. And, do you know, since I’ve learned to do that, I often feel as though I’ve actually lost something rather magical, although I don’t suppose that I can blame it all on that. The maps that I was using as a teenager would tend to be the Bartholomew’s Touring Maps, small scale with little detail. I would feel, as I headed along a Cornish footpath, that I only knew roughly where I was going. It always felt like an adventure; an exploration.

Now, I need to be more and more remote before I can get that feeling, and even then it does not always work. Some ten years ago, I spent a couple of weeks in Ladakh, in the Himalaya in the far north of India, and I was surprised at just how easy all of my walking was. Setting off with map and compass, I always knew exactly where I was, only confused at times by the multiplicity of tracks criss-crossing the landscape. Even then, reference to mountains and villages with map and compass would invariably allow me to set my position.

That doesn’t mean that I wanted to get lost, just that there was a small part of me that said ‘even this is all tame!’ Equally, I can be put off, when using a map, by the knowledge that over the interesting looking ridge that I am heading for, there lies a motorway or building estate, and so I then spend ages trying to plot a route that I try to get perfect, rather than simply heading off in the direction that I want to go and exploring as I go, correcting my course as I travel.

Nothing can tempt me more than a track leading tantalisingly into the distance, perhaps meandering through Mediterranean scrub towards a notch in the skyline, perhaps leading through a glowing archway of trees. Even now, when using map and compass to navigate, I often have to resist the temptation to ignore the map and head off to follow an interesting looking track. I think that this must be a part of my ‘I wonder what’s over the other side of the hill?’ nature. It’s another reason why I’ve never been able to lie on a beach – apart from the fact that this seems a particularly pointless pastime in any case. Any time that I’ve tried it, it never seems to be more than a couple of minutes before I begin to think ‘What’s round that cliff, I wonder?’ or ‘If I head back up the river, I think I might find a way through those hills.’ And then I just have to go to find out.

There are plenty of other things that can destroy a sense of adventure in travelling, other than over-familiarity with maps, of course. I remember the shock and the sense of let-down I received in Germany about 35 years ago, when I spent the best part of a morning struggling up an ill-defined track through thick woodland to the top of a berg in the Black Forest (I was using a tiny touring map at the time, which showed main roads at best). My elation at arriving at the top and surveying the panorama of hills and mountains around me was completely destroyed within a minute, as a coach roared up the other side of the hill, came to a halt a few feet away from me, and then disgorged about 30 Japanese tourists. They spent about two minutes firing off photographs of everything in sight, including myself, before leaping back on board the coach, roaring off down the hill and leaving me gob-smacked in the sudden silence and slowly settling dust.

 

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36 thoughts on “The Travel Bug bit me – part 1

  1. Your grandmother did you a huge favor by instilling a yearning for travel, Mick. Following a map but not quite knowing where you were sounds like a good compromise between adventure and avoiding hypothermia on some forgotten moor. Sadly, with modern GPS equipment, everyone can now pinpoint exactly where they are to the nearest eighth of an inch.

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    1. Ooh! Don’t talk to me about GPS! The number of groups I’ve waited for who have got totally lost because there isn’t a postcode for the car park, or whose GPS has packed up for one reason or another and then have absolutely no idea where they are! Ho hum, I’m just old fashioned, Bun. Give me a map and compass any time, and then I can choose exactly how much notice I need to take of them.

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  2. I admire your spirit of adventure, Mick, which I think is rather under-developed within myself. I have travelled, and gone off the beaten track, but I always found I took myself along, and so nothing seemed so very different. Do you know what I mean?

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    1. I’m assuming that you mean you interpreted whatever you came across in your travels as you might do things that were familiar to you. Perhaps you might assume that (for example) behind the closed door of a Brazilian favella, a family lived essentially the same life as they might in Coventry or Bristol?

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      1. Well, no, not exactly. I could always see qualitative distinctions pretty well. What I meant was that when I travelled, the familiarity of my own selfhood was ever-present, ubiquitous. That’s something that phases in and out of awareness these days, so I can absorb into (what we think of as) the objective quite readily. I don’t know if any of this is making sense? It’s kind of about the degree to which one can (or cannot) be fully present with what is outside of one’s physical self, and absenting the rigidity of subject/object, self/other, categorising.

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          1. Not quite, because that implies a sort of isolative consciousness, and perhaps a means of psychological protection. I don’t mean either of those things, although selfhood is always a kind of isolative state of mind, granted. Perhaps a less abstract way of looking at it is in terms of empathy. When we’re cognitively and affectively empathic, there’s a far greater sense of absorption in the other and their environment – yes? And yet most of time we’re not exercising our greatest capacity to empathise – we’re sort of more focused on ‘me going through the world and having experiences’. There’s a kind of distance, and within which we’re always closer to ourselves than we are to whatever we encounter on our travels.

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            1. That is true, but I think it applies to us all for the majority of the time, travelling or otherwise. It is probably easier to equate it with the Buddhist sense of ‘self’ and ‘no self’ – the first state implies a distance from others, more a sense of being the other, whereas the second state is where we are truly open to everything, since there is no idea of separation.

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  3. Nice piece on ‘the travel bug’ Mick. It was my dad who helped me find mine and a sense of adventure as a young boy but it was for the local sites around Cornwall rather than foreign climates. I remember in later life when I had moved away from home that when I visited we used to go off for the day and walk part of the coastal path marking it on a map he kept on the wall when we returned home. This is one of the fondest memories of my dad.

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    1. What a lovely way to remember your dad, Colin. My dad couldn’t have been more different – other than an annual holiday at a seaside destination of some sort, he showed little interest in travel or adventure. Mind you, as someone who served in Burma and India in WW2, he’d probably had his fill of adventure.

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  4. Lovely memories of before Gps ! I used to map read for the family on “trips.” Mother and Sis in the back , Dad driving and little me buried under a “real” map…how it’s changed with Gps….saved me a few times in the wilds of Oman …

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  5. Oh, I am nostalgic for the days of maps, too. Although, GPS has saved my bacon when I’m driving around alone. However, I used to love navigating on road trips with my husband driving and me with the map spread out on my lap. And watching the landmarks go by as the miles dropped away behind you. Ah well…

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  6. My experiences navigating by compass are quite a departure from walking around with a topographical map. I’ve done it two ways: on the sea bottom in scuba gear, heading towards a reef, or wreck, or shoreline; and in a little Cessna, boring my own little highway in the air. No map for the former apart from a dive master saying “take this heading”, and maps for the later are a whole different trip.

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  8. Today Google map has replaced old paper maps. all you need is data enabled smartphone. probably some day new generation will be astonished how life was before technology made it simple!

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    1. I know, and I’m sure that’s true, but I can never feel the same sense of achievement when I arrive somewhere using a GPS, that I do when I manage to navigate a long distance, over difficult terrain, with a map and compass and then arrive at my destination. Sigh.

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      1. I know Mick! It’s quite like getting satisfaction of doing things yourself rather than allowing someone to do for you. We’re humans afterall with our own psychology. suit yourself Mick, nothing else matters!

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  9. I haven’t traveled nearly as much as I want to, but one thing I have learned: don’t over-plan your trip. As you say, part of the charm is just “discovering,” and not always knowing exactly what is coming next. Hard for someone like me to do, but I’ve learned it’s worth the effort.

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  10. Need to thank your grandmother as she had instilled these thoughts of travel, that there are places far and far to explore. Talking about maps and compasses. Think ten years back me and my hubby when we used to travel used to rely on the maps. But nowadays when we go on trips I do the homework of which places to visit and how to get there all before traveling itself. GPS has been good but once we had used the Google maps to go to a holiday spot that was only one to 2 hrs from here(from Nairobi). That just took us in the opposite direction and we were in a middle of a forest, if we cross we would be there but that was so scary as no habitation and the paths started diminishing and no coverage of network. Finally we returned all the way till our place and took the right direction after asking a friend. So I totally don’t trust the technical maps but have no options nowadays. Printed maps are getting old.

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    1. Glad it worked out okay in the end! Printed maps are still good in most parts of the world, Meena. And the only system I trust 100% is the printed map and the compass, personally (plus the homework, as you so wisely say!).

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  11. Your grandmother must have been a very special lady to you, Mick. You are clearly very grateful to her and have many fond memories, it seems. It was lovely that she taught you to have an interest in travelling at such a young age. It has obviously stood you in good stead. As for maps, my only experience of them is sitting in the back of my father’s car at a fairly young age and being taught about how to read a road map from my hometown running up to the north of the country. I could tell you where the motorway stop off points were and even the nearest junction but put me in India or anywhere remotely Asian, and I’d be lost within a minute. That’s not to say, I wouldn’t like to travel but I think I would be completely lost halfway up a mountain track in five minutes flat 🙂

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    1. She was special, Ellie, but, of course, all grandmothers are special! As for maps, it’s all practice. I’m sure you’d be just as good at reading maps in mountains or foreign cities if you were taught how. We all have to learn!

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