Tuesday, 8 June 2010

On Bill Bryson

I love Bill Bryson. There. I said it. It’s out there. Await Restraining Order. Of course I jest, but I very much enjoy his attitude to travel.

Ever since I read Notes from a Small Island, I have voraciously devoured his travelling tales as well as A Short History of Nearly Everything which I found to be such an easily digested jaunt through difficult topics of historic science as I have ever read. He’s deliciously irreverent, rude even. What makes it acceptable to me is that he is just as rude about his kinsfolk (the Brits or the Yanks, depending on how you look at it) and about himself. Yet, this is not what I love about him - he and I, I suspect, share the same philosophies on travelling. Neither of us are seduced by the Lonely Planet publicity machine and their mass-produced brand of gap-year cramming which I find to be an unrealistic shunt in the direction of metrosexual, shabby-chic flashpacking. It is no longer about discovery but rather a rite of passage for 18-21 year olds before University, or after that but before work, where they all visit the same places, drink in the same bars, eat the same food and proudly wax lyrical about how they “went native” for about 10 minutes whilst trying some local food and promptly vomiting thereafter. Case in point - Pokhara, Nepal. Second case in point - Khao San Road, Bangkok. Travelling has become formulaic - pick place, buy LP Guide and visit everything you can in the book.

Bill is different. He has pretty much the same philosophy whenever he visits a place - arrive by public transport, usually harassed, find hotel, get changed and walk around observing. There’s no pretence that he is anything other than a tourist - and this is where I divert from the LP-hugging horde - we’re ALL tourists!! In South East Asia, let me tell you, the locals are often not interested in getting to know you and learning all about your middle-class, Daily Mail upbringing - they want your dollars. There will always be the chance to sit and chat to someone who genuinely wants to know a bit about the UK or the US - they’re world-famous nations playing on the grandest field of them all, International Relations - but to go looking for that is to court disappointment. It happens when you least expect it. More on South East Asia in another post.

No, Bill and I have yet to consummate our relationship and I suspect we’ll never meet but every time I land on a plane (how terribly carbon-unfriendly of me - more on that later too) I am put in mind of dear old Bill and his chinos and shirt, probably sweaty from broken air-con, and his scramble to find the hotel he has booked. It makes me smile. I, too, love that moment when you reach your hotel, find out that it is in fact not quite as bad as Trip Advisor made it sound (I love Trip Advisor - independent reviews by people who have actually been to the hotels you’re reading about, but inevitably with different expectations to you - some higher, some lower), get changed and head out into the great unknown. I love the bustle of cities but usually, I can only take it for a short time. I could sit for hours, literally, nursing a mug of tea and watching people go about their business. People are captivating - anthropologists have the market on cool academic disciplines as far as I am concerned. This activity is even better done at night, as we did in Rome recently in the Piazza Navona, working our way through a delightful bottle of Prosecco. The day is for pulling yourself round the various museums and religious buildings and “getting some culture”.

Yet Bill is all for getting off the beaten track (he probably keeps getting tripped up by people with LP books in their multiple-flag-patched Karrimor rucksacks - think of the water-ingress people!!). Normally, he’ll head for something that has piqued his interest and, usually, he’ll get there minutes before a bus-load of American tourists. However, those precious few minutes of solitude to view a natural or man-made marvel are wondrous. Hence why, in Agra, we were up at the ungodly hour of 0500 to see the Taj Mahal before everyone else got there and as the sun rose to cast a rosy hue over the most beguiling mausoleum history is ever likely to record.

The “beaten track” is a much abused cliche - a path that pretty much every traveller claims to avoid like 1980‘s school dinners. In fact, the beaten track is perhaps the most apt description of the way travelling has gone these days - that so many travellers visit the same places that they have become honey-pots with backpackers swarming round them to the point they are almost subsumed. I often joke that if I am to visit an ancient monument it will be draped in scaffolding. Hardly surprising, now I come to think about it, with a million, camera-wielding tourists tramping all over it every year, desperate only to take a photo rather than trying to actually understand what they are seeing. The Temples at Angkor, resplendent in a scaffold veil, were still an amazing, if not the most amazing thing I have ever seen but the best part was getting away from the crowds and seeing the lesser known temples. It blesses you with the true sense of the monument you are gazing upon when you have time to consider it and the true majesty that, at a time when London had but 50,000 inhabitants living in bamboo huts (I exaggerate), the Temples at Angkor, built in a jungle miles from anywhere, had a million such inhabitants, many of whom were scholarly and religious. I wonder whether half the visitors to Angkor had actually considered those simple facts when assessing what they were seeing. It’s why Stonehenge is such a draw - how the hell did the stones get there? Go and see Angkor and ask the same questions.

So, of course, the beaten track will remain beaten for years to come, but the advantage of this is that whilst others are beating it, space is left for others to enjoy new, less trodden paths. Perhaps the most amazing experience of my life was a 16hr bus trip from Luang Prabang in Laos to Huay Xai in the Thailand. We could have taken a plane but it seemed like a way to see Laos that we would not have been open to us otherwise. It was an overnight trip, so we thought we’d save on a night’s accommodation to boot. As we sat at the front of the bus, we were joined by locals alone. Not a single LP devotee in sight. They looked at us with the vaguest hint of surprise which, in a sense, was rather satisfying - yes, we’re crazy enough to take this bus too, I wanted to say. The bus, a battered, bullet-ridden, relic being driven by a diminutive fellow reeking of booze and with a head dotting from side to side in an alarming way, got us there noisily, slowly, terrifyingly and, yet, wonderfully.

Yes, we froze and stuffed discarded newspaper and plastic bags into our clothes as we were seated by a broken window, at over 2,000m (Suunto Vector on my wrist), in the dead of night. And yes, there were moments where we wondered if buses such as this disappeared over mountain ravines. Yet, as we wound our way, on tiny, cliff-side roads, into the mountains, the moon cast a supernatural blue velvet blanket across the mountainside. We could see the jungle canopy below us and rocky, dusty mountainous terrain ahead of us. We passed tiny hamlets dotted along the mountain road with the Lao still sitting and drinking under a single light. It was invigorating (well, that could well have been the cold). Several times we stopped and had a break at a roadside camp alongside other buses and trucks, also replete with weary passengers. We ate local food as, simply put, there was nothing else - we would have anyway, but taking a route like this meant there was no Pokhara pizza or Khao San Road burgers to be had. Often, another driver, usually young boys, too young to have a girlfriend, but old enough to take regular tokes on American cigarettes, would take over. Several times these apprentices took us close to the edge of the abyss as their Lao Beer swilling mentor snoozed off his dipsomanic stupor, until he would awake and take over. Sleep for us was not an option for more than half an hour at a time. Eventually, as dawn’s early light heralded arrival of morning, we pulled into the final stop and dutifully (and sleepily) awaited leave to exit Laos, head down to the river and cross into Thailand.

I have no doubt that Bill would have been proud.


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