At the airport in Pokhara, Nepal, they hand write your seat number on your boarding pass. They also put your checked luggage (in my case a large backpack) in a wheelbarrow before disappearing with it. As I watched my bag being wheeled away I felt a tinge of concern that I might not ever see it again. It seemed so primitive and I was rattled, as our taxi had been stuck behind a large number of cows for so long I was worried we’d miss our flight. I can’t remember seeing any signs for security, but somehow we found our way there. As I was patted down by a female security guard she stepped back, looked at me and said, ‘What is that thing, poking there?’
For a brief second I was terrified that somehow, unbeknownst to me, in some sort of travel induced euphoric daze, I’d dropped a knife down my shirt and had somehow not noticed. I think I had a tremble in my voice as I said, ‘Do you mean my ribs?’
‘Let me see,’ she said. So I showed her.
Even as she touched my lower ribs I remember her still looking unconvinced.
My friend, having gone through her own inspection, was waiting for me on the other side of the curtains. ‘What took so long?’ she asked.
‘My ribs are too prominent,’ I replied. Then, away on our own watching planes land, I told her about my rogue knife-in-my-shirt-that-I-did-not-know about thoughts.
‘I have them too,’ she said.
Then we laughed, as we boarded our flight, and ended up back in Kathmandu.
It was the small moments of unexpected happiness that travel brings that I missed the most, as we navigated the pandemic. And the tiny things you learn first-hand. Simple things, like the fact that the carrots in Australia taste better. Sweeter, with a more satisfying crunch. And you don’t need to peel them, just wash them off and you’re good to go. I discovered this at a grocery store in Bellingen, New South Wales. Around the corner was a clothing shop named Retro Bello, where I bought a sundress that makes me feel fabulous whenever I put it on. I’d never heard of Bellingen before visiting Australia, but I love it now and can’t wait to go back.
The 7/11 on Gulf Boulevard in Treasure Island, Florida, is my favourite place to get coffee. They have piles of little International Delights creamers, and the staff are always so happy to see you and have a chat. I think that is why the coffee tastes better. The nearby ocean helps, too.
The airport in Stockholm smells like cinnamon. What more can be said?
You are expected to barter with the sellers at Chatuchak market in Bangkok, even if the prices are already fabulous. I learned this when I bought a belt from a leather worker. I asked the man in the booth how much and he said, ‘Five hundred bhat.’
I looked at my friend, who had lived in Thailand for a few years, as he did the conversion.
‘About 15 US dollars.’
That meant about eight British pounds.
‘Sold,’ I said.
A small smile of surprise appeared on his face, behind his curtain of sandy blond hair. He looked like someone you’d see in the crowd at a Grateful Dead concert and I liked him immediately. He fit the belt for me, took my bhat, and I walked away.
‘Why did he look so surprised?’ I asked.
‘He expected you to haggle over price.’
‘Oh,’ I said. Later, I would regret this, but on day one of a trip using foreign currency, I always overspend.
It’s been twelve years and the belt still looks brand new.
There’s a restaurant in Bar Harbour Maine that serves lobster in a cream sauce that tastes like Christmas cookies. It’s the best thing I’ve ever tasted. And I know my food.
Toiledau i fyny’r grisiau is Welsh for ‘toilets upstairs’. I learned this in a pub in Cardiff City Centre. Just in time, might I add.
The water in the canals in Amsterdam is so clean, you can scoop up some in a clear glass and see it for yourself. I woudn’t drink it, but it looked quite dazzling in the May heat when I saw it. I told a friend how much I enjoyed Amsterdam and he said he had been in 1987 and did not like it. As we shared experiences I realised cities, like people, are capable of profound change.
‘You need to go back,’ I said.
The little things you experience and learn when you travel are the reasons why I am always happiest with a pack on my back, a map under my arm, and a new place in front of me. You can read about these places, watch travel shows, but it’s the bits you discover first-hand that change you as a person. I may press my clothes for work and worry about my bag matching but when I travel I can be wearing an old curtain and shoes made of Kleenex boxes and I feel like I’m on a Paris runway. Travel is my happy place.
Soon after I moved to England from Canada I got a job working in publishing sales. It meant a lot of time on the road, navigating roundabouts and small twisty streets. It was both terrifying and exhilarating to enter small market towns and discover they were the birthplace of Charles Darwin (Shrewsbury) Henry V (Monmouth) and Oliver Cromwell (Huntingdon). When it comes to travel nothing beats a good road trip, and I’ve been on enough to know.
In the early nineties I camped my way across the United States, on my way to journalism school in British Columbia. We started in Maine, which bordered the province of New Brunswick, where both I and my travel partner/boyfriend at the time grew up. There was no emphasis on how much ground we had to cover in how much time – the route we travelled was marked with places we wanted to see. On day four we pitched our tent in Maryland and took the train to Washington, DC. Our first stop was Arlington Cemetery. It was August during a heatwave, and I felt guilty for wearing shorts in a cemetery. We followed the signs to the grave of John F Kennedy. The eternal flame flickered even though there was not a breath of wind, something I didn’t understand at the time. Across from the grave of John F Kennedy and his wife was a simple white cross marking Bobby Kennedy’s resting place. My father once said when his time came, and if there was a God, he planned to ask him why he didn’t protect Bobby Kennedy better. I thought about this when I saw his simple marker, and I was overwhelmed. You learn new things when you travel, and you feel both new and old things, too. When my father died I remembered what he said, and hoped he got an answer, but I’m not holding my breath.
After seeing the eternal flame we walked quietly to the Vietnam Memorial. I never really knew much about the Vietnam War, apart from seeing Apocalypse Now, and somehow knowing the war was wrong. I was in no way prepared for the impact of the Wall. It starts off small, a few names listed, then as you move along the path, it seems to grow. More and more names appear. It feels like you’re walking downhill, being pulled forward even as you want to stop, go back. A man with long hair wearing an old army jacket was standing with his palm pressed to the black marble. Packs of Marlboros were at his feet. I wanted to turn around and run but I pushed on, at first fighting tears but then letting them come. I was sobbing as I made my way to the washroom. A woman in a blazer, a park’s employee, took my arm and said, ‘We got another victim of the Wall here’ and led me to an area where I sat. In my memory I am surrounded by women in tears, but it might have been a few. I was a young woman of extremes at the time. But I remember the person who was kind to me, and I remember being wobbly the rest of the day. Sometimes travel makes you grow in unexpected ways. Sometimes it hurts. I know a lot more about Vietnam now.
One Christmas I travelled to Australia. In Brisbane on my own after saying a last goodbye to a friend I wandered to Streets Beach from my hotel. It was so hot I think my bones were starting to melt. On the way back, I stopped and had red velvet cupcake gelato. Due to the heat I ended up wearing as much of it as I ate. As I walked by a Cartier shop the security guard out front said hello to me. I have owned a Trinity ring from Cartier for many years. I have walked by the stores in various cities but never felt comfortable going in. I took a few steps past, then turned around, showed him my ring, holding it out as if to say, ‘I am not the poor sunburned slob you see in front of you!’ although I was. He opened the door.
The blast of air conditioning inside felt like Xanadu. The woman who approached me looked like a model. I showed her my ring and she held out a tray for me. Yes, my hands and the ring were sticky from a mix of sunscreen, gelato and sweat as I handed it over, but that did not bother her as she showed me a seat. Ten minutes later she returned and said, ‘It looks like a brand new ring!’ It did.
Australians have no pretentions. I love it, and them, for that.
I’ve wanted to visited Morocco since I saw the movie Casablanca at a young age. The plot was lost of me, but I loved the ceiling fans at Rick’s Café American. The romance of it all was reinforced years later when I discovered the writer Paul Bowles, who lived in Morocco and set the Sheltering Sky there. Other writers like William S Burroughs and Truman Capote and playwright Tennessee Williams also called it home. The American socialite Barbara Hutton had a home in Tangiers she opened to the artistic community. It must have been fun to write and dream and drink and not worry about funding your retirement, something I feel like I’ve been doing since birth. Yes, I had a romantic view of Morocco when I set off. The outside of Barbara Hutton’s home in Tangiers did not knock my socks off. The sand in the Sahara Desert is as hard as a rock. It sounded so romantic to say I slept on a mat in the desert, but the reality was the sand had no give, and after a night of shifting about trying to get comfortable I became very much aware, for the first time in my life, that I had a back. I did not meet the ghosts of any great writers, but it was worth it, to see the shooting stars and the satellites literally flying by. I learned camels are not comfortable to ride and that Bedouins can whip up quite a meal with a gas stove and no refrigerator. Also, Pringles cost a fortune in Morocco. I’m not sure why.
The phone system in Brazil is called TIM. On a trek through South America with friends I had the cheapest phone in the group, and the only one that got coverage. As I called my mom from the airport two other friends said, ‘Could your mom call my mom and tell her I’m ok?’ My mom said yes and made the calls. Later, on Ipanema Beach I called her again to tell her where I was. She mentioned the song the Girl from Ipanema and I was clueless, so she started to sing it as I watched for pickpockets and studied the crashing waves. Later we would have a similar conversation about a song called You Belong to Me when I was in Tangiers. The song says Algiers, which I learned later. I’m sure I will sing it there one day.
The bus ride from Kathmandu to Pokhara takes about ten hours. There’s no air conditioning, and you can’t keep the windows open because of the dust from the road. The bumps are so great my FitBit counted them off as steps. But the thing I remember most is seeing Gurkhas training, carrying packs, running in the dry heat. I wanted to call my father and tell him. He had many books about the Gurkhas, and to see them running along the road beside me created a small moment of connection with my long-gone dad.
Lumbini, birthplace of Lord Sakyamuni Buddha, has to be the hottest place on earth. Not a good place to run out of water while walking the endless grounds and the Fountain of World Peace, but I did just that. A newbie mistake for a seasoned professional. I did however have little cotton socks to put on as you must walk around it without shoes, and I have visited enough holy sites to know to stay covered and bring tiny socks – the heat! the dirt! All those other feet! I had a new pack from Primark, and I was a good girl and shared. I walked the three circles, running my hand along the bells, and offered up my prayers. As I write this I realise one of them has come true. Another reason to return to a country I love. Besides, I have no worries about my ribs if I find my way back to Nepal. Sitting on the sofa watching travel shows during lockdown has covered them up in a way that means they will not raise any bells with airport security. But I figure that will change too, once I get my pack on my back, and get on the road.
Waiting for our deluxe bus ride to start as a random cow stared at me.