Last week, I started out to talk about travel. Thought I’d tell you how privileged I feel to have traveled to some truly great places, and how much I’ve enjoyed seeing them. Trouble is, the minute I put “travel” and “enjoyed” in the same sentence I knew I was in trouble. I can’t honestly say I enjoy travel. I enjoy being somewhere. But getting there? Sorry. No sale!
Mind you, there are people who love to travel, and I respect that. I’m just not one of them. Last week I had to be honest about it, but that’s out of the way now, so let’s talk about the good part of “travel,” the part that starts after you retrieve your baggage at the airport and sally forth in a new place.
To begin with, forget the stuff in the travel brochures. If all you got is what they advertise you’d be disappointed. Why? Where’s the excitement in seeing something you’ve been reading about all your life? Now don’t misunderstand me, you’ll see all that “brochure” stuff, but if that were the end of it you’d soon be back at the travel bureau hinting at a refund.
So expect all the “brochure” stuff. But expect a lot more too, because the first few days spent on foreign soil are always a learning experience, even if you go somewhere as familiar as — say — England. Few of the real differences between nations are spelled out in books, magazines and brochures. The tendency is to repeat things we already know: England is wet and foggy. They drive on the left. They call gas “petrol,” a windshield a “bonnet,” and a trunk a “boot.” And they’re ruining the language. Expect it.
But when you actually plant your feet on English soil, be ready for the unexpected. Why? Because it’s coming, bubba, and you better be ready for it.
Otherwise, as I did, you’re going to find yourself saying a lot of dumb things. Like:
“What? You expect me to bring my own grocery bag? How come nobody told me that? What do I do with this basket full of stuff?”
I will say, the answer I got to that came as a surprise. I always thought that was strictly an American expression.
Then there was, “Hey! What gives? How come the lights didn’t stay on out in the hallway while I was climbing three flights of stairs? How was I supposed to get all the way up here?”
The answer? “Well, you did, didn’t you, yank?”
Don’t you hate smart aleck Brits?
Especially when they’re right?
And then there was the day I said, “Say what? I have to pay a higher property tax because I had a hose faucet installed in my back yard? C’mon! You’re kidding, right?”
And no, they weren’t kidding. Twenty bucks a month worth.
Or, “Hey! How come this chicken leg tastes like a fish?”
Well, the answer was logical. They feed chickens on ground up fish parts, so English chicken tastes like fish. Blah-h-h!
Had a hard time giving up chicken for four years. Except for curried chicken. Curried anything tastes like curry.
If you really want an exciting trip, though, you may be able to save yourself some money — and perhaps triple your excitement at the same time. Just go somewhere you haven’t been reading about all your life.
There are lots of those, some of them high up on the list of places tourists dream of seeing. Places like India, Bali, Tahiti, Nepal, Kashmir, Tibet, Egypt or Madagascar. And lots more.
Trust me, when you plant your feet in a foreign land that’s a bit — shall we say — different, you’re going to get your money’s worth of “exciting.” Oh, boy! Are you ever!
Try it. Drift into one of those places you’ve read about, but never in your wildest dreams ever thought you would see. Trust me. For the first few days, every minute of every day will bring you a “treat” you were not expecting.
I was in Pakistan less than an hour before I saw a sight I never imagined I would see. We were driving into Karachi from the airfield when we had to cross a small creek called Dhobi Ditch, a Dhobi being a servant who washes clothes. I eyed the dirt road, which went down a muddy track into a 10-foot-deep, 30-foot-wide creek bed with a trickle of dirty water at its bottom.
It sloped gradually down on our side, but was a steep, slippery climb on the other side.
We had to pause for a minute because a beat up gray-primered bus, rocking from side to side with twice as many passengers as it was made to hold, slowed to make the awkward, turning descent into the U-shaped creek bed. As I watched the bus slow to a crawl and drive cautiously down into the muddy mess, I wondered how in the world it would ever get up the much steeper far bank.
My guess is that the bus driver was asking himself the same question. I base that on what happened next.
Ahead of the bus, about halfway up the steep bank on the other side was something I hadn’t seen before, a bicycle rickshaw, a beat up old bike hauling a wide two-wheeled seat behind it. The bicycle rickshaw wallah was having a hard time making it up the steep slope over there, even though he had no passengers.
Someone had put some branches down to provide traction, but they were useless to the rickshaw wallah. His back wheel kept slipping. He strained and sweated but got nowhere. And here came the bus, right behind him and getting closer every second. Horns were not permitted over there, so the bus driver revved his engine in warning. The rickshaw wallah struggled to move. The bus crept closer. The rickshaw wallah strained harder. The bus rolled up behind him. The bus engine revved. Bus touched rickshaw ...
And ran right over it! I listened as wheels, bike frame, rickshaw wallah, branches, and everything else were ground into a crunching, crackling mess of tangled metal, wood, bone, and flesh.
“Oh, my God!” I said, unable to believe what I was seeing.
“It is all right, Sahib,” the staff car driver said calmly.
“But the bus driver just killed the bicycle guy!”
“It is all right, Sahib. He will merely pay the policeman who comes a big bribe. It is cheaper than a tow truck.”
That happened in the first hour of my first day.
Some other day we’ll get to “the rest of the story.”
Sometimes traveling 5,000 miles is like going back 5,000 years.