I’d be hard pressed to think of an utterly more seductive feeling on earth than to stand in an airport or train station and watch the overhead sign whip through its letters to announce the faraway destination I’m off to. All those options! They’re the definition of freedom. (Okay, maybe I should get my head examined when I’m happily boarding a flight to Mogadishu.) Yet, the destination is only half the wonder of travel. The means of getting there is just as good if not better than what is at the other end.
That airliner I’m about to step onto, so sadly taken for granted these days, is a wondrous piece of engineering that has opened the world to us all. While the fool in the next seat over is in a massive sulk because the airline has run out of one of the meal choices, lucky me to sit next to the window and watch as the plane soars through canyons of floating cumulus. Look! The wisps are parting to reveal the brilliance of Greenland below with its painter’s color palette of whites and grays and pale blues that sparkle from the sun. I muse to myself that the land below doesn’t seem nearly as big as the Mercator map on my wall has led me to believe since childhood. Or Africa! Look at the White Nile as it begins its life from Lake Victoria – its source one of the great mysteries of the Victorian age – as the plane comes in for landing on its shore at Entebbe. Or maybe it’s South America and Angel Falls appearing out of the mist …
And no less fantastic are those pages from the history books about how continents were opened up with the laying of train tracks and how those journeys are still there for us today, whether it’s a trans-continental Amtrak route (or the Trans-Canada Railway for our members up north), Australia’s Indian Pacific, or the Trans-Siberian. I love the transition from the city with my voyeuristic peering into people’s backyards and gardens to the vast expanses of forests or desert or nothingness that last for days, knowing that I’m slowly moving along that thin black line I’ve often followed in my atlas. Still, people bemoan the time it takes. On the 19:00 from Nairobi to Mombasa – a vintage train that’s a little tattered around the edges but still full of heart – passengers in the corridor have cornered the train manager (smartly dressed in a suit and tie no less) over the six-hour breakdown somewhere out in the bush. “But we’ll be late getting into Mombasa!” they collectively howl. From my compartment I see elephants out the window.
For me, travel is about the movement, the education beyond the books, and the sheer joy of it all. It’s not about bagging countries, but taking time to savor each wonder below the plane, or the passing from day to night on a long train journey. Or that elusive island that looms at dawn after several days at sea. Or the first glimpse of the cathedral spire in Santiago de Compostela after hiking 800 km on an ancient pilgrimage trail. It’s about a lifetime project. So, unless I declare myself TCC president for life – like in some sort of ‘Stan country – it’s time for me to travel off the pages of the Centurian and into the pasture with the other former TCC presidents. A hearty welcome to my 2014 successor who will lend a new voice to this column! Many thanks for all the lovely compliments you’ve thrown my way over the last two years. Every one is much appreciated!