The romance of travel

by Jan Wheatcroft


The other day I received one of my travel magazines and across the front it shouted, “The Romance of Travel,” which quickly caught my eye. However in smaller print it emphasized honeymoons, lovers retreats and romantic adventures for two. I felt immediately put off these subjects as it was totally not my idea of the “romance” of travel.

Perhaps it began when I was 11 and was sent to camp in the Trinity Mountains in Northern California. I traveled with a number of other children and counselors on the Owl, a night train overnight. We had one large car  filled with upper and lower bunks (I always took the upper) and we slept with the train whistle announcing our passage throughout the night. I loved that part of going to camp—that “longing” train whistle still brings the magic of a journey to me when I hear it.

But my serious travel began when I was 18 and had just graduated from high school. My father sent me to Europe for the summer, where I joined a student group and we traveled by ship to Holland and then by train to other European countries. I was gone for two months and it didn’t bother me that at the beginning I didn’t know anyone. It was new and exciting, and I discovered all sorts of people and places, which only left me longing for more. 

The romance of travel is the excitement of new experiences. It is opening vistas to places only dreamt about. People often ask me how I can afford to travel.  It is all about making choices. A big house with all the newest add ons, a new car, cruises and fancy hotels are nice to have, but I have chosen a small house, a 20-year-old car, the cheapest bunk on a ship, and small homestays both for savings and for the pleasure of travel. This way I have met people seeking adventure just as I do. 

For 20 years I have traveled this way with my friend, Frances, who lives in London. Using the train enables us to see the countryside as we chug along. We watch the women in native dress carrying their children plus a jug of water on their heads walking to their villages.  We can see the houses, temples and gardens of those villages as we pass through.

At stops, peddlers hop aboard to sell teas and snacks.  I have even had a foot massage between stations. We have shared bunk space with so many different people, both tourists and locals traveling in their own country. It is interesting to observe how people raise their children and to try to speak with them and share whatever each of us may have.

I also like to take the train to Europe from London on the Eurostar. The idea of riding so far under the ground and sea is a very “romantic” experience. That it was even conceived, and that I am traveling that way to see a new and different part of the world, still amazes and thrills me while I am doing it. 

The idea that I can look at a map and decide to go see somewhere I have never seen is exciting. Thinking of India, I remember how different one area is from another and how my experiences were so broad as I visited, and revisited, so many places. This is the “romantic” aspect of a journey. Things happened that were unexpected. I loved places I had not expected to like at all, such as Calcutta.

I only visited Calcutta because it was in the middle of a long trip we were taking. But I just loved it. Our small hotel was funky and friendly and was really worth the trip itself. It was a bright intellectual city with excellent Bengali food. We took the tiny train up to Darjeeling and explored some of the great mountainous regions.  It was much more than I had expected and gave us insights into another life. It was one of my most favorite and surprising trips, and by far the most “romantic.”

The beauty of travel is part of the romance of travel.  The beauty of the rice fields in Bali both from high up looking down and while walking through them. The clouds over the Himalayas when they open up and exposes the mountains. People wearing their national dress, because that is what they have to wear, not just for tourists. Everyday dress of the Guatemalan women with their embroidered huipils or tops ablaze in bright colors. Houses painted in vivid hues, each one vying with the next for center stage. Small cobbled streets in French villages, a Greek village with whitewashed stoops and old margarine cans whitewashed and filled with varieties of bright green basil plants, not for eating, but to gather the smell in your hand as you rub it or stick a bit behind your ear.

The food experiences are almost never ending. On a small island off of Hong Kong, Frances and I were invited into a tea shop and offered many tastes of teas, each so different one from another. It was an aromatic and sensual tasting that opened our eyes to the respect and care for tea. We then strolled along a narrow street and heard many clicks and clacks. Following the sounds we peeked into a garden and saw four women around a table playing mahjong. That was the best part of Hong Kong.

I love having a chai break on the streets of India and watching the chai walla pour the hot prepared tea from pot to cup in a huge arc. I also love drinking a lassi, a yogurty drink, which one time a waiter poured all over me. Other special tastes are grilled pomfret fish in Goa, stuffed intestines filled with offal, garlic and spices and grilled over a Greek fire, fresh bread dipped into just-pressed olive oil in Greece…but these are just a few. 

One of my greatest pleasures has always been a fresh cup of tea and toast with butter and jam served by Frances in the morning. There is nothing like it.  This is, for me, is the essence of the romance of travel.


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