Captain Contiki's School of Travel
Belonging is the aim of leaving home
Travel. It's one of those things in life that many of us think we know how to do, well, just because. Like speaking to our wives or understanding when to shut up (two deeply interrelated subjects).
No, we don't know how to travel. We need to learn.
I was reminded of this tonight when watching the venerable old travel guru Rick Steves lecture on the pros and cons of seeing Europe by cruise ship. To me, it seems to be mostly cons, but give me another twenty years, and I'll probably see it differently. His demographic, namely "aging hippies," has probably already come to this shift in perspective.
I watched as the camera showed throngs of cruisers, all wearing ID tags, all taking pictures of the same stuff. As if to not-so-subtly make his point, this footage was interspersed with shots of Rick gaily flouncing about on his own, minus the crowds.
This got me thinking back to 2001, and my own School of Travel. Where I'd learned that escaping the herd is the single most important challenge a traveler faces. This education came courtesy of Contiki Tours.
If you've traveled with Contiki, and terminal syphilis and/or liver disease allows you to do so, raise a hand. Hooray. I've survived it twice. In the late spring of 2001, newly divorced, and with a well-paying job for the first time in my life, I timidly slipped my toes into Europe with Contiki.
Contiki operates thusly: They pack a fifty-seat bus with randy 18-35-year-olds, and drive them across Europe with over-worked Australian tour guides playing adult babysitter/probation officer. If I'd been in any way an experienced traveler, I'd have shuddered when I read the itinerary. But to me, it seemed doable. As I recall, it was:
London—Paris—Burgundy—Antibes—Pisa—Florence—Rome—Venice—Munich—Amsterdam—London. In seventeen days. There's no way I'd try it now. Some of those places are just fever dreams to me. Or "Another place I met cops." And I was one of the well-behaved ones!
My fellow travelers were a mixed bag, but the majority were Australians and New Zealanders between 22 and 27 years old. At 32, I was a geezer. What they were expecting from the trip, I soon realized, was quite different from what I wanted. One of the Aussies, a prodigious boozer and natural rugby tackle named Spozzer or some such fucking thing told me, completely deadpan, that he hadn't bothered to bring a camera. He would happily sleep through the most stunning scenery, so long as someone woke him up when we stopped at a pub.
I concluded from my talks with Spozzer that beer must be very expensive in Australia. It seemed to be the whole justification for the trip.
I came to appreciate my fellow travelers' indifference to the scenery, however. One sun-dazzled day on a winding highway between France and Italy, with all my bus mates passed out, I stared at the incredible scenery, feeling that I alone owned it, all for the price of refusing one last round the night before. I began to understand why I was in Europe, even if I didn't understand why they were.
My greatest triumph was in Paris. Being that we were an "Economy" excursion, Contiki could not afford to put us in a hotel in the city of Paris. Instead, we got a campground in a distant, though pleasant, suburb. One morning, I awoke far earlier than anyone else on the grounds. I looked at my watch, seeing it was not even 6 AM. Wondering briefly if backpacking scum like myself were allowed off the premises, I decided to chance it and go exploring.
After a brief detour caused by my remembering to put on pants, I began to creep about a typical (I'm assuming) lower-middle-class French neighborhood. Fat cats eyed me warily from brick walls. Streetlamps switched off as the sun's rays broached the horizon. People walking poodles and alsatians greeted me with cheery "Bonjours." The smell of brewing coffee and baking bread beckoned from boulangeries.
I'm sure I was the only non-local there. I'm also sure that it never occurred to any of them that I had come from the campsite since it might as well have been named "Fort Hangover," given the habits of its denizens.
No matter, I felt that I belonged. Escaping from the herd had granted me that feeling of belonging so many travelers chase but never catch. Yes, I spent an hour in a non-descript neighborhood with no art, no history, no big attractions. But I have seen the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, the Leaning Tower, the Duomo, the Colesseum, and St Mark's. And I would not trade any of them for that hour, not a one.
I'm not sure you'll ever find me on a cruise ship. But I know one thing: When I get off the ship, I sure as hell won't be following the herd, waiting for a half-hour to take a picture of something "important." I'll be down a winding alley, eating pasta where the locals do, or trying to learn Boule.
Belonging is what travel is all about it. Without it, you might as well stay at home. The beer's probably cheaper, Spozzer.