When I joined the Globetrotters Club 30 years ago, I never dreamed that I would be able to spend the next three decades travelling, and get paid for doing so!
From the age of seven, when my parents let me take bus rides alone, from the suburbs into Leeds town centre. I was encouraged to travel wherever my pocket would allow.
A hitchhiking tour of Europe at the age of 14 made me eager to see more, and as soon as I returned I applied for a job with Wallace Arnold Tours. Although my work there involved nothing more exciting than logging the amount of diesel the buses used, the odd free trip to Blackpool made it all worthwhile.
This was followed by a stint cycling round remote Yorkshire villages as a postman, then at the age of 19, I set off on my travels again, and headed for India with £110 in my pocket. By the time I reached Bombay I had barely enough money left (£45) for a sea passage back to Marseilles, sharing the windowless area directly above the hold with 150 Hong Kong Chinese.
On my return to the UK, I re-entered the travel business with a job as a London bus conductor which, although taking me no further afield than Peckham, financed another trip abroad, even covering the cost of an air ticket from Gibraltar to Tangiers ~ a ten-minute flight which l eagerly availed myself of, certain that I would never afford to fly again.
Shortly after this I spotted an interesting article in The People about a minicab driver called Hickey who had set up a transport service for Pakistani immigrants, large numbers of whom had been abandoned on the roads of Turkey and Iran, when the ancient buses ferrying them to a new life in the West broke down.
Realising the hazards of driving one’s own vehicle overland, I began organising trips to India by public transport. By this time (’65) the overland travel boom was just beginning, and hundreds of vehicles, second hand buses, ambulances, London taxis, and even a bubble car were heading for the Indian subcontinent.
It is estimated that at the height of this boom up to 10,0000 travellers were on the overland route each day. Over the next 15 years I made the journey from London Victoria to New Delhi over 78 times, accompanying groups of up to 60 intrepid souls aged from 8 to 80.
With the demise of the Shah in Iran, and the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, the overland traffic was reduced to a trickle, and I began operating railway tours in India instead. Looking back, I feel very lucky in having both enjoyed my travels and earned my living at the same time.
If I had been born 30 years later, I expect my life would have been very different. Today the travel industry is much more tightly regulated, necessitating hefty capital outlay at the start, which I would never have been able to afford. In addition, the expectations of travellers who join organised group holidays are very different, and in 1995 few would be prepared to put up with conditions on the Overland Trail of the ’60s.
When I first travelled overland in 1960, very few people were making this journey, although Paddy Garrow Fisher had already started a bus service which several Globetrotters had tried out.
I was seen as the village eccentric, and the Driffield Times published weekly extracts from my letters home under the tile ‘The Wandering Postman. So unusual was it for a young Briton to arrive in Bombay that when I approached the High Commission there for information on shipping services the staff invited me to their homes and fed me for two days until my ship left.
With no guidebook and little knowledge of the countries I was to visit, I had no idea what to expect, and was therefore never disappointed with what I found. Even when the overland route became more popular, those traversing it by and large looked upon their trip as a huge adventure.
However much they grumbled about 12-hour delays at border points, treks of up to a mile across no man’s land, constant health/police checks, bus journeys up to 30 hours long, often with suicidal drivers and frequent breakdowns, Spartan accommodation, bedbugs, unpalatable food and serious health risks, most accepted these as an inevitable part of the travel experience.
Nowadays long distance travel is commonplace. Guidebooks and travel literature’s are a booming business. However, although today’s travellers undoubtedly have access to more information about the places, which they visit, this can increase prejudice rather than widen understanding.
The widespread publicity given to Islamic fundamentalism over the past decade is a case in point. Nor have more cosmopolitan lifestyles at home, resulting from the increase in foreign travel, necessarily led to increased tolerance of different cultures.
It is not unusual that in London’s Indian restaurants, and this year we are bracing ourselves for a rush of requests for so-called balti-cooking, a type of cuisine which, thanks to some imaginative marketing, is well known to every self-respecting London gourmet, but which is virtually unknown in the supposed country of its origin.
Widely improved facilities both at home and in much of ‘abroad’, even in unlikely environments, where tourists frequently enjoy the luxury of unlimited water supplies while local people queue for hours at communal taps, has led to heightened expectations which often cannot be met in less developed parts of the world.
Although more people are encouraged to seek, “adventure abroad”, whole supplements in the national press portray even the most unlikely destinations in superlative terms they often want it to be squeezed into a one or two week vacation period, and to be predictable in terms of standards of accommodation, food, transport, and all those other variables which real ‘adventure’ is all about.
The modem emphasis on consumer ‘rights’, strongly backed by recent legislation, also encourages travellers to be critical. In the old days it never occurred to me that anyone might demand recompense for an injury or a delay sustained on the trip, whereas nowadays I can be sued if a hotel catches fire, if a restaurant dishes up a cockroach in the rice, if a passenger gets run over crossing a railway line, or even if the promised wildlife fails to appear at a game sanctuary my own attitude has also changed over the years.
In the old days, it all seemed so simple. I had unthinkingly enjoyed the excitement of my journey overland, and saw a way to make money and enjoy myself further by taking others along that route.
Now as I watch the often-negative effects of wave upon wave of camera laden fellow foreigners on places I have grown to like, I wonder whether I should have just stuck to being a village postman. So why don’t I pack it all in?
Well, along the with many other ‘globetrotters’ I can’t imagine life without the thrill of crossing borders, jumping on local trains, widespread eating unusual food in small teahouses, or exchanging views with complete strangers, in other words, enjoying the element of chance and the unexpected which is missing from so much of “normal life”.
Besides, after 30 years on the road, it’s a bit late for me to settle down.
I am just very grateful to all the millions of people who are keeping the UK going without my help.