Lockdown travel

I have a feeling that traveling for pleasure will not be possible for the foreseeable future, because, even if it is allowed, who wants to spend a couple of weeks in quarantine upon arrival, or be unsure of being able to return home?
Therefore, now’s the time to turn to the inexhaustible pleasures of literature, in order to visit places one would love to explore—or, even better, places where one wouldn’t dream of setting foot in, except from the comfort of an armchair.
I know that nowadays you can see everything live on a screen: endless documentaries, some absolutely marvelous (thanks, David Attenborough—and again, some in places where you wouldn’t set foot in even if you were paid). Films set in exotic locations, YouTube videos, even Google Earth. You can go everywhere without leaving the house.

 

Picador travel classics editions. Bought years ago in Cambridge



However, the attraction of reading is not to be underestimated: you have a more intimate insight into the writer’s reactions and thoughts, and your imagination is allowed a much freer rein.
Travel writing has existed since the depths of time—for Greeks it probably started with Homer, the Odyssey being the primordial record of a sea voyage. And there are also the memoirs of Herodotus, who had traveled over almost all of the ‘known world.’
But if the Greeks have a healthy dose of seawater in their veins and have always been obsessive traders, no one can beat the English as far as exploration for its own sake goes (although they too were traders, of course.)

 



I have just finished Daughter of the Desert, the biography, by Georgina Howell, of Gertrude Bell, who thought nothing of traveling for 10 hours per day through the desert on a camel, dressed in a split skirt and a keffieh. Alone except for her servants.
The sheer discomfort of her days bogles the mind until, that is, one reads of worse travails. At least Gertrude Bell could rely on a nice bath upon setting up camp, in her custom-made canvas bath packed by her servants and carried by the camels in her caravan. This was usually followed by dinner served on white linen, with silver and crystal. She also had trunks full of evening gowns which she wore to visit the tribal sheiks she met on her travels.


Cherry-Gerrards at the hut in Cape Evans 1911


Apsley Cherry-Garrard was 24 when he signed up to join Robert Falcon Scott’s ill-fated Polar expedition in the Antarctic, in 1911. When he got back he went off to fight in the Great War. Years later, he wrote a memoir of this unforgettable voyage, called The Worst Journey in the World. During the whole expedition, the discomforts and privations the men suffered were unimaginable—they had decided to take ponies and, when these were impractical, they manhauled their sledges—but they still managed to enjoy the stunning scenery, and ‘geologise’ by gathering rock and mineral specimens which only added to the weight they had to pull— and they even packed Christmas puddings and books to read in the interminable Antarctic winter.

 

Manhauling the sleds



The ‘Worst Journey’ in the book’s title refers to a trip Cherry-Garrard made with two companions to Cape Crozier on Ross Island during the austral winter, in order to bring back an unhatched emperor penguin egg. This was to help scientists prove the evolutionary link between all birds and their reptile predecessors by the analysis of the embryo. However, in the book he describes the whole Scott voyage, from the meticulous preparations onwards, ending with his thoughts of why the expedition failed. The Brits were pipped at the post by the Norwegian Roald Amundsen, who shunned any scientific pretensions and relied on dogs and skis to arrive at the South Pole a month earlier, traveling light and fast. A compelling and  thrilling account of a different reality.

 



Another fascinating book on my short list is In Patagonia, by the inveterate traveler Bruce Chatwin. Patagonia is one of the most remote and beautiful places on the planet. Chatwin paints a lovely picture of the boundless scale of the landscape and the lost specks of astonishing human endeavour in this vast, lonely region. But most of all, he peoples his tales with a varied and astounding cast of wild and eccentric, if not downright crazy, characters, who were attracted from all over the world to this stark and unforgiving land. He is most interested in describing what he used to call internal landscapes. 



Bruce Chatwin wrote the introduction to Sybille Bedford’s book, A visit to Don Otavio, a splendidly humorous tale of two middle-aged ladies traveling in Mexico (see the cover in the first photo). A little old fashioned but delightfully irreverent, the book reads more like a novel. Bedford’s prose is dazzling, and her insights enchanting. As she herself said, ‘Of course it’s a novel. I wanted to make something light and poetic…I didn’t take a single note when I was in Mexico.’

 



And, last but not least, a book I keep giving to people as a gift, because of how much it amused me (I’ve no idea whether any of them read it, actually.)
At the Tomb of the Inflatable Pig, by John Gimlette, (even the title is delightfully eccentric) is a book about his travels in Paraguay. A beautiful and captivating country, one of the most exotic and extreme in South America, but not a place for the timid tourist. According to Gimlette, the place is teeming with dictators, ex Nazis, fraudsters and missionaries. It is a stage for utopian experiments and violent coups. As the Amazon synopsis describes it, ‘The beguiling Paraguayans, despised and feared by their neighbours, are unfathomable. They adore Diana, Princess of Wales, as if she were still alive and hundreds volunteered to fight for Britain in the Falklands War. Their politics are Byzantine but when the Vice-President is murdered, they call in Scotland Yard.

If any one of these books does not transport you out of lockdown for a few hours, I will eat my hat. Happy reading! 

30 thoughts on “Lockdown travel”

  1. Travel writing is a wonderful genre, and, as you say, it may be the only way we will visit many places. I haven’t read any of those you mention, but I will keep my eye out for them. I remember enjoying Eric Newbury’s “A short walk in the Hindu Kush”.

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  2. I’d also like to recommend A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water, both by Patrick Leigh Fermor, who wrote them about his epic walk through Europe in the 1930s at the age of 18. They give an amazing insight into what was a very different world, and how a young man with only a knapsack and a few books could actually successfully complete such a journey.

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    1. I fear you have fallen for the myth which Leigh-Fermor cleverly constructed for himself after the war. That myth has many facets and I shall only take up one which you touch on in your comment. Your last sentence gives a certain impression of the young man and the extent of his deed. Be assured, however, that Leigh-Fermor was no Laurie Lee (have you read “As I walked out one mid-summer morning”); he was an upper-middle class, very well-connected young man with letters of introduction to a variety of people along his route down to the Balkans. And I shall pass over at least one person – somewhat more mature in years than the young Patrick – who was of great (and extended) assistance (I suggest you look up, on the internet, Maurice Bowra’s unpulished poem on that particular affair). An assistance which was not reciprocated after the war when Leigh-Fermor embarked on a much more advantageous relationship with the person who would become his wife.
      Leigh-Fermor’s books on Greece (Mani and Roumeli) betray a paternalistic attitude to Greece and the Greeks. But at least that attitude was better than the frankly racist attitude so evident in his book on the West Indies…..

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      1. I am fully aware of all the points you raise. None of it detracts from the period charm and atmosphere of the books.
        Furthermore, I don’t consider Marina’s excellent post a suitable forum for issuing the sort of rebuke which, from your rather patronisinging tone, you appear to have in mind. I beg you will spare me further comment.

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      2. My dear Katechiconi (May 8, 12:08pm), I see nothing “patronising” in my comment on Leigh-Fermor and I believe most fair-minded, non-partisan readers would agree with me. On the other hand, I can understand that people who find Leigh-Fermor to be “the last word” on Greece and the Greeks wouldn’t. As for the use of Marina’s (as you say, excellent) blog, I like to think that she would in fact welcome discussion on her blog of a well-known writer. In addition, may I just point out, en passant, that it was you, not I, who first raised Leigh-Fermor’s name….?

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    1. Island people. But it’s not that they traveled that fascinates me, it’s how they did it—changing into black tie for dinner, trudging for miles in complete darkness to get a penguin egg. Some time ago I saw on TV three brothers who’d rowed across the Atlantic in a canoe. Minimal space for food, etc and, when they arrived, they took out BAGPIPES! I love the spirit!

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  3. The Bedford sounds wonderful, possibly in the style of Elizabeth von Arnim’s delightful novel, The Enchanted April. it’s been suggested to me in the past, so it’s lovely to see that you would recommend it too!

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  4. I agree with this choice! Wonderful, although I would have to add “Travels with my aunt” by Graham Greene. The title made me very wary as a young child at the thought of travelling with my aunt; but that is a subject for another day!! I wish that I could upload a picture to you at this point!!

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  5. I understand that your introductory comment is a peg on which you hand the rest of the article but I’m convinced you’re being too pessimistic. There is no way the Greek government is going to keep up the 14 day self-isolation rule for people arriving from abroad into the main tourist season. The Institutions have cut Greece some slack regarding its public finances because of the epidemic but that slack has a limit and prolonging current measures unnecessarily, to the further detriment of the economy and therefore pubic finances will not be likely to find favour with those Institutions.
    My prediction is that the 14 day self-isolation requirement will be lifted as fro the beginning of June.

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    1. You’re probably right. Remains to be seen how they’ll handle safety measures at airports and in planes. Personally I can’t see myself arriving at the airport 5 hours early in order to queue up, or paying three times the price for half empty planes.

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      1. Well, at the moment you get tested (swab) on entry at Athens airport. That may be kept (I doubt it) but it’s very quick. A health certificate might be another possibility.
        As for in the plane, I don’t know what Aegean is doing at present (they are still flying to various destinations) but Austrian Airlines, for example, is simply keeping empty the centre seat in a row of three. No need to get to the airport 5 hours early and I suspect that while prices will rise, they won’t rise by that much over their usual already absurd summer levels (don’t forget that a lot of people will have less disposable income this summer and the airlines will not want to price too any people out of the market).

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