On the Road

Travel – The Saddest Pleasure

Sometimes travelling can be too much, like showing up somewhere in high season with no reservations or cash.

Paul Theroux called travelling the ‘saddest pleasure´. Poetry aside it’s only when you’ve been on the road for some time that you can identify with these kind of ambivalent feelings. In a sense the travelling is a sped-up model of life – you learn to say goodbye to all that you find.

Sometimes I think it´s the prospect of telling amusing travel stories at the dinner table that keeps me going. Brief moments in the life of an unknown gypsy shuffling onto who knows where?

At the worst you´re distrusted, feared, hated or just laughed at most places you go; you´re robbed, ripped off, food poisoned and no one could care less. You leave chunks of your heart scattered around the world with each doomed love affair, and with the sleepless ordeals by bus, train and plane, your health goes into a steady decline from which it may never recover.

Admittedly, my mood may be a little influenced by the situation I´m in as I write this. Two days ago I was drinking fruit juices in Bangkok with a thousand choices at my disposal. Then I chanced to walk past a particularly convincing travel agency and found myself buying a horrendously expensive ticket to Spain.

I landed in Madrid and intended to go and visit my friends just 300km away in Barcelona. But to my surprise the train station was crawling with tourists and locals alike, huddling over their suitcases like forlorn refugees seeking asylum. After six months in Asia I´d arrived back in Europe two days before Easter and suddenly everyone in Spain wanted to travel.

In the hope that the buses might be less crowded I set out to look for the bus station. I faithfully followed all the signs overhead and succeeded in walking a complete circle back to where I started. My Spanish is not so bad but each time I asked for directions I seemed only capable of stuttering like a child in his first school play. I was steered in every possible direction and over the next two hours I entered and exited that train station from just about every door possible. Finally some taxi drivers informed be that there were no buses running to Barcelona.

I bravely resisted the urge to cry and set out to look for a train ticket. Everywhere there were long queues of people in front of closed offices. Hoping that they knew something I didn´t I joined the tail of one of them. Finally someone guessed I was a tourist and told me I could only buy local tickets from this window.

I located the main ticket office and staggered out again in a coughing fit. Taking a deep breath from the courtyard I reentered the clouds of cigarette smoke and secured a place in the queue. By the time i reached the counter I had the complexion of a ghost. I felt like disappearing into thin air completely when the clerk told me.

“You cannot buy a ticket to Barcelona here.”

This time I did cry. Slouched on my bags in the courtyard I held my head in my hands and felt thoroughly sorry for myself. I could hitchhike from England to India but catching a train across Spain was somehow quite beyond me.

A kindly soul at the information desk explained that there were actually two main station in Madrid. I was at the wrong one to buy a ticket to Barcelona. After three and a half hours of more pointless chaos I was in the other station with a ticket in my hands for Barcelona. At 2pm the next day.

Too tired to even think of looking for a bed in the hostels that would all be full anyway, I went to sleep in a chair. Not really sleep, of course, but the kind of fatigue-induced self hypnosis fro which i´d jump awake every ten minutes with the paranoid fear that someone was trying to steal my guitar. But at least I was in the warm.

But then at 2am a policeman shook my shoulder and told me that the station was closing for three hours. With another ten unfortunates in the same position as me, we shivered outside the doors of the station. With all the cafes and bars shut for the holidays our only hope was to spend three hours buying a candy bar in the warmth of 7-11.

I admit that this was a worse than average trip. I only mention it to pop the notion that travel is one endless series of temples and pyramids, chance encounters and mystical self-realisation.

For the most part the you spend your time worrying about your dwindling funds and expiring visa;buying a new wardrobe each time you change climate;saying goodbye all the time to people you´d really like to see more; and an endless series of checking in and out of fleabag guest houses, packing and unpacking and forever rushing to catch the next bus, train or plane. No sooner do you arrive somewhere than you think about leaving. you´re forever searching in vain for your own private Shangria-la, the end of the road. And at the same time terrified that you might actually find it.

Your head is so flooded with a sprinkling of a hundred foreign tongues that you can hardly speak your own language any more. You look like a tramp as you try to make your money last as long as possible before needing to find work again – and when you do you have to somehow account for those long white gaps on the pages of your resume. It doesn´t help to say you were busy acquiring a sun tan on the beach of getting stoned in the mountains.

Some claim that the word ´travel´ comes from the French ´travailer´, meaning ´to work´. And if traipsing around the world can be considered a job then it has to be one of the worst-paid ones going. I´m about to get on the bus to Barcelona and I can only think of the Hank Williams song, “Rolling Stone”. The last verse ends with the couplet: ¨ “Take my advice and stay away, And don´t go down that lost highway.”