Freedom to Travel

Watching the D-Day 75 Commemorations on TV has made me think, and not for the first time, how exceptionally fortunate I am, and how easy it is to take such good fortune for granted. It’s obvious, when listening to British veterans of 6 June 1944 talking about their experiences, that they recall the events of that day as if it were yesterday. They couldn’t forget even if they wanted to. The noise, the blood, the faces of their comrades dying all around them.

It is important, as I said in an earlier blog when referring to the Khmer Rouge, that those of us who live in Europe today appreciate that we’ve already won life’s lottery by dint of being born here and now. We whinge about next to nothing. We get excited over trivial matters. That’s our prerogative, I suppose.

Bad things can still happen, even in today’s Europe. It’s not very long since the Balkans War, and there will continue to be terrorist outrages into the foreseeable future. We’ve seen economic downturns that throw people out of jobs they imagined to be secure. But a European alive today is much less likely to be killed or imprisoned by a totalitarian regime, to be made homeless by a natural disaster, to have to scratch out a living, to starve or die in an epidemic.

I am exceptionally lucky – not just because I have friends and family and a home and a pension, but because of the places I’ve been able to visit and the things I have been able to see. Even in my 20s, I never imagined that I would be able to snorkel in the Indian Ocean, sail down the Nile on a felucca, go on an African safari…

What a time to be alive!

Of course it is not essential to do any of those things, and it does require money, but has never been easier to do them – or cheaper, in relative terms. Perhaps we are living in a minor Golden Age. You never know. I have visited Palmyra in Syria and Mostar in former Yugoslavia, never imagining that they would be attacked and partially destroyed in war.

Anne holds a photo I took of Palmyra – before Daesh got to work on it

Hence my mantra: go before it’s too late

Being a poor sleeper I often find myself awake in the middle of the night. I tend to deal with it by listing the wonderful places I’ve been. It doesn’t help me get to sleep but one has to do something.

It seems that social media is all about lists of stuff so I might as well join the club

One great wildlife reserve you’ve never heard of: Hluhluwe Imfolozi

Looking for a leopard in Hluhluwe (RSA)

Two cities I liked more than I thought I would: Bucharest, Stockholm

Strolling – and swimming – by the banks of Kungsholmen

Three cities for sensory overload: Fez, Varanasi, Venice

The souks of Fez have hardly changed for hundreds of years

Four cities I feel I could live in: Boston (USA), Mérida (Mexico), Paris, Porto

Porto and Vila Nova de Gaia from the railway bridge

Five cities I know I could not live in: Aswan, Bangkok, Jaipur, Mombasa, Palermo

A major road in Jaipur

Six amazing archaeological sites: Angkor, Baalbek, Mamallapuram, Pompeii, Skara Brae, Tikal

Baalbek (Lebanon), Temple of Bacchus

Seven iconic buildings that didn’t disappoint: Alhambra, Eiffel Tower, El Djem, St Mark’s Venice, Seville Cathedral, Taj Mahal, Temple of Horus at Edfu

The incomparable Taj Mahal!

Eight holiday islands on which to eat, drink and be merry: Capri, Cephalonia, Ile de Ré, Koh Tao, Lamu, Lanzarote, Mallorca, Zanzibar

The Bay of Naples takes some beating

Don’t imagine that I only like to travel abroad. I love Britain too (Elterwater, Llyn peninsula, Purbeck, Mull…) and I am very happy to be an adopted Londoner. It’s just that I like to show off!

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Does travel really broaden the mind? I know it has in my case. The more you travel, the more difficult it is to hold on to any notion that the natives of your country are essentially better than other people. Many years ago, war commemorations seemed to reinforce public perceptions (not necessarily from the old soldiers themselves) that Britain was superior to other countries because we’d won the war. That attitude, thankfully, is fading with successive generations, although I suspect that for some Brixiteers it’s still part of their mind set.

Of course travelling is easier within Europe because things and people are not so different. In fact, it can be disappointing to see how homogenised we have become. The poverty and chaos of large parts of Africa and India is harder to come to terms with, but it is part of human life after all.

Poor people can be happy too

Taking a dhow from Manda, (Kenya) with a khat-chewing crew

As much as the things I’ve seen and done – the ruins and museums, the birds and forests and animals, the swimming in the sea and walking in the mountains – it’s the kindness of others, the shared stories and jokes that I will remember.

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