This new fortnightly column will rummage through half a century of exploration and, because the travel has all been completed, this content will be virtually carbon neutral.
What distinguishes a traveller from a tourist? I used to think travellers made few plans and went on journeys to immerse themselves in another culture, to learn a language and meet the locals. Travellers sought Experiences with a capital E, whereas tourists preferred fixed plans and to bang out as many sights as quickly as humanly possible. Tourists favoured the cuisine of their homeland in spite of being offered more exotic options and they were probably on some sort of package. At least that was what I used to think, when I backpacked self-importantly around Asia, Central America and Europe.
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That was back in the 90s and 00s, before global warming was a thing and when we shared news of our exploits via aerogramme, not Instagram. I loved how life on the road was distilled to finding somewhere to sleep, something to eat and like-minded people to hang out with.
Travelling alone could be challenging, sometimes daunting, but it also forced you to reach beyond the insulation of pre-made friends. To fend off loneliness I read a lot, and wrote a lot — how could I possibly be lonely with a book to read and a book to write in? But of course sometimes I felt dreadfully forlorn.
In 1992 I vividly remember making the transition from family travel, with its attendant squabbles in the backseat with siblings, to picking my own path, fronting up to a new country with a Lonely Planet and no predetermined plans. These days, I suspect the internet has robbed people of that particular pleasure, or pain, depending how things panned out.
My first trip abroad without parents, I was 21, I was in tertiary education, and it was the two-week May holidays. My boyfriend at the time was a skilled backpacker and had travelled to places like Afghanistan, India and Russia. He knew how to exit a plane and navigate the exotic atmosphere found outside tropical airports. Using the guidebook like a pro, he navigated us all over Viti Levu on public buses, until eventually he steered us to Leleuvia. It was the most idyllic island imaginable, Robinson Crusoe eat your heart out.
We had a bure with sand floors and a thatched roof with snorkelling on our doorstep. My diary gushes that it was only $25 a day (including food), the shower was a hose outside and there was electricity from 6-10pm. I also marvelled at the novelty of no one knowing where I was, and if something happened back home, I wouldn't know about it for a week.
So liberating for me, although probably not for my parents. Every night we drank kava with the staff, and played music on a tea chest bass and sang. I loved it, so much, I swore, as soon as I'd finished drama school, I'd return and work there.
I never did go back, but that trip stood me in good stead for life because I learnt how to head for the horizon with only a vague idea of where I was going. Of course it wasn't all tropical bliss, life on the road was often fraught and frightening, just as it was sometimes exhilarating or enthralling — and perhaps, trying to balance those extremes is part of what makes travel so compelling.
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Elisabeth Easther's Wonderful World will return in a fortnight. Next week, Anna King Shahab: The Hungry Traveller