Travel aberrations in the XXI century

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This is my mapamundi updated the year 2016 with all the five continents crossed overland: Europe in vertical from Algeciras to Kirkenes and in horizontal from Lisbon to Perm; Asia in horizontal from Istanbul to Hokkaido and in vertical from Tiksi to Cape Comorin; Africa in vertical from Melilla to Cape Town and in horizontal from Massawa to Dakar; America in vertical from Ushuaia to Fairbanks and in horizontal from Belem to Arequipa; and Oceania from Perth to Cairns. Never taking planes.

I only consider a good traveler he who has a mapamundi filled with many arrows showing his travels mostly overland or by boat, without taking airplanes (except for crossing continents, or islands countries in Oceania), covering most of our lovely planet. A mapamundi is like the Identity Card for any serious traveler; a mapamundi is the truth.

 

In the past people traveled in order to discover the world, to learn. They also traveled for pilgrimage purposes, to trade, to move to a country with better living conditions, to survive. Geographers, navigators, pilgrims, merchants, adventurers, immigrants have traveled since ancient times. We have testimonies and books by the pilgrim Ibn Battuta, by the adventurer Marco Polo, by the admiral Cheng Ho, by the Chinese monks Xuanzang and Yi Jing, by the Russian merchant Afanasiy Nikitin … After the discovery of America also traveled the navigators Magallanes and Elcano, Alejandro Malaspina Álvaro de Mendaña, Andrés de Urdaneta, La Pérouse, Cook, Bering, explorers like Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, David Livingstone, Karl Mauch … and the adventurers Juan Pobre de Zamora, Fernão Mendes Pinto, René Caillié, Alexandra David-Neel …

In the second half of the nineteenth century, after the Industrial Revolution, tourism emerged as a cultural movement with the Grand Tour, and soon became a positive activity for the Humanity; today Tourism represents the world’s largest industry. Tourism is a source of income to many countries, and provides jobs to many people, cooks, drivers, waiters, artisans, guides, etc.

I am in favor of tourism; the positive aspects of this activity far exceed the negative ones.

Presently there are travel agencies that facilitate the tourists to travel to far-flung destinations. And in the era of Internet virtual clubs gathering travelers became popular.

These virtual clubs created lists with destinations around the five continents, including all the 193 countries registered in the United Nations, and even including Antarctica and other suggestive territories that are not countries, such as Greenland, French Polynesia, or the island of Tristan da Cunha.

These days, some of the most popular travel clubs (virtual and not virtual) are: TCC (Travelers’ Century Club), MTP (Most Traveled People), TBT (The Best Travelled), SISO (a club created by the traveler Jeff Shea that splits up all the United Nations by provinces), GG (Greatest Globetrotters)…. and still some more clubs of lesser importance.

These travel clubs point out targets; I like their lists. The territories that appear in them inspire travelers to visit rare and remote places of which most we had never heard about before, like Agalega island, Nagorno Karabakh, or the Kingdom of Mustang.

But what initially was supposed to be a pleasant activity to enrich oneself by acquiring cultural and geographical knowledge, soon degenerated and became for some members of those clubs a race and obsession to climb up positions, because these clubs classify their members by categories such as Silver, Gold, Platinum, Diamond, or by the “Hall of Fame” where only the most or best traveled are included, while the rest have to resign themselves to bear other lower categories, like Couch Potatoes, Tourists, or Beginners.

And thus, these Silver, Couch Potatoes, Tourists and Beginners were encouraged to travel as fast as possible, to climb in those lists, even cheating, so the quality of their travels decreased dramatically at the point of considering a country “visited” by merely landing in the airport of one of their towns for a few minutes, which according to the rules of those clubs is valid to consider a country as “visited”. For instance, if somebody is flying in an airplane from Cairo to Nairobi and the plane makes a technical stop in Addis Ababa for fuel during some minutes, these members tick off Ethiopia as “visited”. They do not care about the magic of the country, its nature and the incredible culture and fascinating traditions of the Ethiopian people, no; they only care about increasing 1 point in their account of those travel clubs.

I asked a well known member of one of these clubs if he had been in Santa Cruz Islands, in the Solomon. He said yes. Then I asked him again if a plaque that I put there at the turn of the XX century (devoted to the great XVI century Spanish navigator Álvaro de Mendaña), was still standing there, and he told me that he did not know since he only landed in Santa Cruz airport coming from Honiara and then flew back to Honiara in the same plane a few minutes later.

Later on in that same conversation this same traveler told me that he liked the atmosphere of Fernando de Noronha Island. I had just been there and asked him if he liked the Bossa Nova music played by a group of musicians in a beach near Vila dos Remedios (where I spent several days) and he said that he only flew to Fernando de Noronha from Recife, and flew back again in the same plane, thus spending in that airport a few minutes only, but as per the happy tourists on board the plane he guessed that the atmosphere in Fernando de Noronha must be very pleasant.

Another well known “traveler” confessed me that he flew to Niue Island, from Auckland, and since the next flight back to Auckland was after one week and he did not want to spend seven days in Niue, he flew back to Auckland in the same plane, but of course, he did not forget to tick off Niue from his list of territories “visited”. And in another interview that same “traveler” flew from Port Moresby to Rabaul, where he spent the night, and the next day he flew back to Port Moresby, but he said to the journalist that he wanted to explore the Bismarck archipelago (which contains over 50 islands with a surface of about 50.000 square kilometers). In fact, that well known “traveler” only wanted to tick off the Bismarck archipelago from the list of TCC, and was not interested at all in the islands and its people.

I have many more examples of that kind of travel aberrations. Traveling systematically, as they do, kills adventure. These people, by travelling systematically to the programed places to tick them off from a list (MTP, TBT or TCC), are rather anti travelers. Real travel is to throw yourself into the unexpected, to buy one way ticket to a remote place.

These members frequently charter a ship (paying a fortune) to approach a remote island and to touch it with their hand from a zodiac boat, without landing on it, like in the uninhabited islet Bouvet, which is a Norwegian property. Because their clubs have determined that touching a rock in an island counts as “visited”, and Bouvet forms part of the seven divisions of the Antarctica (Argentina, Chile, England, Australia, New Zealand, France and Norway), thus Bouvet rock is included in the Norwegian Antarctica. And if they fail to land or to touch the islet, owing to rough waters, just by circumnavigating around it is considered by some of those clubs as “visited” and therefore they add one more point to their lists.

Foto aérea de la NASA del islote deshabitado de Bouvet

 

 

Anyway, the richest members prefer to fly to the Geographic South Pole (for about 60.000 Euro) and then they make a tour around a post put there, thus touching with their feet all seven parts of the Antarctica (well, in fact six parts, because the Norwegian Queen Maud Land does not extends to the South Pole).

I know several of those members who have flown from America to Belgium, for example, and in one day have “ticked off” seven European countries as follows: In Brussels Airport they rented a car and made a few photos in front of the Manneken Pis and had breakfast in the Grand Place. Then they spent two hours crossing to Nederland photographing a windmill on the road, after that they drove to Luxembourg, they had lunch in Germany and photographed the Marienplatz in Munich. And in the evening they went to Switzerland to finally stay overnight at a hotel and had dinner in Innsbruck, Austria, having crossed Liechtenstein a few minutes during the last part of that car journey. These “travelers” remember me the film “If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium”.

 

Poso ante el Manneken Pis, como un turista más

 

 

Today, those travel clubs consider the best traveler the one who has more points in their list, who invariably is one of the richest, the one who could afford to rent a vessel to Banaba Island in Kiribati to tick off a new territory, or to stop for a few hours in an atoll of the Chagos archipelago renting in Seychelles or in the Maldives a sailing boat during several days, or touched the rock of an atoll in the Coral Sea Islands or in the subantarctic islands south of New Zealand.

Those rich travelers who can afford those expensive travels are not so young, but most are retired (although recently has emerged a new generation of young and rich travelers that before their thirties or forties have already visited all the 193 countries in the UN frantically traveling at the speed of light. These rich young people who have inherited their big fortune from their parents have not learned the lesson that you have to earn the money for your travels with the sweat of your brow).

In spanish we say: Sabe más el diablo por viejo que por diablo (The devil knows more for being old than for being devil), what fits exactly in those people who think that by traveling only 10 years they are better travelers than those who have traveled 50 years, or all their life.

Yes, many people they manage to put a foot in all the 193 United Nations countries, but very superficially. They have bought 193 books, but they have not read them.

Those retired people with only 10 years of travel experience would be unable to travel on trains through India for several months, at the adventure, discovering the rich Indian culture, or to traverse all Africa from Oran to Cape Town using only local transport without flying, as the real traveler does. No, they are unable, they do not know how to travel alone without anything included, they do not have that capacity because during their holidays, in their working and younger years, they used to join a tour with all in, and now, when retired, they just fly or pay a lot of money on luxurious cruises to gain more points in the travel lists.

Some of these retired people, full of narcissism, even affirm that by traveling without stopping 10 years to places that they consider a must, they will be better travelers than those that have spent their whole life traveling, or at least 50 years of their life, better than the travel masters french Andre Brugiroux or german Heinz Stucke. For them Marco Polo would be today a backpacker without importance; they would meprise him for having only been on 20 or so countries (from Italy to China) in their travel clubs.

It is impossible to try to discuss with them about the difference to travel in “quality” and in “quantity”. I have tried to explain that to some of them, but it was useless. They think that to travel in “quality” means sleeping in luxurious hotels, to hire a car with driver and guide to show you a place, to take a suite in a cruise instead of a bed in a dormitory. I have tried to make them understand that travelling in quality means to learn, to try to know the people and their culture in the country that you visit, mixing with them in restaurants in central markets, traveling with them in local buses and trains, conversing with them in their local languages, to go with them to pray to the churches, temples and mosques. But I had no success. For them, I am an “upstart” (advenedizo in Spanish) in a world of travel clubs dominated by them. More than once I have been told that traveling the way I do, is not traveling at all. They want me to “understand” that being a great traveler is only for rich people, for those who can afford to reach the Geographic North Pole in a Russian icebreaker, or Wrangel Island, or the Aldabra Atoll in the Seychelles.

So finally I gave up talking with them about “quality travel”; we belong to two different worlds. Some even call me pejoratively “backpacker”, in spite that I do not travel with a backpack, but with a very small handbag that when full, with my clothes and sleeping bag, does not reach more than 3 kilos of weight.

To be rich is not an obstacle to be a real traveler; some journeys are expensive, for instance getting to Antarctica and you need money, several thousands of euro. But in most of the countries those rich members travel superficially, just to tick off a new territory, they do not have  a history of real travel during their younger years. The only rich traveler I know that is an example for all real travelers, is californian Jeff Shea, and he loves to cross the countries overland and systematically sees the best of every country, of every territory.

I rebel against the idea that to be a great traveler one must be rich in money, he must belong to a small club of people rich in money. But there are people rich in money who consider themselves travelers only because they can afford an expensive trip to the island of Bouvet, or to the island of Redonda, to the Sable island, Rockall, Clipperton and other idiot destinations and atolls without interest, where people do not live , only by the mania of a dromomaniac patient of aiming to get a point more in the travelers clubs.
To appreciate a place you have to reach it with the sweat of your brow. It is not the same to fly to Angkor Wat than to get there by land and by boat crossing the lake. It is not the same to do the Inca Trail on foot for several days than to get there in comfortable train and bus, It is not the same to fly to Manaus arriving there after a week of traveling by the Amazon river, sleeping in hammocks, making friends with the passengers of the boat and sharing their customs and eating in a communal dining room next to them.

I consider that travel is more properly an activity of young people. By traveling you form and educate your being, you acquire values of the whole humanity, you learn foreign languages, the soul is enriched and you are able to develop from featherless biped to a full man, the whole Earth is your university, and you get to love the world in first person, you get to talk to the planet Earth as a son to your father (or mother, since in Spanish the word Earth is Tierra, in feminine), you are the accomplice of the Earth, you rotate around yourself like the Earth and you accompany the Earth on its translation movement around the sun, you feel that, you feel that you are a travel companion of the Earth and are in communion with it, you are not of a determinate country where you were physically born, but you belong to the whole Humankind. When you’re young you climb to the roofs of the trains in India because the carriages are full of passengers, you install yourself on top of a crowded truck in Chad along with several dozen of Africans, clinging to the sacks of goods to avoid falling down, you cross swimming rivers of South America with your travel bag over your head, you often spend the night à la belle étoile under the ruins of Nan Madol, in Micronesia, or on top of the pyramid of Cheops.

 

 

En el año 1993 crucé desde Jartum en Sudán hasta N’djamena en Chad, vía Darfur, en un camión de este tipo, relleno de nativos

 

Pretending to be the best traveler of the world when you retire from your work when your being is already formed, traveling like crazy ten months a year without stopping when you are 60 or 70 years old, wasting fortunes on cruises and private flights or charter boats to uninhabited atolls with the sole goal to score more points than anyone else in travel clubs lists is grotesque; it is like trying to get a comb when nature has already left you bald, or wanting to reach the summit of Everest by lift.

At present, to successfully visiting (in a very superficial way) all the 325 territories included in a traveler club like TCC, for instance, that means an expense of more than 1 and a half million US dollars (I have consulted a number of people from USA who have completed the list of TCC and that is the minimum amount of money that they have told me to have spent in the pursue of that objective, and some told me 2 millions, and even 3 millions US Dollars).

You can travel when you are retired at 60, or at 70, or at 80 years old, of course, it is very advisable, but as a hobby, to relax, to learn culture, to enjoy the beach or the nature in a place of benign climate, to invite your grandchildren (if you have them) to travel with you, but not to compete and pretend be the best world traveler because you have much money and can afford to get to remote and expensive places hiring airplanes and ships, and traveling faster than the Road Runner, because you will never become a real traveler.

And yet, when one reads the interviews of members who are at the top of the lists of these clubs, who made their main journeys when they were sexagenarians and septuagenarians travelling too fast and superficially, they all pride themselves for being so “good travelers”, the best of the world, and they even compare themselves with Marco Polo or with Neil Armstrong.

Presently, the best travelers of the world are well over 70 years old (German Heinz Stucke, French André Brugiroux and a few more). But they started to travel when they were very young, they sacrificed everything for the sake of travel. Today they can’t afford to pay a cruise to Peter I island in Antarctica, or to Kermadec island in the Pacific (both places are listed in some of these travel clubs), therefore they (in case of joining those clubs) would never be on top positions, on the top positions only appear today the rich and superficial members, but none of them are real travelers.

I only know two exceptional cases, one of a sexagenarian man (Fa Xian) and the second a woman 100 years old (Alexandra David-Neel)  who became a real travelers. The Chinese monk Fa Xian, in the year 399, when he was 62 years old he traveled on foot to India across the Himalayas and kingdoms in Central Asia following the Silk Road, with the noble purpose to collect Buddhist texts in the Indian province of Bihar, aiming to learn the meaning of the human existence. He returned to China when he was 75 years old, that time by ship, overcoming many dangers of death, with stops in Sri Lanka, Sumatra and Java. While Alexandra, the first European woman to reach Lhasa, had a very exciting life until her death when she was 101 years old.

El admirable viajero chino Fa Xian

Alexandra David-Neel walking to Lhasa

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The Virile Traveler

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If somebody wants to become a real traveler, a connoisseur of our lovely planet Earth and not to fool himself, he has to pay the price for it. For me that person (I call him The Virile Traveler) has to meet these seven requirements:

 

1 – To make in his younger years (from 20 to 40) an around the world journey, lasting at least 1 year, calling in the 5 continents (Europe, Asia, Africa, America and Oceania), being self-sufficient, learning with virility to survive on the road, working when necessary, earning the money to finance his travels with the sweat of his brow.

2 – Learning at a good level (reading and writing) at least 4 out of the 6 official United Nations languages (Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian, Spanish), and to have a fair spoken knowledge of the other two.

3 – To spend a minimum of 20 years net of his life on the road.

4 – To sleep at least one night in every one of the 193 countries registered in the United Nations.

5 – To spend at least a whole year in a great region of our planet, for instance South America, India and the Far East, Central Africa, etc., getting to know in depth the cultures of the people living there.

6 – To cross the five continents overland, without taking planes, as a real traveler, only using trains, buses and boats, or walking. For instance Europe from Ekaterinburg (in the Ural Mountains) to Portugal, Asia from Turkey to Vietnam, America from Alaska to Tierra de Fuego, Africa from Oran to Swaziland and Australia from Perth to Cairns. If crossing the Pacific Ocean in cargo boat or sailing boat, still better.

7 – To visit a minimum of 100 inhabited islands in Oceania.

 

I only have respect for those real and virile travelers who have achieved these seven conditions or are in the way to accomplish them, and I know quite a few of them. The rest, for me are only aficionados.

Happy Travels!