TRAVELING WITH TRAVEL WRITERS
The Good Ones
As Robin said, you don’t have to be romantic to be a travel writer but it sure helps. Robin has an enthusiasm for travel that is infectious. He was born in England in 1938 when the British Empire was at its highest peak, when one-third of the globe and half of its population were under the crown. As a youth, he lived vicariously from books he read about the Empire, the Boer War and the Northwest Frontier. He could quote Rudyard Kipling by heart-“Yes, Din! Din! Din! Though I’ve belted you and flayed you, By the livin’ Gawd that made you, You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din!”
When he came to Asia he lived his dreams of youth. After working for Thai Airways for several years, he became a freelance travel writer, to travel and to write about his adventures. Adventure became his business. One day he would dive beneath the murky waters of a jungle lake in Malaysia to look for a lost city; the next month he’d hitchhike his way aboard a smuggler’s boat going from the southern Philippines across the pirate-infested Sulu Sea to Borneo; he would explore lost ruins in Laos and was even taken captive for a while by Pathet Lao guerrillas. He drove an open Mini Moke alone from Singapore to London; he visited forbidden Buddhist monasteries in far-off Bhutan, trekked the high Himalayas with a pack on his back; sailed the South Seas as crew aboard a trading schooner; restored a ruined stone farm house in Spain; and did a thousand other things a young man coming from London might dream about but never did. Robin did all these things, and much more. He lived his dreams and that made him fun to travel with. He traveled not only to every corner of Asia, from Japan to Bhutan but also across the Pacific to Tahiti and as far as Mexico. He was able to do this by becoming a travel writer.
To fully understand what it was like to travel with Robin, I have to tell about one of our many trips together. This is taken in part from the chapter I wrote on him in At Home in Asia. We had gone to Kathmandu in Nepal to do a story for the airlines. Our mission completed, rather than fly back to Bangkok, we decided to travel overland down into India over the Raj Path, the very first road to Nepal. It had been opened to the public but a few years before and in places, the most threatening places, it had yet to be completed.
Along with seventy-two other passengers, we crowded into the bus with forty-eight seats. The unpaved, dusty mountain road twisted and turned and snaked back upon itself, looking down upon sheer drops. Heavily loaded trucks and over-packed buses, with ferocious Sikh drivers, thundered madly downhill at reckless speeds.
Miraculously, we reached the hot humid plains of India. Dust-covered and weary, we had to walk, toting all our luggage across the border from Nepal into India where we boarded the Calcutta Mail Train for Calcutta. Our carriage, with doors that opened to the outside, had seats for six, and we had to fight off hordes of people who wanted to squeeze into our compartment at each stop. A group of unruly students massed outside our door. “Open up! Open up!” they demanded, pounding on the door and waving their fists. “Let us in!”
Robin would hear none of this. While the Indian passengers in the compartment slithered into the background, Robin stood to his full height, brushed down his shirt and in a very loud voice-and in his proper Queen’s English he cried, “What is the meaning of this!” The student jumped back. “Behave yourselves,” he said boldly, then turned and sat down. The students backed off. To the Indians in the compartment, he said, “That’s all we need, a little discipline.” He was in every sense of the word the British Raj incarnated.
Soon we were rolling across an endless, barren Indian land cape, with Robin saying over and over, “God, I love this country.” In a second-hand bookstore in Kathmandu, Robin had found a copy of John Masters’ Night Runners of Bengal, about the Indian mutiny of 1857 in which Indian sepoys revolted and laid siege to Lucknow. Aboard the Calcutta Mail, he began reading the book and became so absorbed he couldn’t put it down. “You have to read this,” he said and began tearing out the pages he had already read, handing them to me one at a time. Soon I too was reliving the glorious days of the British Raj. We were traveling the same rail line, perhaps aboard the same carriage the empire builders had built and used. When I looked out the window, the view certainly had to be the same-the vast dusty plains of India.
We reached Calcutta with thoughts of Night Runners of Bengal still with us, and had hardly dropped our bags in the old colonial Great Eastern Hotel when Robin dragged me off again. “Where to?” I asked.
“St. John’s Church,” he answered.
“What are you talking about? We come to Calcutta to go to a church?” I protested.
“No,” he replied, “to go witness history.”
On this trip with Robin I learned that story material doesn’t have to come from history textbooks. It can be from church walls and cemetery gravestones.
The church we went to was St. John’s, a former British garrison church. It’s a tall white Gothic building that was consecrated in 1847, ten years before the Indian Mutiny. Rows of punkah fans hang from a wooden ceiling, and the stalls and pews are made of heavy dark wood. Stained-glass windows cast an eerie light into the interior. The sound of an organ filtered through the halls and seemed to permeate the very walls, where, when our eyes adjusted to the dimness, we saw row upon row of commemorative tablets memorializing the British killed during the Mutiny and various other frontier battles. It was to these tablets that Robin led me, and slowly, in his deep resounding voice, he read. “Sacred to the memory of Henrietta, aged thirty years, the beloved wife of Captain R.P. Anderson, Twenty-fifth Regiment Bengal Native Infantry, who departed this life on the seventeenth August 1857 during the sad and disastrous siege of Lucknow. Also to the memory of Hilda Mary, aged seven months, who died three days later.”
Another, for George Thomas Gowan who “fell on the evening of nineteenth June 1857 at the bead of his gallant regiment, the Fifth Royal Lancers.”
We left St. John’s, with a feeling of despair, walked across the Maidan and approached the Victoria Memorial, a massive domed building of white marble from Rajasthan, inaugurated in 1921 by the Prince of Wales. In front of the monument stands the statue of Queen Victoria, Lord Curzon and other gallant figures of the Raj.
But Robin didn’t stop to admire the statues; instead he led me to the top of the main stairway landing; and here in a side gallery appeared a painting by Lady Butler- “The Remnant of an Army.” It portrays Dr. Bryden, the sole survivor of sixteen thousand of the British Forces, arriving exhausted at the gate of Jellalabad on July 13, 1842, during the First Afghan War. That evening we went to Mantons, the Calcutta branch of the famous British gun smith and manufacturer. When I think of the trouble today the world is having in Afghanistan, I think of that painting by Lady Butler.
There were other memorable trips, like riding a bus across Laos. Finding it too stuffy inside the overcrowded bus, we climbed up on the roof and sat in the wind and dust. Robin sat cross-legged atop the bus sang out in his baritone voice arias from “The Barber of Seville” while he pounded out the rhythm on the tin roof, no doubt to the annoyance of those below. But sometimes our travels got dicey. We were leaving Luang Prabang and wanted to take a river trip along the mighty Mekong River. We found a ferryboat going downriver and bought passage.
The ferry was required to stop at various checkpoints along the way. While the captain waited with the bow nosed into the shore, a young boy with the boat’s papers ran up the bank where armed soldiers waited. At villages, passengers disembarked and others came aboard. The garrison at one village was celebrating and all the soldiers were drunk. They fired rifles and pistols into the air. We were beginning to become unnerved.
Soon there were more checkpoints and more soldiers with automatic rifles. We came to one checkpoint which appeared different from others we had seen. We drew closer. Soldiers came down from the bank with rifles at port arms. Even their uniforms differed. They wore black. Then I noticed their rifles were not M16s; they were AK-47s. We had unwillingly arrived at a Pathet Lao outpost. A patrol of soldiers swarmed aboard.
Our lives now rested in the hands of a half dozen boy soldiers. Their leader couldn’t have been more than seventeen or eighteen years old. Seeing that Robin and I were foreigners, he instructed us to sit in the open at the bow. We then continued down river.
We discovered that the Pathet Lao had overrun the checkpoint that very morning. They were now traveling to villages along the way in an attempt to convince government forces to surrender. With both Robin and me positioned on the bow in plain view, they could avert possible gunfights. We stopped at several villages while the young officer went ashore. He would talk with the people for a few minutes and then return.
As we came chugging around one bend in the river, the boy leader began waving and pointing toward the beach. He instructed the boat captain to head toward the shore.
It was a sandy, desolate area without person or building in sight. This was it, we thought. No more new sunrises for us; no more horizons to conquer. But to our surprise, instead of ordering us ashore as we thought they would, the soldiers themselves disembarked. They waved goodbye, and when Robin motioned that he would like to take their picture, they stood at rigid attention. The boat continued downriver to its destination, and from there we traveled overland to Vientiane.
I often wonder, when someone tells me they’d like to be a travel writer, if this is the life they would like to lead.