Australians have always been enthusiastic travelers. Sadly, ‘grey nomad’ caravanners and thousands of cruise passengers are now experiencing very difficult times.
I was reflecting on this, and the fact that travel is not always pleasant. The word derives from the medieval Latin – trepalium; ‘an instrument of torture made from three sharp spikes’. I fancied I heard the ghost of Captain James Cook muttering; ‘So now you tell me….!’
On Sunday, February 14th 1789, this most famous of travellers was set upon by natives at Kealakekua Bay, Hawaii. He was clubbed on the head then impaled by iron spikes called pahooas’ .
The grieving sailors aboard Cook’s ship Resolution removed a tiny portion of the ship’s timbers and lovingly crafted a tiny, coffin shaped box. It holds a lock of their Captain’s hair. The memento is currently held in Sydney’s Mitchell Library.
Thankfully I have not been impaled by sharp spikes myself, but my luggage once was. I had stored some gear in London after travelling around Europe and was alarmed to hear that the warehouse had been ransacked. Frustrated to find I had nothing worth pinching, the offenders had driven half a dozen Turkish Shish Kebab sticks through the sides of my largest suitcase.
My husband insists that the only instrument of torture he has encountered while travelling was wielded by himself. It was a dinner fork, with which he impaled and ate a very tough emu steak. Like Captain Cook, Rob had been spending his nights afloat. He complained that in sloppy conditions, lumps of undigested emu meat skidded around his gizzards until daybreak. He swears he will never again sleep on a water bed.
The word trepalium eventually passed into Old French as travailler – to put oneself to pain or trouble. The English later borrowed it as travail, meaning the pangs of childbirth or laborious effort. Finally, it evolved to describe a ‘wearisome expedition’ or…. travel!
One of my most wearisome expeditions took place in the U.S.A., while I was suffering from a bout of bronchitis. It began with a seemingly endless journey by Greyhound bus from Lancaster, Pennyslvania to Washington D.C., followed by the catastrophe of a double booking at our inner city motel. It was midnight before another room was located for us in a worryingly seedy section of town. We arrived to find a dishevelled desk clerk, and a sign behind him warning; ‘NO REFUNDS’. We undressed to the sounds of a brawl in the car park, but I was more concerned about the cockroaches in the shower cubicle. It was not a pleasant night
I was dreadfully tired and sick next day, but determined to see the sights. In the end I was almost thrown out of the Smithsonian Institute for attempting to take a nap on a Mayflower Pilgrim’s bunk.
While the museum attendant’s parting words to me were unrepeatable, the Pilgrims were farewelled from Plymouth with prayers that God might protect them on their hazardous journey to the New World. We continue this tradition when we say ‘goodbye’, as the word is a contraction of ‘God be with you.’
Before the days of travel insurance, even greater emphasis was placed on the power of prayer. The following sentiment was expressed in a book called ‘Polite Conversation’, published around 1738;
‘I always love to begin a journey on Sundays, because then I shall have the prayers of the church to preserve all that travel by land or by water.‘
Travel writer Jan Morris has been globe trotting for over forty years. In her autobiographical work, Pleasures of a Tangled Life, she confesses that for her, travel has been ‘…debased into a kind of addiction.’ She likens it to sitting ashen faced at the wheel of a video arcade racing car; ‘…hurtling around a conceptual track to a whirr of digital figures and the headlong approach of calamity.’ Ms Morris survives her journeys by telling herself that she will not be robbed or poisoned. When she is robbed or poisoned she pretends not to notice!
Such an ability to disregard misfortune requires complete equilibrium and a most disciplined mind. However, if you cannot follow Jan Morris’ example, try clinging to the connection between ‘travel‘ and the ‘travail‘ of childbirth’. I am told that when a new mother holds her child, nature gently erases the memory of pain. Likewise, when the returning traveller shows off his precious souvenirs, so nature erases the memory of pickpockets, lost passports, contaminated food, malaria, missed connections, dirty bed linen and diarrhoea.
Thomas Haliburton, a nineteen century humorist, once wrote; ‘The bee, though it finds every rose has a thorn, comes back loaded with honey from his rambles, and why should not other tourists do the same?’
Well Tom, despite everything it appears that most of us do.
Unfortunately the pandemic means it will be a long time before many of us travel beyond out front gate! Stay safe dear readers.
OH YES……and please share your worst travel ‘misadventure’. Leave your comment in the box below.