Charles Dickens may or may not approve of this twist in his famous quotation, but it may be apt to say ‘these are the best of times, these are the worst of times’ to travel. On the one hand, you have security concerns, failing infrastructure and the economy teaming up to sour your plans of seeing the world. On the other hand, this may be the opportunity to catch up on your ‘always dreamt, never had the time for’ travels with things going slow at work and bargains waiting to be picked.
The most enduring, though not too endearing, images of travel nowadays seem to be of queues and delays at airports. You have people in long lines at check-in counters, at immigration, at security checks and at boarding gates, with their facial expressions and hues serving as indicators of patience and infuriation levels.
There is little a traveller can do under the circumstances. Only first and business class passengers can expect to be treated a little better, but only at airports. For others, growing horns and venting steam may be nothing more than a waste of energy. Instead, entertaining oneself can be the better option. Notice how some passengers look so relaxed and happy listening to music on their iPods or reading a book while waiting? Try it for yourself.
You could watch flicks on a portable DVD player, or clear your mails while you can. Try sketching people and their actions. If God has not given you the ability to draw crooked lines resembling anything recognisable, go for a journal instead. Try your hand at word-drawing. Jot down descriptions and interpretations of what you see; I have seen it really tickles the imagination when you get down to doing this. Watching others from a distance is like a live mime show, or shots from the silent films era. Adding your own script can provide you with some laughs when you revisit your notes; you may also end up putting together a bestseller to fund your retirement and all your future travels!
Horror stories of bags being delayed or lost altogether can leave one in more of a tight spot than imaginable; make sure your handbags carry all possible essentials for at least a few days. A couple known personally to me on their honeymoon in the countryside of France were actually stuck without bags and could not find a shop to even buy fresh lingerie; not the best of settings to consummate a relationship one can say!! Did Murphy think of this one when writing down his laws?
If air travel sounds too much to handle, try taking a train. Experiences in India, like in many other parts of the world, can swing from one extreme to the other but there is still a certain charm to these. A recent trip on the flagship Shatabdi Express of Indian Railways may not have been so pleasant personally, but it was an opportunity to meet and acquaint oneself with strangers from all walks of life with their own unique personalities. This itself can be reason enough to enjoy the ride — the poor quality of food and maintenance notwithstanding. Delays do not help matters, but then holidays are not meant to be about being in a rush, are they?
But true liberation may lie behind the wheel of a car. Yes, the Golden Quadrilateral is a few light years away from completion, and most other highways do not make for a very smooth drive either in the country, but there is no better to soak in the sights and sounds of other regions than being on the road. Yours truly does 20,000 kilometres on Indian highways a year, and can still sit with a straight back to type in his stories to share with the world. You have to be careful, and provision for jams, but stopping at roadside dhabas for a meal or for clicking those landscapes is something that makes the effort more than worth its while. Of course, if you seek perfection, head out to New Zealand or the US and step on the gas in an open convertible.
A word of caution though: I almost had to spend a night with truck drivers in the middle of nowhere on a recent trip to Uttarakhand because all fuel stations had run out of gas. Either that, or they were hoarding it due to an anticipated price rise. But for the kindness of one person who gave me some from the government quota — and my agreeing to buying a can of coolant I had no use for — I would have been writing of a very different kind of an experience. Since then, I always carry a jerry can full of diesel. My car also has a puncture kit and an air pump should I be stuck with even the spare tyre flat.
Of course, what none of us foresaw was the freefall of the economy in such a short time. It is no doubt affecting travel plans, but not as severely as one would assume. People are still travelling, even if it means negotiating hard on prices. Hotel chains are no longer as cocky as they have been for the past many years when giving you a room seemed like they were doing you a favour. Watch out for deals; these are easier to get if you are flexible with the dates. Tweak your plans — go for quality but shorter durations. Choose destinations closer to home if costs have to be kept under control.
Many cities around the world offer tourist cards for discounts to attractions and for local transport; buy these to save money. Staying in serviced apartments and villas usually works out cheaper and more comfortable. And why always take flights? Discover the joys of slower travel in trains, buses, rented cars and even bicycles. A lot of countries like Great Britain offer special rates on trains for tourists from countries like India — check these out too.
Show me the money
If personal finances were not reason enough to cause headaches, currency exchange rates are sending sales of Disprin up. You have the British pound and Australian dollar taking a dive against the Indian rupee, even as the US Dollar and Euro continue their climb up. If you are tempted to go down under for a holiday, make sure you lock in the rate of today; you don’t want to end up budgeting a certain sum and end up paying more if the rates become dearer when you actually travel. Using ATM or credit cards is also a good way to get official rates, and to save on commissions to money changers.
Travellers are usually easy pickings for thieves and con artists, but this profession too has its cycles. And when business is down, they may just be pulling out even more tricks from the book to get to you. Precaution is the best advice here.
With all the constraints, preparing yourself better for trips is always a good idea. Advance research can help you make the most of your time and budget, especially when both are in short supply. A very good resource are user-generated content sites where travellers share their stories and tips with others. Usually unbiased, without any sales or PR spleen, more and more travellers are now relying on these globally when making any plans. Some popular ones include TripAdvisor.com, WAYN.com, OkTataTataByeBye.com and HolidayIQ.com.
The downside of climate change is plans can go awry anytime. Plans to ski on Alpine slopes over Christmas may come to naught at the sight of brown slopes with snow not falling on scheduled; and a summer drive to the Himalayas may be disrupted with unseasonal precipitation. Travellers to Ladakh last September were caught unprepared with unseasonal snowfalls; let uncertainty be a part of your plans and enjoy it.
Without doubt, travelling in today’s times is not without its share of risks, irritations and twists. But many folks still believe the chances of crossing paths with a terrorist or the trip coming a cropper are as low as being run over by a car in your neighbourhood. Yes, it is important to keep yourself well informed and to stay clear of war zones, but one should just make a go of it after all.
It is important to keep your humour intact. There is little you can do about the impediments and risks to travel, so why worry? Be careful, but not paranoid. When we go through troubled times, going away for a while allows one to get detached from their respective situations and look at things with a fresh perspective. And, as Mark Twain famously said, “Travel makes narrow-mindedness impossible.”
Where are you headed next?