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The Accidental Traveler

Manish Nandy |

I have never fancied travel. To those who know me this will sound like an ersatz dramatization. At best an overstatement. I have worked in twenty countries, visited more than forty.

In some I have lived weeks or months, in others years. This does not happen without travel, in fact an enormous amount of travel. In car and bus, in plane and train, I have gone around the globe, consulting and lecturing, shaking hands and cocktails, bowing to customs and tripping on traditions, dispensing unsolicited advice and much-solicited visas, making friends and trying to influence all kinds: congressmen and crooks, statesmen and sharks, businessmen and bigmouths, windbags and wannabes.

True I have traveled a lot. I have traveled for work or to visit friends and family. Or traveled with friends who loved travel. Given half a chance, I would rather meet them in my living room or on the back-yard deck.

I am glad to drive ten minutes to the French café or the Italian restaurant in the neighborhood. That is the limit of my preferred zone. I can blissfully think of a fragrant bakery in Cairo or jaunty teashop in Kolkata, but the idea of actually making the physical move to those sites fills me with foreboding.

Imagine the reality of travel today. Gone are the friendly travel agents who booked you to Port au Prince or any other port by the best route at the best price and insulated you from the misery of searching six travel sites to find a decent trip at a moderate cost.

Then you drive, in murderous traffic, to the airport and locate the less-gouging parking lot. Walk up, usually a few hundred yards, to join a dispiritingly long line, to check in and deliver your suitcase.

Now you graduate to a longer line for a security check. You take off your shoes, unfasten your belt and hold on to your trousers, and, in that precarious state, offload the content of your pockets in a bin.

To avoid the wrath of the edgy, irate woman behind you, you better load your handbag – remembering to separate your computer – promptly on the rail, and walk into a humiliating ballet in a kiosk and an invidious body search.

Now collect, sort and re-pocket your belongings in a hurry and walk another mile to the boarding gate. It is a miracle if you still have your wits about you and your boarding ticket in your hand.

When you at last enter the plane, you can’t place your carry-on stuff in the overstocked overhead bin; it has been hurriedly filled by others, desperate to find space for material they wouldn’t place in an extra-charge second suitcase.

You sit askew, thanks to a corpulent seatmate, your legs snaked around your cursed handbag. Pant you may after your Herculean labour, but you may not expect to catch the flight attendant’s attention for a glass of water – she has more pressing things to do – and, if you get hungry, what she will serve as food cannot be detailed in polite language.

I have a hard time imagining a dream vacation in Venice, Valencia, Valparaíso or even Valhalla that starts like this. It is more like a nightmare when you recall that the same endurance test awaits you on your return.

Of course, there are hardier souls who take these travails in their stride and ply a trade in which travel is a regular occurrence. I admire their rocky constitution and granite heart, but have no vaulting ambition to emulate their hardihood.

I will stay with my memories of Venice, Valencia and Valparaíso, and talk to my friends in such distant cities by Skype, Viber, WhatsApp and GoogleTalk or, more likely, write long, nostalgic missives, urging them to respond with long, nostalgic missives.

I once traveled to Cuba on a government plane in which I was the only passenger and felt mollycoddled when the pilot came to chat and the attendant brought a steaming cup of tea.

More recently, a friend who owns an aircraft gave me a ride to another town. Both times the departure hour was my choice and, thank Heavens, there was no security protocol. Barring such trips, I will rest content with the cyber-revolution to carry my humble messages to my friends.

The writer is a Washington-based international development advisor and had worked with the World Bank. He can be reached at [email protected]