A Sixty Year Journey

by Jean Burnett (A runner-up entry in the Inaugural Travel Writing Competition)

My first sight of foreign parts was the bomb scarred Le Havre docks in the post- war years as the ferry arrived and I started my school trip to Normandy. The Bayeaux Tapestry had never seemed so exotic or the smell of gingerbread more delicious. This was the start of my sixty year journey.

The mystery of Angkor Wat
The mystery of Angkor Wat

I began a love affair with France that later expanded to include many other countries as my vagabond shoes took me across the planet, around and back again over several decades.

I ate Portuguese fish dishes in Somerset Maugham country, in Malacca (Melaka) in Malaysia, amid colourful bullock carts and trishaws with a colony of people who claimed descent from Portuguese invaders. There were laksa dishes to be savoured and musty English paperbacks to be unearthed in second hand bookshops. Mr. Maugham led me there and many other writers inspired my visits around the world.

The great sights can be mind blowing – The marble purity of the Taj Mahal, the mystery of Angkor Wat – but it has been the small, quirky things that have made up a lifetime of journeys.

Jean Burnett in S America
Jean Burnett in South America

Names can conjure up visions: Venice – skinny cats on the Street of the Assassins; Jaisalmer – the prince’s city in the Thar desert of India where youths on mopeds asked if you knew their cousin Ashwin in Leicester; San Francisco – the City Lights bookshop where I lived during the hippy 1960s; Prague –  the way the winter mists lie over gothic bridges and twine around baroque statues.

Then there were the people you met by chance – like the quiet American who rescued me when my money was stolen in Mérida, Mexico and the tiny nun, no bigger than a ten year old, eating an ice cream on the equally minuscule Elvis Presley Boulevard on Gozo, Malta’s little sister island. There were the many eccentric but loveable ordinary people who wished a stranger well in out-of the-way places, offering advice, a lift, or a cool drink at midday.

Australia was the grand vision
Australia was the grand vision – a truly alternative world

Australia was the grand vision – a truly alternative world. But a glimpse of the snow capped Caucasus Mountains from the plane as I flew home was an iconic moment. “That’s Tbilisi down there” – the stewardess pointed to Georgian rooftops forty thousand feet below, and I told myself I would see it one day. And I did. And I met the strange mountain people of Svaneti in NW Georgia and ate khachapuri.

The Caucasus region, almost European, more than a little oriental, neither one thing nor the other, offers riches to the intrepid traveller. Newly emerged from the grip of Mother Russia, these people have an ancient culture and an often medieval mindset. I remember them as great party givers, fine dancers and hearty drinkers. What more could you want from your hosts?

Fort William nestling below Ben Nevis
Fort William on one of the finest rail journeys in the world

Today, I am rediscovering the pleasures of the train, remembering the excitement of travelling to school that way. Trains symbolise escape, and they avoid the hideous airport experience. Fleeting glimpses of Europe from the carriage windows give tantalising snapshots of rivers and cities.

Nearer home, the sudden view of deer leaping across the hills in the Scottish highlands when you wake up on the overnight sleeper to Fort William, is a heart lifting moment. You are on one of the finest rail journeys in the world.

My urge to move, to travel hopefully, is as strong as ever in my seventh decade. The world’s most beautiful road is waiting to be walked somewhere in Turkey, I still haven’t been on the Trans-Siberian Railway – or visited the Galapagos Islands. I travel for myself, and for my parents who were never given the opportunity.

Posted 28th January 2015 by Steve Hanson – Photograph of Angkor Wat by John Esser