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8 August 2020

Travelling (1)

Tag(s): Foreign Affairs, Languages & Culture
“To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive, and the true success is to labour.”
Robert Louis Stevenson
This weekend my wife and I were due to go on a cruise calling in at Rotterdam, the Orkney Isles, the Faroes and then circumnavigating Iceland visiting four different ports including Reykjavik. Needless to say it was cancelled and I recently learnt that the cruise company has gone into administration. Our contract is with a travel agent who assures us that our money is safe but it will take about ten weeks to be refunded. We shall see.
So I found myself reminiscing about the travelling I have been fortunate to do and wondering whether such will be possible in the future.
“Thomas Cook’s first package tour in 1841 took 600 people where?” asked the quiz question. We speculated over the breakfast table. Florence? Venice? Paris? But, no it was that jewel of the East Midlands - Loughborough. Growing up in the 1950s it was the convention to take a family holiday for two weeks in the summer at the seaside. Usually we drove to guest houses or small hotels in North Wales or the English South West. A favourite was Minehead in Somerset, which we visited three times. This was before the motorways had been built and so we had to break the journey and would stay overnight in somewhere like Tewkesbury. We knew very few people who travelled abroad and indeed with exchange restrictions limiting an individual to £50 it would have been very difficult even if we had had the money.

My father had been abroad for most of the war years carrying a gun rather than a passport to Madagascar, India, Burma and finally Germany as part of the post-war occupation forces. My mother had never been abroad and only took her first overseas trip, for just a day to Rotterdam with a Ladies’ Group in the 1960s.

My father must have been doing quite well in his business in 1961 because we flew to Guernsey for a holiday in L'Ancresse. This was quite exotic although my clearest memories are of staying in a darkened TV room to watch Richie Benaud bowl the Aussies to victory at Old Trafford.

My first trip abroad was with the school to France, Switzerland and Italy. Foreign Trek that year circumnavigated Mont Blanc in a clockwise direction. It was the summer of 1966, better remembered by most Englishmen as the year we won the World Cup. We were not even able to listen to it on the radio stuck up on a mountainside in Switzerland.

A year later I made my second trip abroad, this time as an exchange student to the USA. We met first for orientation at Loughborough University, without the help of Thomas Cook, and then flew by Air France to JFK. After further orientation at Hofstra University in Long Island I took a bus through the night to Minnesota where I was to spend a year with an American family, the Hannahs. With them I took a skiing holiday in Aspen Colorado, with the school took a weekend trip to Chicago to see the Picasso exhibition and also with the Glee Club toured Iowa, Oklahoma and Missouri to give a series of concerts. At the end of a marvellous year 3,000 AFS students took bus trips around the USA to meet up in Washington DC. Our Bus #30 followed an itinerary through Keokuk, Iowa; Springfield, Illinois; Lima, Ohio; Cattaraugus, New York; Barre, Vermont; Westchester, Connecticut; and Silver Springs, Maryland, our final base for the reunion in Washington DC. We were then divided into different groups and I stayed in one more community at Bethlehem, Pennsylvania before boarding the SS Waterman in New York to sail home to Southampton.

Today’s youth see taking a gap year between school and University as normal but my experience was most unusual for the age and made a significant impression on me. It gave me a taste for travel that I was never to fully satiate and probably influenced several of my subsequent career and life choices. But the year had been heavily subsidised by the generosity of communities, schools and particularly host families. It had been the cheapest year of my education for my father to finance. As a student my ambitions had to be restrained.

 In my first summer at Oxford I teamed up with two fellow undergrads, Peter Morris and Paul Wait, to go on a camping trip to Vienna, Venice and Zurich. Our plan was to take trains to Vienna and back from from Zurich but to hitch-hike on all the intervening journeys. After a pleasant few days in Vienna we set out to hitch-hike south to Venice. After sticking our thumbs out for a whole day we gave up and returned to the same campsite. By now it was clear that we had severely underestimated the cost of this expedition and had to ration ourselves on everything. We took the train to Zurich missing out Venice and settled down in a campsite there for the second half of our trip.

I now realised that I could join a reunion of my AFS friends from Bus #30 the previous summer. This was planned to be held in Strasbourg and I figured I could hitch-hike there in a day. My sister, Angela, had sewed together a Union Flag for me to pin to my bag as a way of picking up lifts. Armed with this I set off first for Basle and then Strasbourg. I started off all right and on the way out of Basle my flag did the trick. An Italian lorry driver picked me up to practice his English. However, he needed a lot more practice because he dropped me off too soon and I tried to hitch back onto the motorway. 8 hours later I had to give up and hitched a lift into the nearest town, Freiburg. I was now in Germany and had no local currency. I changed one pound at the railway station, bought a ticket to Strasbourg and while waiting for the train decided to have a meal in the station restaurant. Knowing little German I ordered “Erbensuppe mit bochwurst” to start with. A huge bowl of potato soup with four large sausages arrived. I ate three dishes worth and finally surrendered. I still had some change and bought a newspaper and bananas. Arriving late in Strasbourg I could not reach the hostel which would be closed and finally slept on a bench in a synagogue yard. It started to rain so I covered myself with the newspaper and slept under the bench. I arrived early at the hostel and woke up my AFS friends.

AFS gave me some other early opportunities to travel abroad, as a chaperone for the returning US students to their end of year gathering in Arnhem and then as the AFS UK President with our fulltime Director to the European Conference in Birgit, near Innsbruck in Austria. We flew to Munich only days after the Israeli Olympic athletes had been murdered and there was now a huge security presence everywhere with tanks on the airport runway. A case of closing the stable door…

Business travel began in a similarly modest way with Pedigree Petfoods when together with my brand management colleagues I took responsibility for some of the European markets. With our export manager I visited Belgium and Holland, my first overseas sales calls. Not long after I was invited to apply for the role of International Marketing Manager for KalKan in Los Angeles. I flew first class to Los Angeles, my first experience of this way of travelling. I checked in to the hotel and rang Mike Murphy, the head of personnel, who told me to get some rest and then he would take me out for dinner. With an 8-hour time difference I found myself dining and drinking cognac at what was effectively 5am, but realised that Mike was testing my ability to deal with jet lag.

The job was to sell the company’s products anywhere in the world outside the continental United States. There was some business in Puerto Rico and Japan and some enquiries from other parts of the world. I was single and had the chance to live in Tinsel Town and travel the world.

In the next year I visited Japan, stopping in Hawaii on the way back; Mexico, Canada, the Bahamas, Puerto Rico and other islands in the Caribbean including Trinidad and Curaçao. In addition I got to know the USA very well including Los Angeles, New York, St Louis and San Francisco. I returned to Europe and as well as visits back to the UK, visited France and Switzerland again and Sweden for the first time.

But most of all I visited Chile. I went there for the first time in August 1980, again in November for the FISA, in January 1981 to put together a plan to set up a marketing company, and then in March to start the process, and finally in May to head up that company.

While in Chile I travelled up and down that long thin country seeing more of it than most of its natives. I went to the far north, Arica, some 19 degrees south, and the far south, Punta Arenas, 58 degrees south. If placed in the northern hemisphere it would stretch from Vancouver to the Baja California or from Edinburgh to Nigeria.

On one trip to the south to see various markets we flew commercially to Conçepcion to meet Emilio Sandoval Po, our distributor. We then flew in his private plane down to the southern towns of Osorno, Valdivia and Puerto Montt. We stayed overnight in a hotel and then flew back. This time Emilio had his girlfriend with us. I was sitting in the co-pilot’s seat. He told me to keep the plane level and pointing north and then moved into the back to canoodle with his girlfriend.

For the first time in my life I was flying a plane. My lesson had lasted about a minute. After the initial shock I found it exhilarating and, of course, very safe, as there were no other planes in that empty sky.

I took a private holiday to Easter Island, Tahiti, Moorea and Bora Bora. Easter Island should be a fascinating place to visit but I was so tired I overslept and missed the tour on the first morning. We were stuck on the island for three days and there were no other tours organised. There was no public transport of any kind. A hotel employee offered me the use of his motorbike, an incredibly generous gesture. I climbed on the bike and realised that I had no idea how to make it start let alone ride it, and in a state of considerable confusion dismounted. I did not really make the best of my trip to Easter Island and was therefore glad when the twice a week plane arrived.

But then the border police seemed to find a problem with my papers. In some countries this might be a cue for a bribe but not in Chile. I was mortified at the prospect of spending another four days on this bleak rock. Fortunately it was resolved and I flew to the much more exotic and beautiful islands of Tahiti.

I have written about my experiences in Chile during the Falklands War before [i] but during that period I also went to Spain on a business trip. Our Spanish company had a factory in Vigo and so I flew up there to see it. On the way back I requested a non-smoking seat but on the plane found that I had been allocated a smoking seat. I pointed this out to the stewardess who immediately called the captain. On realising I was English he threatened to throw me off the plane and announced to the whole complement of crew and passengers that this is what you should expect from the English. It is about the only time I have travelled in a country with an openly hostile attitude to one’s native land.

From there I went up to Paris to join my friend Allan Leonard. I was to be his best man at his forth-coming wedding. We met at the auction of two year olds held before the big Spring races at Longchamps. On seeing Allan I raised my beer glass just as a particularly valuable filly was up for auction. Fortunately the auctioneer did not see my gesture or I might have found myself the proud but bankrupt owner.

To be continued…

[i] I Was There (or Thereabouts) 5 March 2011

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