Listen to Pilot Light

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Travel in the modern age

Change comes to all things, and these days change comes at increasingly rapid rates. As a lifelong traveler, I have seen quite a shift in the entire travel experience over my lifetime. The most obvious shift, especially in terms of international travel, is that it has become far more efficient. Going from country A to country B, even changing continents, happens far more quickly. That is essentially an improvement. But it has a cost.

In making travel better for business travelers, saving them time and effort, we have lost the travel experience. When I first started globe trotting, the trip itself was a major part of the adventure. It wasn't always fun, but it always held surprises well beyond the miracle of your flight being on time. It could be wonderfully chaotic. You were thrown in with a mix of people, some of whom were interesting, for indeterminate periods of time. Now things are precise and calculated. The airlines tell you when to arrive and what you can bring and what you cannot. The sterile airports that they all travel to provide little social interaction (or even seldom anything more interesting than chain restaurant food). It is all predictable. And boring.

We've lost modes of travel as well. My early international travels were by steamship. I was fortunate enough to cross both the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans by sea. Not in a cruise ship, with casinos and lounge acts, but in passenger ships that afforded nice food and a deck chair where you could sit and watch the sea or read a book. I loved the smells and sounds of being at sea. Even a typhoon in the Pacific and a winter storm in the Atlantic did nothing to dispel that joy.

It seems you can't do that anymore. You can book random trips, but regular passenger travel by sea isn't cost effective. Insurance companies don't like it. Government agencies apparently don't like passenger ships either. In preparing for our most recent move to Asia (Cambodia) I tried to book passage on a ship. I contacted every broker, every ship company that even sounded like they went in that direction. Two companies responded. The first offered me a week-long cruise around SE Asia. Of course you had to fly to Bangkok and catch the boat. When I mentioned that detail, they didn't understand why I would want to sail there. To get there, maybe?

 The second was more promising. It was a freighter company with a few cabins. Lovely. But they could get us from Seattle to Taiwan, but not further. Well, they could take us to Singapore, but we weren't going there. They suggested that we could find something in Taiwan. But to be allowed into Taiwan you have to have a return ticket or onward transportation booked. We were going one way. Besides, flying on from Taiwan defeated the point of taking a ship (one reason was to take more luggage than airlines allow, to be fair), especially since we could fly the entire route for almost as much as the Taiwan to Phnom Pehn flight.

Ultimately, I realized that I had to wave a sad goodbye to yet one more of my illusions of travel in the whirl of modernity, as it had gone the way of other dinosaurs, such as Cadillac convertibles with tail fins, TWA seaplanes and regional cooking along American highways.

I mourn them all, even though I never wanted a Cadillac.