The Local Traveller

World travelling, we read, is a marvellous thing. It is said to broaden our minds and make us one with humanity.

I expect everyone who has ever stood in line to get their baggage checked onto an international flight…and then stood in line to board, use the toilets, get off again, pass the immigration and customs desk, and then collect the remains of their luggage has an appreciation of the delights of the experience. Then as they are attended by taxi drivers, desk clerks, tour guides, cafe owners, street beggars, local militiamen, and all the varied members of the aforementioned humanity, they get a warm, fuzzy feeling.

In most cases it is a yeast infection.

I have done my share of it, but as I’ve not re-enlisted in the Traveller’s Regiment and I’ve kept my discharge papers, I feel I’m safe for the foreseeable future. The world may turn, but I’m required neither to push it around nor grease the pintles.

But I do like the occasional drive in the country or air hop to another city in Australia. And, contrary to the overseas experience, I find the actual travel quite relaxing.

In the air, whether you are in the Business seat or Cattle Class, you are provided with a number of entertainments and stimuli – videos, music, frequent meals, etc – that you are allowed to ignore. You can sit there with a book, or a notepad and a pencil, and think. No-one that you are with ever interrupts you to stick another household chore or family revelation onto you. Your phone and tablet are in Aeroplane mode which means you are officially ordered to ignore them. ( Yay! ) and even Mark Zuckerberg cannot pester you.

Likewise on the road. As a driver you need your wits about you and cannot be talking on a telephone or reading a Mills and Boon while at the wheel. You need to obey increasingly complex speed and passing laws, and to avoid those who don’t. So you are in a cocoon of concentration. Break it every hour or so for a coffee or a wee and the experience becomes all the sweeter – you might step out of your Suzuki a little more fatigued than fresh from a Boeing but then you’ve seen more interesting things on the side of the road. And if they are recently flattened, you might have been able to scoop them up for dinner.

The trick is to pick a place to go that is worthwhile going to for your own reasons – not just the fulfilment of some travel agent’s urging – and to go there at your own pace. I pick country towns that might have a friend or an event nearby or a city that has stores I’ve not visited for a while. These will cheer the heart both in prospect and retrospect, and as long as you don’t overstay your welcome, every journey will be a gain.

Overstay? An Australian capital city is worth about 1 week, a regional city three days, and a country town 2 days. If you think the time too short to justify the return journey, then combine several destinations in a round trip. In all cases, leave ’em wanting more of you rather than less…

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The Valley Of The Shadow Of Debt

I am astounded at the literature that floods into our mail box that promotes and endorses indebtedness. It seems as though it is written in English, but is entirely divorced from the roots of the culture.

I look back at the folk sayings and aphorisms of earlier times:

Franklin:           ” A penny saved is a penny earned “.

” Rather go to bed without dinner than rise in debt “.

Folk saying:       ” Out of debt, out of danger “.

Emerson:             ” A man in debt is so far a slave “.

The pamphlets and letters would have me borrow money from powerful institutions so that I might possess a boat, or a luxury car, or go on holidays to Europe. I should borrow this, incurring a solemn legal debt, and then be required to give them guarantee of my house or other possessions against a repayment – a repayment that would command a fee that is 20 times the interest rates paid on bank savings.

I have been sent a plastic card that allows me to run up a debt that is equivalent to half my annual income – upon much the same basis. It is tough plastic but fortunately you can cut it into pieces with tin snips.

I am immensely lucky in several things; a loving family, a secure house, a modest capital. I am also lucky in the fact that as I get older the desires for debt-trap goods has reduced to practically zero. I regard boats with no interest, I have an adequate little car, and I can see all the Europeans I want in Melbourne, the city of Stirling, or the Swan Valley. Fine dining for me is my own cooking and as I am retired, every day is a holiday. I should not flaunt smug in the face of my friends, but I will certainly do so in the face of financial institutions that wish to enslave me.

The Manangatang International Festival Of Comedy

Manangatang in Victoria occupies a fond place in my heart. On a motor trip east from Adelaide in 1996 its arrival on the horizon during a thunderstorm reassured me that the world had not ended. The road takes a jog in Manangatang, and you get to slow down. It is good for the soul.

I was reminded of Manangatang when I saw a recent YouTube clip taken at a comedy festival in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Now Winnipeg is larger than Manangatang and has fewer kangaroos, but apart from being halfway between Thunder Bay, Ontario, and Regina Saskatchewan* I can see no essential difference in the two municipalities. And if Winnipeg can laugh, so can Manangatang. Possibly at each other.

Most comedy festivals are held to allow people to see entertainers who cannot get exposure on television or in the movies. This is not because they are bad comics – indeed many of them are genuinely funny – but the conventions of the entertainment industry make it very difficult to advance yourself via a casting couch if you are wearing a red nose and a bow tie that twirls round. Funny business is harder to sell than funny business – so the journeymen and journeywomen of the trade do their work in the off-time off-city festivals.

There is no place I have seen in Australia that suggests off-time or place better than Managatang. Oh, granted, Caiguna has its roadhouses, and the staff of these can be right comedians – and there is nothing on earth to match the restaurants of Bridgetown…but for downright rural spunkiness, Manangatang takes the biscuit.

There is nothing to stop the place from becoming the Las Vegas of the Swan Hill Shire. Top acts, showgirls, the pokies…nothing is wanting. All they need to do is book the comedians and the world will beat a path to their door. The Victorian Roads Board has pre-empted them to some extent, but not so much that it could not be improved. They might have to wait a little on an 8-lane freeway from Shepparton but it could only be a matter of time.

I wonder if Winnipeg is looking for a twin-town…?

*  Which must have the effect of evening up the distress…

The Internal Passport

I am going to go visit a friend who lives in another part of our city. The distance that will be travelled is about 20 Km and by the time I get home it will be after dark. I shall drive carefully and expect to make the visit uneventfully.

In doing so I fly in the face of history, law, and human experience:

a. I need seek no permission from the Seigneur of the place where I live to travel inside or outside of his fiefdom. I have no Seigneur. I am a citizen of a free state in a free country.

b. I need no similar permission from the lord of another piece of land to cross into his territory. I need pay no fee for crossing a border. No-one will search me.

c. I need fear no banditti. They may exist, but they do not infest the roads of Perth, and I am very unlikely to be asked to stand and deliver. There are no hijack gangs operating at crossroads.

d. I do not need permission from the WA Police Service to make the journey. All they ask of me is that I be sober and moderate in my speed.

e. When I park my car at my friend’s house or at a hamburger place, I do not have to pay money to a street gang or a militiaman to prevent it being ransacked.

f. I do not need an expert driver to operate the motor car. It is within the capability of a person of moderate strength.

If you are reading this column from parts of the world where this happy set of circumstances do not apply, you have my sympathy. Is it time to make changes in your own country to better it?

 

I Have A First Class Sign

I bought it at York Railway Museum in 1995 – really I did. I did not prise it from a British Rail carriage with a pen knife. Not because of my well-known sense of honesty and scruples – because all the signs were already removed long before I boarded the trains. I had to content myself with cutting out squares of the upholstery.

Rail travel is generally wonderful if you are allowed to sit in a First Class seat – you may have noticed this as well with airplane flights. If you turn left upon entering the cabin door most of your worries and discomforts can be made to disappear – though it must be said that they do not go away cheaply. They take a good deal of your cash with them.

But back to the rails. The British are a classified society and make no bones about it. They’ll analyse you in a second by your clothing and in a nanosecond by your accent and shunt you instantly into a niche in their behavioural structure. You should not be upset by this – it is not discriminatory – they do it to everyone and to themselves. And for the foreigner ( even a Commonwealth foreigner ) there can be some advantages to this. We are given a leeway in appearance and behaviour that they do not allow themselves. We are not expected to come up to their standards ( or down to them, as the case may be ) and we can be left alone to do our own colonial thing most of the time. Thus an Australian in a British Rail first class seat will be tolerated by the other passengers to an extent that a similarly dressed local could not hope for.

If we slum it down to the second-class seats it just feels like the Armadale line on a Saturday night, so there is nothing too strange about that. Actually the clothing on the passengers is pretty similar…they might be the same people.

The nice thing about the First Class seats – compartment or aisle – is that a little man or woman wheels a refreshments trolley through at intervals and you can purchase things. There is no ice for the drinks, but the tea and coffee are cold enough as it is. It’s not exactly a Bunnings sausage sizzle either, as far as food goes, but there is a certain mdf-boardiness about British Rail sandwiches anyway. I think the best analogy is the Bunbury Shell cafe after they have turned off the cabinet heaters…

Do you get there faster in First Class? No, of course not – the train arrives all together. Do you get extra comfort? Marginally. Do you get to feel like a member of the upper classes? Only if you exercise a great deal of imagination.

But it is all worth it.

The Last Time I Saw Paris

I’ve never seen Paris.

But I am led to believe that it is a wonderful site to sight. Full of art, food, fashion, romance, wine, and wonderful shops. And that the citizens of the city are charming and welcoming.

The problem is that I am debarred from participating and enjoying this by my lack of facility with the French language. Many years of life have scrubbed most of the high school French from my mind – I would be at a loss to conduct the most rudimentary of conversations or deal with the tourist’s life. How to overcome this – and to overcome a similar language barrier in Germany, Italy, Hungary, Austria, etc.?

Berlitz? Alliance Francaise? Goethe Society? Well, at 70 years old, I doubt my ability to absorb enough of any of these fine languages in time to actually enjoy a trip. I need another solution – I am going to look for it in the idea of a dedicated valet.

That sounds a little old-fashioned, but it’s just another word for a courier or translator or guide. But I need someone who can make a dedicated effort for my welfare that may go beyond just getting me a train ticket and pointing my in the vague direction of the turnstiles. I need someone who will plan out an itinerary that can be changed radically, that will research social and cultural items, that will find accommodation suitable and make sure that I am comfortable. Someone who will see me fed and watered, and not cheated in the bar or newsagency. In short, a companion with their eyes open.

The good news is they need not be this forever. A European vacation can be a long thing or a short thing, but the fact that each country visit may not be longer than 2 weeks means that whoever does the French portion need not be on duty for longer than a fortnight. Likewise the German, Ukranian, etc. And each day need not go for longer than a standard job – I poop out in 8 hours and if I’ve seen that day’s amusement and eaten that evening’s dinner, I can be hung back up on the rack in the early evening. All I need is assurance that the valet will be there just after breakfast to start again.

The valet will make all this simple if they plan ahead – they will house me in a friendly hotel, find me a friendly bar, and search out a friendly restaurant. Their real translation skills will come in the shops, galleries, and transportation, and as I would hire them for local knowledge they should be able to make these transactions as painless as possible. I do not require to go to bad neighbourhoods nor to deal with horrible people. I wish to be polite and pleasant.

Now – how to find such paragons? Is there a service just like this already extant? Is it affordable? I would be willing to pay premium prices for a good experience. I think it is time to start my research…

The Christmas Away

A Christmas away from family or friends is something that everyone should do at least once in their life. It sounds sad and depressing to some and exciting to others. The actual experience can be a strange mixture.

I’ve only done it twice – in my late teens when I emigrated to Australia ahead of my parents  – and in both cases it was not a complete break from tradition. In one instance I was the guest of a good friend’s family and in the second my girlfriend’s family took me in for the day. Both were spent in traditional companionship eating extremely hot dinners in an extremely hot climate. I even had the comfort of a long-distance telephone call back to my parents in Canada and this was the days when you booked it with the PMG for a specific time and took it at the main post office in the city. Laugh at that if you like with mobile phone and Skype technology today, but the six minutes over a crackley phone line that I could afford were very precious to me.

The business of taking a Christmas trip away from the family happened to my mother the year my dad passed away. I think she really didn’t want to be reminded by hearty family goings-on so she and another widow lady took a special bus tour to the south of the state for the period. She said she never regretted any trip so much – being with rooms full of complete strangers 500 Km from home proved to be a bad idea.

I did have one semi-miss a few years ago when a studio water pipe burst and flooded the place. I discovered it Christmas morning and had to phone back home to tell them to go on to the family luncheon without me while I mopped out the place. They were good enough to save a complete roast dinner for me for later…when they were all too stuffed to eat any more…and I must say that the floor has never looked cleaner.

Now that I’m older and used to my own company, I could probably enjoy a Chrissie away – if there were some good reason for it. You’d have to pick your venue, though – either a cabin in the bush all by your lonesome with a stack of books to read or the busiest of big city hotels with the fancy dining room and cocktail lounge. And a stack of books. The in-between – the country pub or motel on the road – would be too depressing for words, no matter how many plastic Santa dolls they put out.