I’ve spent a year on the road. More, if you count my childhood, moving cross-country every couple of years. I wouldn’t, though. It was easier then, too easy, sitting in the backseat of this angular black Aerostar my dad called the Batmo-van, playing N64 on a six inch screen between the seats while the real work was done up front. After a while, I wouldn’t even look out the window. Sometimes, when I’m sitting on a 14-hour bus ride and trying to drown out the brat behind me (look out the window, dammit!), I wish I had paid more attention. Or at least taken a split second to ask dad how he managed to zone in on the road for that long. He’s better at this than I am.
With the US Navy, my dad’s been traveling his entire life. Six months in the blustering sands of Kuwait, a quick jaunt to another base across a border. He’s been allowing me to ride those coattails all my life as well. He still occasionally does, helping me buy tickets with this wellspring of airline miles the deadbeat in me wants to pretend are endless. It’s one of those things you try and fail at not taking for granted, being ecstatic when it happens while still being mildly and undeservedly disappointed when it doesn’t. His form of travel is more luxurious than mine. And sure, it’s probably come hard earned. His loyalty to some airlines (United, mostly) comes after years of flying with them and I’m lucky enough to enjoy the payoff. I can’t afford to do it on my own.
I don’t have any loyalty or rewards programs. I buy the cheapest tickets and the longest routes to get to where I’m going, and it doesn’t come with a footrest and a package of peanuts. When I flew from Melbourne to Los Angeles earlier this year, the cheapest option provided me with an 18-hour layover in Hong Kong. I decided to take the opportunity to go out and explore the city, but I was soon informed that once I crossed into the transfer area, I was stuck. I was condemned there. Hong Kong Airport is nice, but it isn’t 18 hours nice. I spent the night struggling to keep my tailbone cushioned on a bench in the dark recesses of the far terminal, desperately hoping the battery in my laptop could outlast the Australian couple surreptitiously fucking ten feet away. Luckily, as the indicator blinked into the red, I managed to get a message to my dad, and by the morning, I had a pass into the United lounge. Ever been in an airline lounge? Showers, free food, free booze (lots of free booze), fast Internet. That’s 18 hours nice.
See, travel is easy when you have money. When you don’t have to worry about the price. Most people nowadays don’t have that luxury. Airlines are made for their loyal customers but they aren’t exactly pulling in new ones lately. The long-term perks simply aren’t worth the extra fees, the smashed guitars, the five-dollar personal bottles of vodka that couldn’t give the screaming toddler a cooling buzz.
But I’ve spent a year on the road. I’ve survived and flourished without those coattails now. The world is catching up to the wanderlust of the less privileged.
The perks are being replaced. Getting around is as easy as plugging in a destination and purchasing tickets. And while the people who use these services may not get the first class treatment of a credit card with airline’s name on it, the experience is better. The need for those lounges is dying. That flight from Melbourne – I bought those tickets three weeks before I flew. And while the moans of the Australian couple nearby were teeth-grindingly louder than the moans of the Walking Dead walkers on my laptop screen, the story that came out of it was worth more to me than a complementary plate of dried United sushi. That’s what people want from travel. Stories. Not the comforts they left behind in their living rooms, but the world around them with all the dirt on its face it can muster.
When I first arrived in Vietnam last year, I had to find my way to Hoi An. I would be teaching English in a five-star hotel, and the head of HR offered me a first class ticket on the train. I turned it down. I had read about the scenic views of Vietnam (especially those available from the spine of the train tracks) and didn’t want to get sucked into something like my Nintendo 64 of ages past. Instead, I took a four-person sleeper berth in one of the rear cars. My bed was a blanket covering springy wooden slats, and as I tried to get comfortable on the bottom, the family I would be sharing with shuffled in. Two older women, the lines of war and family in their face, with a small boy by their side. I relinquished the bottom bunk, shoved my luggage up top, and made my way to the bar car.
The lights swung back and forth with the momentum of the locomotive, lighting up the faces of the only two people present: two workers, completely sloshed off their asses, sucking in noodles from their bowl before the rocking spilled the excess broth. They cupped the dangling tendrils to their chins, gasping for colder air in their mouths, before swallowing, laughing hysterically and pounding the table hard enough to spill their noodles anyway. As I pulled the wooden door shut behind me, the two beckoned me to sit with them. Neither spoke a word of English, but after looking around for anybody with authority, they pulled out a bucket full of beers and dropped three of them on the table. I grabbed two, opening one’s cap with the other, bringing more drunken cheers out of the two drunk conductors. Soon, I was as shitfaced as the lot of them.
When I got to town, I found a restaurant with a sign outside: “Slow Food For Slow Life.” I walked inside. The bar opened onto a gorgeous river, and as I waited for my meal, I spoke to the old woman working there. My food was taking a while to arrive, and I asked her how long it would take to arrive.
She just gestured to the setting sun.
“You have somewhere to be?”
No. Nowhere better than this.
No airline lounge can top that. My father knows what he’s doing, and he taught me well. Through all those road trips across the country, I learned that it’s not about zoning in on the road, checking out and settling in to a seat that doesn’t give your tailbone a soft-spot. It’s about looking at the sights around you, enjoying the time and company of your unappreciative kid playing N64 in back. That’s what travel is all about. That’s why it creeps into people’s bones and never lets go until their tired feet cry out for mercy. Go on motorcycles. Go on boats. Go on trains. Travel isn’t about getting from one place to another. It’s about enjoying the places in between.
Partake of the World.