Away From Home
As an experienced traveler (though not lately), I’ve always said that travel would be much more easy and pleasant, if only we didn’t have to eat and sleep. Others will, of course, argue that it is all the things relating to food and accommodation which make travel enjoyable. But to me, they are generally a pain. Where to stay, how much to pay, how to make sure you get what you need from strangers you will probably never see again, are only a few of the matters I find most bothersome.
In my early ventures, the two greatest travel aids I knew of were Youth Hostels and hitchhiking. These were for me wonderful discoveries. But they were themselves full of uncertainties. Might the hostel be hard to reach or full when I got there? How many people would I have to share a room with? Would I get an upper or a lower bunk? As for hitchhiking (which opened regions and countries to me which I could never otherwise have afforded to reach), how long would it be before the next ride came along? How far would it take me? (Fortunately, in hundreds of rides, I never once had a bad experience with a driver. On the contrary, what I found – in those days, anyway – was that in general it was only good-hearted people who picked you up.)
Food was the other big problem area – especially for me, because I was a rather finicky eater. Some of the foods I was accustomed to at home were available in some areas, but not in others. Peanut butter (one of my favorites) was a good example. I found that there was a sort of “peanut butter line” across Western Europe. North of that line, the “smooth or chunky” spread was to be found everywhere. But southwards, to my chagrin, people had often never heard of it.
There were other food lessons to be learned – some of them cautionary. For example, I knew that the orange, my favorite fruit, had originated in China – and I therefore expected that Chinese oranges, after millennia of development, must be the best in the world. In fact, it was just the opposite. When I went to China, the only oranges I ever encountered were thick-skinned, pulpy, and with very little juice or flavor.
Another fruit lesson developed for me out of a visit to Costa Rica, where I took an immediate liking to a fruit I had never had before. It required the eater to deal with many large seeds, but the “meaty part” was delicious. It was called a Cherimoya, and I made a point of telling people about it when I got back to Santa Barbara – only to learn, to my embarrassment, that it was already quite familiar hereabouts, and in fact grows very well in this area.
As to accommodation, my wife and I had very different standards. To sum it up, hers was elegance, mine was cheapness. Very often, I would stay in our room to have breakfast of whatever food I had brought along, while she would go down to enjoy the hotel’s elaborate and expensive breakfast buffet – smuggling back to me portions of her meal to supplement my own repast.
But of course, inns of various kinds go far back in human history. In many cultures it has been almost a religious obligation to offer hospitality to travelers. How different from our own culture today, in which “hospitality” has become an “industry,” with whole college courses devoted to it! Can you imagine Joseph and Mary finding “no room at the inn” because the innkeeper had not yet secured his Hospitality Certification?
Part of this industrialization has been the development of huge “chains” of hotels and motels, with each “link” so similar to the others that patrons of a particular chain can wake up in the morning, look about their room, and have no idea where they are.
We must admit that, for some, this has its advantages, because, when checking in, you always know what to expect. But of course, that is the very opposite of what “travel” was once supposed to be about. To the “business travelers” who today probably occupy most of our airplane seats, this no doubt hardly matters.
We must face it: This is not your grandfather’s world. The new watchword is not Hospitality but Security. The tradition of welcoming traveling strangers has been supplanted by the rampant fear that rhymes “stranger” with “danger.”