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Before and now

by Jan Wheatcroft

When I was 11 years old I went up to sleep away camp for the summer. My mother put me on a night train, the Owl, which left from LA’s Central Station and went up to Redding, California.

I traveled with other children and an adult or two in a train carriage made up of bunks. I remember how exciting it was to be “on my own” and climb up and down to my top bunk. I did this for four years. Still today the sound of a train whistle makes me long to go somewhere.

In 1958 I went to Europe for the first time. I was by myself, sort of, as I chose to go on a student tour for two months and I knew no one when the trip began. I had just turned 18 and the trip was a gift from my father. He would have chosen for me to travel on a much “classier” tour staying in fancy hotels and sailing on a major cruise line, but I preferred a smaller more intimate group of students like myself. I think these two early trips opened the doors to the vistas of travel. 

I traveled differently then. First of all I don’t remember backpacks in those early days. I usually had a large suitcase with no wheels. I wonder how I dragged it around.

When my friend Frances and I were in India there was always a turbaned man who would swing my case onto his head and rush ahead, as I madly tried to keep up with him.

At train stations in Italy we managed to drag our cases up and down huge stairways to get from platform to platform and if we were lucky some nice man would whisk the bag up the stairs for us. Bags did not have wheels then nor did they swivel with the twist of a thumb and finger. Today I try to pack lightly in smaller bags with large, sturdy wheels that turn around with a flick of my wrist. 

I still feel gratetful when a nice man reaches down to help me lift it up the stairs,  although we found that in Holland there are elevators at each platform in the train station. 

I have found that getting “there” is part of the fun of traveling. When I was young I was happy to take the cheap seats on airplanes even when I was tightly wedged into a row on Garuda Airlines on a flight to Bali seated in a seat made for a tiny Balinese maiden, which I wasn’t. However, the plane ride was part of the adventure and the foreign-ness of the experience.Today I prefer the larger seats of premier class where I can move about more comfortably.  

As for hotels, I haven’t changed so much in what I like or choose. I really prefer small, intimate places perhaps run by a family on a personal level. The rooms may be smaller but the people are knowledgeable and friendly and really care that their visitors have a comfortable stay. 

In India the B&B owners went out of their way to take us to special places or make calls or give personal advice. We didn’t eat breakfast in an impersonal room with boxes of cereals and hardboiled eggs sitting out on a sideboard. The family prepared an Indian style meal to start the day. 

In England a full breakfast is cooked for you with homemade breads and jams.  And the other visitors are usually of the same mind travel wise, and are enjoyable to talk to and to share travel information with. 

Today when I get ready to go on a foreign trip I make sure I have both my credit and debit cards with me. That’s really all one needs for money transactions.  If you need local cash currency, you just go to a bank wall and poke in your card, punch in the amount of money you want and push “okay” and there you have your pounds, or Euros, or Kroner or whatever you need. Run out? Go again. There is always an ATM machine nearby. 

When I first went abroad I had my belly pack where I kept all my cash, papers and travelers checks. This was to protect my money. If stolen no one else was supposed to be able to use them. We could change money at foreign banks when we could find one that would take “our” money or at American Express banks, where you could also pick up your mail. There was also the Poste Restante window at the local post office. What a major change this has become with ATMs and mobile phones and email. 

Once, when I first visited India, I went to a money exchange, gave in my dollars and got thick piles of rupees held together by large, rusted staples. I had to jam these into my rather small belly pack (the idea was to keep the money close to your body, not in a swinging purse). Every time I needed to get money I had to pull up my shirt and pull down the top of my pants to get to the belly pack.

Travel is much easier today, more crowded to be sure, but more convenient.  In major countries in Europe there are Uber cabs to call if you have an account, mobile phones with cameras that eliminate a separate camera and film, ATMs and lovely wheels on cleverly designed suitcases.

Backpacks come in every size and whatever you have forgotten or run out of you will find wherever to travel to. In most places where the written language is different, signs are now also in English. I remember this happening in Japan. On my first visit I could not figure out the train system but the next time I went the signs were in English too.

It becomes harder to find little get-aways that are still hidden or perhaps places and people feel less foreign than they used to. Maybe it is that I am older and have traveled so many places it just feels that way to me. Travel is personal, exciting and opens ones eyes and heart. Happy to be home at the end of a trip, I am always busily planning the next one.