Some years ago, at the end of my slide show on my trip to Cambodia to an audience at Bangalore’s Institute of World Culture, a person from the audience came to me and congratulated me on the presentation. He asked me, rather hesitantly, “Sir, how much money have you had spent on your travels so far?” That set me thinking. Honestly, I had never kept count of the money I had spent till then with my own resources. I told him as much but I guessed it would be in the region of some lakhs of rupees. I also told him that I was a budget traveler who liked to see a dollar stretch and that I preferred to do my own travel arrangements rather than join a package tour. That means I book my own air /road/bus/ ferry ticket, hotel, travel insurance, foreign exchange, and visa. It is routine for me to manage everything all by myself rather than depend on any tour operator.
This wanderlust has been with me since my college days. I managed to visit a place of interest, whether a hill-station, pilgrim centers or wildlife park whenever possible.
Cautious overseas trip
When I think back on the first overseas trips my wife Vimala and I made to Europe in 1976, I shudder to think of the various things that could have gone wrong. Overseas travel insurance was unknown for those days. Cell phones had not arrived on the scene. We had decided to do as much travel as we could on a limited budget (remember, foreign exchange was a scarce commodity in those days and couldn’t be had for love or money). So, I flew while Vimala traveled by train. Come to think of it, in hindsight, it could have been otherwise too – she could have taken the flight and I could have traveled by train. She was travelling all alone from Liverpool station, London, to Harwich to catch the boat train to Holland and then a tiresome train journey to Basel in Switzerland. I bade her an emotional farewell with the promise that I would be waiting to receive her at the Basel railway station. I could see she was a bit nervous, quite naturally, as it was the first time she would be traveling all alone over such a long distance with the change in trains en route. Both had confidence in ourselves that we would manage any eventuality, trusting each other implicitly.
I caught a flight from London’s Heathrow airport and landed at the Zurich airport, Switzerland, and then took a train to Basel. It was nearly midnight as I got off the train at Basel where I waited at the railway station till the station was closed for cleaning. After an hour of aimless wandering, taking care not to cross the border with France or Germany, I returned to the warmth of a steam-heated cubicle on the platform. It was a long, anxious wait with hardly a wink of sleep.
Starting the tour
Finally, I spotted Vimala waving to me, which brought a flood of relief. I was surprised to note that Vimala was as fresh as ever, and smiling despite the ferry ride from Harwich to Hook of Holland, changing trains at Amsterdam and Cologne and an overnight ride on the train en route to Basel. It was a happy reunion and we had a wonderful time in Switzerland, visiting the K L Scheidegg ski-resort, up the snow-bound Alps, staying at the tiny picture-postcard village of Lauterbrunnen with a waterfall, a beautiful lake en route, and Berne, the capital city. We found that during our many trips some stranger or the other gave a helping hand when we needed most. It is the kindness and consideration of strangers that make us feel that all human beings are linked by some invisible bond of friendship. Some of them go out of their way to be helpful.
I poured out my anxiety and worry over the phone to my son in the USA who promised to get back soon. I had to wait till Monday to get my travelers’ cheques (TCs) replaced for the lost ones. I had a long chat with an official at the Thomas Cook, who asked many questions till she was satisfied. “Mr. Murthy today is Sunday and so you will have to approach the bank on Monday for replacement of the lost TCs.” It was easy to get the TCs for those I had lost, thanks to a fax from the person from Thomas Cook, USA. But I had a big hurdle to cross when it came to getting a new passport, it is not the easiest matter even during normal times. I traveled overnight to Mexico City by bus and checked into a modest hotel.
Thanks to my son, who had sent them copies of my passport by fax, it was easier to convince the embassy official that I was a genuine seeker of a new passport. When I showed all the papers to the officials concerned, he told me rather brusquely, “Please come after one week, the passport would be ready then.” But that was alarming news for me. I began to plead with him but to no avail. Just then the embassy official in-charge of the visa section came in. I explained to him my predicament. He looked at the papers, smiled and remarked jokingly, “It looks as though you came to Mexico to lose your passport!” He instructed the concerned official to issue me a temporary passport right then.
The American Embassy in Mexico City looked like a well-fortified citadel. I explained to the visa officer that I had lost my original passport and now had a new passport, which needed the American visa stamp. He listened to me carefully and verified something from his records. “Mr Murthy, your passport has been found. Please contact your Indian Embassy.” I was stunned momentarily but my joy knew no bounds on hearing such sweet news.
That was the best news I had heard for days. I rushed back to the Indian Embassy where I got the information that a person in Guadalajara had found my briefcase and had informed my son in the USA who in turn had informed the Indian Embassy. I returned the few hours-old passports to the Indian Embassy. That must have been a record of sorts!
It was a happy journey to Guadalajara where I met the person who had informed my son. He, in turn, took me to the person who had actually found the briefcase, who happened to be the driver of the minivan. It seems he took charge of the briefcase, when he had finished his rounds. Thanks to the address and contact telephone number pasted on it, he could reach my son. I checked the briefcase with the key I had and found to my relief that all the papers, including the passport, TCs, and air tickets were intact. The bank was surprised that I had come to return the TCs, which I had taken from them. That was perhaps the first time they were dealing with someone who voluntarily gave up his TCs. That’s why they had to discuss the matter with their HO for further action.
I had learned a few lessons from the “Miracle in Mexico”, which I call this unfortunate episode. Never leave the passport, money and air tickets in a bag/briefcase but as far as possible carry on your person all the time, preferably in a secret purse. One needs courage and determination to come out of such a crisis as soon as possible, without panicking. It is worth noting that in some countries the hotels insist that you deposit the passport with them, just to make sure you pay the dues as well as for police verification. You cannot do much in such a case though you should make sure that your passport is safe by checking with the front desk now and then.
Rail-trekking in Europe
Heard of ‘rail-trekking’? That is exactly what I did in April 1989, when I traveled by I class train using the Eurail Pass, which is available online and also with a few travel agents in India. It was truly a train Odyssey visiting 10 countries, including Scandinavia, dealing with 10 currencies within a matter of 24 days. I commenced my journey from Frankfurt, Germany (it was West Germany at that time). The train was my home except when I got off, deposited my luggage (I always travel lightly), toured the city and returned to the railway station to catch another train to my next destination. European trains are famous for their punctuality and cleanliness as well as friendly service. It was an interesting tour when I visited South of France, the Riviera region, passing through Paris, Spain, Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands (Holland as it is popularly known), Denmark, Finland, Sweden, and Norway, returning to Frankfurt very tired, but highly satisfied having completed such a big tour without any problem. The only problem I faced was with the bitter cold in some places where I almost froze to death! The compartment was heated and I could sleep on a few occasions by drawing the foldable seat in the front – they are cubicles meant for four persons and so there is some privacy. The toilets are clean. Pushcart vendors on trains sell food and drinks.
A German from Munich befriended me en route to Copenhagen. He poured out his woes about his marital problems, and how being unemployed added to his problems. He was on a visit to Copenhagen to try his luck with a job. Note, there was no European Union (EU) at that time. He was quite helpful in telling me what to do in Copenhagen. “Why don’t you go to Helsinki (in Finland) from Stockholm? With your Eurail pass you are entitled to a free boat ride,” he suggested. It was with some difficulty that I got my visa to Finland, convincing the stern visa lady that I had no intention of settling down in Finland and that my final destination was the US. I showed her my US visa and she relented and granted me a three-day stay in Finland. That is one of the advantages of being on your own – you can do whatever you want. I nearly touched the Arctic Circle when I got off the train at Rovaniemi. Any child who writes to Santa Claus would get his or her letter delivered to the Santa Claus village near the Arctic Circle about 8 km from this last outpost. I was witness to a tragic accident on the rails in Sweden when the train had hit a reindeer, which had died due to the impact.
The Liverpool station also was known as London Liverpool Street.
I did a shorter version of an eight-day train tour of Italy in 1991. If one wants to see as many places as possible there is no alternative but to travel continuously and get back on the train at night where, hopefully, you can catch a wink or two before getting off at a station in the morning to start a fresh day, tour the city by foot/bus and then come back to the station to collect your baggage and continue the journey. This might appear tough but if you are interested and don’t mind roughing it out, there cannot be any better way to make your money go a long way, saving on hotels and enjoying the experience of meeting people and seeing places. However, there are rail-passes that allow one to make the travel flexible within a certain period of saying one week or two weeks.
Basel station the central railway station in the city of Basel, Switzerland.
Beware of conmen! That’s a piece of advice to any overseas traveler. Some of them are so thoroughly professional that they could fool anyone, including seasoned travelers. I had that kind of experience during my trip to Tanzania when I went to the Kilimanjaro National Park from Arusha. I had to change buses twice to reach the entrance gate of the park. At the last point, Marangu, I rode a shared taxi to reach the Marangu gate entrance. Next to me sat a smartly dressed young man who befriended me. “I am the guide to the national park. I could take you on a conducted tour of the park for 50,000 TSH (Tanzanian shillings. 1USD = about 1600 TSH).” I thought that was too much and offered him 40,000 TSH, which he accepted reluctantly. We went inside the park and he pointed out a few objects of interest and led me to the viewpoint from where I was supposed to see the summit of Mt Kilimanjaro. Unfortunately, due to a cloud cover, I couldn’t see anything but the base of the mountain and a few low lying ridges leading to the summit. The ‘tour’ was over within 30 minutes. I was highly disappointed with the so-called guided tour, which I could have done myself without any problem. I was conned by a glib talking chap who knew how to fool the gullible. He had the cheek to request a ‘tip’. “You got more than you deserve,” I dismissed him curtly.
The missing train
Even after many years, Vimala and I used to talk about what we called the “Romford” episode. I flew from Eindhoven to London and waited anxiously for Vimala to arrive by the boat train from Harwich after we completed our short stay in the Netherlands. I was happy to see Vimala’s smiling face as she stepped off the train on to the platform. We had to reach our friend’s residence in the London suburb of Romford. I dragged the heavy luggage on the platform and asked the person manning the gate about the train to Romford. “Sir, it is on the next platform, please hurry up!” Vimala went ahead and I struggled to keep pace with her. She got into the compartment and I lifted the luggage to enter the train. At that moment the pneumatic doors shut with a hiss and I was left stranded on the platform. Vimala waved to me as the train marched off leaving me stunned on the platform. The next train to Romford would be 30 minutes later. Those were the most anxiety-ridden 30 minutes I have ever spent. I thought about Vimala and what she would be doing at that very moment and what would be her next move. Unfortunately, there was no way of communicating with her.
I got on to the next train quickly and tried to look out of the steam-heated compartment, which partly blocked my view through the glass window. I thought of the possibility that Vimala would be taking the next train to London and we would be chasing each other without having any inkling where we could meet. The train came to a halt at the next small station. The platform was long and dimly lit. I looked out causally and imagine my surprise to see Vimala running on the platform as she had sighted me. I opened the door quickly as the train had halted there for a couple of minutes. She sank back on the seat still panting from the effort of running. “How come you saw me?” I enquired after Vimala had regained her breath. “Oh, don’t you remember the arrangement we had agreed in case one is left behind?” Honestly, I had forgotten what the agreement was. It seems we had agreed that the person who goes ahead would get off at the next station and would wait for the other to catch up. Fortunately, she had not forgotten that understanding. So within 45 minutes, we sat next to each other in the same compartment. It was a happy ending to an episode that in all might have ended unfortunately for several reasons. Stay close to each other is another piece of advice that would prove useful.
The Canals in Amsterdam form concentric belts around the city.
Flexibility is inherent in a non-package solo tour. If you decide to stay back in one place, you could do so without anyone questioning your decision. Moreover, you could change your plan as you go along. Recently I was in the Philippines and I was to take a ferryboat from the town of Bacolod to Manila, a 22-hour sea-ride. I had bought a ticket from India using the Internet. Promptly, at 5 pm, I was on the jetty to check into my boat. Imagine my surprise when the person at the gate looked at my ticket and announced, “Sir, your boat has not arrived. The departure is rescheduled to leave at 8 am tomorrow morning.” That was a nasty surprise but soon I recovered from the initial shock to plan the next move. I had decided against the boat travel, as it would consume too much time. My time being limited I had to make an alternate plan.
I returned to the same hotel from which I had checked out a few hours ago. Then I was busy using my Samsung tablet to get an air-ticket for the next day. Fortunately, I could book a ticket by Philippines Airlines to Manila late in the evening and that too at a higher price as it was too near the departure date. I had no choice but to purchase the ticket online so that I could travel to Manila and that same night to Legazpi, home to the dormant volcano Mt Mayon. By such an alternate arrangement I gained almost a day and that I was pleased by the turn of events, though unexpected. That’s the advantage of being flexible and internet savvy! I could change my program sometimes on the spur of the moment that suited me. You are answerable to none but yourself! You can go up the Eiffel Tower, go to the Green Island off the Gold Coast, take a boat to the famous Hundred Islands in the Philippines, visit Abu Simbel in Egypt, gamble all night at Las Vegas if you like and many more options if you have the money and inclination. You are your own master!
Plaza de la Constitucion, the massive main square also known as Zocalo.
The budgeted trip
A budget trip has its own plus points. You can choose the place you want to visit. Several options are available – museum, center of culture, archaeological site, pilgrim center, wildlife park, scenic spot, resort, shopping, health-care centers such as gym, spa, yoga, meditation, wildlife safari, adventure sports such as ballooning, and snorkeling. With internet fax/phone it is possible to access most of the places/agencies. There are guidebooks that detail such places of interest and the agencies that deal with these. The more homework is done the better though you could change the program suiting your budget and convenience. Such advance information could prove useful even for a package tour person. For instance, in Kenya, I was more interested in seeing wildlife parks than spending time on beach resorts. A package tour to such safaris would be convenient but expensive. I found that it is possible to stay near the wildlife park in a small town/village in a modest hotel/lodge, hire a taxi, which is available through the hotel/lodge and then negotiate the price for a day or half a day tour of the wildlife park. However, some would like to stay inside the park in modest accommodation, of the self-catering type, by advance reservation.
It is not that a solo tourist has to stay away from a conducted tour. Sometimes hiring a cab for one person could prove to be expensive compared to sharing expenses or joining an organized tour. For instance, I joined a group of travelers going to the archaeological site of Persepolis near the town of Shiraz, Iran. However, I found that by using a public bus I could reach the archaeological site of Palmyra, Syria. There I hired a taxi to go around the various sites, the driver was my guide too. It does not make much sense in taking a conducted tour of a place like Petra, the archaeological site in Jordan. It is easier to could go to the town of Wadi Musa from Amman by a public bus/van and then walk across to the site. If need be one could buy a guide book for details of the site and the exhibits through notice boards, which have been put near the objects of interest give details.
I stayed at a hotel near the site after my visit to the archaeological site of Petra after a whole-day visit. A few cities like Dubai have an excellent hop-on-hop-off tour bus which could be used to see various places of interest. Such bus tours are available in most cities, which makes sightseeing simple and affordable.
With a map in hand and using the public transport system, the adventurous tourist ventures on his or her own seeing places of their interests. However, hiring a taxi has its own advantages even though it’s a bit expensive, like what I did in Lake Nakura National Park and Amboseli National Park, both in Kenya. I felt like a lord going on a safari, stopping wherever and whenever I wanted for better sighting and photo-op. However, you have to negotiate the price in advance, with a bit of bargaining.
Is travel a luxury? Do we have to spend so much time and money on travel we could do without? Some might say ‘no’ but it is money well spent for others like me. Every one of my tours has been an interesting and exciting learning experience, like a new window to the wide, wide world outside. Traveling on a budget, sometimes alone, has to be experienced firsthand. A conducted tour is no doubt convenient and hassle-free but the tourist misses out on the excitement and adventure of striking out all by himself or herself, maybe with a small group of like-minded persons. It could be exciting to get ‘lost’ in the back lanes of a strange city, encountering watchful, suspicious cats with the smell of cooking wafting nearby.
You can venture into little known off-the-beaten-track places if you have the spirit of adventure, time and inclination. Solo/ small group travel kindles the spirit of adventure in people who want to discover the world at their own pace and inclination on a modest budget. While trying to understand the culture and lifestyle of people of nations you visit, you become a potential goodwill ambassador of your own country. It would be music to my ears if some casual acquaintance in a foreign land told me, “I wish to visit your country one day!”
By D.B.N. Murthy