Sun, Mar 12, 2006 - Page 9 News List

Latter-day wanderlust versus fear and guilt

By Rebecca Front  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

If you had asked me a year or so ago, I would have told you with smug certainty that travel doesn't broaden the mind, it merely raises the blood pressure. I'm not one of nature's travelers. I hate tunnels, fear air crashes, loathe coaches and get sea-sick. I'm also vegetarian, so 98 per cent of the menu in any restaurant is a no-go area. I'm a lousy photographer, have a poor sense of direction, don't do water sports because my swimming's not up to much, and never engage strangers in conversation because ... they are strangers.

The one time I attempted to drive on the right, I displaced the wing mirrors of a row of cars with a choreographed precision Busby Berkeley would have envied. In short, I always felt I was better off at home, or in Tuscany, which is nicer than home in Britain but still sells Marmite.

But then, on a relatively stress-free three-hour flight, I started to think that it wouldn't be so bad to stay in my seat a few hours longer and find a different continent. I began to view travel not as a problem but a possibility. And one night, as my husband eyed a cheap-flight Web site and asked me for the thousandth time if I wouldn't fancy, say, San Francisco for a change, I said yes.

So last month, I found myself hurtling down hills in a cable car and eating fresh raspberries in the middle of winter. But it wasn't the Golden Gate bridge that broadened my mind; it was simply being elsewhere, encountering difference.

In your own country, it's easy to make assumptions about people based on accents, about areas based on architecture. But even in the US, ostensibly very like Britain, I found myself unqualified to make those judgments, and it was rather thrilling seeing things without the usual filter of prejudice or certainty.

I heard a black bus passenger's take on the Dick Cheney shooting: "I would have got seven years in jail for that, accident or no accident!"

A homeless man of no more than 20, with few teeth and track marks on his neck, was so pleased with the pitiful couple of dollars we gave him, he told us all the best vantage points for photographing his city.

Perhaps most remarkable was a conversation overheard between a young woman with Down's syndrome, a young man with speech, hearing and mobility difficulties and their carer, who was taking them downtown on a cable car. Over the clatter of the mechanism, and using an ingenious combination of signing, touching, pointing and shouting, they held a conversation that began, somewhat randomly, with "Do you like butter?" and ended with "I love you." It was a complete relationship in microcosm, taking no more than the 10-minute journey, and with each breakthrough in communication greeted with howls of infectious laughter.

Travel, I belatedly realized, is not just about sightseeing, notching up destinations in a futile, trainspotting way. Away from home, work and the school run -- our routine -- we are bombarded with new information, suddenly alert and alive. You've probably known that for years, but for me it's a revelation.

So the irony is not lost on me that just as I have overcome my fears about long-haul flights, the outlook for air travel has become rather bleak. If an oil depot disaster doesn't ground us, then it's quite possible that plans to restrict the spread of bird flu will.

And even without that, it's hard to see how we can go on flying willy-nilly about the globe with oil supplies politically vulnerable and dwindling, and each long-haul round trip damaging the environment more than driving a car for a year.

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