I love to travel.
I mean, I really love to travel. Not simply to take a holiday or enjoy a destination, but to experience the journey from place to place.
When I was nineteen I travelled through Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos. Alone. As you can imagine I had copious amounts of stories to tell. But what surprised me most was that my favourite stories, and the ones my friends and family loved to hear, was about getting from place to place. Not what each place was like, not what I did there, but how I got there.
Take for example my horror stories from Vietnam.
I crossed into Vietnam from Kep, Cambodia. This was a very isolated and little used border crossing, possibly because it could only be tackled by motorcycle (when I was there anyway). My dusty foray through the countryside was cut short when we were run off the road by a truck (clearly violating the road rules!) travelling in the opposite direction. Not too much harm done, although I sustained the lovely inner calf burn from the exposed petrol pipe that is known by travellers throughout Asia as the ‘Bali kiss’.
Upon arriving in Ha Tien, one of the southernmost towns in Vietnam, I promptly succumbed to my first bout of traveller’s gastro, something I had managed to avoid all the way through Thailand and Cambodia. After spending Christmas Day, 2008, either hunched over a toilet bowl or re-wrapping the bandage on my leg, I decided to give exploring Ha Tien a miss. I planned to hot-foot it to Ho Chi Minh City, and begin my travels of Vietnam properly.
I was then ripped off by a dodgy moped driver, abandoned at my hostel, and consequently missed the only bus to Ho Chi Minh.
I was promised another bus by an even dodgier moped driver, who subsequently delivered me to a tiny village in the middle of the Vietnamese countryside. He assured me that a bus would come, relived me of 100 000 VD and abandoned me there. Much to my surprise a bus did arrive several (terrifying) hours later, although no one spoke English so I couldn’t check the destination. We arrived late that night in a city which I presumed to be Ho Chi Minh. I ‘took to the mattresses’ as the Corleone’s say, spending a few days holed up in a hotel room surviving off intermittent room service deliveries. After I had recovered sufficiently I ventured downstairs to ask the bemused hotel workers how I could get from Ho Chi Minh City to Nha Trang, further north.
‘You mean from My Tho to Ho Chi Minh, then Ho Chi Minh to Nha Trang?’ they asked me.
‘No, from here,’ I pointed to the ground, ‘from here, Ho Chi Minh City, to Nah Trang. How do I get to Nha Trang?’
‘First you go My Tho to Ho Chi Minh.’ they patiently explained.
‘Are we…are we not, um, in Ho Chi Minh City?’ I feebly asked, my heart sinking.
‘No, no, this is My Tho, Ho Chi Minh City 80km away from here.’
You can imagine my absolute pleasure upon hearing this particular piece of information. Consequently, I ended up taking a taxi the 78 km from My Tho to HCMC. On New Years Eve. Upon arriving in HCMC I went directly to the nearest travel agency and asked for a ticket to Laos. Immediately. If not sooner. Bear in mind that the nearest entry point to Laos was well over 1000 km away. The confused travel agent booked me a four day trip to get there, consisting of three separate buses and one overnight stop in Nha Trang.
Bone tired, stiff and sore, I arrived four days later in Hoi An, my final destination before crossing into Laos. I checked into the closest hostel before going back to the bus, intending to retrieve my enormous backpack. My backpack. The bag that contained everything I owned in Asia, besides my passport and some money, and the clothes I had spent the past three days in.
The backpack that was still sitting on the lobby floor of the hostel in Nha Trang, left behind three days ago by the bus driver.
It was my travels through Vietnam, rather than Vietnam itself, that provided the most fodder for my tales. Perhaps this is why I so adored Jules Verne’s epic tale of travelling, Around the World in Eighty Days.
First published in 1873, this book was the forefather of travel books: precise, accurate and entertaining. It begins with a bet between our main protagonist, the unequivocal and exacting Phileas Fogg, and the gentlemen he pays whist with at the Reform Club. A conversation between them leads to Phileas Fogg adamantly maintaining that it is possible to travel around the world in eighty days, following the calculations made in the Morning Chronicle newspaper.
‘Yes, eighty days!’ exclaimed Andrew Stuart, ‘but not including bad weather, contrary winds, shipwrecks, running off the track, etc.’
‘Everything included’, replied Phileas Fogg.
‘Theoretically, you are right, Mr Fogg, but practically –‘
‘Practically also, Mr Stuart.’
What follows is a marvellous tale of Fogg traversing the world in order to prove himself correct and win the £20 000 bet the gentlemen have made. He travels with his faithful servant Passepartout, a name which translates roughly in French to ‘skeleton key’, or ‘key which allows one to go about at will’. I personally prefer to liken it to ‘passport’.
Their journey is a series of adventures and misadventures, in which they continually encounter apparently insurmountable obstacles, only to overcome them at the last minute. Fogg’s calculations leave not a moment to spare, they precisely factor in chance and human error. He is ever calm in the face of adversity, somehow believing that each ridiculous event that happens to them is accounted for in his plans.
Mr Fogg, who counted on finding at the same time both the steamer and his servant, was compelled to do without both. But not a sign of disappointment appeared upon his face; and, when Mrs Aouda looked at him with uneasiness, he contented himself with replying:
‘It is an incident, madam, nothing more.’
And they do encounter some ridiculous events, including rescuing Mrs Aouda from certain death in India, getting caught in the middle of a political brawl in San Francisco, and escaping from a deadly attack on their train by a group of Sioux Indians.
To add to the comical mayhem of the tale, Fogg is pursued from England by a detective by the name of Fix. Fix believes that Fogg has stolen the money he uses on his travels from a bank in England. According to Fix, Fogg’s description matches that of the bank robber exactly. He believes Fogg is attempting to escape England, so he follows close on his heels, constantly determined to capture the rogue criminal. Initially he does everything in his power to delay Fogg, believing he will be able to arrest him in a country beneath English rule. However, once they reach the America’s, Fix decides to assist Fogg in any way he can, hoping to follow him back to England and arrest him there rather than attempt an extradition. However, as the story progresses, we can see that Fix is becoming torn in his duty to arrest Fogg. They are travelling closely together, and perhaps his belief in Fogg’s guilt is wavering somewhat.
Fix looked closely at the gentleman, and whatever he may have thought, in spite of his prejudices, in spite of his inward struggle, he dropped his eyes before that quiet, frank look.
We follow along restlessly with this odd travelling party, held by Verne in a state of nervous anticipation. We wonder if Fogg will make it back to England within the specified eighty days, and whether he is indeed the criminal that Fix maintains him to be.
The esteemed, (and kindly looking), writer – Jules Verne
Verne is also thoughtful enough to provide his readers with a subtle love story within the book. It is an apparently one-sided affair, that we watch with interest, between Fogg and the lady he rescued in India, Mrs Aouda. She is completely enamoured of Fogg while he offers her nothing but polite, overtly formal courtesy.
Her large eyes were fixed upon those of Mr Fogg – her large eyes ‘clear as the sacred lakes of the Himalaya!’ But the intractable Fogg, reserved as ever, did not seem to be the man to throw himself into this lake.
Yet we can’t help but hope that something more may arise…
Phileas Fogg is nothing if not a cold, calculating man, yet somehow Verne injects him with just enough appeal, just enough human decency, that we can’t help liking him. His marvellous way of facing calamity and catastrophe imbibe in us a sense of trust, I believe nothing could go wrong with Fogg by your side. This of course is offset by the hilarious, highly strung character of Passepartout, who’s love and devotion for his master do not prevent him from constantly falling into scrapes which inevitably cause delay.
This book is wonderfully written, beautifully executed and full of suspense. Despite the fact that it is well over 100 years old, it is just as enjoyable to read today as I imagine it was upon publication. Of course the notion of taking eighty days to circumference the globe is now an ancient and foreign concept, as is many of the wonderful ways our hero Fogg and his sidekick Passepartout travel by. This does not detract from the book at all, rather it lends it an air of a history novel as we travel back in time.
Pick it up the next time you are housebound and feel like going on a trip around the world.
‘Why, you are a man of heart!’ said Sir Francis Cromarty.
‘Sometimes,’ replied Phileas Fogg simply, ‘when I have the time.’