Hungary, through many eyes, is a country of extremes. It lies on the fringes of Europe, unlike most European countries it is landlocked, and commonly experiences scorching heat in the summer and tree-cracking cold in winter. The Hungarian language is also one of a kind with no near relations; this allows a defensive impenetrability, but engenders a cultural homogeneity almost like that of Israel.
Norway is famed the world over for dramatic scenery, with high mountains alongside a sometimes surprisingly blue sea. In the span of humankind, most of the region was beneath an ice sheet, kilometres thick, which sliced the tops from mountains, then carried the debris along in rivers of ice to the sea. Some areas in the far north and offshore islands like the Lofotens escaped glaciation, leaving a coastal landscape of jagged peaks.
I am on a sandbank in northern India. There is a full moon. The Ganges is the most sacred river of India if you speak to a Hindu for whom it is a goddess itself, bringing spiritual power from the abode of Shiva, creator and destroyer. It is a monumentally important river to an agriculturist, as its floodplain feeds a third of India’s population, to a geographer it transfers water and nutrients from the Himalaya in its flow, to an economic or military strategist it is a vital supply route, to an anthropologist is is part of the cradle of a civilisation that is twice as old as the pyramids.
Over the years I travelled many thousands of miles through India by rail, mostly hauled by diesel engines, but when I first went there, a lot of venerable steam engines were still in daily service, a honeypot for rail enthusiasts and history buffs alike. As is often said, the ‘Golden Age’ is never the present one; would one see the age of steam as being a golden age for India, or is that just for the hard bitten nostalgic ?
‘Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink’, as the Ancient Mariner bemoaned. Of course he was surrounded by seawater, but for a large number of the world’s people the same issue of lack or inability to use water dogs their lives. Simple bonds of hydrogen and oxygen (H2O), create one of nature’s most incredible substances. With properties so constant in some ways that our metric system of weights and volume is based on it; one litre of water weighs a kilogram, one cubic metre of water weighs a tonne.
The BBC recently broadcast a series of one or two hour films on #slowtravel, one was a canal journey, another a reindeer sleigh trip in north Norway and another entitled ‘The Country Bus’ featuring a local bus journey through the narrow lanes and wide landscapes of the Yorkshire Dales. They recalled a time not long past when travel wasn’t really about timetables, or at times, even specific destinations ! The early forerunners of modern adventure travel almost all operated on the basis that the traveller was not guaranteed to get to, or to see all the sights along the way, but they would do their best to attain a final objective. Thus, London to Kathmandu, Cairo to Cape Town became ‘routes’ followed by a steady stream of buses, converted trucks filled with hopeful wayfarers happy just to take things as they came.
There is a humourous anecdote I recall from years ago, where a somewhat puzzled child asks their father why Grandma spends such a lot of time reading just that one book. “It’s the bible, son, there are lots of lessons for us all in there.” A beam of enlightenment crosses the child’s face; “Oh, I understand, now, thanks; I guess she must be swotting up for her finals !”
There are sights that immediately tug at the heartstrings for many people, perhaps more than we imagine. To my mind, a sight of the open road is a symbol of freedom, of potential; of the choice to go or to stay, to feel that one’s personal space extends beyond the horizon. This last sensation is commonplace among native peoples the world over, but I encountered it first among the Sami inhabitants of Northern Scandinavia.
In India there are uncountable religious festivals, drawing in devotees, pilgrims and other people from all walks of life, in uncountable numbers. One such is encountered at Pushkar, in Rajasthan, a desert state. From all over India and elsewhere, hundreds of thousands gather at the full moon in November, around a temple dedicated to Brahma, the creator in Indian cosmology. It is said to be the only such temple in all India, and is sited in the centre of the village.