Since I was very small I have always had an innate wanderlust. Day and night I would pore over books with photos of strange places, wild topography, fascinating people and exotic flora and fauna. These pages excited me like nothing else. Forget Alice in Wonderland, forget Winnie the Pooh, forget Little Women. As I grew up it was the writings of T.E Lawrence, Wilfred Thesiger, Gertrude Bell, Francis Younghusband, Freya Stark, Margaret Meade and others that fired my imagination and became my Bibles. And it was the words of San Augustin that became etched in my mind: “The world is a book. And those that do not travel read only one page.”
Even at an early age I dreamt of writing a best-selling book about my about my wanderings, to write about people who didn’t resemble me, to learn about cultures different from my own and to live among tribes from as far afield as the mountain ranges of S.E. Asia to those of the Brazilian and Amazonian rainforests. And I secretly hoped that someone, some day, would describe me as, “eccentric”, “fearless” and “inspiring”.
I wanted to be like Freya Stark, aged 85, astride a donkey, riding across the Himalayas. Her words resonating in my ears: “To awaken alone in a strange place is one of the most pleasant sensations in the world.”
And I made up my mind there and then that all my travels would be on my own.
It’s funny – looking back. I was single-minded. I was determined. And I was supremely confident – the type of arrogant self-belief that only comes with youth, ignorance and inexperience. I was so certain that I, like the renowned Arabist Gertrude Bell, would feel as comfortable sitting in a palace with kings as I would be squatting with nomads in a tent in the desert.
Over the decades I have travelled extensively – to the Soviet Union, India, Nepal, Africa, South East Asia, North America, Canada, Australia, Japan, the Middle East, the Caucasus, Eastern Europe, the Antarctic, the sub-Arctic and Latin America.
During those travels I have shared an hermetically-sealed train compartment for 2 long weeks with three very drunk and very smelly Russian men as we crossed the vast Siberian tundra. And I have had to demonstrate how tampons are used to four extremely perplexed male customs officials at the Siberian border who had never seen one before in their lives! They were convinced I was a spy and the tubes were mini telescopes I was using for my espionage work!
I have been robbed by a band of criminals as I walked alone to see the temples of Cheng Mai and I have been used as a police decoy to catch a serial rapist in Hong Kong. I’ve been toasted as an “honorary man” for my work in the refugee camps of southern Azerbaijan and I’ve been transformed into a living goddess by a remote Ifugao tribe living high up in the Cordillera Mountains of the northern Philippines.
I’ve illegally smuggled a terrified young Bosnian refugee girl in the back of my truck, away from the war zone, across 6 countries and into the UK, to reunite her with her parents. And I’ve been mistaken for the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi by a large group of very curious, but obviously very ill-informed, Chinese journalists in Hong Kong!
I’ve taken and passed a Disaster Relief Operations Course with the British Army and I’ve delivered lectures aboard the luxury liner, the QE2, about the hidden wealth of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos of the Philippines.
I’ve hosted a birthday party in a prison cell for the Bolivian painter, Benjamin Mendoza, who was incarcerated for attempting to assassinate Pope Paul VI. I’ve played chess with Marlon Brando, played tennis with Al Pacino, sang on stage with Tony Bennett and giggled into my napkin as Monica Lewinsky dipped a cigar in brandy and rolled it seductively across her thigh at dinner. I’ve dined with King Hussein in Jordan, played charades with Princess Grace in Monaco and I have even sipped tea and watched horse-racing in front of the TV with our British Queen.
And what have I learnt from these unique, and somewhat surreal, experiences? I have learnt not to take myself too seriously. I have learnt that listening to people is far more valuable than talking to them. I have learnt that a notebook and a pen is far more reliable than memory. I have learnt that refugees who have little or nothing to offer are far more generous than people who have plenty. I have learnt that, in the words of the author James Michener, “If you reject the food, ignore the customs, fear the religions and avoid the people, you might just as well stay at home.” And I have proved to myself that Freya Stark was right all along – that travelling on one’s own opens up many more doors than travelling with others.
As you can see parts of my dream have come true. I have indeed written a best-selling book although, sadly, it was not about travels. And to my delight I have, in fact, been dismissed as “eccentric” or just plain mad by many of my friends and family who watched me set off alone by train, at the height of the Cold War, across East Germany, Poland, Russia and Siberia. I have indeed been described as “fearless” by my fellow journalists in Manila. And I have been told I am an “inspiration” by the three people who matter most in my life – my children.
My dream has been to travel the world. And I still have new places to visit, new horizons to explore, new adventures ahead. But San Augustin’s words remain as relevant to me today as they always were: “The world is a book. And those that do not travel read only one page.”
He was right, of course. To me the world IS a book and I better get moving again soon as I am only about half way through.”