I can tell you word for word a conversation I had with a stranger five years ago, but if you ask me where I went hiking last weekend, I’d need to look at a map. A strange, kind or even unpleasant encounter with someone on my travels stays with me forever, yet the name of the last town I drove through or the last train station I stopped at slips away within hours.
No wonder then that I’m not a “bucket list” kind of person. I suppose I could give you a list of all the places I’ve visited and lived in, but it wouldn’t mean much and borders on ego-travel – that phenomenon where people go somewhere and simultaneously ignore it.
A trip to a forest means having a blast on a zip wire, it’s New Zealand so let’s go skydiving, it’s the desert so time for some dune-bashing. Leave those delicate eco-systems alone, for goodness sake!
When I first did major travelling, a year in a camper van through Europe and across Egypt, I went home filled with tales to be told. It dawned on me pretty quickly that not many people are interested, and that travel really is an intensely personal pursuit.
There will, of course, always be people who play “travel bingo”; they’ve stayed somewhere cheaper, eaten somewhere better, flown somewhere quicker. However, there’s one aspect of travel that does get people listening – anecdotes about people I’ve met along the way.
The very best travel writers have always known this. Yes, it’s important to be told where to board a bus or have someone iron out the wrinkles of an itinerary for you. But a few lines of dialogue can say more about a place anywhere on the planet because everything else is background noise.
It’s not all about how you get somewhere, but who you meet along the way.
Over the years, my conversations with strangers have changed as I’ve grown more accustomed to “being abroad” and possibly got better at listening properly. From the elderly Cretan, with a bandolier across his chest (and yes, it was filled with bullets), to the rapist’s mum in a hair salon in California; from the Filipina pop singer in Oman to the mayor of a Chinese town who I mistakenly thought was my driver for the visit. These are the moments that make a place stay in my memory.
But what has all this got to do with My Favourite Place on Earth?
Well, part of my love of travel is finding places where I can be myself and have time to let conversations unfold. Choosing to be a stranger in a foreign country is liberating and enables encounters you may not have at home. But you’ve got to get to that foreign country, and that’s where my travelling partner of 30 years comes in, my husband.
Put us in the middle of a field and I’m happy to sit and stare at everything around me, soaking up the atmosphere. He would be on Google Maps looking for something of interest nearby. I strike up a conversation with someone and can see him quietly walking off down the road, completely disinterested and happy in his own world.
It took some years to realise that neither of us is right nor wrong, but if we played to each others’ strengths the combination worked well. And because we’re quite different, we accept the need to go it alone from time to time, so we both have Big Days Out knowing there’s a receptive audience waiting to listen to our tales when we get home.
Travelling alone can be more comforting if you’ve got someone waiting for you.
Perhaps it’s because I’ve been an expat for years, but I’ve learned that home is not an address, it’s where we both happen to be. I already live in a foreign culture (my fifth), so another never seems much of a stretch when we travel.
There are stand-out experiences, of course – picnicking on the Great Wall of China, watching the moon rise over the Taj Mahal – but they are rare and often shared with hundreds of other tourists. And to choose between them seems to diminish both.
This is definitely not about being smug, by the way. I believe everyone has someone with whom adventures are made even better, and it doesn’t matter who they are or how you discover them. When my mother was widowed, she discovered the joy of holidays with her neighbour, a woman as different in character as you could find.
In my case, I have to name My Favourite Place on Earth as wherever my fellow adventurer, my husband, is – as long as he’s got the map while I’m busy getting a feel for the place. It’s hard-earned, and it’s worked fairly well so far.
- Sue Brattle
- : Sue Brattle is a journalist and author, and the editor of The Correspondent, the magazine of the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Hong Kong. She has lived away from her native England for almost 13 years, sharing an adventure with her husband, Colin Simpson, that has so far taken them to Dubai, Saudi Arabia, China and now Hong Kong. The couple launched their travel blog, Afaranwide, in 2019.
- : https://afaranwide.com/
- : https://www.facebook.com/Afaranwide/
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- : We have an appeal that maybe a little unusual as we're a married couple with very different interests and attitudes. We are expats who travel a lot, and so we can offer insights into tourism and expat life. No one pays for our stays/trips/travel, and if they did we would be transparent about that. We speak as we find, with no axe to grind and without prejudice or favour. And we're ancient, so you won't get us zip wiring our way round the world but you will get sound advice and good steers.
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- : This is the first time this story has been published.