We are just back from a coach trip in Central Europe. It was leisurely in that we stopped for well over 24 hours in each place we visited; and when we were on the road, we were not confined to our seats for more than a couple of hours at a stretch.
Two hours after we set out, we would pull into a convenience stop to visit rest rooms and have a drink or a snack. Those ‘comfort’ stops were not at bland petrol stations, where all one can pick up are packets of wafers and coffee from a vending machine. Rather, we halted where there was a choice of stores and cafes, sometimes charming inns, and even the sleepiest among us would get down to explore — because who knew what hidden treasures we would discover there? (It was, after all, at one such quaint stop Down Under that I had found a mug for my friend of nearly half-a-century that seemed to say it all for our now-forgetful minds: “We’ll be best friends until we’re old and senile ... and then we’ll be new friends!”)
A little while after our ‘comfort’ stop came a lunch stop of two hours or more, generally in the centre of an old town, with ornate buildings to admire, ‘designer’ clocks to listen to, fruit and vegetable stalls to wander past, mementoes to pick up and oh yes — we could so easily forget because by that time, it had fallen low on our agenda — food to search for, as well!
After that, we would hop back on the coach, reflecting happily on whatever adventure had accompanied our lunch, and before we knew it, we would be at our destination. As fresh as when we had started out.
And I could not help but think how different this comfort and ease of travel was from road trips in India when we were young, some five decades ago!
Those journeys had Father driving, Mother navigating and the three of us kids squabbling in the back seat — usually over who was hogging the most space or who had grabbed the biggest slice of the cake.
If that was not bad enough, there would be other problems too. It could be that a stream was in spate and the road had disappeared under it. We would inch forward, unsure of the depth of the water or the strength of the current or even whether the road still existed! Why we insisted on going across is hard to understand now, but we just kept going: Father with his eyes peeled, Mother with her heart in her mouth, and we children with our eyes shut, too terrified to make any sound at all (or maybe our vocal cords only worked at full volume when food was involved).
Another problem we encountered was when the road uphill was so steep that it was tough to keep from rolling backwards as we inched up behind another larger vehicle struggling and coughing and belching into us. One of us had to hop out and put wedges behind the tyres and then retrieve them and run to catch up with the car as it overtook that lorry or bus.
Volunteers for this ‘wedging’ were naturally not easy to get — and that’s when those who had fought for the window seats got their just desserts, while the previously sandwiched one sat through the entire exercise without moving. (Mostly too scared to move...)
Today, long-distance road trips in India too are pretty comfortable: With smooth roads and refreshment stops. But somehow, we have no desire to undertake them. Maybe because we continue to linger on old misadventures and imagine that we can only have the ‘good stuff’, the en route adventures, on other continents ...
Cheryl Rao is a journalist based in India.