Vitali Vitaliev train journey

After All: May you never need the services of a ‘Horizontal Travel Agent’

Image credit: Christine Bohling

As the continuing ‘Covid War’ keeps millions of people away from travel, Vitali Vitaliev reviews his readers’ techno-travel reveries.

It is nice to see our lives getting back to normal after the pandemic, slowly but surely (or so I hope). Alas, so far, the ‘Covid War’ – not to be confused with the Cold War – is still raging in many parts of the world. There is one striking similarity between the two ‘wars’: they both impose heavy restrictions on our freedom of movement and travel.

As a Cold War child, who grew up on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain, I know how painful the forced immobility could be. To be told where and when you can and cannot travel is humiliating and dehumanising – it makes you feel trapped, no matter where the restrictions come from: a totalitarian state, or a merciless and unpredictable – and hence also totalitarian – virus.  

As an experienced ‘armchair buccaneer’, however, I was always aware of a set of tricks which never failed to make my entrapment bearable – travels of the mind.

That is why, since the start of the pandemic, when the first restrictions came into force, I have been sharing with ‘After All’ readers my most memorable techno-travel impressions. I also invited you to email me your own memoirs.

What is techno travel? It is any travel adventure which involves technology – in particular, transport (cars, planes, trains, ships etc.). As reader Alan George wisely noted in his email, “All worthwhile travel is techno.”

Readers’ reaction has surpassed my expectations. Unfortunately, space restrictions (yes, more restrictions, sorry) would not allow me to recount even the very best of your stories. Below is just a succinct digest of them.

Reader Graham Little points out one techno detail in the Falklands that I must have overlooked during my visit there some years ago: “...the remains of the original Falklands telephone system in the form of long single-wire (earth–return) overhead lines stretching away over the moorland. Dating from around 1907, it was connecting to subscribers in Port Stanley and to all the main properties in the Camp. Lines were shared, so one had to count the rings before answering – or not...”

In my defence I can say that the whole system was dismantled in the late 1980s, so it would have been hard to spot in 1999, the year of my visit.

Among the main joys of real-life travel are unexpected encounters, like the one described here by Richard Walker. While flying with his wife from a tiny Great Barrier Reef island in Australia (“in a two-prop 8-seater Britten-Norman Islander, with front four seats accessed by opening a side door and tipping forward the back of the front pair of seats to access the pair behind... which reminded me of getting into a two-door Morris Minor”), he bumped into another British engineer, who had visited the island to check the correct functioning of the effluent plant, and his wife who were both from Loughton a few miles up the road from Woodford, where Mr Walker himself lived! Was it worth travelling to Australia only to run into a couple of fellow ‘Essers’ “over the Pacific”?

One of the three fascinating stories sent by Peter Gill (who, incidentally, was “on the shortlist to become Britain’s first astronaut, or, more correctly, cosmonaut as the Juno Mission was Mir space station, [but] in the end the gig went to Helen Sharman...”, so that particular techno-travel story never got written) was about his brother, “...known in the family as the ‘Horizontal Travel Agent’.”

This brother “has, for many years, been a specialist in repatriation of the dead. People who inconveniently die in the wrong country, become classified as ‘Dangerous Goods’ and require special handling to get them home. He was, for a long time, responsible for all the MoD repatriation. Most people do not realise that the military cannot bring home their own dead, it all has to be handled by civilian contractors, and during the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan he was that contractor... He made several trips there often flying on C130 transport planes, sleeping on packing cases under Chinook helicopters...”

On a more cheerful note, here’s a techno-travel snippet inspired by my ‘Driverless Russian train’ story from Ken Owen, who lived and worked in Moscow in the 1990s: “When we first arrived in the depths of winter, we travelled by taxi from Sheremetyevo Airport to our hotel in central Moscow. About 10 minutes into the journey, we felt the most overpowering smell of vodka... I nudged my wife & whispered ‘oh-oh, this driver must be absolutely full of alcohol’, and so we stayed deathly quiet, not wanting to distract him. It was only later, as we settled into life in Moscow, that we realised that [putting] the cheapest vodka into car screen washers was much preferred to buying the expensive antifreeze screen wash!”

Had my call for your travel reveries been a competition and not just an attempt to cheer you (and myself) up in the middle of the pandemic, the winner would have certainly been Peter Brookes, MIET, my frequent correspondent from Palm Bay, Florida, who recalled how he first met his wife on a flight from Heathrow to New York in 1963. She was the last late passenger on the seat next to Mr Brooke’s. The couple have now been married 55 years!

Let’s hope that the Covid War will be over soon, that we’ll all be able to resume real-life (as opposed to virtual and vicarious) and – importantly – strictly ‘vertical’ travels, and that Peter Gill’s ‘Horizontal Travel Agent’ of a brother will be indefinitely furloughed for lack of work! 

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