The other day I was in conversation with my uncle who had been to England on a training assignment early in his career way back in 1966 when Indian companies were not sending plane loads of engineers out to their client locations. He was given the option (one which I guess no one gets nowadays) to choose between a plane journey and a 14 day voyage on a ship and as any right thinking adventure seeker would blindly pick, he picked the ship. A smile lit his face as he spoke of finding the breakfast tables on the first morning empty after they had set out from Bombay port as everyone else apart from the crew and him were terribly sea-sick. The movie theatres on board, the live music at the restaurants, the card tables, the colourful personalities of his co-passengers and the luxury class rooms that all aboard the ship were given a tour of - leapt to life even as he spoke of them with genuine wonder, a joy to return to even after all those years. The first stop was brightly lit Aden in Yemen, where the city never slept welcoming tourists hopping off landing ships at the oddest hours in the night. From there onto Port Said in the magical country of Egypt and then past the Rock of Gibraltar and a few other halts as the massive ship coursed through vast stretches of endless ocean with ease and poise. The icing on the cake for my uncle was to watch the FIFA World Cup final of 1966 in which England beat West Germany for the only WC win of their much-hyped soccer team till date.
Contrast that to my on-site trip to Boston from Calcutta. Ship?? Are you kidding me? A Lufthansa flight plonks me in 8 straight hours to Frankfurt, Germany the country which manufactures my favourite objects of desire, beautiful, powerful cars with alarming regularity. I had 11 hours to kill at the airport but my dreams of putting a foot outside the airport into the birthplace of Porsche, Mercedes, BMW and Audi were put to rest by the airport security who said that post 9/11, visitor visas to exit the airport were at a premium. So I whiled away my time by walking around the insanely boring but huge shopping mall inside the airport before going off to sleep on an accommodating bench like a homeless man. Groggy eyed, I got up and boarded the connecting Lufthansa flight to Logan airport, Boston and was there in another 7-8 hours flat. The only countries in between I ever saw were on the personal entertainment screens on the respective seats where an animated plane charted our course across a world map as we crossed some delectable locations and countries. Nevertheless, I kept straining my neck at the window seats of both my flights (personal requested for it too) hoping to catch some defining glimpse of the country we were flying over. Frankly speaking my poor eyesight not withstanding, from that high up, it's quite difficult to make things out. So there I was, having travelled halfway across the world from the sweltering heat of a Calcutta summer to the welcoming warmth of a Boston summer without the faintest idea of how things changed in between.
How is it that the people of old had so much time to spare? To stand on the open deck and gaze towards the setting sun on an infinite expanse of water while the sea breeze blustered all around past the gently swaying ship. These were not people out on a holiday, they were people on a mission, to get somewhere and then do some work. Yet they could find time to take the slow route, find the confidence that the world was not going to fall apart in their absence while they savoured every single bend in the road and every story that can only be pulled out of the wonderful magic box called travel. Maybe I will take a ship when sent out on my next foreign assignment or more realistically, I think I am going to take some time off and build myself a time machine!