In praise of escapism

A long-time contributor to Travel’s pages, writer JOHN BORTHWICK recently won the 2020 Pacific Area Travel Association’s (PATA) Gold Award for Best Destination Story.

Here, he takes a light-hearted look at travel and writing, exploring Thailand and the greatly under-rated virtues of escapism.

‘Sir, you are a socialist, capitalist, anarchist or Impressionist?’ Wearing traditional Afghan baggy trousers, long waistcoat and a turban, the eager college student was peppering us with questions about everything from ideology to barbershops.

I recall it as a crystal-clear day, with a snow-fed river that falls from the Pamir Mountains rattling noisily beside us. My travelling companion, an English vagabond named Bob and I were in Badakshan in far north-eastern Afghanistan and encircled by exotic placenames like the Hindu Kush, Tajikistan and the fabled Wakhan Corridor. In terms of travel anywhere, including on this 1970s Overland Trail to India, we were by any definition “pretty far out”.

The student had spotted us as we lazed beside the Kokcha River contemplating life, lunch and the universe. Or more likely, how to hitch a ride south to the giant Buddhas of Bamiyan. The bright young Afghan, who was toting an English dictionary, started with the customary, “You are from Americastan or Englishstan?” (“Australiastan” just didn’t compute). Noting our cultivated lack of grooming, he added with concern, “But I think you cannot afford the haircutting shop or beard barber?”

In a superb country — Afghanistan was still a kingdom — that was being tugged vigorously between rival Soviet and Western blocs, his interrogation soon turned to which “ism” we followed: Buddhism, opportunism, atheism or scepticism, and so on through the dictionary. Masochism, Maoism, Baptism and, mercifully, antidisestablishmentarianism were so far not on his checklist. Nor journalism, which hadn’t yet ankle-tapped my footloose progress through life.

Our answers lacked precision, to say the least, so the student went for the knock-out question: “You are Capitalist or Communist?” With which Bob leapt to his feet and with long hippie hair flying, cartwheeled away down the riverbank, yelping, “None of them! None! I’m an escapist!” Such was travel, 1970s-style, when I first became habituated to it. And now — OMG — half a century later, I’d still be a traveller-slash-escapist if our planet’s virulent borders would again permit it.

Read the full story here.

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