Travel Notes

When the wind blows from the North we can hear the train.

Not the thump-a-thump, thump-a-thump we heard as the carriages crossed the viaduct at the end of the street in the Czar Peter neighbourhood of Amsterdam, when the bedroom windows stood futilely open on hot summer nights; nor even the vague and distant rumble of the Canadian Pacific, now in Abbotsford, British Columbia, when the traffic at the corner had finally gone to bed, leaving the throb of massive diesel engines and myriad steel wheels to roll up to us from the Matsqui prairie, mixing gently with our dreams.  No, here the Chiltern Railways up Ruislip way sounds more akin to someone sliding a dinner plate across a stainless steel counter, a long metallic swoosh drawing ever away, disappearing into silence.

What did travel first sound like to me?

Perhaps it was the comforting two-stoke knock of the Recreio, the reliable Amazonian riverboat that would fetch us from the mission station in the pre-dawn darkness, tying up briefly at the flutuante, the mantels of the Coleman lanterns casting white-hot light across the dock as the assorted luggage and goods of the locals – homemade hammocks, pods of Brazil nuts, large smoky balls of real rubber – were quickly loaded aboard, headed upriver to the markets at Manaus and onward to the world beyond.

Later, as a teenager in Brasilia, bed-time coincided with the last flight from BSB, a VASP Boeing 727 whose Pratt & Whitney engines emitted an almighty scream as it climbed for the clouds, headed north over the planalto. I would pull the sheet up over my head in a vain attempt to fend off the mosquitos, and dream of far-away places.

The other day, descending the stairs of a London double-decker, pitching this way and that as the bus drew up to the stop, I pushed my way through the crowd of fellow commuters and stepped out into the roar of the airport. The smell of kerosene filled the air.  Looking East toward the rising sun I could see the ascending lights of five aircraft stacked up in their final approach; “Five times two”, I told myself, “ten miles of traffic I can see with the naked eye; and probably about a thousand passengers, all told.”

I never get over it.  How modern transport has so completely changed the world, how it has become so easy to move across the globe.  Ninety years ago, in 1927, my grandfather took his bride from Chicago to Seattle in a Ford Model T; upon arrival, my big-city grandmother didn’t like the look of the frontier town one bit, so they turned around and went home again.  The trip took three months.

Three of our daughters will be gathering in Edmonton, Alberta for Christmas this year, but we’ll be staying home in London.  Before the New Year we need to be in Amsterdam, where our fourth daughter is expecting a baby.  Oh well, I suspect we’ll all meet up again sometime next summer.

Where, I’m not yet sure; but really, does it matter?  Wherever it is, it’s less than a day away.

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