The Pleasures of Retracing Your Steps
It’s the early 1970s. You’re in your 20s and have decided to see a bit of the world.
You pore over maps (there are few travel guidebooks), buy a backpack, resign from your job and head off into an unfamiliar world.
You travel on a shoestring. When you arrive in Asia, you meet fellow backpackers, and sometimes you journey together. You often have the same destination – in my case Kathmandu, on the overland “hippie trail” from Bombay (now Mumbai). You learn by word of mouth of places to see and hotels to stay. Every day promises new challenges.
Fast forward many decades. You’re now a senior traveller. You’re still loving the pleasures of travel but it’s a different world out there and you’re a different person.
You have a bucket list of new places to see. But should you also revisit some of the places you first saw as a young backpacker?
My answer to that is an unqualified yes. Some of my best holidays as a senior traveller have been to places I’ve visited before, in some cases after a gap of more than 30 years. It’s one of the great pleasures of travel.
The reasons are many. It’s enormous fun to see how places have changed and how they haven’t. At the same time, you yourself have changed – you’re a lot older, if not necessarily wiser – and you are seeing things from a fresh perspective.
When you were a backpacker your priority was to live as cheaply as possible. This was the travel ethos you lived by and you took pride in it.
As a senior traveller with a little more disposable income, you can experience some of the comforts you may have missed out on before: a 5-star hotel if you so choose, meals at some of the better restaurants, preferably with a bottle of wine to share. And you can hire a car and driver to get to sites that may have been difficult to reach before.
As a backpacker, I could keep going all day long. I devoured books while on endless train or bus journeys, or while waiting between rides. As a senior traveller, I’ve come to appreciate the value of rest, and don’t hesitate to add an afternoon nap to my itinerary if I can.
Some places change enormously over the years. When I first saw Kathmandu in 1973, its old world charms drew me in like a spell; the word “magical” still comes to mind when I think of it.
Some of the magic remains today but it’s a much busier, more crowded and polluted city. In some ways, however, it has actually improved. For instance, the bustling tourist district of Thamel, always fun to explore with its excellent hotels and eating places, had not yet started to develop as a tourist destination in the early 1970s.
Some of the changes in the Kathmandu valley have been heartbreaking. Visiting Nepal after the earthquake of April 2015, nothing prepared me for the scenes of desolation: little but rubble left of temples I thought would last forever when I first saw them.
Natural calamities aside, some places change beyond recognition of their own accord. In 1973 I visited Nagarkot, a mountain village east of Kathmandu: a crowded bus ride part of the way followed by a four-hour climb into the mountains. It offered superb views of the Himalayas, including Everest, but was a sleepy little place with few facilities. I don’t recall a single tourist-quality hotel or eating place.
When I revisited it with my wife in 2011, in the comfort of a hired car, I hardly recognised the place. It had a busy air, with a range of hotels and restaurants, and a good road leading all the way up. I searched in vain for the simple hostel I had stayed in years earlier.
While my first visit was part of an overland adventure that will always be with me, the second was equally enjoyable, bringing great memories of its own. I’m glad to have had the opportunity to see how Nagarkot has changed over the years.
The Taj Mahal in Agra is another case in point. While my first visit in 1973 was unforgettable – walking barefoot on the marble floors is a standout memory - my second visit with my wife 36 years later was, if anything, even more memorable.
Sometimes the pleasure is in discovering the ways in which a place hasn’t changed. In 1973 I visited Pokhara, a city northwest of Kathmandu, and enjoyed watching water buffalo soaking themselves in Phewa Tal, the large lake alongside the city.
Thirty-one years later I went to the same lookout point and, sure enough, there were still water buffalo wallowing in the lake. Traditional life was continuing.
Similarly, when I visited Mumbai in 2009, I tried to retrace the steps of my only other visit 36 years earlier.
The backpackers’ hotel I’d stayed in was nowhere to be found. But a restaurant I had eaten at a few times, the Bagdadi in the Colaba district, was still there (and still is today), serving tasty, inexpensive fare in a no-frills setting. I had a meal there for old times’ sake.
One big difference about revisiting a place today as a senior traveller, of course, is that the flavour of those long backpacking trips in the pre-Internet days can never be recaptured – that sense of being largely cut off from your family and friends for weeks at a time.
International telephone calls were expensive and unreliable, to be used only in an emergency. The only practical way to keep in touch was to ask them to send letters addressed to post offices along your route, to await your arrival. You’d join other travellers queueing to check for mail, your passport in hand, often to discover there was nothing for you.
Respect for age
Another refreshing difference for senior travellers is the genuine respect for age that exists in many Asian countries. Provided you try to be friendly and courteous to the people you meet along the way, you’re likely to receive boundless respect in return.
Occasionally the highlight of revisiting a city happens entirely by chance. Out walking in Kathmandu one day in 1973, I chanced upon a 5-star hotel, the Yak & Yeti, and went in to take a look.
As I strolled around its spacious gardens, I thought to myself: if I can ever afford it, I’ll come back and stay here.
Thirty-one years later, I visited Kathmandu on a work trip. And the venue our hosts chose for our conference: none other than the Yak & Yeti. It was the happiest of coincidences.
Header image: Đức Mạnh