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Lessons Learned From A Lifetime Of Travel

Travel writer and broadcaster Simon Calder has been hitchhiking his way around the world since the age of 12 – he swears by cheap travel, curiosity and seeking advice from the locals

Growing up during the height of Cold War tensions left Simon Calder with a lifelong fascination for the once-inaccessible countries within the Soviet Bloc. His early travels closer to home, however, were what sparked his career in travel writing: with the Hitchhiker's Manual: Britain his first foray into the genre of budget travel guidebooks. It’s an area he has since made his own, with guides to Amsterdam, Cuba, the Americas and eastern Europe all bearing his name and an on-the-cheap philosophy.

As the long-serving Travel Editor for The Independent, as well as a former presenter on various BBC travel programmes, Calder’s work is centred on the belief that the greatest discoveries, experiences and people are found when living as the locals do. ‘The people with the best stories to tell’, he writes, ‘live life in the cheap seats.’

When you are in two minds about travelling somewhere, always go – apprehension soon gives way to appreciation

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Q: Why do you think travel is important?
A: ‘Travel enriches. We, the fortunate travellers of the 21st century, are enriched by the encounters and experiences that we are privileged to enjoy. Our hosts, be they be Airbnb apartment owners in Miami or shepherds in Kyrgyzstan, are enriched by our stays. And humanity is enriched by peaceful contacts between members of vastly different tribes.’

Q: Why do you believe the best way to travel is cheaply?
A: ‘Pragmatically, because the less money you spend on travel, the more travelling you can do. But aesthetically, too, choosing the low-cost option is almost always more intriguing and engrossing. You have a very different experience staying in an eight-person dorm in the ‘Backpackers’ Palace’ in Seville than in the Hotel Alfonso XIII – and, I contend, a much richer stay. The less you pay, the more you get.’

Q: What’s been your most memorable encounter from a lifetime of hitchhiking?
A: ‘Almost every hitching experience has been positive, so it feels churlish to single one out. But I like the way that, in New Zealand, you need only start hitching towards nightfall and you can be pretty certain of getting not only a lift but also be offered somewhere to stay.’

‘Then, one winter’s day in the Black Forest I got a lift with a marketing man from Porsche who was test-driving a top of the range Mercedes to assess the competition – and said: “I’ll take you anywhere you want to go.” I didn’t want to push my luck, so I nominated a railway station down in the Rhine valley, and during the half-hour journey he gave me a masterclass in how automobile marketing works. In return, I hope I have provided a sympathetic and non-judgemental shoulder for drivers who simply want their story heard.’

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Q: How do you capture the essence of a place through the words you write?
A: ‘Well, you could describe the light or shadows, the calm or the intensity of the surroundings, and your emotional response to it all. Or you could distil encounters with the people you meet. Or both.’

Q: What's your favourite part of the world to travel around?
A: ‘As a Cold War child, I have a fascination with the countries behind the ‘Iron Curtain’. In the last 18 months I have had enlightening experiences in Central Asia, Russia and Moldova. Travel right now is easy, affordable and absolutely fascinating, as the deep Soviet imprint takes some shifting. One moment you are exploring the astonishing Islamic monuments in Samarkand, the next you are back in the USSR.’

Q: What lessons have you learned from a lifetime of travel?
A: ‘First, put down that smartphone: don’t take selfies, don’t listen to music rather than local sounds, and especially don’t text when you’re crossing the road. Then, always ask. Local people are (almost) invariably more helpful than stuff you find online. Finally, when you are in two minds about travelling somewhere, always go. Apprehension soon gives way to appreciation.’

Find out more about Simon’s work as a travel writer and broadcaster at Simoncalder.co.uk. Follow him @SimonCalder

Words: Isaac Williams

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