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The only bucket list worth making is of stuff you’ve already done

October 28, 2021

Travel broadens the mind. Not travelling turns it into a wrinkly old walnut, slowly pickling with each passing day. At least that’s been my experience.

Now, with a hole in each arm, flu-jabbed and COVID-boostered, I’m ready to set out again to foreign lands, in full awareness that for me, at the start of my eighth decade, the future isn’t a big sky, but a rapidly shrinking horizon – a decade, maybe, during which ability matches motivation, after which I get to the point where I can’t be arsed anymore.

But why travel, and to where?

Since we’re encouraged to view every journey beyond the local supermarket as a crime against the generations we’ve spawned, who suffer from our fossil-fuel profligacy through no fault of their own, every decision to fly or drive to some far location is accompanied with a measure of guilt.

It would seem that the most energy-efficient travellers of this age are the backpackers, who may take a long-haul flight to some exotic destination, but don’t fly back again for months or possibly years. Which is fine if you don’t have an employer awaiting your return in short order, or arthritic knees that no amount of spiritual nourishment will return to their original flexible state. But not fine if you don’t fancy sleeping on plastic-strewn beaches or curling up among the bedbugs in a ten-dollar-a-night dormitory. The last time I went backpacking was in the 70s, and I’m not about to start again now.

My travel since then has usually been for a purpose other than the joy of exploration. Work, perhaps, or simply the desire for a warm climate, especially at this time of year, when the only warmth to be had at home is between four walls. I’m not like a dear friend, whose main purpose in travelling is to see as many “places of interest” in the shortest possible time, and whose fridge looks like a painted armadillo, hardly visible underneath a densely-laid mosaic of little magnets. There are only so many cathedrals that I can appreciate in a given day.

But when my wife and I set out for somewhere new, it’s in the expectation that the primary purpose – be it work, or long hours reading, eating and swimming – presents the opportunity to do other stuff. Though not surprisingly, it’s the landscapes, the edifices, the people and the wildlife we meet along the way that we remember long after the original purpose has been fulfilled.

In this age of Corona, we’ve had to rely more and more on other people’s voyages.  Michael Palin’s TV series, for example, or the books of Colin Thubron. They often provide the additional attraction of historical context. Palin, for example, went through the Soviet Union on his Pole To Pole journey shortly before Gorbachev coup. To meet people sitting on the cusp of change, warm and welcoming and yet always with one eye open for those who might be watching them, feels like a window into an age of relative innocence – before 9/11, Iraq, ISIS, financial crises and now COVID.

Fortunately, everybody with the semblance of celebrity is making up for our relative inability to travel by making journeys for us, lucky bastards. So we get to see Alexander Armstrong in Iceland and Richard E Grant trolling around the great hotels of the world imagining the rich and famous having sex on the beds. Can’t wait to see Jeremy Corbyn in Colwyn Bay and Cleethorpes.

Which brings me to bucket lists. For me, making a list of things I want to see and do before I die is not a priority. While we all need things to look forward to – reasons to get out of bed perhaps – or for some, the motivation to keep on living, my experience has been that truly memorable moments are not planned. They happen by accident. Such as stumbling into a choral mass one evening in a Venetian church we didn’t know existed.

Besides, depending how close we are to the end, by the time we get round to fulfilling our wish list we may well be too clapped out to enjoy the things we set out to do. One temple is more than enough for one day. And when you’ve been there and done that, so what? What profound reflections will you derive from the Kremlin, the Great Barrier Reef or Wolverhampton that you couldn’t arrive at from the comfort of your own home? And why reflect at all if before long you’re destined to take your reflections to the grave? To whom will you bequeath your fridge magnets?

A slightly extreme view, perhaps, but certainly in tune with the times. We’ve been to a few places that have been so overrun by fellow tourists that quiet contemplation of what we see is almost impossible. Did we really need to go to Angkor Wat or stand before the hollowed pit where the Twin Towers came down, all in the company of a polyglot throng taking selfies?

A matter of perception, of course, and certainly I wouldn’t have missed the quieter pleasure of seeing orangutans in the wild or a perfectly-preserved Roman amphitheatre on the Turkish coast. I’ve also cherished meeting people along the way who would share with me stories of their lives and beliefs. And I’ve adored the food we’ve encountered along the various ways.

For now we shall continue to visit places – those that will have us despite my country becoming a world leader in COVID statistics – and treat each encounter as an opportunity to add to a long list of memorable experiences.

Because for me the only meaningful bucket list is when it’s retrospective. In other words, things I’m glad I saw and did before the bucket goes flying.

Mine contains plenty of experiences that I wouldn’t have missed for the world. Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, for example. Pompeii and Herculaneum. The Taif Escarpment in Saudi Arabia. The Kinabatangan River in Borneo. Whales off the Sri Lankan coast. Walking down the limes in Germany – the furthest extent to the Roman Empire in Northern Europe. A cabin by a lake in the Rocky Mountains. Brunch in Manhattan. The British Museum, many times. And so on.

But since it’s unhealthy to be focused purely on the past, I do have a Live To See List – stuff that I’d love to see happen during my lifetime. No need to be personally involved. I have no desire to meet the Pope or the Dalai Lama, because any such encounter would be brief and most likely perfunctory. I would, however, dearly love to spend 24 hours in a prison cell next to Boris Johnson or Donald Trump.

There’s no point hoping to see the planet saved. Even if we hit the targets the scientists are urging upon us, something else will come along to scare the life out of us. And anyway, I’ll be dead before we get to find out whether or not we’re on the right track.

No, relatively modest stuff – at least in the big scheme of things – would be fine by me. The election of the first female president of Afghanistan, for example. Blue whales, hedgehogs, orangutans and gorillas no longer considered endangered species. One week without knife crime in the UK or firearm deaths in the US. A year without civil war in the Middle East. A year when more trees are planted in the world’s rainforests than are burnt down. The rediscovery of classical manuscripts in Herculaneum – plays, histories and philosophical treatises. A measurable decline in hacking and trolling and fraud on the internet. Food priced according to its proximity to the point of supply. Vaccines for dementia. The prevention of pain without addiction. A natural – rather than an enforced – end to debates about statues, slavery, gender politics and sexuality.

This is a wish list over which I have little or no control. There are of course places I long to see – the temples of Sicily, the mosaics of Ravenna, the churches of Georgia, the Auschwitz Museum and the cities along the Silk Road. But they don’t feature on any bucket list. If I don’t visit them, so be it.

Far more important, whatever your age, is surely to remain open to any experience, seemingly mundane or otherwise, that might pass you by unnoticed if your eyes are constantly focused on an unachievable horizon.

That way your bucket will always be full.

From → Art, Books, History, Social, Travel, UK, USA

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