Traveler's Test

Inspiring travel writers: John Meadows’s adventures around the world

Inspiring travel writers: John Meadows’s adventures around the world

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If you are in between two trips and need a humorous, light-hearted read, John Meadows is the author you need on your bookshelf. The reason to reach out to him is his latest book, Sir, Where’s ’ Toilet?, a collection of anecdotal true stories and travel adventures, but if you have somehow missed his previous two books You Did Say Have Another Sausage? and Ten Camels for My Wife, you have just filled your reading list for several weekends ahead.

But first things first. Let’s start with John.

– Who is John Meadows, and what are his dreams?

– The last time I was asked about ‘my dreams’, I was at Primary School in the 1950s. I remember writing down two ambitions:

1. One was to travel the world; which I have achieved several times, having been to over 100 countries (so far!)

2. The other was that I would like to play for England at ‘some’ sport. I have also achieved this, having played in a University Rugby League International for England against France in the 1970s.

I am a retired art teacher who was bitten by the travel bug at an early age: I think it was listening to my Dad’s stories of his time in the Royal Navy in the 1940s when he was stationed in India and Ceylon. I am a graduate of Leeds University, I qualified as a teacher at Reading University and I have a Master’s Degree from Manchester University. I have been married to Norma for 44 years, after meeting in 1967 at the age of 18. 1967 isn’t known as ‘The Summer of Love’ for nothing! Sgt Pepper, Flower Power, Whiter Shade of Pale, Jimi Hendrix etc… the best era to be a teenager. At my age I am lucky enough to have achieved most of my dreams, but there’s always room for more. My love of travel, art, cinema, theatre, music and sport has kept me active, and hopefully young at heart, and my dream is to maintain a high level of fitness and health; physically and mentally. I enjoy singing and playing guitar.

Since retiring at the age of 60, I have had three books published:

“You Did Say Have Another Sausage?”… “Ten Camels for My Wife”… “Sir, Where’s ’ Toilet?”

They are collections of anecdotal, light-hearted true stories, mainly to do with travel, but also many other adventures. I hope to continue with further adventures. Also, I work as a professional artist and I have had my work displayed in major exhibitions. I receive many commissions, including sports clubs. I have continued to travel extensively, and my wife and I hiked the Inca Trail in Peru up to Machu Picchu, a few years ago. We sold our house at the end of 2016 and down-sized drastically; to a motorhome. We now divide our time between our apartment in Spain and touring the UK and Europe for the next couple of years. We will be setting off from Spain in April to tour Scotland and Ireland.

Ugly faces at Angkor Wat

– Can you tell us a story that is a living example of you on the road?

– In the 1970s, Norma and I resigned from our jobs, sold our worldly possessions and set off to travel round the world: The Magic Bus to Kathmandu through Syria, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Kashmir. Then on to the Far East, Australia, New Zealand, South Pacific and South America. All the stories from this trip are told in my second book, ‘Ten Camels for My Wife’.

Many of our fellow travellers became good friends. There was a broad demograph of personalities and ages. Many were Australian or New Zealanders returning home after spending time in Europe for a variety of reasons. We met doctors, nurses, teachers, insurance executives, and some hippies.

Being an artist, I always carried basic drawing and painting materials, and this aspect of my travels has led to some interesting encounters on the road…

In Jerusalem, we had arranged to meet some of our friends at a well-known restaurant called ‘Uncle Moustaches’, just inside Herod’s Gate. It was late afternoon and the restaurant was already quite full.

“We have ordered a traditional Israeli dish of chicken, rice and soup for all of us,” said Barry greeting us cheerfully, “It’s called ‘falafel’.”

The restaurant was plainly furnished and generated a friendly atmosphere. We noticed that the walls were covered with numerous drawings, many of them cartoons of figures which we recognised as members of staff. Notably amongst them were images of a gregarious character proudly sporting an outrageous moustache, obviously the eponymous Uncle Moustache himself. Without warning, Colin went over to a waiter and arranged for a piece of paper and pen to be delivered to our table as he volunteered me to do a drawing. The waiter duly obliged and immediately adopted a pose as if it was second nature or part of his job. I accepted the challenge and after a few minutes a small crowd of diners from other tables came over to watch. Just as I finished the drawing to a gratefully-received small ripple of applause, a large jovial gentleman, dressed in an all-white chef’s uniform together with a cartoon-like hat, came over. The moustache was a give-away. It was large, black and luxuriant, fashioned in a handle-bar style which would have been the envy of any World War II R.A.F. pilot. It curled up slightly at the ends and, together with his dark, twinkling eyes, gave the impression that Uncle Moustache wore a permanent smile. He cleared a space on our white table cloth by moving our dishes to one side with a sweep of his arm. He handed me a large black felt-tipped pen and then stood back proudly with his chest out, legs apart and hands on hips; the kind of stance Henry VIII favoured when posing for Hans Holbein. He grinned warmly and gestured with both hands towards his face and then pointed at the white table cloth. I regarded it as a great compliment that the owner of the restaurant should request a total stranger to draw on his table cloth. The crowd of onlookers remained in place and were joined by some of the waiters as I sat looking apprehensively at the daunting virgin canvas in front of me.

“Make it a good one,” whispered Norma encouragingly. No pressure there. Fortunately, my drawing started to turn out well, and after about five minutes, drinks for our party were delivered to our table. Being on a tight budget we protested that we hadn’t ordered further drinks only to be reassured that they were on the house.

“Stretch it out as long as you can,” whispered Colin mischievously as he took a sip of beer.

Uncle Moustache appeared delighted with the finished portrait and he insisted that I sign and date it, which I was happy to do. He then cut out the centre of the table cloth and pinned it up on his wall. I felt relieved that I had passed my test and as we sat down at our table further plates of food were served. Again, on the house.

“From now until Kathmandu,” announced Barry raising his glass “I am going with you to every restaurant. I will save a fortune!”

Portrait drawn by me of a local trader on the road.

– What is the one thing that you never travel without and why?

– That’s easy: My wife Norma, she keeps me on the straight and narrow. After 50 years and over 100 countries together it would be like travelling without a shadow.

Seriously: books, portable art materials and music.

– What is your recipe for keeping it light when you encounter difficulties on the road?

– Humour and a friendly demeanour often works wonders. For example, I organised a tour to Russia and I had to leave my group in Red Square to go to a nearby office for some documentation. When I returned, a barrier had been erected and was manned by two armed soldiers. I tried to explain that the rest of my party were inside the square waiting to visit Lenin’s tomb and the Kremlin. They weren’t prepared to budge, and that’s when I found out that everything in Russian ends in ‘off’.

An American approached me and asked if he could be of assistance. He was accompanied by his Finnish girlfriend, who spoke Russian. So I explained my predicament to him in English; he related it to his girlfriend in Finnish and she spoke to the soldiers in Russian. As the conversation passed back and forth along the line, a small crowd gathered. Two painters on scaffolding even put down their brushes to watch the drama unfolding below. This seemed to go on for ages, as I kept looking frantically at my watch. One particularly long question from the Russians seemed to take even longer in Finnish and then in English. I couldn’t resist; I asked, ‘Could you repeat the question please?’ The American laughed, then his Finnish girlfriend and then sections of the gathered crowd. The Russians kept a straight face, then smiled and raised the barrier. I even received a slight ripple of applause and a thumbs-up from the painters. Thank God for humour.

Alms giving in Laos.

– How has travelling changed for the last several decades?

– There are two distinct sides to this coin:

In one respect, the world has ‘shrunk’ and long-haul travel is much more accessible to many more people. On the other hand, the increase in terrorism, and unstable flashpoints in various parts of the world means that many countries are virtually impossible to visit.

Great advancement in the airline industry means that it is now commonplace for travellers to go on holidays to countries like Australia, New Zealand, America, China, South Africa. Similarly, with cruises: it is no longer exclusive for the rich and privileged elite as it was in the 1950s and 60s. Nowadays, it is perhaps the fastest-growing holiday sector which enables millions to visit far-flung exotic destinations.

However, the world for more adventurous travellers tends to be closing-up: For example, the ‘Arab Spring’ and subsequent terrorist attacks has resulted in tourism to countries such as Tunisia, Morocco, Egypt being severely affected and consequently decimating the economy. When I travelled overland by bus to Kathmandu, the countries I mentioned in Q2 were beautiful, friendly and rich in cultural heritage. Sadly, this trip would be impossible today.

This brings me neatly to another major change: Technology.

When we were on the road there was no such thing as email, facebook, mobile phones, satnavs, tablets, laptops, twitter, or internet.

Our only line of communication were postcards or air-mail letters. Before we left England, we gave family and friends approximate dates of when we would be in a particular town. It was exciting to go into the main post office of say, Damascus, Baghdad, Kabul or Delhi to see if there were any letters waiting for us. Also, Internet banking was unheard of; it was either cash or travellers’ cheques.

Building the Palace in Mykonos.

– You have travelled to more than a hundred countries. From this point of view, what is a common misconception you see many tourists believe in when they start exploring the world?

– Don’t assume that everyone you encounter speaks English. Avoid the age-old British tradition of speaking in English, and then even louder if you are not understood. Try to learn just a couple of words of the local language, such as ‘please’, ‘thank you’, ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’. It will be welcomed warmly. Since I retired I have learned to speak Spanish, and this has been appreciated many times, not only in Spain but also in Central and South America.

Be friendly and polite if a street trader will not take ‘no’ for an answer. It is their mission in life to sell you something, and after all, they are trying to make a living.

Remember that you are a guest in a foreign country: respect customs, religions and traditions.

If you visit a ‘third world’ country, accept the fact that levels of hygiene, street litter, poverty, sewers, public utilities are not what you will have grown up with.

– What is your next great challenge?

– The only Baltic country I haven’t visited is Lithuania. I am planning to travel by train from the capital Vilnius to Moldova, Belarus and Ukraine. Countries rich in architectural detail, cultural heritage, fairy-tale cobbled city centres, and, I hope, excellent beer.

All photos courtesy of John Meadows.