Jim Glendinning: a traveler not a tourist
By LONN TAYLOR
The last time I wrote about Jim Glendinning in this column was in 2004, when he was about to go off to Kazakhstan with the Peace Corps to advise the Kazakhs on how to start a tourist industry. He came to me in a panic because he had just learned that he would be expected to wear a jacket and tie every day there and he did not own any ties, having abandoned formal dress when he moved to the Big Bend ten years earlier. I had recently retired from a job in Washington, D.C. and had about fifty ties that I never intended to wear again, and gladly gave Glendinning a sack full. When he returned from Kazakhstan he told me that not only had the ties made him look respectable and authoritative in the eyes of the local officials he was dealing with, the extra ones had made excellent gifts.
A visit to Kazakhstan was only one in a lifetime of travel adventures for Glendinning, who has recently published a book entitled Footloose Scot: Travels in a Time of Change (Minneapolis, Minnesota: Mill City Press, 2012). Glendinning is what my grandmother would have called a fiddlefoot and what I would call a compulsive traveler. He once told me that he was born with traveling feet and this book proves it. It contains accounts of twenty-one memorable trips made by Glendinning over more than fifty years, starting with a hitchhiking tour of Europe in 1958 and ending with a trip to Copper Canyon in Chihuahua in 2011.
In between trips the reader learns a lot about Glendinning. He was born into what he calls “comfortable circumstances” in Scotland in 1937; attended the elite Fettes College in Edinburgh; and graduated from Oxford. After graduation he came to the United States, where, after a short stint as a desk clerk in New York, he got a job running the California travel office of the National Student Association in Berkeley. He eventually became director of the NSA’s entire student travel operation, with an office in New York. This was in the early 1960s, the glory days of cheap student travel, when kids with backpacks and youth hostel cards hitchhiked all over Europe on five dollars a day.
Glendinning has been traveling that way ever since.
Glendinning’s life seems to have consisted of establishing innovative businesses, getting bored with them, disposing of them, and setting out on long and adventurous trips. He has owned a pizza parlor in Oxford, an English import shop in Houston, and a bread-and-breakfast in Alpine. In between he has walked over or ridden buses across most of the world. Glendinning’s modes of travel might not be to everyone’s taste. Near the beginning of his book he makes a distinction between the traveler and the tourist. The tourist, he says, takes cruise ships and taxis and stays at Hilton Hotels, and gets few surprises and little experience of other people’s cultures. The traveler takes what he finds without trying to impose his own pattern on it and learns something from the experience. For Glendinning, this means never making advance hotel reservations; taking public transportation, hitchhiking, or walking; carrying his luggage on his back; eating local food; and occasionally “sleeping rough,” that is, on the ground. It also means carefully researching his route – his book is full of references to esoteric guidebooks such as Africa on a Shoestring – and having long conversations with fellow travelers and local shop owners.
Most of the journeys recounted in Footloose Scot were arduous but rewarding. Glendinning is a keen observer and seems to be entirely without the stereotypes that impair most travelers’ perceptions. He takes people as he finds them. He also seems to be entirely without the fear of the unknown that inhibits most travelers; he thinks nothing of stepping into Panama’s Darien jungle with nothing but a backpack for a two-day walk to the Colombian border, or of driving a Bedford van from Oxford across Europe, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan to New Delhi and back. The only trip that he describes that does not sound enjoyable is a five-month drive across Africa in a Mercedes truck with twenty-nine other people crammed on benches facing each other in the back of the truck. In fact, it sounds like the trip from hell, and Glendinning left the group and struck out on his own before the tour was over. He was rewarded by finding a hotel in Malawi that advertised itself as “Motel Heart Vacation Village, Where Quality Never Needs to Shout, An Elegant Way of Relaxing.” It had a thatched roof, no electricity, good cooking, and plenty of beer.
Glendinning’s take on hotels is interesting. He favors hotels in what he calls the “backpacker zone” of cities, not right in the center but not far from it, near the bus station and the railroad station. In many third-world countries, people hang around bus stations offering to rent rooms in their houses to travelers, with meals included, and these, he says, are always bargains.
Potential travelers can learn a lot from Glendenning’s book. Be polite at border crossings. Always talk to small children; it can lead to rewarding conversations with parents. If you find yourself in a public toilet with no toilet paper, use small-denomination currency. If you have a choice between a room in a hotel and a room in someone’s house, take the house. Watch out for pickpockets. If you are lost in the jungle, stop and boil up a cup of tea before making any decisions. Above all, press on.
I have always thought of myself as a seasoned traveler, having crossed the Pacific on a freighter at the age of seven, visited China and Japan when I was nine, and traveled in what was then British North Borneo, the Straits Settlements, and the Federated Malay States when I was fifteen, but I cannot hold a candle to Glendinning, who has visited 136 countries over the past fifty years, sometimes walking sixteen hours a day carrying a forty-pound backpack. His fellow-Scot, Robert Louis Stevenson, once wrote,
“I travel not to go anywhere , but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move.” Those words fit Jim Glendinning perfectly.
Lonn Taylor is a writer and historian who lives in Fort Davis. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Story filed under: West Texas Talk