Travelling for work: Michael Palin’s later career

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The British were by no means the first travel writers, being beaten by various Greek and Arab scholars, Chinese and Japanese Buddhist monks and Venetian merchants. But they were arguably the first to begin travel for pleasure or even as a challenge! Thus it was apt that Jules Verne chose an Englishman as the hero of “Around the World in Eighty Days” and following Phileas Fogg’s footsteps – and going far ahead – is British actor Michael Palin who fashioned a second successful career as a TV traveller and author.

Of “Monty Python” fame, Palin (1943-) follows a long-standing English literary tradition where 18th century onwards, almost every famous writer – Daniel Defoe, Jonathan Swift, Charles Dickens, Robert Louis Stevenson, D.H. Lawrence, Graham Greene, Rebecca West and even Ian Fleming – has a travel book.

Then, there were people like Patrick Leigh Fermor, who walked from Holland to Istanbul in 1933-34 (recounted decades later in “A Time of Gifts” (1977), “Between the Woods and the Water” (1986) and “The Broken Road” (2013)) or Eric Newby, who suddenly left his London fashion job for mountain-climbing in Afghanistan (despite no experience) as recorded in the marvellously comic “A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush” (1958) and then rowed down north India in “Slowly Down the Ganges” (1966).

Palin is a worthy successor. His travels – eight so far – were documentaries for the BBC, and later became books with some information and insights missing onscreen, not to mention the wry observations, metaphors and the self-deprecation that make English humour so delightful.

The first was “Around the World in 80 Days” (1989) where Palin recreates Fogg’s 1872 circumnagvigation right from London’s Reform Club, keeping as far as possible to the same route and using same transport (or equivalent) – no aircraft while automobiles were only used in one emergency.

Palin, taking along an inflatable globe, crosses Europe by train, sails to Egypt (where he is roped in as a film extra) and then to the Arabian peninsula (driven over as the boat option failed) and sails on a dhow from Dubai to then Bombay.

From there, it’s a train to then Madras to board a Yugoslav-officered cargo ship to Singapore, and another to Hong Kong (where Palin’s trousers are attacked by a cockatoo), crossing China by train (a few months before Tianamen Square), to Japan by ferry and then on another cargo vessel to America, which is crossed by trains – and dog-sled and hot-air balloon. Crossing the Atlantic on a cargo ship, he returns to the London club (where he is not allowed in due to his unsuitable attire), 79 days and 7 hours later. The next edition included the 2008 reunion with the dhow crew in Gujarat.

“Pole to Pole” (1992) was about an over five-month journey in 1991 from the Arctic to Antarctica along 30 degrees latitude (save the last phase), via Greenland, Norway, Finland, the USSR (which they left just ahead of the coup against Gorbachev), Turkey, Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya (where he presents the globe from the first trip to a school), Tanzania, Zambia (where Kenneth Kaunda has been recently ousted), Zimbabwe, and South Africa – where they are stuck, and have to fly to Chile from where they reach Antarctica.

“Full Circle” (1997) is a 10-month, 50,000 km trip – Palin’s longest – taking him to 17 Pacific Rim countries (save some Central American nations) across four continents, while “Hemingway Adventure” (1999) sees him visit the places associated with the legendary writer – from Chicago (where he was born) to Idaho (where he is buried) and including Spain, Paris, Venice, Africa, Florida, Cuba, Montana (where Palin trying to ape Hemingway’s cowboy days, only succeeds in lassoing his cameraman).

“Sahara” (2002) recounts a trip across the largest sub-tropical desert starting from Gibraltar and through mostly Francophone Africa during which Palin faces dangers like camel stew and being run over by the Paris-Dakar rally but finds the desert is not just sand dunes but a palette of diverse cultures and landscapes. “Himalaya” (2004) is a trip from one end of the range (Pakistan’s Khyber Pass) to the other (Brahmaputra delta in Bangladesh) across India (north and later northeast, including meeting the Dalai Lama who turns out to be a fan), Nepal (where he escapes being kidnapped by Maoists), Tibet and Yunnan (China) and Bhutan.

“New Europe” (2007) is a trip across former communist countries of Central and East Europe, while “Brazil” (2012) is a trip across its near-continental spread and fantastic melting pot of cultures ahead of the 2014 football World Cup.

At 71, Palin, in a newspaper interview last November, still didn’t rule out another travel adventure. It will be interesting to see where he travels next!

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