Tuesday, September 29, 2009



By Gillian McLaren

As a white lass growing up during apartheid, I was intrigued by other races and meeting people from other countries fascinated me. Many of my childhood fantasies involved interacting with people from other cultures. 

When our family went to the local drive-in, to watch movies from the exciting space of our capacious grey Valiant, my sister and I would dash down to the playground near the screen. There I would assume an accent and be someone from America, from Ireland or any country which took my fancy. Kids would question me and I would hold forth about my life in the country of choice, whilst my shy sister would play silently and smile at my antics.

Monopoly is now available with South African property names, but in the ‘60s the names were all drawn from London. This enchanted me, and I longed for the time I could pace the streets of Mayfair or eat a meal in an elegant restaurant in Park Lane. I named certain spots in our garden after the continents, and walked on my home-made stilts from one continent to the other!

When I turned 21, I asked for money instead of the traditional party and bought a ticket to London and a student rail pass for Europe. The Ethos Flight, which cost R275, only carried students from all over South Africa so was marvellous fun. No alcoholic beverages were left when the plane had completed its holding pattern over a snowbound Heathrow Airport.
No glasses were left either, so I helped a hostess wash some glasses in a basin, placed on the plane floor. Ashley, the chap sitting next to me, was also flying for the first time and was just as thrilled and hyperactive as I was. At 3am we were told to shut up by scores of students around us who were trying to fit in a bit of sleep after their revelry. What a delight to make a new friend so easily, and my passion for flying has never abated.

Every opportunity I can, I take to travel. In the late '80s, I was engaged to be married and my fiancé broke off the relationship. I had taken a sabbatical from my work to marry and set up home. Instead, I packed my backpack, and hitchhiked up to Zimbabwe and Botswana. I flew across to Malawi and climbed to the top of the Zomba Plateau, my pack shepherded by enthusiastic locals while I cried for hours. Travel; surely the best cure for heartbreak?
No surprise then, that my husband should be a man who proposed to me in an airport. He had only known me for six weeks and I simply thought he was impressed that my backpack for a two month trip only weighed 6kg. He subsequently told me he wanted to stake his claim before I met the man with whom I had been corresponding in France.

When I am at home for too long, I get restless and begin to hanker for an adventure here or abroad. The way I recall any particular year in my life, is to remember where I travelled during that season. Planning,   with its prospect of retrospect, is sometimes as fulfilling as the journey…

What does travelling mean to you? A simple slice of time-out, or a chance to discover the world? Post your thoughts below… 

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Gillian Mclaren Travel and Science Writer