Article Published in THE STATESMAN

Another Way to It

Navtej Sarna

I HAVE been a friend, admirer and at times fellow traveller to the intrepid traveller who fills these columns every weekend with thrilling tales of his adventures in hotels and inns, laying bare their innermost secrets. I look forward every week with keen expectation to his tale of bell-boys and Mughlai and wait with bated breath as he discovers the size of a room, the location of the telex, and the taste of the chopsuey. But now I think he needs a hand. He is simply out of breath. I mean to say, the last “Staying Out” column that I managed to get my hands on informed me most helpfully that the telephones in the luxurious Hyatt Regency actually worked. Imagine that - we innocents would never have known. And when he tells you later that the room costs only Rs. 900 a day, it figures. Or does it?

He as I said, is out of breath. Needs a break. And while he regains the keen edge that doubtless has made him the foulest nightmare of lobby managers and Room Service Operators, let me tell you of staying out another way…

It’s summer, an open yellow green blue summer, and the autobahns and lesser motorways of Europe are choked with travelers. All out on a holiday to beat the neighbours. Cars full of children and dogs with the tents rolled up and stacked on the roof, trailers in the outer lane, and the complete-looking caravans. And when they reach the next city encircled in red on their maps, they turn up their sun burnt noses at the thought of hotels and pensions. That’s all for the unadventurous and the staid. They look instead for the little green triangle among the road signs that marks out the camping sites.

These sites are strewn comfortably across the continent and operate with their own scale of standards, their own set of norms, and, of course, their own charm. While the traveler waits for his passport to be recorded at the entrance, he does well to ascertain certain things in advance. Is there hot water? Is it free? Where are the bathrooms? Are they free? Is there electricity? Is it… dash it all, you can’t have everything. Often there isn’t a choice, at least not for the next hundred kilometers.

The caravans are the elite of the ground. They simply park and plug in for the cuppa. And before the others have got down to choosing a strategic location for the tent-not too far from nor too close to the bathrooms- they are pulling out the deck chairs and pouring out the evening drinks.

The trailers take a little longer to get the roof over their heads. The small tents spring up like mushrooms in the twilight. Some so small that you can see the traveler's feet sticking out as he snores - or at least his shoes.

The family tents need more work. The children play on the grass with their Frisbees as the pegs are hammered in, the ropes stretched, and the mattress pumped up. If you have paid that extra bit for the electricity you can go plug it in; otherwise the tureen will serve for the lamp, plugged into the car battery. Meanwhile, the car radio gives you the news in Czech or Hungarian. Never mind if you can’t understand it- it’s probably bad news.

And after the hard work comes the gentle evening. A hot shower, a quick run back to your tent. In shorts (everyone who isn’t wearing a bikini is wearing shorts) and then the making of the meal. The meat sizzles in the frying pan, and you marvel at your own hidden potential as a cook. The car door feels strangely cold against your back as you settle back with the coffee. The sun sets, forming silhouettes. It all reminds you of somewhere, far away…

A pretty picture it makes, I daresay. And here your traveler could easily forgive and forget the sauciness of a receptionist, the cramped nature of a five-star bathroom or the fickleness of a telephone. Especially in the terraced neat camping ground which springs up almost out of nowhere near the old German town of Dinkelsbuhl. Merging into the rolling landscape it seems to lie silent and unobtrusive, not willing to jar into the timelessness which envelops this lovely part of Bavaria. Beyond the stream you can see the mediaeval silhouettes of Dinkelsbuhl - the arches, gateways and spires. And below the camping site runs the languid Romantic Highway, which strings together these gems of mediaeval architecture. It begins to rain and you huddle under the canvas. But the camp sleeps.

In the morning, the sun glints on the cars as they move away, back on to the road. That’s all there is to it. It’s just another way.