In keeping with my last post about the aftermath of long-haul journeys, here’s a snippet from my upcoming book, To the Brink, about expeditions and whether they’re just an elaborate excuse to avoid responsibilities back home.
The uniformed ticket inspector handed me back my stub. “This is not a valid ticket,” he announced.
“But I bought it only fifteen minutes ago.”
I was on the 17.10 from Paddington to Reading, sharing a packed commuter carriage with several hundred weary London commuters returning home. Three days previously, I’d arrived back at Greenwich after 13 years of circumnavigating the planet by human power. This was the fastest I’d gone in a long time.
The inspector looked at me like I was an imbecile. “It is a receipt, not a ticket.”
Examining the stub closer, I realized what must have happened. More than ten years had passed since I last bought a rail ticket from a self-service kiosk. Back then ticket machines produced only tickets. Now, they apparently spat out receipts as well. I’d left the ticket in the dispensing tray by mistake.
I explained my oversight, but the inspector remained unimpressed. The commuters around me kept their noses glued firmly to their BlackBerrys and evening papers, oblivious to my predicament. British indifference at its best.
Tapping the receipt, I said, “But this shows I bought a ticket for £18.20 at 16.52, less than twenty minutes ago.”
“It doesn’t indicate the route. You could be going anywhere.”
“Well, obviously I’m going where this train is going, from London to Reading.”
“There’s no way to prove that without a valid ticket.”
The ridiculousness of the conversation triggered a corresponding rise in my blood pressure. “Let me ask you something,” I said crisply. “How much is a single fare from Paddington to Reading at this time of day?”
“Eighteen pounds and twenty pence.”
I felt like I’d made a breakthrough. “Exactly! So, if that’s the amount on the receipt, and I’m currently on a journey between two stations that costs that exact amount, then don’t you think it more than likely that the route marked on the original ticket was from London to Reading?”
My reasoning, however, fell on deaf ears. “I need to see a valid ticket,” the inspector repeated mantra-like. “If you cannot produce a valid ticket, then you will have to pay the penalty fare of two full singles.”
After nearly a decade and a half of rather more formidable encounters in far-flung corners of the Earth, this pasty-faced toad had got the best of me in less than a minute. The prospect of having to pay triple for a legitimate mistake put me over the edge.
“I’m not paying,” I yelled at him. “I mean, really. Do you people ever think for yourselves? Is there actually a human being in there, or just a bunch of f***ing wires?”
I was thrown off at Slough, the next station, not far from where I used to work as a window cleaner before setting off around the world. The poetic justice wasn’t lost on me. I’d come full circle. Literally. Watching the train pull away, I caught sight of a woman sitting beside a window. She was smiling at me in sympathy, and in that moment something twigged. It’s not adventurers who are the bravest, most patient, tenacious, or levelheaded—as I had been described in media interviews since re-crossing the prime meridian. It’s people with conventional occupations the world over who endure the petty humiliations of modern life, indignities that frequently involve the inflexibility and discrimination of mass transit employees, many who appear to have undergone personality bypass operations. With grace and aplomb, these nine-to-fivers hold down a job, raise a family, put food on the table, save for their kids’ education, and ride the 17.10 from London to Reading five days a week. They don’t lose their temper and get flung off the train if the ticket inspector is an arse. As mature, sensible members of society, they’ve learned to pick their battles.
And then I wondered: Are long-haul expeditions really just an elaborate excuse to avoid responsibilities back home? Much harder to stay put and face real life. That takes true grit.