These days, it has almost become cliche; the notion of travelling on a shoestring is far too common for the liking of the free spirited hippie-types who started the craze off. And, besides, with the cost of travel having plummeted in recent years, it is no longer entails enduring the kinds of hardships experienced by the budget travellers of the yesteryear. And, in some ways, this has taken the enjoyment out of the experience of ‘roughing it” as you travel around the world in search of new and unique experiences. Why? Because there aren’t those many new and unique experiences left. Once everyone started doing it, this whole globe-trotting idea started to look a lot less attractive. It was supposed to be for a select few adventures daring enough to take the dusty roads less trodden. But those roads are now crowded highways of overexcited youths trying desperately to make their holiday adventures special. There is something very artificial about the whole experience. Part of the reason people used to go backpacking to the ends of the earth was to, well, escape the maddening crowd, not join it. Is there nowhere that is safe anymore? Is there no escape from the masses?
Rex, 25, from Kensington, dropped out of Engineering in his second year at Oxford to travel the world. An idealist and romantic, Rex had become disillusioned with life in the big smoke, having lived in London for most of his 25 years, and decided it was time to branch out. His parents were understandably distraught to learn of his decision to quit university, but they gave him their full support once it was clear this was the only thing that would make him happy. So Rex started down the by now well-documented road to Asia and the Far East. At first brimming with enthusiasm, his passion for the journey soon dried up when Rex realised things were not exactly as he had imagined they would be. No matter where he went, a dedicated army of foreigners like himself would follow; there was no escaping them, and so, Rex left, the experience of local culture was very artificial; almost deliberately extreme to impress the eager eyes of his mainly American travel buddies.
Having almost given up on ever finding the authentic experience, Rex prepared to come home. You can hear it from the horse’s mouth from here: ‘I got this deal with a stopover in Greece on route back to London, so I figured I might as well spend a few days there if for no other reason than to avoid having to face the music from my parents when I arrived home. I’d heard the lonian islands were nice, but horribly overcrowded. Still I thought: ‘what’s the point fighting it? Everywhere’s crowded.’So, a couple of days later, I found myself in Corfu on a beautiful spring day in March. It was 25 degrees outside; the sky was clear and the sea a picture-postcard turquoise. Surprisingly, there weren’t that many tourists on the island either. Suddenly my spirits got high. That first evening, I dined in the old town on some exquisite local fare at a small, family-owned taverna where the owner – a chubby, middle-aged man of very good nature – proceeded to introduce me (his only customer) to the rest of his family one-by-one, then sat down and chatted by my side in his broken English for the rest of the night.’
‘I told him where I was going next and the man’s eyes beamed. Kefalonia, he explained, was where he had grown up. Indeed, his village was only a mile or two from the hostel where I would be staying. It was settled then; I would stay with his brother Nikos, who would give me a ‘royal’ tour of the island, instead. Nikos, it turned out, was every bit as helpful as his older brother, and, somehow, by accident, I found myself spending the next two months in the company of his family as they showed me from one part of Kelafornia to the next, exploring land and sea, caves and rivers, waterfalls and lakes, forests and mountains. This was real; Nikos was real; his wife and children were real; their hospitality was real and Kefalonia was real. The turtles I swam with were real; It was just me and Nikos’ daughter Eliza who’d chanced upon them by accident in the fishing boat. There were no crowds to spoil this moment; everything was real. One evening, as I sat looking out onto the sunset, totally relaxed and at home on my little island paradise, a bus came bumping up the uneven road that lead to the beach; Then, within minutes, there were 20 or 30 bodies on my beach; throwing balls, kicking sand, drinking beer, lighting fires …’Summer has arrived’, I thought. And with it, I made a hasty retreat back of London. It occurred to me then, that, even in the most commercialised of tourist destinations like the Greek Islands, if you know what to look for, where to look and, more importantly, when, you can still find paradise, if only for a few moments.’
Rex’s story is a reminder to keep searching until you find what you are looking for. Rex found his paradise in the most unlikely to places. Greece has a reputation for attracting hoards of package-holiday goers. It is a place where beaches are overflowing with deckchairs and sunbeds and the stench of commercialism from June to September each year. But, as Rex found out, for the rest of the year it transforms into something magical, or, at least, a small part of it; a quiet peaceful, little gem of an island on the shores of the Ionian Sea, does. Keep searching!