Monday, April 15, 2013

The Royal Road to Romance, by Richard Halliburton

I picked up a copy of this classic at a remainder sale, and it's been gathering dust on my shelf for years. I finally decided to record it for Malaysian Association for the Blind, figuring it would be a good vehicle for armchair travel.  After graduating from Princeton, Halliburton set out on his trip around the world, seeking what he felt were the most exotic and adventurous sites and experiences.

Halliburton's photograph of a
Balinese woman making a temple offering
As I'm sure my tones of voice will make clear to anyone who borrows this recording, I alternately adored Halliburton for his vivid accounts and wanted to throttle him for his arrogance. This is a book written by a young white man traveling the world in the 1920s, with all that implies.

The positives:  He was a young man, full of brio. Guards, fences, No Admittance signs and hours of operation meant nothing to him. If he wanted to take photographs from the tip of Gibraltar or spend the night in the Taj Mahal or atop an Egyptian pyramid, he found ways to do so. His enthusiasms were still passionate, driving him to wax poetic about the Alhambra and Bali at a time when most people's only exposure to these places were written accounts, perhaps accompanied by a photo or two. Halliburton's youthful strength permitted him to make treks that others deemed foolhardy -- up the Matterhorn and Mount Fuji with borrowed and inadequate equipment at inopportune seasons, or over a Himalayan pass to Ladakh.

The tourism industry was also in its youth in the 1920s, and it's marvellous to read today of the difficulties Halliburton overcame to reach the Angkor ruins, which he explored in perfect solitude, apart from the bats and a handful of monks living in Angkor Wat.  Today we can reach all of these sites with less difficulty, and the price we pay is seeing them alongside hordes of other travellers. The romance is rather dashed when another mob of tourists follows their guide (with his microphone) off their coach and overruns the temple or palace. Kashmir was still an earthly paradise, decades before warfare tore it apart, and Halliburton was fortunate enough to witness a raucous Balinese funeral ceremony (the more energetic aspects of which actually appalled him) that can be seen no more. He was in the Forbidden City when the last emperor was essentially held under house arrest, albeit in gorgeously appointed chambers. He arrived in Vladivostok to converse with Russian nobles who had fled from the west to escape the depredations of the Bolsheviks. Halliburton always took pains to avoid the 'beaten tourist track', even though far fewer tourists were beating tracks to anywhere then, so his account stands apart from others written at the same time.

There are also negative aspects to this travelogue by a young white man travelling the world in the 1920s. Halliburton, although he has a Princeton diploma and a well-heeled family backing him, decided that it would be so much more romantic and adventurous to do this globe-trotting on the cheap.  The scenes of him evading ticket collectors on Indian trains are nothing short of horrifying. One conductor insists that as a passenger with a 3rd class ticket, Halliburton must vacate the 1st class berth in which he's squatting. Halliburton deems the man insolent and ultimately decks him.  Later, when he has no ticket at all, he gets into a physical tussle with another conductor and pitches the much smaller man off the train, furious at the impudence of these 'natives'.  Evidently he managed to graduate Princeton unaware that taking things to which one is not entitled constitutes theft, and that theft is wrong, not even justifiable in the name of adventure or romance.

In his eagerness to avoid the typical tourist routes, he decides to ignore all local advice and undertake a journey across the Malay isthmus on foot during the monsoon season. He discovers that the only person who will agree to serve as his guide (for a fee of $6) is known as the village idiot. The two of them set out for what proves to be an arduous, soaking, and miserable several days' slog through the jungle.  He makes several derogatory remarks about 'the idiot' who is leading him, noting that the guide doesn't seem bothered by the deep waters covering the trail. Trying to find easier going, Halliburton decides to walk on the grass to the side of the submerged trail.  He almost immediately treads on a cobra's nest and finds himself face to face with a rearing and furious snake. Certain that he's about to die, he whacks at the creature with his walking stick, and it retreats without striking him.  'The idiot', he notes, was trudging on ahead of him, blissfully unaware of this whole drama.  As well he should be! The arrogance of this young foreigner, putting other people's lives at risk to gratify his own sense of sport, and then demeaning them in the process!

Halliburton had a big, rambunctious personality, so it's not surprising that he inspired admiration and irritation in equal measure. His antics came to an end in 1939 (he was then 39 years old), when he attempted to sail from Hong Kong to San Francisco in an oversized Chinese junk. The ship was not seaworthy and went down in a storm with Halliburton and the whole crew. I wonder if this was another instance of rash arrogance that endangered not only the adventurer but also those whom he hired to join him. Where was the line in this case between adventure and foolhardiness?


  1. Thanks for posting this.

    Gosh, what a character. Possibly history's first celebrity curmudgeon traveller. I hope most - if not all - of those who followed in his footsteps took to heart the cautionary tale of Richard Halliburton.

    1. Hello there! You know, the more I reflect on this book, the less fondness I feel for Halliburton. He strikes me as a prototypical 'ugly tourist' -- visiting exotic locations and monuments to gratify his own curiosity but with neither interest in nor care for the local people, unless they can be of service to him. Still, some of his accounts are sparkling and worthwhile reading. I'd be happy to pass you the book if you'd like. :-)

    2. I appreciate the offer, but work's been piling up and my own reading list is gathering dust and getting longer. One of these days, perhaps - and soon.

      Thank you, and keep the posts coming!


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