I thought I had it all worked out. This was supposed to be the big year for travelling. Ticking off the bucket list. We all know what happened next. I spent 2020 not exploring the four corners of the world but looking at the four walls of my bedroom. My love for travel is a recent revelation in life as far as I’m concerned but those constant thoughts of, “where to next?” ramped up tenfold when the possibility of travel was ripped away from me. That bucket list kept growing and in the end I had to buy a bigger bucket to store everything in. As the process of shifting items from one to the other happened it became apparent that the items that had previously occupied the top spot on the list had been replaced.
For the last few years I have had two burning desires. To go to Wrestlemania and tour America, and to visit Machu Picchu. Last November I decided that rather than repeatedly saying, it was time to start doing. So I began the process of booking the dream trip to America. The plan was gilt edged. Start in Boston and work my way down the east coast. The trip would culminate in Florida, Wrestlemania 36 at Raymond James Stadium. There I would meet my friend Steve and we’d have a better time than Del Boy and Rodney in Miami Twice. We all know what happened next.
While we were in lockdown an idea that had subconsciously began to form many times before being swatted away by my brain saying, “you can’t do that,” finally began to take root. “Can’t do,” turned into, “why not,” and finally morphed into, “I will.” Exercising has really helped me during lockdown and in the summer I felt as far away from my usual stresses and anxieties as I’ve ever been. On August 15th I came in from the gym after a productive session. The Victory in Japan ceremony was on the television. I’m almost in my 30th year but I’m not ashamed to say it made me burst into tears.
We have the perception that it was solely young men who went to war. There is a skewed, almost romanticised vision of teenagers pulled from the apron strings of their mothers and thrust into battle in the trenches of Europe. For my great grandad and many others this was not the case. He was 27 when the Second World War started. Roughly the same age as I am now. Removed from a normal life and given the briefest of training on how to kill and then piled onto a boat heading for Asia. Asia may as well have been a different world back then, it wasn’t the gap year destination du jour or the tick on the bucket list. The irony isn’t lost on me that it is now top of my bucket list. Travelling to a place where my great grandfather suffered pain, torture and unimaginable hardships as one of the men forced to contribute to the construction of the “Death Railway.”
Like many of the prisoners of war who were lucky enough to make it home my great grandad rarely spoke of what he endured. I was 15 when he passed away so my knowledge of his experiences has been patched together from the few occasions on which he spoke about his experiences to older family members before being passed on to me at a later date. Part of the journey for me will be to dig further in to the route he took. I want to follow it as closely as possible. Solely visiting the Bridge on the River Kwai seems to me to be an exercise in lip service alone. Before I can make a concrete plan I need to know the exact path to take. My great grandad, it appears, travelled through Singapore, Thailand and Myanmar (then Burma), mainly on foot. All of this after weeks spent at sea travelling from Britain. Some of the men didn’t survive this journey, bodies were thrown overboard and my great grandad recalled Sharks circling the boat at times ready to be fed. While I intend to fly I want to get as close to the places he visited as possible.
My great grandad has always been a hero to me. He was a hero in the true sense of the word, as were his peers who went to war because they had to. Many never came home. This year however I have drawn on his memory more than any other. I make no bones about the fact that I suffer from bad mental health and 2020 hasn’t been a bed of roses for anyone. As we headed towards lockdown at the start of the year I was expecting a tough time of it and I have surprised myself with how well I managed to stay on an almost even keel throughout. It is easy to say, “it could be worse.” But it really could be. I was never short of food, a comfortable bed and ways to keep myself occupied. At 29 years of age my great grandad was a prisoner in a foreign country, not knowing whether he would survive from day-to-day. Death could come at any moment from illness, exhaustion or the hand of the soldiers holding him captive. He was forced to perform hard labour fuelled only by rice and minimal rations of water. Prisoners thought themselves lucky to find a bug in their rice because that was their only source of protein. Remembering this helped me to put everything that has happened in the last year into perspective. It also gave me an even greater appreciation of the man that my great grandad was.
As my research and planning gathers pace I will dedicate more posts to the trip and delve deeper in to some of the stories behind it. It is safe to say that a trip to Asia is now firmly placed at the top of my bucket list. In the past I have travelled solely for enjoyment. This time I will travel for understanding and knowledge. To pay my respects to one of the men I respect above all others.