All I Know About Travel I Learned From Tintin
Published: May 2009
By Peter Jon Lindberg
10 rules for the road
More popular than Harry Potter, more ubiquitous than Coke, more recognizable than Madonna (oh, that cowlick!), Tintin is as global as icons come. Since his creation in 1929 by the cartoonist Hergé, his adventures have been translated into more than 50 languages, from Welsh to Esperanto, and have sold 200 million copies worldwide. The final Tintin volume appeared in 1976—Hergé died in 1983—but the books have spawned countless animated films, a TV series, a video game, essays by cultural theorists, a "serious" novel by Frederic Tuten (Tintin in the New World: A Romance), even an X-rated parody, Tintin in Thailand, in which our innocent hero hits the sex clubs of Bangkok. The first Tintin musical premiered last year in Antwerp (in Dutch); a version in French opened this spring in Charleroi, Belgium. Tintin-the-icon, like Tintin-the-roving-adventurer, has crisscrossed the planet.
Though he's known as "the boy reporter," Tintin is really the world's most famous traveler—forever en route to both actual places (Jakarta, New Delhi, Chicago) and fictional ones (as a kid, I once spent hours trying to locate the kingdom of Syldavia on a map of Europe). Millions of children grew up touring the globe via Hergé's illustrations, and the world we saw in those vibrant frames no doubt informed the way we eventually met the real one. "Who has traversed Shanghai, Tibet, Scotland, or the Near East without saying to himself: I recognize this landscape?" asked the French philosopher Michel Serres. "The world mimics the memorable panels . . . life has begun to follow the spells of art."
To reread the Tintin books today is to experience a poignant nostalgia—not so much for one's childhood as for the lost world depicted in Hergé's colorful pages. This was the age of flying boats and steam locomotives, of Chinese junks and dugout canoes, of elegant Citron taxis and hand-drawn rickshaws. Other places still looked different from home—no Pizza Huts in Geneva, no Britney T-shirts in Kathmandu. Who could pore over Hergé's drawings and not feel compelled to trek across the Sahara or sail off to Peru?Tintin made travel look easy and, above all, fun. And there were lessons to be gleaned from those books, ones any traveler can still use today. Here are a few I swear by.
1. Chloroform is an effective sleeping aid. For most of us, planning a trip is a nightmare of researching airfares, getting our mefloquine shots, and finding a trustworthy neighbor to water the plants. Not for Tintin. One minute he's strolling on deck, the next he's jumped by two thugs who knock him out with chloroform and toss him into a wooden box with his dog Snowy. When he wakes up, hey presto—he's in China! No bad airline food, no crappy in-flight movie, no queues at immigration. And as soon as the chloroform wears off, he's fresh and ready to roll. (Does your sleeping pill work so well?) As a kid I had fantasies about being similarly shanghaied. I once begged my dad to chloroform me for the 14-hour car ride to Grandma's; by the end of the trip, I'm sure he wished he had.
2. Guidebooks are for amateurs. In all the time I've known him, Tintin has never cracked a Michelin or a Fodor's, yet he's never gotten lost while wandering in Marrakesh without a map. A true traveler lets the road take him where it may, and doesn't stress out when all the @#$%ing street signs are in Arabic.
3. One outfit is enough. Though he's occasionally seen packing a steamer trunk for long journeys, this intrepid reporter seems to carry no change of clothes other than a spare yellow shirt and maybe a sweater for those chilly Himalayan nights. (So what's in the trunk, you wonder—a 90-pound laptop?) When the situation requires, he'll go native, donning Bedouin headgear in the Sahara or a chic little kilt in the Scottish Highlands. But Tintin's trench coat and plus fours are suitable for almost any climate.
4. Get to know the natives. Our man realizes that travel isn't just about museums and cathedrals; it's about the people you meet. Tintin collects friends as if they were postcards, forging lifelong bonds with the likes of Ben Kalish Ezab, the emir of Khemed; Chang, the Chinese boy who once saved his life; and the South American dictator General Alcazar (Tintin doesn't let silly political differences stand in the way of a friendship). And as Tintin has learned firsthand, it's good to have a friend in Tapiocapolis—you never know what trouble he'll pull you out of.
5. Don't bother learning the language. Tintin is the quintessential colonial-era traveler, floating around the globe as if it were his birthright and never once learning the local words for "Thank you." Somehow he gets by. Of course, it helps to be an international icon.
6. Dogs make good travel partners. For some reason, Tintin's fox terrier, Snowy, is welcome aboard any plane, train, or ocean liner and is never quarantined on arrival. And though he's prone to lapping up spilt whiskey and chasing the local fauna, Snowy is mostly well-behaved—unlike those bratty preschoolers bawling at the Louvre. The moral: Leave the kids, take the dog.
7. Always travel with a plot. Tintin doesn't bother much with sightseeing—and when he does, he's invariably distracted by a kidnapping or a jewel heist. Much more fun, anyway. With Tintin as my model, I try to make any journey of my own an investigation, a quixotic quest—even if that quest is simply, "Where can I get something to eat?" On that note . . .
8. Sample the local cuisine. Whether downing the fiery-hot liquor of the Arumbaya tribe or ordering "szlaszeck with mushrooms and a glass of szpradj" at a Syldavian restaurant, Tintin rarely passes up a chance to savor exotic fare. Nor is he afraid of unwashed greens or contaminated tap water—no iodine tablets for this fearless gourmand, thank you. What's his secret?Perhaps that hulking steamer trunk is filled with Imodium-AD.
9. Bring your friends. I once took a cruise with a woman I was dating—suffice it to say we were no longer dating when we disembarked. For the whole torturous week, all I could think was, "Damn, I wish Captain Haddock were here." Tintin never brings a date on his trips—he doesn't date, period—but he does bring his loyal pals, who provide plenty of distraction during the journey. Professor Calculus packs cool toys (pendulums, collapsible submarines); Thomson and Thompson are good for a pratfall or two; and the captain, when he's not blasted on Loch Lomond scotch, is always up for a chess game. Would that we all had such companions.
10. Leave the Nikon at home. He has uncovered secret Inca temples, scaled the Himalayas, and even walked on the moon—yet in all his travels, Tintin rarely carries a camera. (Chasing bad guys is easier when you're not lugging a tripod.) Me, I've always envied him that freedom—not having to worry about insufficient light, overpriced film, or X-ray damage. Wouldn't it be ideal to roam the world with your own personal Hergé—someone to capture each thrilling moment, each abominable snowman sighting, in vivid four-color panels?In a perfect traveler's world, every landscape would be as breathtaking as Syldavia's, every train ride would be rife with adventure, and all our scrapbooks would be illustrated by Hergé.
For more on Tintin, see www.tintin.com/uk.