Around the World in 79 Days

Monty Python's Michael Palin ruled out air travel to duplicate Phileas Fogg's fictional feat. GLOBAL TRAVELOGUE

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

AND now for something completely different.... Well, not completely. After all, Mr. Phil'eas Fogg (and Mr. David Niven on film) have done it before. Now Michael Palin - who made his name as one of the slightly less kooky members of ``Monty Python's Flying Circus'' - has done it again: He's gone around the world in 80 days. In 79 days, 7 hours, that is.

Mr. Palin is not just a performer and writer of comic sketches, screenplays, and children's books. He is a railway enthusiast. And he describes himself as a ``dromomaniac,'' which means he has a ``compulsive urge to travel.''

This was more than borne out by his latter-day duplication of Jules Verne's 116-year-old novel in real life. And he had the added complication of writing and starring in a seven-part BBC-TV show about the trip that aired this fall in the United Kingdom. (It is scheduled to air on the Arts & Entertainment cable channel here starting Jan. 7.)

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But what could be easier in this day and age than getting round the world in 80 days? It only takes 36 hours by air - and far less by space shuttle.

The Palin journey, however, had one splendidly old-fashioned ground rule: no travel by aircraft. The aim was to see the world, not airports. As he puts it: ``Air travel shrink-wraps the world, leaving it small, odorless, tidy, and usually out of sight.'' So if you want to see the big, wide, untidy, smelly world, do it the Palin way - by train, boat, camel (a short ride near the pyramids), taxi, rickshaw, dog sled - but not by plane. From this premise (and from the fact that passenger liners have virtually disappeared since Fogg's day) stemmed a host of fascinating, infuriating - but ultimately entertaining - difficulties.

It was touch-and-go right up to the last few days and hours. A storm on the Atlantic could have meant disastrous time loss. None came. But back in London, on the last millimeters of the inflatable globe he took with him to check his progress, his underground train was suddenly delayed by a bomb scare. He was on his way to the Reform Club, where both he and Fogg started and ended their journeys.

The public nature of Palin's trip inevitably made him a sightseer. But Fogg was no sightseer: He let his manservant Passepartout do that for him. Palin dubbed the TV film crew ``Passepartout.'' In fact, though, he was their servant, carrying the sound equipment and performing obligingly for the camera.

Terry Jones, one of his ``Python'' friends, had said at the send-off: ``You're going to have to look happy for 80 days.'' But Palin was determined there would be ``no cheating,'' and although he naturally smiles a lot (``I think my face got stuck,'' he admits), it's made quite clear in the series that his mood was forever changing, as most travelers find, from weariness to exhilaration and from gloom to excitement. And he never hides the frustration caused by endless delays.

An interview in a Glasgow bookshop was perhaps characteristically complicated: He answered questions at the same time as he signed a mountain of books (his book of the journey, based on his diary). By the end of the questions, all that was left on the table was a pile of rubber bands: The floor was swamped in autographed volumes. He'd made only one mistake, signing ``David Attenborough'' as he explained how his approach to TV travelogue inevitably differed from the naturalist's. He appended his own signature for good measure.

Did his route vary much from Fogg's? Not much. ``But Fogg had more choices,'' says Palin. ``For instance, he was able to go to Brindisi in southern Italy and get a boat straight to Bombay. We couldn't. We had to go to Egypt ... then, of course, we got stuck in Jidda. ... And then he went across the China Sea and got shipwrecked. We went through China by train - just to see a bit more of the world and less of the sea, I suppose.''

IN fact, one of the things Palin wanted to put across in the series, and in his book, was ``what it's like to be on board ship for a long while.'' He says ``it's a slight time-warp: It's almost like you're the only people left on Earth.'' Difficult to describe because sea travel is not tremendously ``eventful'' and ``little things become enormously significant - like first seeing land after five days - it's an incredible moment.''

One sea trip that seems to have meant much to him was by dhow, 60-foot wooden vessels in wide use in the Mideast. This boat took him and ``Passepartout'' across the Arabian Sea from Dubai to Bombay. Life on the dhow was very slow: They gave it one whole program in the series.

Did his journey ``broaden his mind,'' as travel is supposed to do? ``Oh yes, almost inevitably,'' he says. ``For instance, I learned an awful lot from the people on the dhow about Indian village life.'' The crew were Indian villagers, Gujaratis. ``I would never ever have met them in that way if I hadn't gone on that journey. ... The dhow was a sort of microcosm, away from the real world. As soon as we got to India, they changed very much, they became different people - cowed and aware of social differences.''

The slow, contemplative periods at sea alternated with hectic times on land - seeing people, getting tickets, filming. His most astonishing moments? ``The snake restaurant in Canton - that, and the Corinth Canal. Took my breath away, for different reasons.'' He hadn't expected to see a snake killed and skinned at his table, so artistically. And the Corinth Canal in Greece - so incredibly narrow - ``you just can't envisage anyone getting through - like living an optical illusion. Like being in the middle of a pair of enormous pincers.'' With a couple of meters' leeway each side, ``it's a point of pride with the pilots not to hit the side.'' The four-mile-long canal, cut from rock, is ramrod straight. Its walls - 80 feet apart at the top - rise to a height of nearly 280 feet. That travel experience was one thing that Phil'eas Fogg did not have: The canal wasn't constructed until nine years after his fictional trip.

Palin's final verdict: It was ``a nice experiment, a nice adventure. But if you're really going to see the world, you've got to see it on your own. Or maybe with one other person. You can't travel as the center of attention. You have to be someone on the sidelines.''

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