Wandering the Great Big World

From roaming the streets of St. John’s as a teenager, to touring the world in Newfoundland’s most travelled band: Bob Hallett shares his thoughts on seeing the world and never becoming a lost wanderer.

In 1995 hometown band Great Big Sea released its sophomore album Up, and on it a version of Jim Payne’s Wave Over Wave. To a sold-out crowd on their 20th anniversary tour, the lyric, “I’ve sailed the world over for decades or more” carried significant weight, because the boys have managed just that. With vans, buses, and planes stopping across North America, Europe, and Australia, Alan Doyle, Sean McCann and Bob Hallett have covered more miles than any other group in Newfoundland and Labrador music history. For Hallett, the group’s talented multi-instrumentalist, their journey around the world was the destination all along.

A travel writer himself – having grown up reading National Geographic, Bruce Chatwin, and Eric Newby – Hallett has always made a point to keep wandering outside of working hours, even with increased family obligations. As a cultural ambassador of the province, it’s only reasonable that he’d have a refined perspective on Newfoundland’s part in the bigger, global picture.

That’s the logic that led to me calling him in St. John’s from a farm in New Zealand, to talk about home, the antipodes, and everything in between.

Two feet and a heartbeat

He may have spent his youth, prior to the band years, saving up his money to go backpacking and living in hostels around Europe, but Hallett’s thirst for travel originated in a much more obvious place: exploring his hometown by foot.

“To quote Thoreau, ‘I travelled widely in Concord,’” he recalls. “I walked everywhere as a teenager. I walked all around St. John’s – literally, I walked everywhere on the West End, up towards Kilbride, but I would also walk downtown, or I’d walk to Quidi Vidi, or I’d walk to Cape Spear. That’s what I did in the summers. In that sense, the piece of geography that was most accessible to me, I knew really well.”

It was with this healthy dose of wanderlust and curiosity that the musician eventually ventured out of his comfort zone. And, he admits, it was often without an agenda – sometimes with an outdated guide book from the library, but mostly two open eyes.

“Long before the band, I was travelling as soon as I had money to do so, even at a very rudimentary level,” he says.

“I’d just stay in hostels and walk around London for three weeks. It sounds a bit simplistic, but there’s so much to see, and when you have time, you can see tons of stuff. Usually when you’re travelling, you’re in a hurry.”

But what are these things you’re seeing when you’re in a foreign environment? What are the things that you’re learning? Why are some of us capable of leaving the comforts of home for the open road, and keeping at it for 20 years? Those were the things that I wanted to know, and the answers started by looking at the thing that linked the kitchens of Newfoundland to crowds around the globes: the songs.

On the road with Great Big Sea

In 1993, with Doyle, McCann, and Darrell Power, Hallett went to Dermot O’Reilly’s studio to record what would be Great Big Sea’s self-titled debut. The next 20 years would be an attempt to bring the music and stories of this province to contemporary audiences in as many different places as possible.

“Great Big Sea allowed me to do something I would have done anyway. I wanted to travel anyway, and in many ways the band was a means to an end,” Hallett says.

“The huge advantage and the wonderful thing about travelling with the band is that, when we come to a city to do a concert, for that day we’re part of the cultural offering of the place…”

Still, he admits that travelling with the band was something of a mixed bag when it came to actually experiencing a new environment, particularly in the earlier days.

“If you’re in Los Angeles for 14 hours, 11 of that is going to be spent trying to eat, trying to shower, sound checks, playing the show – the few hours you have left, you probably have to go do your laundry, or get something fixed, or you’re trying to send a fax, or whatever. The result of that is we travelled all over North America for 10 years and saw nothing other than clubs, backstages, dressing rooms, subways, and things like that.”

Not that such a situation is without its unexpected perks.

“The huge advantage and the wonderful thing about travelling with the band is that, when we come to a city to do a concert, for that day we’re part of the cultural offering of the place, the same way as the ballet, the art gallery, the local theatre, all the things that make living in a big urban environment exciting,” he explains.

“For that day, we’re part of that. You’re not a tourist in the way that you are when you get off the plane with your guide book, staying at the hotel trying to figure out which way to walk – it’s a different experience, because you belong there.”

It’s the relationships with locals, then, that take the place of sightseeing and aimless wandering when you’re with a band. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing, just different.

“When I go somewhere as a traveller, my eyes are open and I’m looking around. When I go with the band, I’m going there to work, the same way that the guys who get off the Fort Mac bus at 5:00 in the morning don’t see the trees or the endless prairie sky, they don’t see the mountains or any of that – they see the job, the paycheck, and then they go back to the airport and fly back to Newfoundland. I don’t mean that in an ignorant way, but in some ways it doesn’t matter if you’re in Paris or Wichita – what matters is the show’s good.”

Home on the road

Great Big Sea was unique, Hallett points out, in that they embodied a microcosm of Newfoundland and Labrador; they were working as locals around the world for a majority of their professional lives. But he never dealt with homesickness in the way many ex-pats who work abroad inevitably do.

“My love and patronage of Newfoundland has not been negated by travelling or staying somewhere else. Sean and I grew up in the same neighbourhood, Alan grew up three miles over the hill, Darrell we knew from playing softball,” he explains.

“Great Big Sea was a self-contained gang of ruffians from St. John’s that drove around the world together, and because of that St. John’s became such a construct in our heads that the real place didn’t matter anymore. It’s sort of this imagined, created beast that we carried around with us at all times. I didn’t need to go away from it, nor did I need to come back to it.”

For Hallett, surrounding himself with a detached version of his home life wasn’t just a safety net in the face of the unknown – if anything, it remained a way to actively compare home with every new environment he explored with Great Big Sea, and to reflect on the place that they left behind.

“Great Big Sea was a self-contained gang of ruffians from St. John’s that drove around the world together, and because of that St. John’s became such a construct in our heads that the real place didn’t matter anymore.”

Other globetrotters have come to similar conclusions, spoken of it in dingy hostels and backpackers bars, and many more proponents will likely emerge – to hear it spoken about my own home, in an accent that Hallett laughingly admits he never tried to downplay, is just another reminder of why leaving even the most special place can be rewarding.

“I’ve always known that St. John’s had a unique kind of psychic energy, and that, geographically, it was interesting,” he says. “I knew we were probably much more interesting than most, but travelling has certainly confirmed that for me. We’re kind of middle-European, a mix of Irish bravado and English determination, indifferent to Canadian and American culture – it’s something worth keeping.

“So many Newfoundlanders grow up with his huge inferiority complex that they carry around with them, that somehow they’re not good enough or there’s something they’re missing. Travel teaches you that that’s not true – it’s really in your own hands as to what you are in this world.”

Off the clock

Even after he upgraded from the backpacker lifestyle of his early 20s (“I like a nice hotel room – I would be the first one to say I’m not that keen to sleep in a tent any more than I absolutely have to”), Bob Hallett kept an active travelling schedule beyond band touring, satisfying that urge to wander and look around. A marriage and children have, of course, been additional variables in travel arrangements, especially since he has been fairly ambitious when it comes to bringing them along.

“Not many people take children to Finland,” he laughs, regarding a trip a few years ago when he and his wife brought their son overseas for a week. “It’s not anyone’s idea of a family holiday, but as an 11-year-old I would have loved to have gone to Finland! I would have loved to have gone anywhere, and that’s kind of our thinking.”

Even more daunting was when he brought his full family to Australia, and had to successfully navigate after his van of passengers fell asleep, driving on the left-hand side of the road through roundabouts after a 30-hour flight across the world. He’s a staunch believer, however, that it’s an important part of growing up, even if his youngest children may take it for granted at the time and it’s meant that his own leisure activities are much different from what they would have been 20 years ago.

“It’s often later in life the expansion of the mind that comes with travelling will have been established. It’s not so much they’ll remember seeing the Mona Lisa so much as they’ll know that there’s a world out there that they’re capable of mastering. That they know that they’re the equal of anyone on this planet.”

Why wander?

The unexplored places in this world are getting harder to find, and travel literature, documentaries, and TripAdvisor makes it easier than ever to see the world without leaving home. Why do so many of us bother with it then?

As Bob told me, all the benefits of an expanded worldview, interactions and cooperation with new people, and increased understanding of the place you came from all circle back to one thing: we do it for ourselves, in the ever-ongoing process of becoming a better person.

"[T]he fact that you’re able to make yourself do it and survive it and come out the other side without pooping in your pants is a personal victory." - Bob Hallett. Photo courtesy www.bobhallett.com
Sometimes travelling with friends lands you in the oddest of places. Photo courtesy www.bobhallett.com
“So often with travel, it’s a personal victory,” he says. “Nobody cares if you’re bungie jumping off the bridge, but the fact that you’re able to make yourself do it and survive it and come out the other side without pooping in your pants is a personal victory.

“People who ask me, ‘Should I travel?’, I always say yes, even if it’s just to Halifax. The amount you will learn by travelling far outweighs the amount of money you will spend. No matter how limited your worldview, it will be expanded by a bit of travel, and knowing you can test yourself against the world and come out victorious will make you a better human being, and that’s always worth doing.”

He’s seen a lot of things and put himself in a lot of situations since he first started walking the streets of St. John’s, but Hallett still has a lot of names on his list of places to visit, including New Zealand. I ask him if it’s getting harder to find places that still cause that rush of stumbling on something special, or if age and experience has left him jaded. His answer surprises me, yet I suppose it shouldn’t, considered how cyclic travel ultimately is.

“In many ways, it’s easier, because I’m not nervous anymore. As a younger man I was sort of paranoid and nervous and felt so self-conscious that I was too busy worrying about it to enjoy it,” he says. “And it’s often the surprising things come around the corner.

“The other day I had to visit Chapel Arm, which I’d never been to before. It’s right at the bottom of this fjord (and) you can see the islands of Trinity Bay. Unlike most of the communities in Conception Bay it’s completely wooded right down to the waterline, the whole community has this really untouched view to it, and it was a real revelation to me. To go somewhere I had not noticed before and be surprised by its beauty and how hard people work there to make it a beautiful place – I was very taken by it.”

Whether it’s going off the highway by Whitbourne or down an alleyway in Paris, for some of us there’s no other life but to sail the salt sea.

Says Hallett: “The world’s a wonderful place, and it’s great that there’s more to do.”

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