Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Travel unplugged - the darker side!

Travel is my absolute passion. From being very young I had a strong desire to travel to different places and to see the world. I was brought up in an extremely small and non-cosmopolitan seaside town in the north-east of England and had early anxieties about never being able to travel abroad. My aunt, uncle and grandparents went on a Wallace Arnold coach tour of Austria, Switzerland and the Netherlands when I was about ten years old. I loved going to my aunt's home to look at the travel brochures from the holiday and would set them out on her kitchen table, pretending to have my own travel agency! Yes, travel was the most wonderful thing, impossibly exciting and insanely glamorous.

Wallace Arnold Tours - Leyland Tiger - LNW 262

Of course, travel can be all of these things and for the most part its great. However, it also has a darker side. I learned this quite early on when I went to Scotland with my parents at age 12 and stayed for one night in a small hotel just outside Edinburgh. The hotel provided my first glimpse of the "seamier" side of travel as there were a number of mushrooms growing in the shower tray. The hotel made great play of its locally grown mushrooms on its breakfast menu. I gave them a wide birth.

Many (many) years later, I went with a friend on my first visit to Paris. A bit green, we arrived without a hotel room and spent a morning looking around the Marais for somewhere we could afford to stay. We eventually settled on an Algerian owned place where we were told we had to be in the hotel by 11 p.m. as the door would then be locked. This seemed a bit onerous but growing tired of tramping the streets we took it, dumped our bags and went out. Returning in the evening we found we had been moved to another room where the bathroom had clearly been the scene of a death of some sort as the stench of decay was overpowering. Desperately tired, we opened the window and went to bed. Packed and ready to move in the morning we went in for breakfast - which consisted of coffee, jam and butter. And that was it. No bread. No nothing.

These days I am well able to handle situations like this and have rather more cash at my disposal which helps. However, there are other shocks and horrors that even the most seasoned traveller can experience. One of my pet "problems" in a range of countries is the over familiar guide or driver. The vast majority of people working in the travel industry are polite, helpful and appropriately friendly. But, from time to time, some of them can become a little too comfortable. I know why this happens. If you are spending long stretches of time with people, over a number of days, driving from one part of a country to another, the conversation can stray into more personal territory - are you married? do you have children? why did you get divorced? how much do you earn? With some carefully constructed responses it is possible to close the questioning down or change the subject. Much more difficult is to stop the supply of personal information from you companion. Perhaps my favourite was "I like ladies with big bottoms" which came totally unsolicited from a driver in an "eastern" country.

It also happens that once comfortable with the client, your host will allow little prejudices to slip out, expecting your agreement. This frequently strays into what would be deemed racism if coming from the mouths of people in the west. My most "interesting" examples include being asked if I had ever been to Hungary and when confirming I had, being told that "the country is full of Jews who are all wealthy and control all of the country's financial institutions". This and similar statements come as an unwelcome shock and any kind of response can be extremely difficult if you are travelling alone with a guide or driver. My usual approach is either to ignore the remark and move the conversation on by "spotting"something interesting on the roadside or responding with something along the lines of "I don't know anything about that" or "that hasn't been my experience".

Food can be another tricky issue. I don't eat meat. Explaining that in some countries can be a little difficult. A long (long) time ago in Madrid I ordered "vegetarian rice" from the menu in a small restaurant not far from Plaza Mayor. The dish arrived. I looked at it and wondered what the dark pink diced things were. I poked them with a fork. They looked like meat. I called the waiter and told him I had ordered vegetarian rice. He agreed I had. "So what's this" I asked him pointing to the pink spongey stuff. "Ham", he said with a smile. "But I ordered vegetarian rice" I said, a little bemused. "Yes, that's right" he said. "So why the ham then?" I asked. "To spice it up a little" came the reply. I gave up and shoved the offending substance to the side of the plate.

Menus can hold some surprises too. On a visit to Prague in the early 1990's, not long after the fall of communism, I went to the French restaurant in the now beautifully restored Municipal House known as the Obecni Dum in Czech. I looked at the menu. A lovely onion soup starter. Yum. Scanning the menu for a vegetarian main course I thought I was mistaken, but having checked several times I noted that a poultry dish, strangely listed as "vegetarian" was on offer. Strange enough, but stranger still was the full description. "Chicken breast, roasted vegetables and two turds". Gosh. Two of them.

Which brings me to language. The British are renowned for being more or less crap at speaking other people's languages. Me included. But I do like to try. I spent six months in Thailand back in 2001/2. I went to school to try to learn spoken Thai - the written format was just too hard for me. I struggled a bit as Thai is a tonal language, with five tones. This means that some words that sound the same to an untrained western ear can have completely different meanings depending on the way they are pronounced. During my time in Thailand I was a major target for heavy duty mosquito bites. The itching was terrible and the family I stayed with gave me a soothing balm that helped a lot. The mother of the house, who did not speak English was the keeper of the balm. One particularly itchy evening the older children of the house told me to knock on their mother's bedroom door and ask for the antedote, reminding me of its name. I knocked, she answered, I said what I thought I had to say. She looked surprised and said nothing, just stood staring at me. I said it again. She looked confused. A third time and she called her son. A short conversation ensued and he asked me what I had said. I told him and he laughed out loud. You have just called her a Burmese cu-t he said. Right words, wrong tone. Oh dear.

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