Friday, October 27, 2006

Travellers’ Tales (the only thing more boring than listening to people’s dreams?)

At a recent wedding reception it was my misfortune to be cornered for a while by a fellow who insisted on telling me of his life and opinions in exhaustive, and exhausting, detail. By the end of the ‘conversation’ I knew pretty much everything about him, but I doubt he even knew my name. He certainly didn’t ask me any questions.

Now, we all know that there is nothing worse than being collared by someone who can’t tell the difference between a dialogue and a monologue. It is a particular failing of still-single men in their early 40s, I’ve noticed, to launch unbidden, at the first drink, into a long autobiography – or rather, self-mythology – of exaggerated adventure and career success; and my theory is that it stems from a deep insecurity about a rapidly disappearing youth and an unconscious need to justify their wifeless, childless existence.

All of which is bad enough, but this fellow was that most objectionable breed: a ‘traveller’ – emphatically not a ‘tourist’, note, but a ‘traveller’. He eschewed nationality, proclaiming himself a ‘world citizen’ and a ‘first generation backpacker.’

Which whingeing about a stranger I’m unlikely ever to meet again now brings me to my point. I have always been dubious about the claims of those who loudly and pompously disown the staid, cosseted associations of the label ‘tourist’ in favour of the much more glamorous ‘traveller’. This is not because I deny the adventurousness of ‘first generation backpackers’ (though the actual danger the Thailand-tramping trustafarians place themselves in is, I suspect, fairly limited), but because of the self-satisfied insistence they place on having experienced THE REAL™ [INSERT COUNTRY]. As in “You can’t get to experience the REAL Lanzarote/Greece/Goa/Thailand as a tourist, man.”

So what is “the Real™ Seville” or “the Real™ Crete” as defined by the ‘traveller’? Geographically, it generally seems to be whatever area the Lonely Planet and Rough Guide books tell them to go to. Occupationally, it is an insistence on drinking coffee only in those hostelries patronised exclusively by very old men. Accommodation-wise, it is youth hostels. Transport-wise, it is hitch-hiking.

And here the cracks begin to appear in the whole ‘backpacker’ philosophy. Real™ locals don’t live by the Lonely Planet guide. Occupationally, most Real™ locals in backpacking destinations spend their days servicing the very tourist industry the travellers seek to avoid. They don’t live in YMCAs and they don’t hitch-hike either – they drive their own cars.

I love visiting European cities. I don’t go as part of a package tour, I find my own way around and I try to speak the lingo. I do not however, believe that this somehow puts me in an elite class some several rungs of the sophistication ladder above a mere ‘tourist’. Nor do I pretend that not having a rep to show me around enables me to therefore experience the Real™ Thing. Real Berliners and Barcelonians do not stay in hotels, do not go out for expensive dinners every night and do not wander open-mouthed around the famous sights all day. Nor do they take photographs of everything that doesn’t move, nor spend hours slowly revolving stands of postcards in search of the perfect one for Uncle Fred.

They do what everyone in this world does, who can afford it: they work in the day, watch the telly in the evening, and drink alcohol at the weekend – a Reality I don’t need to ‘travel’ far to experience. They also go away for their holidays. And if they can’t afford it, no amount of donning ethnic clothes, growing dreadlocks and failing to shave will replicate their existence. Tourism is about wonder and travel is about adventure: it is the very opposite of reality, which is the whole point.

(And despite lecturing me for a good 20 minutes about the difficulties of publishing in the UK (he’d written an autobiography and had it vanity-published) he never asked me what I did for a living.)


David said...

I try to speak the lingo.

Actually, they all speak English, even if they don't know it. The trick is to speak slowly and loudly, and more slowly and louder the longer it takes them to realize that they understand you.

Brit said...

Yes, that's what I meant by 'the lingo'.

Susan's Husband said...

I assumed that you made your living off the massive ad revenues for this weblog.

Hey Skipper said...

So you caught the guy monologing.

I wonder if this is his idea of "real" traveling:

-- By Francis Dunner
-- Sung to the tune of "Too Much Saturn and not enough Moon"

I always believed that if I ran off to India
Wore sandals and shaved my head
And used Body shop conditioner, and incense like crazy
I could call myself a spirit head
But I only went to India to look on top
I wore sandals cause I’d smoked all my money
And I shaved off all my hair cause I had the fleas
I’d been sleeping all over
And the Body shop conditioner was a present from a friend
And the incense used to hide the smell
Of the drug den that I lay in

And so I ask myself what my motives are
For this lying need to look so free
And if I tell myself real honestly
What more can I admit to, open up a door
He said I’m gonna find out what I’m here for
He said I’d find out soon
I got too much Saturn and not enough Moon

I always believed that if I never missed a Yoga class
Read my horoscope in the dailies
And recycle bottles, and know a Red Indian
I could call myself a spirit man
But I was only doing Yoga cause I fancied the teacher
And stars cause it looked good on paper
And I only went to church cause my granny gave me money
When confession was over
And I only knew the Indian cause his brother’s a dealer
And bottles had a price on their return
So I could go and play, Oh my my

And so I ask myself what my motives are
For this lying need to look so free
And if I tell myself real honestly
What more can I admit to, open up a door
He said I’m gonna find out what I’m here for
He said I’d find out soon
I got too much Saturn and not enough Moon

So now that you know why I don’t love you
And now that you see that I’m so scared
Am I a good man ?
Am I a deep deep man ?

What more can I admit to, open up a door
He said I’m gonna find out what I’m here for
He said I’d find out soon
I got too much Saturn
How can I admit it, open up a door
He said I’m gonna find out what I’m here for
He said I’d find out soon
I got too much Saturn and not enough Moon

Duck said...

Did your friend listen to "World music?"

Hey Skipper said...

World music is the aural answer to waterboarding.

Brit said...

Worse than that - he makes it. He even gave me his card in an attempt to flog me his autobiography.

On his website you can read the first chapter and also download his homemade 'Spanglish' raps.

For the sake of humanity, I will refrain from publishing the link

Peter Burnet said...

One of my favourite aphorisms about modern times comes from an American who visited Oxford in the '50s and who marvelled at the conversation he encountered there. It was, he said, as if they had all been raised to believe "the world is more interesting than I am."

Among the endless variations of twits like this is the married couple who are into lengthy wilderness holidays with a quasi-religious passion. That's fine, each to his own, etc., but they haul their poor back-pack laden young kids with them on twenty-mile hikes through the Rockies (often taking silly risks) or where ever, and the kids have to pretend they are having a ball--much more fun than the ocean or Disneyworld. Once home, they lay your low moral fibre on you by giving you a blow-by-blow of their boring trials ("..and then the tent flooded and we had to eat cereal out of the box--can you imagine?") They seem to delight in inflicitng accounts of non-stop discomfort, exhaustion and privation, but always insist the views made it all worthwhile. That's the cue for them to pin you on the sofa and show you six dozen photos of wilderness and one hilarious one of Dad peeing in the bushes, all taken without a telephoto lens (and therefore nicely thrown back and flattened out) and all accompanied by a detailed colour commentary.

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