Travel Stories and Being That Guy

It is lunchtime, I am at work and myself and two colleagues are sitting in the comfy chairs away from our desks.

It’s nice to sit in the comfy chairs away from our desks because we can drop our job titles for 45 minutes and the real people behind our corporate masks can come out.

Jane is telling a story about how she took her daughter swimming last night and that she enjoyed it. Andrew is relaying a tale of his own about the time he first took his young lad to play football on a Saturday morning.

Both anecdotes, though delightful in their own way, are of no use nor interest to me. I don’t have children therefore I have absolutely zero interest in the offspring other people – particularly work colleagues.

Luckily, I know what to do in such situations.

“Oh, so is your boy any good then? Where does he play?”, I ask and then hope I didn’t sound too enthusiastic in case Andrew thinks I’m being sarcastic.

He’s saying, “Ahhhh! That tickles!”

I then sit back, nodding, head tilted, interest feigned. I’m also quite proud because my second question could refer to the position on the football pitch his son occupies or the location of the club for whom he plays.

I smile, satisfied that I am a great conversationalist, and plunge my spoon into my strawberry yoghurt ready for another mouthful.

I am tuned out until I hear, “Are you going away this year?”

Oh no. This is a disaster. They want to talk about holidays. They want to talk about going abroad. They want to talk about how they spend two alcohol-sodden, sun-scorched, British-ridden weeks in some two star tin pot hell hole on the Costa Del Sol every summer.

“Maybe, hadn’t really thought about it”, I say waving away Jane’s questioning.

I heave a sigh of relief. Which I then realise is a little too pronounced and so try and turn it into a cough. It doesn’t work and I can tell they think I’m a little odd.

But now they think I’m the sort of person that sighs at the avoidance of conversations. I don’t want them to think I’m the sort of person that sighs at the avoidance of conversations. So I decide I will partake.

If they want to talk about travel, I’m going to give them everything I’ve got.

I listen as Jane finishes talking about riding a donkey on Blackpool beach last summer. Or she thinks it might have been the summer before, she’s not sure and she laughs as she ponders the concept of time flying.

Is it safe to talk about camels?

My turn. Get ready.

“Yes, riding animals is great isn’t it? Such good fun! I remember the time I rode on the back of an elephant with some tribes in the hills of northern Thailand, and the elephant kept wandering off the path to get food! We were getting thrown into branches and all sorts!”

I chuckle at the memory and then quickly stop as I see the blank faces staring back at me. Andrew fakes clears his throat and they both try to smile.

And suddenly I’m that guy. Through no fault of my own, I make myself a hate figure in the eyes of my workmates.

I’m a bragger, a boaster, an out-doer whose sole purpose in life is one upmanship. I’m someone who thinks riding donkeys on Blackpool beach is beneath me. So much so, that just to prove a point, I have to go all the way to Southeast Asia to find an animal that’s worthy of me sitting on.

This is a disaster. How can I rescue this? Think! Think!

Quick, what other animals have I ridden?! Camels in the Australian outback?? Oh, this is hopeless.

I decide I am left with no alternative.

“So… do you think you’ll take your daughter swimming again?”

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A cigarette factory in Indonesia. It’s better than you think.

I’ve only been to Indonesia once. I didn’t go to Jakarta, I didn’t visit Bali and I failed to lay eyes on any Orang-utans. You see, I was playing the role of ‘tag-along’ as my Father was going there on business and rather than stay at his house in the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur, I thought why the hell not pop along too.

I mean, you just would, wouldn’t you?

So anyway, my experience of Indonesia is probably quite different to that of most people who go there as I doubt many bother with the industrial hub that is the city of Surabaya.

We arrived at Surabaya airport, were picked up by a driver and taken to the Marriott hotel. So straight away I’m out of my comfort zone but hey this is how the other half live… It was nice!

As we got closer and closer to Surabaya, the contrast to KL was instantly obvious. I’m not sure if I was expecting to see as much poverty as I did, but whether or not that was the case, I was certainly taken aback by it.

I mean, I’ve seen poverty on the road before but it had been a while this time. Each time I see it, for me, it’s like seeing it for the very first time and this was definitely the first time I’d seen it from the confines of an air-conditioned, chauffeur-driven car.

There’s nothing like the sight of a family of four on a solitary scooter, hurtling and slaloming their way through impossibly dense traffic (and wondering where they could be going) or a watching a huddle of malnourished men, probably in their 30s, all smoking and attempting to sell grey fruit from creaky tables under dark, fumy bridges.

The Marriott hotel was ridiculous. I’ve never been in one before and probably won’t again for a long time. It’s odd how my pristine, comfortable surroundings made me feel, well, uncomfortable. It’s a hard one to explain but I suppose I just didn’t feel like I belonged.

One of the few ways I found to spend my leisure time in Surabaya was to go to the cigarette factory – House of Sampoerna. Within the grounds of the factory was the museum and when I got there a girl, who was to prove herself very knowledgeable indeed, happily showed me around and enthusiastically talked to me about everything from the Sampoerna family, who founded the tobacco products, to the machines they use to make it.

I found it very interesting and they certainly know there stuff. Not only that, there is clearly a pride in everything that goes on there. I’m talking about the factory itself.

As I went up the staircase, I was greeted by a small room in which sat about half a dozen women each with their faces down and their fingers moving a mile a minute putting cigarettes through machines and smoothing them down amongst other things.

It was a well-oiled production line I can’t imagine sitting there for eight hours at a time  doing that – despite the nature of the work I’m betting repetitive strain syndrome is a complaint that doesn’t dare crop up too often.

As I advanced beyond this little room to the railings I was eager to see what was below me in the vacuous warehouse. It was row upon row upon row of what I had just seen with the only visible difference being that at the end of each row was a man (every other job was taken by a woman) who was doing the packaging of the finished product.

“Do they get free cigarettes?” I light-heartedly asked the girl showing me around. She responded with a “no” and a chuckle that indicated it was a ludicrous suggestion. I tried again, “what about samples?” but back came the “no” with a slightly more forced laugh. I left it there.