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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Advice: take it or leave it?

There’s a saying that goes around: what is it everybody gives but nobody takes? The answer is advice. And while I’m not sure that’s strictly true it seems even less true when you’re on the road.

Guide books. They are FULL of advice. That’s what they’re there for – to guide. Hundreds of pages filled with advice on where to stay, where to eat, what do to, where to go, what to avoid, you name it, there’s an opinion on it.

Don’t get me wrong, I like guide books and for the most part I have used them to good effect and found them to be very informative. But I’ve always thought there are some things that are so subjective I don’t know how it’s even possible to tell someone else whether or not they will like it.

Backpackers, travellers, call them what you will, are full of advice. Whether they are giving it in person, tweeting it, blogging it or posting it on a wall, if you’re looking for it, it’s there.

When you meet someone on the road who has been somewhere you’re going, be it a city or a country, you ask them, what did you do? Where did you go? What should I look out for? What should I be careful of?

And often responses will be hearty, full and leave no stone unturned. Whether someone’s telling you why Delhi is the dirtiest place in the world and why you should never go there, or what makes a Thailand full moon party so special and why it should be top of everyone’s bucket list.

When I was in Guatemala last year, I met a whole bunch of people in a hostel on the Rio Dulce who were travelling south through central America – the exact route I had just done (except in reverse, obviously).

Semuc Champey

Somehow I found myself giving something that vaguely resembled a presentation on my trip to date. People were even taking notes. It was ridiculous.

While I was more than happy to help out my new friends, and talk about my adventures (who doesn’t?) I did find the situation a little uneasy. It was like I didn’t want to be held responsible for any disappointments.

For example, I had been told by many people about a beautiful place in Guatemala called Semuc Champey – a series of natural limestone pools. Sure, it was pretty and a nice place to hang out but I actually found it quite ‘meh’ (as the kids say).

Maybe I was expecting the eighth wonder of the world or something, I don’t know. But my point is I should have taken the advice with a pinch of salt.

One of the things I love about travel is that it IS so subjective. A hundred people can go to the same place and each can have a different opinion on it. There are so many contributing factors that influence how you feel about somwhere: who you go with, what the weather was like, if it was busy, if you were bitten by mosquitoes, if you were robbed… you see where I’m going with this.

So, MY advice would be to listen to your fellow travellers, ask them whatever you want but remember you are going wherever you are going for a reason. That is, to have the experience for yourself.

The Thai taxi haggle

We are on the beautiful island of Koh Tao, Thailand. There are five of us, and there is one taxi driver. He is leaning through the driver’s side window of his pick-up, arms resting and wrists flailing in animated nonchalance. We are in the midst of a haggle.

It is warm, sticky and the smell of rain on dry concrete hangs thick in the air. As I look beyond our would-be ride, I see the pond-sized puddles that await our permanently flip-flopped feet on the muddy track back to our hostel.

But we have been in Thailand for over two weeks now. He knows not with whom he deals, for in that time we have become master hagglers.

We have grown into our status as ‘travellers’, we have become pros at this financial game of cat and mouse. We can sense a rip-off a mile away – we are Backpackers.

We’ve been ‘had’ before of course. For example, I now realise the 2000 Baht paid to get from Bangkok airport to our accommodation in the city did not represent the value for money we had hoped. To this day I remain unconvinced it was a limousine as advertised by the baseball-capped gentleman who escorted us to the vehicle.

But that was way back on day one. Does he not see the translucently thin shirt sticking to my moist, beaded back? My unfeasibly decorated wrists? And where else could I have rendered my face such an ailing shade of red, punctuated only by a nose of such delicate skin flakes? Surely, these are the benchmarks of seasoned backpackers?

Koh Tao. Never got tired of these sunsets.

This is the face of experience. People like me know what the Khao San Road is, and anyway, I’m already aware of what follows in these situations:

After a lengthy stand-off, we will finally agree a fee, get in and it won’t be long before I feel guilt for not sharing my comparative western wealth as a tourist in his lovely country. I will mull over it for the rest of the evening, unable to shake the uneasy feeling I should have paid a fair price. At least, that’s how it goes if I feel I won the haggling match.

If I believe I lost it and paid over the odds, I will have nothing but contempt for the driver. Because now he will be the anecdote I share with fellow backpackers in late night bars, around worn out pool tables, and lying on dorm room bunk beds.

When tales of cockroach confrontation and full moon parties make way for stories of monetary misdemeanour, you will be my fable of swindle.

Except I won’t let that happen. Come on, I urge my friends, let’s be strong. The monsoon has passed and I’m sure the hour long walk back will be just as pleasant in the pitch black. We don’t need him or his pick-up so…

What, he only wants 50 Baht? Between the five us? Yeah, go on then.

Surely this experience is not unique to just me?