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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Border Crossing

I am in a taxi which is taking me to the border crossing between El Salvador and Guatemala. I am excited about entering a brand new country but at the same time feel a little sad about leaving El Salvador – a country that has given me so much. Specifically, Pupusas and an encounter with a prospective mugger.

Now though, it is time to move on. Because that’s what backpackers do. We love ’em and leave ’em.

I get out of the taxi, pay the driver and bid my Salvadoran, taxi driving counterpart farewell. I smile at him with a lump in my throat. Expressionless, he looks back at me and I get the feeling this moment means more to me than it does him.

As I prepare to pass through a small, white building, I detect all the hallmarks of a Central American border checkpoint. There’s a man asleep on a plastic chair and there’s three chaps who want to buy and sell currency at, what I’m afraid to say, are very uncompetitive rates of exchange.

But there’s something missing. This familiar scene is bereft of one particular element. Ah, there they are. I look over to my right because over to my right are half a dozen mean, bulky looking men carrying over the top weaponry.

I was keen to avoid a situation similar to the one depicted here

Now, I’m no armoury expert. In fact, I have very little military training indeed, particularly in the art of appropriate gun selection for Central American border crossings. But these guns seem like they’d be better suited to a scene from Saving Private Ryan.

I chuckle as I pass the mean, bulky looking men carrying over the top weaponry because I’ve seen this before at neighbouring border crossings and I don’t want them to think their big guns intimidate me. I think this would give them satisfaction and, believe me, the last thing I want to do is satisfy a large man with a big gun.

I walk past them and get to the office where I will be stamped out of one country and into another. I wonder if I’ll be thanked for coming, I hope they ask if I enjoyed my time in their lovely country.

“Tres dólares” says the woman behind the desk. Oh, three dollars. Why is she saying the words “three dollars”. I know there is no fee to leave El Salvador and I think the woman knows this too. She does know this, of course she knows this. If she knows this, then why is she asking for three dollars.

I don’t want to pay it and I shouldn’t be forced to pay it. This is a free country and I know my rights and I know the law of the land. It’s about time somebody made a stand against such illegal practises. I decide that time has come and that person is me.

I will be remembered alongside Rosa Parks for my heroism, Winston Churchill for my courage and for standing up for what I believe is right. Just imagine the greeting I’ll get when I walk through the arrivals of Heathrow‘s Terminal 4. The rapturous applause from the adoring crowds, the press, the paparazzi! I’ll probably have to get an agent!

I begin the speech that will put me in the martyrdom hall of fame.

“Yes, but…”

I stop a mere two words in as I notice one of the ridiculously armed men making his way over.

I quickly take my wallet out of my pocket and, trying to minimise the shaking that has curiously taken hold of my right hand, I slide five dollars across the desk to the lady.

She says she has no change. I don’t complain.

I bet it’s rubbish having an agent anyway.

Image courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

“What’s a gap year?”

I am at a careers fair at a college in London to represent a travel company I work for. It’s aimed at students about to finish their A-Levels (17-18 years old) who now face a choice about their future:

Get a job, go to university, do an apprenticeship or take a gap year.

I am here to inflame their imaginations and their want of travel, their desire to see the world whether that be as a gap year or volunteering abroad or whatever.

I am excited for them. I am enthusiastic and I am ready to answer their questions about the where, why, how and who of travelling. I feel I am prepared, I feel ready.

I also feel slightly disheartened that only seven people in the last hour and a half have felt the inclination to find out more. I can’t understand it, my colleague and I are smiling. We’ve got brochures. Look, that one’s even got a picture of a zebra on it. It’s in Africa. Don’t these people want to find out how they can go and see a zebra in Africa?

Hang on, there’s movement in our direction. Yes, this guy is coming over. This is a man who knows what he wants. This is a man who does want to see a zebra in Africa.

Bucket showers in Fiji. Reason no. 324 of why to go travelling.

“Alright?”, he opens with. Followed by, “what’s this all about then?”

“Well,” I begin, “we’re here to talk with you about seeing  the world, taking a gap year, broadening your outlook on life and getting something unique on your CV.”

“What? What’s a gap year? Why would I want to do that? What’s the point?”

What madness is this? Is the young man serious? He’s frowning. Which means he’s not joking. He is serious. I am confused and I suddenly feel light-headed. Perhaps I misunderstood the question. I seek reassurance.

“I’m sorry, what did you say?”

“Why bother?”, he shrugs and does that thing with his mouth when you don’t care about something that looks like an upside down smile. I’m bewildered but manage to keep my cool.

“Well, it’s a wonderful thing to do. You will see things you’ve never seen before; do things you’ve never done; learn things about yourself and others that could change the way you see the world and change the way you see life!”

I realise I have become animated, which was not my intention at all. The frown lines on his forehead have deepened. I’ve confused him.

Maybe a picture of a camel would have convinced him?

I’ve exhausted my sales pitch so I use the other weapon in my armoury. Silently, I point to the zebra.

He squints at it for a few seconds and I think I’ve gotten through to him. This is the breakthrough moment, the penny will now drop, and when he looks back on his lengthy career as a globetrotter, he will forever remember me as the catalyst, the place where it all began.

“Nup. Pointless.”

“Alright,” I state and then doing my utmost not to sound sarcastic, “well, you’ve clearly thought about it from all angles and made every

consideration in reaching your conclusion. If you do change your mind, you know where we are.”

He looks up at me and my fake smile. He fake smiles back.

He disappears into the huddle of people that have gathered around a table full of free sausage rolls and sandwiches.

I sit down in an attempt to take stock of what has just happened. I make eye contact with two tall girls who are now on their way over.

“What are you doing here then?”, they inquire.

Oh God. There’s more of them.

Solo backpacking and Valentine’s Day: A tale of woe.

 

Oh God. Is it the 14th? Today? Is it? I know it’s February. It’s definitely February. I know this. But is it really the 14th?

I continue into the restaurant trying my best to convey an air of nonchalance. I put on a face that says, “Yes, I am by myself in a restaurant on Valentine’s Day. Yes, I am here. Yes, I do intend to eat. That I am alone perturbs me not one iota.”

Then I realise that’s quite a lot of information to put one one face but, I’m sure much like yourself, I don’t like to bail once I’ve committed to facial expression.

The truth is, it does perturb me and if I’m honest it perturbs me probably several iotas. More iotas than I care to count in fact. But I’m here now so I go in, take a seat at an empty table in the corner – a corner decimated with big red heart-shaped balloons, clinging as they are to the wall above my head. It was these decorations that tipped me off about this romance-saturated day.

There are couples scattered around at other tables, cooing into each other’s eyes in rapturous soul-matery. It’s at this moment, I consider leaving. I feel like I’m gate-crashing a party to which I’m not only not invited, but that I am expressly not wanted at.

Jesus also cuts an isolated figure in San Juan del Sur. Just saying.

But I have no other means of feeding myself. I am solo backpacking in Nicaragua, it’s late and food outlets are scarce so even if I leave now, I may struggle to find another source of sustenance. But really, it’s more than that.

I don’t want to admit that I care. I feel like possibly the loneliest human being our fair planet has ever had the misfortune of hosting at this moment but it’s of paramount importance to me that NOBODY know this.

Come on. Pull yourself together. Just because it feels like every couple in the room is simultaneously watching you, staring, judging and pitying you, it does not mean they are.

Look, over there. There’s another man by himself. Perhaps he’s made the same mistake as me. Perhaps I will go over and we will knowingly give each other a nod that acknowledges our shared predicament. I’ll pull out a chair, we’ll order some food, have a beer and laugh about all the… I end my thought there as his girlfriend/wife/life partner comes back from the bathroom and rejoins him at the table.

Never mind. I am able to shake this off as the middle-aged lady working there finally comes over and shows me a list of what they have on the menu tonight. I order quickly and ensure I ask for a beer as well – a tactical master stroke.

A generic heart.

My beer is brought to me almost immediately and now I have something to focus on. The beer bottle is the most fascinating item I’ve ever encountered. I read the label, sip it slowly and make sure at no point I raise my eyes to meet the gaze of the rest of the room.

I begin to wonder why this situation makes me feel so uncomfortable. I am a solo backpacker, it’s how I travel, that’s the type of traveller I’ve opted to be. I’ve eaten alone dozens and dozens of times without feeling self-conscious or uncomfortable. Bloody Valentine’s Day. Perhaps I’m not as suited to this style of travelling as I like to think.

Sure, I meet people all time at hostels and bars and we laugh and have fun and go out dining together. Maybe I’m bothered because it’s never in a romantic sense? After all, that’s the only thing that makes tonight different.

Maybe I should cut my trip short, pack my bag, go home, phone the Samaritans, undergo intense psychological therapy in order to bring myself out the deepest of depressions that will surely follow this gargantuan episode of isolation.

I force myself to look up. What are they doing? Are they mocking me? They’re waving at me. Aren’t they? They’re beckoning me over! They want me to join them! Oh, the relief! The elation! I am wanted! I won’t have to leave early, listen to Morrissey songs and spend the next few years contemplating my very existence after all.

I stand up and walk over to their table where the two girls and the guy remain seated and present me nothing but welcoming smiles.

“We were waving at you for ages to come over. Are you alone?”

“Yes”, I say. “And thank you.”

 

Image courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net

How do YOU prioritise travel destinations?

It’s videos like THIS

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BUoYWcbDCXI]

that make me so confused as to where I should go next.

In the past it’s been easily decided by where fits best on a Round the World ticket or by looking at countries close to somewhere I already know I’m staying. For example, when I had family living in the Philippines, I used it as an opportunity to visit Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan on various occasions.

But as I have become more and more exposed to travel and backpackers and travel blogs and… globes… I find it increasingly difficult to decide where to go next. Not where to go, just where to go NEXT.

So you make a list, don’t you.  These are the things I research:

  • Cost of a flight
  • How far my money will go when I’m there
  • What I can do there
  • How long do I need there

Then I weigh up those things by assigning a weight of importance to each one. Based on the result of this, I am able to come up with a logical conclusion as to where each one is placed on the list and therefore where the next place I ought to go is. Simple.

Except it’s not is it?

Mayan Ruins in Honduras

Shouldn’t decisions like this be made by looking into your heart of hearts? Shouldn’t I have a gut feeling about where to go? These things shouldn’t be decided using logic and sense. That totally goes against the whole spirit of travel – freedom, exploration, relaxation and the unknown.

And yet I really struggle with it. Possibly because I know I only have a finite amount of time but an infinite number of places to go. It’s ridiculous though, because the danger is that fear can paralyse you into NEVER making a decision and before you know it, you aren’t going anywhere.

The reality is that it’s difficult to pick the ‘wrong’ place because you can’t know how much you are going to like somewhere until you’ve been there. After all, it’s the unknown quality that make it attractive in the first place.

I travel solo these days which means no compromising but it also means no companion to bounce ideas off of and I think sometimes that would be a good idea because they make you think of things that had previously not occurred to you.

The bottom line is I’ve never been anywhere and thought, ‘well that was a big fat waste of time/money/effort’ because you know what? The two things that I value the most are catered for no matter what – the journey and simply being somewhere different.

Office Life: Is this it?

Sitting in my office this afternoon I wished I had a desk that was next to a window so that I could perform that cliché of gazing out of it longingly and wistfully, thinking about all the places around the world that I could/should/want to be right now.

I don’t know how one goes about looking wistful but I’m confident I could pull it off.

Anyway, instead I had to go over to my colleague’s window-adjacent desk and ask if I could use their seat for a minute. Frankly, it didn’t have the same effect and the moment was lost.

The reason I was particularly prone bizarre acts of wonderment today was because for the first time in a long time, the sun decided to bathe London in it’s delicious rays. It’s pretty accurate to say I love the sun and dislike almost all other forms of weather.

I actually scoffed at my massive black coat that hangs on the back of my bedroom door as I left the house this morning. No my friend, you stay there, I told it. For today, the temperatures will be in the mid 20’s. You played your part through the winter, and the spring, well most of the year actually, but now you must rest.

A girl who live on the banks of the Rio Dulce, Guatemala.

As I gazed (wistfully across the office and THEN) out the window there was only one thing in my mind: This can’t be it. This can’t be me for the next forty odd years. This can’t be what my life is to consist of for eight hours a day for 345 days of the year.

To me, that is the worst fate that can befall a person. To perform the same tasks day in and day out, to have routine and to be unable or unwilling to remove yourself from situations and people you don’t wish to be in close proximity to.

But then I thought, well, why not? This is what most people do, this is what most people want. They don’t want surprises, they are not fond of change and the more security the better. I even started feeling a little guilty for not wanting to in that office staring at that computer screen at a time when unemployment is sky high.

I began to realise that part of the reason why I’ve started this blog, labelled myself “Travel Rich” and surrounded myself with so many travel bloggers on social media like Twitter is not just because I want to read about their adventures and educate and entertain myself.

But it’s also largely because I want to associate myself with them. I envy their lifestyles and I want to be like many of them. Is the grass always greener? I think we all know the answer to that one.

I’m reminded of a clip from television sitcom “The Office” where Tim is defending his decision to remain in a job he doesn’t like rather than go back to university and a more prosperous career path:

“If you look at life like rolling a dice, then my situation now, as it stands – yeah, it may only be a three. If I jack that in now, go for something bigger and better, yeah, I could easily roll a six – no problem, I could roll a six… I could also roll a one. OK? So, I think sometimes… Just leave the dice alone.”

I’m going to leave you to ponder that thought. You know where the comments section is.

Cash splashing on a budget

I’ve always done my travelling on a tight budget but every now and again I splash out on something a bit special.

For all it’s good qualities, travel can be exhausting, difficult and incredibly frustrating, and it’s at times like these when I like to treat myself.

Here are some of the things I find it’s totally worth extending my wallet to:

 

1) A hotel rather than a hostel (air-con optional)

When I was in Honduras, in some of the smaller towns which attracted little to no tourists, I had to stay in rooms that pretty much resembled prison cells. A creaky bed, an even creakier bed side table, no window and a light bulb of about

Bunk in a 48 bed dorm

ten watts. That’s it. Seriously, people on death row probably have better accommodation.

But hey, this is what you get for $2.50 per night and it’s all part of the backpacking experience, blah blah blah…

After several nights in these cells, when I crossed into El Salvador I found myself walking past a “proper hotel” in Perquin on my way to somewhere a bit more to my standard. I looked up at it longingly and then thought, ‘why the hell not? I think I’ve earned it’.

So for three nights at something like $15 per night (including breakfast) it was like living in a palace. As I entered my room, the first thing I noticed was the smell. Or rather, the complete absence of one. In fact, the entire room was spotless. The double bed was wonderfully mute, my ensuite (oh, yes) bathroom had hot AND cold water – I was actually in charge of what temperature I washed myself at. This was amazing.

Fresh towels provided, two bottles of water, soap, and the ceiling fan was not only quieter than a jet plane for once, but it did it’s job with aplomb.

Occasional luxury like this always gives me the perfect battery recharge.

 

2) A proper restaurant meal rather than street food

Don’t get me wrong, I love street food and I eat it wherever I go. It’s great because you know there will always be an opportunity to eat wherever you and whatever you doing. Whether it’s pineapple for breakfast on the bus or whatever meat on a stick for sale that you happen to walk past next.

Amazing food. Mmmm...

However, a nice sit down meal once in a while in a proper restaurant where you have a proper waiter/waitress, perhaps a pre-chilled glass for your beer, a starter, and maybe even a dessert, are so much more special and appreciated when you’ve been on the road for a while and necking pad thai or menu del dia every day.

 

3) First class rather than economy (excluding aeroplanes – I’m not mental)

You’ve slummed it with locals, you’ve sat shoulder to shoulder with chicken buses full of kids, you’ve stood arse to face with somebody’s grandmother on the back of pick-up truck so now it’s time for your reward.

If it’s a really long bus/train journey (or even if it’s not) and you can’t bear the thought of playing share the seat with another sweaty, dribbling drunk then

Chicken buses

making that step up to first class is well worth your consideration.

Give yourself a bit more leg room, entertain even the possibility of sleep, and the notion that you could actually make it through this journey in conditions that are neither arctic nor tropical.