My pal G has just come back from a business trip to Europe. He works for a non-profit and is always mindful not to spend unnecessarily while he is away. So he stayed in an inexpensive hotel, ate in the room in the evenings and took breakfast at a café down the road. He worked incredibly long days. As a result he is tired, run down, hungry and really sick of plastic food and cup-a-soup.
Seeing him nursing a bad head-cold and noticing the weight loss from his adventures into self-catering in sub-zero temperatures, I had to wonder why we do this to ourselves when we travel? We change our living conditions so profoundly that we almost exist on a parallel plane. Sure we travel for different reasons – work, play, discovery, family responsibilities etc. And travel is expensive. But isn’t taking the long route to get there, staying in miserable places, and eating like an impoverished student counter-intuitive?
Doesn’t it spoil the experience?
When we were in our late 20s/early 30s camparigirl and I would go on holiday together for a month every year. We went during the European summer hiatus and headed for somewhere far away from the madding crowd. We alternated who would choose the destination. And we’d hunt for a bargain – air and hotel. Pretty much each time we would have a shitty flight and end up looking for somewhere new to stay the day after we landed.
To be fair – we earned a pittance and had overheads, so this careful spending was determined by a strict budget. But we really ran into some doozies – the hotel in the Galapagos that had only one completed guest room (ours), an electricity free guesthouse in Kingston, its garden infested with rats, the rental car in a Yucatan jungle downpour with no windscreen wipers. But we were lucky – we travel excellently together and fixing the bugger-ups became part of the fun.
Towards the end of our shared holiday run we had learned how to do it right. We got the best priced direct flight, booked a decent hotel for a couple of nights and found something cheap and lovely when we were there. We ate from street vendors and small local restaurants – researched or recommended. And we never ever did anything we didn’t want to.
I still travel like this today.
We had learned that travel began the minute we closed our front door in London – and that we should factor that into the equation from the get go. (Not that every outing is perfect. On camparigirl’s recent visit here, we stayed in a holiday home that was so cold and damp that we kept the gas oven on and open, to warm the house.)
My wise friend Bertis always reminds me “the older we get the more ourselves be become”. Travel does that too. It reveals our hang-ups and habits. And if we look closely we see clearly what triggers our impatience, fear or anxiety. The more we learn about ourselves the less we can blame on situations at home. Being out of our routine and in unfamiliar settings reveals us, and that is uncomfortable. Our choice now is either to act out or to step up. That decision will define our holiday experience.
Unfortunate vacations with other friends taught me that the size of a budget doesn’t determine the success of the holiday. Disastrous trips to luxurious settings in Mexico, Italy, Thailand and the Caribbean only served to magnify burn out, insecurities and anxieties. Leaving some travelers plain terrified by the unfamiliar. We forget that we pack the past into our cases with our bikinis and sarongs. In groups, this means we trip over things we can’t see and so can’t avoid. It always ends in tears. Often mine.
Instead of hoping like hell things will work out, I’ve learned to read between the lines. Now, if someone says they want a little bit of night life and a decent restaurant or two – I understand that we will be dressing for cocktails and dinner every night. If that’s what I fancy (unlikely), I will go. If not, I pass.
I also get that very few people (camparigirl excepted) are interested in crawling around in bat shit encrusted caves looking at rock paintings or visiting small Rasta settlements in the Port Antonio hills to try the local grub. So if I want to do those things – I go alone.
I once spent three months wandering around Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand on my own. I stayed in nice hotels when I wanted to – and in huts on the beach when I fancied that. I ate early, often in shopping mall food courts (fast turnover, fresh food). Some days I didn’t move from the pool. Other days I walked for hours. I went to Chaing Mai for a week and stayed three. No-one minded.
The people who were travelling close to the wire just looked miserable. I knew I didn’t want to be catching busses for 27 hours straight when an overnight train trip and an extra $25 dollars would get me there in comfort. Especially as I had the means. I happily read all day when it rained. And had breakfast at the flower market at 5.am if I woke early. Some days I didn’t speak to a living soul. Others I chatted to everyone at the hotel bar. I didn’t dash around. I saw what I saw. For most of my friends, that would have been a horrendous holiday. I loved it.
When travel comes up now, I ask myself these questions:
Why am I actually taking this trip?
What do I want/need to get out of it?
How can I make it more pleasant for myself?
I’m firm with myself and clear with others. And then, I go and do. In the way that best suits me, but always staying flexible. Once I have done that – I manage my expectations. And do my best to work with what’s around me. And I surprise myself all the time. It’s fun.
So, what the hell. G – put the kettle on – and make mine a chicken noodle, I’m joining you for dinner.