Lessons from a Decade of Travelling

I was awaiting the departure of my plane. My phone rang; my mum’s departing words were ‘Don’t bring back a girl that does the ping-pong ball trick’. One of us had no illusions of what awaited; it wasn’t me, clearly.

That call now approaches it’s ten-year anniversary, COVID sees me staying a kilometre from where I lived a decade ago. What have the years, several countries and the global pandemic meant? What worldly wisdom can be gleaned from so much travel?

Family and Friends do not come to visit

They promise to visit. Instead, they continue to breed and marry. They get mortgages and don’t leave their comfort zones. Family and friends rarely acknowledge you have been away.

After two years in Thailand, I was home having dinner with the family. We listened to my sister’s fascinating tales of shopping in New York. Not one query about the years of my travel. I assume such enormity of experience is so far outside most people’s Ideal Home values, it simply doesn’t register.

After much thought, I realised it was nothing personal – war veterans faced the same response. You might have seen the world, but very few people will want to hear about it as it admits to a reality outside of their self-centred bubble.

Avoid ex-pats

Stepping off a plane into a new culture is a liberating experience. You soon realise that many of your hang-ups and your self-image are a product of geography. All the values that you think restrict your identity disappear quickly. Many people fall into alcohol poisoning within six months or worse still, spend all their free-time watching CSI.

The sad truth is many ex-pats are alcoholics and STDs are considered a badge of honour. The ex-pat community consists of many on paths to self-destruction. Cost of living differences remove many of the barriers preventing terminal alcoholism, drug abuse and various sexual proclivities.

The community is a moral and ethical vacuum, the lack of preventative safeguards drag many into patterns of behaviour unacceptable elsewhere.  That’s even before we consider those hiding out in the more off-the-beaten-track parts of the globe. Many are desperately avoiding their names going on ticket purchases or other documentation making their movements visible to international agencies. ‘Abroad’ is where many go to hide past crimes.

If we discount the sexual predators and the drinkers, those remaining occupy the more vanilla end of the spectrum: ex-pat social media groups are usually run by lifeless former marketing managers and are exercises in sterility; their newsletters are filled with grey people pending the next life whilst advocating right-wing politics.  Many of the non-retired are horrendous failed drama students with a desperate need to be centre of attention. Their arms flail about a good deal. 

Be prepared for the conversation with the frustrated marketing expert who can’t comprehend why poverty-line locals can’t grasp the importance of consistent fonts. Or the NGO development types that spend their time complaining about the swimming pool in their hotel, how long its takes them to get their expenses and the relative merits of their preferred tax haven.

The colonial spirit is alive and well. It’s frequently undiluted Blue Sapphire. Avoid them. And don’t give them drink. Your sanity will thank you.

Get a hobby –  study, photograph. Do something constructive so you’ll have something to show for your time other than a damaged liver and herpes.

Digital technology is awesome

My e-reader was the best thing I bought in anticipation of leaving the UK.  I can’t imagine what travelling was like before such digital technology. Travellers had to limit their reading to the books they could carry and music the could get on cassette. You can date analogue age ex-pats by their cultural references – their pop culture knowledge arrests in the year they left.

The Kindle is the travel buddy for all the ex-pats that can read joined up thinking. I’ve lost track of how many delayed flights I waited out with a good digital book. You don’t have to swap grubby paperbacks in shabby hostels anymore or be depressed by the shear amount of Dan Brown or Fifty Shades of Grey floating around in various translations.

Be aware e-readers are not very durable. My first died after 3 years, the second went mouldy in Kathmandu – get a waterproof model.

Everyone considers people from foreign countries more attractive than those from their own

This is a universal truth. I say this as an Englishman who freely admits to coming last in any measure of the attractiveness of the races. I can’t imagine who the truly attractive races, say, the Spanish, the Italians or the Japanese, look at jealousy. Individuals considered as ugly as sin in one country could be a superstar model in another. There’s hope for all, even the English.

Also, local friends make some truly upsetting matrimonial choices. We are all familiar with how shocking it is meeting the husbands and wives of close friends and colleagues. This experience magnifies abroad. The well-educated should be model of your dreams will be forcibly married to the toothless camel driver of their grandmother’s fantasies. All in the name of ‘tradition’. Happiness and progress would increase dramatically if we abandoned ‘tradition’. ‘Tradition’ is just a euphemism for the worst kind of conservativism.

The most essential and truly sage advice I was given, and utterly ignored, was beware Spanish girls. Especially the curly-haired tattooed ones that ask you to photograph them naked. That way lies heart-break and ruin. Heed my advice.

You will not get any thinner

A friend invented the restaurant crawl. He would go from menu to menu ordering a meal in each place. He spends a lot on food and more on the medicine that keeps his heart pumping. After five minutes on foreign soil, the desire for pre-packed sandwiches fades as you realise everyone else in the world has better food than you. For sure, all those new clothes you bought in anticipation of travelling won’t fit you after six months.  The lesson is travel light. You can buy clothes at your destination. Experiencing new food is one of travel’s delights. Much like alcohol, don’t fall victim to it.

If you find yourself in Myanmar, avoid the evil-spelling grey ‘fish paste’ that seems to be included in every dish: even flies stay at a respectful distance from that grime. Their national dish, mohinga, had all the appeal of a bowl of fetid wallpaper paste. Avoid national dishes and whatever local people claim you must try or the sort of dishes served at official functions. At some point you will default to McDonalds and Starbucks, especially after spending any time in underdeveloped countries free of recognised western brands. You’ll crave things you would turn your opinionated nose up at back home.

Work sucks everywhere

Many dream of going abroad as a release from the horror of work. Unless you’re rich, you’re going to have to get a job, sorry. Be prepared for same shit, different country, but with less security and hostile local attitudes to invasive foreign workers, of which you are now one. There’s always some poor soul worse off than you; the teenage single mother performing fellatio on aged tourists, for example.

Every now and then, stop and look around. Take a few seconds to truly soak up the surroundings. All the other privations fade away in the sure knowledge everybody back home is on a miserable commute to the soulless Hell that is their day job. You are walking in places most of them couldn’t place on a map.

Nasty things happen to the friends you make along the way

Non-Stop Steve dropped dead a day after I last talked to him. Henry choked to death on his own vomit in Mandalay.  Bushra was dragged for a hundred yards under a car in Istanbul. A military coup put all my friends in Myanmar directly in the way of a potentially murderous Junta. Life is cruel. Nasty things happen to people who deserve it least. Injustice, material and existential, is global.

The little places move you the most

Imagine what you will about clean beaches and unpolluted seas; you’ll find paradise is riddled with oil from jet skis and those golden sands are covered in beer bottles. If you have any anthropological curiosity, you’ll find more meaning wondering the back streets and the residential areas than anywhere else. Avoid anywhere a taxi driver offers to take you.

People are basically the same everywhere

Forget those dividing social gulfs you hear about; the celebrated differences really are minor things. Yet, the nicest local people might have the most contradictory views – ‘We need more Human Rights but x-ethnic group should be flayed alive and fed to hungry dogs’. You quickly realise that people are not the socio-political views they absorb from the culture around them. Good people are capable of some very contradictory opinions. You realise your own culture, whilst claiming to be humanistic and enlightened, is equally full of awful people pretending to be nice. How they behave abroad confirms this. There is no ‘them’, only a disappointing all-encompassing ‘us’.

Mosquitos exist

Mosquito bites are like tree rings: you can measure the passage of time by them. I recommend Boots own-brand repellent cream which is insect napalm. It even takes the print off plastic table cloths. Perhaps use it sparingly. Wear long trousers and sleeves at night.

Motorbikes suddenly seem awesome

The urge to buy a motorcycle increases with age and the square of the distance from your birthplace. Buy a tourer, not a superbike, unless you like greasing the palms of corrupt local police smart enough to recognise signs of ostentatious wealth.

Travel can be a hellish experience for introverts

As an averagely attractive well-educated male introvert, you can forget the idea that anyone will instantly invite you to whatever fun they are having. Perhaps it’s different for the beautiful people. If constant drunkenness isn’t your preferred state, if you find conversations about football and STDs less than stimulating, be fully prepared you’ll be spending a lot of time alone. There’s a reason I got through forty-one Discworld books in less than three years.

Paradise is full of piss-drinking, golden idol worshipping savages  

Okay, that might be hyperbole and slight exaggeration. But, if you find the people of your own country maddeningly disappointing, lower your expectations about the rest of the world. People are just as frustrating there too. The world still contains those prepared to drink cow piss believing it a miracle cure. Oddly, it doesn’t seem to stop ignorance and gullibility.

If your cynicism is already well-developed then seeing the corruption, the incompetence, the inequality, the injustice and the inhumanity that abounds will do little to change your mind. However, it is undoubtedly better to experience the world yourself than vicariously through sanitised travel shows that re-enforce the stay-at-home attitude of the educated middle-class.

On returning

‘Oh, you’ve been abroad‘ is one of those dismissive passive-aggressive ‘fuck you’ statements you’ll hear a lot should you return to the motherland. It is usually combined with disbelief at where you have been and what you have done. It goes beyond jealousy into the life-denying necrophilous attitude that lies at the heart of the modern dream. Having is not better than being.

Living abroad is easier than you think: try it.

Oh and yes, foreign plumping really is as bad as the stereotype suggests.

Published by Lee Russell Wilkes

Been bouncing around the world for a while taking photos. Like most people, I have gone to ground during the pandemic. Decided it was time to put some of them out in the world.

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