In all the years I have worked in education, I have had the dumbest things said to me. I thought the enlightened reader might enjoy this brief selection.
Disbelief at People Claiming to be Educators
Teacher: I don’t read broadsheet newspapers. The articles are too long.
Teacher: (proudly) We use the Bible to teach numeracy. The mathematics department doesn’t take us seriously.
(The Book of Numbers, presumably.)
Odd Religious Claims
Adult Student: In the past, human beings were ten feet tall and lived forever.
Teacher: Interesting. Where are they?
Meaningless Statements that Defy Reason
Student: Teacher, you are a bus stop.
Desperate Attempts to Claim All Worldly Events on Behalf of Islam
Adult Student: Neil Armstrong was Muslim.
Adult Student: The first American President was Ibrahim Lincoln.
Confusing Historical Figures
Teacher: Yes, that is a picture of the Beatles. A very popular band in the 1960s.
Adult Student: John Lemon was a communist.
(‘Lemon/Lennon’ I can forgive. It took me a few seconds to realise he was confusing Lennon with Lenin.)
Odd Grasps of Geography
Teacher: What is the capital of Spain?
Adult Student: Real Madrid.
Teacher: Where is Dubai?
Adult Student: Africa.
Teacher: What are the names of the planets?
Adult Student: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter and Satan.
No Firm Grasp on the Principles that Govern Reality
Adult Student: Teacher, is it true that if you get bitten by a spider, you turn into Spider-Man?
Teacher: No, of course not.
Adult Student: (in disbelief) It happened in the film!
Obsession with the Teacher’s Marital Status
Adult Student: Why do you not have children?
Teacher: My wife earns more than I do, so it’s difficult.
Teacher: What do we call the thing we make bread from?
Adult Student: Fish.
Not Understanding Pictures
Teacher: (points to a picture of some whale conservationists): What is happening in the picture?
Adult Student: Fishing.
(Just two things wrong with that statement…)
Teacher: (holds up a picture of an orangutan tugging at the lock on its cage): What can we see here?
Adult Student: I like this picture. It’s cute.
The Horrors of Redundancy
Adult student essay: This diagram illustrates the 4-step life cycle of a salmon fish. Salmon is a large species of fish.
Adult Student essay: They all get poured down into the mixer, then the mixer would mix them all together by rotating them.
I have mixed feelings about Kathmandu: my first year peaked my interest enough to stay for a second; a third would have broken me.
Not a Picture Postcard
Kathmandu is not a beautiful city. It is dirty and polluted out of proportion to its size. Eventually, you either find it captivating or annoying. Whatever mystery the Himalayan east held a century ago has long been lost to cheap architecture, absurd amounts of traffic, toxic pollution and appalling poverty. Mysterious easts live better in the imagination. It has a uniqueness in places; crumbling traditional architecture and winding back streets. Kathmandu is a street photographer’s playground, if you can safely avoid the motorcycles. Streets abound with labourers, hawkers and old people sitting around gossiping. It’s far from romantic, yet the street has a vibrancy. Drones are prohibited; shameful really, as the city’s rooftops are an unexplored world of their own. You must get above the streets to appreciate its full extent. The anthropologically curious will find a lot to occupy them.
Yet, corruption, political incompetence, and the Brahmin division marks a country slowly committing nationalistic Hinduicide. The hatred for India’s control of the land borders is pushing them towards unity with China. You’ll soon be able to get a train across the Tibetan plateau into Lhasa. The Maoist government ensures celebrations like the Tibetan New Year take place in private, not at traditional sites like the iconic Boudha stupa. The Chinese tourists that spin the prayer wheels counter-clockwise get the harshest looks from the attendant nuns.
As a frustrated anthropologist, I’m ashamed to say I saw nothing of lasting cultural value here. The religious iconography masks social and economic misery and the widespread oppression of women. Progress is held in check by deference to the conservative and uneducated elderly generation. All those weathered idols are an apt description of the country itself. The celebrated ‘tradition’ is a euphemism for the worst kind of modernity-denying religious conservatism. The loss of these traditions couldn’t help but improve people’s lives.
The Tyranny of Family
A friend, beautiful, smart, funny, has lived her life driving up and the down the same main dual carriageway that divides the city – a few kilometres of fumes and dangerous driving. Even in her late-twenties her parents forbade her travelling abroad ‘until she was married’. The second she were wed, she would be pressured by ‘tradition’ into compulsively squeezing out one child after another. No travel permitted.
Another friend, again well-educated and middleclass, had her wedding marked by the husband’s family firing the domestic help. Her mother-in-law made it clear she was a bad wife and daughter-in-law as she wasn’t getting up at dawn and scrubbing the house. That she was working full-time and studying for an MBA didn’t matter. Nor was there any appreciation that she had come from a home with servants of her own and clearly wasn’t about to start domestic chores.
The myth persists that daughters will get raped and murdered immediately after leaving the house. Many girls are prisoners in their parental home until they are married off into domestic servitude under the tyranny of the mother-in-law. Many are prevented from working at all. Those that get the father’s approval can’t be professionals in a white-collar office but they can be nurses: daddy disapproves of modern roles for women but the potentially traumatic horrors of dealing with the sick and dying is ideal women’s work.
The tyranny of the family is widespread. Those with forward-thinking families determine their careers for them – they all end up with the same MBA. That ‘children are a gift’ is repeated verbatim. Monolithic tradition results in unthinking servitude. Mothers moan about the lack of choices, conservatism and the horror of arranged marriages, yet steadfastly impose the same practices on their own daughters. The village fear of being gossiped about guides every action.
The patriarchal domination is hard to understand, given the obvious intellectual differences between the sexes. The women are obviously much smarter than the males; social evolution, gossip-circles and the pressure of raising children has clearly resulted in greater emotional and social intelligence. The males still grunt at each other in the same monotone they did when they laboured in the fields. Girls excel at language exams, while the boys fossilise at the ‘You like? Me no like’ stage in their own idiom. Interbreeding in the valley hardly improves things. IQs go up once the land flattens out towards India.
Unsurprisingly, despair amongst the young is universal. Providers do 40,000 IELTS exams a year; young people have given up on solving socio-political problems. Only the ambition of getting out remains. Representatives of the education ministry demand to know what colleges do to stop the brain-drain.
Education is controlled by a cabal that ruthless exploits the young. When a fat Brahmin in a cheap brightly coloured suit tells you ‘it isn’t just about the money’, you know its just about money. The best the majority can do is a third in business studies. I came to loath the word ‘entrepreneur’. It seems to be an over-inflated synonym for the class aspirations underscoring the ever-present caste system. Yet, being middle-class and well-educated isn’t enough; you have to be a middle-class well-educated Brahmin.
The Ghats at the Pashupatinath temple complex are said to be second only to Varanasi. It is a spectacular place – an odd mix of publicly grieving relatives, feral monkeys and parties of tourists. The dead and dying are brought to the riverside. The bodies are placed on stretchers and dipped in the holy water. Relatives wail in grief. Tourists watch. People take small children there for a day out. From under one shroud, an undignified dead hand stuck out morbidly. I couldn’t help recalling Young Frankenstein. I apologise to the family, but I had to suppress a laugh. I guess we all process voyeurism at a stranger’s funeral differently.
The recently deceased are burned at sunrise; their ashes are swept into the Bagmati river at sunset. Even I found that oddly moving; a day and your physical remains are gone from the Earth. I questioned as many of the locals as I could about living in the shadow of such a crematoria, knowing that your final destination was one you passed every day on the way to work. It seemed to bother me more than them.
My decision to go to Nepal was made quickly as my previous job ended abruptly. The best I can say about Nepal is I enjoyed living there in the short-term. Despite the obvious socio-political issues, there was endless opportunities for a street photographer. It’s a very dense urban environment with a lot going on in a confined space. I took a lot of photos I’m proud of.
I was glad to leave; various administrative issues make long-term living financially ruinous. I left at the beginning of 2020, just before the world went into lockdown. Having heard how badly COVID was handled there, many of my friends spent months with zero income and unable to leave, I was fortunate for once in my life. All said, I saw and learnt a lot; I am glad I got to go the edge of the map. If you were to travel there for the photo opportunities, you would be going with a full of appreciation of its merits. Perhaps don’t expect any life-changing mysticism. You’re more likely to find the usual middleclass flashpackers and street venders trying to sell you tat.
Oh, yes. In Kathmandu, the security guards in the banks all carry kukris.
Find the Mayzine
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.
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’.
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.
‘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.