Many years ago I met an interesting if utterly pig-ignorant man. I was in my early 20s and he would have been at least three decades my senior. I can't remember how we got onto it, but it came up that I had been to Vietnam and Beirut a few years before.
He was surprised -- the former was a warzone, the latter just tipping that way -- and then said, in words which I will never forget, that he thought travel was pretty over-rated: "It's the same thing everywhere, just people and houses."
This conversation took place in his hometown of Whangarei and I thought he and his city deserved each other. Back then Whangarei was -- and this is being charitable -- a dull, nasty, introverted, suspicious little shit-hole. I suspect it has all changed now. Today it is probably a hotbed of intellectualism and cutting-edge art, I wouldn't know. I still consider it a place you pass through on the way to somewhere else. Just people and houses, I reckon.
But the words of that man -- who, needless to say, had never left the comfort of Whangarei in his life -- have stuck with me. And sometimes I wonder why we do travel.
First let it be said there is a lot of nonsense written about travel, usually by travel writers (among whom I count myself having scribbled words about odd places over many years). Mostly travel writers are on a junket which means they not only don't pay for anything (maybe their own drinks, and even then some still moan) but they also get chauffeured around to see the sights and are back at the hotel bar in time for a long loud grizzle about everything just before a slap-up free dinner.
Then they come home and tell you how wonderful it all was.
I know, I have done some of these things (except the moaning I hope). I met a German guy on a travel junket in Florida who complained it was too hot outside. Not the kind of, "God, it's hot outside" that we all do from time to time. No, this guy just went on and on about it. He took 35 degrees and panama hats personally.
Finally I said, "What would you like me to do, turn it down?"
He didn't think that was funny but after he stormed out of the room in a huff everyone else did. We laughed about it, and him, for days.
I often wondered what that absurd little, overdressed man -- being a German he was head-to-toe in black and carried a leather jacket -- had to say about balmy Miami to his readers. "Don't go, it's just people and houses ... and heat", perhaps?
My guess is he just rewrote the travel brochures and stuff he was provided with, and then went on a bender with his mates telling them how crap Florida, and probably America as whole, is.
Travel writing in New Zealand newspapers and magazines has improved over the past decade although you still see those pieces which are dripping with cliches: has there ever been a palm tree that hasn't waved in the breeze, an ocean that hasn't lapped gently on the side of the canoe?
And there are always those writers who feel it their mission to report what the guide or taxi driver had to say. That tells me they didn't speak to anyone else, or maybe just the pool boy to ask for another mai tai. However there's no greater virtue in backpacking and roughing it.
In Vietnam one time I met two rather dull young girls from the Wisconsin. They seemed nice enough so my companion and I invited them to dinner in a cheap place near the beach at Nha Trang. It was a perfect evening -- stars laced the heavens, a cooling breeze blew off an ocean that turned turquoise then black before our eyes -- but these girls who were travelling through Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand bitched about every damn thing. They were backpacking on the cheap so were saving their pennies (in a country where you could eat a slap-up meal for US$3).
They said the Vietnamese hadn't been particularly nice to them. This was the real surprise, I've been there many times and felt nothing but a rare generosity of spirit everywhere. I suggested that might be because they were perceived by locals as rich foreigners (which relatively they were), but also stingy. I hinted they might want to relax a bit about saving money and appreciate where they were. They were also vegans so couldn't find much to eat in South East Asia and complained about the way locals treated their pigs, chickens and other livestock.
Basically they thought Vietnam wasn't much cop and preferred Madison, Wisconsin.
They confirmed what I have always thought: travel doesn't necessarily broaden the mind. I have met many too people who have travelled widely and the result has been they have had their prejudices confirmed.
I met an American family on a train in Paris and they had at least six double suitcases and a pram for their baby. I watched sympathetically as the husband grappled with this enormous load in the narrow corridor then tried to heave them onto the compartment above his head. He refused all offers of assistance so I watched with increasing amusement. Then I cracked up when he brought into the small carriage a baby's car seat. He had been told they didn't have them in Europe. I thought of him hauling this load up the stairs of the small hotel where they were staying in Venice, of him trying to master the way Italians drive, of the uncomfortable nights with the baby. Then his mother-in-law arrived. She was travelling with them too.
It was a nightmare waiting to happen and already he was hating it. They'd been away from Baltimore for just two nights -- "This was my wife's idea," he said somewhat bitterly -- and already he'd had his pocket picked in Paris. They'd never been out of the States before and he'd decided they would never go again.
Yes, some people make travel tough for themselves. That doesn't mean travel is so arduous as to be unenjoyable. Fun and discomfort aren't mutually exclusive -- unless you are always used to travelling up the front of a plane and then are confronted with having to carry your own bags up the muddy track to the hillside hut in Cambodia.
Travel invites you to be uncomfortable, to have your worldview shaken up, to eat strange foods and meet people who see the world very differently. Sometimes to confront history as it is lived by its victims. Too often travel writers tell you of a place as if it has no historical or political context.
Many people, seasoned travel writers among them, also see only what they want to see when they travel. I was in Bangkok and a young American bemoaned the fact that McDonalds were everywhere. Well, they are in a lot of places around the world -- yes, too many obviously -- but they aren't everywhere.
And I had to admit that when London's TimeOut did a McDonalds-sponsored guide to Paris I found it incredibly useful. They marked every Mc-Shop so when you came of the Metro in some strange district you could orientate yourself on the map by referring to the highly visible Golden Arches. And that's why you think they are everywhere, you register them because they are recognisable.
In the States recently I needed an internet cafe and couldn't find one anywhere. There are certainly fewer of them in Savannah than in Seoul because people are more monied so have connections at home. So I looked and looked and couldn't see a sign which said "Internet Cafe" or whatever. Eventually I was guided to Kinko's chainstores which have internet facilities. After that I just looked for Kinko's in every town. No problem.
You will find what you are looking for, if that is all you are looking for.
It's called the McDonalds-is-Everywhere Syndrome.
If you want to believe Ho Chi Minh City is going to hell through Americanism then you will see the evidence: fast food stores, jeans outlets and bars called Apocalypse Now. What you won't be able to read are the signs in Vietnamese and because of that you ignore them. You are forced to for the sake of your senses and sanity. But they are everywhere advertising local rock bands, concerts, health seminars, cultural events, local body elections and so on.
Just because you see a McDonalds in Ho Chi Minh doesn't mean the place has tumbled to foreign consumer capitalism.
Travel -- and travel writing -- requires that you look beyond the obvious. Otherwise you would just see . . . what? Just people and houses probably. In The Art of Travel by the popular philosopher Alain de Botton -- a series of gently provocative and helpful essays which answer that question, why are we sometimes so disappointed by travel? -- the author tells of a character in the 19th century novel A Rebours by the French writer JK Huysman.
The misanthropic Duc des Esseintes lives alone in a vast villa outside Paris. He rarely ventures out so as to avoid encountering the ugliness of the world and its inhabitants. He prefers to stay alone in his bed reading classic literature. One day however he reads Dickens and is struck by a sudden passion to see the England he evokes. Des Esseintes has his servants pack his many trunks and takes the next train to Paris. He goes to a bookseller and buys Baedecker's Guide to London then sits in a wine bar with mostly English patrons. In his imagination he sees them as characters from Dickens. Then he goes to an English tavern near the station and eats oxtail soup, beef and potatoes, and has a couple of pints of English ale.
But when it comes time to board the train he thinks how troublesome the trip might be, how he would have to endure an unfamiliar bed and stand in queues, and feel the English cold. And anyway, why should anyone travel when they are comfortable in their own chair? And wasn't he already experiencing the smells and taste of London? What could he expect other than disappointment and discomfort when trying to engage the real thing? Maybe at the back of his mind he also thought it might be "just people and houses"?
"So Des Esseintes paid the bill, left the tavern and took the first train back to his villa, along with his trunks, his packages, his portmanteaux, his rugs, his umbrellas and his sticks -- and never left home again." I admire his intellectual decision not to travel. Although I doubt he would have got on well with my man in Whangarei.