The Travelling Life

pool_01The thing I don’t like about travelling is, well, travelling. Being somewhere else is fine. A wonderful, expansive experience. I love waking up to the sounds of the ocean, wandering the streets of a foreign town, eating foods in their restaurants, shopping in their markets, listening to their music and moving to the rhythms of their city.

Getting there is, however, overrated. More than that: it’s  dreary. Stressful. Boring. The antithesis of the romantic.

Most of the time travel isn’t anything of the sort. It’s waiting. Hurry up and wait.

You rush from one location to another, one platform, one room, one counter to another, to spend many long minutes, even long hours waiting for something to happen. The shuttle to arrive. The plane to board. The plane to take off. The baggage to arrive. The customs official to wearily stamp your passport.

Lines, waiting rooms, cramped seats, endless paperwork, and being served lukewarm stuff that masquerades – poorly – as food typify the start and end of any vacation.

A week-long vacation ends up as a mere five days: the days at each end being consumed by the slog of travelling forth and then back. The waiting. And the lines. Always the lines.

But then there’s the delicious bit in the middle. That cream filling in the cookie, the jelly in the doughnut. The actual vacation. Now that’s usually worth the crappy stuff at either end. Usually.

One of the problems of modern vacationing, however, is that the best places are filled with other folks, often the same sort of people we’re trying to get away from. People just like you.

What’s the point of making the arduous day-long voyage to another country only to find it full of the same sort of folks you left behind?

It’s not exactly an adventure when you board an over-air-conditioned tour bus with 30 or so other identically-dressed people whose conversation always starts with “So what part of Canada are you from?” Then the inevitable chit chat about the weather back home and how much it snowed and how much longer it is until spring. Then after 45 or more minutes you and 30 strangers finally get out and wander around the local ruin or artisan market or alleged cultural hotspot not understanding the language or the signs, buying overpriced souvenirs and not think about snow and cold until you board again.

But at least you have pictures, right? And a story to share in the infinity pool back at the resort with that couple from Calgary whose names you can’t remember but the ones who like the rum punches at the swim-up bar and have a room that overlooks the pool….

Canadians are great travellers in winter because 1) we like to get away from the long winters to remind ourselves we’re not permanently living in some new ice age, and 2) we have to travel at least 1,500 miles to get to anywhere warm enough to wear shorts and a T-shirt, but often much further. That makes us better wanderers than those who merely have to drive a few hours to get away. After all, if you’re resigned to spending a good part of your day stuffed into an airplane like the proverbial sardine, what’s another hour or two of discomfort to take you into really warm climes?

Less adventurous Canadians eagerly line up to get to Florida every winter in order to spend weeks in company of other Canadians in enclaves where they feel safe from the wild-eyed, gun-carrying Floridians. And when they do venture out, it’s not to embrace some unfamiliar cultures, it’s to some egregiously suburban white experience like a shopping mall or golf course.

More adventurous Canucks eagerly fill all-inclusive resorts around the Caribbean, bonding with other visiting Canadians to avoid embracing the local cultures…

Okay, so not all of being somewhere else is expansive. Not all travel broadens the mind. Some merely helps set the old stereotypes in their own aspic. Florida is like that: a mere lateral arabesque. A change in latitude with little in attitude.

But I digress. Somewhat.

Going outside your cultural norm can often be, I admit, challenging. Frightening, even. Parachuted into a country with a different language, different body language, different music, different foods, smells, hygiene, animals… Some folks balk at that. Others embrace it.

I’m with the latter group.

But even though generally well worth the effort, and intellectually stimulating, many resorts go out of their way to cocoon their guests by creating safe, sanitized experiences within the confines of a resort or hotel. They encourage their guests to stay within their walls. all food, entertainment, recreation and activity provided so you never have to step beyond the gates. The gates with the guards in them. Armed guards, too.

Don’t go out there. It’s scary. There are vendors and beggars and smells and noisy automobiles honking. Stay here where we can liquor you up with watery drinks, dull versions of stateless cuisine we think you should like, and perfectly polite servile staff. You don’t want to miss the tequila tasting at 3! And look: we have grass inside these barbed-wire-topped walls!*

Who doesn’t want that, eh? It’s like virtual reality: you get to travel to another country without actually experiencing it. No need to suffer the embarrassment of not knowing the language or the customs. No need to encounter its poor, see its blemishes, suffer the rubble and rubbish, say no to its street vendors or fend off another waiter trying to lure you inside some restaurant of unknown quality.

In the resort you can pretend to be rich with servants to order around. Another margarita by the pool, Pedro. And make it snappy. This is living, eh? People at your beck and call, and you don’t even have to tip them or anything.

Well, some of us rebel. Some of us find the enforced music**, the rigid schedules for fun, the unchanging selection of generic food burdensome.*** Some of us find the limited selection of watery drinks unpalatable and long for something a little more authentic. Some of us grow restless in the daily sameness, the artificial blandness. The achingly fake festive atmosphere.

Just outside the all-inclusive or off that cruise ship is a whole world that’s waiting for you. One not constrained by walls, by schedules, by wristbands and the daily struggle to find a good seat by the pool. A world where the entertainer doesn’t have to come onstage and welcome visitors to his or her country every performance just in case people forget where they are. Did you say we’re in Mexico, hon? Or is it Dominican? I can’t keep these places straight. They’re all so alike…

But they aren’t Some of the nicest people I’ve met on my travels, some of the most interesting are those driving cabs, waiting tables, busking, or working in stores. Theirs was not the enforced pleasantries of the resort, but natural, unaffected, honest. Helpful, polite. Civilized. But to meet them, you need to walk out the resort gates.

Not everyone is nice, of course. No need to be Pollyanna-ish. I encountered many surly folks, too, some looking solely to fleece the gringo or express their disdain. Cartagena was like that: it was made clear everywhere we went that turista were not welcome. But the folks in Baranquilla, a few hours down the coast, were lovely. And some of the nicest, most gracious were in a barrio nearby – and also the poorest people on the planet I’ve ever seen. But you won’t know unless you try.

* But try to get a decent hot sauce and you’re out of luck. Resorts cater to a narrow spectrum of tastes: nothing too spicy or exotic or even tasty. Yet they often don’t share the same reservations about music: they will often blast a toxic mix of disco-pop-hip hop at ear-splitting volumes in restaurants, bars and poolside. Or even in taxis. In my admittedly limited experience, they are blind to the greying demographic that wants peace and relaxation, not noise.

** Sometimes it’s not from your hotel, but from a nearby bar or another hotel. In Mazatlan, for example, the Ramada Inn caters to the drunken under-25 crowd by having its oyster bar pump out window-rattling hip-hop and disco music until 3 and 4 a.m. It’s an all-out war on the twin demographics of families and senior visitors, of whom Mazatlan’s tourists are mainly composed. The music keeps people awake everywhere within a large block of the bar, thus both discouraging return visits to the city and encouraging a boycott of other Ramada properties.

*** Standing in a buffet line in the only resort I’ve ever stayed in, I watched fellow tourists disdain the hotel’s meek efforts to offer up some national dishes. Many gringos instead opted for familiar hamburgers and fries or pizza rather than even try the tamales, frijoles or sliced jicama. Their comfort zone lets them travel to Mexico, but not actually be there.

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