Travellers should never take notice of suggestions about what the supposed “highlights” of their destination might be. Highlights ought to be personal, not lifted from a guidebook or acquired from knowledgeable friends who’ve been there before you!
To illustrate what I mean, here are three things that I’m still thinking about after a recent trip through Asia and Europe.
|Karma seems to be holding out, so far|
In Bangkok I noticed that whole families travel on the one scooter, with apparent disregard for their safety. That’s taken care of by a scooter-blessing they can obtain from their local Buddhist Monks, who offset their otherwise frugal existence by dispensing such rites. Buddhist monks are thick on the ground in Thailand, but so are traffic accidents, which suggests that some riders are unblessed, or — God forbid — the blessings wear thin after so many miles. Whichever one it is, the fact remains that Mum, Dad and the kid/s all riding the same little scooter is a shock the first time you see it, especially if you come from a place where people buckle up in the back seat.
In fact, the concept of danger seems to be lacking in Thailand generally. If you tell someone you’re cold or hungry, there’s an immediate reaction; people rush around preparing food and gathering blankets, as it’s an immediate need. But then they’ll happily perch their kids on the front of their bikes sans helmet and weave through traffic, or let them stand up in the back of the family pickup at 100km/hr. That’s because there’s no immediate discomfort, and you can put your fortune down to luck (i.e., it’s bad luck if someone dies, not the fault of the driver letting his kids stand in the car, nor the fault of the other driver who was overtaking a bus around a blind corner).
In Thailand, I discovered, road safety is a function of all the karma you’ve accumulated, minus the good karma of the car / bike blessing, added to the bad karma of the opposing driver. Seat belts really have nothing to do with it.
On a bike tour I took in Berlin, three guys from Jordan all chose girls bikes. Now, there were plenty of boys bikes to spare, and they checked them out but then decided — en masse, I’ll add — that the girl’s bikes were for them. And this was after the tour guide explained that “these bikes over here are the boy’s bikes, and these are the girl’s bikes.” So what was going on? Were they trying to provoke some sort of incident (“In Berlin, Islamist visitors reject West’s sexual stereotyping“) or was it an overprotective reaction to the bike’s design, which might lead a prospective male rider to believe that they had a greater chance of producing offspring should they suffer an accident while riding the girls design, as opposed to the boys, with its higher cross-bar and a possibly greater chance of unfortunate bruising? Frankly, I couldn’t work it out and I didn’t have the courage to ask, but it’s kept me guessing ever since.
In Ireland & Northern Ireland…
Irish cab drivers work eight hours a day and holiday in the Mediterranean. Well, at least all the drivers I met did. And that includes Northern Ireland, which I thought was beset by troubles so deep they actually call them “The Troubles,” but it turns out that’s all quite over, and they have almost full employment and a real estate market so hot even the working classes are spending their summers in Turkey. This may have something to do with Irish low-cost carrier Ryan Air, who’ll fly you practically anywhere in Europe for the less than the cost of getting to the airport in one of those aforementioned cabs, or it might be because things are just pretty damn good in Ireland and Northern Ireland right now.
|Fishermen in Irish towns like Howth are enjoying their new status as wealthy homeowners|
Another thing I learned in Ireland: one way of telling how well an economy is tracking is to calculate what % of the workers you encounter in service roles are natives. OK, maybe I read that in the Financial Times, but anyway I can report that Ireland is full of new arrivals from Poland, who are apparently immune to the weather — it’s no better at home — and have discovered Guinness in their off-hours. I wonder where they will choose for their vacations?
See, none of these things are in the guidebook. And probably shouldn’t be either. But they prove the point that you’ll be interested in the stuff that catches your eye, not things that are interesting to the guys from Lonely Planet and Fodor’s. Use the book for the maps, they’re always helpful, but those pages on “What to see” you should tear out. They just add weight to your backpack…
With special thanks to Jordan Digby for his insights into Thai road safety and the effects of good karma.