The Glamour and Excitement of International Travel. Yah. Tell Me About It.
I poked the small shot in my butt and took a sharp breath.
OW. I plunged the relief-giving Imitrex into my bare rear, and waited a few minutes. There was a line half a mile long outside my bathroom door, endless women pushing and shoving for a toilet stall. Fights break out when folks cut the line.
Didn’t care. I was in the middle of a full-fledged migraine attack, and there’s only one way to get it under control. My backpack was braced between my legs, my souvenir bag flopped over.
Slowly the pain receded, and I was able to haul the pack back onto my sore shoulders, adjust, and slip into the one-hour-long security line.
Addis Abbaba, 9 pm, Monday. I’d just completed six hours of what would be thirty or more in transit. Six more hours before my plane takes off. Wifi minimal.
Glamorous my perforated butt.
About an hour later I copped a bench, which is treasured territory. The flights were jammed, and people rarely use deodorant. If you have a sensitive nose (and I do) this can be overwhelming at times. Interestingly, however, this is situational.
While climbing Mt. Kenya just last week, we all stank to high heaven after four days. When things got tough or hairy, I located my guide Davis by both his smell and his bright green glove which always reached behind him to help me over a tough rock. Smelling him meant safety, and it was comforting. He also could locate me in the fog by my ripe odor, and below him on difficult rocks. Smells are useful.
Long before personal hygiene product companies informed us that we stank, body odor was just that- acceptable and a way to identify one another. We are, after all, mammals, and like all animals, our sense of smell is an essential part of how we find, recognize and feel at ease with each other.
It’s part of how we find our tribe — whether the dominant scent is Jean Patou Joy Baccarat Pur Parfum or all day in a hot rice field in Madagascar.
Which of course eventually leads to poor people who spend vast amounts of money on Duty Free products such as perfumes in a hopeless attempt to be something they are not. But I digress, it’s good for business, and many jobs are made attempting to uplift the hopes of those who aspire- if only through purchasing grossly overpriced so-called luxury products- to rise above their perceived stations in life. Cigarettes and liquor. God we’re gullible. All of us.
People often assume that because I travel all over the world, there’s something utterly magical and perfect about my life (there is but not what they imagine). Oy. I’d like for them to join me on a few of my 35-hour jaunts, with long layovers, endless midnight waits and no place to nap.
And if you do, the danger of missing your flight, and your luggage. Or, if your nap happens to be a really good one, some things might go walkies (which is why I use PacSafe products, look them up).
Airports are a great way to observe, however. In our long, sinuous line to get through security, you can learn a lot. Africans from every nation in every manner of dress, the newly-middle class Chinese (and my god can they be loud as drunk Irishmen), Middle Eastern men who had clearly not flown before, beside themselves with excitement and talking far too loudly into their phones shouting WE ARE AT AN AIRPORT!!!! WE ARE AT AN AIRPORT!!!! As though this were cause for wonder. For some, it is.
I only mind when said shouting is about six inches from my ear and I already have a headache.
Almost everyone is on a phone, moving mindlessly through the line, playing games or watching ads. Nobody is talking. That is, other than the aging Jewish man whose black yarmulke barely held on to what was left of his hair, querulously asking all of us close to him if this was the line to Shanghai. It wasn’t, but he was in the right place, and I checked to make sure. He relaxed, but kept dropping his bag, the handle of which clanged loudly on the tile floor and kept a nearby child crying at full volume.
My flight left just after midnight, and landed in Dar es Salaam at 3:40 am. I battled with immigration about my visa, having paid it already. The small hotel nearby didn’t send someone to pick me up. They were sleeping, which I dearly wanted to be. I finally put my face into a clean pillow for the day, then headed back to the airport to leave for Newark at 11 pm. It was delayed more than an hour. Snow in Zurich.
You get good at walking around the duty free shops. You become a zombie after so many hours. Or, if you’re smart, you find people to talk with.
One Swiss woman in Zurich helped me pass two hours in lively conversation. She commented that she knew I was an experienced traveler because I had no phone. I was interested in her. That was an interesting observation. Never thought about that.
I have a Kindle when everyone is asleep or can’t speak English.
For really long trips like this you learn to book a hotel just for a few hours to give yourself some sanity.
In Dar, I made the mistake, when I ran out of water, of using sink water to take my supplements. I ended up with precisely what you’d expect I would end up with. Three days later I still am tied to the toilet. It happens.
My back hurts like hell, I get tired and cramped, and airport food sucks. In Addis, I had a carefully-wrapped veggie sandwich in my backpack from Cici the cook, who had been with us on our horseback ride in Madagascar.
Airport food is notoriously awful, and if you’re an athlete, trying to find yogurt and fruit can sometimes be a joke. Airline seats recline a whopping two inches even if you pay a $250 upgrade. You’re guaranteed discomfort. You suck, United Airlines.
Kids scream, people push you around, cut in line. When you get on or off the plane, nobody honors the boarding system. It’s everyone for himself. You learn to be rude despite your best intentions, or else you will never make it to a toilet stall, or get any room in an overhead bin on board. Your gut wrenches when you shove people out of the way, but if you don’t, you lose out.
Of course, when you disembark and go pick up your luggage ( after hours in the visa lines) the same people who shoved you aside to be first off the plane are standing around waiting for their bags. Of course they are.
This is what overcrowding and overpopulation looks like, and it’s only going to get worse as more people travel, rise in their income levels, and decide to explore. It’s the world as it is, not as we might think it should be.
Not glamorous. Two and a half days on the road, leaping from airport to airport. Endless mindless government bureaucrats demanding to see your passport over and over and over again (in Tanzania, nine of them, no less, as a way of giving folks work that does nothing but annoy weary travelers). Lengthy delays and plane breakdowns. Five and six hour layovers and no benches, and no wifi.
You learn to pack lots of adapters, get good at finding outlets, and steal pillows from the airplane for those long layovers. And wait while the security folks have to paw through your adapters looking for evidence of a bomb.
Often, when you get to that new country, what you thought you’d see (like animals) are no longer there because the forests have been leveled, slashed, decimated. What are there are endless city slums, scarred landscapes, and no wildlife. Abject, horrific poverty and endless, endless scads of kids.
Thank you to the Trump Administration for pulling funding on contraception, which has worldwide ramifications (https://www.newsweek.com/2018/11/16/chelsea-handler-republicans-have-waged-war-women-opinion-1201312.html).
I’d like to drag some of those self-righteous religious morons to the places where overpopulation is a national scourge, a death sentence by starvation. You go where I go and you absolutely believe in contraception.
Then all those bleeding heart liberals who are so unhappy about dogs being raised for food (don’t get me wrong, it breaks my heart too, but let’s be clear about food shortages here), or starving to death can start looking at the uber, uber poor countries where overpopulation means that damn near anything that lives becomes a food source.
Which is, of course, why so many forests are slashed, and the wildlife that we want to spend our money to go see is disappearing. People have to eat. Anything. So they will kill and sell and help poach anything to who’s buying, largely the Chinese, but then with Trump in office, all bets are off.
I don’t like poaching either, but until you shut down the source, the uber poor will do what it takes to feed themselves. You would too. This is how you learn about the real world.
For example, I hiked with my group for three solid days in Kenya, across rolling plains that should have been full to the gills of grazing herds. Eight hours a day of hiking. We saw two eland. TWO ELAND, across vast landscapes that once supported millions in roaming herds.
This is what we have done to our world.
Perhaps people who have their own private jets, a legion of servants and lovely hangars in private airports have a glamorous life. I’m not them. I see the world as it is, not in the carefully constructed worlds of the very rich, the five star resorts and twelve hundred thread count sheets. God bless them.
I’d rather see reality. Changes how you vote.
International travel gets you past the promises of the brochures and dumps you into the fray. You learn to swim, or you stay home. I swim. I am often deeply uncomfortable with what I see, what I learn, but I swim.
There is no better education.
Got buddies whose Instagram pics make you slaver? Even better than the travel brochures? For the most part, it’s pure unadulterated bullshit. I can find that one perfect shot of the beach and its sweet turquoise waters, framed by a gorgeous tree or two. The implied promise is mimosas by the ocean, white- shirted waiters delivering your order of dim sum, lovely people walking by in bathing suits.
The only contact with the locals is the kid serving you a martini, only because he got a Master’s at an American college and speaks perfect English. This is the only job that pays in his town. Not where I go.
What you don’t see are the shanties, the starving dogs, the skinny kids, the people with no future. The hopelessness. The stench of poverty. The press of hundreds of people begging you for a few American dollars.
The entrenched belief that all Americans are immensely rich, and can handle it if your wallets and passports are stolen. No big deal , right?
A Cambodian horse guide once spent three days pummeling me to give him $35,000 so that he could buy a ranch for his family. It’s exhausting, these assumptions. If I had that much lying around I sure as hell wouldn’t have been driving the van that had 350k miles, with an ignition that fell out into my hand every so often.
Because of the media we export (endless Dallas reruns, for example) the world’s poor assumes all Americans have money trees in their back yards. It’s incomprehensible to them that anyone with enough money to board a plane can’t also donate hundreds if not thousands to their families.
It’s perfectly understandable.
In places where NGOs reign, people expect handouts. You don’t dare take out a wallet in Tanzania near a crowd. Or if you do, you’d better be wearing body armor. (I did that once and barely made it into the back of the Land Cruiser before about eighty people mowed me down)NGOs have made professional beggars out of billions of the poor.
If you got drunk or high, and someone hied off with your passport, there’s little glamour in endless hours at the American consulate rather than out at the beach, climbing the local hills or seeing the local wildlife (if there is any left whatsoever, which is a swiftly diminishing concern). Such things teach you street smarts.
Teach you never to get drunk and out of control. Teach you to consider your environment and potential consequences. Such as jail in a Third World country for something breathtakingly stupid. Teach you to think and see and ponder and wonder and see the world in all its complexity.
Being an American in today’s international world is no longer an advantage. If anything I tend to tell folks I’m Canadian. There’s a good cause to avoid laying claim to that heritage these days, if for no other reason than it’s well nigh impossible to justify Trump to anyone else in the world.
Most international folks, who know far more about American government and history than the vast majority of American kids who have no clue what the Civil War was and what the fighting was all about.
Nothing is as simple as just taking the picture for an Instagram account (which I don’t have for damned good reason). The point is the journey to get there. Go swimming in both the perfection and the poverty. That’s what will leave you transformed — experiencing both.
So no. I hate to disabuse those who think my life is all about perfect flights, fine linens and five-course gourmet meals. Sometimes all I can find is a bowl of rice or a banana. What you learn is to be intensely grateful for that rice bowl or that banana, when that’s all there is.
For billions of people, a bowl of rice is a huge meal. Makes you realize that there is a lot to be grateful for, rather than pound the America First entitlement drum. When a child in Africa stoops in the middle of the road to drink water from a filthy puddle, it really forces you to have to consider how goddamn lucky you are to have clean running water in your kitchen.
If you don’t get that message, something is seriously, morally wrong with you. But that’s just me.
Once I was traveling in Myanmar when my driver, Zaw, pointed out a series of villages that had cropped up around a manufacturing facility. They were shacks suspended above the effluent, which everyone used for cooking, cleaning, drinking. Manufacturing effluent, right out of the building, raw, untreated. Their sewage went into that same water. They had nowhere else to live.
That same day a friend of mine, who is a top speaker in the National Speakers’ Association, went on Facebook to rant about THE WORST THING EVER which is when the self-checkout line at our local Kroger’s wasn’t working. This is a nice man, but he stays at 5-star resorts in Singapore, about as far from the real world as you can get. He has no clue what deprivation looks like. His worst day EVER is a self checkout line that delays him five minutes.
As a result, as a speaker, he’s not terribly well-informed about the world. And he votes accordingly. Therein likes the problem.
That makes us dangerous, when we don’t see, don’t understand, can’t witness what’s real. There you have the average American, who complains that he wants this, that and the other, about how Americans are getting a tough break, while the countries that we and other industrialized nations have mined, drilled, and exploited are struggling to get clean water.
What you let go down the drain while you brush your teeth is more clean water than many billions will see in their entire lifetime.
Does travel make me a liberal? No. It makes me a realist. It changes who I want in office and why. It changes how I see how American businesses rape the rest of the world to give us stupid products (case in point, Pepsi’s role in Indonesia which is slashing all its pristine rainforests and killing the last of the world’s orangutans so that you and I can cram Fritos into our fat faces, https://www.rainforest-rescue.org/petitions/952/pepsico-trashing-rainforests-for-450000-tons-of-palm-oil-a-year), while billions struggle to exist.
It changes how I see our international policies which affect the Earth’s ability to support 7.6 billion people and growing fast. We are running out of time, and our imposed religious beliefs on those who need help rather than our benign neglect is fast making the world a far less attractive place.
International travel? It’s not about the glamour. It’s not about getting the perfect shot to show your superiority over your friends.. Its not about a million likes or the implied social media mastery. It’s not about getting the Instagram photos that make you look like you’re living the life of Riley (https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=live%20the%20life%20of%20Reily)
Those are nothing compared to what you will actually find at the end of the rainbow. The real pot of gold at the end of the travel rainbow contains education. Understanding. Empathy. Compassion. And, if you’re fortunate, commitment.
It’s the fruit from the Tree of Life, that tree that we are seeing burnt and slashed all over the world https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tree_of_life. The tree that sustains us all, being mowed down for charcoal, condos, and concrete wastelands.
So that you can go shopping for Louis Vuitton where tigers once trod in silence, golden fur rippling in the dappled sunshine. Gone because some limp dick in China fervently believed those animal parts might make him hard again. The way of our world.
Hell, we wiped out bird species for women’s hats at the turn of the twentieth century. We have learned little.
Leaving home to find yourself is a fool’s errand. However the world will find you, and leave you changed forever. And that’s just the ticket.
If that’s glamorous, then sign me up.