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Whilst the current weather may not imply it, we are into the summer months! At this time of year staff and students begin to take a much needed and well-deserved rest after the challenging academic year we have all faced. With this time, holidays, day trips, meals out, picnics, walks and many more joyful pastimes begin to fill up the calendar, although many of us find ourselves quite restricted due to the ongoing pandemic. Nevertheless, we should all make the most of the time off to re-charge and spend time with our loved ones. For myself and my partner, this meant a day trip to Whipsnade Zoo!
Whilst the weather app assured us it would not rain, we spent a fairly windy and wet day walking around Whipsnade Zoo viewing the animals and all in all having a fabulous day. The schools are not out yet, therefore most visitors were adults on annual leave, individuals who I assume are retired, or parents with small children. We had plenty of space and time throughout the day to see the animals, read the information plaques and enjoy a wet but scrummy picnic. I dread to think what it would have been like in the height of the summer holidays!
But where am I going with this other than to brag about my fabulous day at the Zoo and what has this got to do with checking our privilege? Well, it begins with the cost to entire said Zoo. I have not been to a Zoo since I was in my school years. We used to visit Colchester Zoo most summer holidays with the Tesco Clubcard vouchers, which in a nutshell meant you could exchange Clubcard points for vouchers/tickets which included the Zoo. Therefore a trip to the Zoo when we were younger cost petrol money and a picnic (which was always done on the cheap). This is an affordable day out, but we were only a family of 3 (1 adult and 2 children), so not that many Clubcard points required, and quite a minimal picnic. Also we were fortunate enough to have a car which is not the case for all families. So even with the vouchers and picnic I cannot help but reflect and think how privileged we were to be able to visit the Zoo.
The Zoo trip this week cost just short of £50 for a student admission and an adult admission. I did think this was quite a lot. I think about what the cost would be for 2 adults and a child (or multiple children). Already this is gearing up to be an expensive day out. The Zoo has lots of interactive parts for children to engage with and learn from, and of course they have animals. But is the Zoo really aimed at educating all children or is it only those children whose families can afford it (E.I children belonging of a certain socio-economic status)? Once we arrived at the Zoo and looked around the carpark we couldn’t see a Bustop. What about the families who cannot afford a car? The food outlets were extortionate: £4 for a coffee!! Its cheaper in the West End! The same statement although different prices applies to ice-cream. I feel good that we have taken our makeshift picnic and flasks with us: but what about those who cannot?
The long-winded and verbose point I am trying to make is that even everyday things require us to check our privilege. I spoke to my partner on the drive home about the beauty and wonder of the Zoo and how we are fortunate to be able to go and how I was fortunate to go most summers as a child. But once the Clubcard vouchers stopped, so did the trips to the Zoo. There are many who are unable to enjoy the Zoo, to gain from the educational experience of learning about the animals, what they eat, where they live etc. And I can’t help but reflect and wonder is this establishment really inclusive to all? Is there something society can do to break down the class barriers which appear to be present when planning a trip to the Zoo?
This month, during the brief lull between the teaching and marking season, I had allocated myself a bit more free-time than usual. I have not been able to indulge in my hobby of travelling for a while, so instead of this, I have been watching travel related-television programmes with the hope that these will provide me with some kind of joy.
This attempt has been a partial success; an influx of comedy travel shows have worked wonders to uplift my spirits whilst simultaneously reminding me about the beauty of nature; animals, plants, sea, land…(and even humans).
Covid has taken over travel related news at the moment, but in ‘usual’ times it does not require much effort to come across travel documentaries or news reports that seem to encourage prejudice by depicting other countries and travelling as being strange or dangerous. I do worry that this type of coverage might discourage people from wanting to explore the world.
It is difficult to assess the extent to which the television influences our opinions, but when I was a bit younger and discussing my travel plans with others, sometimes I would be met with the following comments:
Response: I would love to travel but I can’t
Me: Why can’t you?
Response: It is dangerous!
Me: How do you know this?
Response: …It said so on the television
There are many genuine reasons that prevent people from travelling, such as, money, responsibilities, health, conflict, misogyny and racism etc. But I find the above reason to be such a shame.
I have encountered many myths over the years which seem to have been gained from watching the television. Here are some of my favorites:
Myth 1: If you see a [insert wild animal here], it will eat you alive
My experience: Take crocodiles for example, these are not as bad as they seem. Yes, arguably crocodiles are death machines but I have seen many in the wild and I am still alive.
Myth 2: The local ‘criminals’ are dangerous
My experience: On very rare occasions I have witnessed crime being committed whilst abroad. I once sat on a coach full of people who were attempting to smuggle cocaine to Brazil. I have also stumbled upon situations which the media described as ‘riots’ and I have also witnessed a few thefts. In these situations, the locals were not a danger to myself, but crime seemed to be a way of being able to afford to live or the result of the occasional angry outburst amongst crowds of protesters, motivated by frustrations with the state.
Myth 3: If you accept the hospitality of strangers you will be murdered in your sleep
My experience: The chances of this happening are very slim. Travelling tends to restore my faith in humanity, the people that I meet whilst travelling can be incredibly kind and helpful.
I found that whilst I was a student, I was able to travel to many places on relatively limited over-draft funds. I hope that the students that I teach are able to do the same, as travel really can broaden the mind. Although, maybe I am wrong for encouraging others to travel, as travelling also makes you very aware of the damage that has been caused to the world, and my own part with in it.
There is expectation in hope that things will change. Every personal and social issue that is not going according to plan, all the adversities and the misfortunes, are placed on the anticipation that eventually, things will change. The conviction for the change is hope. Hope is a feeling based on emotions, irrational and inexplicable.
Hope is a refuge for those whose lives are wronged and feel unable to do anything but to hope. Millions of people hope for better days, better health, better relationships, better lives. This hope keeps expectations high even when you are told of the opposite.
Consider the following dialogues:
“The environment is changing, global warming, the pandemic and the economic recession. It looks like we’ve had it! We are one meteor away from a catastrophic event”. “I agree with what you say, but I hope that despite all these we will find a way out of all these.”
“Your crime is too serious; looks like you are going to jail”. “I hope the judge is lenient and maybe I will not go to prison”
“The tests indicate that your health has deteriorated, it is unlikely to change; I am afraid you have only a few months to live”. “I hope that God will listen to my prayer and cure me”.
“I do not love you anymore, I want to leave you! “Don’t break my heart; I hope you change your mind.”
All these have one thing in common. The respondent’s hope for something, despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. This unwavering conviction comes at a price! The entire world is built on an industry of hope. Institutions, systems, “experts” and many more who profit from the misfortune of others. One of the main benefactors in this industry is undoubtedly religious institutions and belief experts.
Some years ago, in one of my trips, in found myself in a monastery that has a tradition of snakes appearing on the day of the ascension of the Virgin Mary. The revellers regard it as a sign of good fortune and favour from her grace. I was in the monastery on a different day, when a group of boisterous Russian tourists were trying to buy some grace. The lady in the church was clear; a small bottle of holy water 3 euros, a small bottle of oil 5 euros. There were bigger sizes and of course for more certainty of hope, a purchase of both is indicated. Since then, it got me thinking; what is the price of hope?
Faced with a terminal disease, how much would any of us will pay to live a little bit longer? The question is merely rhetorical, because each of us is likely to pay according to what they can afford. There are those who may care less for themselves, but are willing to sacrifice anything for someone special; or a great idea.
Since the discovery of electricity, Victorian scientists dispelled the expertise of those charlatans that spoke with the dead and commuted with the spirits. Even though there have been mounting evidence against them, their industry of hope is still booming. People like to hope. They embrace its positive message. After all Dum Spiro Spero.*
There is of course the other side; Nikos Kazantzakis famously said; “I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free.” It is liberating not to hope, but it is very difficult to achieve. Personally, despite experiencing negative situations, and even after meeting some naysayers armed with a sour face in life, I will never stop hoping that people are better inside and they can change and embrace their better selves. My hope, I fear, is incurable.
*While I breathe, I hope
A sissy works at the beer garden I pass on the way home. In Vietnam, these common watering holes are called “Bia Hoi,” and this one sits at the intersection of two major roads, across from one of the city’s largest parks, on a corner adjacent to one edge of a university campus. To say that this place is a sausage fest would be an understatement. Like drinking holes in so many parts of the world, this is a space for men.
Men come here. Me, too. Although I stick out as a visible foreigner, I am part of the crowd of men. In every part of the world I’ve encountered, there’s nothing weird about a guy sitting around having a beer. Hence, it’s not uncommon for local groups of men to send one over, or invite me to their table for a drink. This has drastically different implications than men in pubs buying drinks for women, especially a woman sitting alone in a drinking hole, which is the LEAST likely thing to see here, despite the number of Bia Hoi’s owned and run by women in Vietnam. The majority here are either men in starched shirts and slacks stepping out, or other groups of guys crossing from the park to gather here for a post-match drink. I started coming here years ago with a man I met through work, and stop by every now and again. As compared to other masculinized spaces, there’s no competition here, and the primary resource – beer – flows freely.
The sissy wears an apron to serve the food and beer. He ties his apron tightly over the same loose orange T-shirt all the other guys wear to serve. This, of course accentuates his curves. While the others walk around baggy, clothes hanging loosely like a barrel sac, with this apron, the sissy has seriously upgraded the uniform with color, shape and flare. What’s more, his hips switch back-n-forth, too quick to be a pendulum. Naw, he switches like nobody’s business, and you really see this the way the beer garden is set-up with several rows of long tables. This is his cat walk. While the other servers seem to be drudging through the labor, the sissy flutters around like a butterfly. And he always looks at each customer, takes time to chat, and seems to have the patience of Job when it comes to their eventual drunkenness. Beer loosens tongues.
The sissy has to march back and forth the serve the orders like a busy bee. It’s hot, so the sissy fans himself with the menu, like it’s a prop, as he prances up-n-down the rows as if it’s his own stage. Everyone else pales in comparison, they’re just there to work. The sissy is there to ‘work’, or as Fergie says: “Make YOU work!” Life’s a stage, they say, and er’body gotta play they part.
The sissy stands at each table like a tea-cup, grinning, weight shifted to one leg, hips leaning to the side, back arched, hand on his hip, holding a pen waiting for the men to call out their food orders. Unlike the other servers who seem to just stand there bluntly to take orders, the sissy acts like a host, and actively shows folks their seats, offers that they take a look at the menu, and genuinely makes sure they are all satisfied.
This sissy has mad flavor, even in this part of his career – of which I know nothing – save for what I’ve seen of him serving beer in a local Bia Hoi. He makes such a flutter when he moves around, just doing his job, that I too, see him on stage, among peers, not drowning in this mundanity. I almost wish he would bring some Hot Lunch from Fame, for those hips are already singing the body electric. Those shoulders practically shimmering as he walks friskily across the pavement, arms stretched open, elbows squeezed, holding a beer in each hand – swish, swish, swish. I can see the musical notes floating around him as he makes his way, doing his job dutifully, albeit with Glee. “Just do it,” I want to say to the sissy. Free us from these seats.
In some places, even today, our existence is a crime.
In all fairness a road trip is a metaphor for life. We live in perpetual motion, moving forward and going from place to place. Our time is spent through journeys in our space, through the time of our lifespan. Alone or with others, planned or unplanned journeys are to happen. That is life as it is.
Sometimes of course a road trip is nothing more than an actual trip in a countryside, quickly to be forgotten replaced by the next one! On this occasion, I shall try to narrate it as it happened, as it is fresh in my mind and the images can be vividly recalled. Maybe in future it would serve as a reminder, but on this occasion, it is merely a reminder of a very odd trip! At this stage, I would like to state that no humans nor animals were hurt during this road trip.
I am driving on one of the island’s country roads, the road is narrow going through the lush pine forest, some sycamore trees on the side. The track is leading up and down the mountainous path. The scenery is scenic and probably the reason people choose it. The road alternates views from the forest, the valleys, the canyons and the sea in the distance. Hues of green, and blue everywhere; and the smell. The pines joined with thyme and other fragrant herbs, a combination that gives the air that scent I cannot describe. The light blue of the sky meet the Aegean blue in the distance.
As per usual, on a road trip I prepare my maps, and plan the route in advance, but just in case I also keep an eye on the road in case there is a change. On this occasion, the public works are working wonders; the street signs are non-existent so I opted out. Interestingly instead of traffic information there were signs but not about the road ahead. Somewhere is the midst of the journey there is the first sign about Jesus. According to the sign “He is the truth, the way and the life”. I am unsure about the destination, but at least Jesus is aware. The next couple of signs involve Jesus and his teachings whilst the last one is making me feel a bit uncomfortable. “Jesus died for your sins” it proclaims! Ok fair enough, let’s say that he did. Any chance of knowing also whereabouts I am and where I am heading. The route continues with further signs until we come to a stop.
Finally, more signs. On this occasion there are some holy sites and monasteries. One of them is of a Saint most revered that apparently most of his body rests in a nearby location, (minus an arm and a shin). Later, I discover the Saint helps sick children and those who suffer from cancer. Admirable, considering that he’s almost 300 years dead. Still no actual traffic information on the road! At least the signs got me reading of a fascinating man long gone. It is fascinating reading on beliefs and miracles. Within them they hold peoples’ most secret expectations, those that under normal circumstances, they dare not to speak about. This is a blog post for another time; back on the road trip and almost two hours on the journey.
At this point, a herd of cows who have been lunching on the side of the road, decided to take a nap on the road. To be honest, it is only one of them who is blocking the way, but the rest are near idly watching. At this stage, I come to a stop waiting for the cow to move. The cow who was napping opened her eyes and looks at me, I look back, she looks away and continues to lay motionless in the middle of the road. I briefly evoke the Saint. Nothing. I am contemplating Jesus and still nothing. After some time, around an hour of cow staring I am going for my last resort. I get out of the car and promise that unless the cow moves, I shall part with vegetarianism. Now I am openly threatening the cow to eat her. This is when nature retaliates. A flock of goats join the cow. They meander around me and the stubborn bovine. The road is now akin to a petting zoo.
I employ a trick I picked up from cowboy films. I raise my hat, luckily, I am wearing a hat, weaving my arms furiously and making sounds. The cow is despondent at first and the goats just talk back. After a few minutes I have managed to get the cow to move and the goats are now at the side of the road. That’s my opportunity to leave. As I turn back, I notice another car behind me; they are also travelers who begin to applaud my efforts at husbandry. The road is clear, and I am on my way.
The next hour is less eventful although the road is still hairpinned; now it’s heading downwards and from the mountains its heading to the sea. I arrive at the sea way over the expected time and I manage to find a spot to park. One the wall, next to the spot someone wrote “you vote for them every four years like cows”. The writing is black, so I assume an anarchist, or maybe the author had a similar driving experience to me, or it’s just an unfortunate metaphor. The sea is cool and the views of the sea and in the distance a group of islands, spectacular. There are hot springs near by but in this weather the sea is more than enough. After all that drive, a stop at a local taverna is inevitable. Speciality dish mosxaraki or beef stew! I think the Saint is testing me!
On the way back, the road is empty. The cows rest on the side of the road. I slow down, I look out…they look away. At a local coffee shop a patron asks for the Covid-special coffee. I suppose a joke about the thing that occupies everyone’s mind. He doesn’t wear a mask and doesn’t seem to believe this pandemic “nonsense”. I was wondering if he is related to the stubborn cow. The trip ended and it formed another of those planned road trips. There was nothing spectacular about it. There is however the crux of my point. Like life, most of our roadtrips are unspectacular on their own. It is what we remember of them that matters. In the last months millions of people went into lockdown. Their lives seemed to stand still; a road trip can also be a metaphor, provided we don’t forget the details.
I was inspired by @5teveh’s post about what things we may be struggling to be without, as well as what beauty we are finding in this new way of living.
I think it’s easier to start with what I don’t miss, which like many I am sure, is commuting. Some days I can commute a total of 3 hours round trip, and I am not even doing a lot of miles, but traffic is just bad. That’s 2 I guess, commuting and traffic. While I am at it, I don’t miss the things that go along with a long journey, such as trying to make up for the time I feel I’ve lost or, to be honest, thinking about my journey – that in itself can be a burden.
Me time! now, this isn’t a strictly-miss/don’t miss but rather something I have gained more of in the lockdown. Like us all, we have more time to ourselves, which for me has meant more time for reading. I tend to read every day anyway, but with the added time I’ve managed to devour 10 books in my 4 weeks of lockdown.
I am lucky that I am not in lockdown alone, I have my partner and my beautiful dog, who luckily is so small she doesn’t need frequent walks. However, this leads me on to what I miss. I miss walking freely with my partner and the dog, deep in the countryside, saying hello to other dog walkers and letting the dogs play, walking with friends and family and chatting while taking in the fresh air. This is one of my favourite things to do. It clears my mind and I miss it every day.
As mentioned above, but also like everyone, I miss my family, I do not live that close to my family, so when I visit them or they visit me, it’s a real occasion, for which we have planned what we will do, where we will eat and when the next visit will be. Not knowing when this will be is the hardest.
I think I echo others when I say that I miss the freedom and miss having (or at least the feeling of having) some control. I am aware of my privilege, I know the lockdown can bring the worst out of us sometimes, we moan about things that can seem trivial, especially when others are suffering more. I feel guilty, more than I did before I was forced to think about it every day. I miss not feeling guilty that I could be doing productive things like others, like filling every second with yoga (never done yoga before- why now?) or some other new activity.
The lockdown has made me think more simply, think of things day by day, there is joy in that, but I also take joy in picturing the moment where it all feels a bit better, I don’t think that will be the day the lockdown ends, but in months maybe, where I’ll be on a walk amongst the trees, with my favourite people and my favourite dog.