travel


On my recent overnight flight from China to Australia, I found myself seated in a row of four with two seats free and a woman at the other end of the row. Dinner was eaten, a movie watched and then each of us sttempted to get comfortable for the night. We tried to stretch out on two seats each, without much success. So I suggested she stretch out her legs and lie against the seat backs and I would stretch out in reverse and lie down in the remaining space. So we were able to lie down at full stretch, heads at either end of the row of four seats. I found a pair of smelly socks close to my nose, my consolation being that my socks were even more aromatic beside her nose. But I soon fell asleep. Some hours later I woke to find my hand resting on her somewhat ample thigh. I sheepishly removed it and smiled a good morning.

I was not quite sure what to expect: a slap or a kiss good morning. Instead, she was keen to talk and asked me what I did. I mentioned writing on Marxism and religion, researching in Australia and teaching in China, my children, travel etc. She, it turned out, was the head of a major company, married and with a brood of children. To top it off, she was a fundamentalist Christian who had found the command to obey her husband immensely helpful – she told me with Bible in hand. She was used to calling all the shots, so it was a relief to be able to let him do so some of the time. So on we chatted until the plane landed. But neither of us mentioned my wandering hand or her thigh. At least it broke the ice.

Recently the Australian Tourism Board posted a sample of the questions potential visitors ask before coming to Australia, along with answer from the tourism board (copied below). However, I have one to add that may possibly trump them:

Q: Where does the sun rise in Australia?

A: In the west – the world spins the other way here.

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Original list:

Q: Does it ever get windy in Australia ? I have never seen it rain on TV, how do the plants grow? (UK).

A: We import all plants fully grown and then just sit around watching them die.

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Q: Will I be able to see kangaroos in the street? (USA)

A: Depends how much you’ve been drinking.

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Q: I want to walk from Perth to Sydney – can I follow the railroad tracks? (Sweden)

A: Sure, it’s only three thousand miles, take lots of water.

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Q: Are there any ATMs in Australia ? Can you send me a list of them in Brisbane , Cairns , Townsville and Hervey Bay? (UK)

A: What did your last slave die of?

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Q: Can you give me some information about hippo racing in Australia? (USA)

A: A-fri-ca is the big triangle shaped continent south of Europe. Aus-tra-lia is that big island in the middle of the Pacific which does not … oh forget it. Sure, the hippo racing is every Tuesday night in Kings Cross. Come naked.

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Q: Which direction is North in Australia? (USA)

A: Face south and then turn 180 degrees. Contact us when you get here and we’ll send the rest of the directions.

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Q: Can I bring cutlery into Australia? (UK)

A: Why? Just use your fingers like we do…

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Q: Can you send me the Vienna Boys’ Choir schedule? (USA)

A: Aus-tri-a is that quaint little country bordering Ger-man-y, which is … oh forget it. Sure, the Vienna Boys Choir plays every Tuesday night in Kings Cross, straight after the hippo races. Come naked.

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Q: Can I wear high heels in Australia? (UK)

A: You are a British politician, right?

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Q: Are there supermarkets in Sydney and is milk available all year round? (Germany)

A: No, we are a peaceful civilization of vegan hunter/gatherers. Milk is illegal.

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Q: Please send a list of all doctors in Australia who can dispense rattlesnake serum. (USA)

A: Rattlesnakes live in A-meri-ca which is where YOU come from. All Australian snakes are perfectly harmless, can be safely handled and make good pets.

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Q: I have a question about a famous animal in Australia , but I forget its name. It’s a kind of bear and lives in trees. (USA)

A: It’s called a Drop Bear. They are so called because they drop out of gum trees and eat the brains of anyone walking underneath them. You can scare them off by spraying yourself with human urine before you go out walking.

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Q: Can you tell me the regions in Tasmania where the female population is smaller than the male population? (Italy)

A: Yes, gay night clubs.

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Q: Do you celebrate Christmas in Australia? (France)

A: Only at Christmas.

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Q: Will I be able to speak English most places I go? (USA)

A: Yes, but you’ll have to learn it first.

Most European cities are supposed to be human-centred affairs, where everyone gently walks about on quaint streets, enjoys those completely wanky things called ‘culture’ or ‘history’, or breathes the supposed ‘soul’ of a faux city core. Nothing could be further from the truth, for they are alienating experiences that remind me uncannily of Disneyworld or the Epcot Centre. But perhaps there is another reason, which was revealed to me the other day: they are planned to the minutest detail. No refurbishment, no new building, no work in any sense can be done without planning to the minutest detail. Any renovation must follow manufactured codes of what counts as ‘old’ or ‘historic’. Any new construction must meet an endless set of requirements, so as to fit in with the ‘feel’ of what is already there, or perhaps to fit a model of what is supposed to be an ideal city in some other place. By contrast, take me to a place that has grown organically, in which planners struggle and usually fail to impose their ideas after the fact, where planning has become impossible. Actually, take me out of cities altogether …

It’s a standard line that a good traveller arrives with a mind and body open to new experiences, realising that much can be learned from the place visited. By contrast, a bad traveller arrives with preconceptions and proceeds, not surprisingly, to find that everything is dreadful. That is, one appreciates, the other condemns. One is open, the other is close-minded. One is humble, the other is arrogant. One keeps her or his mouth shut, the other is always mouthing off. Obviously, these are ideal types and most of us fall somewhere in between.

If, for the sake of argument, we accept the distinction, then what contributes to either feature? Leaving aside that strange and vague thing called nationalism, I wonder whether imperial experience makes a difference. Or rather, if you come from a place that was once an empire, does it breed a certain arrogance, a longing for lost glory, an effort to assert through sheer will power the empire that has long gone? The roll call of faded empires is long indeed: the Netherlands, Germany, France, UK, Denmark, Russia, Turkey, Bulgaria, Hungary, Austria … Does this experience make you a bad traveller, arrogantly assuming that your own place is still the centre of the world and that every other place doesn’t measure up? If that is one factor, then does the experience of having been part of an empire make you more open, giving you a somewhat better imperial shit compass?

I continue to be simultaneously amused and befuddled by European tribalism – that strange notion, asserted in both extreme and subtle fashions, that each of the little countries in that part of the world is quintessentially different the other (yes, Germany is a little country too). People of the same ethnic group living in largely the same landscape are prepared to assert vigorously that they are fundamentally different from neighbours, of the same group and in the same landscape, who live a bicycle ride away.

Recently I was reminded of one of the clearest manifestations of that tribalism: the idea that those islands off the western peninsula of the Eurasian landmass are fundamentally different from the rest of Europe. This would have to be the oddest thing I have ever heard. No, let’s be polite about this: it’s complete crap.

With thanks to Koryo Tours. The first is ‘North Korea in 2 minutes’:

The second is ‘Comrade Kim Goes Flying’:

I am more keen than ever to get to North Korea in the next year, especially after reading Robert Myles’s account of his travels there. The question is what I should do, for there are many options.

I may want to cycle through different parts:

NK 01

Or go hiking and camping:

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Or take a glorious rail journey:

NK 03

All part of my project on Embalming Our Leaders …

A number of blog items have appeared recently on other sites:

The Revelations of Belarus

The Art of the Moscow Metro

Stalin’s Seven Sisters

These are on ‘Voyages on the Left’, while the following is on Political Theology:

John Locke, the Fall, and the Origin Myth of Capitalism (a snippet from Boer and Petterson, Idols of Nations)

Lhomme à la houe The Man with the Hoe

We’ve just completed three days by train across the strangest country in the world, the USA. The Southwest Chief runs from Los Angeles to Chicago, and then the Capitol Limited runs onto Washington (and a local train takes you to Baltimore). Three days in all, through deserts, prairies, forests and mountains. On a train such as this, you get the best, worst, and weirdest of the USA. Amtrak is a great network, and thankfully more people hereabouts have begun to realise that. It’s cheap, efficient and pretty comprehensive. When Americans set their mind to something, they can do a bloody good job. The problem is that they rarely put their minds to anything worthwhile.

But the most intriguing part would have to be the dining car. Here is the USA in all its daily glory. Community seating is the rule in the dining car, where the food is included in the very reasonably priced tickets. Over three days we met and talked with 80-something newlyweds with dodgy legs, New Mexico artists, a couple of giggling grandmothers, a disconcertingly in-bred couple who growled about ‘them environmentalists’ and said an elaborate prayer before eating, disciples of Obama with a love of hiking and speaking so loudly our ears were ringing, and – the highlight of the journey – a charming man who told us in detail of Abraham Lincoln’s beginnings as a lawyer when he won a huge case for the new railways. He finished his discourse by peering out of the window and observing simply, ‘I’m looking for bigfoots. They live in these parts’. He was serious.

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Quirky signs with unwitting senses – part of the pleasure of travel in distant places.

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This is the name of a well endowed cafe at Leipzig railway station. Not to be outdone, the ship from Riga to Stockholm sports a somewhat different culinary experience:

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But my favourite is this one, on the old train from Minsk to Riga:

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It took me a moment to realise that there is no red line through the lit cigarette, for in the vestibule at the end of each carriage you can indeed smoke. How civilised!

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