Reading On the Road: Travel Companions Aren’t Always Flesh and Blood.

DAOIPAL

It began as an attempt at adventure. I met and instantly connected with another American on the second day of an independent trip around Ireland. She’d just landed what was a serious win in the broke-student-traveler-community: a job waiting tables in one of Ireland’s most scenic and secluded tourist destinations. The pay would be in cash and meals and housing were included. They needed more help and it took all of two hours for her to convince me to join her.

I had some firm commitments for the next few weeks, but after that there was a job secured and a bed waiting for me in a former youth hostel dedicated to housing crazy travelers like us who happily dropped everything for a chance at menial labor in a foreign country. Funny the glamor an exotic locale drapes over a situation I would never consider at home. I felt incredibly brave. I had just graduated from university and seemed like a giant step towards true independence. I was a free spirit. What adventures awaited a soon-to-be-waitress on a magical island? Yeah. That lasted.

  

I traveled and volunteered, all the time anticipating my daring plans, and became enthralled by my second-hand copy of “Down and Out in Paris and London” by George Orwell. His trials as an expat casual kitchen laborer and depictions of his home in various Parisian slums were fascinating, touching, and at times hysterical. I had served my time as a waitress in high school and college, and I nodded along with his descriptions of pretentious waiters and raving chefs. Life surely would not be like that for me on my upcoming adventure. The Irish were friendly and relaxed after all, so surely waiting tables would be a breeze of pleasantries. How could anything possibly go wrong in the quaint mountain village that would be my home throughout the tourist season? I envisioned myself taking long post-lunch service walks through the heather-covered hills, or having chatting late into the night with story-spinning locals while traditional music played in the background. Poor Orwell and his days working in appalling conditions and nights spent in rat-infested rooms filled with the sounds of consumptive coughs. Not for me, but thanks for sharing the stories.

mountainsheather

One week after my job began, my friend left suddenly due to events back home. I was sad to lose my kindred spirit, but traveling friendships are like that. Mysteriously, when she left, the job and its surroundings began to go pear-shaped. The formerly quiet hamlet of two-hundred odd locals turned from friendly and charming to surly and sinister. 

locals

The two brothers who owned the restaurant and hostel remained kind and friendly, but they doled out the pay, not my food and camaraderie  Almost overnight, my attempts to acquire the promised meals were met with expressions of shock and confusion along with a bill to be subtracted from my salary. The town’s only other buildings consisted of houses, a post office, and two other two pubs also frequented by my unfriendly neighbors and colleagues. The weather quickly became colder and wetter, and when I wasn’t working I turned to my bed and books for solace and comfort. 

I resorted to sneaking into the local shop and shamefully buying anything I could prepare surreptitiously in the hostel kitchen. I slurped Ramen noodles and toasted bread while reading about Orwell’s true hunger after days of food being a luxury he couldn’t afford. He became my partner in misery. His vivid descriptions of the eccentric characters he lived and worked with led me to view my own environment through the eyes of an unseen onlooker. Rather than focusing on my constant frustration and paranoia, I began to imagine those around me as Orwell might. How would he describe the Russian dishwasher with slow and limited English but swift and roaming hands? Surely he too would inwardly mock the shift-long tirades belted out by our chef, a burly blonde woman who could give Gordan Ramsey a run for his money in the drama department. How would my crew of revolving roommates compare with those he shared guesthouses, homeless shelters, and the later the streets with?

The roommates were a story in themselves. Originally, my friend and I were the only two occupants in a large room with empty beds reserved for future women who might join our team. An executive decision shifted my once safe and stable accommodation, and suddenly the formerly ladies-only beds were opened to anyone who needed them. Since I worked in a rural Irish restaurant/pub, weekends  brought some pretty interesting regulars. Orwell shared with destitute sock darners and thieves posing as Communists. My roommates included a girl who drank far beyond her fill in the pub below and preferred to wake me rather than her parents with seemingly endless moans and bouts of vomiting. Then there was the harmless, yet noisy gent in his late seventies who came like clockwork every weekend. Saturday and Sunday afternoons were spent listening to sports matches at high volume from his pink-sheeted bed. Nights were even louder, as his perpetual snores competed only with his flatulence for frequency, volume, and melodiousness.

Thankfully, my only permanent roommate was a homesick young Kiwi who was also working “off the books” on the restaurant’s addition. He was as equally miserable and spent most of his evenings writing letters to his fiance and reading books. He wasn’t reading Orwell, but if I hadn’t been holding on to my book for dear life, I might have lent it to him. We remained unspoken outcasts from the noisy pub below, saving our pennies for flights back home since management had somehow managed to exclude us from the “free daily pint” enjoyed by others. We were better off with our books.

The fateful events that took place as I served lunch on September 11th, 2001 increased my loneliness and anxiety even more. The daily news talked of halted air traffic and fear of further attacks and created a mounting dread that I might somehow become trapped in the town I inwardly referred to as the “Peaks of Despair.” Fearful of months, or even years of bringing sea trout, lamb and pints of Guinness to busloads of tourists while the town around me tutted, gossiped and openly insulted me and my country’s vast evils, I retreated even more into Orwell’s words. By now he was homeless and living as a tramp. This was too much for me to bear, and I skipped back to his days in restaurants, being swindled and abused by seemingly everyone he came in contact with. At least I didn’t have it that bad.

 firstworldproblems

I left only a few weeks later, with a less stable but far friendlier job secured by a good friend in Dublin. As I watched the Peaks of Despair grow smaller through the bus window, I knew that one day, I would look back on my dark days there through an entirely different light. Years later, I even took a friend to see the beauty of the town, and was able to smugly ignore the few people I still recognized.

Orwell was not my guide on a journey down and out, as I was on a quest for experience rather than poverty. My hostel room and service job didn’t begin to compare with his slum accommodation and exploitative labor conditions. He was, however, a great companion. His vision of the world around him helped me emulate his method of interpreting people and situations.  

orwellhobo

Down and Out” showed Orwell’s willingness to publicly share deeply personal experiences of degradation and poverty. His detailed and often merciless depictions of those he encountered were matched with a profound analysis of himself and society as a whole. He taught me to view life as a series of tragi-comedic events, peppered with a cast of complex characters. I try to see the world through the eyes of a self-deprecating narrator, and thus I hope I have developed more empathy, patience, and perhaps most importantly during unpleasant times, humor.

What is your favorite On the Road reading moment? What book have you read during your travels that touched you or changed you? Why not share and enter the On the Road travel blogging competition by publishing company “The Works”?

I nominate these 3 travel blogs:

Leaving Cairo

Expatlogue

In Search of a Life Less Ordinary

orwellquote

Advertisements

Aside

Five Purchases the Saavy Traveller Shouldn’t Miss (or Why I Love SkyMall)

Summertime in the UAE means two things: temperatures outside will compete with those on the surface of the sun, and school holidays begin. This July, I joined the crowds fleeing the crushing heat and humidity to visit home. I love to travel, but I detest flying. Long-distance flights equal desperate hours sandwiched between my cement-hard seat back and the headrest of the reclining passenger in front of me. As my aches and impatience grow by the second, SkyMall magazine has become a small sanctuary in the claustrophobic and sometimes chaotic conditions of economy class.

If you’ve flown a major airline, you have probably seen Sky Mall. Don’t confuse it with the useless Duty Free catalog offering mere perfumes, jewelry and booze or your airline’s in-flight magazine highlighting its destinations and the selection of chips and chocolates priced for the uber-wealthy. I mean the SkyMall. The gem, no, the jewel in the crown of catalogs. Its pages contain a level of consumer bliss adequate to distract passengers from even the worst flight anxiety. Sky Mall is, in its own words,almost universally known among affluent and well-educated travelers who are receptive to innovative, unique products.”

I like to save the magazine as a treat for later in the flight, just as I do the tiny packet of ginger biscuits, or if I’m lucky, the microscopic Toblerone that comes with my meal.  I held out for nearly eleven hours before eagerly lifting it from its pouch. “Can’t get enough sparkle?” asked the cover. Oh SkyMall, you don’t know where I live, do you? I was sad to see this edition seemed a bit thinner than previous ones. I couldn’t quite pinpoint what was missing, but I suspect they thinned out the vast array of monogrammed products and fantasy series replicas. I was relieved to see I could still buy my own copy of the One Ring that Rules Them All. Still, I suspected I had been cheated of at least 20 additional minutes of shopping pleasure.

I suppose not even SkyMall is immune to the global economic downturn. However, a quick glance through its pages offers hope to consumers that there is still much we need to spend our limited incomes on. Here are five of my favorites.  

1. The Somawave Helmet

(His enthusiasm is contagious.) 

Who doesn’t like a nice massage to “disconnect from the world we know,” and relieve the stress and tension caused by everyday life. Head/neck massage and vibration on demand? Yes, please. Look at the smile on this man’s face. Here’s an opportunity no one should miss.

SkyMall’s writers point out that Somawave is light and portable, but they should perhaps rethink their claim that it can be taken anywhere. Somawave-wearers might not be well-received in certain public places, and should maybe restrict their usage to the privacy of home. I should also point out the accompanying warning in case any forklift or crane operators are hoping to use this product to avoid workplace stress:

Caution: Do not wear while operating heavy machinery. The SomaWave Helmet’s euphoria inducing waves may produce sleep or trance-like states of consciousness.

Ha. Good luck machinery operator. A person wearing this contraption has about as much chance of entering a blue-collar workplace as they does an airport, government office, or any place with security guards.

Warnings aside, if this product delivers as promised, maybe I should buy a couple to pack safely away in my suitcases. Since most mind-altering substances put me at risk of a lengthy sentence in a UAE prison, followed by deportation, the Somawave could offer a safe and legal evening of euphoria and bliss.

2. Easter Island “Ahu Akivi Moai” Monolith Statue

As an apartment dweller, now is not the time for giant statues, but I can dream. Dear readers, should any of you have access to a rooftop, garden or large balcony, this exotic addition would be perfect for avoiding post-holiday blues. Forget bird baths, fountains, or plastic flamingos. Thanks to Sky Mall’s suggestions, I have realized that no outdoor space is complete without a replica of one of the world’s great mysteries.

Sky Mall promises that King Moai will, “astound and impress guests at your next Polynesian luau.” I’ll keep that in mind. If nothing else, perhaps the giant staring eyes will frighten away pesky animals, trespassers, or nosy neighbors. I should add that the replica is not stone like the original, but is made from high quality resin.  Hosing down any pet or bird-related messes this large object could attract would be a breeze. Recreating Easter Island in my garden was never one of my Pinterest fantasies, but thanks to Sky Mall, I know have great plans for a future outdoor space.

3. LED MagicShowerhead

(Because the shower should be where the magic happens.)

I bet you spend at least a few minutes a week trying to pinpoint what your bathroom is missing. What would make you feel more pampered, more luxurious, more complete? SkyMall has the answer—a more colorful shower.

According to SkyMall, MagicShowerhead illuminates your water with seven different colors, creating an experience to match the needs of its diverse readers. Searching for a “club like experience” in your own bathroom? Four flashy colors (and I’m assuming your own piped-in music) should do the trick. With action like that in the morning, I might not even need my morning coffee. Want to relax? Stop paying for pricey spa visits and create your own “spa-like environment” by setting the colors to slowly fade and change. Even environmentalists can appreciate MagicShowerhead. Three timed alternating colors help you limit your water consumption.  Doing your part to save the planet while enjoying a light show? Priceless.  

This shower head truly is “magic.” All you need to do is choose hand-held, fixed, or both! I don’t know who writes the copy for this magazine, but I want him or her to write my resume, biography, and eulogy. Hats off to this master of modern marketing.

4. Large Super Skate Sail

(How could this possibly end badly?)

My first thought on seeing the Super Skate Sail was, “Wow, that looks like a lot of fun!” SkyMall presents this product as a great way get adults and children outside and away from the TV, so perhaps it could be powerful enough pry me away from my laptop. The Super Skate Sail has three methods of use, so I wouldn’t be limited by my lack of skateboarding skills. I had found a hobby, a new sport I might actually enjoy.

Then practicality set in. There is a reason why sails are usually associated with water sports as opposed to land. The ocean offers pretty much unlimited space. I can’t think of many places in Abu Dhabi that offer adequate room to zoom along uninhibited with wheels and a 9′ by 11′ sail. There’s also the slight issue of creating a spectacle. As a Westerner, I attract enough unwanted attention just by being a minority. Breezing through town with a giant colorful sail (and maybe a matching helmet) would probably just add to the usual stares. The pleasant gulf breezes would most likely propel me from the Corniche walkway into the capital city’s busy streets within minutes. A Lexus SUV/Super Skate Sail collision is the kind of accident that could even make its way into print or broadcast media. SkyMall, you may have let me down this time. 

5. Jeans Lounge Pants

(They’re jeans, they’re pants, they’re perfection!)

SkyMall, you’ve just redeemed yourself.

Fellow American travelers, I’m sure you will be the first to appreciate that this product has not one, but two major benefits. Firstly, fashion. Who wouldn’t want their own pair of what at first glance appears to be stylish, ripped acid-washed denim circa 1991? Wait for it—that’s not denim it’s, “actually super-soft cotton with amazingly realistic front-and-back printing and a much more forgiving stretch.” Americans like forgiving stretch. It goes great with buffets, Thanksgiving, and chili cheese fries. These even have an elasticized drawstring waist. I hear my couch calling.

Secondly, what an incredible souvenir to bring back after a visit from the good ol’ USA! Nothing says, “this came from America” like “jeans” and “lounge.” You can’t lose. Buy a pair for your favorite co-worker, colleague, or friend, and maybe an extra pair for that awkward moment when you are surprised with an unexpected post-vacation gift. There is even a discount for purchasing 2 or more.

You’re welcome.

Pride and Privilege

Here’s a conversation I experience at least twice a day: “What country, madam? Oh, you’re American! Very nice country.” “Um, thanks.” I always feel strange when I’m complimented on my country, especially when the person I’m talking to has no connection with it. It’s not something I chose, like a shirt, or something I have created, like a drawing. It’s something I was born with. To complicate matters more, I often feel that revealing my American identity while living abroad is far more complex than just naming my country of birth. It seems to come with a role I have to play. I’m an American. Therefore, I feel the asker is waiting to judge whether I am a) a Cool American (just like our movies, music and pop culture) or b) an Ugly American (arrogant, wasteful, demanding, and at least partially responsible for any problems their country happens to be experiencing). Let’s not forget that since I’m female, if the asker is male, there is a good chance they think I’m at least moderately slutty, so the minute I admit I’m American, I start to feel slightly uneasy.

I suppose all nationalities come with a certain amount of baggage. Every country’s name brings certain images to mind, and these images vary from person to person. When my inquisitive taxi driver is Egyptian, I think of pyramids, the Nile, and Tahrir Square. What are his images of America? Jobs? Friendly people? Hollywood? Bombs? Intrusive foreign policy? Support for corrupt and dangerous regimes to support our own interests? My sense of unease increases.

The worst is when asker then shows shame for their own country. “Oh, madam, America is very nice. My country __________ (insert developing country here) is ___________ (insert some criticism that makes me want to crawl under the seat in front of me). On the flip side, so many Americans, particularly a certain type of Americans, are always talking about how proud they are to be American. I love my country, but I find this particular sentence difficult to relate to. What does it mean to be “proud” to be an American? What does it mean to be proud of any nationality? To me, pride is reserved for achievements. I am proud of my MA that I worked hard very hard for. I’m proud when I see my students learning something I have taught them. All countries offer beauty, culture and insights to the rest of the world, and everyone should have love for their country of birth. It’s the word pride that troubles me. How can I be proud of something I have no control over? In a sketch about Americans who are particularly hostile to immigrants and other nationalities, Chris Rock pointed out, “all you did was come out of your mother’s p**** on American soil. That’s it. That’s it!” Vulgar, yes, but most definitely true! Congratulations to the 300,000,000 of us for being delivered within a certain geographical region. Luck of the draw, baby!

Compliments on my country obviously come from people who are not American, and often come from people from countries with far less available resources and opportunities. I say “available” because so many of these countries contain vast wealth held hostage by a greedy and powerful ruling elite. Back to Chris Rock, “What, you think you’re better than somebody from France ’cause you came out of a p**** in Detroit?” I sure don’t think I’m better, but many times I wonder why me? Why was I born in a country where we buy bottled water to suit taste preferences, but someone else was born in a place where they will die before the age of five because their water comes from a sewage ditch. Is there a obligation that comes with my “lucky” birth? If so, what on Earth is it?

I was blessed to be born in a country where, God willing, I will never starve. I’m not hustling folks to buy necklaces so I can feed my babies. No one is going to come and drag me from my home into a jail because I blogged something negative about my government or signed a petition. It goes beyond that. I can lose everything, but I will never truly be in danger of living on the streets, because my social safety net involves parents happy to welcome me back to their large home. Yes, we have plenty of ghettos and bad neighborhoods, but at home I’ll never drive past acres of homes made from corrugated steel and tarps. In the current state of the world economy this could change, but probably not in my lifetime. Why me, and what do I do with this?

As a woman especially, all I have to do is turn on the television or log onto the internet to see examples of lives I escaped only due to chance. I was born in a country where I was entitled to choices. I was not married off at 13 to a 35 year old man. No one mutilated my genitals at 9 to destroy my sexuality and make me worthy of a future husband. No one expected me to stop my schooling and cast away my talents and interests because it was time for me to be a good wife and stay under the watchful eyes of others. Why me, and what do I do with this?

I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to travel to many countries that do not share the same protections and privileges I have in my country of birth. I’ve seen the slums, I’ve been asked for money by dirty children and mothers holding empty bottles. I’ve turned my head and refused in order to protect myself. Protect myself from what? More begging? Losing money I want to spend on souvenirs? Or to protect myself from a unique phenomenon I think of as Privileged Guilt.

As a budget traveler, I can easily “slum it” in cheap dive hotels, use candles during 12-18 hour power cuts, sleep on railway station floors between connections, and spend days fearful of being less than 30 seconds away from the nearest toilet knowing the pesky traveler’s curse could strike at any time. However, my privileged Western behind will never truly know what it is like to live like this. This will never be my reality, and I thank the Creator for that. Because I have been blessed with an easier life, some part of me wonders whether this obliges me to somehow do something to better the situation of those who have it much harder. Is this a valid way to feel, or is it the just another expression of condescension from a relatively wealthy member of the developed world? Am I just another douchebaguette-bleeding-heart-wanna-be sitting in an exotic destination writing about poverty? Who knows….

Do we ever transform Privileged Guilt into something productive? Usually we return from our journeys or documentary viewing to gather with friends and discuss it over coffee. These sessions include lots of head-shaking, sighs, and “we shoulds.” Living in an insanely wealthy country like I do, we like to point the finger at those with more wealth and talk about the changes They should make and the wrongs that They perpetuate. This provides an excellent distraction from our own potential, and leads to far less uncomfortable conversations, like the wrongs of governments that, as expats, we have no control over. I often wonder if I am a poster-child of fruitless Privileged Guilt. I pursued not one, but two degrees in the hopes of aiding the fight against global wrongs and inequality, but found the whole thing to disturbing for ongoing work on the subject. Additionally, I never did marry the Che Guevara-in-the-making I dreamed of at university, and I thank the Creator for that as much as I do my privileged birth! I sure wasn’t cut out for that sort of life, although perhaps his revolutionary activities could have lessened some of my feelings of obligation to those less fortunate.

So back to the original question: What is pride in one’s country? Where does Privileged Guilt come from, and is it valid or uber-patronizing? Do you feel it? Do you do anything about it? Give this expat some answers before my next trip. Or, I guess I could always just visit a wealthier country.