Another story on the theme of strangers in travel pictures.
Once when I was a teenager, I was in the Navy cadets. We went on a 3-day trip staying on a minesweeper.
The minesweeper was dirty and gray coloured and smelt like a hospital. It, and the men who lived in it, had just come back from the gulf. This was the early 90s, so it hadn’t been seeing active duty there, just patrolling.
We motored out of Rosyth, in Fife, north of Edinburgh and went up the Forth out into the North Sea, and puttered around for a while before coming back.
I remember two things about this trip.
The first was when they detonated a demonstration mine for us to see. We were meant to be awed by the power of the explosion and excited by the technology and career possibilities of the Royal Navy. But what really struck me was that a seagull happened to be in the vicinity of the explosion, swimming in the water. It was hurled up in a parabolic arc and landed a few feet away from the boat, lying on its back, its legs kicking pathetically. We debated whether we should ask the sailors to shoot it and put it out of its misery, but after a few minutes of jerky motion it was still.
The second was the gronk board. This was a cork board pinned up in the sailor’s mess, where we had our free time, and could chat with the enlisted men. The board was covered with poor quality snaps, some polaroids, some 35mm, of women in various states of undress and/or inebriation. The men explained that every time they put into port, they would try to take a picture of the women they slept with. They would then compare their snaps and for each stop, the ugliest of the women would go on the board.
I remember their expressions, smiling eagerly and/or lewdly up at the men, with no idea of where they would eventually end up and in what context.
It’s a clich’, but I could be in any city in the world right now. Who designs these mass-luxury hotels? This one is a Peninsula but it might as well be a Sheraton or an Intercontinental or a Sofitel. All mid-brown wood with rounded edges. Faint, cheap Louis Quatorze references and vague local colour added through anodyne ink drawings. In this case of shabby canalside houses.
And a padded headboard. I suppose those exist out of kindness for mid-priced hookers.
I think that’s what is so depressing about these places – everything is “mid”. Not cheap, not expensive, not tasteful, not tacky.
That and the fact that you never meet anyone in the corridors, only occasionally in the lift. The corridors are long expanses of mid-brown and cut-glass lampshades and the only human being you?ll ever see in one is a grinning hotel employee with your mid-tolerable room service meal.
This particular hotel is in Manila, Philippines. Interesting fact – the Philippines is the only country in the world where a majority of people support Bush?s foreign policy (according to a Herald Tribune poll read on the plane over here). Other facts gleaned were that the Chinese believe they are genetically inferior to Caucasians and Africans in track and field events.
Chinese people in the Philippines are a rich but detested minority and are the most likely group to be kidnapped. The president promised to reduce kidnappings some time last year, dunno if it?s happened.
That?s the nature of business travel – odd snippets of city glimpsed and odd factoids about a country’s culture accumulated. My time is spent doing business and then being shown the things my clients think I ought to see. Or in the rare instances when I have time to myself, in trying to find activities to stave off loneliness, boredom or bone-tiredness. So I see an odd side to the city – one that revolves around coffee shops, anonymous public spaces and places I can meet women. It doesn’t feel like the bits of a city that anybody lives in.
Friday 7.04 am
In the morning, wake early, because last night I couldn’t figure out how to shut the electric curtains. Do some tai chi. Muse that the myth of travel is of penetrating to the soul of a place, that a tale of travel should (in the eyes of the middle class westerner) be a tale of discovery, of significant experiences, realization of a new perspective granted by the boon of existing in an alien place.
This myth gives us the rich kids tour of the third world – absurdities like Prince William’s 6 months building schools in the Amazon or wherever it was.
But it’s just that, a myth. The truth of travel is that it is movement between places. There is no perception shift inherent in the experience. Perhaps I am needlessly cynical. Perhaps this perspective comes from living too long in corporate world. Because in corporate world, every city is the same – hotels and offices.
Even if your job (as mine does) supposedly involves understanding the differences between places, your experience of them will be identical. A mid-brown experience.
But this too misses the truth. Corporate world is built of organizations and organizations are built of people. One travels not so one can be in a different place, but so one can deal with different people.
And therein lies the romance (because there?s always romance, even in the things that seem most prosaic). Most of the world seems content to relegate human interactions to impoverished mediated forms ? text messages and chat rooms (late at night in the Philippines they play Pinoy covers of ?Everybody Hurts? while the left hand half of the screen is covered with real-time feeds from the music station’s chatroom. It’s busy.).
But the business traveler, privileged individual that he is, knows that true communication only comes face to face, and that it represents good value to his masters to have him climb aboard an aeroplane and be served mid-way acceptable food by mid-pretty girls for several hours in order to sit across a mid-brown table from the person he will be dealing with that week. That, indeed, somehow the price of this trip in dollars, generated at route source by the mysteries of time and distance that turn trade into income, represents an investment of the proceeds of travel in the reality of travel purely so that I, or another like me, can try to make meaningful contact with someone who lives in another city.
I?m giving up the wonders of breakfast (particularly good at this hotel ? they do have their individual characteristics) to blog.
One more thought – this myth of travel as discovery, of uncovering the mysteries of distance – this is the reason the bourgeoisie and the elites hate Ibiza so much. Ibiza, party town, an island of one?s one counry-men and women, of the same drugs and the same casual sex you can get from a 20 minute bus ride, spits in the face of this notion of travel.
Why travel to Ibiza? To be with “people like us” whether that means hippie-fied rave pioneers in the mid 80s or lagered up geezers in 2004 doesn?t really matter. So big shout to the man like the MC, Mr Joey B, and to Lady Caroline, there right now, both good people, both surely meeting with good people. That’s your travel right there.