I have got into a horrible habit. I spend so much time abroad that travelling becomes an obsessive topic of conversation. I always want to start a sentence with those dreaded words “When I went to….” followed by either some unbelievable tale of daring do, or some mediocre tale of how awful the service was in a restaurant, how much my flight was delayed in an airport you have never heard of, or how I saw something any person can now virtually stand in using Google Earth or some other Internet mapping service without leaving the comfort of their leather sofas.
When confronted by this tedium, whoever I am talking to will either ignore my comments completely; “Did you hear about that cat that was run down in the High Street last week?” or try to outdo my tales of travellers daring do with referring constantly to the one exotic place they have been abroad. “It was the same when we went to Limerick” is a possible reply, multiple times.
But then I move in some circles where people do travel a lot, and then the game of “When I went to“ takes on a steroidal stance. It takes courage to start a subject, but once entered into, the game must be to continue to outdo your interlocutor in your experiences until death or the bottle of whisky runs dry.
It might start with “That was a bad flight – we really got tossed around before we came down to land”
The opposition will repost – “Can’t be as bad as when I was landing in Ipple Minor. We bumped three times down on the runway and came to rest just where the tarmac met the grass”
“Phew that was nothing,” I would reply – “There was this flight to San Anklepoise where we approached six times, but each time the pilot had to lift off with just less than 10ft to go and we had to circle round in a raging thunderstorm.”
At this point it takes on the mysticism of the Yorkshireman sketch – “You were lucky – I had a flight to Umbagabaga and the lightning was bouncing off the fuselage, hailstones banging against the cabin – we were lucky to get down.”
“At least you had wings at the end of your flight, one time in Chang Ching we came down, lost both wings and the pilot landed by sticking out his arms and flapping madly”
“Well when we had to parachute out of the burning wreckage of my Fokker over Burtenvurtemburg…..”
You can see how it soon escalates.
This kind of duelling goes on in so many bars around the world and in any place in the UK where two or more overseas consultants meet up. When young you try your best to keep up with the maddening stories, but you can never match those who have had twenty years of experience – it is not just the stories that get more exaggerated – anyone can do that, but the breadth of geographical experience that an overseas development consultant can build up in that time means that they can kick out any whippersnapper from the conversation with one simple comment. Either they have the depth of years spent in one country – “of course, I have some understanding of the Frellock people of the lower steppe of the Balsovan plateau, having spent the last twenty years drinking from the nipples of the local yak” …. or you have spent a week in almost every single country in the world, even though all you have done is stay in 150 Ibis Hotels or been in transit for two hours in the international airport – you still feel at one with the people and have an incredible depth of understanding of its political, cultural and natural landscape.
I have seen it many times –this is not a fictional statement – a guy travelling from Maseru airport in Lesotho to the western suburbs of the same city (some 20km) said “From what I’ve seen so far, it’s not really that poor a country”. Yes, the jousting is good fun and part of the life of a travelling bore, but do not countenance listening to people who make their minds up about a country in the first hour of being there.
I tend to be in the group that collect passport stamps like football stickers, am proud of the two hours on the tarmac at Lagos airport that makes me say I have been to Nigeria…. but I try to get out and about wherever possible to understand the country I have been sent to – even if only for a few hours. I make judgements about what I see, I use it as fuel in my “When I went to “ jousts, but I try to be careful not to sum up the country, its landscape and its people from just a simple observation.
Things have moved on since I used to ensure I had String, Knife and Paper in my luggage to be prepared for my visit. Communications are far better now; I upload photos on the internet, use the video phone services and instant messages when abroad (I always try to seek out web connections when staying anywhere – am never without my laptop), and the same mobile phone can be used in dozens of countries. Standards are so much better in some countries – whereas a supermarket, ATM or eatable salad may have been a luxury and notable in most places in the nineties, in the naughties they were common place – indeed it was more likely you would comment when you see an example of practices or places that would better suit an earlier period.
Since my days at the Natural Resources Institute I spent two years on the island of Tortola, the largest of the British Virgin Islands, as their national GIS officer. I returned to the UK at the end of 2003 wanting some new challenges and a larger bit of world to tromp over, and after some deliberation decided to go independent as a consultant. It was a shaky start and took several months before people realised I was serious about it and engaged my services.
Work had been like a concertina since then; some periods I feel so squeezed with work that I have no spare time at all, other periods of downtime I wonder whether the whole world has forgotten I exist.
But overall the experience has been fantastic, and in this book I shall tell you about more experiences in the Caribbean, moving into the tiny remote South Atlantic islands of Ascension and St Helena, a good deal of time in Mauritius and a return to African climes. As well as the work work work stuff, something clicked in me back in 2003 which led to a collaboration with a charity that has been a most expansive and amazing experience. I shall tell of a few missions related to this charity to show how the membership of this organisation has been one of the most rewarding chapters in my life.
So let me tell you – as I am sure you are dying to know – what is was like when I went to………