Thursday, 13 August 2015

On our travels

Broad-minded house-hunting in Sydney and broad bottoms in Sudan

© Steve Palmer 2015

Kenya, December 1990
BTK – Before the kids – Mrs Steve and I travelled. A lot. As soon as we finished uni, we were off. We spent a year in Australia and then travelled back through Asia. I then spent eight years in a travel agency. We climbed Ayers Rock, ate grasshoppers in Mexico and stayed in a hotel in China where the cockroaches staged a sit-in to complain about conditions. Yes. We weren’t tourists. We were proper travellers.

Take the issue of going on safari.

Not for us some unnecessary and pompous luxury camping trip with fine dining. In Nairobi in 1990 we signed up to go with a company called SAVUKA, who offered a discount tour of the Kenyan game parks. I seem to remember it cost about £150 for both of us for a week. This was doing things properly. This was how you get about if you’re after an authentic experience. On the first day we saw the same animals in the Maasai Mara game reserve as those posh people who’d spent £1,000 for their all-inclusive plastic experience. They were wasting their money and we had it sussed.

And then we got to the first night’s campsite. Well, I say ‘campsite’ but that’s perhaps an exaggeration, especially given the state of the toilet. Well; I say ‘toilet’ but it was a massive hole in the ground. Well, I say ‘ground’. And that’s what it was.

Lion eyes

Within minutes of arrival I’d christened the tour company SAVUKA ‘Such A Very Uncomfortable Kamping Arrangement’. Actually, the tents were permanent and pretty good. No; it was probably unfair that I gave the tour company this acronym. There was nothing they could do about the hole in that ground that constituted ‘facilities’…a few yards from the campsite’s kitchen. Slop-out in the mess?

We weren’t the only ones to suffer. I remember seeing a Japanese tourist, obviously at her wit’s end, running into an open field, dropping her jeans and parking a large one then and there in front of me, twenty yards away. People have asked how I could have possibly have watched, but, Your Honour, it all happened so quickly.

The problem for Mrs Steve is that she too wanted to ‘go’. At night. You know, that time when your fears - that hungry lions may be roaming around - are that much more accentuated. So we left the tent, clutching a rudimentary torch, and then Mrs Steve had to make like our Japanese friend and basically let go a few yards away from the canvas. It was practically touching cloth.

And I couldn’t resist shouting, just as things were coming to a nice conclusion: “Lion!” The result was that Mrs Steve panicked and trod in it. She was wearing flip-flops and poo squelched up her leg. I told her that she had to stick the leg out of the flap of the tent all night. I said it might even give the lion something to gnaw on.

Here in 2015 I’ve just searched ‘luxury Kenya safari’. It’s ridiculously expensive. And it looks gorgeous. Damn.  

Well, I can dream can’t I? Because on the same trip we had to wash in the sea for three days. The reason? We were told by our hotel owner that an elephant had cut through an essential cable with its tusk and cut off the water supply to the city of Mombasa. I love the way that a hardship can be dressed up in such a dramatic way by a local trying to give travellers an authentic experience of their country. We stank of seawater.

OK, the Mombasa hygiene situation did actually force us to upgrade. We went for some luxury. In nearby Malindi, we took refuge from the backpack circuit and booked a few nights in a good hotel. By which I mean there was a pool. The thing was, the hotel really existed for package tours. So the people holidaying there were having a totally different experience to us. We’d been walking around with back-breaking backpacks; the tourists expected mosquito nets to be draped from ceiling to floor…and a buffet breakfast. But we deserved this. We were experienced travellers who had, in fact, really earnt this temporary holiday lifestyle. Well, that little fantasy didn’t last long.

We headed straight for the pool and a couple of British families were there. I did that thing where you duck under water and just before your body disappears, you kick a football to show off your skill. This bloke was standing by the side of the pool and the ball I’d kicked smacked him right in the face.

As I surfaced, he was shouting: “You fucking bastard! I can’t fucking believe it! What the fuck do you thing you were doing, you fucking wanker?” I said: “I’m so sorry.” He said: “Fuck, fuck, fuck!” And a kid from the other family asked me: “Is that your Dad?”
Now, our friend Simon wouldn’t entertain the idea of slumming it. He likes a degree of comfort on his travels. Oh, what am I saying? He craves - and gets - luxury.

Do disturb

A few years ago, Simon was in a hotel in Lagos, Nigeria, enjoying room service. Simon’s job has meant that he’s travelled the world for the last twenty-five years. He’s always emailing updates from North Korea, Albania or New York. But it’s the African continent that he most loves. We met in the travel agency but he didn’t stay long. He’d rather live it than talk about it.

On this occasion in Lagos, Simon was immersed in the full room service experience. Somehow, as human beings, if we arrive in a hotel room, the most decadent thing to do is to have our dinner with a towel draped around us, fresh from the shower. We wouldn’t perhaps do that at home. I gather that the towel in question was just about ample to drape around Simon, but he was all alone, so who cared if a bit of flesh was showing? We’re none of us getting any younger.

Then he decided to put the tray outside the door. He reckoned he could do this in his towel. Simon was a seasoned luxury hotel guest who knew all the tricks. He opened the door and put the tray down, with its contents sloshing around. He tried to manoeuvre the tensile strength of the towel and the tray-sloshing at the very same time, in one swooping downwards movement.

It involved Simon bending down to an acute angle to place the tray on the floor - and at the same time trying to hold onto the towel. He managed this rather successfully, but men can be bad at multi-tasking, and he soon realised that although the job was indeed performed copiously, the room door had slammed shut. But that was OK. He had a towel on and could call for help. No such luck.

The towel was jammed in the door.

Now, I’ve told you that the towel was adequately fit-for-purpose in the room, but in the corridor it now became a millstone around Simon’s neck; or should I say – a loose garment that didn’t quite cover everything around Simon’s body.

So, he was standing in the corridor in the all-together; and this was all together a tricky situation (a) to get out of and (b) to explain. Then the good news. The lift door went ‘ping’ and surely his rescuer was on the way. Again; no such luck. The person coming out of the lift was one of the prostitutes that frequented the lobby of the hotel. It was a very long shot, but Simon asked her, politely, if she’d be kind enough to go down to the front desk. You know, and speak to the people that she’d rather avoid talking to, because that would draw attention to her presence (and her profession). But she misunderstood Simon and offered him the best rate that day.

I can understand why. Simon was standing in what looked like a ‘come on’ position. “Yeah, yeah. The old ‘towel in the door’ routine. Why didn’t you just say?” However, he did then manage to explain the situation meaningfully and, not surprisingly, the prostitute politely declined his request to report the incident. She didn’t want to be embarrassed. That was Simon’s job.

I know how he feels. I was accosted by a lady wanting money for services in Nairobi. The thing was, Mrs Steve was standing with me when it happened.

But this isn’t about me. Simon’s still in the hall, nearly-nude. This is where the story could become embellished; he could have been made out he was standing there starkers for hours but I’ve pressed him heavily on this and he maintains it was only twenty minutes. But, really. That is a very long time to be naked, in a hallway, with only a smallish towel rammed in a doorway for modesty-covering.

Eventually Simon was saved. When he checked out, he tried not to engage in any conversation with the reception staff (who surely had to have known what happened). He felt paranoid. Quite rightly. “Did you have room service? Anything from the mini bar? Did someone come along and save you when your towel was jammed in a door?”

Now, perhaps it’s because he moves about the world a lot, but Simon seems to get into more scrapes than most. And, apart from the above example, those scrapes seem to usually involve bodily functions. OK; I’m going to say it. Excreta. Plops. Jumbo jobbies. Shit. That’s better.

Let the train take the strain

Simon’s love of Africa in general is only eclipsed by his love of Sudan in particular. He just adores the place. Here are some facts that I looked up on the internet for you: Sudan was home to numerous ancient civilizations, has recently seen rampant ethnic strife and has been plagued by internal conflicts, including two civil wars and fighting in the Darfur region. Thousands of years ago, the area of north Sudan was extremely volcanic. And Simon was, one day, feeling pretty volcanic himself.

As I’m writing this I’m smiling because I saw Simon last night. Good timing because he was in London on a rare trip and we had a great catch-up with friends. He was in high spirits as he’d just been to his beloved Sudan. Of course we all reminded him of his story about the train…

Sudan has 4,725 kilometres of narrow-gauge, single-track railroads that serve the northern and central portions of the country. But, to put it frankly, travelling by train in Sudan can be erratic. And quite uncomfortable.

Now, personally, I’ve never been one of those people who can hold onto a poo. When I have to go, I have to go.

Mrs Steve’s the same. We’ve had our moments of embarrassment, from Indonesia to India, where the need to take a dump pretty sharpish, has become increasingly pressing as the minutes tick by. I remember trotting rather quickly around a museum in Cairo, searching for a serviceable toilet. In the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, Mrs Steve made it to the loo, again just in time, only to then got locked in that bog. The guy with the screwdriver was very pleasant. When you’ve got to go, who cares if the lock’s working or not. 

Simon, however, can hold on for days. Maybe it’s his history of international travel, mainly in developing countries. He knows that it’s always worth the wait, to finally let it all out in the luxury of a five-star hotel.

But on this one occasion, maybe he held on, well, just too long.

On a Sudanese train, he opened the door to the loo on a speculative visit. A family was living in there. He really didn’t want to interrupt or ask them to move out - so that he could move his bowels. So he held on. Finally the train arrived in a station, where it was to remain for an indeterminate amount of time. That happens in Sudan.

It sat beside another train in the searing East African heat. That other train – a freight locomotive - had apparently been there for days. Days and days and days. With no toilet on the station, Simon was by now dancing around in agony and he had to grab this opportunity. He ran around the back of the second train, out of site; and pulled down his trousers. And just as relief started washing over his body, that second train started pulling out of the station, rather too astonishingly quickly for Sudanese rolling stock that had just been rusting on the rails for so long.

And so the passengers on Simon’s train got an eyeful. He now had the dilemma about whether to finish his ablutions and get back on the train; or not to finish and get back on the train. I don’t know about you but I like to linger, when possible, with a book or magazine. Simon had no choice. He had to ‘squeeze, release and say please’… “Please let me back on the train”. I bet even the family in the toilet turned their eyes away when they saw him perform the walk of shame across the tracks.  

But Simon tells me that he loves an article by fellow Sudanophile Iain Marshall, written in 1990. So, about 15 years before the rest of the world started blogging.  Iain says: "The concept of transport is based on the principle of moving from A to B in Sudan. The comfort of the journey is of little importance. People overcome the hardships of such travel by a wonderful act of will. They simply ignore all the signs of pain and irritation. During the course of that journey I was treated regally by my fellow travellers. A handful of dates extended from the press of bodies; a house in a tiny Nubian village providing tea; countless offers of water from roadside houses.”

Iain also goes on to say: “The Sudanese proverb ‘Ar raffig gabl at tarig’ - travelling companions are more important than the journey itself - has rung resoundingly true on every trip I have ever made in Sudan.” That’s lovely, but Simon’s travelling companions got a radical re-interpretation of this saying. And I’m not sure Simon should have accepted any dates. Iain’s now made that 1990 essay into a blog.

And Simon only let me write all about him if I included this YouTube tribute to Sudan. No Third World disaster here. A lovely film with a strong message.

Tassle hassle

In 1983 our friend Judy was with us at Pickwick’s nightclub, Bradford. She was, on this occasion, particularly pleased with herself. She’d done her make-up in the loo and then couldn’t believe it as she hit the dance floor, as guys and women seemed to be staring at her. She tells me she thought she’d really nailed it as U2 thrashed out ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’. She’d arrived. She was young, beautiful and an undergraduate in charge of her own destiny.

Then Bert, the doorman who’d seen generations of students make fools of themselves, tapped Judy on the shoulder and said in his Yorkshire accent: “Sorry love, but you’ve got your skirt tucked into your knickers.”

Mind you. It’s not just Judy. I was at a disco in Freshers’ Week, 1982. I was wearing my red corduroys - they were very tight - with white baseball boots. Jeanette Robinson asked me to dance and well, with Junior / ‘Mama used to say’ on the decks, a new student couldn't go wrong. I really went for it. Sure enough, after the song finished, Jeanette took my hand, escorted me off the dancefloor and said: "Can I ask you a question?" I thought: "This is it. This is what I came to university for." She then said: "Will you promise never to dance with me again?"

Judy’s like Simon in that they’re both sort of drawn to embarrassing situations. When she was a teenager, Judy’s family lived in Mexico and one day she was making her way back to the UK. Alone. She was at Guadalajara airport.

Breaking off for a moment; there’s a great Audioboom clip from a recent radio show where sports reporter Ian Ramsdale just can’t pronounce the word Guadalajara, when talking about a Mexican football story. The clip has him attempting the word several times and I think it’s very funny. He tries: “Gwajalahara’. The following hour, during the next sports bulletin, he says: “Gwala……Oh, I’m rubbish at this.”

And then, later: “Gwalahara.” However, he does get the pronunciation of German side, Borussia Mönchengladbach, faultlessly correct. He just can’t pronounce Guadalajara. They even play in a bit of a Steely Dan song, My Old School, which is a tribute to the Mexican city.

Presenter Danny Kelly describes it as a “legendary night’s broadcasting”; and forces poor Ian to try it again. And again. And again. But, in the end, Ian gets it spectacularly right. Wonderful and at So, back to Guadalajara airport.

It was the late 70s so young women were obliged to wear tassled suede jackets. The internet says that there are two spellings (tassled / tasselled). But no one’s sure because the jackets have been so decidedly uncool for so long. They’re also called ‘fringed’ jackets and basically have bits of suede material hanging down. Think of the two cool bikers in Easy Rider (1969). Man. A colleague tells me that they are now, in fact, back in fashion, so this actually really really matters.

You read about the knickers incident in the introduction - that particular elastic embarrassment happened a few years after Judy was sitting at Guadalajara airport. But, just like in the Bradford disco a few years later, Judy realised that lots of people were staring at her. At Guadalajara airport. Judy believed that she was a stunning, attractive and clever eighteen year-old young woman with her life ahead of her.

Unfortunately that wasn’t the only thing (or things) that were ahead of her, poking out of the tassles. Before she left for the airport, she’d neglected to button up her blouse. Excess baggage. The tassled effect only added to the airport-themed soft-core porn surroundings of potted plants and artificial light. Poor Judy. She was blissfully unaware that the admiring looks she was getting were because she was expressing herself in more than just a couple of languages.

Until someone approached her to tell her about her teenage wardrobe malfunction. Somehow it’s funnier when the news is conveyed, as in the Bradford incident, with a broad West Yorkshire accent. I don’t know what the Spanish for ‘exposed’ is (OK; a quick search suggests it’s ‘expuesto’) but I’m sure it’s hilarious in Mexico. Pablo and Miguel are probably sitting around in the Hacienda right now saying: “Almost 40 years ago, the poor British girl in the tassly jacket flashed more than just a cheery smile.”

The airline phoned ahead and there were packs of teenage boys waiting to great Judy back to Heathrow, shouting her name. OK. That didn’t happen. But, these days, before landing, it would have been all over the internet and news crews would be waiting at the airport to see who all the fuss was about.

I can hear Judy telling this story and LOL’ing, even though it was totes awks. OK, that’s the sort of language that she would have used if she was a teenager in 2015. She’d have tweeted: OMG just showed off my best side GDL airport #totesawks #totesembarrass #wardrobemalfunction #buttonitbaby !!!

Embarrassing bonbons

More Judy in a moment, but here’s another quick humiliation for me, some years before Judy was bearing all in Mexico. I was on a day trip to France with school when I was about thirteen and I was really embarrassed by everything in…well, in life really. Why do French people need to say that they ‘have’ hunger; why can’t they say that they are hungry? Because I went into a sweet shop in Calais and said the latter. I am hungry. Je suis faim. The assistant started laughing and, as a teenager, I found it excruciating as she eventually composed herself enough to tell me that I’d just proclaimed that: “I am a woman.”

Here comes the sun

We spent a lovely holiday with Judy when she was, once again, living in Mexico, in 1995. She did all the talking in Spanish and took us to places off the tourist map. She knew all the local tips on how to have a great holiday. She called us wimps for staying by the pool; she went to the beach knowing full well that the coastline at Puerto Escondido has the most volatile rip tides. But she was practically a local. She knew Mexico. She could tame those tides.  

Then, poolside, I suddenly heard this: “Steve! Steve!” This phantom-like figure came into the pool area with her hands out in front of her in what looked like a bad impression of the ghost from Scooby-Doo. A ghost called Judy.

It turns out that she had layered on too much sunblock and a freak wave had come in-shore and washed over her whole body. The seawater had done its business and mixed with the sun-cream to produce a nasty concoction that temporarily blinded Judy, like a melting action figure that’s been got at by a naughty boy with a magnifying glass.

Do you know what? Judy’s decision, to ask me to make a speech at her wedding, was a terrible idea. Because, guess what? All the stories got mentioned. The knickers, the tassles and the sunblock. Oh, and also the time she burnt down a beefburger van that she was working at. I want to tell you more but she won’t let me. The wedding was in Madrid. Half the guests were Spanish, though, and so didn’t understand me - and consequently have no idea that Judy’s such a fart. Love her.  

And I’ve had my own fair share of overseas awkwardness.

Sticking out a mile

Between 1986 and 1987, Girlfriend Steve (later Mrs Steve) and I spent a year in Australia. And when we arrived in Sydney we met up with Norman, a guy we’d first met in Bali. He was so welcoming and introduced us to all his friends from the local gay scene. We were at Norman’s flat and we met his mates, who were all very charming, but secretly, Norman told us later, they were writing notes to each other as we sat chatting. These days they’d be texting or private messaging as we sat there.

What had happened is that the December heat down-under had got to me personally ‘down-under’ and I’d acquired a sweaty infection in a difficult place, having never had a simple childhood operation that would have avoided it happening in the first place. So I put on the cream and kept my underpants off. But this was 1986 and of course I had very, very short shorts on. Norman later confided that the note said: “Flashing an uncut nasty.”

Just after the foreskin faux-pas we were flat-hunting and answered a promising ad in the Sydney Morning Herald, which mentioned that 'broad-minded people' were encouraged to apply. When we got to the house it was like the Rocky Horror Show, with lots of good-looking young men in shorts dancing around. On one such resident, just below his belly-button, the words 'virgin's delight’ were tattooed with a downward arrow.
Then we were ushered upstairs to meet the boss man. This large – and larger-than-life - guy checked our 'broad-minded' credentials and apparently we passed with flying colours. We were gay-scene-ready. But he also said he needed to read our tarot cards, because he had to be 100% positive. After all, he said that we had to be prepared for him to burst into our room at any time if he wanted to chat, have a party of anything. Even at three in the morning. The chemistry just had to work.

We went along with it because this was a cultural experience. He rang us a couple of days later to say he really liked us but that the tarot readings just weren't right. After that, there was nothing at Mardi Gras in Sydney that would ever shock us.

But two friends of mine do truly have a shocking travelling tale to tell.

Someone left the cake out at the bottom of the bed
This wonderful couple have given permission for me to use this story, but only if their names aren’t used. I mean, you can understand why: deeply in love, and, quite frankly naked in an Amsterdam hotel room, there was much confusion as a cake was delivered. It was Queen’s Day in Holland and that’s a big deal in the Netherlands; it was also the woman’s birthday. So the hotel wanted to show its generosity by delivering a cake to my friends, via room service.

Except, the cake arrived as they lay asleep – and starkers after a particularly robust session of lovemaking - on top of the covers. Awake, no cake. Wake up again: a sodding great cake at the end of the bed. Whoever delivered it didn’t get a tip. I mean, they probably wanted to give a tip: “Don’t lie asleep on your bed, naked, on Queen’s Day, when quite naturally there’s a big chance of a cake being delivered.”

But my friends aren’t the only people to sew confusion whilst travelling. I used to do it for a living.

International fateline

Working in the same travel agency, Simon and I conspired, out of ineptitude rather than malice, to put the long-term health and wellbeing of an eighty-year-old woman in danger.
Let’s talk about computer systems 25 years ago. There’s no doubt that with advances in technology by 1989, more people were able to get booked in more quickly and to travel to more places than ever before. But systems weren’t without their disadvantages. If a flight took off at 23:00 and arrived at 06:00, the computer system defaulted to +1, as in, the plane was due to arrive the next calendar day. It worked well for a flight from New York to London, for instance. Dep: 23:00. Arr: 06:00+1.

But when someone flew from Los Angeles to Auckland in New Zealand, you had to manually change this setting to +2, because on that flight route, you cross the International Dateline and time goes a bit weird. You arrive two calendar days after you took off.
Simon hit it off well with this one woman, who’d booked a trip-of-a-lifetime to see the true Kiwi countryside and to catch up with some distant family members.  And she was set to arrive, with a night in a hotel, before taking off on her ten day tour of both North and South islands. Lovely.

When it was being booked, I was charged with the task of checking the reservation over, a procedure that acted as a backstop to make sure that mistakes were avoided. Um…Simon and I both missed the +1 / +2 thing. It was booked as +1 and it should have been +2. The tour was booked in a day too early. And this perfectly charming woman arrived at Auckland airport half an hour before her excursion was about to start. No hotel time.
Anyway, she showed a great deal of guile, got her bags in a Kiwi taxi and, effectively got to shout: “Follow that tour bus”. The taxi driver apparently grasped the gravity, and the excitement, of the situation and took on his new responsibility with relish. They caught up with the bus just after its first North Island place-of-interest stop. And, as the coach left the car park, the taxi driver straddled his vehicle in front of the bus, forcing it into an emergency stop.

She had a lovely time.

Even in my 30s, I would not have enjoyed the feeling of starting a tour with horrendous post-dateline jetlag. But this woman was made of sterner stuff. On her return to the UK, she sent Simon a thank-you card with a present of a book voucher. She brushed off the incident - which could have led to a multi-million pound lawsuit with Simon and me standing in the dock in our suits - as a mild and quite exciting deviation. What a woman.

Hatchet job

Simon’s got a whole series of stories about his travels. For instance, when he had to remain in a plane on the runway during a sandstorm. When the storm had abated and the passengers got off, his Sudan Airways 737 had been stripped of its livery and was a perfect, beautiful, silver, the paint ripped off by the swirling sands of East Africa.

Or when the cabin crew couldn’t get into the cockpit and had to smash the door down with a hatchet. Or plenty of flights where there’s been standing room only.

All I know is that Simon carries with him, wherever he goes, things that bung you up. He apparently used some this February in the north of Sudan. Although the communal loo had a great view of an ancient temple, Simon says: “I popped two Imodium to avoid ever having to go in that bog whilst staying there!”

If you want to feel embarrassed, then go travelling, because it can throw up the most bizarre and awkward situations. And you get to remember them fondly.

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