Gullible’s Travels: Ah yes, those Sunday travel sections that lead the unsuspecting to believe that heading out to see the world is just a bowl of cherries. Well, take it from me, it can also be the pits.
I’ve been flummoxed in France, miserable in Sweden, scared in Mexico, bee-stung in Borneo, and ready to revolt in Moscow. I also had near-death experiences in Panama and Tahiti. But I’d never dream of staying home.
Despite what I hear about no one reading books anymore, the best travel journalism seems to involve a warts-and-all picture of the world. There’s cantankerous Paul Theroux, Hunter Thompson enduring fear and loathing in Las Vegas, and George Orwell down and out in Paris and London. What can you learn about the world from pap about chocolates on your pillow or a story by someone whose total experience involved checking into a hotel, admiring the bedspread, or ordering a beer?
Still, I think I could have done without trudging through that torrential rainstorm on a leech-infested trail to nowhere in Borneo. And after three hours, I arrived at a shelter, my legs streaming blood from bites, only to be attacked by swarms of yellow jackets. It was a sleepless night as rain drummed on the roof like a hail of bullets. I still curse the tourist agent who charted that trek.
Nor do I have kind words for the Aeroflot airline clerk who, without explanation, canceled our group’s seats on the plane from Moscow. She remained as steadfast as long-dead Stalin until, after cell phone appeals seeking help from the Russian tourist agency in Moscow, which is miles from the airport, we were finally permitted to plunk down into the last seats available.
Swimming from a sailboat off Tahiti, I was not warned of the strong current that began sweeping me out into the open ocean. No one seemed to notice my plight. Luckily, I was able to grab a line trailing off the boat’s stern.
In Panama’s San Blas Islands, everyone else on the Windjammer was swimming in the crystal-clear waters, so I jumped in too. But the current began carrying me toward Cuba. The only thing that saved me that day was being able to hook one finger into a tiny indentation on the boat’s hull until my son Barclay hollered for help.
When a group of teenage Mexican soldiers with automatic rifles as tall as they were stopped our minivan and ordered the men out and the women to remain inside, we got very nervous. But the lads were just looking for contraband guns and drugs, and for cigarettes to bum.
The day I was preparing to leave for Australia, I got a frantic call. Had I obtained a visa? No, no one told me to. I threw on my clothes, packed, and caught a plane to San Francisco, where the accommodating Aussie embassy opened for an hour that weekend so I could present my passport.
Driving through an endless rainstorm in Sweden, I finally had to stop at the only motel on the road, only to find-in that clean, spotless nation-the filthiest bed this side of you-name-it.
It wasn’t fun when, upon arriving at LAX on my way to Britain, the clerk notified me that my tickets weren’t there and my name wasn’t on any list. My frantic calls to an airline official on the East Coast finally got me aboard, but the plane was late and I missed a glorious dinner at the London Ritz. I was starved and-I have never told anyone this story-ended up eating alone at a McDonald’s.
Then there was the time Barclay and I ran barefoot though the Panamanian jungle behind a guide who spoke no English or Spanish, in search of monkeys. The bug welts on our legs lasted for weeks, but no rare tropical disease resulted.
As for watching the train from Paris to Champagne pull away just as Sue and I ran up, bags in hand, I can only blame myself, not the French.
I drive a car with 200,000 miles on it so I can afford to travel. But I know people who harbor such an intense fear of the outside world that they’d never dream of leaving the continental U.S.-with the possible exception of Hawai’i. They have a thousand reasons: People Out There speak weird languages; it’s dangerous (almost as bad as some sections of L.A.); the French are rude; the English are snobbish and serve tasteless food; the Chinese are Communists; the Scots are too hard to understand; Mexican food is too spicy, and so on.
Besides, Those People just don’t like us, so why should we spend our hard-earned dollars there when we can go to Disneyland? Out There, the beds are too hard and the bathrooms are down the hall and have to be shared with foreigners, young backpackers, and people who might want to talk to you.
(The current issue of Conde Nast Traveler magazine includes a list of the “86 Greatest Travel Books of All Time,” plus “The Nine Commandments of Travel Writing,” by part-time Santa Barbaran Pico Iyer. Check them out.)