Travel lessons: a broader view on fat dumb Americans
Does travel broaden the mind or is it a merely a generally pleasant meandering about in search of the least untrustworthy taxi driver?
While preparing to return home from a 7-month round-the-world trip spanning 21 countries and five continents I have been pondering this question.
I would be loathe to press the case that touristic travel bestows anything more than a passport full of visa ink and a credit card more overworked than Ian Thorpe’s personal stylist.
However here are some lessons I think I’ve learnt.
People are almost endlessly adaptable and resilient
The depth and scale of poverty in India was staggering and bewildering, even compared to other developing nations I have been to.
Yet lives are somehow lived in stratums of degradation almost beyond Western conception.
Taking a tour around Sarajevo led by a veteran of the city’s three-year siege illustrated another type of endurance.
Viewing the topography of the valley where the city nestles illustrated that the attacking forces were perfectly positioned to bombard at will. The mostly unarmed civilian populace had no right to resist such an onslaught.
The now serene city’s randomly scattered grave yards and shrapnel-scarred buildings testify to an unquenchable will to survive.
Your understanding of other people is probably more limited than a rugby league player’s vocabulary
Tokyo’s Imperial War Museum shows a film where a young Japanese man resists his father’s bullying to enter the ranks of corporate salary men and instead opts to work for a comparable and uncertain pittance at his uncle’s coffee shop.
The jobseeker is swayed by the spirit of kamikaze, as conveyed by the museum’s wall mosaics of monochrome headshots depicting doomed earnest young pilots.
That the ghosts of fanatical suicide dive bombers should be viewed as useful 21st Century career guidance counselors is far from the strangest thing for the occidental tourist to ponder while in Japan.
Australia’s issues and concerns are of overwhelming importance until you hop on an airplane
It is easy to be consumed and immersed in the vitally momentous debates and controversies that reverberate in the echo chamber of local media.
Setting out for India following the furore over attacks on Indian students we were seriously wondering whether to disguise ourselves as Kiwis or risk being torn asunder by a baying mob of vengeful locals.
As it turns out, aside from a couple of mentions in English-language Indian broadsheets, I did not meet an Indian, in any social context including some highly-educated professionals, who displayed the slightest knowledge of the issue.
Upon learning my wife and I were Australian almost invariably the conversation would be steered to the merits of Ricky Ponting and Shane Warne.
The issue of whaling had also been fairly prominent in the Australian consciousness before we left.
So we had some trepidation about how we would be greeted by all the Japanese miffed at our nation’s anti-blubber burger stance.
Again no Japanese person we met, including the high school teacher we stayed with, showed the slightest interest or were even aware it was a source of antagonism.
Perhaps more predictably, the only mention of the Australian election we saw on any newscast in America was footage of the “psychic” crocodile (presciently) foretelling the result by chomping on the Julia Gillard labeled lump of meat.
Travel reinforces stereotypes as much as it challenges them
Perhaps for some, travel “broadens the mind” by challenging parochialism with a wider perspective on common human existence.
However it is just as likely that tour bus voyeuristic encounters with foreigners confirms prejudices and may well create new ones.
Here are my findings on some favourite stereotypes:
The French are imperiously contemptuous and rude
It must be noted that the caveat typically applied is that this characterisation applies mainly to Parisians. As we were in the country’s south it might not surprise that we did not encounter this fabled French hauteur, with one spectacular exception. The railway information booth worker at Lourdes withholds any nugget of potentially useful information from the desperate grasp of tourists perhaps more jealously than he guards his morning croissant.
British food is crap
In recent years the Brits have indulged in an orgy of self-congratulation, led by food celebs, celebrating the ousting of British stodge by gourmet wonders such as non-boiled vegetables.
This may be true at the high end, where menus come with warnings to consult financial advisors, but every day British fare still seems largely intended to evoke nostalgia for wartime rationing.
Education authorities looking for missing stuffing from school gym mats are well advised to investigate the filling of the sausages served up to us by a pub near Heathrow.
Italians live well but are disorganised
Sorry Melbourne. Italian coffee is still supremo.
Thanks to my wife’s relatives I also got a daily induction into the world’s best home cooking. However those familiar with Italy will recognise it is not normally the industrialized and modern north but rather the country’s south where chaos can be king.
A train journey we took in the region ended up taking longer than our flight back to Australia from South America.
Americans are fat, loud and ignorant
As on previous trips to the States, the Americans I met were unfailingly polite, hardly overbearing and apparently genuinely interested in and affectionate towards Australians.
It must however be noted that a line of Americans waiting to get at the buffet on a cut-price cruise ship probably represents the same bulk in tonnage as a day’s production at a Korean car factory.
You can’t get away from Australians
If your travel desire is to mix with alien and exotic nationalities it can be discouraging to find that the person on the long-distance bus seat next to you is from Melbourne.
Also the timeless serenity of floating down the Nile on a traditional sailing boat felucca is not enhanced by full-volume i-Pod renditions of Khe Sanh.
Per capita Australians must be the most dedicated and far-flung travellers of any nationality, except perhaps New Zealanders and one would understand why they want to go somewhere else.
On a positive note Aussies abroad are generally good-natured, gregarious and are fondly regarded by the locals or at least tolerated with bemusement and lots of kangaroo impersonations.
Naturally there are exceptions, embarrassing boorish yobbos who revel in broadcasting their ill-informed prejudices and narrow-minded attitudes.
This was confirmed by the number of angry glares I got from my wife.
It will be interesting to see whether she keeps resorting to speaking Italian to avoid association by onlookers when we get back home.
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