Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Travel - does it really broaden the mind?

I won't keep you in suspense. ¡Yes, yes! A thousand times, yes. Of course it does. Everything they told you is true. And a few things they probably didn't tell you as well. But, of course, that's why you're reading this blog. Because I will spill the beans on the stuff that you can't find in the travel guides.

"Spill the beans" ...... an unfortunate choice of metaphor, perhaps, in view of this evening's lentil stew letdown. But let's not go there. Suffice it to say that there are some scenes of Dickensian deprivation too delicate to be captured in this, or any, blog. But 'tis a sad scene indeed, gentle readers, when one's dinnertime reverie is interrupted by the delighted shriek of a rail-thin fellow-boarder upon sight of a couple of rock-hard, week old crusts "Oh great! There's bread tonight!", as she and her equally emaciated compatriot fall upon it with the alacrity of two particularly famished locusts. I, of course, have the wherewithal to augment the meagre workhouse fare with provisions obtained elsewhere. But what are my moral responsibilities to the other, less fortunate boarders, who - gaunt-faced and hollow-cheeked - glide noiselessly like wraiths through the bleak corridors of Señor Rosa's Granadan outpost of DoTheBoys Hall? If I attempt to smuggle them in some extra victuals, will Señor Rosa exert some dreadful revenge? (Note to self: cut back on the Dickens intake before next road trip). For now, we draw a veil over these sad boardinghouse vignettes....

Because nobody likes a whiney blogger. Let's shift gear, and let me offer you a couple of eternal travel banalities instead.

1. Umbrellas and travel.

It's a given that you will forget to bring your own. Also, that you will live to regret this omission, probably within the first 48 hours of leaving home, while your defences are still down, your system confused by jetlag, and your reflexes groggy. You will stumble forth into the pouring rain, in a strange city, surrounded by people who speak a language with which you are still dangerously unfamiliar. In your pocket are notes and coins that look and feel suspiciously like Monopoly money. You will think to yourself: "I can do this. I can buy an umbrella in Spanish (Finno-Hungarian, Serbo-Croat, Mongolian dialect of choice)".

Indeed you can. Unfortunately, the sad law of the road is that you will not make a good choice during this purchase. You may come away flushed with the triumph of temporary success (because - look, ma - an umbrella!). But in your haste, unless you are a truly seasoned road warrior, you will forget the cardinal rule of umbrella valuation, which is that

durability trumps portability

In your foolish, lemming-like, haste to acquire an umbrella that is portable (you visualize yourself boarding planes, trains, buses, boats, hovercraft, funicular railroad cars, taxicabs, unencumbered by the bulk of truly effective rain protection), you will forget the basic fact, that a portable piece of inferior crap is still a piece of inferior crap.

And so, inevitably, days or weeks later (the day will come), you will find yourself in some unfamiliar city (like, for instance, Cordóba), where an ill-timed gust of wind, or a nudge from another pedestrian's entirely superior umbrella, causes the intrinsic inferior crappiness of your purchase to blossom forth in some altogether hideous fashion, typically involving the shearing of cheap metal and the subsequent exposure of some seriously dangerous sharp pointy bits.

At this point, unless you are a complete moron, you will follow the only sensible course of action: immediately seek out the nearest wastebasket, deposit the entrails of your former pride and joy, find the nearest store of quality, and do what you should have done in the first place, which is to buy the largest, sturdiest, umbrella in the store.

Then retire to a local hostelry, order a stiff drink, and ponder why it is that you seem to have to learn this lesson over and over again, every three or four years, throughout your life.

One other umbrella-related travel observation is that the guys on the street who appear miraculously to sell them to passers-by all come from Senegal. It is not well-understood why this is the case, but it does appear to be a universal law, at least here in Spain.

2. Laws of the internet café

Any internet café of appreciable size will have among its employees one of each of the following distinct types. For reasons which are not entirely clear, each will be male, in his twenties. They may or may not be related. It is in your best interest to figure out who is who as early as possible, for obvious reasons.

The surly guy who knows about computers:
this guy may ultimately provide you some useful help, but will exact the same type of emotional price that you associate with the worst kind of tech support prima donna at your last workplace. Between the eye-rolling, muttering under his breath and resolute refusal to acknowledge your efforts to speak the language, he may be more trouble than he's worth. Avoid, except in case of real emergency.

The surly guy who knows nothing about computers:
this guy is a total jerk all around, and worthless, to boot. He will waste your time, try to make you feel incompetent, and answer any question you might pose in whatever language in pidgin English intended to make you feel small. Avoid at all costs. If he speaks to you, simply ignore him.

The friendly guy who knows about computers:
this is your guy. Once you figure out which guy he is, you will never need to bother with his loser buddies. He is the guy who will come crawl under the desk to make sure your camera is properly connected to the computer, who will listen patiently to your questions without interruption, who will laugh and compliment your Spanish. If it is a family operation, he will be the youngest brother, though one might have predicted the middle child to fill this role. Stick with him, and you won't go far wrong. (He will also be the cutest, but one has to bear in mind the possibility that this is just projection).

Logic suggests the existence, in theory at least, of the fourth possibility, the friendly incompetent, but experience to date does not bear this out.


Anonymous said...

~insert musical notes here~
"They're rioting in Africa,
They're starving in Spain. . ."

Forget Dickens, you're starring in a folk song made popular by those darlin' clean-shaven boys of The Kingston Trio. The end of the first stanza goes like this:

There's hurricanes in Florida,
And Texas needs rain.
The whole world is festering
With unhappy souls,
The French hate the Germans,
The Germans hate the Poles.
Italians hate Yugoslavs,
South Africans hate the Dutch,
And I don't like anybody very much!

buen provecho!

Jared2 said...

There is another law of umbrellas, which is "the largest unbrellas catch the most wind and are therefore the most vulnerable to complete collapse". Small and sturdy is best, I think. Like a neanderthal. True, they went extinct, but was it because of their smallness or sturdiness? I doubt it.