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August 14, 2006 | by  | in Opinion |
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How Not to… Travel

It can be hard growing up in New Zealand. One can feel rather harpooned and out of touch from the rest of society in our small island nation. Due to this, many New Zealanders are brimming to the top with wanderlust. We want to explore places whose architectural history is much richer than ours. We want to experience cultures whose roots have been set in stone for thousands of years. We want to sample cuisine that goes far beyond fish and chips and the number 12 at Satay Kingdom. We want to travel in an authentic and unpretentious manner – leaving little but our footprint on the lands we visit. This is why most of us go on Contiki tours.

There is nothing like a gas guzzling bus full of drunken antipodeans for passing through a place and leaving little track or destruction in its wake. What better way to expose yourself to other countries than to surround yourself only with people from where you came from, hanging around in little huddles and repulsing all the nearby locals.

We wander the world in giant packs dressed in a uniform featuring those Kathmandu pants that unzip into shorts, t-shirts advertising beer, and German tourist sandals. You know the shoes I’m talking about – those Velcro monstrosities that adorn so many travellers’ feet. In fact, if you are wearing them right now – look down at your feet and apologise to them. This apology is particularly necessary, as chances are you’ll be reading this in the middle of a Wellington winter. You knob.

As far as I can gather, most Contiki-like tours consist of about 30 Brits, Kiwis, and Aussies who are slightly under-par in the attractiveness stakes roaming Europe etc., hopping from bar to bar, and then visiting museums and monuments so hungover they can hardly see straight – only to come round from their hangover in the evening, ready to inspect the inside of another bar that looks exactly the same as the last one. For instance, there was the infamous Kiwi Contiki-er who vomited all over the back of a Polish elderly woman in the line to see the Mona Lisa. We call him the Da Vinci choke, I’d like to revise his name and call him the Da Vinci Chode. Another utter knob.

Now, I’m aware that I’m starting to sound a little highfalutin, but I am not entirely innocent of all of these things. A few years back when I spent half a year traipsing round Europe I had the time of my life. I took advantage of the $1 tequilas in Spain, the men in Italy, and the cheap whores in Eastern Europe (nah, just kidding…. or am I?). But about half way through my trip I had an existential moment when I realised that I was beginning to resemble one of those permanently sunburnt English slappers that feature on Sky One shows like Ibiza Uncovered (God bless Sky One).

Just a quick aside: I think there’s a great PhD project in viewing all episodes ever made of Ibiza, Caribbean, and Greece Uncovered in order to come to the conclusion that Britain has the ugliest collection of dirty slappers in the globe. I can see the title now: ‘The Aesthetics of Looking Like a Sunburnt Ass all the Time: British Slappers Uncovered.’

Sorry about that – I always get excited about future angles in academia. Anyway, as I was saying, my moment took place in a huge techno club in Germany. I was dancing away to music that I ferociously hate, fuelled by absinthe and strobe lights and then I just stopped. I froze dead in my tracks and thought, “how many of my travelling experiences so far would I be able to relay to my grandchildren without being prosecuted?” Very few, I had to conclude.

I was travelling around Europe, which is rich in history and culture, like a dirty Ibiza Uncovered slapper, and it made me feel sick. Why, when we travel, do we feel the compulsion to drink and be debauched in every waking moment? Perhaps it’s the ‘what goes on tour stays on tour’ mentality – i.e., when we travel we can get away with more shit. ‘Cause Christ knows you can’t get away with shit in Wellington without half of the city knowing. Or perhaps it’s cathartic, like, we slog away at boring lives most of the time, so that when we travel, we want to taste a little slice of hedonism (ref Caribbean Uncovered to see how heinous hedonism can get).

I’m not sure, but either way, I’m not the traveller I would like to be. After a day on my feet I get tired, I hate sleeping in heinous hostels, and I get bored of museums and ruins, I’m not a genuine, ‘roughing it’ backpacker. I remember being in Greece roaming around the ancient ruins lusting for lunch and a beer – pretending to feign excitement at all the ruins – my internal monologue went a little like this. “Oh goodie! It’s yet another fucking rock that I have to hear the tour guide talk about for an hour – when can I eat some freaking spanikopita!”

However, there were moments during my travels that involved neither booze nor men and yet genuinely rocked my socks. There was the time I stumbled across some mad-improv Flamenco in the backstreets in some dirt town in Spain, and then went for a meal (alcohol free) with the Gitanos afterward (okay, I confess, I was trying to spade one of them). But, it is these types of experiences that will stay with me, not those in the uber-clubs in Germany, mainly just because my general memory of such nights is a bit blurry anyway.

Travel, have fun, but don’t get such tunnel vision that you only speak to your Contiki tour partners and never allow any locals within a ten-metre radius of you. You don’t have to enjoy ruins and art museums, but you should endeavour to experience the places you are in at a level that Contiki cannot provide. And for the love of Oprah, take off those heinous sandals – or else I’ll be the one heaving in the Lourve next, and it’ll have nothing to do with booze or dodgy snails.

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