Wanna travel? This documentary filmmaker checked out the “worst” places on Earth, so you don’t have to.
The old adage has it that we must choose between journey and destination. We travel not to find ourselves but to create within ourselves new scope to grow, new ways to exist. Here are a few anecdotes and essentials for the discerning but not discernible traveller.
Take an old Nokia, buy a local SIM card and start collecting numbers. The disappointment at being mugged by the new friend you met at a music event will be tempered by the fact it was a cheap “banger”. Often you can revisit the service provider who will simply replace your SIM with the same number. In Sierra Leone, I simply guessed the rough amount of credit on the phone and it was replaced. In Jamaica the mere act of pulling a “banger” from your pocket makes those around you back off since they are universally used by drug lords. And less Wi-Fi opportunity allows more time for smoking cigarettes, drinking tea and playing backgammon.
Food is the stuff of life. Make friends with your local falafel stall in Kirkuk, Iraq. A warm greeting is always worth an extra falafel or two in your samoon. But don't eat unidentified “meat” stews in jungle enclaves. Claim vegetarianism. Otherwise, you’ll be eating bat stew in the Sierra Leonean forest a week before an Ebola outbreak. Or stewed rat in the (not so) sacred mountains of Gitega in Burundi. Okay, the bat wins but still… being unable to fart with confidence is no way to live. Here’s a tip: take one dried apricot, insert almond, and dip in local honey. Nuts, seeds and dried fruits are your friends.
Expect your expectations to be checked. I arrived in the second poorest nation on earth, Sierra Leone, to find my onward travel options consisted of helicopter or speedboat. Time to city centre: 5 minutes or 15. After battling the rush-hour Piccadilly line to Heathrow, this luxury made me warm to the country as much as the vibrancy of its street life and inhabitants. My horizons were officially broadened when we landed by the beautiful white-sanded city centre heliport to be met by a motorbike taxi, which whisked me to my lodgings through static traffic in about seven minutes.
Here I also learnt the power of negotiation. “It’s 1500USD,” insisted my soon-to-be landlord in the Brookfield ghetto of Freetown. “Er, no.” “Okay, how much do you want to pay?” “I dunno, 200USD.” “Okay.”
There will always be people who will take advantage of an alien finding their way home after dark. Burundi, 2015. Muggings are part of daily life and besides if you haven't been mugged in Burundi have you really been to Burundi? Don’t resist, put your hands up and murmur ça va continuously in slightly diffident French. If you happen to find a small denomination note after the experience, do cheerily shout after your muggers waving the note airily. This will both confuse the attackers and claw back some dignity. Then return to your hotel for a stiff drink.
What often gets left out of sensationalist news segments on war zones are the normal people living normal lives among the maelstrom. In Erbil, Northern Iraq as an ISIS suicide bomber crashed his vehicle into the governor’s office opposite the Citadel (the oldest continually inhabited location in the world), locals sipped chai in tea houses with a mixture of defiance, indignation and gallows humour that wouldn't be out of place on the terraces of a relegation-bound football club.
Talking of going down, any skills you’ve developed in chatting up the opposite sex are null and void in the big bad world. Most jokes go out the window. Irony fails to register. I once met a Finnish girl who for weeks endured my quips in morose silence. Finally I cracked: “Fine, tell me a Finnish joke!” She said, “There are only two things to do in the winter in Finland, fishing and fucking. In the summer we have no fish.” I replied, “Excellent.”
From cultural hurdles to physical ones: Never let the truth get in the way of a good border crossing. Always have a good back-story covering all eventualities. The less information you can give, the better. This is an art form. Always have a hotel name handy. If you're really stuck, proudly stating you are staying at The Hilton is a good go-to scam; the guards will think you must be rich despite your not having showered in days and travelling on a small local bus.
Finally, contrary to the hapless protagonist Arthur Dent in Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, a towel is not a travel essential. They take up too much space and develop an odour even quicker than you do. Better to drip dry or y’know buy one cheaply on the spot. However, where possible do carry a surfboard. I once found myself in the lobby of a vast casino complex in the desert city of Nevada, U.S.A and was met by a boisterous cross-section of Americans who whooped and cheered me and my 5”8’ quad fin fishtail all the way across the casino floor to the waiting lift. Room upgrade from the sweet smiling receptionist followed. Surf is, quite literally, up.