Tag Archives: travel

Plastic Chairs in the Forest

When things aren’t the way they should be, something occupies a space it normally wouldn’t, our brains lock onto it like a homing missile, even when we’re not particularly paying attention.

Things like a white, plastic chair in the middle of the pine forest.

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I’m only casually paying attention to the rural landscape outside the car as we drive along a country road through miles and miles of stone pines. The presence of the plastic chair registers a couple of hundred metres after we pass it; my head swivels backwards, but it’s already lost in the undergrowth, so I don’t mention it to my fellow passengers. People dump all sorts of shit near the road, even out here apparently.

A couple of kilometres further on and I spot another plastic chair ahead; my mind’s more acutely tuned in to its surroundings now. This time, as we pass, I notice a woman standing in the shade cast by a tall tree a few metres away from the chair.
“There’s a woman and a plastic chair in the forest,” I blurt out, bemused.
“What?” A turns her head to look at me.
“There’s a woman standing beside a plastic chair in the forest,” I repeat.
It’s especially strange as there’s nothing out here. No towns, villages, shops, nothing. It’s just a country road linking A with B.
“She’s a prostitute,” J says knowledgeably from the back seat.
“Get away,” I laugh. “Why would there be a prostitute in a random spot in the countryside?”
Just at that we pass another plastic chair under the shade of a tree. This time there’s a blonde woman wearing a slinky red dress sitting on it. She looks like she belongs in a club rather than a pine forest. Her wildly out of place clothing seems to confirm J’s suggestion.

But why here? It’s not in the middle of nowhere exactly, but neither is it near, well, anywhere. The very idea of prostitutes in the forest throws up all sorts of questions.
Do drivers just accidentally spot these women lurking in the dappled shade and think “well, that was good timing, I just had a yen for a quick one beside the road” in much the same manner they might develop a hunger a burger at a roadside cafe? How do the women get there? There’s no car nearby. Is there a pimp bus which drops them off in the morning and picks them up again at night? How long is the shift? It must get pretty lonely out here on your lonesome for hours and hours. Is there an app which tells drivers which forests are best for a bit of off road action?
It seems random, bizarre. On a seedy, city backstreet we wouldn’t think twice about passing ladies of the night plying their trade, but when it comes to ladies of the forest that’s something very different. It’s a scenic scene which simply doesn’t equate.

Six months further down the line and we’re driving along a different country road in the wilds of Alentejo when a man in a blue tee-shirt and denims emerging from the forest catches my eye. My initial reaction is that he’s stopped for a piss; the parked truck on the opposite side of the road appears to back this up.

And then I spot the plastic chair.

The offensive shirt

Waiting to walk through the scanner at Manchester Airport, a security official asked me to take off my jacket and put it through the scanner. The ‘jacket’ was actually an ordinary shirt over a tee-shirt, which I pointed out in a friendly manner, expecting him to wave me through.

“Take it off,” he insisted.
“But it’s a shirt,” exasperation started to creep into my voice.
“Take it off and put it in the tray.”
“What?” exasperation turned to irritation. “You really want me to take off my shirt?”
“Yes.”
“Take off a shirt? Seriously?” I guess by this point my eyes had silently added “ya wee prick,” to the end of the sentence.
“Yes.”
I took off my shirt and stuck it into a tray.

I breezed through the scanner, even though I expected to be directed aside to be ‘swabbed’. Oh no, they had other plans for dealing with me.

I watched as the tray with the shirt headed along a different track to most of the other trays. It slid to a stop at the back of a line of other ‘suspicious’ trays. The crumpled olive shirt looking quite silly and seriously out of place among a long convoy of bulging flight bags.

“This is what happens when you can’t control your mouth,” A, who had waltzed though without incident, was annoyed with me. My shirt being singled out for further inspection meant we were going to have to hang around security for a bit longer, until it was my turn to… to do what exactly? Open up the shirt to show there was nothing suspicious in it?
A quietly fumed at me. Harshly I felt, I still believed questioning something as nonsensical as having to remove a shirt was reasonable. I hadn’t been offensive. My expression may have been of the ‘you can’t be serious’ variety, but I had generally reacted in a calm, if slightly exasperated, manner.

Eventually my turn rolled around, slowly. I expected the female official to simply hand the shirt to me, maybe with a an apologetic smile (she would surely see the ridiculousness of the shirt being in the ‘suspicious baggage’ line). I was going to smile back and remark “the colour must have really offended him.” Then we’d both laugh and all would be well. But she was in on whatever was going on, and they were apparently still punishing me for questioning having to take off the shirt.
“It didn’t scan properly, you’ll have to put it through again,” she didn’t even look at the shirt or my face.

A shirt didn’t scan properly? What bollocks. I knew it. They knew it.

However, this time I meekly replied“okay,” and did as I was instructed.

I was only too aware the next stage would probably end with me having a finger stuck up my anus.

The Modern Messiah

The stranger walked into the small village, arms spread wide.

“I come to share a gift which will enrich your life,” she beamed.

“Is it books so we can better educate our children?” Asked one villager.

“No,” smiled the stranger.

“Then it must be medicine so we can heal our sick?” Another villager suggested.

“No, it’s not medicine.”

“Aha,” a third villager exclaimed. “You have brought us tools so we can build better houses?”

“It’s none of those,” laughed the stranger as she revealed a sleek, rectangular object. “This is a smartphone. I’m going to show you all how to use Instagram.”

This, depressingly, is a true story, an example used at a travel conference to illustrate how some travel bloggers have supposedly impacted positively on the places they’ve visited.

The Evolution of a Travel Blogger

2012 :– “Guidebooks are bad, they’re useless… out of date as soon as they’re published. Don’t bother with them. Travel blogs are immediate, dynamic, with real up to date information. Guidebooks are doomed. They’ll soon be obsolete.”

2014:- “I’m an innovator in the world of travel blogging, I’ve just published an ebook full of essential information on what to do, where to eat, where to stay called ‘How to Live Like a Local in Rangoon’.”

2016: – “Don’t bother writing top 10 lists or mini guides to destinations on your travel blog, the Bluff Guide does it so much better so there’s no point. By the way, did I mention I’m now a contributor to the Bluff Guide series of travel guidebooks – YAY for me.”

And at some dusty crossroads in the middle of nowhere a man whose face is obscured by shadow but whose gleaming white smile is dazzling puts another soul into a little muslin bag hanging from his belt.

The authentic travellers

Two savvy British travellers who both refused to eat in restaurants where there were British tourists turned up at an off the beaten track restaurant supposedly only known to locals in Novara, Italy at exactly the same time. One held the door open for the other who smiled and said “Thank you,” to which the door-holder replied “You’re welcome.”

Both, on hearing the other speak with an obvious English accent, stopped in their tracks and stared briefly at one another with barely concealed distaste before turning and storming out of the restaurant.

Sometimes labels only exist in the minds of those who like to apply them.

Seeing Big Bird in Patagonia

I was drugged. A potent pill caused by a combo of jet-lag and pre-dawn rising in order to see condors with 3m wingspans rising on the early morning air currents on an estancia (ranch) just outside of Coyhaique.

I was drugged and probably dribbling… till a huge bird languidly strolled across the tundra in front of us. When I say huge I mean ostrich-sized proportions.

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“What is that?”

It looked like a throwback to prehistoric times. With the wild Patagonian backdrop adding to the drama I could actually have been in a real Jurassic Park.

“Ñandú… Darwin’s Rhea,” answered Alejandro.

I knew we were hoping to see big condors in this part of Chile, but I’d no idea there were ancient looking birds like this.

Jet-lag and a lack of sleep were suddenly not a problem.

Mind Reading

One sentence. The woman has uttered just one sentence of seven words and I now know everything I need to know about her.

She reads the Sun newspaper and believes everything in it, even when it admits to printing inaccurate information; she likes to watch soaps and reality shows on TV; her and her husband eat exactly the same thing on the same day every week (usually involving meat and two veg – none of that fancy foreign muck); she believes Syrian refugees are actually terrorists in disguise; she works in a factory located two streets away from her house; she thinks Jeremy Corbyn is a scruffy dangerous Communist and votes Tory although she thinks Nigel Farage is a thoroughly decent bloke, and she uses the line ‘I’m not racist but…’ on a regular basis.

How do I know this from a sentence of seven words?

Because the sentence was “normally I go all inclusive in Sharm.”

The Buffer Zone of Sal

There’s a not very loud ‘beep’ followed almost immediately by a question “Taxi?”

Within a couple of hours I’ve come to know this as the soundtrack of the streets in Santa Maria on Sal, one of the Cape Verde Islands off the coast of Africa.

I say streets, but the main tourist town seems little more than a colourful and quasi-colonial main avenue with a few dusty side streets.

This is tourist hell according to some Cape Verdeans.

I think as ‘over developed’ tourist towns go it’s actually quite palatable. I like its easy manner and relaxed, smiley residents.

“Hey,” one shouts. “You promised to come see my market stall.”

I haven’t set eyes on him before.

“Maybe next time,” I wave dismissively.

He laughs. It’s no hassle. No problem.

No stress, like it says on the t-shirts around the town.

The walk to the end of the road involves stepping over a few dogs sleeping in the middle of the cobbled street and shaking my head a couple of times at ‘beep’… “Taxi?”

A beach bar on the sand beckons. Actually a cold beer in a beach bar on pristine golden sand lapped by what could be ‘touched up’ brochure waters beckons.

I want to take a photo of the perfect tropical scene. Between me and the sea is a snoozing sunbather. I can’t tell if it’s an overweight man or an overweight, topless woman with small breasts.

Whatever he/she is, it spoils the scene.

The waiter brings my beer. The air is warm, the beer is icy. Perfect.

Beer in Beach Bar, Santa Maria, Sal, Cape Verde

I’ve a few hours to spend before it’s time to jump on a plane and hop to another island where tourism comes way down the line from real life.

This is the buffer zone.

The False Snobs

I know who they are within seconds of one of them speaking. In this case I also know exactly where they come from… or which coast at least.

Opposite coast and opposite in so very many other ways as well.

They’re not like the people I know and grew up with in the country of my birth. Those people were down to earth and lacking airs and graces whatever their social standing or occupation.

No, they’re definitely not like that.

They’re successful and well to do. We know this because they tell us it is so.

They’re not like other tourists – they seek quality and culture. But they’ve been working hard you see, so this time they’ll relax by the pool.

It’s one of many signs that flashes like a neon light when you meet people who are not what they try to tell you they are. The neck of the bottle of wine sticking out of the ice bucket is another.

I bristle whenever someone tells me ‘I’ve been busy, so this time I’m doing nothing except relaxing.’

There’s almost an inference that people who like to fill at least some days of their well earned holiday still being active and exploring can’t have been quite as busy as those who ‘need to relax and do nothing’.

The statement tells me a lot about them.

They talk of luxury hotels and exotic destinations. Of fine food and wanting to only enjoy the best.

“There’s excellent local wine here,” I tell them.

“Yes,” one replies confidently and authoritatively. “We know, we’re enjoying a nice bottle of the local stuff right now.”

My eyes flick to the neck of the bottle and back.

The neck of the bottle speaks volumes.

It’s not local. It’s a mass produced brand name from elsewhere that is, at best, ordinary.

They don’t know this because all that’s important to them is appearance not substance.

That’s false snobs for you.

We Speak the Same Language

“Your accent sounds different,” the American girl looks at me, a quizzical expression on her face.

Another American girl had commented on my ‘accent’ a few weeks previously. That time it had been ‘what language is that you’re speaking?’

“I’m Scottish.”
“My dad’s family is Scottish,” the girl smiles.
“Really? What’s his surname?”
She says a name.
“His family should have a clan tartan then,” I tell her even though I’ve never heard a Scottish name like it before . She doesn’t know what I’m talking about and the conversation stutters to a halt.

“I’m going to Scotland next month,” The girl’s teacher shouts from the other end of the table. “Edinburgh. It’s my first visit to Scotland.”
“Edinburgh’s very nice, you should like it,” I shout back, adding. “You must try haggis.”
“Yeah, I’ve heard about that.”
His expression confirms he has heard about haggis and probably isn’t going to try it. Offal just equals awful for too many people.

I’m distracted by the man to my right; another American – a journalist. English speaking foreigners have obviously been herded at tables together. He’s having a real tussle with his knife. I try not to look. Everyone else is nearly finished their crowdpleasing chicken except him. What on earth is he doing with that knife?

The girl is still looking at me. I feel compelled to try to continue to make small talk.

“First time in Europe?”
She nods.
“Has it surprised you?”
“Every new place has surprises,” She replies.
“True, true,” I concede. She’s the one starting to sound like the seasoned traveller.
“What surprises you here in Austria?” I like to know what other people think; what fresh young eyes see.
Hers go blank and she shrugs. The statement had been a platitude.

There’s a clunk to my right as the man’s knife slides of his fork, knocking the untidy jumble of food that was on it back onto his plate where it slumps in a defeated heap. I’m not sure if he’s actually managed to get anything into his mouth yet. I wonder if he’s had a stroke. But everything seems to be functioning okay when his hands escape from his cutlery.

I realise I’m staring and turn back to the girl. She’s part of a group of American college students, touring Europe with their teacher.

“Where in Europe have you visited so far… before here?”
“Erm… Munich,” she nods thoughtfully, as if to confirm this. “We’ve just come from Munich.”
“We’re just about to head there in a couple of day. Any tips? Must see places?”
“It’s big,” she shrugs and laughs. “We got lost.”
“Aha, right, easy to get lost. I’ll watch out for that.”
We look at each other, neither really knowing what to say to carry on a stuttering conversation. Her eyes brighten. She’s thought of something.
“My mother’s family are from Germany,” she announces.

There’s a loud clang to my right as the knife slides off the plate again and one more forkful of food fails on its mission.