When you travel in Southeast Asia, Sri Lanka or India, some things are pretty much inevitable. You’ll fall for at least one tour guide – such insight, sensitivity and wit. You’ll tip unwisely, bestow precious gifts, resolve to keep in touch – resisting the knowledge that to you they were one out of the box, but to them you were one in a million.
You’ll succumb to at least one unwise ethnic clothing purchase, telling yourself you’re showing cultural respect. But you’ll look like another over-excited wannabe, and even sillier back home. You’ll get bored with haggling. Anyway, it isn’t that clever. Remember, when you triumphantly slash 200 rupees off the price of a pashmina or 20,000 dong off a tuk-tuk ride, you’ve saved your- self about the cost of a cup of coffee and denied a family a meal.
You’ll tire – soon, I hope – of sniggering at clumsy translations, typos and mispronunciations. It helps to recall the hash you made of Thiruvananthapuram. Okay, you’re allowed to enjoy two. Mineare Nazi goreng and lawful attorney. Yes, you’ll find the driving as scary and chaotic as predicted. But then you’ll see its subtle synchronicity, the care shown for everyone else on the road,including you as you teeter across the street. You’ll wonder how New Zealand drivers would manage here – and why, if we are so orderly and regulated, driving at home is so fraught.
On long drives you’ll be tempted to check the guide book. Resist the urge. After all, you’ve paid a local to show you around. And if a guide suggests a “sight” that isn’t mentioned in Lonely Planet, go for it – unless it’s another jewellery factory. You’ll be impressed by the fervour of national anniver- saries. Liberation, independence and peace are celebrated with flags and parades in every village. There are disturbing history lessons, especially as it was often all about cardamom. Politics back home will seem like a spat in a playcentre.
Unless you drink only cocktails or scotch, you’ll be lucky to find your favourite tipple. There will be lager, but it’s more fun to drink local red wine. Only you won’t find wine on drinks lists, so be patient when waiters look panicked – they’re wondering why anyone would drink that stuff while they eat.
In bars, you’ll come to love badminton with your beer. Anything played with an oval ball is well down the list – way behind table tennis, boxing, volleyball and kabaddi. And any game played by Lionel Messi or Man United. When – not if – there’s a power outage, you’ll suffer an intolerable loss of Wi-Fi but romantically resort to candles. Just when you’re losing patience, you’ll hear that the supply was cut to conserve power for the stunning illumination of tonight’s religious festival. But there will always be food. That’s what those battered gas bottles are for.
If you won’t eat anything spicy, you’ll suffer sad versions of pasta and grilled sandwiches. Foreigners in Hanoi or Kandy complaining “It was nice, but too spicy” are simply ridiculous. Just eat what the locals cook best. If you don’t like spicy food, go to the Gold Coast again. You’ll look absurd if your camera lens is longer than 5cm. And get that flash under control. Locals placing flowers before a reclining Buddha in a mountain cave ought to be able to do so in the natural gloom – and without having to resist the urge to give you a whack.
It might dawn on you that those glorious vistas were not created for your delight. Terraced tea plantations, shimmering rice paddies, fish markets, vividly painted fishing boats, women fishing waist-deep at low tide and carrying urns of water on their heads – these are all part of an exhausting daily grind. You’ll stop wondering why your driver meekly pays every “village road fee” and buys a raffle ticket “offered” by an army officer. Don’t be tempted to single-handedly resist entrenched customs. Feel reassured by politicians who vow to stamp out corruption – eventually.
If you have a health and safety role at work, you’re in for repeated shocks. It’s not just the absence of ear protection, rails on scaffolding, tidily strung power lines – but also the fact that everything works well enough and serves a population that makes Auckland feel like a village. You’ll soon learn to run for cover when you see a stallholder refuse a sale and reach for the blue tarpaulin. There’s no such thing as a light shower of rain.
If you’re a farmer, you’re in for a lesson on intensive land use. Palm oil trees crowd airport runways, rice paddies fill gaps between houses, tea plantations spill onto the shoulders of roads. It’s not the Mackenzie Country. By perverse logic, you’ll find free and reliable in-room Wi-Fi at a tiny guest house up the Mekong River, but pay heftily for the same service when staying in four-star opulence in Kuala Lumpur (or Auckland).
You could develop an unhealthy obsession with laundry. Its cost underlines the economic gap between you and lowly paid locals. Forty cents for undies is top end. A full load could cost NZ$4. And the time it takes to get your undies back, scented and crisply folded, reflects how little sleep they get. In fact, laundry lists are full of helpful shopping information. If ladies’ shorts and trousers aren’t on the list, you shouldn’t wear them in public. The reverse doesn’t necessarily apply – otherwise you’ll be stocking up on lehenga, kebaya and safari suits, which you will regret.
Looking back, you’ll decide that many travellers who write online reviews are nuts. Otherwise excellent places are written off because the shower dripped. It doesn’t occur to them that the staff whose English they whine about speak English far better than New Zealand hospitality workers speak Hindi. And when you’re home, life will suddenly seem so dull you’ll long for a few exotic irritations.