Nicole Johnston
Nicole Johnston

Confessions of a travel slut

One of the best books I’ve ever read is William Sutcliffe’s Are you experienced?, a devastating send–up on the culture of middle–class kids on their obligatory gap year, backpacking around on a “third world poverty adventure holiday.” Read it — I guarantee you’ll laugh like a drain. Perhaps the reason I enjoyed that novel so much is that it illustrates that while travel can broaden your horizons, it can narrow them too.

Now, I’m a well known travel slut — I have an insatiable curiosity and jump at any chance to go breathe some different air. I will go anywhere once (war zones and tyrannical regimes excluded for obvious reasons).

On a recent trip I met an American who spends a lot of time travelling the world, and we started speaking about Uganda. I said one of the highlights of the time I had spent there was getting to know local journalists, hanging out with them at their favourite spots and visiting their homes.

He looked horrified (perhaps imagining a gaggle of us planning to descend on him) and snapped: “Well, I don’t like that. I don’t have time to be playing taxi driver and tour guide when people come to visit my city.”

I realise that this tends to be a Western attitude and that people in Africa or Asia are more likely to take guests to their bosom, but I thought it was quite sad. Here’s a guy constantly travelling around the world, reluctant to take up any offers of hospitality in case — heaven forfend — he feel indebted if some acquaintance were to pitch up on his turf one day and say “let’s have coffee”. Surely if you have no interest in engaging with people you should just stay home and watch the National Geographic channel? Is it really possible to extract the sights and sounds of a place and ignore the people?

A holiday in Buenos Aires was enlivened considerably by meeting up with Vero, a friend of a friend of a friend, who took us to a birthday party, a club and a restaurant way off the tourist track. I learned that BA, like Jozi, has a bit of a crime problem and that devices to lock women’s handbags to the tables while they eat are de rigueur.

In Madagascar we met Keke, who plied us with rum from bottles filled with huge sticks of cinnamon or whole bananas and grilled up vast feasts on the beach. When I stood on a sea urchin (and ended up with a foot full of spines that crumble like chalk and can’t be pulled out), Keke shinned up a papaya tree and applied the milk from the unripe fruit to my punctures. “This is the stuff they use in meat tenderiser” he told me cheerfully, before proceeding to literally beat the sole of my foot with a chunk of coral to break up the spines and allow the papaya to draw the poisonous bits out.

Surely that’s the point of travel? To learn things that the tourist brochures couldn’t possibly convey, to taste things whose flavour you couldn’t possibly imagine, and to engage with energy which is entirely unlike your own.

And it’s not a one way street. I love having foreign guests who I can take riding in the Drakensberg or show off the beaches of KZN, and every time I take visitors to a favourite spot, I’m as thrilled with it as I was the first time I saw it.

Of course travel helps you to learn some truths about yourself and face up to the fact that some of the things that you imagine you quite like the sound of aren’t so much fun in reality. And travel — like sex — is great when it’s good and bloody awful when its not.

  • I’ve learned that I’m incredibly bourgeois and cannot in any way deal with ablution blocks.
  • That I’m no good at sleeping on people’s couches and floors and tend to be much happier if I just stump up the cash for a B&B.
  • I’ve learned that you cannot wear a Wonderbra in the tropics.
  • I’ve decided that I hate hiking — I love a good view as much as the next punter, but unless there’s a horse or a cable car to get me to the top I’m unlikely to schlep up there.
  • I now know that while white coral beaches look lovely in brochures, they are quite literally blinding once the sun is up.
  • And that there is nothing (and I do mean nothing!) worse than sand fly bites. I’d rather face a slavering sabre toothed tiger than set foot on a beach which has sand flies. (For more on the dreaded critters see this hilarious piece from the Guardian)
  • For various reasons the Mail & Guardian hasn’t had a dedicated travel section for some time, but faithful readers will have noticed that we’ve been running a monthly Travel special in the Friday section.

    What I’d really like to hear from bloggers and readers are your ideas on what kind of travel reporting you’d be interested in, what you couldn’t give a fig about and what information you really need.