After a few weeks in a country, the food starts to seem a little less tasty, the land a little less mysterious. We would be comfortable sitting by a pool all day reading a book, letting the rest of our time slip away into idleness. But our comfort is tinged with guilt. Did we really travel half way across the world to relax and read books? We shouldn’t be relaxing, we should be out see things! Isn’t that why we’re here? The guilt gnaws at us until we cave in, deciding to once again set out to find a Unique Cultural Experience for ourselves.
It’s about now that the offer of a day trip starts to sound appealing. The day trip is such a pleasing idea. You can wake early in the morning, travel to exotic locales, experience a day packed with culture and adventure, then by supper you’ll be back in your air conditioned hotel room, free to sleep in a comfortable bed.
A friendly, female tour agent reels you in with her smile and a thousand empty promises. She offers the world at discounted prices. Reeling off a list of tours which are all designed to show the best her country has to offer. “You wan’ ri’ elephan’?” We’ve already ridden an elephant, the hard, boney back drove itself right into my buttocks, I wasn’t able to sit for days. “How bou’ kayak? You wan’ kayak?” Ah kayaking, another past adventure, the stench of a putrid swamp, a hardened guide shouting in my face, “Paddle faster! Faster!”
Cooking schools that lead to food poisoning. Mountain hikes that lead to market sellers forcibly selling their wares. As the tour agent reels through the endless lists of Unique Cultural Experiences, that we’ve already decided we never want to experience again, I wonder why we’re bothering.
Then she mentions the words “snorkeling” and “tropical desert island” and before I know what’s happened my wallet is a little lighter. With great skill she’s found the one trip that had some appeal to us and convinced us we had to sign up for it.”Don’ worry,” she says, reiterating that we’re getting a discount.
The life of a tour agent is one of constant wheeling and dealing. It must take a good amount of cunning to pretend you’re not offering a service but instead offering help. They always have the best price for you only but as it turns out that’s the best price for them too. The one that makes the most commission. Agents are the shepherds and tourists are the sheep, waiting to be led (cajoled, pushed) towards the most convenient destination. The one that makes the most money. Jungles, mountain villages or desert paradises.
Once you’ve signed up to a tour, once they’ve got your money, nothing else matters. The air conditioned bus is a pick-up truck with wooden seats. The free lunch is a packet of ramen noodles. The Unique Cultural Experiences are over-trodden places filled with other tourists. Pushing and shoving, cameras in hand trying to get the best photo for Facebook. One that shows the Unique Cultural Experience, but not the unique hellish experience of visiting the place.
A Day Trip
We wake up with the sunrise to snorkel on the tropical desert island. A dusty mini-bus arrives, weaving between hotels to pick up other pale tourists. The air conditioning works and everybody is jovial. Looking forward to seeing tropical fish and bathing in ice blue water.
As soon as we’ve started to settle in to our ride,the bus stops and we’re led onto a speed boat. The quickest way to get to our destination, thus the most expensive. If we’re going to a day trip, we may as well spend a little more to ensure we get the most out of it!
The words “speed boat” no doubt evokes in the mind a small white boat, speeding through the Florida Keys. Two stunning blondes in bikinis sitting at the back. A hunk of a man in sunglasses at the helm. Everybody smiling, having fun. Maybe they’ll stop soon to enjoy some champagne and oysters.
Instead, I find myself sitting in the back of a much larger lime green boat a little bigger than a mini van. Two rows of seats go along the sides, where I’m crammed with 20 other tourists drenched in sweat. An annoying American man (it’s always an American, sorry Jamie) continuously exclaims that he can’t wait to see the fish. Over and over.
The engines roar so loudly that it’s impossible to have a conversation and the American man has to shout to be heard. “I CAN’T WAIT TO SEE THE FISH!” The further out the boat travels, the greyer the sky gets. The calm water of the beach is replaced with the high sloshing of waves.
The boat speeds across the water. Skimming along like a stone throw by a giant. As we hit the crest of a wave the boat hangs in the air for a moment, our stomachs lurch. The bottom of the boat slams onto the water with a large thud. I start to wonder if that’s natural. Are boats meant to go into the air? Does the driver have a licence? Probably not. No doubt he knows as much as I do about boating. My knuckles turn white as I grip onto a beam. The American man is now silent, his face grey. We make eye contact and I know he’s thinking the same thing as I am. “Why am I here?”
This is a thought I often get when travelling. Often when I’m doing something I have no real interest in. That’s just the way of the traveler. We don’t want to miss out, so we force ourselves to do these things. We tell ourselves that our time must be spent doing worthwhile things.
To put it another way, how many of your friends are interested in art? I mean, seriously interested. I’d wager that not many of them would be. Yet, everybody that goes to Paris will visit The Louvre, because it’s like you’ve got to. Even when you see the Mona Lisa and are completely overwhelmed at least you’ve seen it? It’s ticked off the list, despite the fact you could have spent your day doing something you actually enjoy like eating pastries.
The day trip is perfect as it’s the quickest way to get those ticks. But then you find yourself on a boat, sure that you’ll die at any moment. Staring at an annoying, sweaty American, wondering where your life went wrong. Wondering why you’re putting yourself through all this for something you have no interest in.
After an hour of sitting in a cocktail shaker, the boat stops and I’m handed a snorkel and told to swim. I’d prefer to vomit. Not because I hate snorkeling, but because I’m feeling really sea sick. But I need to snorkel, otherwise the horrible boat trip will have been wasted. So I get in the choppy water and I’m no longer standing on a boat being rocked by a wave. Instead I am lying in a wave and I’m the one being rocked.
I promptly vomit in the water, which is annoying because immediately I’m swimming in vomit. I can’t help but feel a little amazed as I watch tropical fish swimming around in my breakfast.
Back on the boat I continue to vomit until the boat slams its way to dry land. The tropical desert island we were promised. I collapse on the sand and decide I’ll just spend the rest of my life here. Just me, a ton of giant lizards and some disgusting concrete toilets. I can’t stand the thought of the trip back to our hotel. Another hour on the boat of death. I want to sob. I vow to never go on another day trip. They never end up as I imagine and the price of a Unique Cultural Experience is too high. You’re paying more than just money. Often your dignity is at stake.
A year later, when I think of the experience it doesn’t seem so bad. It’s all but lost to memory. We find ourselves in a tour office. A young Vietnamese woman offers us the world and we believe her. The next day we sit on a large bus with broken air conditioning. We’re like dogs stuck in an overheated car, slowly withering away. All of this for a Unique Cultural Experience. Once more we vow to never do it again.
It doesn’t happen. We never learn. They always get you. Always promise that this time will be different. But it never is.