Best Remain Seated

Jeremy Harding seeks travel guidance

  • Kenya by Hugh Finlay and Geoff Crowther
    Lonely Planet, 376 pp, £11.99, April 1997, ISBN 0 86442 460 4
  • Borneo by Robert Pelton Young
    Fielding, 632 pp, £13.95, December 1995, ISBN 1 56952 026 7
  • Asia's Top Dive Sites edited by Fiona Nichols and Michael Stachels
    Fielding, 228 pp, £13.95, December 1996, ISBN 1 56952 129 8
  • South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland by Jon Murray et al
    Lonely Planet, 658 pp, £13.99, January 1998, ISBN 0 86442 508 2
  • Southern Africa by Richard Cox
    Thornton Cox, 474 pp, £11.95, July 1995, ISBN 0 7818 0388 8
  • The World's Most Dangerous Places by Robert Pelton Young
    Fielding, 1048 pp, £13.95, December 1997, ISBN 1 56952 104 2
  • South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland by Barbara McCrea et al
    Rough Guides, 697 pp, £12.99, October 1997, ISBN 1 85828 238 1
  • The Good Honeymoon Guide by Lucy Horne
    Trailblazer, 320 pp, £11.95, March 1997, ISBN 1 873756 12 7
  • Amnesty International Report 1997
    Amnesty International, 378 pp, £18.00, June 1997, ISBN 0 86210 267 7
  • Morocco by Barnaby Rogerson
    Cadogan, 596 pp, £12.99, December 1997, ISBN 1 86011 043 6

For some varieties of ‘new traveller’, as the guide books refer to him, fun, or value for money, can only be had when the going gets rough. He is, without question, a man. He likes to keep count of his change and clock up the kilometres. Once abroad he’s a seigneur of the road; the locals are vassals, trespassers, con-artists and thieves. The new traveller knows how to deal with them. He’s the strongish, silent type who won’t complain if there are no croissants at breakfast. He may not succumb to the t-shirt, but he’s busy having been there, done that. He can be moved by a spectacular view at the end of a dreadful day. He believes that nothing should come easy, there must be endemic hassle and haggle from dawn to dusk. And because the business of getting there is really the whole point, or much of it, it turns out that, with his preferred form of leisure, there’s no distinguishing the thing pursued from the pursuit of it. It’s already done though he’s still looking forward to it. Queuing seven hours for a visa while suffering a bad case of dysentery, multiple snakebite and severe heatstroke, or being run off the road by a truck and later robbed at gunpoint, is evidently what makes the earth move for the kind of traveller the Lonely Planet guides have in mind.

This is plain enough from the pride of place enjoyed by the caveat. Take Kenya: A Lonely Planet Travel Survival Kit: ‘don’t drink the water and that includes ice’; ‘very dark yellow urine’ – yours – ‘is a danger sign’; ‘the number of people who get their passports and money knocked off on the No 34 bus in from the airport is amazing’; ‘homocsexual acts are illegal and penalties are harsh’; ‘attacks on foreign women are on the increase’; ‘don’t put your hands into holes and crevices’; ‘every person you see or meet is a potential crook’; ‘avoid pulling the rear of the tick’s body as this may squeeze its gut contents through the attached mouth parts into your skin’; ‘crime is rife in Kenya’; ‘death can occur within a few hours.’ If this sort of travel can be said to strip away the accumulated stress of ordinary life, it’s surely tanking up the metabolism with some unfamiliar variant, an exotic form, like Asiatic flu, whose early symptoms could just about be mistaken for exhilaration, and there are those who swear by it.

To the authors and editors of the Fielding guides, danger and discomfort are paramount. Borneo, written by the imprint’s publisher, Robert Pelton Young, describes itself as one of ‘a series of guides on remote regions for adventurers by adventurers’ and begins with a taste of what may lie in store for the user:

I am squatting in a small clearing at night in the Borneo jungle … Sounds of tree frogs, insects, birds and other nocturnal animals are almost deafening … Here night-time belongs to the leopards. Silent death for most small mammals … I am on the ground where huge insects walk somnambulantly … Occasionally a six-inch moth will fly out of the darkness and land on my face … I am happy here; soaked to the bone, a steaming rank animal in the middle of primitive jungle.

One could be forgiven for wanting to stay at home with the coals flickering gaily under the mantelshelf, but not by Robert Pelton Young, an evangelist of discomfort who wants a generation of ninnies to stop cowering in the libraries : ‘To understand the soul of the adventurer you cannot just browse through their journals, notes and maps. You have to look them straight in the face’ – first removing any six-inch moths – ‘to find out why they have made the hard choice between reading about adventure or living it.’ But the steaming rank animal of the armchair has the drop on people like Pelton Young: we are more mobile, in the virtual sense, and we can travel light. By the simple expedient of opening another Fielding guide, Asia’s Top Dive Sites, we can plunge to a depth of 18 metres at Friday’s Rock, off the Philippine island of Boracay, into a universe of coral flailing slowly in the currents like ghostly copper beech. Down here the water teems with fish whose names are fabulous enough for the rich man from the rich man’s world to forego a sheaf of visas and a long-haul flight: ‘wrasse, tang, damselfish, snappers and stingrays, and big scorpion fishes and lionfishes’, and a little way from Friday’s Rock, in deeper water, ‘large gorgonians of all colours’, ‘sweetlips’, shark, barracuda.

To hop from the Philippines to sub-Saharan Africa, it’s only a matter of taking up the right Lonely Planet guide and you’re fording a river in Lesotho on a packhorse with a handful of other mounted travellers: at the wide crossing point, the water is the colour of fudge, the surface corrugated by a light breeze, giving it the look of any well-worn dust track in the region. Alternatively, there’s a trip in the Okavango delta, in a boat poled by a local minder equipped with a sack of mealies for dinner-time porridge; moored at the edge of the marshes, you can gaze at elephant wading through tall reeds as the sun slopes away behind the Tsodilo Hills near the border with Namibia.

Filled with lassitude at the sight of exquisite fauna, you might decide that the time had come to put them to death. The best approach, you’d have thought, would be to switch to the Thornton Cox Southern Africa, a ‘classic safari guide’. But while it clearly approves of hunting, the guide is discreet, not to say cagey, on the subject, confining itself to a few observations about duties levied on trophies at southern African airports and the regrettable fact that most states in the region are signatories to the Cites treaty, which means they must protect endangered species. There’s advice about obtaining licences for firearms and a mouth-watering list of game in Zambia: buffalo, eland, impala, leopard, lion, warthog and waterbuck. Handy information, too, that ‘white rhino are sometimes allocated for culling by the Natal Parks Board’ and that in South Africa ‘trophy fees are only charged for animals bagged or “wounded and lost”.’

The politics of the guide’s author and intended readers is indicated in the Foreword, which looks very much like a leftover from earlier editions – and happier days for animal lovers: ‘When you are travelling and deciding your own itinerary what you need are facts and practicalities, not polemics.’ But there’s an update on the freedom struggle in a later section and, in any case, the Thornton Cox guide is about getting to grips with the wild. I’m ready for that, but first there’s the matter of shopping. I’m going to need a white cotton shirt with long sleeves, a few short-sleeved numbers, ‘a lightweight sweater’ and shorts. The place to go for all this is Willis and Geiger (head office: Madison, Wisconsin), ‘the firm which outfitted Ernest Hemingway, Humphrey Bogart and Clark Gable’ for their tours on the Dark Continent. The person I’d prefer to look like is Trevor Howard, the epitome of Mr Sensible, even with his kneecaps bared, but I’ve a feeling W&G can stretch to this. They’ll also be able to sort me out with a pair of ‘strong shoes for walking’ – trainers, says the guide, or desert boots, although I’ll be having to remove these, the brief section on etiquette now informs me, on entering ‘an African or Asian Moslem mosque’, maybe in pursuit of my trembling quarry, a kudu or an eland, as it makes a desperate bid for sanctuary.

The merits of the readerly approach, which covers two continents in an inkling, aren’t obvious to the compilers of travel guides and their more literal-minded users, yet most people prefer to read about murder, volcanic eruptions, set-piece battles and major epidemics than do or be done to at first hand. Some people would rather read about cooking and eating than spend their lives in the kitchen. The flaw, a man with a six-inch moth on his face will argue, lies in the ease with which this method spirits me from place to place. How can I learn patience and ingenuity without adversity? The committed traveller believes in the bracing moral effects of travel, to which the counter-argument must be that drudgery, discomfort and the restlessness of the locals, especially when it’s a question of prising open the foreigner’s wallet (see the Lonely Planet guide to Kenya), can contribute as much to meanness of spirit, chauvinism and ill-conceived parti pris as it can to the edification of the big, generous-hearted character for whom all experience would be welcome if it hadn’t already knocked and entered.

It’s also the case that the great Stakhanovs of the road, people who’ve chucked a lifetime of miles over their shoulders like so many million kilos of coal, have little to say for themselves. They glow with the retrospective triumph of beating some impoverished vendor down by a dinar for an earthenware cup, or repairing a tyre with a slice of their own skin tissue on a remote road in a country whose name you forget, however often they repeat it, or smoking themselves to oblivion for three days and nights in a beach hut on the Adriatic. So it may be better to slink away from the appeal to moral improvement with our hands over our ears and think of travel in more modest terms, such as getting from A to B – the sine qua non of a short, sedentary holiday in a warm country – than stake our curiosity, and innocence, both of which the hardened traveller has lost, on travelling for its own sake.

This still leaves the charge that non-travellers lack ingenuity, which is hard to dismiss. In 1342, the great traveller Ibn Battuta, acting as an emissary for the Sultan of Delhi, set out for China with a caravan of gifts for the emperor, consisting mostly of white slaves, thoroughbred horses and Hindu song-and-dance girls – a hundred of each, plus 15 eunuchs. In the course of an impromptu campaign on behalf of a local Muslim commander outside Delhi, Ibn Battuta was forced to surrender to an enemy platoon of forty ‘Hindu infidels’. He was consigned to three overseers who he knew meant to kill him, but he cavilled and bartered for his release and spent more than a week on the run, parrying acute hunger (lotus berries, mustard shoots, radish leaves) and extreme thirst (streams, wells and rainwater tanks). On the eighth day, he wrote, ‘I was consumed with thirst and I had no water at all.’ He searched a ruined village for a tank of rainwater but had no luck. Further along the road he came upon a well with a rope but ‘no vessel on it to draw water with’. He unwound his headcloth, attached it to the rope ‘and sucked the water that soaked into it’. Perhaps Pelton Young has done as much in Borneo with his forage cap, but Ibn Battuta went on to further heights of inspiration. He was still thirsty and decided to secure one of his shoes to the rope, which he then lowered into the well and pulled up again brimming with water. ‘But that did not satisfy me either,’ he says, ‘so I drew water with it a second time, but the rope broke and the shoe fell back into the well.’ He removed his other shoe and tied it to the rope ‘and drank until my thirst was assuaged. After that I cut the shoe and tied its uppers on my foot with the rope off the well and bits of cloth.’

All this was before the days of Willis and Geiger and other suppliers of ‘strong shoes for walking’, but there’s a parable here for the modern hiker, to do with divesting yourself of the thing you hold most dear – at which point necessity turns out to be the mother, not only of invention, but of its much-maligned sibling, the miracle: before he could test the remains of his footwear, the exhausted Ibn Battuta was carried to safety by a saint. Living on one’s wits has its own rewards, but Ibn Battuta enjoyed the bonus of divine intervention.

Modern rewards for ingenuity are disappointing by comparison – they’re mostly negative (not getting ill, not getting mugged). But so is modern ingenuity itself, which, as you’d expect, takes the form of precaution: in trains, according to Fielding on The World’s Most Dangerous Places, ‘select a bag that you can leave on your seat but contains nothing valuable (a shopping bag full of newspapers will do)’; in taxis, ‘never tell cabbies where you are going’ – a problem, arguably, for getting anywhere by cab; on boats, carry a small survival kit waterproofed with ‘one or two garbage bags’; on planes, sit in the back or above the wing, where, in the event of a crash, ‘you may get thrown clear, seat and all.’

Sooner or later, precaution becomes fastidiousness. Like the evening breeze stirring a limp imperial flag over a commissioner’s hut, the proper circulation of air around the male genital area is regarded as a vital contribution to the moral and physical welfare of the tropical traveller. No recent guide has surpassed the excellent John Hatt’s remarks on underwear in The Tropical Traveller (1982). Hatt insists that this ‘must be of pure cotton’ and urges a change of attitude, or perhaps a readjustment, for anyone foolish enough to hit the tropics wearing ‘the “jockey” style of tight underpants’ rather than ‘the looser “boxer” types’. ‘I have,’ he says in a moment of intimacy, ‘had my own design of cotton underpants specially made: they can be used as swimming trunks, shorts or underpants, and I find them invaluable.’ He’s even commissioned them with pockets, ‘fastened by Velcro, which makes a rasping noise when opened and is, therefore, a small extra defence against pickpockets’. Is the point here about keeping one’s chastity in foreign countries or discreetly laying it on the line? That depends on the ambitions of the pickpocket – and on whether you take Hatt’s design to be the bastion of security he intends or something more complicated, like Ann Summers lingerie. Either way, this kind of resourcefulness lacks the heroic quality of travellers, real and mythical, in the pre-Velcro period. The archetypal voyagers and castaways have greater flair in the face of adversity, which is why it’s more gripping to read about how to extract yourself and the remains of your crew from a Cyclops’ cave or construct a parasol on a desert island (the main difficulty, says Crusoe, that gloomy avatar of enterprise, ‘was to make it to let down’) than to be told how to avoid a mild case of dhobi’s itch.

The guide for the new traveller isn’t all to do with servicing a taste for the virtues of hardship and manliness. It must also deal with the political problems that intrude on the conscience of the holiday maker. It’s forty years or more since Roland Barthes unpicked the Guide Bleu. The sting in the tale of that consummate essay was reserved for the guff about the ‘prosperity’ of Spain twenty years after the defeat of the Republic: ‘the Guide does not tell us, of course, how this fine prosperity is shared out.’ On the whole, contemporary travel guides make more of an effort. South Africa is a good case, and Lonely Planet have an honourable record. Their first edition of Africa on a Shoestring, published shortly after the Soweto uprising of 1976, describes the country as a place of ‘virtual slave-labour’ and draconian security laws ‘which permit the police to hold anyone without charge or trial for 180 days’. The background entry winds down with a resigned ‘If you must go there…’

Up-to-date guides on South Africa, including Lonely Planet’s, have capitalised on the new dispensation, but they haven’t forgotten the history. Both the Rough Guide and the Lonely Planet guide to South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland provide detailed accounts, up to and beyond the 1994 election. Mandela’s South Africa is now a place where you can bolster the tourist trade and see the animals with very few qualms. One of the pleasures of dramatic political change is the renaming of places, which has been modest in South Africa – but most British guide books now refer to Mafeking, where Baden-Powell was famously relieved, as Mafikeng, the correct, pre-siege name. Equally pleasurable is the resolute refusal to rename the streets in Maputo, the capital of Mozambique, which abandoned Marxism-Leninism in the Eighties and held elections in 1994. Today, according to Lonely Planet’s map, it should still be possible to get from Hotel Tourismo to the Minigolf beach complex by heading north along Avenida Karl Marx, turning right into Ho Chi Minh, left onto Vladimir Lenine, proceeding north again for eight blocks, taking another right onto Mao Tse Tung and, a dozen blocks later, a left onto Kim Il Sung.

However diligent their fact files (when it comes to the past) or their lists of health hazards, the guides are ominously quiet about what’s known to go on behind closed doors in some of the sunnier locations. They’ll supply a country’s per capita GNP, even when it is painfully small, and alert travellers to the hardship they’ll see, but to mention torture, which they won’t, would be disobliging. The thought is simply too uncomfortable for most visitors, particularly if they’re on a romantic holiday for two in one of the following places recommended by The Good Honeymoon Guide: Guatemala (best time November to April), Indonesia (April to mid-November), Egypt (all year round), Morocco – ‘a land rich in history, colour and mystery, where not much has changed since the coming of Islam’ – (October to May).

This is perhaps only a starker version of the contradictions that people from rich countries travelling in poor countries must always wrestle with. But there’s an extra dimension, since a proportion of the tourist dollars we spend on holidays in repressive countries will be recycled into security budgets. Amnesty International’s 1997 Report finds evidence of torture in many honeymoon destinations during the last year or so. They include Guatemala (‘scores of cases’), Indonesia and East Timor (‘common’), Egypt (‘systematic’, especially against Islamists) and Morocco (confessions ‘extracted under torture’; ‘suspension in contorted positions, sexual abuse and being forced to sit on a bottle’). The question is not whether we continue to visit such countries – we do – but whether we think what we’re doing is any more complicit than staying at home scoffing Moroccan chickpeas. I suspect that it is, while clinging to the notion that a backpacker – if not a honeymoon couple – with a troubled spirit may be preferable to one who’s managed to dispense with conscience altogether, on grounds of travelling light. It’s a superstitious way to see things. The palpable effect of the tourist’s uneasiness on the welfare of the detainee in Morocco is nil, but there is something about our refusal to know, or to acknowledge, that only adds to injustice and the silence around it.

Where there is torture there are other violations of human and civil rights – extra-judicial killing, illegal occupation of territory or ethnic persecution. Morocco and Indonesia are prime cases of holiday destinations with these unattractive qualities. The guides are frank, on the whole, about Morocco’s unlawful occupation of the Western Sahara, which has now been going on for more than twenty years with the result that at least 100,000 of the territory’s indigenous people are stranded in refugee camps in Algeria while the remainder live a cat-and-mouse existence under occupation. The best short account of the Western Sahara in a guide to Morocco is in the Cadogan edition by Barnaby Rogerson. But, like the Lonely Planet guides, it incorporates Western Sahara into Morocco on its reference map. It’s an unfortunate decision, particularly for Saharans. The territory is the object of a UN-supervised referendum, postponed in the early Nineties but recently rescheduled for the end of 1998. In his text, however, Rogerson hints that his mistake is deliberate: Moroccan security personnel, like flat-earthers fulminating at the notion of a spherical world, will confiscate any map which fails to incorporate the Western Sahara into the Kingdom of Morocco, or any book containing such a map. Meanwhile, according to Amnesty, the fate of hundreds of ‘disappeared’ Saharans remains uninvestigated.

It’s not surprising that occupied Western Sahara features only minimally in Fielding’s Dangerous Places. It is a dangerous place if you’re a Saharan, but as a glance at the Cadogan guide will confirm, safe as houses for the tourist. Elsewhere Dangerous Places tends to assume that a country which is hazardous for its nationals is also risky for travellers, but that’s not always the case. It’s an irritating book, which nags and brags at you, and which is apt to philosophise when it ought to describe. The former Zaire ‘typifies the deep, festering core of darkest Africa’ where, whatever the political changes, ‘the jungle, the rot and the heat will always be the master’. This is the unmistakable voice of Robert Pelton Young (see Borneo), who wants his readers to get their noses out of his books and start walking. The prudent armchair traveller will turn at once to more interesting accounts of Central Africa by Westerners (Conrad, Roger Casement, Hergé, Redmond O’Hanlon, anything but RPY). But this guide for people who live in a fog of adrenaline scores high by including the United States on its list, proudly sandwiched between Russia and ‘Zaire’ under ‘Criminal Places’. In the US, Dangerous Places tells us, the top talkshow subject is parent-child relations, there is a violent crime every 17 seconds and guns are as common as Hershey bars. The police offer no solace. In a dazzling statistical box, the guide looks at how often and at what the New York City Police discharge their weapons. In a single year, 928 shots were fired at suspected criminals. There were 755 misses. 155 shots were fired at dogs, only 44 of which were misses. There were eight suicidal shots, of which no misses. The puzzling category ‘attempted suicide’ shows three shots fired, one miss. The category ‘girlfriend’, rather more clear, shows three shots fired, all on target.