Over the past three weeks I have stayed in five different hostels in three different locations, and while it’s been good, I’m pretty pretty delighted it will be coming to an end tomorrow.
For the next while I will be renting a room off of a Colombian woman and then – if the good lord’s willing – will be moving into a shared flat after that.
I’ve met quite a few different people these past 22 days, most of whom have been lovely, and most of whom have been foreigners.
So now – with the forewarning that I am probably about to come off as a pompous, judgemental wanker – here are a few things I’ve noticed living cheek to jowl with six to eight strangers a night:
The difference between travelling and going on holiday
Travelling is what people do when they want to broaden the mind and enrich the soul, and going on holiday is what people do when they want to get a bit part on ‘Boozed Up Brits Abroad’.
That was always the way I had read the situation at least.
Not counting that time I went on a package holiday to Turkey and my Dad made them shut the music off on the party boat, this is the first time I’ve been outside of Europe.
Not to run down anyone’s experience, but from what I’ve seen, travelling mostly involves booking flights and accommodation, meeting other travellers in whatever hostel you’re staying in and then taking in the contents of the Lonely Planet.
That’s cool, and the bit of that I did was good fun.
But – much like drinking too much Ovaltine – taking in so many tourist attractions in a The Price Is Right conveyor-belt fashion can lose its flavour.
I met this group of around eight Irish people who were all travelling, and maybe I’m biased, but they seemed to be doing it the best.
They veered away from extolling the life-enriching virtues of conversing with old Mayan women, and instead just seemed to be focused on having a good time.
And that, as far as I could tell, was sort of what is good about going on holiday – getting to have a good time without being beaten down by everyday worries.
And that also made me wonder why holidaying is seen as a less perfect way to experience other cultures?
To illustrate my point, before the package holiday became a thing, Benidorm used to be a tiny fishing village.
Back in the 1950s the mayor, a guy called Pedro Zaragoza, had a big vision for filling the place with Scandinavian, British and German holidaymakers.
One stumbling block was that the bikini – a relatively common piece of swimwear across northern Europe – was illegal in Spain
Taking action, Zaragoza rode his Vespa scooter from the southern coast to Madrid to ask General Franco for clemency on the beaches of his would-be tourist trap.
Impressed by Zaragoza’s eight-hour ride, Franco acquiesced, and the future of Benidorm – with tourism as its lifeblood – was secured.
The highly-flawed logic I’m trying to impose here is that the Germans and Brits taking their holidays in Benidorm have actually helped to shape the culture and identity of a place more than backpackers passing through more exotic destinations could do.
The last time I checked nobody had set up a branch of Lidl up the top of Machu Picchu (Ed. ‘What the fuck are you going on about Michael?’).
Getting off the tourist track, yeah?
For a certain type of traveller, the Holy Grail is doing some sort of activity that is edgier, less-regulated and more in harmony with the ‘real people’ than what the average bovine tourist might do.
I think the intention behind that is a bit mixed up, and – this is just my opinion – is more driven by a desire to rack up down-with-the-locals authenticity points than to learn more about a culture.
To give an example, I met this girl in a hostel in Rio who was very nice but a bit of a hippy (nb: she lives in a van back in the UK).
A few days later I ran into her on this Ilhe Grande island place and she explained that she had stayed in a favela for a few nights.
Isn’t that a bit disrespectful?
On some level doesn’t that fetishise poverty and disregard the risk prevention – both in the favelas and around the city – that the people of Rio have to factor in each day?
I had this guy as my profile picture on Facebook for a long while:
That is a guy called Richard Burton (not the actor), and back in the 19th century he spoke around 29 languages and spent most of his time exploring and documenting exotic cultures.
He was also kind of an asshole.
After successfully managing to disguise himself as an Arab and go undercover to make the journey of Hajj (a Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca) – something prohibited to non-Muslim Europeans at the time – Burton said of the experience:
“A blunder, a hasty action, a misjudged word, a prayer or bow, not strictly the right shibboleth, and my bones would have whitened the desert sand. This did not, however, prevent my carefully observing the scene during our long prayer, and making a rough plan with a pencil upon my white ihram.”
That roughly translates as: “Ha ha! Fooled ya’ll motherfuckers!!”
I’m definitely labouring this point, but I think there is a bit of a parallel there, even if the context and intentions are different.
Breaking away from my fellow hostel-dwelling gringos, I’m hoping the longer I am here, the more I will get to know about the Colombian people.
I’m still pretty ignorant about the geography of the city, and find myself on edge walking through areas I haven’t been before.
Yesterday, I was walking through what appeared to be a fairly industrial section in the west of Medellín next to a dual carriageway.
As I was crossing a slipway, this 1980s Ford Sierra pulled up and the driver started pointing and shouting something at me.
I backed up a few yards and looked in his passenger window at him thinking ‘this is it, this is how I get kidnapped’.
‘Espejo’ he was shouting. That’s Spanish for ‘mirror’. He wanted me to pull out his wing mirror.
There plenty of good reason to be wary of new places, but also plenty of good reason to think that things don’t change that much no matter where you are.