My Love of Public Transport
In my humble opinion, the worst thing about travel is travelling.
That is, the process of travelling – especially when it involves endless downtime in a large tin can flying hundreds of miles over nothing whatsoever. Not that the scenery even mattered, because as usual I was sitting next to the wing. When it comes to situations like this even watching paint dry seemed like the entertaining alternative. At least with that you have a clear exit to the toilet and there’s less chance of contracting piles.
Someone once said to me that they loved the exciting feeling of sitting in a plane, to which my response was a strong desire to punch them in the face. There is one interesting thing about flying and that’s landing – and this is only because my life flashes before my eyes in sheer terror. The rest is one long monotonous collage of sitting on a chair, picking up a book and realizing you bought Tracy Beaker by accident. Sure, there’s in-flight entertainment. One flight I took had a game of Pac man as well as a variety of Hugh Grant films. I don’t know what’s worse – playing Pac man for twelve hours straight, or enduring Hugh Grant for two.
There’s always conversation. Basic human interaction they say is what stimulates the brain most of all. It was worth a shot, so in an attempt to make idle chit-chat I asked the lady beside me where she was travelling to. Duh. Luckily, my foolish incompetence wasn’t noticed as I realized the paper she was reading was entirely in Spanish. In return, she smiled at me then ordered me a coffee – an excellent way of shutting a British citizen up. When I looked over to see who was at the other side of her, I saw a large man fast asleep. Have you noticed that whenever this happens, you immediately start needing the toilet? The coffee hadn’t helped.
After a battle on a scale of the French Revolution to get to the aisle, sleep suddenly seemed like a grand idea. Unfortunately in economy class, sleeping in an upright seat with a baby behind you is no easier than falling asleep in the Amazon River with a gash in your head. Thus was my opinion of flying.
So they then suggested that next time I take the train. Oh dear.
Let me tell you about the last time I was on a train. The line was from Berlin to Prague and there were no reservations. It seemed that Prague was a popular destination for the Germans that year, because despite being one of the first people on the train, I still found the cunning Germans had called dibs on the good seats. The bad seats? Sitting on the floor opposite the lavatory next to a group of overweight, loud Aussies that insisted on singing the Spice Girls. The only noise asides the Australian choir was the natural music of those who ventured to the toilet for a healthy number two.
There’s no ‘fasten your seatbelt’ sign on a train either, and now I know it’s because during rail travel, passengers who try and walk up and down the carriage have little common sense to begin with. After enduring another rendition of Wannabe, I decided to do what any man on the verge of insanity would do; stake out the bar. It turns out there was no need – mountaineering over all the other passengers lucky enough to get a floor-class seat in a train rivalling the Tangshan earthquake was enough to get me drunk without spending a penny. By the time I got back to my seat I was already hung over.
There were no windows in my carriage, but I’m sure if there had been, there would have been a wing.
Another pleasant train ride through scenic Europe. This time, it was a sleeper from Rome to Nice in France. The problem with Italy is that they don’t think one can handle sitting on the floor. This is especially the case if it means having to pay the extravagant Italian reservation fee – no exceptions. Thus, after handing over my life savings, a gold tooth and a place on my will, they gave me a carriage with a bed.
The problem here was that I paid more than it would have cost for a medium quality hotel. My bed was about thirty miles up a perilous ladder, bunking with three other men. Two Germans, who had already claimed the good beds, and an older Italian fellow. The plan was to get to sleep as soon as possible; I was getting a wake up call at 6am for my station transfer and would get breakfast served. Everything was in order.
Instead, I was woken up by the Italian man at 3am. He had climbed the ladder and was prodding me with, I kid you not, a broom. I responded with a series of grunts. He took this as meaning I was hungry and immediately produced a peach. I gave him a look. He looked back innocently then demanded I ate it. So I did, and as one would expect after being fed fruit by a stranger on a train, I fell asleep rather quickly.
Luckily it turned out that the Italian gentleman was showing a peculiar yet genuine generosity as opposed to a malicious theft technique. Even if I had been robbed, I had already surrendered half my worldly possessions to the Italian rail service.
I was woken on time by the train steward and handed breakfast, which consisted of a slice of bread.
Sorry – he said. We’re out of rolls.
Of course, all other public transport aside, I have forgotten to mention the bus. It’s certainly one of the cheapest options if you book online. You get a seat, you don’t have to go through airport security, there’s no bickering about extra luggage fees, there’s no endless downtime waiting for the plane to take off, you’re not served the horrors of plane food and you’re taken right to the centre of wherever you’re going. Then again, have you ever taken the overnight bus from London to Glasgow? I’d rather fly.
Culture Shock (Or Lack Thereof)
Foreign travel nearly always has pre-conceptions before one sets foot on a plane. The main one in any case is the lethargic educator’s sole words of advice: preparation. As I disembarked at Jorge Chávez International in Peru, I suddenly remembered that I was as prepared as Greece was for the recession. I had been handed a small guidebook that warned of Malaria, altitude sickness and something about armed robberies. With this aside, I had very little idea of what to expect. Rather – I had the premonitions of Michael Fish before a storm.
The rest of my knowledge was a collage of information told to me by gained through photographs, movies, Paddington bear and people who had never actually visited the country. One of these involved a species of monkey that ate your face whilst you went to the loo, and a parasite that munched on your insides whilst slowly turning you into Michael Portillo. So no, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect besides the fact that it would be very different.
As with ignorance, this kind of knowledge is a dangerous thing. Walking into the airport lobby I anticipated hordes of pickpockets, muggers, gangs, street mimes and anacondas – all of which would be waving a sign with my name on it.
Instead, there was the astonishing sight of a crowd of Peruvians waiting for the return of their families. It wasn’t much of a culture shock. After buying a coke and a sandwich from the local equivalent of WH Smiths, I may as well have been in a developed Pollockshields.
The thing with culture shock is not so much surprise at the different lifestyle, but the creeping realization of how similar things can be. To the uneducated, myself included, deepest darkest Peru was an idiom of wild, anarchic chaos.
Guidebooks and photography found when searching for Peru often involves depictions of the locals sporting traditional attire, singing songs about revolution, llamas, llamas singing songs about revolution and so on. The truth of the matter is that I saw two llamas during the entire trip. Both were in a tourist centric zone and both were looking thoroughly miserable with their nationalistic appearance.
The people I spent time with on the trip dressed up in the local gear once – for the Peruvian Independence Day – or Fiestas Patrias - parade. Afterwards they quickly shed the gowns and threw back on Adidas and Nike, leaving behind a chaotic trail of disappointed photographers.
This must mean than photojournalists sent to capture the moment all arrive for one day of the year before returning to their condos in Leith. To put this into perspective, I was asked on multiple occasions why I didn’t look like the Scott’s Porage Oats bloke. This in turn led to an awkward discussion of genetics and how I was several decades of physical training short of tossing a caber. I’ve never understood why the Highland games were so popular until now – foreign journalists yearning for a photo of a man in a skirt picking up a tree.
Amongst other similarities, I saw my fair share of street yobs shouting things in Spanish, businessmen, high-brow shopping malls, casinos and continental markets. Music wise, I wasn’t subjected to traditional song and dance, but was requested on a number of occasions to sing Justin Bieber. Perhaps this is the depravity suffered by the country.
Even the weather in Lima bore similarities to the dreich UK mist. Besides the language barrier, the one difference that stood out was how much better quality the roads were, than in Ayrshire.
Another fact I heard from a questionable source was how friendly and hospitable the people of Peru were. To return to my first steps in the country, the crowd of people in the lobby were all looking delightfully cheerful. Once I was on the bus to the hostel, I saw more and more crowds. As we drove off, they started cheering. To compare, in Glasgow youths would spit in my direction simply for having the audacity of affording a bus.
Anyway, they cheered and clapped. Further down the road, there were more crowds all standing in gutters, bridges, broken pavements, sitting on roadside fences all calling out in glee. One could imagine that once you had gotten over the fact that this was more than hospitality, the scenario was a little perplexing.
The bus had to drive to the opposite end of Lima to reach the hostel. For a city of over 8 million, this was a long trip. However, no matter where the bus went, there were always crowds waiting to shout and cheer. I can remember thinking; Finally - a hearty welcome. A cultural enigma.
It was only a matter of time before I caught on. The national team of Peru was coming home that day. In fact, it was coming home that very evening – and to Lima, any bus with tinted windows driving out the airport was a potential candidate for stardom. It was disheartening to realize that you’re not all that special simply for being Scottish. However in retrospect I was living in cloud cuckoo land. The idea of a culture shock simply morphed into yet another similarity – devotion to the national team. We were one and the same.
After this, I half expected to see a billboard advertising Butlins.
With this new knowledge in mind, I started to watch the people waving at me with the remaining inkling of pride I had left. Half an hour on the bus and their enthusiasm died down and when the glory of riding a bus dies, one tends to sink so low as to become a borderline extravert. Hospitable or not, my inner child kicked in. From behind the tinted glass, I gazed out at the adoring crowds and waved.
Except I waved just as the bus stopped at a light. The crowd now had the time to gaze through the thinly guised window and realize that the group inside were white, fair-haired and most definitely not Peruvian. The famous rumour of friendly hospitality diminished rather quickly.
The gut-wrenching stares of disgust were quite striking. I don’t think I’ll ever feel quite so famous again.