Five travel firsts

1 May

By their nature, travel fiends are always in the throes of planning their next trip, so they’re hard wired to obsess about the future. No one really talks about their formative travel experiences – the very earliest ones, on childhood holidays, where something so we might think quite mundane now elevated an annual two weeks in August time-share holiday to something magical and personality-forming. What were the moments back in time that led me to the travelling experiences I seek in adulthood?

I was thinking about the most effecting moments in my travelling life so far and I was surprised to recall a bunch of almost inane non-events that, in hindsight, were pivotal travel firsts – something small that happened, or occurred to me, while I was travelling for business or pleasure, that felt instantly new. Rolled up into a ball, these moments become a back-story as to who I came to be the person that writes these words today, whether I’m on the road or at home. And surely it’s that which underlines how important travelling is as one of many life experiences. Here’s a selection of five of my travel firsts.

Travel first #1: Aloe relief, Bahamas

This image is almost precisely what I see in my head when I think of the Bahamas. The Field Museum Library/Flickr.

This image is almost precisely what I see in my head when I think of the Bahamas. The Field Museum Library/Flickr.

As a child I had horrendous eczema that plagued me every day and night. But I was lucky to have a dad who, in the 80’s, had fallen into well paid sales jobs in IT, so he could afford the regulation middle-class fortnight somewhere hot in the summer school holidays, where my skin could heal a bit with the humid climate. My very earliest holiday abroad was when my mum and dad took me and my brother – it was 1986 so I was 6, he was 4 – to the Bahamas, which, by reaching into the furthermost and fuzziest corners of my memory, I recall being a place of whitewashed villas with sandy paths and great stands of aloe vera plants. Unaccustomed to the tropical heat and unforgiving sun, my parents being from Glasgow and on their very first trip somewhere so exotic, I got sunburn, which combined with eczema is no fun. I have a picture in my mind of my mum hacking a long, prickly leaf from a huge aloe plant growing outside the door of our villa and smearing the cold gel up and down my arm. What a strange sight to a little girl from Luton: to see her mum mutilate a plant and use its leaves to soothe my skin. In that memory, the colours are azure blue, to jewel green, to coral red and pale pink sand. Colours that are alien to the average Luton-dwelling child, for obvious reasons, I think that palette somehow stayed with me and became part of a subconscious search for exotic shades in yet more far-flung locales in my adult life, as a backpacker.

Travel firsts #2: Luxury business travel introduction, Switzerland

The view from Burgenstock, Switzerland. Tom Raftery/Flickr.

The view from Burgenstock, Switzerland. Tom Raftery/Flickr.

My first big business trip came in 2002. I was in my first proper job as a hack and was dispatched, with my bosses and the other reporters, to the three-day, once-annual Swiss Futures and Options Association conference, held on the rugged, remote hilltop Burgenstock, next to Switzerland’s monied Lake Lucerne. I had no idea that luxury of this level existed, nor that corporate events in the financial world were equally sumptuous and decadent. Walking into my suite overlooking the lake – complete with Milka chocolate-style cows munching on grass beneath my balcony, complete with ringing cow bells – I was confused to see that my bathroom had two basins. One entire wall of the room was given over to wardrobe space, as if those who stayed here brought a month’s worth of ball-gowns and Salvatore Ferragamo business suits. I couldn’t understand why I had so much floor space, equivalent to the entire size of my rented Brixton flat.

On my first night, returning from my first experience at a gala dinner where Chateauneuf-de-pape flowed like water and three sets of silver cutlery almost exposed my lack of high society etiquette, I walked into the room to find the balcony doors wide open and the curtains flapping in the breeze. I looked around and sensed that everything was slightly different to how I had left it four hours previously. I must have been robbed! Feeling panicked, I ran to the reception and reported this. A bellboy was dispatched to check out my story. Timidly waiting by the door while he hunted around, he walked over to me and pointed at my bed. It was perfectly made: there was no way that was me. “You haven’t been robbed madam. Your room has been cleaned.” The bellboy pointed to a chocolate placed exactly on the centre of one of my freshly fluffed-up deluxe pillows. “They clean the room and change the sheets and towels while you are gone – and they leave you a chocolate,” he reported. “They leave the balcony doors open just to bring fresh air into the room.” And that was how I learned that there was another half, let alone how it lives, which was a useful education for someone who would go on to spend four years writing about old family business money.

Travel firsts #3: Trusting your tour guide, Morocco

My Tangiers trip was pre-photos, so here's a snap of Ait Benhaddou, still in Morocco!

My Tangiers trip was pre-photos, so here's a snap of Ait Benhaddou, still in Morocco!

My dad won a time-share apartment in the faux-whitewashed villas of the Miraflores golf club resort in Mijas, on Spain’s Costa del Sol, through work and we spent the last two weeks of August there every year until I was about 14. After I’d become old enough to successfully protest at being forced to join the family holiday, I had not been back until after my dad sold the time-share but he decided, in 2004, to book a reunion trip for all of us (now five with the addition of my 12-year old sister). It wasn’t as much fun as a young adult: for one thing, I had by then been living in London for four years and wasn’t about to regress to tagging along with the olds, save for the free meals and board.

One day pottering in the shade of the faux-Moroccan styled club house, I saw some leaflets advertising day trips: pay Eu30 for a guided day tour to Tangiers, Morocco – North Africa! It might as well have been to Mars, so mysterious and seductive was the prospect of seeing Africa. I’d never been further than Spain without my parents at that point and I signed up on the spot. It didn’t disappoint: there were tagines, haggard old men in billowy white kaftans with skin like dried up teabags haggling over carpets, a snake charmer, mint tea served in the shadow of the medina, street koran schools and hole-in-the-wall bread ovens – the whole Mark Twain. But what was most instructive was that on the ferry from the port of Algeciras, our tour guide took the group’s passports and kept them in a supermarket bag until we were stepping off the boat on our return. I was naïve and not well travelled, but I was immensely worried by this need to disabuse us of our legal documents. I argued with him: why did he need to keep our passports? What if we needed them? But to no avail, and I was too lily-livered to force him to return mine. I had visions of it being spirited away to some private corner of the boat, copied by expert forgers and tens of new Melanie Sterns, of all colours and creeds, emerging to register Amex cards in my stead. (It didn’t reassure me that I saw several tiny, makeshift floats drifting by from the porthole in open sea, hosted by – as I know now, and didn’t then – absconding Moroccans desperate to enter Spain unseen.) I may never know what that was all about, but the next time my passport felt at threat I hid it in my knickers. No one was going there.

Travel firsts #4: Flying solo, Spain

The Autovia del Mediterraneo at Mijas. Yanfuano/Flickr

The Autovia del Mediterraneo at Mijas. Yanfuano/Flickr

As a lonely insomniac child, you get used to finding little worlds of your own to keep entertained. On one of my summer holidays in Spain with my folks (I think it was probably 1993, as it was the holiday from which I’ve got a photo of me in a crop top which I paired with a Marks & Spencer full length button down denim skirt – stylish!), I was in the nadir of my insomniac phase and, lying silently still in the dark while everyone else slept, I decided to go outside. Creeping out into the brilliant white living room of our villa, I saw my dad’s keys on the breakfast table and five minutes later, I had unlocked the front door and was outside in the big world with all its palm trees and balmy night air. I walked; I walked without aim or direction, but it didn’t matter; I was exploring in the darkness.

I ended up on the bridge over the Autovia del Meditteraneo, which marked my exit from the safety of the resort and my crossing over to ‘everything else’ – the world at large. Over the other side of the bridge it was so…different. There was a little road alongside the autovia with a few houses on it – they were all different, but that same villa-style. A side path led down to the beach; it had that slightly pinky-brown sand here and there. As I got onto the sand, the black sky was turning navy, and I caught sight of the lights attached to fishing boats out to sea. Apart form the hum of the autovia behind me, and the sound of the waves ahead, there was no noise, and no one around. I walked and walked along that beach for what must have been an hour or so; or it could have been a few minutes. Eventually, I realised that I was far away enough to feel afraid, and in any case, it was now morning. I scooted back the way I came, quietly stole back into the villa – everyone still fast asleep, crickets still singing – and back into my bed, whereupon I think I fell asleep for several hours. I think it was that night that set in me a decision to see more, to go further: not to be afraid.


Travel firsts #5: Passport panty control, Romania

Just to demonstrate how sunburned I was on my Romania-Turkey trip.

Just to demonstrate how sunburned I was on my Romania-Turkey trip.

After my little day trip to Tangiers, I wondered if I shouldn’t try something a bit more hardcore in holiday terms. My flatmate, Hayley, had sucked me right in with her tales of living in Japan and backpacking through Laos and Cambodia, so I asked her if she was up for a low-budget trip somewhere that felt far away enough to be challenging, but was gentle on someone as fearful of backpacking as I was. We agreed on a week in Romania (EasyJet still flew to Bucharest for £30 then) and a week in Turkey, connected by a ferry trip down the Black Sea coast. In the event, the ferries had long ceased operations, but having gotten ourselves to Viru Viru, a paradisical and totally undiscovered beach-side commune on the Bulgarian border, we heard a coach came through a couple of times a week that we could join at border control which would overnight us to Istanbul. We did catch said coach, but it wasn’t long before we discovered we were the only tourists on what was actually a routine contraband smuggling route, evidenced by the rotund, headscarved women who, with the border guards’ (perhaps wilfully) backs turned, furiously squished bottles of Jack Daniels and packets of cigarettes down into the legs of their woollen tights and threw on cable jumpers under which they hid tucked-in t-shirts full of the same, before loading onto the coach.

Once on our way, one of them started asking in broken English if me and Hayley would take some of their goods ( and by this time, they had moved the goods from their person to behind the ceiling panels of the bus, in plain view of us tourists) so that they could get them through the Bulgaria-Turkey border. Hayley almost said yes: too much of a cautious Carol, I used my power of veto and instructed Hayley not to make eye contact with anyone on the bus for the rest of the night. And mindful of the Morocco ferry incident where I feared I’d lose my passport and be lost forever in a foreign land without my papers, I slipped my passport into my pants where I knew there was only one way anyone was getting hold of it. Pulling into Sultanhamet at first light and first prayers, with our smuggling friends dozing around us, I yanked my passport out of my knickers, roused Hayley from her sleep and together we bolted off that bus and into a new city, papers intact. You don’t realise how painful it is to have your passport scrape past your sunburned stomach in a rush.


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