Thursday, 23 June 2011

People are strange

Luang Prabang, Laos and Hanoi, Vietnam

“Oh, hello, you were on the plane with us from Luang Prabang” she said, scurrying across the busy Hanoi street and leaving her (his eyes seemed to suggest) long-suffering husband on the other side.  Whilst it pays to be just the tiniest bit suspicious of random people claiming to know you in foreign cities, the middle aged north-western woman, with her camera toting husband in tow could, I felt, be swiftly placed in the harmless category.  Harmless maybe, but boy could she moan.  “How did you like Luang Prabang” we asked, wishing five minutes later that we hadn’t as we were treated to a rundown of the numerous failings the city had amounting, if I followed correctly, to there being ants in her room and the boat that transported them there being grubby.  I have no issue with people having higher expectations, particularly if they’ve paid enough to justify such expectations, but writing off a whole city – a UNESCO world heritage site at that – on the basis of a tour company screw up seems a bit disingenuous to me.  “I refused to get in the bed on the first night”, she continued, images flashing through my mind of her hanging upside down from an alcove instead, arms crossed over her chest, her husband ordering extra garlic bread at dinner.  “Oh, well I hope you’re enjoying Hanoi a little more” I politely responded, keen to move the conversation into a moan free zone before I had to get all Buffy on her arse and pull out my wooden stake or fashion a couple of ciggies into a makeshift crucifix.  “Oh, this is much more like it”, she replied, “the hotel’s beautiful, I’ll be two hours tops out here and then it’s straight back to the pool - a bit of luxury, just like we’re used to”.  Our eyes met, sharing a look that I suspect is unique to Brits, indecipherable to any other nationality, that said ‘yes, that’s right, you’ve just slipped into show-off mode, now we both feel uncomfortable’.  Hastily back-pedalling she added “you know what I mean, we’re older, we’ve done all that doss-house stuff before”. 

I should be clear here, I didn’t dislike this woman – I may not want to be trapped in a lift with her, but I didn’t dislike her.  She’d chosen to go on a tour through South East Asia, deciding against numerous more comfortable experiences, and she and her husband were most likely spending a good chunk of the savings they’d built up through the summer of their youth to do so.  But the reference to her age made me inwardly chuckle, bringing to life the irony of a sumptuous passage I had just read in Paul Theroux’s Ghost Train to the Eastern Star:

Luxury spoils and infantilizes you and prevents you from knowing the world. That is its purpose, the reason why luxury cruises and great hotels are full of fatheads who, when they express an opinion, seem as though they are from another planet.  

This woman, in the autumn of her life, had chosen, precisely because of her age, a holiday that would spoil and infantilize her and which was resulting in a grown-up tantrum on the side of a busy road in Hanoi to two complete strangers.  By vowing to spend time by the pool instead of time in the city she was clinging to a comfort blanket, knowing that the only strange foreigners she’d have to deal with would be those serving her Martinis poolside, trained no doubt to international standards and in the international language of the service industry, English. 

This sounds scathing, but it really isn’t meant to.  I genuinely hope that she has a nice holiday, and that she stops stressing the little things (and whisper it, they’re all little things in the end).  I hope that she gets up early one morning and sees how the residents of Hanoi keep fit without access to a five star pool, stretching, tai-chi’ing, and slowly jogging around the city centre lake as the steam dissipates off the surface and before the cloak of humidity takes hold.  I hope that as the sun rises her concerns and fears and frustrations will set, and that the ‘Dangers and Annoyances’ section of the Lonely Planet (which, be honest, everyone morbidly flicks to first) will no longer say to her scam, charlatan and thief but opportunity, understanding and friendship. I hope that she begins to revel in the giddy sensation of ‘otherness’ that travel in a strange land can engender, and that she starts to see this otherness as a blessing and not a curse.  I hope that she realises that it is more often the people, strange though they may be, and not the places, that make for a great experience. 

I hope I can do the same.

(Oh, and I really hope a priest hasn’t blessed that swimming pool water because that would be, well, messy.)

Competition time! There will be a fabvery little to no valueulous prize for the first person who can correctly identify the link between the title of this post and the subject matter.  Leave your submissions as a comment and if you post as 'anonymous' be sure to stick your name at the end of the comment.  Good luck blog fans and thanks, as ever, for reading! 
UPDATE, seven hours after publication - we have a winner already, and the competition is now closed, although feel free to leave other comments or connections that you see.  Read the comments to see the answers, including Mark's correct answer.>


  1. My answer to your competition is going to make you sigh and get the number of the nearest home but at least I am having a go!
    People are strange but they are a blessing - but blessings for certain people with a certain problem could end up as a real curse.
    Mum - I now have a severe headache xxx

  2. As Roy Walker would say 'that's good but it's not quite right'. Good effort, like the philosophical route you've taken. But the connection is far more specific, and much less cerebral than that.

    Helps to be a child of the 80s probably... xxx

  3. Doors of course!!! And now I can't get the tune out of my head. Are you referring to this song because the woman is of that generation ?? Or is this your way of telling me that I am a whingeing old bat?? I'm NOT identifying myself, but YOU know who!!

  4. P.S. The Doors released this in 1967 so how come you know it?

  5. How about this - The Doors song People Are Srange was covered by Echo and the Bunnymen and used on the soundtrack to the film The Lost Boys. The Lost Boys is a vampire movie, in which the nightcrawlers in question sleep hanging upside down from the ceiling like the old bat in the post

  6. We have a winner! Well, two winners I suppose.

    Mark absolutely nailed it and takes first prize with a spot-on answer that befits his description of a 'movie geek', although I prefer description 'movie director' given the recent release of his first feature (link below). Anonymous takes runner-up prize for being the first to correctly identify the song, but not making the full link. And you know what, I don't know who you are so you'll have to identify yourself if you want to claim your prize.

    Mark - you may have to wait a bit, maybe until September, before we can get your very special prize (no idea what it will be yet) to you via SE Asia, Vancouver then Chester. The anticipation! Let's sort out postal details nearer that time.

    Many thanks to all entrants; I may well run more of these competitions in future.

    Take a look at Mark's first feature 'Little Things' and his excellent blog describing its production:

  7. Being right and geeky is prize enough...