As a man with nothing to save for and no offspring to syphon it away, money serves three purposes for me.
First, it buys toilet paper. On the one hand, bog roll symbolises mundane bills and unavoidable life expenses, but while clutched in the other it serves to hurriedly wipe away the terrifying results of money’s second purpose, dipsomania.
The third is foreign travel. Much as I love Britain’s glorious combination of comforting bigotry, polite sadism and fields, so many fields, seeing other parts of the world is now my principal route to joy. As I write, I’m in the 40th country I’ve visited, before my fourth decade is up, and I’m proud of that.
And as I write I can see two things. One is a jungle, right next to this hotel, from where a troupe of capuchin monkeys emerged yesterday to steal a fat man’s plantain.
The other is tourists.
Oh you will follow me around the globe, won’t you? I’ve been to Cambodia, I’ve been to Greenland, I’ve been to Japan, and among the temples, icebergs and drunken businessmen, there you are, waving cameras and blocking pathways, bellowing inanely and never falling into a fucking canyon when I want you to.
There is no view on Earth that cannot be spoiled by a tourist. As bizarre a sentence as this threatens to become, I am in Costa Rica at least in part to see frogs. The other day a local had awoken a nocturnal amphibian and planted the groggy green chap on a leaf for us to peer at. A Frenchman immediately stood between me and the creature with his iPhone jammed up against it. Once, just once, could it not have been one of those poisoned dart frogs?
Right now, there’s a foot-long basilisk wandering beside me, seemingly oblivious to my sitting here. I am at one with nature, at least in so far as he and I both hope that that podgy little American runt over there doesn’t come tramping over here with that, you guessed it, iPhone he’s guilelessly waving about like a self-important fire warden with a flag during a drill.
Two prejudices outed themselves there. Kids abroad are a special kind of menace, shrieking and demanding and ignorant of both their surroundings and my furious, nearby presence. That one, just over there, is currently bleating “Mom! Mom!” for reasons unknown. It’s sitting next to a small swimming pool. Would it be murder? The deathless eyes of the reptile assure me mitigating circumstances abound.
But also, there’s Americans. Sweet Christ, we all know the world owes Americans a kicking, but they clearly implant something truly awful in the ones they send over the top at the rest of us. “IS THAT SUPPOSED TO BE A WATERFALL? THERE’S NO WATER. THIS SUCKS, MAN. LET’S GO TO THE BEACH” and let the rest of these poor bastards attend to their tinnitus. They will check every menu in baffling detail, ensuring their pineapple won’t be overdone and there’s no gluten in the bottled water. Jim and Darla from Cincinnati, Ohio can’t make next month’s rates on their failing mom and pop store, but they’re on vacation and their every whim will be attended to because USA! USA!
Not that Trumpland is the only country that should be walled up. Russians have a particular brand of recumbent hostility that they don’t hesitate to deploy whenever innocent waiting staff hove into view. The Chinese hunt in packs, utterly blind to the existence of anyone not over 60 and in shit sunglasses and a Reni hat. Germans probably do something with beach towels, but I’m not stupid enough to want to spend my time being grilled by a fireball so I don’t care about that.
Brits abroad are fine of course. They all go to Spain together for the same week every year, and spend the other 51 recovering from the sunburn and beating their wives. All except for the man who I saw last night telling, not asking, the barman “Have you got any Bombay Sapphire?” in a Bristolian accent. I didn’t know it was possible for your eyes to distend, your blood to scream and your balls to wince all at the same time, but this is why I travel, for the new experiences.
Am I a bad tourist? I don’t know, but I try to be mindful. I try to be courteous, grateful for any service I receive, and don’t stand staring at a Metro map I couldn’t possibly hope to understand precisely at the spot commuters are trying to angrily tramp their way to jobs they hate. Where possible and not gut-punch embarrassing, I’ll try to gabble a few words in the native language. Amazing as it seems I don’t drink much abroad so there’s little chance of my wasting the taxes of other countries on emergency service call-outs and extradition admin.
But dickheads are dickheads no matter where they are. If you’re the type of person who wants to prove your culinary credentials by complaining that your Roadchef pork chop is 30 seconds overdone, there’s little that’ll stop you doing similar to staff who haven’t the faintest idea what you’re saying in a language they never needed to know before cheap air travel. But if those rural Laotians don’t follow your barked instructions for your mok pa to the letter they can be bloody well sure Tripadvisor will hear about it, eh?
As each hard-to-reach place becomes accessible to tourists all demanding their right to be tourists in that place, homogeneity edges one step closer. The more we travel the globe demanding to be treated as visiting heads of state, ignoring local customs and pissing on the history of some of humanity’s great races, the more Burger Kings you’ll find in Port Moresby. If you want foreign travel to remain a life-affirming experience, don’t pack your fucking curling irons and moan when they blow a circuit breaker in a B&B in Baku.
And the next time someone’s iPhone gets in the way of my frog, maybe those extradition papers will come in handy after all.