Travellers’ tales - The Escapist 2018 - Magazine | Monocle

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Nothing to declare (Trade)

by Dan Richards

We will all happily seek out cross-border contraband if it means getting a good deal. Of course, there are those who go further and cross the thin blue line as well.

“I’m very serious,” said Rory, solemn faced. “Bacon smuggling across the Norway-Sweden border is rife.” “Bacon,” I echoed. “Bacon, you say?”

I’d recently been thinking about border hopping, jaunts driven by the allure of bargains. An acquaintance returning from an Ionian holiday told me that Greeks on Corfu habitually cross to Albania to shop and eat out, making the most of the euro’s strength over the lek – a practice that has turned their Balkan neighbour’s ports into demotic party towns.

It was a few days later that Rory began to hold forth about bootleg bacon. “I have spoken to people,” he said, in a stage whisper. “They claim that cars are routinely found with packets of meat hidden inside the doors.” My response was to ask if they were crackling down on that sort of thing. But it turned out to be true; a regular shuttle of shopping coaches nicknamed fleskbussen – bacon buses – roll east to such Swedish frontier towns as Trondheim, where Norwegians stock up on cheap(er) meat and alcohol. A similar bus leaves Berlin three times a day, where €5 buys you a day return to Poland. Popular purchases include beer, underpants, kebabs, curtains, hub caps, prams, wedding dresses, garden gnomes and asparagus. Not that one needs a bus – my neighbour revealed that he used to take regular spins from France into Switzerland for crates of Red Bull. “It was banned at the time,” he told me.

Everyone seems to have a story. People light up at the mention of sub-rosa derring-do and lines blur between thrifty holiday finds and low-level illegality. On one side of the line, my great uncle Jack used to walk the 200 metres into Gloucestershire from his Bristol home most evenings to take advantage of the former’s licensing laws and drink and play darts for for an extra half hour. On the other hand, my great great aunt Dorothy Pilley – a trailblazing mountaineer – used to call for a wheelchair at airports so that, apparently frail and swathed in blankets, she could be rolled through customs with several untaxed cartons of Camel cigarettes on her lap.

“I remember as a kid watching Indian gold smugglers declaring themselves as such when they went through security at Zürich airport,” a fellow writer recalled. When the buzzers went off the charming crooks would open their coats to reveal small pockets sewn into the linings to hold half-ounce gold bars. This was in the days when it was licit to buy gold in Switzerland but illegal to import into India. Several English friends reminisced about their dads travelling to the continent to buy a new car and then drive it back. “It was the 1980s, things were different then,” was a regular refrain – a world on the cusp of a great opening up; communism ceding to consumption.

Candice Eley works for the San Diego Tourism Authority and described the border between San Diego and Tijuana. “College students went there to party because it was easy to reach, you didn’t need a passport and you could drink at age 18 rather than 21.” These days there’s more of a cultural exchange between the two cities in terms of art, music and cuisine. Young professionals cross for business and people yo-yo to save money: whether to get cheaper dentistry or a less-expensive house. Eley knows of more than a few native San Diegans who find it makes sense to live in Tijuana and work in California.

Another acquaintance recalled how in the late 1980s he used to drive from LA to Tijuana to buy crates of Mexican-made Coca-Cola because they still used an old 1970s formula that he preferred. Similarly, a sommelier I know let spill that around that time he knew several London wine dealers who’d stalk Auchan and Carrefour supermarkets in France for cut-rate bottles of Premier Cru Bordeaux.

The more I learnt about the grifting schemes of fellow travellers, the more impressed I became. The invention and sneaky sagacity of my great great aunt lives on – I’m sure she’d be delighted. Of course, such problems will seem quaint if the UK crashes out of Europe without a deal post-Brexit; halcyon irks compared to the potential import/export woes to come. One can imagine lorries tailing back either side of the Channel – the French cheese, wine and Gauloises awaiting entry; the British tea, jam and biscuits awaiting exit – while between the juggernauts strides a civilian army: the fleskbussen generation hefting suitcases stuffed with EU ambrosia.

About the author: Richards is a British travel writer and author of three books: Holloway, The Beechwood Airship Interviews and Climbing Days. Outpost, a book exploring ideas of shelter and wilderness, will be published by Canongate next year.

Reading list
1. Whisky Galore by Compton Mackenzie
2. Diamonds are Forever by Ian Fleming
3. Orison for a Curlew: In Search of a Bird on the Edge of Extinction by Horatio Clare
4. Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell
5. Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe by Kapka Kassabova
6. Rimbaud by Graham Robb


Step in the right direction (Mobility)

by Guy Stagg

The word pilgrimage is loaded with religious meaning but at its core it’s really just a hike – albeit sometimes a rather difficult one – with benefits. So get your boots on and take a walk on the wild side.

Growing up, I thought that pilgrimage was only for the faithful – until I decided to walk from Canterbury to Jerusalem. I began the journey after several years of mental illness, hoping it would help me recover. I don’t believe in God, I don’t believe in miracles and I don’t believe that a sacrament can cure a sickness. However, on the road I realised that ritual can still have meaning for those without faith.

I do, however, believe that pilgrimage can change the way you think – and I’m not the only one. Last year more than 300,000 people walked the Way of St James, a Spanish pilgrimage route. When pilgrims reach Santiago they fill in a questionnaire. Of those, only 47 per cent listed the main reason for their journey as religious. But what’s the difference between walking the Way and any other hiking holiday?

On pilgrimage, the internal journey matters as much as the external one. You don’t travel to reach a sacred site but to achieve a deeper level of self-understanding. And the ritual is structured to encourage this understanding: most pilgrims take only what they can carry, stick to ancient paths and sleep in monasteries, convents or refuges. Walking in silence for hours, you ask the difficult questions that we spend much of our lives avoiding: what it means to be happy, to be good, to be fulfilled.

Of course, that’s not the only motive for going on pilgrimage and more well-known routes attract people for all sorts of reasons: some are looking to lose weight or are dealing with bereavement. You meet pilgrims from every kind of background and, because everyone has to face the same hardships, the shared challenges create bonds between strangers.

Not everyone enjoys the penitential approach and popular destinations also offer services such as baggage transfer and guided tours. In some cases, however, the hardship is central to the experience. At Mount Kailash in Tibet, pilgrims circle the mountain at over 5,000 metres. Most struggle with altitude sickness but the difficulty in completing the journey is what brings satisfaction. In the same way, the challenges of travelling on foot – blisters, boredom, rain – make you all the more grateful for simple pleasures such as a warm shower or a comfy bed. Visit Mount Kailash and you’ll spend most of your time with international pilgrims but other sites have few pilgrims of any nationality. On remote routes you can feel as if you are encountering a hidden side to the countries you cross. Though ease of travel has shrunk the planet, when you explore overlooked sacred sites it seems to stretch much wider again.

Learning about a place’s ritual practices can also teach you about its history, culture and politics. And, by taking part in those practices, atheists and agnostics gain insight into why people believe. On my own journey I watched Albanian evangelicals speaking in tongues and joined all-night worshippers in Jerusalem. At first, attending these rituals felt like deep-diving into all that was alien about other faiths. But the longer I spent watching worship, the more familiar it became. Eventually these practices went from being relics of outdated piety to living expressions of a timeless tradition, leaving me with a sense that the world was bigger, older and more diverse than I had imagined. These lessons will last the rest of my life – and none of them needed belief.

About the author: Stagg is a writer based in London. In 2013 he walked from Canterbury to Jerusalem. The Crossway, an account of that journey, was published earlier this year by Picador.

Reading list
1. India: A Sacred Geography by Diana L Eck
2. Japanese Pilgrimage by Oliver Statler
3. Plainwater by Anne Carson
4. Roads to Santiago by Cees Nooteboom
5. The Chains of Heaven by Philip Marsden
6. To a Mountain in Tibet by Colin Thubron
7. Wanderlust by Rebecca Solnit


The Good Country (Geopolitics)

by Madeline Hung

You’re invited on a trip to a country with a truly global outlook: you won’t need a visa or have to learn a new language (unless you want to). The question is: will you like it so much you’ll want to stay?

Next time you go on holiday, I hope you’ll consider visiting a certain new country. You won’t be able to find it on a map and yet you probably speak its language. I can assure you it’s one of the most welcoming places you’ll ever visit (no visa required). And while it’s one of the most culturally diverse destinations, it will likely feel familiar. In fact, you might think it’s where you should have been living all your life.

That country is the Good Country, one my co-founder Simon Anholt and I will be bringing into existence later this year. It’s a country with the potential to bring together millions of citizens from around the planet with a shared set of values and a shared vision for the world; a country designed to make the world work better.

So why do we need this? The 21st century has been characterised by global challenges – from climate change and refugee crises, to human-rights abuses and war. It’s clear that these problems no longer fall neatly along the lines of any one country’s borders and that we’re going to have to work together if we have any hope of resolving them. And yet countries – as well as companies and cities – don’t collaborate nearly as much as they should in addressing these challenges. Why? Because their leaders are so often seduced by the false logic that what’s in the interest of their voters and their shareholders must come at the expense of everyone else. This is largely a cultural problem. For millennia, people in positions of power have been held responsible for their own people alone but, in our interconnected and interdependent modern world, this is no longer a sufficient principle. In the longer term, it’s disastrous.

Humanity needs the Good Country, because only a new country has the potential to update our culture of governance from one that is fundamentally competitive to one that is fundamentally collaborative. Unlike NGOs and charities, which are often limited to campaigning activities, the Good Country will have the capacity to fund and implement its own policies like a state. Unlike UN agencies, which are constrained by the limited powers granted to them by their members, the Good Country’s agenda and actions will be decided by its citizens. Its national interest is the international interest.

The Good Country will have no territory, so your tourist experience will largely be through meeting its citizens. Like those of any other country, Good Country citizens join by agreeing to a basic social contract. Each pays an annual tax of $5 and in exchange gets to decide what issues the country will address and what actions it will perform. Uniquely, citizenship isn’t based on where you were born or whether you have the means to get somewhere else. Citizens of the Good Country can come from anywhere in the world, speak any language, practise any religion and vote in any political party. They join the country because they share its values of cosmopolitanism, internationalism and tolerance.

And we know that the Good Country’s citizens are out there. Four years of research suggests that at least 10 per cent of the world’s population have shared values with the Good Country and may well consider citizenship. That’s 760 million people. If the Good Country reaches all these people, it will be the third largest country by population in the world. Imagine the power to start making a difference in the world with 760 million citizens, each paying $5 in annual tax. This might involve bringing together countries and other players in new forms of collective problem-solving or educating leaders and voters about the benefits of co-operative policy-making. With its tax revenue, the Good Country could also build and fund new institutions or drive companies to the negotiating table.

Each intervention the Good Country carries out will be selected by its citizens using cutting-edge technology. The Good Country will use AI software platform Remesh to understand the issues its citizens want to tackle. In each decision-making conversation, citizens will respond to questions and then rate which of their peers’ responses they agree with most. Unlike traditional polls, Remesh lets participants answer each question in any way they choose rather than selecting from a multiple-choice list. Normally, this is only possible in small groups but the AI makes it possible to “take the temperature” of the Good Country’s entire population simultaneously – doing away with traditional binary voting systems and a government bureaucracy.

This September, the Good Country will open for citizen enrolment for the first time. In the months that follow, it will begin to test the processes by which we make decisions and develop interventions. Depending on the preferences of its citizens, the Good Country may be co-creating new migration policies, writing a cybersecurity treaty or building an international climate-change communications institute in 2019 – with a target of several million passport-holding citizens to help implement those actions by the end of the year.

So the next time you go on holiday, I hope you’ll consider visiting an entirely new country. And if you enjoy your Good Country visit as a tourist, I hope you’ll consider staying as a citizen.

About the author: Hung is a co-founder of the Good Country along with Simon Anholt. Hung’s previous work has focused on issues around business and human rights.

Reading list
1. Imagined Communities by Benedict Anderson
2. Divided Nations: Why Global Governance is Failing and What We Can Do About It by Ian Goldin
3. Globalization and its Discontents by Joseph Stiglitz
4. Serious Creativity by Edward de Bono
5. Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics by Joseph Nye
6. Diplomacy by Henry Kissinger
7. Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers by Kwame Anthony Appiah


The science of jetlag (Travel)

by Matthew Walker 

Jetlag is a phenomenon of modern life and most of us have experienced its sleepy side-effects at one time or another. But why do we get it and, more importantly, how badly does it affect our bodies?

The advent of the jet engine was a revolution for the mass transit of human beings around the planet. However, it created an unforeseen biological calamity: jet planes offered the ability to speed through time zones faster than our 24-hour internal clocks could ever keep up with or adjust to. Those jets caused a biological time lag: jetlag. As a result, we feel tired and sleepy during the day in a distant time zone because our internal clock still thinks it is night-time. It hasn’t yet caught up. If that were not bad enough, at night we are frequently unable to initiate or maintain sleep because our internal clock now believes it to be daytime.

Take the example of my recent flight home to England from San Francisco. London is eight hours ahead of San Francisco. When I arrive in England, despite the digital clock in London’s Heathrow Airport telling me it is 09.00, my internal circadian clock is registering a very different time – California time, which is 01.00. I should be fast asleep. I will drag my time-lagged brain and body through the London day in a state of deep lethargy. Every aspect of my biology is demanding sleep; sleep that most people back in California are being swaddled in at this time. The worst, however, is yet to come. By midnight London time, I am in bed, tired and wanting to fall asleep. But unlike most people in London, I can’t seem to drift off. Though it is midnight in London, my internal biological clock believes it to be 16.00, which it is in California. I would normally be wide awake, and so I am, lying in bed in London. It will be five or six hours before my natural tendency to fall asleep arrives… just as London is starting to wake up and I have to give a public lecture. What a mess.

This is jetlag: you feel tired and sleepy during the day in the new time zone because your body clock and associated biology still “think” it is night-time. At night, you are frequently unable to sleep solidly because your biological rhythm still believes it to be daytime.

Fortunately, my brain and body will not stay in this mismatched limbo forever. I will acclimatise to London time by way of the sunlight signals in the new location. But it’s a slow process. For every day you are in a different time zone, your suprachiasmatic nucleus can only re-adjust by about one hour.

You may have noticed that it feels harder to acclimatise to a new time zone when travelling eastward than when flying westward. There are two reasons for this. First, the eastward direction requires that you fall asleep earlier than you would normally, which is a tall biological order for the mind to simply will into action. In contrast, the westward direction requires you to stay up later, which is a consciously and pragmatically easier prospect. Second, when shut off from any outside-world influences, our natural circadian rhythm is innately longer than one day – about 24 hours and 15 minutes. Modest as this may be, this makes it somewhat easier for you to artificially stretch a day than shrink it. When you travel westward – in the direction of your innately longer internal clock – that “day” is longer than 24 hours for you and this is why it feels a little easier to accommodate to. Eastward travel, however, which involves a “day” that is shorter in length for you than 24 hours, goes against the grain of your innately long internal rhythm to start with, which is why it is rather harder to do.

West or east, jetlag still places a torturous physiological strain on the brain, and a deep biological stress upon the cells, organs and major systems of the body. And there are consequences. Scientists have studied airplane cabin crews who frequently fly on long-haul routes and have little chance to recover. Two alarming results have emerged. First, parts of their brains – specifically those related to learning and memory – had physically shrunk, suggesting the destruction of brain cells caused by the biological stress of time-zone travel. Second, their short-term memory was significantly impaired. They were considerably more forgetful than individuals of similar age and background who did not frequently travel through time zones.

Based on these deleterious effects, you can appreciate why some people faced with frequent jetlag, including airline pilots and cabin crew, would want to limit such misery.

About the author: Walker is a professor of neuroscience and psychology at the University of California, Berkeley. Extracted from Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker, published by Penguin. Copyright ©2018 Matthew Walker.

Reading list
1. Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams by Matthew Walker
2. The Sleep Solution: Why Your Sleep is Broken and How to Fix It by W Chris Winter
3. Internal Time: Chronotypes, Social Jet Lag and Why You’re So Tired by Till Roenneberg
4. Airline Visual Identity 1945-1975 by M C Hühne
5. The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton


Lost and found (Travel)

by Andrew Tuck

After reading The Escapist you might be inspired to hop in a taxi, jump on a train or even take to the air. And it’ll all be fun and games – until you realise you’ve left your favourite jacket in Singapore. Again.

Just before I close my suitcase and zip up my carry one, I take one last look at the lovingly folded shirts, the perhaps too generous ration of socks (well, you never know whether you’ll wake up wanting to be bright of ankle or sober grey) and the various bits of tech we all cart around (hello laptop, phone, knot of cables). And then I wonder – which one of you precious things is going to have a spate of separation anxiety over the next few days? Because, for sure, there will a charger that is going to remain plugged in as I close the hotel bedroom door, a face-saving unguent that will be unwisely abandoned in the bathroom, a book that will get stranded among the thumbed newspapers in a seat-back pocket or a phone that will remain at dinner long after I have left. I could keep an entire lost-and-found office busy.

Lack of sleep, late nights and discombobulating time zones are partly to blame – but they still don’t quite explain how so many of my possessions are left to run loose across the globe. I like to think it’s not simple ineptitude but rather that travel has a way of loosening our grip on our possessions. But, like homing pigeons, many of my possessions do make it back to me, and rarely with even a feather bent. Stay calm, because things will often return – indeed more often than you deserve.

Five moments from the life of a loser:

Do not disturb

While tidying your room, hotel staff think it helpful to place a jacket in the wardrobe rather than chucked on the bed. Next morning: it’s hot and you pack in a hurry, not looking in the wardrobe (why would you). Outcome? You end up paying the hotel to courier your jacket to you. I have twice left the same jacket in the same Singapore hotel for this reason.

Hang up

The classic manoeuvre is to be on the phone as the taxi arrives at your destination; the phone is put on the seat while you pay; then you jump out only to realise that your link to the world is gone. You need to take a receipt – in most cities the driver’s badge number will be there, even a phone number. Perhaps a Peppa Pig phone cover would avoid the losses but would it say “trusted journalist”?

Lose things in Switzerland

At Geneva Airport I left my watch in the security bin. I called as soon as I landed and they had it. The watch was handed to Swiss Air (even though I had not been their passenger) and brought to London. I got a call once it landed, paid for a courier and there it was.

Don’t blame the driver

The driver’s satnav was sending us on a bizarre route and so, at the lights, I jumped out. I then gave him – or rather his satnav a low rating. And, just as I pressed three stars, I realised that my jacket was still in his car. I called him and he chauffeured my jacket back. Worse still, he was so nice. I gave him way too much money as a tip. Guilt money.

Have faith in humanity

OK, this was bad. I’d been reporting in Sapporo. I took the train back to the airport and, just as I got to check-in, realised I’d left a holdall on the train containing, among other things, my passport. It involved some perspiration-inducing running but I made it back to the train platform. There was just one guard standing to attention and holding aloft – my bag.

About the author: Tuck is the edirot of Monocle


Beautiful stranger (Hotels)

by Fatima Bhutto

If creativity depends on a room of one’s own, so much the better when that space is neither public nor domestic but a very particular kind of refuge somewhere in between.

I am sitting at a desk at the Hotel Café Royal in London. The flicker of lights behind my shoulder is the only disturbance in my room. I have two article deadlines and one book manuscript to edit and will have to be on a plane in less than 24 hours. But for now I work contentedly. The glowing billboards of Piccadilly Circus are but one of the hotel room’s gentle reminders that I am not entirely alone.

The hotel room is a sacred space for writers. Ernest Hemingway wrote parts of Across the River and Into the Trees at The Gritti Palace in Venice; JK Rowling finished the last chapter of her Harry Potter series in room 652 at The Balmoral in Edinburgh; Agatha Christie wrote Murder on the Orient Express at the Pera Palace in Istanbul and Death on the Nile in Aswan’s gorgeous Old Cataract Hotel. Tennessee Williams went one step further and checked into the Hotel Elysee in New York for a good 15 years, where he wrote late into the night, reportedly keeping guests awake with the rattle of his typewriter. Companionship was what Gore Vidal loved about hotels, his publisher told me. “At the bar he would ask if so and so was still working there and he would be delighted to hear if they still were. Old grand hotels had that quality; a staffing continuity over the decades and I imagine these hotels and their long-term staff would give the peripatetic Vidal a sense of continuity and relief, almost.” Oscar Wilde loved the Hotel Café Royal. And though at the time it wasn’t yet the hotel it is now, with books everywhere – glossy, beautiful titles stacked in the lobby and in all the rooms – it was supposedly his favourite place in the world.

Libraries are too crowded, with everyone fake whispering all the time; cafés are too noisy and there’s zero chance to sprawl; aeroplanes are good because of limited disturbance but there’s often no wifi and it’s difficult to work under threat of blood clot; trains have terrible desks and home has too many minefields to consider. But hotels are symbolic of two glorious opportunities: work and travel.

It is not the comfort and the catering that makes hotel rooms so valuable for writers but the cradling. It is a space that allows you to be in the world but removed from it. The hotel acts as a barrier between you and the outside universe. It is sanctuary, a shell that allows you to break time, routine and visibility, and to re-enter those spheres without apology. You never have to beg for solitude at a hotel; it is yours. From my window at the Hotel Café Royal, I watch as summer drizzle spits down, darkening the cement as a constant flow of people moved through the city. A Chinese man stands against a shop window, texting on his phone to seem less alone as he waits half an hour for someone who never arrives. As I watch him, I wonder how many times I have crossed that road and roads like it, and never really seen anyone. This is the luxury of hotels, the time they are able to suspend.

No one on the street can see me; they don’t even know I’m here. No one catches my eye. You can’t do this at home. At home you are not a stranger. Everyone on your street knows you. Everyone inside is watching you. Time at home is never suspended but always burning impatiently. Besides the duties, responsibilities and demands that home imposes, no one at home really gets you. They can’t understand how much you need be left alone and how much you need – simultaneously – to be involved: to see, hear, observe and be a part of the orbit around you. To be a stranger is essential to the act of writing. At home the most you can be is strange.

Joseph Roth, an Austrian novelist and journalist who considered himself a “hotel patriot”, loved the symbiosis of hotels and the freedom and reprieve they offered from the daily grind. “I have been here for long enough,” he wrote in “Leaving the Hotel”, one of his famous dispatches. “If I stayed longer I would be unworthy of the great blessing of being a stranger. I might degrade the hotel to a home if I no longer left it unless I had to. I want to feel welcome here but not at home.”

I try to remember all the hotels I have written in: a cabin in Pakistan’s Kalash Valley on the Silk Road, which had no electricity or phones or locks (the owner kindly offered to bolt the door from the outside when I asked); a Nile riverboat on which I was the only passenger; a room in the middle of a sweet-smelling tobacco plantation in Java. None of these feel like memories of work. As night falls, Piccadilly’s neon casts a false glow over the room. I write late into the evening, my body tricked by the warm light into thinking I have all the time in the world.

About the author: Bhutto is the author of The Shadow of the Crescent Moon and the forthcoming novel The Runaways (Viking, March 2019).

Reading list

1. Less by Andrew Sean Greer
2. The Cost of Living by Deborah Levy
3. AA Gill is Away by AA Gill
4. An Area of Darkness by VS Naipaul
5. Here Come the Dogs by Omar bin Musa
6. The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives edited by Viet Thanh Nguyen

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