Travel brings many surprises. Where could I start? What we hear on the radio, or watch on TV, or read in the papers colours our perceptions of the world’s countries, cultures and peoples. Even good travel books and documentary films will give the reader or viewer a specific viewpoint, that is not one’s own, but rather that of the writer or film maker. Thus, when a traveller begins to see for herself or himself, there are bound to be surprises. You will know it when you see it. Examples follow, below.
How shocked I was at the mess of an Eternal City they call Rome: traffic congestion, air pollution, black grime on ancient monuments, rude or impatient drivers, curt and unhelpful service personnel, and Eternal Noise. Augustus Caesar would be shocked too. He had transformed Rome into a lavishly beautified capital of the Roman Empire. His last public words before dying were, "Behold, I found Rome of clay, and leave her to you of marble." I didn’t wait until death was approaching to say, “Behold, I found Rome today, and leave her to you—in a hurry.”
Many European cities are suffering the same fate: Vienna to my eyes was a cultural and civic jewel in the 1960s. Today, I shudder at the deterioration—traffic bottlenecks, slum areas, greying statues in public places, trash in the city parks, graffiti-decorated hangouts, urban decay, overcrowded plazas and transport hubs . . .Is this what mass tourism has done to European cities, or is this the inevitable outcome of urban population growth?
One needs to make two visits, at least 20 years apart, in order to clearly perceive the changes that have taken place in many large cities around the world—in my case, Vienna, Prague, Vancouver, Los Angeles, San Diego, Miami, Cairo, Nairobi, Brisbane. Population growth means greater pressures on urban land and facilities. On top of this, ever-increasing mass tourism in “brand-name-destination” cities accelerates the physical deterioration and eats away at the former attractiveness of historically great metropolises.
Recently, some destinations have introduced visitor limits and are capping the number of tourist permits issued annually. Among these, are Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park, Machu Picchu, Fernando de Noronha, Galápagos Islands, and Antarctica. Now, Venice and Iceland, too, are seeking ways to limit visitor numbers.
But let me flip the Roman coin. If Caesar’s image is on the obverse, let the reverse show Venus, the goddess of beauty and love, and present the surprises that delighted my soul:
Iceland’s astonishing landscapes; the exotic and unafraid wildlife in the Galapagos archipelago; the soft- spoken and helpful townspeople of Southern Africa, Cuba, and Grise Fiord on Ellesmere Island; the magnificent desolation in the wilderness of Botswana and Namibia; the charming simplicity of communities in Malawi, Greenland, central Myanmar, Vanuatu and Himachal Pradesh; the unique and difficult terrain of Madagascar and Canada’s Far North; the head-spinning peaks and mountain passes of southern Peru and northern Bolivia; the catatumbo lightning of Lake Maracaibo, Venezuela; the spectacularly quiet fiords and inlets of Baffin Island; the deafeningly raucous squawks of the uncountable nesting penguins on South Georgia and Macquarie Island. And, of course, the majestic Islamic architecture of Esfahan and Samarkand, Istanbul and Taj Mahal.
My list of pleasant surprises is as extensive as the guide books put out by Lonely Planet. Indochina seduces one with the general humility of its denizens; Denmark, Costa Rica, and Japan are models of civility and citizen politeness toward strangers. Uzbekistan is so steeped in history that it’s difficult to comprehend the myriad influences: plant yourself in Samarkand and you’re standing on the soil of great empires—the Persian Empire, Alexander’s Empire, Sasanian Empire, Safavid Empire, the Mongol Empire. You are the latest to see what the followers of Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam have left behind.
Finally, I look at visiting poor countries with a mind-set tempered by lowered expectations. To me, these nations are the genuine expressions of humanity—simple people, finding joy in small things, refreshingly down to earth, signalling their hospitality and open friendliness, taking their time to appreciate each day, showing respect for the wisdom of old age. Not having the materialistic obsessions and narrow self-interest that are so common in developed nations, their laughter comes easily and their child-like curiosity is a delight to experience.
I empathize with their economic situation—mostly brought down on their heads by corrupt leaders, limited-vision dictators, and dishonest government officials. But, poor as they are, I am so often surprised by their level of education. They seem to value learning and knowing about the world. In general, I find that people in poor countries have an openness to foreign visitors and are very approachable when you show an interest in their lives. This is true even in tiny villages and rural areas where there is a language barrier.
They seem free of the economic arrogance and narcissism of so many citizens in developed economies—the so-called First-World—who know little of the world outside their own borders, who so often fail to look up and look around because their noses are continually buried in their smart phones, who have sleepless nights during their travels because the stock markets have fallen and their shares are down, who complain because the hotel they are staying in has air-conditioning problems, who have no patience for the slow local service, who expect their local travel guide to be an encyclopaedia of knowledge—you get the picture...