If you want to get a stranger to stop talking to you on an airplane, tell them that you are a university professor. In almost all cases, this will cause them to turn their head toward the window on the assumption that you are about to try to bore them to death with the details of your recent retranslation of Crime and Punishment
. If that doesn't work, explain that you are a science professor, which is guaranteed to make their eyes glaze over.
If, instead, you want the person seated beside you to chat to you incessantly, tell them that you are a travel writer. Everyone loves a travel writer, probably because they have their own great travel stories, and no reservation about sharing them at the least provocation. I lost the ability to get strangers to turn away from me in horror when I quit my university position to become a full-time writer.
When it comes to writing, I have come to think of what I do as Commando Travel. When I am on the road, I don't wait for things to happen to me — I make them happen. A stern warning is never enough if an arrest is possible. I never sit still when I could be moving, and never drink water when alcohol is available. Cheap restaurants are fine, but street vendors are much more entertaining. Without this sort of approach to travel, I would never acquire the sort of disgusting intestinal disorders that are pretty funny when they are happening to the author and not to the reader.
There are three great troubles with Commando Travel. The first is that it results in a lot of material that makes book editors squirm. They probably imagine conservative readers throwing down the book in disgust, and so they politely request that the offending material be expunged from the manuscript. Most of that material involves nudity.
For instance, I was on the road, doing research for my first book, The Curse of the Labrador Duck. The volume is about my attempts to examine and measure every stuffed specimen of the extinct Labrador Duck in the world, and get into mischief along the way. While passing through southern Ontario, my travelling companion, 'Gina, got into the "mischief" theme by taking me to a strip joint. The sign claimed, rather frighteningly: CONTINUOUS EXOTIC DANCERS NOON-1 AM. They weren't kidding about the continuous part, and at about eight minutes per routine, they must have featured nearly 100 dancers in a 13-hour day. Who would have thought that that so many women in Ontario would be willing to show me their breasts while I drank cheap beer?
After about 32 minutes (four dancers), 'Gina called a young lady friend over to our table. I think her name was Sandy. Or Mandy, or Candy. Perhaps it was Cindy; the beer was starting to take its toll. I stood up as she arrived. She looked at me with a rather puzzled expression, and said, "You don't have to leave because of me."
I looked back at her with my own puzzled expression, and said, "Well, I wasn't really planning to go anywhere."
We both looked at 'Gina with our respective puzzled expressions. She was able to clear up the confusion. "He stood up because he's a gentleman."
"Oh," said Mindy with genuine surprise, "We don't get a lot of gentlemen in here."
We talked for a while about dead ducks and cheap beer and travel, until my new friend excused herself. I suppose it is a tribute to my naiveté that it hadn't occurred to me that she was one of the dancers until she got up on stage. It had been a long day, and I suggested to 'Gina that we be on our way. Even so, we only made it half way to the door before Wendy had her top off. She waved goodbye. I blushed.
The second trouble with Commando Travel is that you put yourself in the direct path of events so horrible that it isn't clear whether they should be in a book or not. In preparation for my second book, The Attack of the Killer Rhododendrons, I was travelling through Ethiopia researching exotic plants. On a dusty, rutted track, my driver, Hassen, pulled into a small village near a dry river bed. The road ahead was choked with a throng of about 200 people, all walking the same way we were driving. My first impression was that we had found a funeral procession. Fortunately, I am often wrong. Unfortunately, this time I wasn't. Hassen unrolled his window to see what he could glean from the bits of language he shared with these people. Then he rolled the window back up.
"Do we know what's going on?" I asked.
"Death," he replied. As we inched through the crowd, trying to make progress without being too disrespectful, I tried to learn a little more.
"Do we know anything about the person?"
"A woman." At the head of the procession, we found a white pick-up truck laden with crying mourners and, presumably, the deceased. The truck was surrounded by a church choir in robes.
A few days later we came across another road-blocking congregation. As we approached the gathering, it seemed even more ominous than the earlier funeral, and police lights flashed on a pick-up truck approaching from our right. When Hassen tooted the horn to get by, we got some very hostile looks, and I feared that we might be immersing ourselves in one of the things I dread most in a foreign country — an illegal political protest.
Reality was far worse. From what we could gather from the throng, a child had stoned another child to death, and at that moment I simply could not imagine anything more dreadful. One young life was gone and another lay in tatters. Far more than just a funeral procession, we were watching the outpouring of a community in deep, deep grief and anguish. It wasn't clear which child the police had in their truck.
The third difficulty with Commando Travel is that it leaves me reliant on the person I am travelling with. Their's is the unique perspective that could make or break a chapter. Whoever is so foolish to agree to travel with me has got to remain cheerful and optimistic, and always ready for misadventure. Each companion has got to be able to put up with my quirky behaviour, without losing the bail money, and without getting on my wick. After all, it might help book sales if I were to kill a travelling companion, but it wouldn't necessarily help my incarceration-free lifestyle.
To date, virtually all of my Commando Travel companions have made brave and exciting contributions to my narratives. Lisa was willing to risk heavy-metal poisoning in St. Petersburg, and Rob bravely faced the possibility of alcohol poisoning in New Orleans. Errol was prepared to save me from soccer hooligans in Germany, and Charu and Chaminda were ready to have me embarrass them at their wedding in Sri Lanka. But sooner or later, the companion that looked so promising before the trip began turns into the traveller from hell.
I was in a Glasgow pub when I first heard about Tasmanian red-necked wallabies living on an island in Loch Lomond, which left me doubting the story's veracity. I clearly would have to paddle out to see for myself. But with whom? Klarinka was an architect from Hungary who had been living in Scotland for eight years. Klarinka was far more comfortable out-of-doors than in, and being particularly fond of marine sports, felt Scotland would provide her with greater opportunity than land-locked Hungary. She was willing to take a few days off work to paddle around Loch Lomond with me, and even had a spare kayak. What could go wrong?
But things quickly started to fall apart. Klarinka, a semi-pro with a paddle, clearly had the impression that I was far more adept at the activity than I am. As we paddled, she repeatedly looked over her shoulder to see why I wasn't keeping up, and shouted encouragement like "Paddle faster!" and "Paddle in a straight line!" I had never realized that Hungarians could be so bossy. At times, she was downright mean. By the end of three days, she was ready to kill me, and I was ready to help her.
In the end, I did get to see the wallabies, and lived to tell about it, and the experience did not sour me on Commando Travel. In fact, I can't wait to hit the road again. What's this I hear about American bullfrogs in Uruguay?