Travel travails: Don’t trust the hotel’s photo gallery

I should know by now that most hotel online photo galleries are but an illusion. At least for most of the places where I stay. The latest “hotel and suites” is the latest example. Here’s what I mean:
  1. “Fitness Centre.” I rarely bring my gym stuff to squeak in a little exercise by the end of the day. Fancy hotels will have some semblance of a fitness centre, but when the photo online shows three machines (actually two machines and a bench), don’t expect much. I was dumb enough to bring my gym stuff this time. Sure enough, the “gym” was in the garage, had a broken elliptical machine, broken bike, a bench (at least that wasn’t broken), and four weights that were lighter than my damn laptop. The wall-length mirror didn’t make the room seem bigger; my reflection made me look even more foolish standing among the busted crap in my running shoes.
  2. “Internet access in all rooms.” Basically means I get a very weak internet signal only if I stand next to my room door and point my damn iPod towards the peephole.
  3. “Satellite TV” means I can choose between a Jean-Claude van Damme movie festival or the Twilight saga.
  4. “A buffet to get your day started” means soggy and cold scrambled eggs, Nescafe, rotten fruit, orange juice – I mean orange drink, sorry, and tablecloths that look like more than a few people suffered coughing fits and left battle scars in the process. And marmalade is the only thing to put on my dry bread. I HATE marmalade.
  5. The bike machine interface. Reminds me of a video game I got for Christmas. In 1982.
  6. “All the comforts of home.” Sorry, but I have TWO PLY toilet paper back in mi casa. And when I ask for a towel after traveling for 24 hours straight, I don’t want to wait over an hour and have it be damp and smell like cigarettes when I finally get it.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not unhappy. I have spent many years managing my expectations, or at the very least reducing them to a minimum. After all, when will I ever find the time to sit down, relax and watch a van Damme movie? The last time was on a bus in Tanzania, and that movie was dubbed in Chinese. His grunts sound much better in English. This is awesome.

Goodbye Passport: The Demise of a Faithful Travelling Companion

The single most disgusting thing I have seen travellers do over the years – in every airport, on every continent, people of all ages, men and women alike, from every country imaginable – has been to shove their passports in their mouths as they use both hands to find their damn boarding pass. Come on, people. Stop and think about where your passport has been. You might as well stick your tongue out and go lick the handrail of an escalator.

The stamp from Turkey (May 2008) is the most colourful of all, and the most expensive. As I stood in line to get my visa I was stunned to see that Canadians paid the highest amount of all foreign nationals for visas to enter Turkey: 60$ US. It seems that the Turkish government was not happy that the Canadian government officially recognized the Armenian genocide as just that, a genocide. That was one reason, at any rate.A well-used passport is a skeletal travel diary. The places are there, but none of the stories. Each stamp exudes a memory, or rather a multitude of memories of the locations visited, the people encountered and the (often) tedious wait at customs to get through. (Mental note: avoid JFK airport in New York at all costs.) My passport is a reflection of the last four and a half years of my life. If a stranger were to pick up my passport and flip through its pages, they would quickly figure out that I did not go on fun and sun vacations, nor was I a businessman globetrotting to financial hubs to seal deals. Stamps from Iraq, Malaysia, Lebanon, Israel, Morocco, Senegal and Indonesia might leave the person wondering what the hell I did for a living.

The one from Iraq (November 2009) is the most unique in the collection. Landing in Kurdistan at four in the morning after three consecutive flights from Jakarta, I passed through a brand new airport that was infrequently used, and unsurprisingly quiet. With a sufficient dose of paranoia about landing in Iraq, knowing that I had additional insurance to cover my death in case of a terrorist attack, I was reasonably, but needlessly, spooked.

Ouagadougou (January 2011): it would be impossible to forget landing at night at a tiny airport that had been under construction for over a year. Dirt floors, no electricity, and airport employees with no idea what they were doing contributed to a sweaty and chaotic scene that brought back memories of the vibrant, alive, and utterly disorganized Africa I loved and loathed. The welcoming party of several friends, patiently waiting in the dark, made everything all right.

And of course there was Indonesia, several times over the last five years, each visit consuming a full page of my passport. My trips there were so frequent I could walk from the plane to the visa counter with my eyes closed. The unmistakable smell of clove cigarettes as I stepped into the terminal seeped through my nostrils and permeated my skin instantly. Perhaps owing to the frequency of my visits, I always got what I can only call a comforting feeling as I arrived at Soekarno-Hatta International Airport. It’s almost as though I was coming home. When you’re travelling as far from home as you can imagine, there is no feeling that is more comforting.

I bid a fond goodbye to my last passport. It has taken me safely to places I never thought I would visit, time and time again. I’ll stash it somewhere in my junk at home, only to uncover it in a couple of years as I try in vain to tidy things. By then it will be a welcome surprise to see it again. As I flip through its pages, I’ll be awash with memories of a life that defined me. The new one’s coming in the mail next week, just in time for a new trip to a country I’ve never been to before: it’s going to be a great start.

I love my passport, but not so much as to chomp down on it and have all its germs seep through my lips. I felt a slight but unmistakable stab of sorrow and pain as my last passport had its edges cut off and the words “ANNULÉ CANCELLED” stamped on its first page. The most faithful of travelling companions, it has rarely left my sight while overseas, always carefully guarded in my front pocket by day or in a hotel safe or by my bedside at night. I never fully understood why some hotel managers insist on holding on to my passport until they can get it photocopied. Especially when the copier is broken. Fiercely possessive of my identity (which technically belongs to the Canadian government), I get more than a little irked when hotel staff insist on keeping my passport. The last time that happened turned out to be on my final trip with my passport, with the dim-witted hotel lackey at the reception taking away my passport and insisting he would need “for 5 minutes.” After half an hour, I went to collect it. “But sir, we have not photocopied it,” he said. “I don’t care. I was here three months ago, go find the copy you made then.” Hmph.

Sometimes it’s good to quit: Top five reasons why I quit my job

It’s been three months since I quit my job and started working on my own. Today, on what would have been my tenth year working for a small NGO, I’m taking the time to reflect on the reasons why I left. Here are the top 5. A caveat, though: don’t take the following as my advice to quit your own job. The job, by the way, was as a “senior education specialist” for a human rights NGO based in Montreal. I basically wrote human rights manuals and trained people about rights. Here goes:

5. I just summed up the last ten years in two lines. That should be reason enough.

4. Flying sucks, as does everything in between flying. I took over 400 planes in over 50 trips, all flights but one were economy. I do not fit in any economy seat on any plane. I spent the equivalent of 24 days waiting in transit lounges that range in tolerance and comfort from the fifth circle of Hell to Purgatory. “Pam Am” the TV show is just that: pure fiction. Maybe it was like that in the 60s, but nowadays you basically have to disrobe in public at every airport and get felt up and down by a stranger who scolds you because you left a goddam quarter in your pocket and set off the machine. On top of that, having my entry into a country depend on some self-aggrandized idiot border guard has tested my patience on too many occasions. By the way, Israeli Defence Forces: you are just plain bad, and not good bad, just bad.

If you’re going to go, go boldly.

3. Doing the same thing for what seems like forever leads to complacency and lack of creativity. Ten years ago I said to friends and family, “I’m going to be in this job for one or two years and that’s it,” having no idea what I would do next, but convinced I would not stay long. Until that point in my life, the longest job I’d had was two years. After nearly ten years, a lot of the work wound up being the same – that makes it hard to be motivated on a daily basis. I needed more challenges, more uncertainty. I needed to see what other skills I had which I hadn’t even explored yet (and I am glad to have found them).

2. Sometimes you just have to jump and not know where the hell you’re going. I left my job knowing I had guaranteed work for three months, and that was all. In the job I quit, I knew with relative certainty that I could keep the job forever, unless I did something really stupid. I worked in human rights – people are violating them everywhere! Business is good! But seriously, every once in a while you need to take a risk and leap into the unknown. I needed to break free from that security. If anything, the anxiety of not knowing what to do fuelled my passion to search for new work. The most I had going for me was a feeling that everything was going to somehow work out. And it has (so far).

1. You need to shake things up to find balance in your life and zoom in on what’s important. I used to spend 2 1/2 hours in transit each day for work, five days a week. I left by 7 AM and came home before 6 PM. Now I take my children to the bus and see them off to school, work on my own schedule and greet them when their day is over at 3:45. Those 2 1/2 hours that used to be spent on the train with strangers are now spent with Boy 1 and Boy 2. I don’t need anything else to convince me that what I did was right.

I’m still flying economy, though. Can’t have it all.