Justin's Travels: Relationships with strangers
Mark Twain wrote: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”
Whatever your views on the referendum, since the Brexit vote there has been an increased climate of fear in the UK. It seems that when faced with strangers – be these EU politicians, immigrants, or voters with opposing views – the UK is getting very fearful. It leads me to ask – is our attitude to strangers changing in a healthy way?
What we saw in the debate was those of us who see an EU politician, immigrant, local person, tourist or someone different to us in a positive, tolerant way, versus those who reacted with more fear of the unknown.
For those of us working in travel our business is in bringing strangers together, and now it feels more important than ever to re-evaluate our attitude to strangers at home and abroad.
For some people meeting strangers, often with different languages and ways of life is very exciting, and the essence of travel, for others it’s quite naturally a little scary. How we choose to manage this - whether you are an experienced traveller, like me, heading to Kenya to be hosted by the Maasai on safari, or a young family on your way to Spain for the first time – is more important than how much cash we have or what type of holiday we book.
What excites me about responsible tourism is that no matter what type of holiday we choose it brings people together in a fair and respectful way. Through responsible tourism we have the power to create positive, optimistic opportunities to counter a growing climate of mistrust around the world.
Regardless of the type of holiday we choose or can afford, as Westerners we often have the habit of thinking we know best, that our ways of doing things and our focus on being on time are universal. We learn little travelling this way. Travellers who instead develop the habit of asking questions, being open minded, curious and respectful find it’s reciprocated and their holiday is enriched.
We recognise the role tourism can play in fostering understanding between people of different cultures and backgrounds. We are upping our game and so too must everyone who believes in a tolerant world when every stranger is a potential friend and ally.
Photo credits: [DVIDSHUB]
Limestone cliffs familiar from James Bond movies rise vertically out of turquoise waters in Phalong Bay, 30 minutes in a long tail boat from Phuket in Thailand. Judging the tides with the help of legendary Hawaiian kayak guide John Gray and local guide Pong Ė a former fisherman from a nearby village who John recruited and trained Ė we kayak towards the caves at the cliff base. Following John we paddle slowly into one of the caves, which quickly darken. Giant stalactites hang from the roof, and Pong picks out a colony of bats with a flashlight. The roof of the cave lowers, and we lie flat on our backs on the kayaks gently holding the rocks and pulling ourselves through until we emerge, blinking, into a spectacular hong.
A hong is a lagoon inside the island, totally invisible to the outside world but open to sky above, and surrounded on all sides by a vertical tropical forest that is growing from the 150m limestone cliffs and throbbing with the noise of insects and birds. Itís the land that time forgot, and so unworldly that I would not be surprised to see a pterodactyl launch itself from a cliff high above my head.
A strange, Zen-like calm overcomes our small group of three kayaks. The chatter during the excitement of our cave paddle dissipates and we simply lie back looking up and the cliffs in a state of total relaxation. After 15 minutes of hong flotation therapy John spots some hornbills and monkeys and we dip our paddles silently into the syrupy water and glide over for a closer look. We explore five more caves before heading towards our campsite for the evening: a 50m-wide patch of perfect and isolated beach nestling under another small island.
Following a quick swim from the beach, tents and a campfire quickly appear, as do a wonderful meal of fresh fish and Johnís stories about 10 years of guiding in Thailand and the problems of preserving this unique and spectacular environment, about which he is so passionate.
At midnight we head back down to the water; itís so dark that stars are visible right down to the watery horizon. As we paddle back towards the caves, every stroke of the paddle creates startlingly bright, spangling starbursts of phosphorescence in the water. Marvelling at that we paddle to the caves, which we enter in total darkness and feel our way through like blind cavers, 500m underground.
We feel like real adventurers, but nothing has prepared us for the effect of being in a starlit hong. We sit in silence, mesmerised by the stars, fireflies and phosphorescence.
Iíve often thought that if I could bottle up the benefits of a great holiday Ė relaxation, new perspectives on life ups and downs, and re-energisation Ė then I could put Coca-Cola out of business.
Find a sea-kayaking experience of your own.
Read our 'Folks we love' interview with John 'Caveman' Gray
Iíve been travelling to Kenya for 25 years. What most appeals to me is the wildlife; proud, successful and mostly happy tribal people; and the relationship between the two. You can find wildlife in many African countries, but you can't always get an insight into this unique relationship.
About five years ago I was asked to join the board of a small safari company, and over the years I have got to know some of the Maasai quite well. They are remarkable people to look at Ė thin, tall, ramrod straight, extremely dignified (almost regal) and with their distinctive red clothes and glittering jewellery, they are utterly beautiful. They are also extremely caring, thoughtful and bright.
Having said all this they are also obviously and overpoweringly different to me. And when you are with them you feel you are also with their ancestors, who would have looked almost exactly the same (except perhaps for the ubiquitous mobile phones). The continuity of their lives and lifestyles over 1,000 years has the effect of making me feel, in a cultural sense, impoverished. Above all, they command respect.
From time to time the Maasai dance, sometimes as part of a ritual or event but quite often because they feel like it. Their dancing consists of vertical jumps in time with a guttural chanting. Itís very athletic, a display of timing and strength as well as rhythm.
Iíve often watched and admired it, but never joined in. It feels right to leave this part of their culture to them, to not intrude, as if trying would show a lack of respect. Probably embarrassing too. All in all a cultural gap too big to cross.
One night we are around the campfire after dinner. Flames from the fire flicker and illuminate Maasai faces. If I look intently into the dark further away I can see Maasai with spears keeping us safe from dangerous wildlife. The mood is very relaxed, the Masaai happy, and then one man starts a quiet low-throated chanting beneath his breath and the surrounding conversation. Like a spark in tinder it catches alight and the low hum increases and increases.
The conversation stops, and the Maasaiís eyes start to glaze over a little and stare into the long distance. Who knows what hunt or ancestors takes over their minds.
Listen to the Maasai below:
At full tilt it sweeps you up completely. Faces and fire, pin prick stars, chanting and jumping, and lions roaring far off in the bush. A Maasai friend asks me to join the dance; I hesitate, and then let go of my reserve and put my trust in him. Sometimes you just need to let go.
Read more about holidays in Kenya