If you are not picking up skills on your adventures, it means you are only on holiday and not pushing the experience envelope. Hopefully, somewhere along the way you will have developed supreme self-confidence, an acute sense of direction and astute bargaining skills, all of which should come in useful once in a while when you are back home, fending off the suicidal urges of your day job.
Along with these, if you have been properly immersing yourself in all the wonderful cultures the world has to offer, you should also have picked up some skills that will serve no discernible purpose back in civilisation. Here are some of mine, by all means let me know yours.
Cleaning your arse without toilet paper
To be perfectly honest I havent completely mastered this skill, as limiting the application of water only to the relevant area is no mean feat and I don’t mean using some kind of convenient hose or a bidet but your hands and a cheap, plastic, water container of some form. However, as I am sure you are aware, much of the world manages to get by without toilet paper, which wouldn’t be such a bad thing if many were also equally unaware of soap. It’s all very well only using your left hand for the action and eating and greeting with the right, when there is a brown film of grease glued bacteria all over your left hand.
In the comfortable surroundings of home you’re unlikely to be far from a supply of toilet paper and no one would think of leaving a container of water by the toilet anyway. So, in the unfortunate event of only coming to the awful realisation of the lack of paper after having completed your duties on the porcelain, you are reduced to sacrificing your socks or a squelchy shuffle to the nearest supply of soft paper.
Putting unidentifiable animal body parts in your mouth
In the sterile environment of the British supermarket we are spared the sight of butchery that bears much resemblance to the living animals to which it once belonged, with the occasional exception of a piece of liver or kidney, for which you’ll be asked to provide proof of old age to be allowed to buy. An urge for other parts can only be met by an expedition to the woods with a shotgun and a sharp knife or rummaging in the skips at the back of the abattoir.
Meanwhile, out in the real world, where people don’t have hot dog and pet food factories (largely the same thing apart from the shape of the product) people have better things to do than throw away all the juicy bits that performed such vital functions when part of a living being. Get over it you wusses or become a vegetarian! Whatever part it is, it’s edible, except for the sphincter, I know because I’ve tried. The only challenge is a textural one, not of taste, though admittedly some textures are more challenging than others, like the skin of a sheep’s scrotal sack for instance, but, in time you’ll learn to cope.
Non committal facial expressions that appear to show interest
Rather inconveniently, much of the world has opted to speak different languages and despite my best efforts I am still a few languages short of understanding all of them perfectly, as are the people I tend to meet in other countries. This imperfect understanding in numerous encounters means that it starts becoming impractical to keep saying, “sorry I don’t understand”, all the time (or, “desolee je ne comprends pas”, no comprendo, ma fahimsh – after which my limited linguistic skills run out), So, not wanting to appear a complete idiot or impolite, it seems appropriate to give the impression that you are reasonably interested and at least have a rough idea of what they are talking about without revealing undue levels of emotional conviction. After all, you don’t want to be nodding enthusiastically when a man has just informed you that his grandmother was ripped apart by a pack of wolves last night and that his three-year old son discovered her empty eye sockets staring at him from her blood encrusted, badly chewed head, the moment he woke up this morning.
Sitting around doing fuck all
I am proud to say that I have honed this art down to olympian standards, for much of travel isn’t a rollercoaster of intensive, interactive experience but something rather more mundane. To get from A to B, which by its very nature involves a fair amount of fuck all, unless you are doing a round the world, naked, unicycling, record attempt, first requires waiting for an often unreliable form of transport to turn up in the first place. As a solo traveler you pass days of your life waiting for second-rate meals to turn up in restaurants, which you then munch through in solitude, before you wait somewhere else for a luke warm coffee to appear and be overcharged for.
Of course this can inspire you to try to make things happen but inevitably a profound dose of fuck all is unavoidable in the life of a traveler. Thus, you learn that fuck all can transform into a cornucopia of mental exercises, pondering upon the marvels of creation as you scrutinise the minutiae of everyday existence in other cultures: the scuttle of a cockroach across your plate of palm oil drenched, fried tilapia, momentarily distracting you from the shambling gait and piquant odour of the unwashed beggar hurling pointless obscenities at a passing bus that clatters and squeals with mechanical imperfections, as it lurches through a muddy puddle, scattering murky rivulets over the pristine gown of the priest eyeing the perfect, broad curves of the waitress’ posterior etc etc.
You’ve all seen those pictures of poor African kids seemingly oblivious to the multitude of flies crawling over their faces but you have no need to be either poor or African to experience such delights if you go to the right parts of Africa, where they even make flyburgers out of them. These locations provide an ideal opportunity to test your meditative skills by resisting the urge to swat them away. After a few days of oneness with our Arthropod friends you’ll barely sense the patter of tiny feet across your eyelids and lips and your hands will remain focussed on the job in hand, such as washing your arse or eating undercooked, random body parts, instead of flailing around maniacally in a futile effort to dissuade the flies from grazing on you.
Please note: acquiring this skill does not make being poor in a disease ridden refugee camp any the less shit than it already is.
Shelling sunflower seeds with your teeth
Scattered over the ground just about anywhere from Turkey to western China you will find heaps of sunflower husks discarded by locals munching on their favourite snack, all whilst barely having required a break in the conversation, so expert have they become at the process. Us westerners have become so lazy and impatient that, as with many things in modern life, we got someone to invent a machine to do all this for us. So, after much effort I finally mastered the skill, at least enough to make it a worthwhile effort, if somewhat lacking the panache of your average Uzbek or Iranian. Should you wish to try: hold the wide end by the edges top and bottom and advance in three quick nibbles from the narrow end towards the wide end, then squeeze the seed between your fingers, twisting it through 90 degrees and voila! The seed pops out. Well that’s the theory, it took me hundreds of tries before I gained any practical proficiency.
Suppression of sense of smell
“Dirty smelly foreigners coming over here, stinking the place out”! Is what the locals in tropical countries should be saying to us sweaty, backpacking, dwellers of temperate climes. Maybe, they are just too polite to comment on our putrefying sweat and alien breath but 100% humidity and limited clothing selection tell us that we must smell a lot worse than we think we are. I don’t know about you but I am a dust magnet, so a few hours of heat leads to repeated cycles of dust adhering to perspiration, drying in sedimentary layers. As I prefer less salubrious destinations for my travels, the dust is usually a fine cocktail of bovine fecal matter, automotive byproducts and composted material. With the wonders of mental conditioning however, my brain renders this festering mass into something relatively inert for the benefit of my nostrils, if not for anyone else.
This ability is something of an advantage when coping with the many countries that are not graced with efficient waste disposal and sewage systems or have a preponderance of street dwellers unfortunate enough to lack the fiscal or intellectual capacity to come to terms with the concept of regular bathing.
Crap public transport anti-yoga
Western nations like to uphold the notion that seats are restricted to individuals, except in cases of an intimate understanding between two or more parties. Many places would scoff at such a restrictive conception of spatial arrangements, particularly on public transport. Here, the entire internal volume and often some of the external space as well, of the mode of transport is deemed appropriate to be filled. This philosophy is then fused with an admirable ethic of commercial enterprise to ensure the most efficient financial returns on the investment of space. More compactly proportioned passengers can benefit from this allocation of space, albeit with a greater risk of suffocation, whereas tall persons such as myself have to seek out any spare centimetre, regardless of its position with respect to the body, to locate the limbs. After several hours in this position it is hoped that the aforementioned limbs will still be functioning.
Eating with your hands
Large portions of the world still manage to get through their meals perfectly well without the application of cutlery and if you’re the kind of traveler who carries a spoon around with you for this purpose, rather than cope with a different civilisational paradigm, then the only recourse is to have you quietly taken out and shot. Sorry if that sounds a trifle harsh but I think its best for international relations and the species as a whole, that other cultures remain blissfully unaware that we have created beings so utterly unadaptable to the most modest of challenges, we must surely succumb to even the most trivial of competitive demands placed on the transmission of our DNA.
Not only does this offer gains in dexterity and coordination, particularly after trying to eat spaghetti in Somaliland I have found, the aforementioned minimalist understanding of soap and fecal-oral transmission routes will soon have your digestive tract in robust form, as long as you survive of course. A vital Darwinian lesson to us all.
Adaptability in tea consumption
“I’ll have an organic, fair trade, lapsang suchong with a dash of honey but just let it infuse for 15 seconds please”. No you fucking wont, you’ll get what you’re given and be bloody grateful for it, you’re not back at home now! Just because tea means a certain thing in one place doesn’t mean anywhere else needs to have any understanding or respect for this observation. The addition or omission thereof of particular forms of milk, sweetener, spice and flavouring are of little concern to individual tea cultures, as are choice in methods of production or forms of tea leaf. While not everywhere takes the ritualistic values of tea drinking to the level of the Japanese, most places at least feel some kind of ownership over their concept of tea and it holds a particular place in social interaction. Drinking tea as others do is an invitation into their lives and culture, regardless of diabetes inducing levels of sugar or burnt fingertips from blazing hot receptacles. Embrace the experience.
For some strange reason the British hotel and restaurant industry tends to take a dim view of cockroaches and on the odd occasion they don’t, their customers tend to have a contrary opinion. The further south you go from our shores you are more likely to discover a more open and tolerant approach to these delightful creatures. You’ll find that after a few hundred encounters with them in squalid hotel rooms, you’ll start to see them, if not quite as friends, but as part of the rich bounty of the Lord’s creation on our planet. With a bit more effort you may even advance far enough to try eating them, as fellow traveler Derek Freal has demonstrated.