119 – S’I Fosse Foco, Arderei l’Mondo

Facebook has lately been throwing back at me all the travel photos from two years ago (already!!!), thus achieving to bring my wanderlust to barely bearable levels. And while I am looking back at all the wonderful places I got to visit and all the fantastic people I met, I am musing about why people travel (for pleasure, not when they are forced to do so by life-threatening circumstances). I know very well why I left everything and went. Not that I was leaving behind much to start with. I couldn’t stand London anymore. To be fair, that was just an excuse. I could not stand my own skin. I kept waking up, going to the office, putting up with people with immeasurable  egos and non-existent balls (or brains), day after day after day, for no good reason. I kept thinking that surely there must be something more to life and I could as well go and look for it, and even if I didn’t find it, at least I’d be miserable in some nicer place with better weather. It worked. It was an escape, but it worked nonetheless. Some of you may patronizingly point out that I cannot run forever, but, honestly, can’t I?

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Cabo da Roca, Portugal. The westernmost point of mainland Europe

People travel for different reasons. This sentence is so deep it could go straight to Instagram. Maybe with some encouraging addition like “Discover yours. It’s in your heart”. Posted over a photo of some poor man’s Chiara Ferragni (or even the real one) walking into the sunset. Anyway. Some people go on holiday several times a year because that’s just what people do. Some people want to enjoy a few alcohol-fueled days in the sun. Understandably so, because let’s face it, if you have difficulties interacting with your family on a normal day, how can you ever face them sober 24/7, and also, alcohol is known to kick in quicker under the sun. Others go abroad and expect to find there everything they take for granted back home and then comment in disgust, preferably online and anonymously, that pizza isn’t good enough in Prague, that no one eats microwaved canned beans for breakfast in Italy, that dining times differ from place to place, and that generally, nowhere is as good as home (with the unfortunate exception of the weather conditions). Some people like to take interminable long haul flights to spend a week or two in an opulent monument to bad taste built with oil or tax avoidance money and/or slave labour, oblivious to (and most likely uninterested in) the country they happen to be in, its people, culture, cuisine or history. Let’s be clear. None of the above travels, they change their geographic whereabouts, on different budgets. There is of course nothing wrong with craving sunrays, and going for beach resort holiday (although the idea of laying for ten straight days morning and afternoon on a beach, or worse yet, by the pool, without doing anything else scares the crap out of me) doesn’t automatically make anyone a bad person. There is just something infinitely sad and shallow about going places without any curiosity to actually experience them (and I am not necessarily talking about exotic faraway lands, take Ibiza or some Spanish coastal towns for instance). What is the point of visiting an island, if you spend your time in tacky nightclubs, what is the point of being surrounded by pristine sea, if you only stay by the hotel pool? 

Then there are those that want to travel to places “unspoilt by tourism”. I am not entirely sure what that means. It’s not the tourism that spoils countries (it’s the tourists’ behaviour). Beautiful places are likely to attract visitors from afar. That’s logical. What is also logical is that the locals want to profit from tourism. Why wouldn’t they? But most importantly, why would anyone expect them not to? What exactly do people expect to see when they visit developing countries, locals living like they used to hundreds of years ago, as if they were held captive in some human zoo, for the benefit of perception of authenticity of the western visitor? But then the western visitor likes his comfort. WiFi (it isn’t really a holiday unless you smash it all over social media, is it?). Air-conditioning (isn’t it just a brilliant idea to travel to some tropical atoll and expect a room cooled down by a diesel generator, and while turning a 30 sqm bedroom into a fridge, how about making the place a bit hotter for everyone else, supposing we all have at least a slight notion of how a heat exchanger works?) Hello little brown people: we already turned our end of the planet into utter shite, now we’re coming for yours. You’re welcome. And no, before some of you call me an elitist patronizing libtard, I am not preaching from some self-appointed moral high ground. I do not consider myself better than others because I don’t go on expensive holidays. As a matter of fact, I do. I am also not preaching against flying as such, either. It seems to me that slagging flying is plain  victim-blaming, where handful of industries with massive help from world’s political elite largely responsible for the out of control acceleration of climate change is now trying to make ordinary people feel ashamed when taking a flight to go on holiday.** I consider myself better than (some) others, because I try not to inflict any further harm on local population or natural ecosystem with my presence and rather than telling myself that “I am paying for it, therefore it’s OK”, I will gladly spend my money for things that make sense. 

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Boca do Inferno (Hell’s Mouth) at sunset, Cascais, Portugal

Then there are people who travel with a checklist. “I have 3 weeks and about 150 places I want to visit.” Which I can understand, but still don’t think that stressing yourself with a busy schedule while on holiday is a wise thing to do. You can read up on things prior to your trip, you can devour all the travel guides and blogs you can find,  but what worked best for me was talking to locals. Just ask them what is nice and where they like to go. If you bother to reach out to the people who live in the place you are visiting, you will find that most people are very friendly, curious and keen to talk to foreigners. Do AirBnB (as a live-in guest). Go to a pub or to a cafe and talk to strangers (outside London, people actually do this). Even if you don’t speak the language, you will discover people are always capable of finding ways to communicate, if they want to. OK, it would not seem that way looking at the latest development of the Brexit charade, but generally, that would be the case, besides people are always proud to showcase their country in the best possible way and will recommend places that the printed guides ignore, it may be a charming town you never heard about, a hidden waterfall in the jungle or a little restaurant that serves exquisite home made food. For me, this approach worked everywhere, and while I got to do some crazy stuff in exotic countries, like attending a rock festival in Korea, being invited to a family barbecue with political dissidents in Chile, or trekking for two days to see petrified dinosaur footprints in Bolivia, I also ended up in enchanting medieval villages in Italy, or trekked completely alone along deserted trails in Scottish Highlands, just because I asked what was nice in the area. Try it, try stepping out of your comfort zone, try leaving the hotel bar, try not sticking to your sightseeing schedule too much. You may end up sacrificing some detailed travel plans to some unforgettable experience.

All this long and erratic stream of consciousness to arrive to the point I initially wanted to make (took a fair amount of venom to get off my chest, I’m aware of that and I already feel much better, thank you): when on schedule, seeing less places properly may be more rewarding and definitely less tiring than wanting to see everything. Remember, there are people who never leave their shell, by the force of circumstances, or worse by choice. And if you see less than you feel you should or if you think that this particular time is the only chance you´ll ever get, keep in mind that if you want to, you will always be able to come back. As far as travelling goes, of course. For other aspects in life, this perception may be entirely correct.

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Sunset at Cabo da Roca, Cascais, Portugal

3 years ago, I spent a long weekend in Portugal with a friend (who wished not to be mentioned and we keep it that way), and one of the things we did (a moment’s decision then too) was tour Sintra and surroundings in a tiny electric car. There are several (rather kitsch and opulent) palaces spattered on the hilltops in the area, the last time we spent the morning wandering through Quinta da Regaleira (a romantic palace and ornamental gardens that are supposed to look ancient and historical, but were only built just over a 100 years ago. Like, art nouveau was raging elsewhere in Europe and art deco was taking over America and the Portuguese rich were building medieval-looking obscenities. That money doesn’t always come with taste is no mystery and certainly no news: after all we had to put up for most of the nineties with nouveaux riches building castles and greek temples for homes and I fail to see any significant difference here (so yeah, Quinta da Regaleira might be one of the earliest examples of a McMansion – or businessman’s baroque, as we call it in Czech).

So this year, when I went back with my Mexican friends I met in China, we visited the Moorish Castle next door, which actually is ancient and built by the Moors. I unfortunately don’t have many pictures, because the battery in my camera died after taking the first few, and I had forgotten to bring (charged) spare batteries. At least it happened around the corner and not, say, in Mongolia. That would have really pissed me off. Ulises kindly lent be his beautiful Nikon, but the format of the photos somehow does not communicate with my Lightroom (yes, I own a legal copy and it’s updated), so I haven’t been able to convert the files into a readable format I could work with. If anyone can help me with this, please feel free to get in touch.

The original plan and reason to visit Portugal was to cycle the GFNY Gran Fondo European Championship, but the event was cancelled last minute due to wildfires all over the country. The Sintra/Cascais region was safe (we like to wander around dressed in lycra, but we are not complete reckless idiots), but I suppose the authorities could not spare any men to police the event. Although the landlord of our hotel put it rather differently, hinting at Portuguese police preference to sip coffee in the shade rather than work on a Sunday. As many people traveled to the event from overseas, an unofficial (and unsupported) half fondo was organized, so we still got to ride along the rugged Atlantic coast in early morning, as the mist was rising from the sea, which was magical.

 

Being at the western coast of mainland Europe gives you the occasion to  watch the sun set over what was once believed to be the limit of the known world (hence the cheesy photos above). There are several scenic spots around Cascais, and I suppose the view from any of those is extraordinary, for the two sunsets we were around, we picked probably the two most famous ones. Boca do Inferno means literally Hell’s Mouth and is the name of a natural cave in the cliffs just off Cascais marina. The cave itself is off limits to keep Instaidiots safe, as the tide comes in rather suddenly, and selfiehunters may get trapped inside, thus contributing to general improvement of humanity’s gene pool (which is not necessarily a bad thing, but I guess constantly removing bodies from a marine cave between tides is a tedious job).  But you can sit on the cliffs and watch local fishermen prepare the gear for sunset squid fishing. I would not know the first thing about squid (or any other) fishing, but from what I was able to get from the attempted conversation with the fishermen, that particular spot is rich in some sea plants, where the squid lay eggs, and there are heaps of them at sunset with high tide. The technical details of squids’ reproductive behaviour continue to escape me, due to the mixture of languages I attempted the communication in, but they were pulling some big bastards from the sea.

Cabo da Roca is the most westerly cape of the continent. We were blessed with a spectacular sunset. The air was heavy with smoke from wildfires, as the sun was lowering towards the horizon, the sky turned pink and the rugged coast below the viewing point seemed ablaze in the light of the setting sun. Unfortunately the place is also populated by Instadivas who risk their lives while balancing on high heels on the cliffs, posing for photographs, looking for the best angle to capture the light of the golden hour on their vacant, heavily made up faces. I’d really like to understand which mental issue forces people to go oblivious about all the beautiful things happening around them for the sake of a bad photograph destined for social media. Because it must be a mental issue, right? Some attention seeking disorder? None of the aspiring influencers will remember a single thing from that beautiful evening, they will not recall how the sky changed from pink to deep purple, how the wind tasted of salt or the roaring ocean below them. They look at the world, if they bother, through a tiny smartphone screen and they measure success in life in terms of number of likes their Instagram feed gets. Once upon a time, we used to pretend that travelling opens our minds and broadens our horizons, maybe even makes us better people. Nowadays, this is mostly not the case anymore. Most of us travel to merely appear in places in the attempt to enhance a carefully built personal brand. As a species, we deserve extinction.

 

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*) “S’i fosse foco, arderei l’mondo” (If I were fire I’d burn the earth) is 13th century sonnet by Sienese poet Cecco Angiolieri. English translation and analysis here.

**) It would appear there are feasible ways of making the air traffic really carbon neutral. The technology available is a variation of something that has been invented by the Germans in WW1, it is called Fischer-Tropsch process, where power (in this case coming from renewable resources), (negligible amount of) water and CO2 (captured from the atmosphere) is converted into liquid hydrocarbons, in this case synthetic kerosene, that can be used as jet fuel. Ultimately, the jet engine is still classic combustion that burns fuel and emits the normal mixture of exhaust gases, but by producing the kerosene from CO2 already in the air, the entire process of flying could become really net zero emission wise. At the end this is just geographical displacement of carbon emissions, but it is better than nothing, and it’s a technology that actually works in practice. Norway is believed to start producing liquid hydrocarbons on industrial scale next year using power from their many hydro power plants, and others may follow. Unfortunately, if anyone is hoping for a shift in geopolitical balance away from the Saudis, I’m afraid that is not going to happen, as they are the most likely country with enough sun and money to implement the technology on large scale, and citizens unlikely to complain about anything, most importantly about solar panel fields being an eyesore. Hence, people should not be ashamed of flying. But people need to start pushing the politicians and the industry in that direction, because without the backing of public opinion, the industry feels like they don’t need to take action just yet.


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