“Hey guys, I’ve got a hypothetical research question:
Suppose you’re meeting a friend in a random European town or city that neither of you has been to before. You don’t have the chance to plan a meeting place beforehand and you cannot contact one another when there. You just know that you will both be there on the same day. Where would you go? How do you find one another?
If you could comment below and answer that would be awesome. I’ll let you know soon why I’m asking.”
Recently I’ve been burrowing down the rabbit hole of human psychology. Whilst writing these words I’m currently sitting on the rooftop of a quaint and cosy little café in Ho Chi Minh City; what seems like a million miles away from the hectic Vietnamese traffic racing around the streets below. I’ve been on the road for five months now and studying the way in which people interact with one another, in particular strangers, has fascinated me. On a daily basis, I’m subjected to meeting new people and listening to the conversation of others in hostel dorm rooms and bars. In fact, when just trying to write this paragraph I’ve stopped and had a ten-minute conversation with three lovely Germans at the table next to me about my books. So much for productivity and getting into my flow state, I know. There’s clearly just something far too intriguing about seeing a foreign traveller hammering away on the keyboard of a laptop.
Anyway, a while ago I mysteriously posted the above italicised question on my Facebook page with no real explanation as to why. A friend of mine living in Auckland had recommended a book to me called What If?, subtitled: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions and one of the chapters which really grabbed me was regarding the possibility of two immortal humans, placed at random points on planet Earth, actually managing to bump into one another. In attempting to answer this, the author drew upon an American study that was done in the pre-mobile phone 1970s, which puzzled a similar question to the one I asked my Facebook followers.
Back then, the best logical solution to finding your lost friend was deemed to be going to the town’s main post office and waiting at the receiving window where out-of-town packages arrive. The inventor of the puzzle’s logic was that it’s the only place that every town in the U.S. has exactly one of, and which everyone would know where to find. To me, this argument appears a little weak and outdated. There are far too many psychological factors in place to assume that everyone will follow this same thought process. I was curious. I wanted to know what people would do if placed in a similar predicament in the current era of 2017 but didn’t have access to the modern day smartphone and wifi technology with which we are now so accustomed.
Now, by nature of what I write about; my age; and my lifestyle, my primary demographic is twenty-something adventurous Westerners. The suggestions of brothels; pool halls; strip clubs; and Irish bars as possible meeting places were, therefore, inevitable. What could initially be dismissed as stupid, albeit funny, answers, however, have actually collectively formed the second of three categories that I’ve filtered the responses into.
The first category of response is what I will refer to as landmarks. These were the most common and basic responses, with no intuition about what the other person will be thinking required. Someone suggested to wait at the base of the tallest building in the city because it is likely to catch your eye just as much as the other persons, others suggested the main town square; train station; airport baggage reclaim; McDonald’s; cathedral, and art gallery. The post office would fall into this category.
The second category is what I call inside jokes. This is more effective as you are actually using what you know already about the person to make an educated assessment about what their thought process is in the same situation. In addition to the aforementioned, ‘go to the equivalent place where you first met them’ was a popular response, as was ‘the common area of a popular hostel’ and ‘a hipster café’. If you and your friend have a shared love for flat whites then it’s highly possible that they will kill some time in a local edgy hangout, just as if your friend loves to get a lap dance at the end of a night out then you may well find them in a strip club. A silly suggestion at first that actually makes sense if you take into account a person’s interest and hobbies; not that I’d call lap dancing a recreational pastime.
There is a third category, however, which unanimously seemed to be regarded as the outright way of meeting your friend as efficiently and effectively as possible. A category that both What if? and the 1970s study failed to address. I call this category, public nuisance. The major flaw with the landmarks category, and henceforth the suggested solution of the post office, is that, even if your friend did decide to embark upon a city sightseeing tour, the chances of them spotting you in such crowded and busy places is extremely slim. Imagine trying to find a friend next to the Eiffel Tower even if you knew they were going to be there. I still lose people in the bloody supermarket. The same flaw is also at play in the inside jokes category. Yes, there is an almost 100% chance of meeting your friend there if you’ve assumed correctly, but if they don’t make the same deduction then there is a 0% chance that you’re going to bump into one another accidentally. Unless you make yourself known that is…
The highest voted response that I received to my question? ‘Walk around bollocks naked and cause a city-wide commotion’.
What better way for a friend to find you than to stir up an event that draws maximum attention to yourself. Whether we like to think it or not, humans operate primarily under a herd mentality. We are constantly drawn to things that others are looking at, or commenting on things that others are talking about. If somebody decides to get stark naked and run about the town centre, then you can bet your damn ass that everyone nearby will soon gather round for a glimpse of the action. The only question now is, how do you cause such a public nuisance that you find your friend, but don’t have them bailing you out of jail for indecent exposure a short while after?
Perhaps I should just heed the advice given to me by my crazy and psychotic friend Lara: “If you’re talking about a girl, no need to meet her, just stay at home. If it’s not a girl then it simply doesn’t exist, since you have no friends. So there’s no need to bother yourself with this kind of ‘hypothetical research question’. Stay at home and close the door.”
Well, that’s me told.
The general rule when packing for any form of vacation or trip is to look out what you initially think you will need; fail to get it into your suitcase or backpack without bursting the zip; get frustrated and angry; re-pack about half of what you initially looked out; break down and cry; then, go away and realise that you didn’t need everything you brought with you in the first place. It’s amazing how things that start out as being ‘essentials’ soon become redundant when space-saving tactics get deployed.
Despite this universal process, however, it still startles me what some people lug around with them from place to place. Some people I’ve met whilst on the road have genuinely been caught carrying around things less useful than the rocks at the bottom of a military commando’s Bergen during a training exercise. From wooden elephant carvings that they’ve picked up for a haggled bargain in Asia; to the entire cosmetics and allergies counter at a drug store; to the type of cultural clothing that should be illegal for anyone but a local to wear, I’ve narrowed it down to the Top 4 ‘most weird shit’ I’ve seen people travelling with that has led me to question, “what the hell is in your backpack?”
I once entered a hostel dorm in Toronto, Canada to find an English lad kneeling down and ironing a flannel shirt which he’d laid out across the dusty hardwood floor.
“I didn’t realise that the reception here had such useful amenities,” I said to him. “Why aren’t you using their ironing board as well, though? The ground is filthy. You’ll need to wash that shirt again before you put it on.”
“Oh no,” he said, “I didn’t get this from reception. It’s mine.”
“Very funny,” I said, giving him a pat on the shoulder.
“No, he’s being serious,” said his friend, lying on a bed in the corner and watching the spectacle.
“You carry a fucking iron about with you?” I laughed.
“What’s wrong with that?” he asked. Looking up at me.
“Where to start?” I retorted.
He frowned, clearly butthurt.
Fake Breast Implant
In March 2017, I spent one month in Auckland, New Zealand drafting my latest book. Lazing about in bed one morning after a pub crawl, I was startled when a foreign object fell from the bunk above me and landed with a thud down the gap between my mattress and the wall. I reached down and picked it up. It was a squishy, round, lump just small enough to fit in the clasped palm of one of my large hands. I initially thought that it might have been some sort of new-age alarm clock, it had fallen from someone’s bed after all, but ruling this out after further inspection I then guessed that it must have been a stress ball, albeit a rather large one.
“Did I drop something?” said the gay Greek teenager above me. He’d arrived a few day’s previous but I’d yet to converse with him.
“Yeah, man,” I said handing him the stress ball with a miffed look on my face. “Are you feeling under pressure at the moment?”
“What do you mean?” he replied in broken English.
“Well, that’s a stress ball, right?”
“No, it’s a fake breast implant,” he laughed. “A chicken fillet.”
“I’m sorry if this is a stupid question,” I said, puzzled, “but what the hell is that doing in your rucksack?”
“One of my friends works in a clinic and gave me it as a going away present,” he explained like it was the most logical things ever.
“Well, it’s very unfair that you get to fall asleep on a tittie every night when I don’t,” I laughed. “You’re not even attracted to them for Christ’s sake.”
“Are you finished in the bathroom?” I asked the old Chinese guy who I was sharing a dorm room with during a trip to Fiji in February 2017.
“Give me a couple of minutes,” he replied. “I’m just waiting on my kettle to boil.”
“Sorry?” I said, thinking that something had got lost in translation. “Not the kitchen, the bathroom.”
“I know,” he said in a tone which made out that I was the moron. “There are no plug sockets next to my bed so I have to use the one next to the sink. It also means that I don’t risk spilling the hot water all over my stuff. I’ve had the kettle for a while and it’s got a few cracks in it.”
“You mean to say that you carry around a kettle with you everywhere you go?” I asked him as he set up a little table next to the side of his bed. “That’s dedication to ensuring that your coffee gets made just the way you like it every time.”
“Oh, no,” he said. “I don’t drink tea or coffee. It’s so that I can heat up my noodles. I have them every night.”
“Every night?” I quizzed, disgusted.
“Every night,” he confirmed, opening up his rucksack to reveal packets and packets of the instant pieces of shit that held the same nutritional values as sawdust. With that, the kettle clicked off and he went about preparing his dinner.
“”I’m done,” I laughed, locking the toilet door behind me, putting my arse cheeks on the seat and letting out a massive fart and shit combo. Bon appetite.
Large Childhood Teddy Bear
“Have you seen this?” I said to the French guy sprawled out on the opposing bunk in our cramped four-person dorm, picking up the giant teddy bear lying on the sheets of the bed above mine. “Who the hell has enough room to lug this stuffed thing around with them? It must belong to a teenager who is on their first trip away from home.”
Like clockwork, the door to the room then opened and a brunette Russian girl in her mid-twenties came in.
“Is this yours I said?” caught red-handed holding her prized possession.
“It is,” she replied. “Would you care to put Lisa back where you found her.”
“Sorry,” I guiltily responded, putting the teddy bear back down with the delicacy of how one would handle a newborn baby. “Can I ask why you have brought it travelling, though? Has it been passed down in your family from mother to daughter, perhaps? Or does it carry a lot of sentimental value for other reasons?”
“Not at all,” she said, dumping her bag and turning to leave. “I just like to cuddle with it at night.”
“I didn’t realise that we were sharing a room with a virgin,” laughed the French guy as she closed the door behind her.
I’ve come to notice that, when travelling, backpackers feel a certain obligation to enjoy every place that they visit. This may stem from the guilty fact that they are finding themselves in a privileged position envied by others, because certain fellow travellers have regaled tales of how amazingly beautiful a certain destination was, or because they are a stranger in a strange land. How dare they make such presuppositions about somewhere when they’ve barely even scratched the surface of what it truly encapsulates?
Truthfully, however, not all places are nice and I don’t find it right that we must try our hardest to find hidden quirks and delights in towns where they simply don’t exist. Some places are genuinely just shitholes and no amount of flowery language attempting to explain their ‘character’ and ‘soul’ should be able to deflect away from this. If a place is overpopulated and full of gridlocked traffic we say that it’s ‘bustling’; if it’s sleazy and dirty we say that it’s ‘hedonistic’; if it’s tacky and brash we say that it’s ‘cosmopolitan’; and if it’s tourist trodden and commercialized we simply describe it as a ‘resort’. Scrap this. The all-encompassing word that you are looking for is ‘shithole’.
Thankfully, shitholes are much more easily identifiable that you may initially think, so it is easy to spot them coming and aim to spend as little time in them as possible. Unfortunately, however, they are not so easy to avoid. From my extensive research I’ve found a causal link between them and, as the detailed annotated map above shows, shitholes are overwhelmingly likely to be gateway cities or towns; necessary stops for travellers trying to get from Point A to Point B but in order to do so have to obligatorily pass through Point C. Having scoured the globe, here are five said gateway towns that I’ve had the displeasure of passing through. Henceforth, here are five of the world’s biggest shitholes.
With snake charmers arousing serpents with parseltongue melodies; rogue chefs cooking up whole pig heads in fly-infested street stalls; and drum corps punching holes in their bongos in an attempt to create something called ‘music’, Marrakech is a hotpot of confusion, dirt, and disgust. Taking a gold medal in the ‘Shithole City Awards’, I had the displeasure of spending two days in Morocco’s fourth largest city upon return from a week-long charity trek across the Sahara. My friend Alan and I had wandered into the labyrinth of souks on our first day only to find ourselves being accosted by every single local, each claiming to be a tour guide, taxi driver, or vendor of the cheapest tapestries and garments in Northern Africa. We spent the entire morning palming off beggar children with outstretched arms as we leapt over puddles of shit and squeezed ourselves between rows and rows of stalls packed high with such crap that even your gran would turn up her nose at it if you brought it home as a souvenir present for her.
The straw that broke the camel’s back for this shithole, however, came when we were chased by some psychopathic tailor who took a dislike to us shunning his products. Ducking and diving our way through the bazaars we managed to eventually shake him off, so I can only speculate as to what his motives may have been, but it was enough to keep us firmly locked inside our hotel until it was time to board our flight out of there. Perhaps he wanted to skin us like in Silence of the Lambs to produce unique high-quality leather products; perhaps he wanted to straight up rob us, or perhaps he genuinely did just want to help out a couple of lost tourists. Whatever it was, I’ve never felt my safety threatened as much before when wandering around a cit
Kuta, Bali, Indonesia
If you want to spend some quality time in the resorts of Nusa or party on the Gili islands, you will have to fly into Denpasar Airport in the south of the Balinese main island. The immediate area surrounding it is called Kuta, and I had the displeasure of spending two nights there upon landing in South East Asia due to the late arrival of my flight from Sydney. From your first step out the hotel door, until you are safely back in the sanctuary of your air-conditioned room, people are relentlessly hollering at you. ‘Hey brother, you need a taxi?’ topped the tally count of heckles I received, closely followed by, ‘Hey, boss, you want to rent a scooter?’ Being British, I politely declined these requests at first, replying to each hopeful punter with a meek, ‘sorry not today’, but it soon became too much for my temper. I was a short fuse burning, and when simply ignoring them didn’t help proceedings I resorted to the good old Scottish response that was bound to make me plentiful friends. Here is a brief conversational example of what it’s like to walk down Jalan Kartika in Kuta:
Some Kid: “Hey brother, you want cocaine?”
Crobs: “Fuck off.”
Some Woman: “You want massage?”
Crobs: “Fuck off.”
Some Dude: “Hey boss, you want girls that will show you good time?”
Crobs: “Fuck off.”
Some Twat: “Hey brother, you want mushrooms.”
Crobs: “Fuck off.”
Billy Connelly, one of the greatest comedians to ever have lived, had a brilliant routine where he explained why ‘fuck off’ is his favourite phrase in the English language. He said that it was, “such a lovely pair of words, and it’s international. I don’t care where you are. If somebody is fucking with your bags at Lhasa Airport in Tibet and he’s got a shaven head and saffron clothes on and you say, ‘hey, fuck off’, he knows exactly what you meant. He will fuck off. Off he will fuck.” Never has this more applicable than to the pestering and poisonous locals of Kuta.
Don’t ask me why, but despite being on the opposite side of Fiji’s main island from the nation’s capital and largest city, Suva, Nadi is the principal location of entry for air travellers to Fiji. And due to the largest tropical storm to hit the island in over a decade, I found myself stuck in this shithole for four whole days. With the rain relentlessly battering down, I spent the first three of these sat at my hostel’s beachfront bar getting very drunk until severe boredom and cabin fever lurched me on a bus into the city centre. Bad mistake.
I was with four other pale tourists, and disembarking at the main bus terminal we were immediately targeted by the locals. One guy started chatting to my mate Connor about taking us on a personal tour of the town centre, and before I even had the chance to dismiss him we found ourselves following his cronies through a fruit market, down a grotty alleyway, up a rickety fire escape, and into a traditional handicrafts shop that looked more like a living room than a place of commerce. Taking off our shoes at the entranceway, we were asked to form a cross-legged circle on the woven rugs that covered the floor and the guy brought out a tattered poly pocket folder filled with clippings and photographs. He then proceeded to recite a memorised sales pitch spiel about how a horrific storm had blown through a few years ago and devastated his village, leaving the entire community with nothing.
“All of the ornaments and souvenirs that you can see in this place were done by these villagers,” he said, casting his arm around the living room. “The paintings were made by the local school children during their art classes and the carvings were all hand-made by the adults. Everything we make from the sale of these products goes back to funding our relief efforts. Don’t feel obliged to purchase anything, but please look around and see if anything takes your fancy. Everything has already been 100% approved by international customs and you can take it to any country in the world.”
I nodded with gratitude, slipped my shoes back on, and headed back out into the damp and humid afternoon. If I’d stayed in there any longer I’d have started questioning him as to why the locals decided to waste their time carving wooden elephants and doing finger paintings as opposed to actually undertaking the much-needed repairs. Somehow, I don’t think he would have appreciated that too much.
Before embarking on a two-month South American adventure, one of the main pieces of advice provided by a well-travelled uncle of mine was to get in and out of Lima as quickly as possible and meandering around the sewage infested back alleys of the Barranco district I could see why. In only two blocks I passed a burned-out police car and numerous wild dogs whose growls and stares made me extremely thankful for the rabies injections I’d paid a small fortune to get. My sense of smell was also nearly obliterated from the stench of urine puddles that turned walking the pavements of the Peruvian capital into one endless game of hop-scotch.
Prancing along, a kid then came flying out a side-street on a skateboard only to be T-boned by an oncoming car. Before I could even comprehend what has just occurred, and as quick as the crash had happened, the boy then stood up; dusted himself off; and legged it, leaving a 14-year-old shaped crime scene imprint in the bonnet of the busted hatchback. The driver got out from behind the wheel looking absolutely perplexed, and as a security guard from a nearby building came over to analyse the situation I quickly headed back to my hostel before being asked to give a statement and testimonial.
Woken up the next morning by a regiment of the Peruvian Army marching down the street, I hailed a taxi to take me straight back to the airport for an internal flight to Cusco. Peering out the window with a turned up nose was treated to a mobile circus performance that the whole city was seemingly involved in. When stopped at traffic lights and crossroads I witnessed juggling unicyclists, fire breathers, and a man pulling a wheelbarrow full of wheel-less wheelbarrows; shooed away street vendors trying to sell us refreshments for the show; and admired the severe patriotism expressed through every political building being draped with the red and white vertical slithers of the Peruvian flag as if a blanket had fallen from the sky. For the grand finale, my driver almost ripped his exhaust open as he pulled into the airport over an enormous speed bump. Never mind sleeping policemen, this thing was the size of a small rhino. When anyone now asks me what the best thing to do in Lima is I tend to echo my uncle and respond with the five letter word: leave.
Lake Titicaca, Bolivia
This shithole isn’t the ‘hottest spot north of Havana’ as sung by Barry Manilow, nor the world famous Balneario beach in Rio de Janeiro, but their crummy namesake town that straddles the Peruvian-Bolivian border on the shores of Lake Titicaca. Being the highest navigable lake in the world is not quite a selling point, but considering its surroundings Copacabana hasn’t got much to supersede this meek claim apart from being an almost necessary stop for anyone entering the west of Bolivia.
The main attraction for those tourists finding themselves here is to visit Isla Del Sol, a rocky island scattered with ruins and home to approximately 800 families. Our two-hour boat ride to the ‘Island of the Sun’ was spent chatting to an Irish couple who were on a round-the-world trip. This would be the most enjoyable part of the whole excursion. From the moment we debarked until the second we re-boarded every single one of these 800 inhabitants swarmed us for money like bees in a hive. This was not in an amiable and affable way either but in the sheer greed for Boliviano, the currency we had now converted to. Checkpoints were positioned along the main trail that cleaved the landscape, each with the goal of swindling cash from ignorant tourists. Revolting the ‘Gringo Tax’ we simply marched on, uncurbed by the toll operators. A Spaniard who followed closely behind could be heard shouting furiously at the locals when they also asked him for payment. All in all, I cannot see the attraction of Isla Del Sol. People aside, the landscape is barren and desolate. The dusty track is bordered by nothing but rocks and sand, and vegetation fails to grow dense in such a dry environment.
Where is the biggest shithole that you’ve ever had the displeasure of visiting? Comment below and help other travellers dodge the holes and traps which you’ve been unfortunate enough to fall into.