COMPARING TRAVEL NOTES with a friend over lunch recently, the conversation ended up devolving into laughter and snorting soft drinks through our noses as we exchanged stories about some of the memories of travelers we have known. The personas that people adopt the moment they leave their front doors and hit the road.
Later, I realized how many times I’ve assumed some of these roles myself during my travels. To differing degrees, I think they were a defense against being judged by the people I would meet. Used that way, masks can be helpful in relating to people. A way of breaking the ice or keeping enough of your shy self hidden.
Taken to extremes though, we run the danger of identifying a little too closely with the mask. Jamie Catto, director of What About Me, put it well when, in this interview, he said:
…when you were in school, your favourite teachers were just really cool human beings who happened to be playing the role of teacher. And there were other ones that we didn’t get along with who were busy being a teacher. It really sums it up in all areas of life, from policeman to parents.
There are people who are naturally cool human beings, impeccably doing the role of parenting. There are others who are so busy being parents, and are so attached to that role, that the person gets evaporated and that’s where problems start arising and dishonesty happens.
So yeah, I confess. I’ve been a little bit of many of these characters. And perhaps a little too much of a few. The trick, I suppose, is remembering that I’m not actually…
1. The Party Animal
Fire will be involved if possible. No club is too small, too loud, or too kitsch. The day must end at 3am. I may have packed a party hat.
2. The Cheerleader
Someone has food poisoning and we’ve been traveling more or less nonstop for days and morale is low. Except for me. I’m as chipper as a stepford wife on a prozac cocktail. It doesn’t matter if it’s the temple complex at Angkor Wat or the local organic thimble manufacturing project. Everyone should be up early to see, and do, and do again. It’s a beautiful new world of adventure outside and we should make the most of it. I’ve already booked the tuk tuk. Today is gonna be awesome.
3. The Camel Man
My cargo pants are military-spec and hold enough knives and tools to accommodate everything short of having to assist in a shuttle launch. Want to open a coconut? I have just the custom-tooled, stainless titanium blade for it. Thinking of a hike? I’m there with my Camelbak, breathable Goretex, and reversible bandana. With a space blanket that could keep three of us warm for a week before we would need a rescue, and a microfibre towel capable of drying my sculpted and rugged torso after my waterfall shower. I’m almost hoping for an emergency. You won’t believe the first aid kit I packed.
4. The Tourguide
While you were getting butterflies over pictures of the beaches in Thailand and Cambodia, I’ve been studying Khmer prehistory. And I can’t wait to start sharing. That building we just passed? That was built in 1695 and is decorated with the face of the obscure Norse God Thallajulllhorl. Did you know that the left front window was, in fact, restored based on a design concept borrowed from a Herbert Baker household in Johannesburg? I read that in a book somewhere.
5. The Agent Provocateur
It’s not a journey unless you have stories. And it’s not a story unless local law enforcement was involved. Or the Mob. I believe in saying yes to everything from the ping pong shows to Happy Pizza. I’m the guy who fed you that mouthful of trippy cactus and laughed my ass off when you thought you were about to die.
6. The Pilgrim
Wherever I travel, I choose to sit with the gods of the local religions. I’ve walked the Camino de Santiago, trekked Nepal, spent months in the ashrams of India and learned unspeakable wisdom from the yogic sages of Thailand. My life is a dedicated and deadly serious spiritual journey. I’ve read Siddhartha a dozen times while sitting in contemplation at the back of the bus.
7. The Storyteller
Call this snake wine? The snake wine I had in a tiny Laotian village had a mixer of blood and venom, served in a tall glass with extra ice made from unpurified river water. Had a wild night out? I had a wilder one back in 2001. I was among the worst of the Agent Provocateurs (see above) in my earlier travelling days — now I delight in recalling the memories of wild experiences and putting the younger travelers to shame.
8. The Jeweller
That bracelet on my wrist is the one I found in a market in a remote corner of Lesotho. And that ring? That was handcrafted by a silversmith in Senegal to ward off evil spirits. Everywhere I travel, I’ve gathered beads, bracelets and talismans of every eclectic design that humanity across the world could conceive of. Before picking a destination to travel to, it’s absolutely imperative to determine the quality of their ethnic jewellery.