KEEPING A SENSE OF HUMOUR
... while travelling
Much as I love travelling, I also find it intensely irritating.
The American Mom next to you on the Eurostar sharing a crackling
sack of candy with her fat-faced kid, while her equally plump
older sister, the child's Ant, tells him that he's got a bit
of French in him, in fact he's got a bit of German in him, in
fact he's got a bit of everything in him, in fact he's whad
you call a mutt. This wasn't what you went to Paris for, was
So look at it another way. It's funny! And contemporary! And
a darn sight more real than a train full of claret-sipping onion-sellers
in berets would ever be! So stop trying to read your boring
book and just enjoy. And when the Ant asks the French guard
how long it is before the train goes into the Chan-elle tunnel,
and the French guard goes Pff, turns his back and walks off
Keeping your sense of humour not only leavens the traveller's
way, it brings relief from the inevitable frustrations of travel.
At Malaga airport I was once on the verge of strangling the
representative of a charter flight operator who had shamelessly
diverted our plane to service a football match in Dublin. Then,
suddenly, watching a woman from Newcastle asking the glowering
Spanish barman repeatedly, and ever more loudly, for "a
small cock", my anger melted into laughter. In the end,
she got her Coke (with ice, in a glass, no less) and we got
our flight. What's a few hours of your life donated to the profits
of a dodgy bucketshop anyway.
For the serious, long term traveller, being able to see the
funny side of things can be a lifesaver, not just against external
problems, but also the internal bogeymen: the exhaustion, loneliness
and depression that can ambush you in even the most gorgeous
Towards the end of a seven month trip around Australia I'd been
driving for three days along the coast road from Adelaide to
Melbourne. I'd started out cheerfully in the lovely Adelaide
hills, felt exhilarated as I sped across the vast-skied, dazzling
salt flats of the Coorong. But by the time I reached the wild-flowered
hedgerows of Victoria, and finally the spectacular rollercoaster
they call the Great Ocean Road, I was drained and nervy. At
seven p.m. I finally had to admit to myself that I wasn't going
to make my jolly Saturday night rendezvous in the Two Dogs Bar,
St Kilda. It was going to be another grim hotel room in another
resort where I knew nobody. But even that wasn't available.
Typically, I'd picked one of the busiest weekends of the year
and there wasn't a bed to be had on the coast. Just as I was
in danger of driving off the cliff in a stupor of tiredness,
I finally saw a gleaming pink Vacancies sign. The only room
they had was $140 a night, the lisping Greek receptionist told
me, a luck-thurry double thpa. For some reason, that thpa that
did it. My self-pity alchemised into careless extravagance.
I threw my budget to the Southern Ocean winds and lay alone
in the huge, heart-shaped pool of bubbles laughing, profoundly
grateful that a single word had delivered me from certain death.
Can humour actually protect you from physical danger? In Belfast
I went exploring with an English friend down the infamous Falls
Road, through the bleak estates where pro-IRA slogans are scrawled
on every dirty grey concrete wall to a pub known as The Fort,
whose windows were entirely covered with thick steel mesh. We
ordered pints of the black stuff and sat down, sharing a booth
with a pair of white-haired gents who seemed genial enough,
yarning away to each other as Irishmen do. But hearing our English
accents the mood changed. The older of the two leant forward
to warn me that I should be very careful, an Englishman walking
into a republican pub in an area like this. "Ten years
ago, five years ago," he told me, "if you'd walked
in here with that accent they'd have had you out the back."
In the toilet, he elaborated fiercely, with a gun to my head,
finding out exactly who I was. Maybe I was writing a book, but
there were plenty of undercover Brits who'd come up with stories
I was as open as I could be with him. I wasn't anti-republican,
I said, if I could get to interview Gerry Adams I would. The
other man laughed loudly. "Well, you've got the right feller
here," he said. "This is Gerry Adams's brother-in-law."
He was, too. The laughter broke the ice and half an hour later
the brother-in-law paid us the compliment of telling us that
the craic had been good. We wrote our names on a piece of paper
and left feeling considerably safer.
There are numerous instances where a shared sense of the ridiculous
can break down even the most vexed of cultural barriers. Visiting
South African townships in the last days of apartheid, it was
always laughter that bonded. "You know what that stands
for," one township host told me, pointing thoughtfully
to the label of his bottle of lager. "Let Africans Get
Equal Rights." I was in another cramped dwelling with a
few guys when there was a knock at the door and a pair of po-faced
white American missionaries stood before us. Everyone was very
polite to them, even when they asked, in deeply patronising
tones, what we all "did". Geoffrey, whose house it
was, went round with formal and elaborate career descriptions
for each of our group in turn, ending, "and Mr McCrum tells
us he is a writer. Indeed we were just saying how unusual it
was for us to have a white person amongst us and now I'm beginning
to feel like this is my lucky day." The missionaries nodded
seriously, and suddenly I felt that the colour barrier was much
less important than the humour barrier.
Being actively prepared to have the piss ripped out of you is
in general a wise move. In Kalgoorlie, Western Australia, I
stumbled one evening into a bar full of miners, yelling their
heads off as they let off steam from their long day in the gold
pits. Trying to buy a drink I was harangued by a huge bearded
bloke with shaved head and elaborate tattoos who was intrigued
by my unusual accent. "We've got a bloody Pom here!"
he was soon bellowing, hand clamped on my arm, half turned in
his seat towards the gallery of mates behind. Then to the bar
girls, who were wearing this being one of WA's famous
"skimpy" bars nothing more than bra and panties.
"Mark's a Pom. The Pom wants to see your tits, Donna
I didn't say that, the Pom said it. Ha ha ha!" Not a situation
I'd choose to be in again, but non-directional loud laughter
did the trick and Rob ended up showing me the town.
While keeping your humour, don't go thinking that humour is
the answer to everything. It's at the point where you're getting
a joke that others aren't that you have to be most careful.
Especially if they're carrying a machine gun or have the capacity
to lock you up. On those occasions the ability to keep an entirely
straight face is even more important. Even the twitch of a smirk
could be your undoing.