Friday 6 December 2019

Popping the bubble of free travel

The problem with being given free travel - yes, ok, your eyeroll has been noted - is that often it's because the operator finds they have a vacancy on an upcoming trip/tour/cruise/whatever that they feel they might as well fill, often at quite or even very short notice, with a travel writer. That does incur moderate expense to themselves, but the payback is literally that - publicity that will result in more sales to the general public.

Sidenote here: Travel writers sometimes feel/are made to feel inferior to regular fee-paying guests, and subsequently are given inferior accommodation, even made to sit at the back of the bus, that sort of thing. This is wrong. Looking at it in purely financial terms, the travel writer is actually worth many times more in income than that punter, because - if the experience is good and results in enthusiasm - the stories written about it will encourage lots more people to consider that tour/cruise/etc, and front up to hand over their hard-earned. So it's in the operator's interest to make sure that the writer is treated exactly the same as everyone else, and gets an authentic and genuine experience.

Anyway, the problem with trips like the one I've just been on to Maria Island in Tasmania is that clearly it was offered to me because only two couples had booked places, and the tour ideally caters for 10 guests. What's wrong with that, you ask? Don't you get more individual attention, a room to yourself instead of sharing, more food? Yes to all of that, of course.

The thing is, though, that being part of such a small group means that if there is someone there whose company you would not normally seek out, they are impossible to avoid. This has happened to me several times, and it happened again on Maria Island. (We will, for the purposes of this post, breeze straight past the 'it's not you, it's me' alternative explanation.)

On this walk were two Canadians who - well, there's no need to go any further, is there? They were Canadians, so they were mild-mannered and polite and cheerful, and I liked them. There were also, however, two Brits. Now, I have close connections to very many Brits, I lived in the UK for 17 years, I know Brits, in all their many incarnations, and I've liked most of them. These two, though? Yeah, nah.

He was a geology bore who knew he was a geology bore, and yet made no effort not to be boring about geology. I tell you, he went on, and on, AND ON about rocks and minerals and escarpments and batholiths and dolerite and granite and sandstone and many other words I can't remember because my brain gave up in disgust. He held us up while he lectured the long-suffering guide who made a valiant show of interest, he monopolised the conversation, and he bored me STIFF! 

He had been a university lecturer on the subject, clearly going against the general tendency of teachers to want to enthuse their students about their subject. Since then he had worked in the oil business and was a defensive apologist for the industry when he wasn't being boring about rocks, so he was not likely to find me warming to him anyway.

And then there was his wife. She decided early on that she would be the life of the party, and bubbled continuously, and self-consciously, for the entire four days. She made Dad jokes that she laughed at herself, loud and bubbly, and repeated several times. She told us all about her life and career, her children, their children, their house in Cornwall, their yacht, their travels, the big names they knew. She went on, and on, AND ON and - without showing more than the most superficial interest in us - ostentatiously drew the Canadians and me into her conversations, being deliberately controversial, and then bubbling with loud laughter at the awkward silences that led to. She set my teeth on edge.

If there had been more people in the group, it wouldn't have been so bad, but there was no escape at all: they were full-on and undiluted, and it will be some time before my memories of beautiful and interesting and wildlife-rich Maria Island will lose that irritating soundtrack of low, boring drone and high, shrieking bubble.

No such thing as free travel, eh?

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