Thursday, January 31, 2008

On the perils of shoestring travel

I hate to complain. After all, travelling on a budget – abandoning every last vestige of comfort and dignity, throwing yourself to the merciless winds of cheap supermarket leftovers and brothel/crack-den based accommodation – can be an endearing experience. Certainly, it beats cruising from one city to the next in air-conditioned, plexiglass opulence, dining on predictably fine food an
d wine and staying only in the most drearily luxurious of hotels. Yet as with all human beings, I have a tolerance threshold, and after recent events this threshold is rapidly in danger of being breached.

Do not think me some kind of thin-skinned, lily-livered moaning minnie. I said nothing when, rather than throw away the last few shavings of salami we had in our possession after a hearty Serbian breakfast, we hid them in a disused locker in the foyer of the Economics Faculty of the University of Belgrade, which was conveniently located nearby. Nor did I wrinkle my nose when we returned a day later to collect our package, by which point the corridors of this hallowed institution were smelling a tad pungent. And I emitted not a peep of discontent after a Belgrade barber, after an hour of careful attention to my scalp, left me looking like a young Bob Dylan who, somewhat improbably, had signed himself up as a cadre in the Serbian nationalist movement. Yes, I could have gone to a hairdresser whose English skills extended beyond the occasional muffled obscenity, but that would have cost at least two pounds more. So I was happy with my lot, despite the looks of contempt and horror I now receive when walking past young children on the streets.

No, my real concerns lie – as ever – with my travelling companion, whose fortitude and temperament are, sadly, no match for mine. I am fearful that the lack of creature comforts and enforced hardship our journey is inflicting upon us is beginning to addle his fragile mind. An isolated example: desperate to avoid spending any money on water whilst out and about, we generally carry around a bottle full of cloudy, chlorine-soaked tap swill with us to sate our thirst. To pass the time we are prone to throwing this bottle around in a playful manner, perhaps even attempting a few slightly audacious ‘tricks’ with it. Yesterday, however, in the midst of such japes, Josh proceeded – with no word of warning – to hurl this heavy bottle over the walls of the venerable ruined citadel that overlooks the city. There was no word of warning, only a grunt of mania. His victims included, but were not limited to, an elderly Serbian woman who was making her gentle way up the steps below us, and several local cats. At such moments of crisis, our true character shines through, and so it was with me. I did the honourable thing and hid behind a pillar whilst Josh attempted to reacquire the battled bottle and apologise to the now comatose grandmother.

Despite this early display of neurosis on Josh’s part, the alarm bells only really started ringing later that night. Once again in the interests of a healthy bank balance, we have turned our back on taxis, buses, trams and indeed any form of transportation that might involve handing over a few dinars. Instead we tend to let our feet do the work, which would be fine if we were equipped with either a map or a guidebook to direct us. Needless to say, these amenities have also been sacrificed on the altar of prudence. The result is that most nights we can be found, slightly drunk, wandering incomprehensibly through the dark suburbs of any number of central European cities, pleading in vain with passers-by for sympathy. To date, these nocturnal rambles have passed in thoughtful silence, each of us calmly brooding in our own private hells. Recently, however, Josh has begun to view these periods as an opportunity to showcase his not inconsiderable talents at gangsta rap. For those that know Josh, this may come as a surprise but I kid you not – there was more than one moment at 4am last night when I felt the physical and spiritual presence of Jay-Z beside me as we stumbled back from a club. The problems only arise in the presence of innocent bystanders that are helpfully telling us the way home. In such circumstances Josh generally feels it necessary not just to continue his lyrical odyssey, but to intensify it, with the result that the directions are regularly drowned out by strains of “99 problems”.

For all these reasons, I am reluctantly staging an intervention. The era of budget travel and second-rate hip-hop is over. Should anybody need to contact us, they will henceforth find us in the Presidential Suite of the Hilton-Marriott in Sofia.

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