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A parched and dusty wind sweeps out of Africa, across the straits, and into the streets and alleys of Conil and Cádiz. It´s July and August again. The sunflowers in the neighbouring field have withered and died. Cheeky sparrows glean seeds before harvest time sees them all gone. Town and city centres throng and throb throughout the province as hordes of tourists idle and snake, their heads in the air to gawp at nothing in particular. We locals duck and dive, weaving our way into less crowded short-cuts to get about more swiftly, wishing away our lives for September to come.
Beginning with a dribble at the start of June, it’s a sizeable stream by the second week. By July there’s a flood of Biblical proportions and in August the damn breaks. Conil is under tourrorist attack again.
One of the reasons my success as a travel journalist was so short-lived can be put down the fact I can’t bear tourists. Another is that the position has more in common with an unaffordable luxury than paid employment. And then there was the other tiny little problem of hoteliers, airlines, advertising agencies and travel companies tending not to go for travel articles setting out to put people off the idea of travel.
Many of you may not know it, but travel writers are expected to beg for freebies as part of the job. As most newspapers claim not to be able to afford to pay for plane tickets and hotels, journalists have to go down on bended knee before travel agents, or pay their own way. It’s a bit like waiters having to bring along their own tablecloths, crockery and cutlery for diners’ use in order to save restaurateurs the trouble. Or expecting bus drivers to find someone to sponsor tickets to allow them to drive passengers to their destinations.
And, as most newspapers, love reminding you: there is no such thing as a free lunch – funny how you don’t get the Queen of England saying that. Needless to say, complimentary flights and hotel rooms from travel companies always come with a price. So what does that say about travel articles? To put it bluntly, would you trust war reports on Syria coming from correspondents funded by Isis?
When the phone call came from the editor at the travel desk of The Telegraph, I couldn’t believe it. My very first commission for a travel article had come from a leading British newspaper, despite the fact I’d only ever had two articles published. One was for a local arts rag and the other was for, well, thinking about it there wasn’t another, so it was only one.
Despite having sent a proposal on the origins of the Pazyryk Carpet to the travel editors of several papers I wasn’t expecting them to take me seriously. After all, who would want to go to Armenia? It sounds more like a highly infectious limb disease than a country. The idea anyone would be interested in a smelly old rug that only might have been made there was preposterous. What if it was the oldest carpet in the world? Anyway, it wasn’t even discovered in Armenia. It was found in a Scythian chief’s grave mound in the Altai Mountains of Siberia where it had been dumped 2,400 years ago. Even the gang of grave robbers that broke into the tomb a few hundred years later didn’t think it worth the bother of lugging back across the steppes, and up the steps, to carpet their hovel. Nobody had heard of the Russian archaeologist Sergei Rudenko, and most people couldn’t even find Armenia on a map. These were all very good reasons for the travel editor of the Telegraph not to send me to Armenia; not good reasons to send me. Another good reason not to send me was that I could get killed.
My mentor of the time told me he was just as surprised as I was. Shocked even, and almost as sorry. He had assured me there wasn’t a chance in hell of a national newspaper sending someone with my lack of experience to somewhere hardly anybody had heard of. There had been a war there only a couple of years previously and now it was chiefly known for its corrupt politicians and mafia gangs. And Cher, of course. Only a lunatic would consider going to a former Soviet republic whose claims to notoriety included being disturbingly close to Chechnya, and being home to the ancestors of a rock star, who should’ve given up wearing tight leather pants decades ago.
My proposal having been accepted by the editor I was given a couple of hints as to where I might bum a flight to Yerevan before being waved a cheery fare-thee-well.
To be sure, Armenia sounds a very interesting place, in the same way Saturn sounds a very interesting place. But you wouldn’t necessarily want to end up in either. At least, not well after midnight, with just a suitcase and no hotel reservation. It’s also a very interesting experience being greeted by hordes of unshaven taxi drivers, digging elbows in each other’s ribs, just to press their noses against the airport window in the hope you might be attracted by their particular gilded leer. Even more interesting is the ensuing battle to snatch your luggage, once you get through passport control. Possibly, the longest way into town is more interesting by daylight. As I was more interested in conserving my possessions and my life on the seemingly endless journeys, both to and fro, by light of day and dark of night, I will never know the answer to that.
Needless to say, the Telegraph turned down my piece, but I did get a fee after employing a haggling trick I picked up from observing illegal moneychangers plying their trade on the streets of Yerevan. Unfortunately, it didn’t even cover my day to day expenses. It doesn’t take long in the newspaper business to learn bribery and corruption don’t come cheap.
A couple of my articles did finally make the travel section of the Independent. The third was to be the pinnacle of my career with a lead article on Edvard Munch dominating the entire front page of the pull-out travel section. From there it was all downhill. Paying my own travel expenses, sleeping at the houses of relatives and friends still had me making an unsustainable loss on each article. I had made the mistake of researching the history and culture of the places I visited instead of riding elephants and dining in swish restaurants at someone else’s expense.
That’s a long lead into explaining why I am not a fan of tourrorism, but it doesn’t explain why Angelica and I live in a tourrorist town making a sizeable percentage of our meagre income from tourrorism. I’ll explain that another day. In our defence I can only say that the main season hardly lasts three months. So here’s a snapshot journey through Conil at the height of the season for those who like other people’s elbows in their dinner, their seawater ameliorated by gallons of urine and their beaches layered with acres of sizzling fat, marinated in alcohol, punctuated by small patches of sand.
And everybody is moaning people aren’t spending like every year before. But this time they’re right. Credit cards maxed out, and austerity measures are beginning to bite, people are starting to look behind their backs as Greece has been hung up and left out to dry by the very banks that robbed it so mercilessly. There’s the feeling Spain could be next. The Troika are setting an example and telling the Spaniards what happens if you vote the wrong way. Maybe some Spaniards will take note, but maybe not. Governments are taking a huge risk that might threaten the stability of the European Union. Things don’t have to be this way, the poor are being told to press their noses against the window while the rich spend the money they have plundered from the world’s economy.
Copyright © 2015 Bryan Hemming
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