Saturday, March 18, 2006

The "Solitary Satellite" phenomenon

Thirty odd years ago there was no "Lonely Planet". Around 1974, someone else, not Tony or Maureen Wheeler, brought out "Across Asia on the Cheap" but it was the Wheelers who picked up the concept and ran with it (all the way to the bank and all around the world). So successful has it been that there's scarcely a backpacker here in India who hasn't got one stowed somewhere - or more likely held open in his sweaty hands as he tries to use its local town plan to navigate round the latest new stop-off point. Inevitably, some people are now confident enough to travel "independently" because of its existence (how many that is can only be speculation) but it does become quite a crutch. I freely admit that, when my Sri Lanka guide was "permanently borrowed" off me by a Kiwi on our arrival at Colombo airport years ago, I had a small panic. This grew as I first failed to track the culprit down and then discovered that the guide was reprinting and apparently unobtainable. In the end, I ran one to ground in a many-star hotel, whose clientele were more likely to favour guides by Insight or Dorling Kindersley. Without it, life on the Sri Lankan roads would have been slower but I would have made more contact with the locals - asking the way etc. With it, I was able to pack my three weeks with incident and exploration, with smooth transitions from destination to destination and with places to stay easily located.

More generally, the influence of Lonely Planet can't help but be substantial. Its recommendations cause some places (for "Sleeping" or "Eating") to prosper while others merely stagnate or decline. Some of these favoured ones keep the faith, maintaining standards and price levels: others exploit the surge of popularity that being recommended brings, by becoming lazy or greedy or both. Hopefully, these ones get dropped in the next edition. And, as I have suggested, the LP guides create a certain dependency in that international community that they have strongly helped to form. The scale of global backpacking, especially along the well-trodden routes, would probably amaze many who don't cross its tracks. Israelis frazzled from military service, Europeans (chiefly Brits, German and French) on a gap year and these days some Americans (I mean US citizens) shoulder their packs, consult their LP guide and set off. Along the way, they tend to congregate in certain hot spots where conditions are particularly favourable - Hampi in India is one, Ko Samui in Thailand another and, probably still, Kuta Beach on Bali. These people will probably disdain the description "tourist", preferring "traveller" or, more ambitiously, "world traveller". But where one category ends and the other begins is hard to discern. Tourists go in tour groups on tour buses but don't travellers flock together more informally? - for example on the backwaters ferry from Allepey to Kollam, which isn't used by locals who prefer the much faster and cheaper bus. Tourists go to see the sights: travellers go to feel the vibes - but the sights and the vibes frequently overlap. Tourists spend more, travellers spend less but they merge with each other in LP's "mid-range" sleeping and eating categories.

A whole generation and a half (if a generation is 20 years) have grown up not knowing what travel is like without their dependable guide; but some follow it so addictively that if, as happened at Canacona station in South Goa, the guide gives no guidance, they are lost. Having no instructions as to how to get from the station to Palolem beach, all but one of us took the soft option of hiring auto-rickshaws at some distinct expense. I thought the logical thing was to ask some local advice and track down the nearest bus stop. As it happened, a large, clean, efficient bus station was only 300 yards away across some fields and I reckon I didn't get there much later than they did.

When we reached Palolem by our various means of transport, we found another LP hotspot - a picture-postcard-perfect bay framed by two headlands, its beach populated by fishing boats and the young international traveller set. Fringing the beach was an unbroken line of "coco-huts" - basic shelters made of local natural materials - and other backpacker-friendly accommodations. (Sorry about the 's': it's the Indian language environment talking!). A lot of people seemed to enjoy being around a lot of other such people - and the accompanying merchants (handicrafts stalls, travel bureaux, restaurants, internet caf├ęs and so on) seemed to enjoy them being around, too. I decided, however, to consult my LP guide again (still making it up as I went along) and found a quiet mention of a beach nearby which "is popular with travellers wanting to escape the resort scenes". It described the beach as "average-looking" and when I got there I was glad of the implied discouragement. The beach to me was fine (2 km of good sand between two headlands) and the village offered an excellent range of accommodation options, some eating options and even one, slow, internet facility. And not a lot of people. In fact, it was the kind of place where a certain type of traveller likes to believe they're the only ones there, so they look straight through other outsiders as if they are transparent but then get exaggeratedly chummy with the locals. I met a few of those! I didn't mind: I understand the feeling a bit anyway. In fact, sitting on the bamboo balcony of my "coco-hut" on stilts and looking across the beach to the sea I could manage to conjure up quite a Robinson Crusoe feeling myself.

I haven't much to report about my time there - after all, the beach experience is meant to be quite clear and empty, isn't it? - but there was a fair amount of walking the beach end to end, jumping waves, watching scurrying crabs and swooping sea-eagles, trying to photograph the fly-catcher-like flight of a bee-eater and exploring cashew orchards. (Now there's another story: do you know what a cashew fruit looks like, or why the nuts are so expensive?). It was all too short for me!

The holiday wind-down began with a journey north to Margao, main town of South Goa, and a day's detour to its beach at Colva. LP had warned me about the place with some mixed messages but when I arrived the words that stood out were "package tourists", "Indian tourists and the middle-aged European crowd". Back to the pages of LP to make it up afresh: the village of Benaulim was described as "much quieter" - I was hoping for "unspoiled": dream on! It was appreciably better but still package-tourist land. You see I've got some of that traveller-snobbery too. But "having" to sit at a table between a couple of Saaf London women (original description deleted) on one side and and an aged Essex couple on the other, all smoking profusely, made me realise the decline had set in, especially when slices of their conversation drifted over. (Not just a traveller-snob, then!) Perhaps a lot of Goa is like this: Costa del Goa, package-holiday-land. Also, it's the end of the season, too many tired, bored, cynical traders, too many dogs by far, plus the usual: parascending, jetskis, banana-boats, sunloungers - the lot. Touts, vendors, beggars all along the beach .... Perhaps I was luckier even than I realised on my coco-hut balcony.

But yesterday there was a good experience of watching a group of fisherman dragging in a huge net, laying it out, sorting and sharing the fish and then leaving the remaining tiddlers for the birds - the crows and the eagles: lots of aerial acrobatics and mid-air combat. Seeing an eagle flying low above me eating a fish in its talons was quite something! Ironically, most of the watchers had dispersed before the real show, bored by the process of the fishermen laying out the nets to dry. (I think the idea was to do the tedious work first and leave the exciting, rewarding business of dividing the spoils to the end.) By the time the eagles and crows really got going I had that part of the beach to myself. So I should curb my whingeing even here, shouldn't I?


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