The Favourites of Bob Payne

Bob Payne is a freelance writer specializing in travel and humour. He is the author of a 142-country memoir, Escape Clauses – Getting Away With a Travel Writing Life.

What are three of your favourite countries?

New Zealand
Honestly, my favourite countries are any I haven’t been to, which, counting territories listed by groups like the Travelers Century Club, is about half of them. But among my favorites of those I’ve visited, I’d have to say New Zealand, for its natural beauty and the friendliness of its people.

Typical of the Kiwis, as New Zealanders call themselves, was a couple I met while they were on holiday in Australia. They invited me to visit if I ever got to New Zealand, and not only didn’t seem surprised when I showed up on their doorstep a few days after they returned home but took another week off work to show me all over the North and South islands.

Greek Islands
Greece is up there, too, especially the Greek Islands. As a writer, the thing I love about Greek islands is that you can sit down at whichever taverna is nearest the port, order an ouzo or a frappe coffee, and by the time you leave if you sip slowly enough, you will know everybody on the island and every one of their stories. And I know what I am talking about because a magazine editor once asked me to do a story about an island-hopping adventure in the Greek Islands, and I spent close to six weeks visiting every single island that had ferry connections, which was more than 60.

The way I did it was to start off in Piraeus, a port so ancient that Plato visited, probably using my same conversational tactics, then get on the first ferry that came along, go to wherever its first stop was, do the same thing with the next ferry to come along on that island, and the next, and the next, until my wife, via long distance, reminded me that while Odysseus had been able to convince his wife that he needed ten years for essentially the same route as mine, I had about used up all my rope.

Any other island
As you may have gathered from my Greece tale, it’s not so much countries I pursue but islands, because I think that their isolation makes each one a world of its own. Among the worlds I have travelled to are Easter Island, Robinson Crusoe Island, Zanzibar, Seychelles, the Maldives, most of the islands of the South Pacific, and some of the islands frozen in the ice near the North Pole.

Depending on how you judge such things, I may or may not have also visited the island of Socotra, off the coast of Yemen. I didn’t step ashore there but did sail along its coast and anchor off its shore in a small boat that we were sailing around the world. For much of that Yemen experience, we were shadowed by and exchanged a shout or two with a handful of men in a supposed fishing vessel who I believe were rocket-launcher-armed pirates debating whether to use us as a way to temper their disappointment in not having bagged an infidel oil tanker.

What are three of your favourite (and worst) travel moments?

My favourite travel moments and worst travel moments are the same, because the worst travel moments always make for the best travel stories, as my “visit” to Yemen did. But here are two more that travellers can make up their minds about:

Losing my luggage in Zanzibar
I think losing my luggage in Zanzibar could be called a worst moment, because other than the clothes I arrived in, the only things I could find to wear for the week I remained there were a pair of khaki shorts almost my size, and a souvenir T-shirt that said, “Don’t worry, be happy,” in Swahili. Some people question, though, if it was really a worst moment or rather that I mention it far more often than they think necessary just so I can say I lost my luggage in Zanzibar. There is no doubt, though, that without losing my luggage I wouldn’t have ended up with anywhere near the story I had to tell.

Accidentally going to war in Papua New Guinea
Certainly among my most problematic travel moments was one that occurred in the Southern Highlands of Papua New Guinea when a photographer and I gave a ride to a pair of spear-carrying Highlanders who agreed with the photographer that it would be funny to decorate our faces with war paint just like they were wearing. PNG Highlanders, I might point out, have a reputation for being among the fiercest people on earth and are known to hold grudges for generations over even the slightest disagreements. I might also point out that it only occurred to me when we arrived at their destination, an open field where dozens of warriors were milling about, that our two passengers were actually going to war.

Nothing happened, because an exchange of pigs seemed to cool tempers, at least while we were there. But I still sometimes wonder what the outcome would have been if violence had broken out, and a crowd of warriors, half painted in “my” colours and half in the colours of the opposing faction, had needed to decide whether they should go after opponents whose families would hold grudges against them for generations, or focus on the two dimwits who had been silly enough to deck themselves out in the colours of an enemy.

What are three of your best travel tips?

Always ask for the middle seat
When flying, to double your chances of hearing a good story, always ask for a middle seat. I was once on a flight for hours that seemed like minutes when I found myself sitting between two women –strangers to me — who spent the entire time talking across me, as if I were not even there, about nipple rings. The only time I have regretted taking my own advice about the middle seat is when I was trapped next to someone who spent five hours explaining to me how a barometer works.

Travel Solo
When you can, travel solo. Two people travelling together learn half as much about the place they are visiting as a solo traveller does. Three people only a third. And any more than that and all they learn is more about each other than they usually care to. But if you must have travel companions, I recommend the dead, because they seldom argue about what time to leave for the airport, insist on a window seat, or pout if a restaurant is not to their choosing, or wear board shorts when visiting sacred shrines, or use a calculator app to split the check, or take selfies.

Learn a few words of the local language
No matter where you travel, learn these three words and phrases in the local language: “Hello,” “Thank you”, and “I’d like a room farther from the gunfire, please.” Also, if your language skills have advanced to that point, it is always best to agree with any criticisms a local speaker may have of whoever is the leader of your country at the time.

error: Content is protected