Travel Regrets: One Lost Conversation

It’s impossible to know what a lost conversation might have yielded. A lost conversation occupies a place in memory, a reservoir of sadness or relief. It’s the shape of the reservoir that remains forever unknown. This uncertainty often renders the very recognition of a lost conversational opportunity difficult.

The decision to welcome a stranger into conversation while on the road isn’t always easy. Nobody wants to be an easy mark. In places with pervasive tourism infrastructures, it’s often the better part of wisdom to ignore touts and attempts at conversation altogether. There are, after all, many scams to avoid, many tourist traps to escape.

But often a self-imposed barrier to conversation on the part of a tourist or traveler precludes what would have been interesting, useful, personally significant, or simply an opportunity to share a laugh or two.

A year and a half ago I was in Mauritius, having a conversation with my partner on a beach. What was it about? No idea. A very tall man with dreadlocks came up to us and hovered maybe 15 feet away. Very quietly he asked us if we might be interested in buying some jewelry made out of sea urchins.

I couldn’t hear him. “Sorry?” I asked. He repeated his pitch. “No thank you,” I responded, somewhat curtly. We were not interested in his jewelry. He also wasn’t really bothering us. Had our completely forgettable conversation not felt urgent, I would no doubt have been more polite. Hawkers are few and far between in this part of Mauritius, at least off-season, and his entreaty had been tame and gentle. But we weren’t interested, and we were in the middle of a conversation in any case.

“Where are you from?” he persisted. Every time we got this question in Mauritius we had to make a decision. Either we enjoyed the unfolding game and entertained a dozen or so guesses before we revealed our nationality, or we nipped it in the bud by responding “American.” This time, eager to get back to our conversation, we chose the latter option.

“I know America,” he said with sudden clarity. He pointed at his chest with a single finger. “I am from Chagos.” Suddenly, everything changed. He was no longer an unobtrusive if vaguely annoying hawker. “You are from Chagos?” I asked, suddenly alert. “Yes,” he answered. And then he turned away abruptly. The lines of communication were closed. He was done.The Chagos Islands are a string of Indian Ocean islands, part of the British Indian Ocean Territory. The islanders’ modern history is pretty terrible, all things considered. Beginning in the late 1960s, native Chagossians were evicted from the territory by the British government, who proceeded in 1971 to lease Diego Garcia to the United States for use as a military base.

Chagossians won several court battles in the UK for the right to return to the islands before seeing that right overturned in 2008. The islanders subsequently appealed to the European Court of Human Rights and currently await a ruling. In 2010, the British government declared the territory a marine reserve, something that may place the islands off limits to Chagossians if the European Court of Human Rights rules in their favor.

Today, Chagossians are well and truly dispossessed. They live mostly in Mauritius, Seychelles, and the UK. I’d known prior to visiting Mauritius that there was a sizable Chagossian community in the country. I’d wanted to glimpse Chagossian culture, get a sense of their situation in Mauritius, and maybe have dinner at a Chagossian restaurant, should one exist.

I asked around about the Chagossians. One taxi driver told us that they were responsible for many social problems. He went on and on. His diatribe sounded almost verbatim like the kind of blanketing anti-Roma sentiment I’ve heard from many Europeans. It didn’t just lodge a complaint against a people; it assigned a thoroughgoing failure to possess positive values to an entire culture. The picture that emerged in conversation on Mauritius and in my own research is of a community dispossessed doubly – both from their territory and within Mauritian society.

In the context of such intense cultural dispossession, maybe a conversation on a beach in Mauritius between an American tourist and a displaced Chagossian can’t simply be a conversation. It’s hard to know. Most people are, after all, able to distinguish between individuals and the behavior of governments.

In any case, I regret strongly that this conversation never happened. It might have been annoying. It might have simply been a continual sales pitch for an object I didn’t want. It also might have been an opportunity to learn. Less loftily, it might simply have been an enjoyable exchange. I’ll never know.

[Image: Flickr | Drew Avery]

The world’s most ethical tourism destinations

Each year, non-profit organization Ethical Traveler conducts a survey of the world’s developing nations, analyzing their progress toward promoting human rights, preserving their environment, and developing a sustainable tourism industry. The study, run by Ethical Traveler’s all-volunteer staff, factors in country scores from databases like Freedom House, the Millennium Challenge Corporation, and the World Bank, then dives into actions that governments have taken to improve circumstances within their countries in the previous year.

The top countries are celebrated in Ethical Traveler’s annual list of the Developing World’s Best Ethical Tourism Destinations, with the hope that increased tourism will help those countries continue to improve. “Travel and tourism are among the planet’s driving economic forces, and every journey we take makes a statement about our priorities and commitment to change,” they say. “Ethical Traveler believes that mindful travel is a net positive for the planet. By choosing our destinations well and remembering our role as citizen diplomats, we can create international goodwill and help change the world for the better.”

This year’s list includes Argentina, the Bahamas, Chile, Costa Rica, Dominica, Latvia, Mauritius, Palau, Serbia, and Uruguay. Explore these countries more in the slideshow below.


[Flickr image via Lisandro M. Enrique]

Roz Savage finishes Indian Ocean row

Long distance rower Roz Savage has added yet another ocean to her already impressive resume. The woman who has already rowed solo across the Atlantic and Pacific, has now completed the Indian Ocean as well, arriving in Mauritius today after 154 days at sea.

Savage began her journey way back in April, when she set out from Fremantle, Australia. After a few early set backs with her boat, she eventually hit the open water, where she spent more than five months alone, battling high winds, big waves, and ocean storms. Some days she made good progress, racking up plenty of miles, and others she struggled all day just to end up back where she started.

Of course, with four major long distance rows under her belt – Roz did the Pacific in three stages – it wasn’t anything she hadn’t seen before. The Indian Ocean did present its own unique challenges however and for the first time, she had to deal with the real possibility of encountering pirates on one of her journeys. Because of that threat, Savage chose to keep her GPS tracking system off until she was nearly to the finish line, just in case someone else was following her progress.

With the completion of her Indian Ocean crossing, Roz has now become the first woman to row solo across the Indian, Pacific, and the Atlantic. With all of that time spent out on the water, she’s gained quite an appreciation for our planet and the importance of taking care of our oceans. That’s a message she has carried with her across the globe and continues to spread where ever she goes.

Now that she’s conquered the last of the “Big Three” of ocean rowing, Roz has announced she’s hanging up her oars to pursue other endeavors. I’m not sure how you top rowing three oceans, but I’m sure she’ll find a way.

Reflections on a round-the-world journey

Several nights into our journey, as we were speeding along dark roads en route to our guest house on the island of Lifou in New Caledonia, I felt a bolt of irrepressible excitement of the sort familiar, no doubt, to most travel enthusiasts. We’d just spent several nights in big, bold Sydney, a bona fide world city, well-organized and self-evident. Sydney was exciting, but, truth be told, not unlike many places I knew well. The quiet island of Lifou, with its hybrid French-Melanesian culture, provided a novel contrast. There were few people around, and few streetlights. The air smelled sweet. Occasionally a car overtook us during our 40-minute journey, and headlights once or twice revealed women in bright clothing walking along the side of the road.

We had made it to an unknown place. I felt myself caught up with that familiar emotion known to all who love travel: teeming excitement, tied to a lack of knowledge of what was to come.

Taking stock of a five-week trip after the fact is perhaps unavoidable, but it’s also fraught. You don’t want to put too much energy into second-guessing what you did on your journey, perhaps in particular because a specific round-the-world itinerary is unlikely to be repeated. Simultaneously, you also want to learn from the experience.

Here’s what we planned well and what we might have executed differently if we had the trip to do over.Good planning.

• Hotels. Our hotels were well chosen, all in the $95-$175 range. In terms of value, we did especially well by scoring a room through Hotwire at the Hilton London Docklands for just under $100 per night. Most of the hotels we chose are well-located, or close enough to secondary attractions to feel central.

• Open-ended approach. Our general lack of planning as far as activities are concerned was also beneficial. This approach gave us time to relax into each destination and pick up inspiration on the spot. Our approach perfectly fit my neighborhood-based strategy of urban exploration. More tourist sight-oriented travelers might find this approach to be less satisfying.

• Variety of destinations. Another plus was the variety of our itinerary’s destinations. By including big vibrant cities and out-of-the-way insular idylls on our itinerary, we were able to enjoy a range of experiences in a relatively short period.

So-so planning.

• Johannesburg. As I detailed in an earlier post, our brief Johannesburg stay suffered from poor planning. In retrospect, it turns out that I’d simply consulted the wrong sources. Several friends and acquaintances popped out of the woodwork following the publication of this blog post with tips. I’ll be better prepared for my next visit to Johannesburg. Lesson: always get feedback from your trusted contacts and carefully contextualize reports of a city’s security situation.

• Tanna Island. I’m a big fan of picking a base and then fanning out to other places. I wish we’d taken greater advantage of this approach to spend a few nights on Vanuatu’s Tanna island. I read about Tanna, an ecological wonder of nature, in Lonely Planet’s Vanuatu & New Caledonia guidebook. It is fairly easy to visit Vanuatu from New Caledonia.

• Rodrigues Island. Nine nights on Mauritius was perhaps two too many. A jaunt to the country’s far flung Rodrigues Island, 350 miles to the east, would have provided a fascinating cultural and physical contrast with the main island.

This is the final Capricorn Route series installment. Check out other stories in the Capricorn Route series here.

Round-the-world: Capricorn Route trip top ten

Later this week I’ll reflect on the ups and downs of our round-the-world trip. I’ll look at what we might have done differently as well as those elements that turned out to be particularly well conceived. In the meantime, here’s a playful top ten list of some of the best things we encountered along the way: best beach; best ice cream; best tourist trap; best breakfast; best market stall; best new subway line; best hotel arrival punch; best rough neighborhood; best flight; and best place to sharpen cupcake decoration skills.

1. Best beach: Châteaubriand Bay Beach, Lifou. The Loyalty Island of Lifou in New Caledonia certainly several incredible beaches. Châteaubriand Bay Beach is the most magnificent of these. The sand is delicate and white, the water is a mesmerizing hue, and there’s plenty of shade for those who burn easily. Locals share the beach with tourists, though in the very pleasant off-season there are few of either around.

2. Best ice cream: violet ice cream at Cutler & Co in Melbourne. The extraordinary tasting menu served at Cutler & Co was devoid of missteps. The parting shot of violet ice cream left a bold final impression. It was also the tastiest serving of ice cream of the trip.

3. Best (that is, worst) tourist trap: Île aux Cerfs, Mauritius. Everyone raves about Île aux Cerfs, an island off the east coast of Mauritius. Visitors pay 1000 rupees ($34) upfront at a tour agency in the coastal town of Trou d’Eau Douce for access to the island plus a barbecue lunch. A boat picks up tourists and deposits them at a jetty on the island, then later ferries them over to another island for a barbecue lunch. The island is packed with tourists and touts selling boat rides and parasailing adventures. Prior to development, this island was no doubt terribly beautiful–and, it must be said, it has no landscape-scarring developments even now–but it’s quite crowded for a destination where it is pretty easy to avoid masses of tourists.

4. Best breakfast: Forbes & Burton, Sydney. A potato cake under poached eggs with smoked salmon and onion jam (AUD$18) was the best breakfast of the trip, hearty and refined at once. Runner-up in the great breakfast stakes: several items on the menu at Il Fornaio in Melbourne’s St. Kilda neighborhood.

5. Best market stall: Tisanes N. Mootoosamy, Stall 244, Central Market, Port Louis. The owner’s pitch is hilarious: “There’s one herb we sell here that you can’t use until you leave Mauritius. This is the anti-stress herb, because there’s no stress on Mauritius.” The range of ailments addressed by the herbs on offer here, meant to be imbibed as tea, is broad. It includes menopause, insomnia, cellulite, and anemia.

6. Best new subway line: London Overground East London line. Opened for service in May, 2010, this new line provides a new more or less vertical south-to-north link from West Croydon to Dalston Junction. Some stations are pristine and modern and the trains are gleamingly new.

7. Best arrival punch: Oasis De Kiamu, Lifou. To be fair, this was our only welcome punch, but no matter. It’s awfully nice to be welcomed to a hotel in the tropics with a fruity drink, especially one that turns out to foreshadow well the flavorful aperitifs to come.

8. Best supposedly rough-and-tumble neighborhood: Footscray, Melbourne. I loved this neighborhood of cheap Vietnamese restaurants, a market, an excellent community arts center, and countless specialty shops, many oriented to Melbourne’s various ethnic communities. If you find yourself in Melbourne in desperate need of a grocery that sells both Fijian and Sri Lankan products, Footscray would be a safe bet.

9. Best flight: Qantas Business class Los Angeles-Sydney on the Airbus A380. This is, quite simply, one of the best business-class long-haul routes around. The seats recline completely, the food is quite nice, and there is plenty of privacy. Even the bathroom lighting is gentle. Not cheap, though completely worthwhile.

10. Best place to take a lesson in cupcake decoration: Amandine, London. One of many exciting retail venues in Victoria Park Village, Amandine is a beautiful little café that prioritizes delicious homemade cakes. It also offers fresh produce, good coffee, and free wi-fi. Inside, Amandine is bright and cheerful, like a stylish country cottage gone Boho. There’s also a back garden.

Check out other posts in the Capricorn Route series here.