I recently shared a breakfast table with some business type in a hotel in Kampala. He didn’t have a choice because I showed up at his table carrying my beans and chapos and one long fish finger – the length of two French beans – and said, “Do you mind if I join you?” He was more than happy. He said, “Of course, of course, of course.” You know someone is dying for company when they say those many “Of courses” He was a Rwandese in the oil and gas business. Everybody is in oil and gas now, except you and I.
The short hair just above his ears was greying out. I placed him at 55 years or thereabout. He was having black coffee and scrambled eggs. He folded and kept away the New Vision newspaper he was reading. I told him that I liked President Kagame, yes, but that I liked his daughter more. He laughed and said in segue, “I would be worried if you didn’t like his daughter more.” He said he was going back to Kigali, then Hong Kong the following week for four days, then to Kinshasa for a meeting and then back to Kigali for a week before going to London and then Malaysia. Then he had a month to take a long breath before going to the States for a three day conference.
I whistled under my breath. “Do they fly you Business?” He chuckled bitterly. “I wish!” A waiter showed up at my elbow and said, “Yes?” I looked up and said, “Yes?” He said, “You called me?” I said, “Oh no, I didn’t.” He said, “Oh I thought you did, because you whistled.” I told him I wouldn’t summon him with a whistle! He left and I looked at my Rwandese breakfast-mate and said, “How do you guys call waiters in Kigali?” He said, “We call them waiters.” We laughed.
I asked this guy how he feels about travel, if he finds it glamourous, lively, illuminating and exciting. Does he look forward to seeing another country, another city, or does it become a blur of Lonely Planet noise? He said emphatically, “It’s miserable.” I put down my spoon dramatically. “Misery is a strong word to use.” He said that level of travel only look glamorous for people on Facebook. “Looks good from the outside looking in kind of thing?” He raised his hand at the waiter.
He said travel for business is exhaustive, the hotel food is terrible, the long flights kill you on the inside and you never really see much of a city anyway, because by the time you are done with meetings for the day you are too exhausted to see the nightlife or a famous tourist sight. “Then of course you are constantly away from your family,” he added. “When my youngest started to walk I was in Budapest.” I made a pained face. “In that case, make sure you are around when he starts running.” He chuckled. The waiter showed up and he ordered more coffee.
He said what I had always thought, that travel is sometimes overrated, specifically business travel. They tell you to travel and see the world because it promises to open your mind to new cultures and people and opportunities, and it does to a large extent, but mostly it opens you up to loneliness and times spent in the loo reading a novel as you wait for your taxi.
I travel once in a while (thankfully), quite often in small groups of mostly media or PR people (good, fun group) and that is great because I’m not the kind of person who is going to get out of my way to make friends with a Chinese contractor seated alone at a far flung hotel bar looking glum. Conversations bore me quickly. After 45 minutes I want to go up to my room and eat the hotel’s complimentary apple.
I see those lonely types in hotels I visit; business types Skyping family back home from the hotel lounge, eating alone in restaurants, standing at balconies at night and staring at the sparkling and mysterious city beyond, having breakfast alone with only their stubble for company, whistling at waiters... I would jump off the 6th floor if I had to do it thrice every month. Plus sitting in planes is exhausting and mundane and the food tastes like cardboard. Worse if you are in Economy seated next to someone who smells of curry. And snores. The few who must enjoy travel are probably flying Business and can order champagne or a very old whisky and then stretch and sleep with a proper duvet. Plus it’s nice when they call you by name. Even if they are tapping you on the shoulder and you are removing one side of your headphones to hear them say, “Mr. Jackson, do you mind not singing so loudly?”
So next time you see someone always posting pictures of their travel, of their food, or their plane ticket, or a view of their hotel, don’t feel envy because most of them are calling out for help.