I got to my hotel in central Paris through Senegal, Pakistan and even Iraq. Or so the taxi driver informed me: “this is not Paris, this is … (insert country of origin of particular immigrant population)”. All in a French accent. Well, pretty much in French actually – his English was as good as my French. No matter where you go in the world you always encounter prejudice. Taxi drivers are often an excellent barometer with which to assess the social pressures in particular cities or countries.
I am lucky enough in my job to get the opportunity to travel regularly. After years of backpacking I have become a bit of a business traveller. At least that’s how it feels to me, with my suitcase on wheels rather than backpack, and stays in hotels rather than on the rooves of hostels. But for this trip to France and England I decided to pull out my trusty backpack. I was going to be travelling on trains and there is no substitute for a backpack when it comes to ease of getting around.
As I was going so far I also added on an extra day to have a look around Paris and an extra day in London. So I cruised the city just as I would have several years ago when travelling through Europe. In true backpacker spirit I slipped a couple of bread rolls and peices of cheese into my bag from the hotel-provided breakfast, so I wouldn’t have to pay for lunch. I had my day-pack, a bottle of water, a map and off I went.
The years, and quite probably the business-travel, had softened me. Wandering up the stairs to Sacre Coeur, in a jet-lagged fog, I was brough to an abrupt halt when a man thrust a loop of green, yellow and black thread in front of me. “Put your finger in here”, he demanded. I hesitated. “Don’t worry, I’m not dangerous.” Not wanting to give him the impression that I was actually thinking he was dangerous (which, for the record, I was not), I put my finger in the loop. And that was it, I was a customer… this guy was good at his craft.
He talked and asked questions of me non-stop, as his hands whizzed the thread into what I quickly realised was a bracelet. He was from Kenya and had come to France to learn French (apparently). I was interested in talking with him but he wouldn’t let me get a word in edge-ways. I can understand why. Until he had the bracelet tied around my wrist I could easily remove my finger. He didn’t want me to start talking about how much this was going to cost me and risk loosing a paying customer. But he didn’t need to worry with me. I had already resigned myself to the fact that I was going to have to pay, and that I was probably going to be ripped off. I may have gone soft but it doesn’t take long for the lessons to return. One of those I learned while backpacking was to accept that you will most likely be ripped off at least once in every country you visit. It saves you a lot of angst if you can accept that fact with grace and move on. Mind you, I am not sure how well I am doing on accepting this one. Fourteen NZ dollars for a cotton bracelet in Kenyan colours was probably one of the biggest rip-offs I have experienced. I have not managed to bring myself to take it off yet – wanting to get the most of my money even though I don’t really like wearing bracelets. But I console myself with the fact that he needed the money more than me, as is usually the case.
I wasn’t sure just how I would end-up feeling about backpacking after this little trip. I often suffer bouts of nostalgia about my travelling days. I have lots of great memories and I love my backpack like an old friend. It has experienced so much with me. But it has been a while, and I am not so romantic to be able to deceive myself that time and age don’t add a different perspective to something that was enjoyed in the past. I’m pleased to report that, overall, I really enjoyed it. There can be a higher level of hassle but that is counteracted by the enhanced sense of freedom and independence a backpack adds. Everything you need can go on your back. It is easy to carry and manage. And somehow it really makes me feel like I am travelling. It certainly added a sense of novelty and difference to what was an ordinary work trip. I might hvae to do it more often!