AROUND THE WORLD ON A PACKAGE TOUR
It’s fast, cheap, and endlessly exciting—even though, in the agency's words, the schedule is designed “to keep tourists too tired to think — even about sex"
WHEN I WAS A LITTLE GIRL — which wasn't so very long ago — a trip around the world was something reserved tor sailors, merchants and heartbroken lovers of the rich upper classes. To discuss the Taj Mahal or to hunt for curios in Hong Kong was natural enough for a Somerset Maugham character but not common practice among retired schoolteachers or lonely widows.
How times have changed! Today you can no longer expect to impress your acquaintances with tales of geisha parties, camel rides in the Sahara or elephant rides in the jungle. In our jet age all this is within easy reach of anyone who wants to reach it and has a couple of thousand dollars and a month to spare. A surprisingly large number of people have.
When 1 walked into a travel office last winter to ask about a trip around the world the agent was blasé. "Which week would you like to leave?" he asked. "This, or the next, or the one after? I can place you almost any week."
Tours by jet. 1 discovered, usually come in thirty, forty-five and sixty-day packages and can be broken or picked up at any point. 1 selected a thirty-day trip arranged by Sita, which —with Thos. Cook & Son, Ltd. and the American Express Company—is one of the three largest world-wide travel agencies.
For $1,978.60 I was going to visit Japan. Taiwan. Hong Kong. Singapore, Thailand, Burma. India and Egypt. Considering that the plane ticket alone cost $1,238.60 and that I was promised first class accommodation and meals, extensive sight-seeing and that all tips would be taken care of, the price didn't seem unreasonable.
My fare was paid from Toronto to Toronto but the meeting place for the tour members was Honolulu. There we stood at the airport, seventeen of us. with tired leis around our necks, eyeing each other suspiciously; seventeen strangers from various parts of the United States and Canada who would have to spend
lour whole weeks in each other's company.
"1 wonder what this one is going to he like?” I heard a woman whisper. ”1 took a tour last year . . twenty of us . . . After three days no
one spoke to anyone.”
A pleasant-looking young man materialized, carrying a bag filled with medicines. He turned out to be our tour leader.
“Sita. Sita,” he yelled. "All Sita people assemble here.”
This was our new status. It meant giving up our tickets, passports, trunks and all the worries connected with them. We also temporarily gave up our past and future existences and became a bunch of carefree travelers, carefully watching to make sure we got our money's worth.
The trip to Tokyo via Japan Air Lines took eight hours. At Tokyo airport we were met by a slight middle-aged Japanese, named Taki. who was to be our guide in Japan. One of the nice things about a package tour is that local guides
take charge of all your problems wherever you go. If the guide is good at his job he tries to bring his country as close to the tourists as possible; Taki was a pearl. He told stories about emperors and generals; he sang songs; recited poetry and offered opinions on Japanese politics, morals and the "regrettable" new trends among the youth; taught deportment. "Arigato.” he said, "means thank you. Think of alligator. If you want to say welcome, say don't touch my mustache.' very quickly.” We tried it later and it worked.
He gave us Sita pins from which yellow ribbons dangled bearing our names in Japanese characters. Taki promised we would get very special service if we wore them. The only special service we noticed, though, was offered to the one single man in our group. He found the pin dangerously increased his popularity with the ladies of the night, who delighted in calling him by name on the street.
Our rooms in the recently opened Hotel New
Japan were, like everything else in that country. "quite different.” "It makes me feel like being in a Spartan dollhouse,” said one of the larger ladies in the group pointing at the tiny bathtub (big enough for sitting), the midgetsized wash basin, the little shaving mirror over the dresser and the one bare bulb hanging low on a string. We slept like logs in our low beds and next day the work started.
I am sure no experienced traveler would consider a thirty-day trip around the world—or any guided tour for that matter—a picnic. It's hard work. The travel agency must be aware of this, too; once I happened to glance into our tour leader's manual for guides, where I read words to this effect:
"You are not likely to encounter any problems regarding sex among the travelers. Sita is proud that it keeps the tourists so busy during the day that they are much too tired even to think about sex.”
A day on tour
CONTINUED ON PAGE 26
AROUND THE WORLD ON A PACKAGE TOUR continued from page 23
They were respectable “older” women, but singing, dancing or drinking — they were all world beaters
in a new city usually starts — bright and early — with a trip around the city in fiveminute bus rides from museums to palaces to temples where your eyes try to grow to teacup-size to behold all the treasures while your ears are desperately struggling to understand the explanations that the guides, more often than not. deliver with strong, strange accents and the emotions and inter-
est of sleepwalkers. To make it harder the temples, palaces and monuments arc usually on the tops of hills with hundreds of stairs leading up to them. In the evening there is just time to pack for the crack-of-dawn trip to the next stop. But complaining is useless; even though sometimes you would like to trade a hundred temples for two hours in bed, you don’t
— because it's all included in the trip and the next temple might be the best of all.
Like most groups traveling around the world ours, too, was composed mainly of older women. To call them old ladies, however, would be unjust. Their spirit was young; they drank and sang and danced and never tired of the rush. They were retired schoolteachers, lonesome
widows, rich spinsters — most of them widely traveled, intelligent and witty. One middle aged woman was doing the same trip for the second time this year, and a couple in their seventies were always the first to volunteer for optional donkey or camel rides or mountain climbs.
Wo got used to each other quickly. Soon we knew that Dora had to have two bottles of beer to get her out of bed; that Mildred kept losing her bag, her pearls, her keys and her way back to the hotel, and that the handsome and noble couple from Boston would always be late in the morning and would spend their evenings away from the group with diplomats, princes and other VIPs. We were altogether a congenial group with few complaints— except for Kathryn, a fortyish San Francisco divorcee, who wouldn't let a day go by without raising a fuss about her toast being too cold, her room too warm, the
waiter's English not good enough, or something else. Kathryn knew everything better than the guides, whom she hated. She also hated all natives, all tourists, all guided tours and travel in general. Why she had taken this trip no one could find out.
In a way it was Kathryn's presence that immediately established a bond among the rest of us. I.ike school children we would congregate in each other’s rooms to discuss the latest Kathrynisms. “She always carries a pair of slippers so she won’t have to walk in the temples in her stockings . . . She uses a special ointment so she won't catch germs from the Japanese.”
It was only in the very beginning that we felt the Japanese were different. Soon we came to realize that it was we who were different. Whenever we stopped in front of a shrine or a Buddha and took out our cameras we immediately noticed half a dozen Japanese taking pictures of us.
Our tour was not limited to the cities. We were whisked out into the country to see Mount Fuji and Lake Hikone and other mountains and lakes anti waterfalls. Getting there really was half the fun. Japanese trains are clean, cute, modern and very comfortable, with waitresses serving food and drinks in every compartment and loud-speakers delivering messages in several languages about the next place of interest. At the end of the trip the speakers thank you for your patronage. By this time, if you have been in Japan for a few days, you are so used to exchanging compliments
that you feel you should thank the train, too, and say that you were altogether unworthy of being on it.
“THIS IS THE END of civilization, kiddies,” said our tour leader on the plane to Taipei. (He was only thirty-four and looked about twenty hut we liked to call him Daddy. ) “Hotels, food and water arc bound to become worse.”
Actually they didn't, except for the water. The Grand Hotel, owned partly by Madame Chiang Kai-shek, looked like a palace and our dinner there was a fourteen course Mandarin feast that consisted of dishes the North American Chinese never serve. It was the host meal on the trip.
We had only one day in Taipei--lush scenery; the Generalissimo’s house from the distance: a ride in a bicycle rickshaw (the couple from Boston traded this for tea with Madame Chiang Kai-shek). The night in Taipei brought sweet scents and great excitement. Kathryn had brushed her teeth with water from the tap by mistake and was now ready to die. She didn't die. hut from then on she kept tying little colored bows on her water taps.
In Hong Kong we all shopped and caught the flu. This, however, didn’t keep us from roaming the incredibly colorful streets and viewing the beaded sweaters, precious stones, cameras, and heaven knows what else, all for sale cheaper than in the countries where they were made. The group spirit slackened in Hong Kong. Some of us preferred to continue the shopping expeditions instead of seeing the Red Chinese border (just four or five miles from the Royal Golf Club), the new refugee settlements, the priceless treasures of some Chinese and the dreadful misery of others.
On our last day in Hong Kong we could take an optional trip to Macao for a spe-
cial rate. Spy-story-readers and late-moviewatchcrs should know that this wicked Portuguese gambling place is built around a rather shabby, rather deserted casino with croupiers in stern blue uniforms and a few very orderly, very decent-looking gamblers. There is also a casino "for the poor people” which is even shabbier but just as orderly.
Dora, our somewhat compulsive drinker, was dying to see an opium den but the guide informed us none were left. Drugs have become illegal, even in Macao, which means that the addicts now use heroin instead of opium. Heroin is harder to detect since it can be administered in a second. It comes from Red China; so does all the food Macao needs. F very morning a bus arrives at the border with the daily supplies. Most of Hong Kong's vegetables and fruit are also supplied by Red C hina, hut better hotels take great pride in announcing that they don't use “this kind of food.“
Wt kept Kathry n, after all
When we assembled to catch our plane to Singapore after five days in Hong Kong we felt we hail seen everything we wanted. We were quite a sight standing there under a sign that read “waving gallery,” with huge parcels under our arms; a few of the ladies in brand-new winter coats in the ninety-degree heat. Mildred—in the process of losing her four parcels—was in the last minute handed six bottles of whisky. "!l was so cheap.” she apologized.
The flight to Singapore took about six hours and many passengers wondered whether it was worth while to drag us down there for a day. Personally. I feel that if we hadn't seen anything but the Hotel Raffles it still would have been worth the effort. In the Raffles we had rooms the size of a Canadian bungalow. Í would have
stayed happily in its huge red lobby under the big fans and sipped drinks in a low. luxuriously comfortable rattan chair until the end of my days. But most of the group thought the Raffles was too old, the colonial furniture junk, the plumbing poor and that the fans should have been replaced by air conditioners. Kathryn had her room changed three times and when she found a lizard in the last one she was ready to sue Sita.
Until we left Singapore we often wished we could have a little free time once in a while without giving up anything.
Our chance came in Bangkok. We were let loose for a whole day. Surprisingly, freedom didn't taste sweet at all; we were so used to being pushed around from morning till midnight that we just didn't know what to do with ourselves.
The problem was soon solved by fate. Mildred lost her camera and we all started a frantic but unsuccessful search for it. Then someone found out that Kathryn had secretly phoned the Sita office to complain about our tour leader. Two ladies instantly suggested we form a committee to ostracize Kathryn. They were also ready to write a letter to Sita headquarters— signed by everyone—to say that our tour leader was a doll and Kathryn should be sent home. But the letter was never mailed nor was Kathryn ostracized.
nu HI. MUST ill MANY interesting sights in Rangoon but those we didn't see. We saw the crumby Strand Hotel whose only specialty was a multitude of bugs swarming in every room. And we saw' the Shwc Dagon Pagoda. Actually most of the ladies didn’t see it. When they found out they would have to walk on bare feet they preferred to stay on the bus. Perhaps if you come to this golden pagoda without having visited an average of six temples daily
during the previous two weeks you are terribly impressed. There must be enough rubies and emeralds and gold bricks plastered on it to buy half Canada. And in front of these vast treasures kneel the Burmese people — some of them in rags — and offer their last pennies for the upkeep of the temple.
It was not the pagoda that made our stay in Rangoon memorable; it was some thing quite different. Rangoon was the place where the dysentery started. This gave our mealtime conversation a completely new slant. The jewelry bargains that used to be passed over the table were replaced by pink, brown and white pills. Seven-course meals had to he traded for sad little piles of cooked rice. It is something one must expect in the Fast.
Rangoon was really a turning point in our trip. Until then we didn’t only see sights and collect impressions—we also enjoyed ourselves. We slept in good hotels: we ate elaborate meals (mostly Western style); we sat around in pleasant bars: we went to night clubs, theatres, revues. We were on a holiday. Though there is plenty to see in India it is rather hard to enjoy seeing it. One doesn’t necessarily have to spend every evening brooding about the misery of the Indians, but one might as well, for there is little else to do. The hotels are dilapidated; the food is peculiar; liquor laws arc tough. It's only fair to add that India is about the most colorful place in the world. A street scene in Calcutta is as if the top of an old metal tea box, or a calendar advertising spices, had come alive. But not even the beauty of the Taj Mahal could lift our spirits that were low. low. low. during our entire stay in India.
The sweet old lady who until then was busy taking care of the dysentery victims locked herself up in her room for two days
to cry. Our handsome Bostonian—when he wasn’t invited to a maharaja’s home— kept waving his noble head and muttering gloomily: “I would have never believed this to be true.” The British lady, who in her little black hat and white gloves remained calm and collected in rain, hail, and sandstorm, just bit her lip and said: “Those poor Englishmen, to live under such conditions for so many years.”
The lowest point was Benares, where the sight of Indians burning their deceased beloveds on the shores and then brushing their teeth in the same water was a little hard to take for some of our ladies. The Hindu bathing rite, however, did appeal to Dora. She thought it might be a good idea for her to have a dip, too, but her girl friend talked her out of it, suggesting that there might not be enough water in the Ganges to take care of Dora’s past.
IF YOU TRAVFL THROUGH so many countries —each completely different—it is hard to pick a favorite. To me Egypt was the utmost. In no other country did the shortness of time seem so frustrating; one feels one could spend a lifetime there. Incidentally, the Egyptians do; they are strictly forbidden to leave the country.
It’s hard to fall under the spell of the past in a group. Whenever you try it your head happens to be in somebody’s picture. You try to measure the length of five thousand years, and then someone behind your back says, “Let’s go, let’s go. We haven’t got all day.” But even if you were on your own you would have to come to the Sphinx at night to call up the past. During the day there are dozens of Arabs around selling cheap jewelry, alabaster and leather souvenirs, and most frequently, phony relics.
“Mummy, mummy,” they whisper pushing little bits of stone right under your nose, “Good mummy.”
“Leave us alone; they’re all made in Japan,” said someone in the group.
The Arab was offended. “No Japan,” he said proudly, “West Germany.”
To give us some real local atmosphere Sita arranged for us a party in a tent. The tent was built with the sole purpose of giving local atmosphere to Sita tourists. Its walls were decorated with pictures, embroidered on cloth, that depicted the life of the ancient Egyptians in dreadful colors. These were for sale and the ladies bought them like hot cakes. We got a long and tasty Egyptian meal (stuffed grape-
leaves, shishkebab, chicken, etc.). After this we were entertained by belly dancers with completely covered bellies. According to the recent puritanical trends in Egypt all bellies have to be covered with at least a sheer cloth, which somewhat spoils the performance of the dancers.
Egyptian guides are terribly sentimental about the past of their country. "Look at this beauty,” our guide in Luxor would say stroking the bas-relief in the tombs with great affection. "These lines . . . these colors . . . Don't hurry, take a good look . . . enjoy them.”
It was the same guide who informed us there had never been slaves in Egypt. This, he said, was just wicked gossip the enemies of the country spread around. He would tenderly pat the columns of ancient temples and say: “Slaves could have never created so much beauty. This, ladies and gentlemen, is the labor of love.”
We thought he tried to brainwash us in other ways, too. In one of the tombs there were several pictures of a nobleman embracing different ladies in sheer robes. “How many wives did he have?” asked our Bostonian. “Just one," said the guide, “but she liked to wear different wigs.”
Egypt was the end of the tour for me. When I saw the blue Sita bags that we all carried for the last time I felt like crying. We had all become so close to each other—even Kathryn. The tour was more than just travel. It was a way of life, a life devoid of responsibilities but also a life of learning. It reminded me of leaving college.
You cannot learn much about the world in thirty days. You can only glimpse a few countries and realize that your civilization is not the only one; nor is it necessarily superior to several other civilizations. You can learn to be humble and stop considering being white and Christian a privilege or an advantage. It has absolutely no attractions in a sea of yellow Buddhists or brown Moslems.
A guided tour does have its limitations. Many details are bound to be lost; it only gives one some of the most important facts and an over-all picture. There are more thorough and more comfortable ways of travel but for people with a limited amount of money and time—and unlimited stamina —I would freely recommend a tour. Even if you have to spend a week recuperating after your holidays—and you probably will have to—it is still faster and cheaper and easier than doing it on your own. ir