Travelling through our diverse and fascinating world can be invigorating, uplifting and life changing. Of course, it can also be baffling, disgusting, aggravating and ridiculous. In this hilarious tribute to world travel Johnston takes you on an absurd rollercoaster ride through 43 countries, 11 grueling treks, 10 overnight boat trips and 1 confusing encounter with a body pillow shaped like a giant lake trout. His shocking advice, humorous travel stories and strange obsession with the sex lives of celebrities will have you laughing out loud, inspire you to travel and slowly but surely convince you to stock up on hand sanitizer.
You can also follow along with the companion photo website Random Acts of Travel Photography, where some handy camera work will help you put faces and places to all the stories and anecdotes, as well as work out a rough chronology of facial hair and ugly hats.
The new standard in travel writing.
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“If you…love travel (and pop culture) then I definitely recommend this book”
“quirky, humorous, and a great read”
The Goddess of Frugality
“If you want to travel, have traveled, enjoy reading about travel then this book is for you…Bottom Line: it’s a fantastic read.”
Helene in Between
In praise of Random Acts of Travel:
“Better than I thought it would be”
Dennis, from Oregon
“I’m not surprised. He could put a ball on his finger before he was two.”
“So, that Shia LaBeouf seems like a real knob.”
“11 out of 10!”
Ronnie, remedial math student
“I touched myself the whole way through.”
Apparently the Word “Indian” Still Flies Down Here So Get Your Fill
The taxi ride from the Trivandrum airport was in one of those ubiquitous and awesome old white Ambassadors, and resulted in more serious concern for our lives than full contact table tennis at Alan Alda’s sixty-fifth birthday party. It was a wild blur of palm trees, swerving, honking, banana stands, narrowly avoided oncoming traffic, cell phone signs, the smell of onions, far too much time spent on the wrong side of the road and men walking along the shoulder wearing some type of skirt-like contraption with the bottom tucked up and out like a large linen penis, faded and frayed as though it had been scrubbed far too vigorously, probably using unhealthy amounts of bleach. Although we really needn’t have worried, what with all the precautionary honking going on. Also, as an added safety measure we occasionally closed our eyes.
Then, next thing you know, we were settled in a rickety little hut way up on the South Cliff in Varkala with great views, one comfortable chair and more wildlife scuffling loudly around the bamboo walls than either of us remembered requesting. Within hours we had seen cockroaches, centipedes, an unnervingly large snake, some overly curious crows, thousands of ants and one gigantic, heart-stopping spider that, by comparison, instantly banished those legions of large Guatemalan arachnids to “cute and perky” status. Somewhat impulsively, I took a bold swing at it with my trusty “Flip Flop of Death” but he/she/Your Majesty was far too quick, suddenly reappearing three feet away before we even heard the slap of rubber sole on dry, crumbling bamboo (normally the chilling sound of mortality). Which I suppose was just as well since, in hindsight, the two most likely results of that hasty offensive were either having the sandal slapped out of my hand dismissively, which of course would be embarrassing, or actually angering it and ending up pinned to the wall by the front of my shirt being forced to play a rough game of “Why are you hitting yourself?”, in all likelihood ending with me either crying or peeing myself. So, as I said, just as well.
Although the actual beaches of Varkala are somewhat average (as average as hot sand in January fronted by gorgeous blue water and warm rolling waves can reasonably be called), the big highlights are actually the stunning cliffs looming over the beaches. From nearly anywhere along the many kilometres of cliff top walking paths you can enjoy dramatic views out over the ocean and down onto the legions of white, ant-like creatures far below. From certain vantage points it can feel like you’re sitting in nosebleed seats at a “Leather Skin” game (just a little creation I’ve been working on that involves practically nude people competing at sleeping, sweating and quietly developing melanoma. New moles are like a touchdown). All of the hotels, restaurants and shops are located along the cliffs as well, jumbled together haphazardly like drunken frat boys wrestling at a sausage party, or a large plate of mixed vegetables. We still really liked it, though, finding it sort of a middle ground between some of the untouched stretches of overly quiet sand found in places like Indonesia, Belize or Nicaragua and the teeming pockets of humanity one often finds in Mexico, Thailand or Hawaii. I can only imagine, though, what it must look like to someone who loved it ten or fifteen years ago. Seeing the rampant development and crowded sea side would have to be sadder than a snowman with a rotting carrot penis, or being David Schwimmer’s agent. The views, though, the views! I literally had to restrain myself from overdoing it on the cliff top photos, since it seems that around every corner is a scene just begging to be captured digitally forever, much like Sofia Vergara’s cleavage, but at some point you just have to say enough is enough. Which is really more like Pam Anderson’s cleavage.
We truly loved our time in Varkala even though, when all was said and done, we hardly spent any actual time on the beach. We usually started our days with a leisurely breakfast on the roof of the hotel gazing out upon Life in a Fishing Village, watching wiry little guys climb thirty to forty metres up branchless palm trees with nothing but a short piece of rope and a machete, long lines of men hauling fishing nets in tug o’ war style from hundreds of metres out to sea as all the while majestic crows squawk, tussle and drop shining globs of white feces on hot tin roofs. So, really, it was little surprise that we ended up extending our time there indefinitely (we were waiting for just the right moment to break it to Goa) deciding that there was nothing a fifteen hour train ride away that we couldn’t already get in Varkala – great scenery, an easy going vibe (“sossegado”, they call it), a good variety of beaches, tons of food options, a plentiful range of hotels and tourists who, as a group, have undoubtedly the worst posture and strangest breasts to be found anywhere in the northern hemisphere. Maybe the reason for this abnormal demographic of turtlebacks and cone breasts is Varkala’s fame as an Ayuverdic Healing Centre (to the best of my knowledge Ayurveda is the practice of healing through excessive body waxing while casually flicking extremities with your finger). Or maybe they come for the yoga, which is everywhere, manifesting itself in a seemingly endless number of yoga teachers, groups, retreats and comfortable, yet suitably Indian-esque, garb. Morning and sunset are by far the most popular times, when everywhere you look are duly focused people with self-satisfied smiles, colourful rubber mats and sweat stains on their inner thighs reminiscent of an early bird flea market.
Now for our:
Big List of Indian Firsts!
While checking out some tiny cabins isolated on a bluff overlooking the beach. The ancient – and presumably tanked – manager was able to give us a confusing and pointless tour of the grounds despite his head waving around at the end of his skinny little neck like he had lost seven vertebrae on his way to victory in an inane smile contest and had simply reattached his cranium with a length of wiry brown string, superglue and some used tissue.
Short and refreshing. Quite warm, not so salty, rough enough to get your attention. Hey, now that I think about it that is almost exactly what my Craigslist personal ad says…
Indian Man in Skinny Jeans
This wasn’t actually on the list to start with but for all future visitors to India….it should be. I did a cartoonish double take (whaaa???) when I realized that those awful ill-fitting tapered jeans, designed to look so trendily repulsive when wrapped around the meaty thighs and drooping asses of Europeans and those kids who think simply carrying a skateboard around is cool enough, take on a whole new meaning when draped loosely over an Indian man’s hairy narrow femurs. Think MC Hammer, only in denim. U can’t touch this, indeed.
Along that same line…
Stared at by Male Gawkers on the Beach
Less than fifty steps onto the sand, our meagre beach attire suddenly turning heads, eyes widening in surprise, then admiration, then leering, murmurs of “have a look at those legs”, “I bet you could barely get your hand around those calves” and “do you think he dyes the hair that colour?” Laynni wavers between relief and indignation by pursing her lips.
Spicy Food Causes Nose to Run
Night three, me, and that most typical of spicy Indian dishes – penne arrabiata. Bring on the curry!
These noisy, gaudy three-wheeled contraptions can be found all over the world now, but when it comes to rickshaws, and traveller’s diarrhea, the magic all started in India. Our very first journey in one took us across town to our hotel. So? you ask. I agree.
Met our first “Apu”
We rented an umbrella from him on the beach, offhandedly suggested we may be interested in renting a boogie board at some vaguely indeterminate point in the future we casually referred to as “later” and next thing you know we found ourselves being tenaciously urged and cajoled to choose colours, set appointment times, engage in blood oaths to not deal with other boogie board pushers, eventually making intimate dinner plans and, I believe, promising to hold the foreskin at his youngest son’s circumcision. And to be steady about it, too.
Washed Underwear for the First Time (Day Fourteen)
I carry six pairs. But, as I so patiently explained to Laynni, some days I only wear swimming trunks, so…
Based on both my research and a real, live search, to the best of my knowledge the Super Bowl was not televised in Varkala. Maybe not in India. Not live at 5 am, not delayed to a more reasonable hour, not as part of a sports blooper clip like we do with Japanese game shows. Epiphany moment right there. It is a hardship like this that really makes a person realize how privileged we are in North America, where millions and millions of people sit blithely around on their sectional furniture eating chips and dip (made with real trans fats), watching their giant screen TVs, taking for granted HD so vivid that they can tell at a glance exactly how much bigger the tight end’s left testicle is than his right, drinking beer that comes in a reasonably sized bottle with no shrimp pesticide, all at a pleasant time in the early evening, not at some ungodly hour normally reserved for perverts, degenerates and dairy farmers. For ninety-nine percent of those carefree drunks it won’t ever even cross their mind to think about the poor traveller, lazily wasting his life in India, complaining about too much sun and Thai fried rice that wasn’t quite spicy enough, and how he might be suffering, powerlessly staring at his netbook screen waiting for ESPN Gamecast to update, making do with the most rudimentary of descriptions (“TD GB – 15 yd pass / Rogers to Jennings”) only to realize the internet has cut out again and he is going to have to start over and (shudder) sit through the entire trailer for Gulliver’s Travels again. These, my friends, are the truly forsaken. Where’s that portly Sally Field now?
First Indian Penis Spotting
Not surprisingly this one was all Laynni (she has such an eye for detail, that one). Well, her and just a small portion of the old umbrella hawker on the beach caught attempting to surreptitiously adjust his lungi, or maybe he was just trying to give the old sock puppet a quick bit of air. Either way, while the sighting may have been accidental, I found the suggestive winking fairly inappropriate. Although it’s possible he didn’t even see her doing it.
On a completely unrelated topic, honest, it appears that over time we have developed a new favourite past time – people watching. Not sexually, like your old lamaze instructor, or even suspiciously, like the eighty-four year old Walmart greeter when he sees you walking out with nothing but a travel-sized tube of toothpaste. More just observing, you know? Sometimes with a beer in hand, though not always, especially in Kerala where alcohol is generally frowned upon and very few places are licensed so even though they will serve it you usually have to keep the bottle hidden underneath the table. Nobody seems to mind, though, as long as you don’t overdo it. Like slow dancing at family reunions. Anyway, there are few things better than being comfortably ensconced in a lounge chair in the front row of a cliff-side restaurant, watching people from all walks of life stroll by, the sun glinting off the ocean as you sip beer from a coffee mug while listening to the Backstreet Boys threaten to “sex you up”.
Different hotel, same hairy nemesis. Not, not Robin Williams, not this time. Spiders! Again! Even bigger than the first time. Well, truth be told there had been many, many spiders since that first rudely exotic introduction to southern India back on day one but all smaller, and most now dead (it was early in the trip for me to have reached the level of Stern Faced Efficient Killing Machine). Long story short, it was about five inches across (from toe to hairy toe, so to speak) with a body the size of a golf ball. We had chased it around earlier in the day but lost it, really hoping it had gone out the door but deep down knowing it was still around… somewhere… lurking. Like Jack Black after the Teen Choice Awards. Then at around 11:30 pm, in our darkened room, while we slept on obliviously, he must have been making his way across the ceiling, or maybe the top of the curtain, possibly struggling from some glancing blunt force trauma picked up earlier in the day at the hands of a dusty blue Puma, when suddenly he lost his grip, or maybe let go, we’ll never know for sure, plummeting eight feet to land with a noticeable thump and bounce, legs now tangled slightly in a long mane of brunette hair, before disengaging itself to lay inertly on the pillow. Meanwhile, its now alarmed pillow buddy struggled to her feet in search of a light, apparently in shock and trying not to wake her husband who still slept soundly a couple feet away. But then there was light! And her worst fears were confirmed! And death, wild shoe-throwing death, rampaged among the sheets, and innocence was lost forever.
Next up: a spot of sarong shopping. I bought my first, and only, two sarongs back in Bali over ten years before ever setting foot in India. One was like my attachment to clean underwear – long gone – but the other was still in use, although definitely looking worse for wear – threadbare, torn and with little bits of debris picked up from hundreds of questionable guesthouse sheets all over the world. The big question, though – how to find a sarong masculine enough to match my rugged, virile, kicking-rocks-down-the-road persona? I hate shopping and definitely never look forward to long, drawn out searches, but it needed to be just the right sarong, something in a coal black or security guard blue, and ideally patterned with something sufficiently male like maybe a bunch of swords, or some fierce rhinoceroses, or maybe just a lot of penises. Something manly like that. Well, rest easy, one and all, the quest has been successfully completed. And how. Picture, if you will, a bright lilac background, interspersed with patches of faded mauve, lavishly decorated with an abundant collection of blocky white sea turtles with dreadfully misshapen heads and extraordinarily muscular legs, a disarming combination that skillfully serves to emphasize the cartoonish design and, therefore, enhance the overall irony of the piece. And the little tassels on the end tickle my neck when I sleep.
The food in Varkala was also quite good, that wonderful sort of place where a person almost never needs to actually resort to eating Indian food (I had a system where I alternated between Thai and Italian), although Laynni inexplicably chose to spurn this auspicious omen and took to trying at least one Indian dish per day. Show off. Anyway, one thing we found interesting, besides the shapes of people’s breasts, was that unlike most other places in the world where finding an actual vegetarian restaurant generally involves a lengthy search and a terrifying parking lot in a dodgy part of town, in Varkala almost everything comes sans carne (English, French and Spanish all in one sentence, how far I’ve come) and it’s the tiny list of meat options that is usually hidden away in a small section on the back page of the menu. Not surprisingly, while in Argentina we didn’t notice a whole lot of Hindus scarfing down eight pounds of assorted muscle and entrails at 11 pm like everyone else. Probably wouldn’t find as many in the cardiology ward either.
Anyway, time rolled on in Varkala with us up to a whole lot of not much, with the occasional bout of very little, interspersed with a pinch of almost nothing every now and again. Sure, we went to the beach a few times, went for some walks here and there, played some cards, watched some shows, wrangled the odd herd of cattle, walked the restaurant circuit counterclockwise one day, and sent a postcard of an old Hindu woman with her boob sticking out to Ellen DeGeneres, but for the most part we just took it easy. Then I went and got sick. Yeah, so much for “I suppose we’ve just been lucky, but we’ve never really had any stomach problems on any of our trips”. Never mind that I was following a strict diet of fried eggs for breakfast (universal) and a free-flowing mix of Thai and Italian food for all other meals. Delhi Belly, they call it. Even though we were still almost three thousand kilometres away from Delhi. Or Traveller’s Diarrhea, to use the medical term. Why they had to focus the name so much on that one small part of the ailment I’m not sure, but I suppose it’s for the same reason a headline will read “Will Ferrell Murders Prostitute!!”, instead of “Will Ferrell Gets Free BJ!!”. Nevertheless, in addition to the so bluntly stated symptom built right into the name, I spent several wonderful days laid out in a tense fetal position anxiously battling fever, chills, headaches and debilitating stomach pains. The bright side was those days were already surprisingly free so we didn’t even have to shift anything around in our day timers. The down side, feeling just so…so…common. The Lonely Planet claims that between thirty and seventy percent of visitors to India end up with TD (I’m currently working on a detailed point by point comparison between the affliction and the goofy but likeable underdog Canadian chartered bank – they aren’t as different as you might think) in the first two weeks. Setting aside the absurd vagueness of that numerical range, it hurts to be so much like everybody else. So predictable. So transparent. So shaved head/neck tattoo combo.
“How was the beach?”
In Varkala this is used exactly the way people in Canada might say “How’s it going?”, “How are you?” or “How’s it hangin’?” (if you were born in the mid-70’s and still work at a gas station). In other words, as a meaningless greeting that is less abrupt and empty than “Hi” but still safer and more generic than “What’s new with you?”, “How’re the kids?” or “Did you know we can see the outline of your clitoris ring through those shorts?” The first few times we made the mistake of explaining that we hadn’t, in fact, just come from the beach but had actually just been walking north of the village, and that we stopped for lunch at this place with a view, and that Laynni had a Greek salad and asked for no onions but, of course, it came with onions anyway, wouldn’t you know it? Eventually we realized, though, thanks to the blank looks and people literally walking away as we talked, that this was actually a rhetorical question based solely on the fact that going to the beach is the most popular activity in Varkala and that they no more want to hear the details of our day than you want to know about how the woman working at the lottery ticket booth hasn’t been sleeping too well, on account of the neighbour’s dog, and how once she’s awake she can’t stop thinking about how her ex is three months behind on the child support, and is it normal for a seven year old kid to collect cat ears and keep them pinned to a piece of plywood sorted by colour, age and how much of a fight it put up?
There are a surprising number of lifeguards down on the main area of Papanasam Beach, although we’ve found their specific duties somewhat difficult to pinpoint. Automatically one would assume their main task would be to keep people from drowning. However, based on visual surveillance we suspect their mission statement may not actually be so straightforward. First of all, they don’t wear swimming gear but rather crisp, heavy baby blue tunics with very uncomfortable looking dark blue short shorts. Secondly, the only time we saw one of them get within ten feet of the water he suddenly realized his error and went scampering away from the incoming ankle high wave like a Greek from body wax. Thirdly, any time they resorted to blowing frantically on their desperate little whistles we were unable to identify any particular water related dilemma taking place. It was always the same – “tweet”, “tweet”, “tweeeeet!” eventually getting the attention of everyone on the beach and in the water who then alternated between looking at the whistle blower and looking all around in a confused manner trying to determine what the hell they were whistling at exactly. The answer to that, we have decided, is actually far less likely to have anything to do with safe swimming than with warning groups of Indian males that they have spent just about enough time staring at the blonde with her top undone and the very becoming thong, and that they will almost certainly not be allowed to finish working on the impromptu sand hill they recently decided to build at the foot of her towel. Not a bad gig, if you can get it, chasing off horny gawkers while being paid to search out the most likely victims of gawking yourself, although we never did figure out why they usually chose to sit two and three to a single plastic lawn chair, squeezed between the spindly legs of the guy behind them while locking in a third friend between their own sweating thighs like they were about to tackle the Matterhorn at Disneyland, or were posing for a Skinny Men in Uniform spread for Hindi Skin magazine.
They happen a lot, and there is no way to tell if the power will be out for seconds, minutes or hours. Since we only saw approximately three clouds in all our time in Varkala we feel we can comfortably rule out thunderstorms. And I doubt that many of the four second long power cuts are caused by reckless taxi drivers demolishing a power pole with their sluggish Ambassadors. When it comes right down to it, though, my guess is that it’s probably as simple as fifty million people all plugging in their moustache trimmers at the same time.
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