Gazing up through the forest, I can make out in the distance the rows of small houses, running up and down the steeply sloping hills of Tegucigalpa. Looking down, the wide blue waters of Montego Bay stretch out invitingly from the Jamaican shoreline, with the luxurious "cottages" of the Sandals Hotel perched on the edge of their private beach. It is an inviting prospect, but one which, for the moment, I decide to pass on.
Then I look up again, and there, slowly seeping into view, is a shimmering grey dinosaur, its jaws poised, Kong-like, over the tower on the Natural History Museum. I start with surprise, and then a message comes through: "You appear to be using an old version of your browser..." Blimey, I didn't realise this thing was two-way. What else does it know about me? I wait for something along the lines of, "You appear to be using a risibly outdated computer..." But no, it sticks to pointing out the inadequacies of my software.
Yes, sad to say, it's not for real, it's the Internet - that sprawling worldwide computer network. Armchair travel has a whole new meaning when, with a laptop atop your lap and a modem at your side, you can skip across the globe on the World Wide Web from Abidjan to Zanzibar, alighting on everything from the Eurostar timetable to the latest malaria alerts for East Africa.
Everyone, from government tourist boards to American college students, now has their own "Web site", consisting of pages of text, sometimes with photographs or other graphics. Each has its own "address", but most offer direct links to any number of other sites which cover similar topics. These allow you to hop directly from one site to another: you can weave your way seamlessly from, say, a list of tourist attractions in the Ardennes, to a weather forecast for the whole of France and then to a wacky account of a lost weekend in Paris.
But would you want to? Some sites, frankly, are about as stimulating as a wet Sunday: soaked in the sort of brochurese that serves only to convince you that all human life is elsewhere. Cliche piles upon cliche until it seems that some horrendous new computer virus has seeped into my machine, infecting it with a lethal strain of catatonic banality... ("The whole region is steeped in history... the city comes alive at night... a friendly and hospitable people, with a ready smile to welcome the stranger.")
With much of the Web designed and populated by American students, there's no shortage of breathless prose. "Budapest is one of the most amazing cities I've ever been to," gushes a correspondent for Loc's Guide: "it's gorgeous, breathtaking, and dirt cheap." Principally, however, Budapest is cool: the castle is cool, the narrow winding streets are cool, and the parliament building (obviously) is "really cool". Budapest is cool several times per para. This definitely gives it the edge on Honduras's inter-national airport, which, another site robustly informs me, is "a wretched hive of scum and villainy". A damnable libel, no doubt. In the Internet, no one can hear you sue.
Mainstream(ish) publications are scattered over the Web, including Lonely Planet and Rough Guides (the latter linked to the hipper-than-thou Hot Wired magazine). Interactivity, of course, abounds. I was forever being prompted to e-mail the publishers with feedback or with my own little traveller's nugget. The Let's Go Guide even had alternative e-mail addresses: one for "fanmail", the other "hatemail" [sic]. It struck me as a little unequivocal. "Curate's eggmail" might have been nice. The Singapore tourist service offered the chance to map out my own personal itinerary, based on a multiple choice exercise that asked me to rate my enthusiasm for each attraction as: "Yuks, Nay!, Maybe, OK", or "Great!".
Even within individual sites, ecleticism is the order of the day. The Adventurous Traveller's (on-line) Bookstore had three choice extracts: Walking the Appalachian Trail; 50 Short Hikes in the Californian Desert; and In Over My Waders - Fly-Fishing Humour. This last began, rather worryingly, as follows: "A few years ago, my eldest son, Gondolpho, eloped with a gorilla..."
After a while, I slid into a sort of eclectic daze, clicking away merrily from one site to another, like a virtual version of the aimless backpacker, picking up the first bus he sees.
So I drifted into Paris, wandered round some obscure left bank galleries, clicked by mistake (I swear) into the Salon du Body Building, and even downloaded a map of the Metro. This took ages - more waiting for Godot than Metro. And of course I've got one already. Apparently, it's a common trait among the sadder species of Net surfers: digging out something digitally when you can perfectly easily lay your hands on it in the real world.
Then I spun off on a random odyssey that took me from the high ground of the Tibetan plateau (horseback tours with local nomads), through the winding splendour of Mexico's Copper Canyon railway, to Lonely Planet's low-life take on Alaska: "Wild, woolly and wicked for midnight softball games, eating stinkhead and developing close relationships with bears, we can assure all you cheechakos that Alaska is much more than the USA's gargantuan esky." Translation not included.
And if you tire of the mystery tour, there's even a country-by-country A-Z. I tested it out by clicking on Burkina Faso, everyone's favourite obscure state. I was offered French Language for Travellers, a US State Department Travel Warning, some health information from the (US) Center for Disease Control, and the relevant entry from the CIA's World Factbook. Not a lot of local colour there. With plaintive desperation, it invited me to submit my own entry -- an invitation no one had yet taken up.
The Factbook, incidentally, is a wonderful source of unknown destinations. Hands up anyone who has heard of - let alone been to - Bouvet Island. It's far to the south of the Cape of Good Hope and it's owned by Norway. Its area, the CIA parochially informs us, is one-third that of Washington DC. It has neither natural resources nor an economy; it's got 0 per cent arable land and 100 per cent ice. In other words, it's the kind of place that you can only visit virtually. You wouldn't even know you were there if it didn't have "Bouvet Island" written across the top of the screen.
There is, in short, an awful lot of hot air on the Net - much of the time you're not so much surfing as windsurfing. But then there's also an unrivalled wodge of unadulterated information. You may have to dig around for it, it may not quite answer your question - but it's there, as it were, in one place: from the opening times of Madame Tussaud's to the postal codes of Brazilian cities; from restaurants to die for in Paris to diseases to die of in Asia; from the Estonian for "airport" to the Esperanto for "oral sex" (look it up yourself...).
In some ways, it's the ultimate in eco-tourism, dropping in on distant lands without ripping holes in the ozone layer. Eco-friendly, maybe, but eye-unfriendly, too. After several hours of clicking, I was aching to get out of the surf and back into reality. So I turned off the computer, left the house, and headed into town. It's steeped in history, you know, and really comes alive at night. The streets are so cool and there's always a friendly smile to welcome the stranger. And if I scroll up, up above the rooftops, I can just make out the stars, dots of static on a blank screen... click, click -- "Are you sure want to exit?" - YES. !
GETTING THERE: As with any journey, it helps if you start out with the right kit. Mine was adequate, if hardly state of the art: a 486 PC, with a mid-range modem, Netscape 1.0 Web browser and an ordinary phone line. At times this felt like launching myself into cyberspace in a Sopwith Camel, or windsurfing on a tin tray with tea towel.
A faster, more powerful computer, with a speedier modem and an ISDN line (the holy grail of the committed Net junkie) will smooth your passage. If you really want to take this thing seriously, try the 'Yahoo' (Internet search software) travel section. This makes an excellent jumping-off point. It is well organised, with links to a vast range of sites. The City.Net site also provides a very useful index.