Sarah Barrell: Woman About World

Hospitality? We don't know what it means

There are a few places in the world where even the most souvenir-shy of travellers would do well to pack an extra suitcase. Excess baggage-guaranteed destinations include New York (look at that exchange rate!), Bangkok (try to resist those

There are a few places in the world where even the most souvenir-shy of travellers would do well to pack an extra suitcase. Excess baggage-guaranteed destinations include New York (look at that exchange rate!), Bangkok (try to resist those markets!), and Morocco (the lure of the medina will be your undoing!). But what of holidays that result in a different kind of excess baggage - I'm talking the emotional kind? After a recent trip to Morocco I found myself weighed down not with hand-painted tajine dishes or pointy slippers but a hefty sense of guilt. You see there is nothing like a holiday to the Near East to leave you feeling like a graceless host.

On my return from Tangier, a place where generous, spontaneous hospitality is very much a part of the culture, I found myself wondering: just how much hospitality debt am I in? As my guide, Khalil, and I sit at his family table ploughing fingers-first into a freshly baked pastilla he tells tales of his travels to England: of cold nights, lonely days and pretty much continual hunger. "When I stay with friends in England, I am always hungry," he says, looking perplexed. "You English people don't know how to entertain!" Perhaps this isn't the most hospitable of mid-meals topics but besides having my mouth full, I found that I couldn't really come up with a good defence. One of the best experiences a traveller can have is when someone they've newly met invites them home for dinner - as Khalil had done with me. But when do we Brits ever do the same thing: spontaneously welcome a perfect stranger home for a little tea and cultural sympathy?

And it's not just that this sort of local diplomacy can be the making of a holiday. Sometimes it can be the saving of it. Not only have some of my best travel experiences been due to serendipitous expressions of hospitality but they have also saved my skin. Several years ago, a friend and I found ourselves lost in the middle of a Thai jungle. A vast national park to be precise but minus key things: maps, road signs or indeed much in the way of roads. It was beginning to feel like a one way trip into the Heart of Darkness. As sunset approached, we were wondering how to make a hammock out of banana leaves, when an open truck carrying a family of Thai farmers bumped up the track behind us. The driver stopped and offered us a lift. With nowhere to stay for miles, they drove us to their house and put us up for the night, inviting us to sleep on the rattan-covered floor next to five cheerful children, mum, dad and several unidentified elders. The next morning, when we said goodbye, they sent us off with a parcel of sticky rice for the journey.

During the 1999 solar eclipse, serendipitous hospitality saved my skin again. Four of us had travelled to Rheims to be in the "path of totality". With all the planetary excitement, we hadn't given a thought to such worldly concerns as where to stay and found, on arrival, that every hotel, auberge and place du camping was displaying a "complet" sign. We sat in a bar loudly panicking over four too-hastily drunk shots of pastis and before we knew it, the barman had called a neighbour and we were being whisked off to stay at his house in the suburbs. OK, so he asked for a nominal fee for staying chez famille but we didn't expect the €10-per-person charge to include accommodation in the family bedrooms (he and his wife and two children de-camped to the caravan on the front lawn), dinner, followed by a tasting tour of his champagne cellar and each one of us to be presented with a free pair of eclipse-viewing glasses - over breakfast, which his wife bought to us in bed.

And the guest-list goes on. Homeless at 2am in the morning in Kuala Lumpur's seedy China Town, a backpacking friend and I were rescued by a local hairdresser and his boyfriend who put us up in their swanky loft apartment. Stranded at Singapore airport having missed a flight, I was promptly invited back to the home of an air hostess and her sister. And in each case, Comfort of Strangers fears aside, I had an experience that was the making of the trip: illuminating, intimate and, ultimately for an oft-penniless backpacker, joyfully free. You invite your hosts to visit you in your home town, of course. You lovingly exchange addresses and may even write to each other for a while. But often, living in places where an international flight is more than a year's wages, your new pen pal can't afford to take up your invitation.

But it seems my hospitality karma is catching up with me. Within the first few months of moving to New York last year, I had received a total of 19 house guests. I live, it should be noted, in an open-plan studio flat. At one point, a string of visitors occupied the sofa bed for four and a half weeks straight. At the end of my hospitality tether, after a sleepless night of collective snoring, I regrettably heard myself comparing my visiting in-laws to farmyard animals. My sister in-law, who has been the paragon of hospitable virtue to me over the years, looked as if embarrassment and mortification were battling it out for emotional control of her face. For a second, I thought the result would be that she slapped mine.

Faced with such a stark wake-up call, I have made it my New Year's resolution to take a lesson in hospitality from my Near-Eastern friends. So, to numerous people with whom I have stayed and to the many more who have fed me and hoisted me out of harm's way, I say this: There may be no room at my inn but you are truly, welcome none the less. And I promise I'll try not to taunt you with animal noises.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Guru Careers: Events Coordinator / Junior Events Planner

    £24K + Excellent Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking an Events Coordinator ...

    Royal Yachting Association Cymru Wales: Chief Executive Officer

    Salary 42,000: Royal Yachting Association Cymru Wales: The CEO is responsible ...

    Guru Careers: Marketing Manager / Marketing Communications Manager

    £35-40k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Marketing Communicati...

    Ashdown Group: Technical IT Manager - North London - Growing business

    £40000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A growing business that has been ope...

    Day In a Page

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
    Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

    Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

    Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
    Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

    Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

    Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
    Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

    Join the tequila gold rush

    The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
    12 best statement wallpapers

    12 best statement wallpapers

    Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
    Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

    Paul Scholes column

    Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?