Sarah Barrell: Woman About World
Hospitality? We don't know what it means
Sunday 23 January 2005
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.
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