Simon Calder: The Man Who Pays His Way
Perhaps we could all do with some 'cultural learnings'
Saturday 28 October 2006
Astranger in a strange land can be a frightening prospect, an energising experience - or an hilarious spectacle. The most prominent cultural event of the week falls firmly into the last category.
It is, of course, the film with the cumbersome title of Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan.
Usually, a Hollywood endorsement does wonders for a nation's self-image: Australia, New Zealand and many other countries have enjoyed a boost in tourism after appearing on the big screen. Unfortunately for the world's ninth-largest nation, the movie is an inspired spoof on Kazakh culture by Sacha Baron Cohen, the comedian who created the Ali G character. He plays a Kazakh television reporter named Borat Sagdiyev who sets off from his home village in a car pulled by a horse to seek intellectual and artistic fortune - or at least drink and sex - across the US.
I have been lucky enough to see a preview, and heartily recommend the sequence of cultural mishaps that put the foe into faux pas - but while you laugh, remember your own cultural trespasses and the forgiveness you seek while travelling. Borat picks up where Crocodile Dundee (another tourist out of his cultural depth) leaves off: literally so, on the streets of Manhattan and on the New York Subway. But while Paul Hogan's stereotypical Aussie looked at times vulnerable in the city of cities, Borat goes on the offensive - in both senses. He greets male strangers with an embrace and a surge of kisses. The results vary from predictable (the torrent of abuse from some locals) to unexpected (one of the film's producers spent a night in the cells after New York's police decided the movie-makers had gone too far).
Cultural gaffes are by no means the exclusive preserve of comedians; the usually excellent easyJet Inflight magazine shows how easy it is to blunder with the claim that the Spanish town of Elciego is "fast becoming a Mecca for wine lovers". Islamic passengers may question the wisdom and diplomacy of this assertion.
As you will be aware, a diplomatic row has ensued between Kazakh officials, angry at the parody of their nation, and the film-makers. Baron Cohen has chimed in, perhaps unhelpfully in character, praising recent advances in Kazakh society: "Women can now travel on inside of bus, homosexuals no longer have to wear blue hats, and age of consent has been raised to eight years old," he said in response to complaints that Kazakhstan is misrepresented. But even without such publicity, the country does itself few favours. The official holiday brochure produced by the Kazakhstan Travel Centre makes unappetising reading.
The main purpose for travel is to meet people, but the official guide to Kazakhstan warns: "Take care when drinking in bars, restaurants and nightclubs with new acquaintances." Instead, you could explore beyond the present and former capitals, Astana and Almaty - but be warned that the port of Atyrau suffers "strong winds and sand storms".
"Hot as an oven in the summer and bitterly cold in the winter," is the frank assessment of the nation's climate overall. And the scenery? "Monotonous ochre landscapes." Yet the "Kazakh" scenery portrayed in the film does not match this description; Borat's home village may have a medieval look about it, but it drapes itself prettily across a verdant hillside and valley. That's because a real village was used for the film - but one in north-west Romania.
Moroieni, in the foothills of the Carpathian mountain range, can expect a boost in tourism that should benefit this beautiful Balkan nation - which is just as misunderstood as Kazakhstan, and economically a more deserving destination for travellers' euros than the oil-rich Soviet republic. Borat will bestow Romania with a celluloid dividend.
Another misunderstood community is the focus of a new exhibition that opened yesterday at the Museum of London. "Belonging: Voices of London's Refugees" is devoted to those who came to the capital bearing nothing but hope.
Most of us cheerfully assert touristic immunity, and expect to be welcomed as strangers in the world's strange lands no matter how unwieldy our cultural baggage.
Yet it is well worth being a tourist in London for an afternoon and visiting the (free) exhibition to understand what travel can mean for those seeking shelter.
A tiny, flimsy bag is on display: the sole possession of Paul Sathianesan, a Tamil refugee, when he arrived from Sri Lanka "on a rainy morning in May 1985". He remembers the flight number (UL 511) and says that when he touched down at Gatwick, "I felt at last I could live without fear - this is the promised land". You may look at the Sussex airport differently next time you use it. Mr Sathianesan is now a councillor in London, a city he calls "an encyclopaedia where you can explore the whole world".
The exhibition is open daily until 25 February: www.museumoflondon.org.uk; 0870 444 3851
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