'I'm always looking for trouble': Why Dom Joly prefers to take his holidays in hell

Forget the sanitised world of modern package tourism. For Dom Joly, it’s more rewarding to spend time visiting the planet’s more difficult destinations

Thursday 26 August 2010 00:00

I think that deep down I’m a coward. I’m not sure if I was actually born “yella” or whether growing up in Lebanon during the Civil War made it inevitable. But I can remember being constantly terrified for periods of my childhood as the noise of fighting from Beirut permeated our entire house.

Sometimes the war would draw closer and shells would actually land in the garden around the house. You read about people being calm under fire – I never was. My dad was brave. He’d fought against the Japanese as a pilot in the Fleet Air Arm in the Second World War. From what I later found out, this had affected him deeply. As a kid, however, I had no idea about this. Growing up, it was all about a stiff upper lip, being courageous. Dad would refuse to sleep downstairs even when we were being shelled. He’d stay up in his room at the top of the house, vulnerable to incoming projectiles, while I was below, terrified he might be killed.

I think this left me with a feeling of character inadequacy that I’ve always subconsciously been trying to rectify. It’s because of this curious background that I’ve forever been in awe of people who did do brave and adventurous things. As a kid, I used to think that foreign correspondents were the most exciting of |people. They were professional seekers of chaos, rushing to the scene of any global disaster, willingly hurling themselves into the fire. It’s what I always wanted to be.

As an undergraduate, I went to the London School of Oriental and African Studies, where I studied Arabic for a while and then International Relations. But after that, instead of going abroad in search of adventure, I disappointed myself. I had this desperate need to settle, to put down some roots. So my twenties were spent in London, initially doing jobs varying from barman to sandwich maker at MTV. Then I got a lucky break and spent nine months in Prague working as an intern for the European Commission, just after the fall of Communism. This was my first proper adventure and I loved it.

Returning to London and using my newly gained political credentials, I got a job in Westminster and worked for both the BBC and ITN on parliamentary news programmes. I’m a current affairs junkie and I was in the thick of it. It was politically very exciting, but still deep inside I was bored.

Then another lucky break led to a job as a researcher for a new political-comedy programme, The Mark Thomas Comedy Product. It was a precursor to Michael Moore and Brass Eye and it was all about irritating the Establishment. In my first week I was steering a tank through a McDonald’s drive-thru and haranguing MPs while dressed as a large penis. I was hooked – comedy was fun, it was exciting and, unbelievably, you got paid to do it.

So I stayed in comedy and eventually made a show called Trigger Happy TV, a kind of a surreal Candid Camera that was a huge hit. It sold to more than 55 countries worldwide and it made me famous. Now most people knew me as the man who dressed as a squirrel and shouted loudly into a huge mobile phone. That was fine by me but I didn’t want to be pigeonholed – and success opened many doors. Before long, I got a weekly column in The Independent and started another career as a travel writer.

The travel writing was a godsend. In a tiny way, I slowly became my own little foreign correspondent. Whenever I had some spare time I would fly off somewhere and explore. I went to Vietnam and squeezed into Vietcong tunnels. I went to Nicaragua and skied down the side of a live volcano. I drove across Syria looking for a cave in which I’d scratched my name as a 10-year-old boy. I explored the legendary Empty Quarter on the borders of Oman and Yemen. I drank lethal homemade vodka in a tenement block outside Saint Petersburg. I scuba-dived on ancient wrecks off Dominica and cage-dived with great white sharks in South Africa.

In time, I finally put down my roots: I had my lovely wife and kids in our house in the Cotswolds. So I lived this curious dual life, and the older I got the more I became drawn to explore offbeat and curious destinations. Something else inside of me appeared to be trying to resolve itself. I had no name for this curious wanderlust, until I read an article about Guyana – which sits on the northern coast of South America and is one of the most inhospitable countries in the world.

I once did a comedy show in which I pretended to be a man ringing foreign embassies from prison. I told them was that I had just won a lot of money on the Lottery and planned to tour the world when I got out. I was therefore planning my itinerary and wanted to know whether their country was worth a visit. When I got the Guyanan ambassador, I asked him what there was to see in his country. ‘Not much, really,’ he answered apologetically, ‘just snakes and swamps...’

The Minister for Tourism in Guyana obviously realised they had a problem as well, and the article I read told of his plan to encourage visitors. Guyana was infamous as the location of the Jonestown Massacre. Though dubbed a massacre, this was in fact the mass suicide of 918 members of a cult that followed an American nutter called Jim Jones. Men, women and children all drank cyanide at the cult’s community in northern Guyana on 18 November 1978.

The Guyanan Minister for Tourism wanted to rebuild Jonestown so that tourists could visit. They could even stay overnight and pretend to be in the cult. To most sane people this sounded like an absolutely terrible idea. But I understood that he was aiming this venture at people like me; I found the whole idea compelling. The plan was, the article noted disapprovingly, another |example of the growing phenomenon of “Dark Tourism” – travel to sites associated with death and suffering.

Now, I wasn’t obsessed with blood and gore and I didn’t exactly get off on scenes of human suffering. I was, however, intrigued by the darker side of tourism. What really interested me, I realised, was that all these places that were supposedly off-limits or dangerous were always fascinating and often incredibly good fun. Every time I mentioned Lebanon to people they would suck in their breath and go on about how terrible it must be. Certainly there was a lot about the place that wasn’t great, but there were also wonderful things that people never got to hear about: the food, the scenery, the people...

Human life always survived and often flourished under the most extreme of circumstances. These sorts of destinations were never one-note, and they invariably threw up the unexpected. That was what I loved travelling for. I had finally realised what I was: I was a Dark Tourist.

So the idea for my new book was born. I decided to visit several different, “difficult” destinations in one year and see what happened. Over the course of 12 months, I found myself skiing on segregated slopes in Iran, taking an “assassination tour” of the US, spending the weekend in Chernobyl, and even attempting to purchase Pol Pot’s shoes in Cambodia. But I always knew that my last destination would be Lebanon – the country in which I was born, the son of very English expat parents, in 1967. Not only did I grow up there but, in a way, it also encapsulates the idiosyncrasies of being a Dark Tourist.

To most people, Lebanon is infamous for being a war zone. The term “looks like Beirut” describes somewhere bombed-out or destroyed. This is possibly because in the Eighties Lebanon was the scene of the first such international conflict to take place in the age of 24-hour news. People were updated daily and the images they saw have stayed with them; they have tended to associate Lebanon with conflict ever since. However, things are changing. The New York Times made Beirut a “must visit” destination and the newly rebuilt, downtown Beirut is attracting people from all over the place to its flashy bars and nightlife.

And yet, as the latest Israeli invasion in 2006 showed, things can change quickly in Lebanon. There are areas of Beirut, particularly the southern suburbs, that it would be decidedly tricky for the average tourist to visit. But Lebanon is also not just about Beirut. The country outside the capital is a staggeringly beautiful one. You can go skiing among cedars or tramp around gorgeous Roman ruins that just so happen to be in the heart of Hezbollah territory.

I wanted to go back and dip in and out of the complex mezze that is travel in Lebanon. There’s so much on offer, so many different things to do, and I wanted to try and capture some of that ... as well as to look up a very special old school “friend”: Osama Bin Laden himself was said to have a been a fellow pupil at Lebanon’s Brummana High School in the mid-Seventies. It was hardly likely that we would have been mates, however, as back then he’d have been in the senior year, aged 18 or so, while I was would have been right at the bottom, aged only seven. We would probably have had very little in common. Still, it would be great to have that particular school-year picture.

“Ladies and gentlemen, please fasten your seat belts as we have commenced our descent into Beirut... The outside temperature is 24 degrees centigrade and we really hope that you have a nice stay in Lebanon...”

How many times had I heard that announcement as a boy? My nose was glued to the window as the plane banked gently to the right over the Corniche, lined itself up over Pigeon Rocks and then headed for the runway of Beirut Airport. I’d probably done this landing 50 times. I could remember getting terrible earaches and desperately trying to suck the lousy boiled sweets that the stewardess would bring round in a wicker basket. They would smile at me, the UM (“Unaccompanied Minor”), my passport safe in a see-through plastic envelope that I wore like some geeky necklace. Then the plane would land and everyone would applaud.

I was never sure if they were applauding the landing itself or the fact that nobody had taken a potshot at us as we swept low over this, one of the most dangerous cities in the world. Then the plane would gently taxi past the battle-scarred terminal building with the large sign that said “Welcome to Leba-”, the rest having been shot away. Back on my present-day plane, the wheels touched the tarmac and the brakes whined and whistled us to a slow roll. I was back.

Since my childhood in Lebanon I’d travelled so much while completely ignoring the extraordinary country in which I’d grown up. I wondered why. For a Dark Tourist like me, there was no better destination.

Before setting off on these trips to the world’s most unlikely holiday destinations, I flew up to Glasgow to meet a man called John Lennon. Sadly, it wasn’t a “dead Beatle found alive and well in Scotland” situation. Dr John Lennon is a professor at Glasgow Caledonian University and, together with Professor Malcolm Foley, was credited with coining the phrase “Dark Tourism” when the two published an academic paper on “Dark Tourism: The Attraction of Death and Disaster in 2000”. I thought I should have a chat with Dr Lennon before I headed off. I wanted to see if I really was a Dark Tourist.

We met in the lobby of a hotel near Glasgow Airport and quickly ascertained that we had similar interests. We swapped stories about the magnificent Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris where Oscar Wilde, Chopin and Jim Morrison are buried. I told him about the night that I matched the Lizard King’s last night on earth drink by drink, bar by bar, before ending up |in the very flat in rue Beautreillis where he |died. We talked about the extraordinary |“Bone Church” in Kutna Hora outside Prague where a local artisan made sculptures out of human bones. A chandelier of hip bones, coats of arms made from human skulls... We were kindred spirits...

We then turned to the subject of Dr Lennon’s academic paper. He had mainly concentrated on European battlefields, Nazi concentration camps and the Killing Fields in Cambodia. Of these, Cambodia was the only one I planned to visit. It was a particularly interesting example, because, though fast becoming a popular tourist destination, it still has so much “darkness” about it. The professor told me how appalled he’d been when visiting the Killing Fields and seeing |entire Western families, kids and all, traipsing over the bones of the dead as though visiting some theme park. He was right, but nobody could visit that place without being affected.

As we talked I tried to work out whether the term Dark Tourist really applied to me. According to another academic, Philip Stone, Dark Tourism is “the act of travel, whether intentional or otherwise, to sites of death, destruction or the seemingly macabre”. This definitely applied to places like Cambodia, US assassination sites and Chernobyl, but other intended trips – like those to North Korea and Iran – were more about experiencing what life was like under “dark” regimes. And Lebanon was always going to be different. Not only had I grown up there through dark times, but also I wanted to find out how a country copes with its journey back into the light.

As is the case for many people, my reasons for travelling to dark destinations are very personal. I’m interested in visiting places that have had a particular effect on me in my life. Other people are maybe drawn to visit sites of destruction, historical tragedy or crime for various and different reasons. Some do it for pure rubber-necking thrills or even a spot of Schadenfreude. Others visit for education, even as a form of penance. For me, I think my travels are an attempt to connect with history. I’ve always been obsessed with current affairs. By visiting these places I get a perspective, a physical connection to events that I wouldn’t otherwise have.

On top of this, of course, there is the aspect of travel to places not ruined by mass travel or package tourism. Almost by default, dark destinations tend not to be high up on the tourist trail. One of the downsides of the “global|village” is that travel has become more and more homogenised, and the spotting of your first Starbucks or McDonald’s in any travel destination is always a depressing experience. Totalitarian regimes, however dodgy and unpleasant their politics, are the last refuges away from globalisation. I’ve always been so jealous of my parents, who travelled all over the place at a time when this was still not common. So much of what they saw and experienced is now ruined, and I suppose I’m still trying to find my own unspoiled destinations.

Now, I’m back in the Cotswolds, in the noisy bosom of my family, walking my dogs and dreaming of deserts and jungles and exciting cities I have yet to visit. On my daily walks through the Coln Valley I think wistfully back to my trips. If nothing else, I hope that by writing about these places people will get another perspective on them, an appreciation that normal life exists under any circumstances... Except maybe in North Korea, where it really is tough.

Lebanon is, of course, very close to my heart. I have many conflicting memories of the place. Like Cambodia, it retains a delicate balance of violence and beauty. For the moment, the |beauty seems to be firmly in the ascendance – I fervently hope that it wins out. Who knows, maybe one day Osama and I will both attend a school reunion in a wholly peaceful and prosperous Beirut. It’s unlikely, but... you never know.

‘The Dark Tourist: Sightseeing in the World’s Most Unlikely Holiday Destinations’ is published by Simon & Schuster (£12.99). To order a copy for the special price of £11.69 (free P&P) call Independent Books Direct on 08430 600 030, or visit Independentbooksdirect.co.uk

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