Confessions of the untraveller (Sept. 11, 2001)

The summer travel season is over. My friends are bubbling over with memories of elephantine turtles and Mayan ruins. I asked one returnee from Bariloche, Argentina what it was like there. Well, she responded, it's a lot like Whistler, except they speak Spanish.

Excellent! For I have been to Whistler, and I know what Spanish sounds like. O Happy Day -- another travel destination crossed off my list. As in reverse Bingo, where the winner is the last one with no chads on the card, I do not add to my travel list, I subtract. For I am -- The Untraveller.

I am an anomaly. Nowadays, you are hardly fit for civilized company if you have not "done" Europe, Asia, South America and the Empty Quarter of Iraq before the age of 35. I can kill a travel conversation like Roach Motel kills bugs. Mention you have just returned from glorious St. Lucia, and I will ask, "St. Lucia ... St. Lucia ... Didn't I just read about nuns being murdered there?" Conjure up the lavishly exotic beauty of Bali, and I ask: "Tell me, when attempting to go for a sunset stroll off the grounds of your hotel, were you troubled by the roving packs of wild dogs I hear so much about?" The magnificent beaches of Rio? Horrifying undertows, rampant muggings. Provence? Overrun with Torontonians. Hiking in the Sinai? Poisonous snakes. Photographic safaris? Malaria and river blindness.

It isn't as though I don't actually go anywhere. I will happily holiday where I am not immediately identifiable as a tourist ripe for scamming, where English or French is understood by judges and doctors, where police salaries are paid by the state, not tourists, where there is no Grand Bazaar (get me out of here!), where dress codes for women do not include a tent with a prisoner's grill over the face, where you don't get the lash for chewing gum: in short where my presence is actually welcome, rather than an economy-boosting, but deity-offending necessity to the local population.

Iceland, the New Thing in travel, holds temptations for the Untraveller: English widely spoken, no killer bees, ditto beggars with self-inflicted deformities to embellish their pathos, plus tourists are not besieged in the streets by T-shirt vendors and "cornrow" plaiters. On the other hand, mediocre accommodation is expensive, and there is nothing to do but drink. So perhaps not.

What I like about American destinations -- tacky Miami Beach, for example, as opposed to some pristine Carribbean island -- is that the hardworking wait staff don't hate you, as they themselves are planning on being rich someday (and being American, their chances of doing so are pretty good). Also, there are seriously fabulous malls to offset the boredom of continuous sunshine (Stop laughing: Making fun of mall culture is, like, so over).

I am not philosophically isolated in my voyagaphobia. Freud thought travel was bad for the health. Literary critic Stanley Fish claims "travel narrows the mind." When you travel, you are not an actor but a voyeur of other people's lives. You have the illusion of living amongst others without actually doing so.

This is why I like the illusion-free mobile viewing pedestals known as cruise ships. For they at least destroy the conceit of active involvement. And they harbour no superannuated hippies tediously gushing about Really Getting To Know the Country. True, you may only see port cities and coastline (usually the most interesting, beautiful and ancient part of a country in any case). But hey -- yes, you sneering at the word "cruise" -- have you ever been to Varna, Bulgaria, and Yalta, Ukraine? Thought not. Well, I have, on the Black Sea Cruise, and trust me, two hours is all you need for Varna, four for Yalta (and that includes fingering the chairs in the Czar's summer palace where Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt parked themselves for the Conference). Then it's back to your gorgeous floating city for tea and scones, with time for a kip before your choice of four (clean) restaurants for dinner.

As for getting to know the peoples of the world, one day on a cruise ship is worth a year of globetrotting. The charming, friendly staff -- capitalists all -- on board these ships come from every country you can think of, and are only too glad to practise their English with you at any time. It is a philosophical as well as a material indulgence for the Untraveller to lend himself to this task. Blessed symbiosis: We are the honoured tutors of 30 different nationalities working together in perfect harmony, proudly communicating in steadily improving English, honing their skills for a better future, and all this in addition to "travelling."