Boring histories



David Whitley takes a look at why the history of some countries and cultures is far more fascinating than that of others


On the whole, I like learning about things. History fascinates me; I love discovering how the events of the past tie together. You tend to understand a place a whole lot better when you know something about what’s happened there. A recent trip to Serbia offered a great example of this. Many see the Balkan Wars of the 1990s as a fairly simple case of Serb bad, everyone else good. But it’s far, far more complicated than that. When you start discovering how many times the Balkan Peninsula has been a battleground between east and west and how different areas have been shifted to someone else’s patch, the whole sorry mess strikes home. Centuries of being on different sides and suffering various despicable crimes at the hand of the other party has turned people who are essentially the same against each other.  


Every snippet you learn about World War II, the Ottoman Empire, seemingly irrelevant 16th century battles and various religious schisms adds to a picture of why life is like it is today. The same seems to apply in everything I discover about Australia and the United States. Australia’s twin convict and Aboriginal histories are unbelievably fascinating once you start tucking in, whilst the development of the US since Columbus arrived is brilliant patchwork of joined dots. But some history, I find really rather dull. And I think I’ve worked out why. 


The temples at Angkor in Cambodia are undeniably solid gold spectacular. As works of art and construction, they are utterly magnificent. I could happily wander around them, soaking them in for hours. All the explanations about which king and which dynasty they were built under bored me, however. It was a long list of names and slightly different artistic styles. But I felt bad for not caring. It was history – why didn’t I care? I felt the same thing with the Mayan temples in Guatemala and Mexico; loved looking at them, fascinated by how long they’ve been there; deadened by explanations of which dynasty built it and who they were fighting. So is it simply a case of being more interested in modern history than ancient history? Or European history than Asian or Central American history? Well, not really; the Vikings and Romans grip me, as does the backstory of the Middle East.


I suspect Japan’s history would be hugely interesting if I knew more about it too. But differences between various South African tribes? Not so much. Thinking about this, it’s not really history that I’m interested in at all. It’s the present. I like knowing what makes a place tick, what its foibles are and how everything interlocks with each other. Often, the past is vital to understanding this. And when it is, I find myself with a yearning to learn about that past. But sometimes, the past seems so far detached from the present that it really doesn’t have that much impact. Modern Cambodia’s story really isn’t all that tightly linked to the Angkor era, Ancient Mayan kingdoms don’t seem to make much difference to how Mexico operates. 


It sounds awful to say it, but in many places the present-day story starts when the Europeans arrived. Is that an Anglo-centric viewpoint? Probably. Is it incorrect? Possibly. But I just can’t find the coherent links. And, sadly, that means I’m not as interested in knowing the story.   Do certain types of history interest you more than others? 


Share your thoughts by leaving a comment below.


Christmas away



David Whitley looks back on Christmases spent overseas, and wonders whether it’s so bad to miss the traditional turkey and trimmings after all

Christmas, to many people, is a time to be at home with the family. To do it the non-traditional way is some sort of sacrilege. Why would you want to be travelling on the other side of the world at Christmas time? 

Well, if I had to list my top five Christmases in order of enjoyableness and memorability, all five would be the ones I spent abroad. Sorry, mum and dad. They were all spent in Sydney, the first as a backpacker planning to move on soon afterwards, the other four with increasingly stronger degrees of having settled down. 

Not a single one of them had the sprouts, central heating and woolly hats I’d associate with a ‘proper’ Christmas, but somehow they felt more festive. The thing to remember when you’re overseas for Christmas is that you’re not the only person in that situation. Unless you’re hiding out deep in the jungles of Borneo, there’s a very strong chance that there will be plenty of others around who haven’t got their family and the trimmings to hand.




And that’s where the alleged Christmas spirit comes in. Mum won’t be there, Dad won’t be there, your racist uncle and his horrible children won’t be there. You won’t be able to just sit on the sofa all afternoon, filling your face with chocolates and watching a film. You won’t have the turkey scraps to eat later. There’s no set way of doing things, no long list of family customs to mark out the day, no well-worn path to tread along. And that’s what makes it special – because it’s all about what you decide to do and what you make of whatever’s to hand. It also becomes a tremendous bonding experience. 

You see those people around you – sat in the hostel, in the guesthouse next door, nearby on the beach – who are in the same boat? Well, they’re your family this Christmas. The impromptu party you manage to organise is what counts; the silliness and inventiveness you all bring to the occasion and the ideas you settle on a couple of days beforehand. Christmas whilst travelling is almost certainly going to be different. But that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Take it the right way, and that Christmas is highly likely to be your most memorable. 

This is partly because it will be so different and partly because you have to put yourself into it. It will be the Christmas you created rather than went along for the ride with.   


Tiredness Test



David Whitley takes a look at those times we find ourselves getting annoyed on the road, and offers one simple piece of advice for stopping the frustration boiling over 


There will come a day, perhaps not too far in the distant future, when something really bad happens at the Upper Crust stall in Sheffield train station. I have a tendency to get rather angry every time I go there. I’ll be after a sandwich – a bit of breakfast to take on the train with me. But I’ll get stuck behind two or three people who are just ordering coffee.


Alas, with only one member of staff making the coffee, these people will order the coffee, and the member of staff won’t take any more orders until the coffee has been made and paid for. Thus the simple task of saying: “This sandwich please” and paying for it can take around ten minutes. And that’s often a ten minutes I don’t have because I need to get on the train.


One day, I’ll properly crack (rather than mumble and moan in the queue). I’ll grab the coffee-drinking queue hog and shout: “Look, cretin. Upper Crust is for sandwiches. It’s where you buy sandwiches, not coffee. If you want coffee, there is a Caffe Ritazza just behind it. Which, as the name suggests, specialises in coffee.” I’ll then march him over to Caffe Ritazza, and possibly knee him in the balls for good measure.


This would, I concede, be completely unreasonable behaviour. But the problem is that I always tend to pass through Sheffield station needing something to eat when I’m either tired or hungover. And when I’m tired or hungover, I’m not the most reasonable person in the world.


Tiredness is something that has to be dealt with whilst travelling. And the nature of the beast dictates that you generally encounter the most stressful situations when you are tired. Trying to find the right bus for your destination at 6am in a strange bus station, working out the public transport system after a long flight, checking into a hotel where your booking has gone missing... That sort of thing. The problems you need to deal with often arrive at the moments when you’re least equipped to deal with them.


If you’re anything like me – and patience has never been my strong point – these are also the times when you start to lose it somewhat and get exasperated. That’s the polite word for shouty and sweary, incidentally. There’s nothing like a nice stomp around, bellowing “Oh for fuck’s sake” to serve no purpose and make you look like a complete arsehole.


In situations like this there is a tendency to take things out on all and sundry; the people around you, the kindly local who is doing you a favour by trying to point you in the right direction, the staff member who is trying their best to sort the problem. These are people who inevitably don’t know the other frustrations you’ve suffered in the lead up and won’t have your irritation-addled perspective on things. In short, you’ll look like an idiot.


For this reason it’s always worth storing one question in the back of your mind, ready to be pulled out at any time when you feel like you’re getting angry. And that is: “Would I be doing this if I wasn’t so tired?”




Coming Home


David Whitley looks at the worst part of any RTW trip – coming home and dealing with what has changed while you’ve been away 
I don’t cry often. I’m your typical emotionally repressed male on that front. But when I left Australia in 2006, I cried. I went out for a year, like many people do, and ended up getting a job over there. By the time I was ready for the plane home, I’d been living in Australia for just under five years. It had become my home, and I was abandoning it to start life afresh. And it turns out that a new chapter – a new life – did begin. But as I waited for the taxi to take me to Sydney airport, I burst into tears. It felt like I was going back to the life I’d left behind. A giant step backwards.

When you’ve been away for a long time, going home is hard. Not working down a mine and getting lungs full of asbestos hard, but dealing with the emotions hard. The realisation hits that it was effectively all just a dream.

I struggled in the first few weeks back. I hated it. It was the life I’d left behind. People had moved on, but not much. Everything felt the same as it was before I left. I’d changed, but nothing else had. It felt like walking into an old still photograph and wondering why nothing was moving.

There’s an awful lot of guff written about finding yourself while travelling, and I don’t want to stray into that territory. But most people will find that travel changes them in some way; increased confidence, thirst to know more, realisation that the way you were brought up to do things isn’t the only way – things like that. And it can be very difficult to slot back into the roles you ditched to go travelling.

After a few weeks, however (and noticeably, after moving back out of my parents’ house), I began to feel better about things. I was pining for Australia less. I was starting to enjoy the rhythms of being back.

The key thing was that they weren’t the same rhythms I left behind. Some were similar, but I was making new friends – many through people I’d met in Australia – doing things differently and starting to enjoy a much stronger sense of purpose. I was in the same place, but it wasn’t the same life.

I suspect I’m not alone in this. Tastes, attitudes and ambitions change while you’re away for a long time. Slotting straight back in to where you left off is neither possible nor desirable for most of us. And for the crestfallen approaching the journey’s end, about to board that plane, I’d offer one snippet of solace. Yes, it is the end of the world. But it’s also the start of a new one.

How did you feel when you returned from travelling? Did life change after you got back? Share your thought by leaving a comment below.



David Whitley takes a look at why standards plummet the moment you start watching a film on a plane 

A totally different set of standards applies when you’re in the air. You’ll sit cramped into a seat that you’d not allow near your living room. You’ll scoop iffy-looking food from a tray that’s far too low down, inevitably spilling it all over your clothes. You’ll end up reading any scrap of paper that happens to be in the seat pocket in order to stave off boredom.

Nowhere is this deviation of standards more true than in-flight entertainment. Standards in films and television shows will generally plummet when you’re on a plane.

As a general rule, I’m pretty fussy about what films I’ll watch. I don’t like wasting two hours of my life on something crushingly mediocre. If I’m going to the cinema or putting a DVD on, I want to be watching something great or damn near great. I usually like thinky films with sweeping narrative arcs, crackling dialogue and enough inventive twists to keep me gripped.

Put me on a plane, however, and I’ll sit and watch any old crap. Planes really don’t lend themselves to involved, thinky films – often the dialogue is drowned out by the sound of the engines, and being on a plane offers a rare chance to park the brain and switch off.

Therefore, instead of ploughing headway into some complicated German thriller, I’ll end up watching the sort of explosion-filled, mindless nonsense that I usually hate. Or, even worse, a by-numbers romantic comedy. I’m ashamed to admit it, but I ended up quite enjoying Friends With Benefits starring Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis on a recent flight. That’s surely unforgivable.

It’s the same with TV shows. The best in-flight entertainment programmes these days will have half a dozen episodes of the same show, and I’ll often find myself just sitting through whichever series has the most episodes available. Sometimes this leads to wonderful discoveries – I found 30 
Rock this way, and Modern Family is reasonably good too. Sometimes it’s just awful – hello New Girl or Big Bang Theory – but I’ll just sit there watching it anyway, simply because it’s there and it’ll take more effort to change over and work out what else to watch.

I suspect this phenomenon is almost entirely responsible for the enduring popularity of Mr Bean – a programme that has surely never been watched outside of an aeroplane environment. It also makes me think that Hollywood studios could make good profits solely by concentrating on utterly undemanding films that are designed to be watched on planes. 

Or maybe they already are?

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