The most dangerous place I was ever on holiday was Bogota in Colombia in 1983, at a time when the Medellin and Cali drug cartels were on the rise. At that time, the presumption in Bogota was that any white Westerner speaking English was carrying large amounts of cash to use in major drug deals.
About an hour after arriving in the city, I was crossing a central road junction when I heard a slight scuffle behind me. My companion, walking about four steps behind had been mugged by two men.
“They held two knives at my throat, so I gave them my wallet,” he told me, slightly surprised. “It seemed like a good idea at the time.” It must have taken all of four seconds.
I remember, one Sunday morning, the two of us walking down a main street in the city – walking on the actual road, not the pavement, because it seemed safer to risk being hit by a car than walking close to narrow alleyways and shop doorways. It was less paranoia than common sense. A week or so later, in Lima, Peru, I got chatting to a young American in the bar of the Sheraton hotel.
“Yeah, Bogota is dangerous,” he agreed. He told me he visited the city quite often.
“What do you do?” I asked.
“I’m in the import/export business,” he told me.
“Ah,” I replied.
I like interesting places but not dangerous ones.
Yesterday I went to the Destinations holiday exhibition at Earls Court in London, courtesy of the wonderful travel company Regent Holidays. In 1979, I went with them to Albania, largely because I had read the country had no motorised traffic and was dotted with pillbox bunkers in case they got invaded by unspecified other nations. “Dotted with pillboxes” turned out to be an understatement. Albania had concrete pillboxes like a pointillist painting has dots – and they were white curved things which could be clearly seen from a distance (surely not a good idea for a pill-box).
Albania in 1979 was a restful country – said to be the poorest in Europe – and, indeed, it had virtually no motorised vehicles. Occasionally you might spot a military truck or a Mercedes-Benz limo belonging to the Party; other than that it was horse-drawn carts and people walking. It was ruled by the admirably OTT Marxist-Leninist dictator Enver Hoxha who was said to always carry a pistol on his hip and once shot a member of his government over a dinner argument.
Now that’s my kinda ruler!
You can imagine Boris Johnson, given a tiny bit more power, doing that sort of thing.
Albania in 1979 was the most eccentric place I had been until I wisely went to North Korea with Regent Holidays in 1985. I recommend the country highly. When I went, it was ruled by The Great Leader (that was his official title) Kim il-sung about whom I’m saying nothing as I might want to go back there sometime. All I will say is that I went in 1985 and 1985 was a year late for North Korea’s definitive year. It was illegal for individuals to own a radio: the simplest effective piece of state control over people’s thoughts I have ever heard of.
Regent Holidays specialised then and specialise now in unusual destinations and, during the Cold War, that often meant extreme Communist regimes. I do lament the passing of widespread hardline Communism because you were always safe travelling to communist countries and right wing dictatorships. If anyone messed with foreign-currency-carrying tourists in those countries, the perpetrators tended to end up being thrown in a cell and the key thrown away or being shot in a football stadium. This tended to minimise casual street muggings.
I went to a lot of Communist countries during the Cold War because I was sadly too late for all the truly great right wing dictatorships. The only right wing dictatorship I did visit was Paraguay under General Stroessner. He is reported to have been ousted in 1989 because his military chiefs feared he would be succeeded either by his son Freddie, a cocaine addict, or by his son Gustavo, “who was loathed for being a homosexual and a pilot”. Bigotry apparently ran deep in Paraguay.
People have always told me I should go to Cuba and maybe I should, but I never felt it was extreme or eccentric enough. Fidel Castro always seemed to me a decent sort-of chap though, like comedian Ken Dodd, he tended to drastically over-run on his allotted stage time. He (I mean Fidel, not Doddy) ousted a particularly nasty dictator in Batista; this understandably annoyed the American Mafia, in particular Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky – and it is never a good idea to annoy powerful chaps like them. The modern-day equivalent might be a pub singer annoying Simon Cowell.
Having gained power, Fidel did approach US American President Eisenhower for aid and a meeting and was rebuffed. So it always seemed to me that Fidel was a decent bloke and the Americans brought on their own heads what followed. I mean, honestly, chaps in Langley getting CIA operatives to try to kill Fidel with an exploding cigar or to discredit him by trying to make his hair fall out… well, it’s the basis for a good comedy movie and I admire the lateral thinking, but leave the poor man alone.
I prefer holidays in quirky countries with eccentric dictators and there are precious few at the moment.
I did go to Turkmenistan in 1995 because President Saparmurat Niyazov sounded doolally. Sadly, he wasn’t, at that time, eccentric enough for my taste, though he did go slightly more impressively barking a little later: re-naming months of the year after members of his family and officially replacing the Turkmen word for “bread” with the name of his mother.
I like countries in a state of flux which will have changed utterly in 20 years time. Where is there to go now? Chechnya? Ingushetia? I’m not that mad. Somalia? You’re joking.
At Earls Court yesterday, the most interesting stand by far was Hinterland Travel, who were selling holidays to Afghanistan – their brochure was sub-titled “Discerning Adventures” which I don’t think anyone could dispute.
Around 1989, a friend suggested we go on holiday to Afghanistan because, she claimed, “it’ll be safer in a couple of years or so”. It never did get safer. At the time she suggested it, I read that commercial jets were landing at Kabul Airport by making very tight spiral descents in an attempt to confuse any in-coming heat-seeking surface-to-air missiles. There comes a point where “interesting” strays into “fucking dangerous” and, call me a wimp, but this was well over that line.
On 15th October this year, Hinterland Travel are offering a 14-day trip starting in Afghanistan costing £2,100. This adventure holiday for discerning travellers who are attracted to something slightly different from a Spanish beach holiday is called “The Retreat”. It starts in Kabul and aims to recreate the retreat of the British Army from Kabul to Jalalabad in 1842.
A note at the back of the leaflet says: “We do insist that you take out some form of insurance… principally health and repatriation cover while recognising that you will not be covered for Afghanistan re War and Terrorism.”
Suddenly Bogota in 1983 doesn’t seem so dangerous.