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View from Vitalia: Dreaming of Edinburgh of the Seven Seas

A way of escaping from the lockdown is by a private jet of one’s memories.

Here’s an old Soviet joke: how can you fill your fridge with food without doing any shopping? Answer: by plugging it into a radio socket!

For those who didn’t get it, the official Soviet propaganda, broadcast over the radio, always tried to reassure the listeners that they were living very well, whereas the reality – with empty shops, queues, general poverty and despair – was very, very different.

That may be an entirely inappropriate analogy, or rather counter-analogy, for how I (and, I am sure, many of you, too) feel after many weeks of the lockdown, but daily British radio broadcasts - realistic and poignant as they may be – are so full of gloom and doom that at times they make me want (in breach of all existing stay-at-home regulations) to run away.

The problem is there’s nowhere to run to, for the whole world - apart perhaps from New Zealand - seems to be in the grip of the pandemic. The global maps, regularly emailed to me by Riskline – an organisation monitoring degrees of risk for travellers in different countries – seem to have become the opposites of their normal selves, with the normally safe (and hence pale-yellow) Europe, North America and South-East Asia now painted bright red, indicating 'extreme risk', as opposed to the normally red and now pale-yellow Africa, Latin America and parts of Asia.

What really gets me is the intonation with which many radio presenters announce the numbers for daily fatalities. Forgive me, but their voices almost invariably sound as routine and matter-of-fact as if they were reading out the latest football scores - only in this case, they don't first advise us to cover our ears in case we don't want to know the results.

As someone who belongs to the highest-risk category (male, over 65, with underlying heath conditions) I - probably more than most - desperately wish for some respite from the gloom. I badly want the news presenters to change the subject, even if occasionally, and tell me something hopeful and inspiring.

At last this morning they did it, by announcing that a massive, mile-long asteroid - hurtling through space at a speed of nearly 20,000 miles per hour - was expected to approach the Earth and pass by at an astronomically negligible near-miss distance of approximately four million miles today! That ‘cheerful’ piece of news did little to improve my mood. Nor did the front-page headline in the Times newspaper: ‘New reason to stay in as asteroid races towards Earth’. What if the astronomers have miscalculated the distance slightly? At least that would certainly mean the end of the lockdown!

Now you will understand why I am fidgeting in my chair while writing these lines.

The only existing (if temporary) cure for claustrophobic depression and lethargy is your own imagination, which - in the words of Albert Einstein - is often more important than knowledge. By that I mean virtual escapism in the form of vicarious travels to the places you always wanted to visit but never did and/or your own travel memoirs.

As a ‘professional traveller’ (read: travel writer) with over 30 years of experience and over 70 countries visited, I now often visualise myself in a place I’ve never been to and, most likely, never will: Tristan da Cuhna, a remote (in fact, the world’s remotest) archipelago in the South Atlantic, which sits over 2,000km away from each of the nearest human settlements of St Helena, the Falklands, and/or Cape Town in South Africa. With a population of only 266, Tristan (as it is commonly known) has a tiny capital called… wait for it… Edinburgh of the Seven Seas (!), where all 266 residents of that peculiar British dependency live. I can’t explain why, but I would die to see it in real reality (as opposed to the ‘virtual’ one), even if only for a minute or so.

Stuck in self-isolation and covering my ears so as not to hear the latest coronavirus ‘scores’, I keep repeating like a mantra: “Edinburgh of the Seven Seas… Edinburgh of the Seven Seas…” hoping against hope that the very repetition might magically teleport me there, away from the pandemic-generated fears and depression.

I also often recall the most memorable of my real-life travels - not just in my head, but also on paper in my 'After All' column for E&T and while putting together a new tome, 'Vitali’s Bumper Book of Travel Stories', commissioned by a London publisher.

Below is a shortened version of one such story (with a techno angle in the shape of a snow-white Boeing 747) which will, hopefully, take you away from the gloomy reality of the pandemic, even if just for ten minutes or so.

‘For Monks Only’ ran a peremptory sign above the only row of empty seats in the Domestic Terminal of Bangkok airport, where I was waiting for a connecting flight to Chiang Mai.

I had to beat the temptation to lower my aching jet-lagged frame onto a seat, for I could hardly pass for an impoverished over-ascetic Buddhist monk. To begin with, I was wearing shoes. Also, I was on the way to joining (for free) one of the world’s ultimate hedonistic experiences: a twenty-eight-day-long ‘Around the World by Private Jet’ tour, to which I was invited as a journalist.

The ‘Private Jet’ was originally intended to be Concorde, but after all Concordes were grounded for technical reasons it had to be replaced with a Boeing 747, specially refitted to provide the clients with "Ultra-First Class luxury unavailable from any commercial source", according to a promotional brochure.

There were stopovers, each of two to three days, in this round-the-globe hop, starting and finishing in New York, via Hawaii, Shanghai, Chiang Mai (Thailand), Jaipur (India), Dubai, Florence, Tunisia and Lisbon. I was supposed to join the group of 49 tourists, mostly Americans, in Chiang Mai and then fly back to London from Dubai a week later.

The initial experience, however, was far from hedonistic. My back was sore after being repeatedly stabbed by the sharp knees of some long-legged and fidgety British teenager, who sat behind me on my economy-class flight from Heathrow.

I bought a copy of The Nation, a Thai daily, in a newspaper kiosk. ‘Artificial legs are presented to disabled people at a public charity event to mark the 100th birthday of the late Princess mother,’ read the caption underneath the front-page cover photo. With my legs feeling numb and almost artificial, I trudged to Departures.

Regent Resort, my Chiang Mai hotel, was built in the style of a traditional peaked-roof northern Thai village. It was a cluster of luxury villas, blending effortlessly into the surrounding landscape of rice fields and tropical forest.

The moment I approached the reception desk, a stunning-looking and constantly bowing Thai girl put an orchid wreath around my stiffened neck. Another girl was trying (in vain) to relieve me of my shoulder bag, while a third smiling beauty was filling in my registration form kneeling in front of me in what I thought was a rather suggestive manner.

My villa was a mere hundred yards away, but they didn’t allow me to walk. Instead, a buggy truck with a smiling and bowing male driver materialised from nowhere and I was politely, yet firmly, offered a lift. Shedding orchid petals with every move, I climbed into the buggy.

Inside my teakwood-fitted villa, goldfish swam in circles in round water-filled flowerpots. The biggest surprise was in the form of a thick portfolio, awaiting me on the desk. Apart from welcoming letters and useful tips, the folder contained an envelope with some pocket money in local currency and half-a-dozen picture postcards with my home address scribbled on them in round childish letters (by one of the reception girls?) and with stamps lovingly affixed!

For the sightseeing, our group was split between two air-conditioned buses: ‘Red’ and ‘Blue’. First, we went on a bicycle rickshaw ride across Chiang Mai. My rickshaw was pulled by a dried-out sinewy old man, so thin that he was almost transparent. Pressing the pedals of his rusty antediluvian bike for all he was worth, he was constantly lagging behind the rest of the procession. Few things make you look so silly as luxuriating in a cart pulled by an elderly cyclist in torn, worn-down slippers.

A boat ride on the Ping River was next. Snacks and fresh fruit were waiting for us on the deck. ‘This is your lunch, ha-ha!’ joked our facetious Thai guide. She knew only too well that it wasn’t. And so did we (which didn’t stop us from emptying our plates, by the way).

My first evening with the tour was truly spectacular. Halfway through a sumptuous open-air dinner, somewhere between the live Thai dancing and the fireworks, servants started launching 'Khom Loy' - sky lanterns made of Sa (Mulberry) paper, where the air inside is heated from underneath by a candle installed in a basket. As the lanterns climbed higher and higher, the candles kept burning until their tiny flickering lights and the multiple pimple-like stars in the velvety tropical sky became indistinguishable from each other and it was no longer possible to tell which stars were real and which weren’t.

The tour price of over $90,000 per person aside (drinks not included!), can one live in a fantasy world for more than a day or two?

I asked myself this question the next morning, when the very thought of breakfast was unbearable after the previous day’s sophisticated gluttony. There was no time to answer it, though, for we had to go for more Thai meals, briefly interrupted by shopping, bamboo-rafting and elephant-riding.

One thing was certain: from day two I started slowly but surely losing the plot. The mind-boggling luxury of the chartered Boeing 747, which we boarded the following day for a flight to Delhi, only added to my confusion.

My name was embroidered on a starched white napkin covering the headrest on one of my First Class seats.

Yes, I had a total of four seats at my disposal, with enough combined legroom to accommodate a couple of basketball teams. My fifth - smoking - seat was at the back of the plane, where I would often retreat to have my dessert, followed by an after-meal cigarette.

Between leisurely puffs, I would get a glimpse of two American women from our group jogging around the cabin’s perimeter. They calculated that one full circle constituted approximately one-fifth of a mile.

Strict ‘Do not throw foreign articles into the toilet’ signs were hardly visible behind bunches of fresh flowers and piles of French perfumes, with which all the plane’s bathrooms were stuffed to the ceiling. Onboard this jet, I felt very much like a foreign article in constant peril of being flushed down the loo.

My name was duly printed on the cover of a glossy five-page in-flight menu (I was getting fed up with seeing my name everywhere, as if they were worried that I would somehow forget it, so kept reminding me of it every two minutes) and when, halfway through the feast, the captain announced that we were approaching Everest, I was tempted to ask whether it came with rice, vegetables or French fries.

The onboard ‘wine of the day’ was Chateaux Beaux, 1996. I asked one of the fourteen cabin crew for Errazuriz—my favourite Chilean Chardonnay. His face fell, as if he had just learned of a sudden failure of all the plane’s engines. They didn’t have it in stock! How outrageous! As a consolation I was given a leather-bound A&K notepad, with a silver Parker pen thrown in, and a glass of Dom Perignon champagne.

A survivor of hundreds of super-austere Aeroflot flights, where the only drink (and food) they served was tepid mineral water in plastic cups with fossilised imprints of the previous users’ teeth, I felt like asking for political asylum in this flying first-class restaurant.

In Jaipur (India), we stayed at Rajvillas, built to resemble a Rajasthani fort. The level of luxury there was pretty much the same as at Regent Resort, only the welcome wreaths were made of marigolds.

My villa was again full of flowers, but unlike in Thailand, it had a four-poster bed (sleeping in it alone felt like a minor offence) and a white marble bath the size of a swimming pool. Of course, the magic portfolio - with money and stamped postcards - was also there, only this time I took it almost for granted. Again, I was half-expecting to find some hasty ‘Love from India’ messages scribbled for me on the postcards.

Unlike Regent Resort, discreetly hidden among the hills, the stone-walled complex of Rajvillas was across the road from a poverty-ridden Jaipur neighbourhood. The contrast was striking: the cost of an overnight stay in Rajvillas was much higher than the average annual salary in India.

Once I was back in London, I was finding it hard to recall the details of the trip. I could evoke what we had for lunches and dinners, but was unable - for love or money - to recollect where exactly we had been served this or that yummy soup or curry. In Agra? In Jaipur? Or was it on the plane?

One good thing is that I now knew the difference between travelling the world and ‘doing the world’ in a luxury jet. It is like the difference between the real stars and those aspiring sky lanterns. 

But you know what? After months of forced isolation due to a pandemic (or for any other reason), I would probably be almost as happy to repeat that hedonistic and therefore useless (for hedonism is the worst enemy of travellers: it makes their eyes oily and unable to see things as they are) ‘private jet’ journey as I would be to visit Edinburgh of the Seven Seas - the distant and unreachable town of my dreams.

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