We all have travel tales. Short and tall stories of what happened to us in various places at various times around the world. While each trip brings home a bag of useless souvenirs from far-flung places, a memory card full of out-of-focus photos, credit card bills too huge to ever pay; it’s the imaginary journal full of interesting anecdotes that’s sure to entertain vulnerable family and friends for decades to come.
Some of us learn a lot when we travel. We quickly learn how to dress appropriately so we don’t have to strip like Josephine Baker each time we pass through an airport security screen. We learn how to entertain ourselves, squirting clouds of perfumes and aftershaves in duty-free shops while waiting six hours for a delayed flight, and we even learn (eventually) that souvenirs always end up in the next garage sale for a fraction of their original price, even accounting for currency conversion (that carved nameplate from the craft market in the hills of Borneo wasn’t a "must have" after all.)
Some of us even learn a thing or two about the countries we visit. Unfortunately, some of us never learn the art of knowing when to shut up. Every tour group has one; every cruise ship has several; and every airline seat from row 21 to 46 is occupied by them – they’re travel educators (I trust you’re not sitting in one of those seats as you read this). These are an ever-increasing and annoying breed of travellers who insist on educating their fellow passengers and tour guides on domestic matters with facts from "back home."
The travel educator, or "travelcator," insists on holding court on tours, making useless comparisons to everything "back home." He asks questions of the tour guide solely to elicit an answer to which he can counter with a fact from his extensive homeland knowledge.
"In Australia, our money comes in different colours, and our one dollar is a coin!"
Like Donavon’s Universal Soldier, the travelcator comes from all countries, but particularly the USA and Australia; he loves participation and knows that everyone around him is extra pleased to have him on tour.
He has no interest in listening to anything the travel guide has to say. He spends every minute of the tour fiddling with his new camcorder, Ipod or digital camera — changing batteries, deleting photos that don’t feature him as the main subject, and testing out the sunset setting. While Eiffel Towers and Taj Mahals pass by, he has his nose pressed deeply into page 158 of the owner’s manual, mastering the edit features.
When the travel toys eventually lose his interest, the travelcator pipes up with some real pearlers of wisdom: sitting in the front row of the bus — the plum seat for travelcating — he cuts the guide’s spiel short and asks curiously, "What’s the main religion here?" as the bus pulls through the Vatican’s gates. Before the ‘ic’ in catholic has left the lips of the unsuspecting-but-patient tour guide, our travelcator interjects, explaining his theory on the anthropological and cultural origins of Australia’s demographic composition. He shares that Australia is made up of exactly 50% Catholics and 50% Church of England. This is the sort of conversation the travelcator initiates when, well, when in Rome..!
While our group passes through the papal chambers and stands under the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, we learn enormous amounts of factual information from our travelcator. All churches in Australia only operate on Sunday mornings, there are no mosques or synagogues…none. There is one cathedral in Sydney somewhere, which is both Catholic and Church of England, and the Catholics have all the best real estate in the country. The religious treasures of the homeland are just as rich as here in Rome, don’t you know?
"In Australia, we call this city, ‘Rome’ not ‘Roma,’" he instructs, "and you guys drive on the wrong side of the road, ya’ know!" His knowledge is breathtaking.
Every comment ends with an exclamation mark since the travelcator only makes statements of fact. No one has the heart or the nerve to tell him that when you buy a copy of Fodor’s, you actually buy an edition that relates to the country you are visiting, not the one you came from. And no one in the back of the bus has ever told him that they can’t hear his fascinating questions; all they can hear are the tour guide’s responses to his statements over her microphone. The passengers in the first three rows are the only ones who truly benefit from his vast wealth of knowledge.
Cruise ships are where American travelcators’ depth of knowledge really shines and reaches great heights of value. Occasionally, as entertainment, quiz nights are organized by the travelcator, who assembles a table of contestants, sits them in front of the Stella Polaris Bar while they wait eagerly for the quizmaster to commence the proceedings.
"What is the currency of France?"
Answer: "French Dollar."
"Who is the Prime Minister of Canada?"
Answer: "Tony Blair."
"What is the name of England’s houses of Parliament?"
Answer: "Buckingham Palace."
He makes his valuable contributions to the event, but much to his dismay, fails to win first prize.
"Way too many foreign questions!"
Disappointed that the quizmaster didn’t ask a question like, "Who is the Queen of Europe," he reluctantly admits defeat and heads to the cabaret for some light-hearted entertainment provided by someone else.
His knowledge is as boundless as his ability to impart it, and the travelcator actively seeks out new audiences. On a recent trip on the Mediterranean, one was disappointed by Mt. Etna’s paltry smoke plume citing Mt. St. Helens as the "best volcano on the planet" because America "knows how to do volcanoes." Good, now we know.
A trip filled with various day-tours and different groups of passengers is a perfect set-up for the travelcator. New cities provide the scope for new comparisons. New groups of fellow passengers provide more opportunities to draw on well-rehearsed comparisons, and virgin tour guides are a Godsend. The ideal route for the travelcator goes to 12 countries, has at least 10 city-sights tours, picks up new passengers at every port, and has an abundance of audiences, guides and cruise directors.
Back home, where things are bigger, newer, cheaper and cleaner; they are cooked better, tastier, built to last, religiously stable, politically simple and the money comes in different coloured notes, the Australian travelcator recalls all he has learned on his trip.
He learned that in Australia, petrol is cheaper, the food is really good, the money is easy to identify, the winters aren’t really cold in Melbourne, you don’t need any language but English; and that his new camera has two different scenery settings.
It’s been a wonderful experience for everyone.