Beware of drug dealers disguised as playboys

17th August 2001 at 01:00
These days arriving is nearly always better than the journey, claims Adrian Mourby

IT was Robert Louis Stevenson who considered it better to travel hopefully than to arrive, but then he had never been stuck in Delhi Airport for 24 hours or found Air Canada had cancelled his return flight home for no good reason - or indeed that fog in Gatwick was preventing Egypt Air leaving Cairo for the foreseeable future.

For Stevenson the great romance of travel was not to get somewhere in particular but simply, as he put it: "To go. I travel for travel's sake. The great affair is to move!" Or so he claims in his Travels With a Donkey. But a donkey is a pretty simple mechanism that responds to a stick across its bottom. The same cannot be said, alas, for modern airlines or modern airports.

Living on an island, British travellers have come to accept that any attempt to see the world means days lost in tedium, queues, ticket checks, security scans, lost luggage forms and hours gazing disconsolately at the departures monitor knowing full well that the plane which should be taking you from Heathrow to Malta is still sitting on the tarmac, waiting for its supply of tacky, foil-wrapped lunches to be loaded on board.

These days, only those with an unhealthy desire to spend a fortune in duty free, followed by a night sleeping on airport benches, will prefer travel over arrival.

But there is still a certain perverse pleasure to be had from being stranded. I should know. I feel I've been stuck at more airports than most people have had tacky foil-wrapped dinners. Travel may broaden the mind but so do the people whom you meet while silently fuming against the pointless delays and manifold inefficiencies of airport life.

I can remember trying to get to Athens from Santorini when Olympic had overbooked our flight and kicked me off the plane. An affable South American Greek in a Panama hat kindly offered to phone ahead and say I'd be late. In due course we moaned a bit together and he described his life as a mercenary and playboy to me, a fiction which I chose to believe because it was a much more credible story than anything Olympic was telling us at the time.

Finally, when we got on a plane, my friend came and plonked himself down next to me explaining that the security people had asked him to keep an eye on me. I should have guessed then. At Athens airport Panama Man quickly found us a taxi and we set off towards the city centre via his "house" which he explained was on the way, but which seemed to me much nearer Thessaloniki.

Two minutes later he emerged triumphantly carrying a bag from which he tried rolling a cigarette, all the while demanding some huge sum of money from me which was supposed to go to the driver.

Suddenly a violent argument erupted between the two men in the front. The next thing I knew we had turned into a police station and a woman police officer had trained her gun on the three of us. My playboy was a drug dealer and I was an idiot ever to have trusted him. I got my money back and learned a lesson but it's the same one I learn every time. Share a taxi with dubious strangers and you'll always get taken for a ride.

And yet I can remember a similar occasion when I arrived four hours late in Hungary with a baby and no nappies. Just to make life really difficult we had no Hungarian currency either, plus no one to meet us and no way of contacting our friends because all the telephone numbers had been changed in Budapest that weekend.

This was one of those occasions when I actually found myself agreeing with Stephenson's maxim : it was far better to travel than arrive in circumstances like these. Desperate, my wife and I accepted the assistance of the only two people who spoke English in Ferihegy Airport, a couple of muscular Nigerian Jehovah's Witnesses who led us first by bus, then by metro and finally by taxi into the heart of Budapest.

"Your friends will be there," they kept telling us. "Lean on the Lord."

I found myself preferring to lean on the taxi door. Any funny business and we'd be out at the next traffic lights. Remarkably, however, we were delivered to the right block of flats and while our Hungarian hosts paid the taxi the Lord's two witnesses set off smiling into the night. It all goes to prove that the one thing travel teaches you is that you never can tell. About anything. Or anyone.

Adrian Mourby is a member of the British Guild of Travel Writers

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