Tag Archives: travel

Curiouser and Curiouser…

When Julian Assange awoke he found himself enclosed in a tall glass cylinder in the corner of a dimly lit room. He was standing upright and his arms and legs were restrained. Through the frosted glass he could just about make out the shapes of a number of identical cylinders dotted around the room. He felt groggy and weak as he struggled to recall how he had ended up here.

“I don’t remember paying for any weird shit this time,” he thought to himself as he attempted to free his limbs from their shackles to no avail.

Suddenly a booming voice echoed throughout the room,

Arrival imminent. Commencing detainee transfer.”

Assange felt his restraints loosen as the door of the cylinder slid open slowly. He stumbled out onto a cold metal floor just as the other cylinders also began to open. There were eight other people in the room, each looking equally confused and frightened.

Assange immediately recognised the three young women beside him as the Russian pop group and political dissenters Pussy Riot. Across the room he saw another face he knew, that of a Syrian blogger and human rights campaigner who had disappeared a few weeks earlier. After a few minutes of introductions he learned that the other four comprised an Iranian nuclear scientist, a student from California who had been arrested for tweeting a joke about Obama, a technology blogger who had recently given the new iPad a negative review, and lastly and somewhat inexplicably, the English comedian and actor Russell Brand.

After they had all met they tried to figure out how this had happened. None of them remembered arriving in this room, and they recounted their last memories before waking up there.

The Iranian scientist had been invited to a seminar given by the Chemical Industries Association, which he had never heard of before, and recalled finding the situation a tad strange when he was picked up at the train station by an Israeli tank instead of the promised limousine.

Russell Brand had been in South America conducting research for a book on the drug trade. The last memory he had was of landing at Colombia International Airport, and he remembered being surprised that the entire building was made out of cardboard panels that had been rather crudely sellotaped together.

Assange himself had been eagerly awaiting a visit to the Ecuadorian embassy by the Culinary Institute of Afghanistan. He had been looking forward to a nice meal, since the Ambassador kept eating his cream crackers from the kitchen, even though he had written ‘Hands off’ with three exclamation marks on a Post-It and stuck it on them.

Try as they might, they could find no connection between their stories. As they continued to discuss the strange situation they found themselves in, a panel opened in the corner of the room. Inside were nine orange spacesuits hanging on the wall.

The voice reverberated through the room again,

Attention detainees. Put on your suits and prepare to disembark the shuttle.”

They looked at each other in puzzlement. The shuttle?

“A shuttle?” exclaimed Brand. “What wicked malfeasance has been perpetrated here? Which autocratic tyrant has enslaved us in this unsolicited bondage? What calamitous end awaits this strewn-together band of…”

“Shut up you moron!” shouted one of the Russian girls.

Brand looked shocked and hurt but did not argue.

“Sorry sweetheart,” he mumbled, reaching up and stroking her face in what everyone agreed was a highly inappropriate gesture, even given the tense situation.

Just as they had finished getting into their suits one of the walls began to open outwards, creating a giant hydraulic ramp. The room was lit up with a brilliant light as the ramp descended and landed with a thud. As their eyes adjusted to the brightness they tentatively made their way down the ramp and squinted out at the vista that greeted them.

What they saw was a vast, red expanse of nothingness. An arid, crimson desert as far as the eye could see. The only sign of life was an enormous compound enclosed by barbed wire and high walls about a kilometre away. A makeshift track led through the soil and rock to the compound entrance. As they neared, the front gates opened slowly outwards and a short, squat figure appeared. As this shadowy form came into view, Assange recognised it but could not believe his eyes. The rover rolled towards them until it was but a few feet away, then stopped. Its diminutive head panned up to meet their faces, and its lifeless eyes acknowledged their shocked expressions. A garbled, metallic voice rang out in the thin air,

“Greetings prisoners. I am Curiosity, warden of this facility. Welcome to Mars.”

They followed the rover into the facility in stunned silence, escorted by a pair of similar robot guards. Hundreds of people dressed in the same orange suits were scattered around the compound. Assange recognised many of them as political activists or dictators who had either gone missing or had been reported as dead. He could have sworn he even saw Gadafi and bin Laden sitting together rolling dice, and Pinochet playing dominoes with Lee Harvey Oswald.

Eventually they came to a small building which appeared to be an office. They entered and the door shut behind them. On the wall were pictures of famous robots: C-3PO, Johnny Number 5, Wall-E. On the desk behind which their captor now stood was a picture of him with President Obama, and a nameplate that read ‘Colonel Curiosity’. There was also a small tray of complimentary mints, which seemed slightly incongruous.

“Welcome to the galaxy’s most secret detention centre. Here the CIA and other agencies can keep dissenters,” he said, fixing his gaze on the Pussy Riot girls, “international spies,” looking directly at Assange, “or anyone so unbelievably irritating that their government pays massive sums of money to make them disappear.” Everyone looked at Russell.

Curiosity continued, “I was sent here to become warden after my predecessor, Voyager, was shanked by Idi Amin during a riot earlier this year. As you may have now figured out, NASA has been operating as a covert wing of the US military since its inception, under the pretense of space exploration. The staff here are all rovers and probes sent here to keep control of the population. We’ve also started to draft in bomb disposal robots that have been injured in the Middle East, although between you and me, the PTSD has made them very unstable. I’d steer clear of them if I were you.”

The nine prisoners stood fixed to the ground, unable to comprehend this astonishing turn of events. Eventually Russell broke the silence,

“You mean we’re forced to spend the rest of our pitiful lives in some sort of cosmic colony of miscreants, to endure this interstellar incarceration in the void of space, never again to feel the warm bosom of…”

“Silence, prisoner!” shouted the warden. He turned to the rest of them, “Jeez, does this guy ever give it a rest?”

Thousands of miles away Michelle Obama was sitting on the couch in the Oval Office, laptop on her knee, while her husband sat with his feet up on his desk, his brow furrowed in concentration as he polished his Nobel Peace prize.

“You know I swear Kissinger swapped these things when we had dinner last week, I don’t remember this scratch being here.”

His wife was distracted by the article she was reading and didn’t answer him.

“Have you seen this story in the Huffington Post about Mars, Barack? This guy thinks it’s being used as an off-world penal colony by the American government.”

He didn’t look up and continued to studiously clean his trophy.

“Honestly, I don’t know why you read that crap Michelle. There are some real nutjobs out there.”

“Yeah I guess you’re right. Well, I’d better get going. I’ve to be on Oprah this afternoon. We’re doing an intervention for some fat kid from Texas who only eats chocolate cake.”

When his wife had left the room the President picked up the phone on his desk.

“Get me the director of the CIA right away please Barbara. I’ve got a problem with a journalist that needs to be taken care of.”

Julian Assange stared out the barred window of his cell, the glowing sphere of planet Earth visible just above the dusky horizon. A solitary tear rolled down his cheek as he contemplated his future on this barren rock.

“Don’t cry Jules, it’ll be alright in the end, you’ll see.”

Assange turned from the window and lay down on his cot, turning his face to the wall as he closed his eyes tightly, praying that the nightmares wouldn’t be so bad tonight.

“Shut up Russell,” he replied, as the sun set over the red planet, and the cell was plunged into darkness.

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Aggrieving On A Jet Plane

The prominent actor, outspoken liberal activist and Alpha-Baldwin, Alec, was kicked off an American Airlines flight this week for apparently refusing to turn off his phone when asked to do so prior to takeoff. According to the airline, Baldwin was ‘extremely rude’ and used ‘offensive language’, as well as slamming a bathroom door. Obviously recalling from their intense training regimen that these are all telltale signs that one is dealing with an agitated Muslim terrorist, the air stewards had the 30 Rock star duly removed from the plane.

While Baldwin’s actions may seem a little juvenile, dealing with frustration while flying is something we can all relate to, given how complicated and exasperating the whole process has become. Before post-9/11 paranoia and the growth of the budget airline, air travel was an altogether more enjoyable experience. There were only a few minor inconveniences, like being told they had run out of extra pillows, finding a fly in your tiny can of Coke, or realising you were on the same flight as a member of the Kennedy family.

These days, however, the whole affair is an ordeal that begins the second you enter the airport. After spending half an hour figuring out that your check-in desk, despite being assigned a number, is located in the most counter-intuitive location possible relative to any kind of sequential order, you are then required to converse with one of the check-in staff, who are all legally required to fulfil a daily quota of blank stares interspersed with unnecessary questions. If your bag is in any way bag-sized, or has a physical mass, you will be told it is unacceptable. Apparently baggage holds in aeroplanes nowadays are so small that the handlers essentially have to play a massive game of Tetris to get half of them in, after which they simply throw the other half in a ditch.

After completing this phase of the hellish experience, you next have to negotiate the security checks, an activity so enjoyable that you often have to queue for the privilege. Here you’ll be stripped of your jacket, watch, belt, shoes and most probably sanity, after which you’ll still set off the metal detector and have to be patted down by some giant of a man who spends most of his day being paid to sit in a chair and read The Daily Star. It is here that the staff will also ensure that you have only brought liquids in amounts that are too small to be of any practical use to you, and that they are all sealed in Ziploc bags, which everyone knows are far too difficult to simply reopen whenever you want. Maybe they should just force suspicious-looking passengers to travel entirely encased in massive Ziploc bags; it would save the rest of us all this hassle.

Eventually, after walking half the length of the terminal to get to your gate, all the while being overtaken by suspiciously healthy and mobile looking old women getting a free ride on those little trucks, you might actually manage to get on the plane so you can complete your journey. Here you’ll be met by the air attendants, who are rivalled only by prostitutes and Burger King employees when it comes to lack of enthusiasm for the job at hand. Their half-hearted display of the safety procedures performed before takeoff looks like Lindsay Lohan and her mates trying to do the Macarena at four in the morning after a particularly crack-heavy evening.

It is at this point that your shitfaced pilot will wake up for just long enough to drawl something unintelligible into the intercom before heading back to sleep and letting the autopilot fly the whole way. Of course any time you are about to doze off yourself you’ll doubtlessly be awoken by an aggressively loud intercom message hawking scratchcards, or an announcement from the cabin crew that if you want a hot meal, well you should have asked ten minutes ago because service is now over.

When you’ve finally landed, there is a brief, overwhelming feeling of relief that you haven’t been killed by your drunken pilot, a gigantic ash cloud, or the guy with the beard who got out of his Ziploc bag at one stage to go to the toilet. However, this soon gives way to an inevitable unease at the prospect of having to repeat the whole endeavour on the return journey.

It seems a little churlish to complain so much about the modern miracle that is air travel; to have the luxury of sitting in a chair travelling at about 600 miles an hour, 40 thousand feet in the air, complaining that most of your salted peanuts aren’t nearly salted enough is a ridiculous feat when you think about it.

The point is, though, that such an incredibly successful and marvellous industry should retain some of the glitz, charm and sense of occasion of its halcyon days. The gamut of influential pioneers in the world of aviation stretches from the innovation of the Chinese and the genius of da Vinci, via the bravery of the Wright brothers and the passion of Howard Hughes, all the way to, eh, some brazen, greedy little shite from Mullingar who would charge people for a life vest if he could get away with it. What a shame. I think next time I’ll just get the boat. I might even run into Alec, and we can while away the hours playing on our phones and drinking regular amounts of liquids. Oh how we’ll laugh as we sit back and watch the foolish planes fly overhead, bedecked in the finest sailing hats and drunk on sea-air and no little amount of the finest Irish whiskey, drifting into the sunset as on a cloud of serenity and peacefulness. I really need to get out more…


B.Y.O.D.O.B.

The Union of Students in Ireland has this week reported several cases of Irish J1 students encountering difficulty with their passports in the United States. It seems that many of them had doctored their passports with a laminate sheet in order to appear to be over the age of 21. Even when this laminate is removed, the residue can be picked up by scanners in airports, alerting the authorities to the fact that it has been tampered with.

Since passport fraud is a federal crime in the US and carries a minimum 10-year prison term if convicted, the Irish consulate will no doubt be contacted by a large number of students over the coming weeks who have ‘misplaced’ their passport, and require a replacement to travel home. It’s either that or endure a horrific Midnight Express-like few hours in a back room somewhere in a US airport having some military reject customs officer get to know your colon as if he just bought it dinner and half a dozen Cosmopolitans.

It’s a ridiculous state of affairs when 18, 19 and 20-year old young adults have to resort to falsifying their passports so they can have a few drinks or go to a bar or club. Many Irish people have quite an unhealthy attitude to alcohol, but notwithstanding this fact, each adult should be allowed to choose whether or not they want to drink. Alcohol can lead to lapses in judgement and there are very few young people who haven’t made mistakes while drunk, but dealing with the consequences of your actions is an essential part of maturing into an adult. Besides, half the relationships in Ireland are based on such mistakes.

America’s overly puritanical attitude is, if anything, a counterproductive measure. It infantilises young adults and ensures that Americans are years behind in terms of their maturity and attitudes concerning alcohol. Not to mention the fact that physiologically, they have built up very little tolerance to it. At the age where most reasonably sensible Irish people have stopped drinking themselves into unconsciousness like they may have done from the ages of say, 16 to 18, the Americans have much less experience to draw on and consequently many of them have an attitude, and physical reaction to alcohol that belies their years. Lightweights, I believe, is the preferred clinical term. Your average nagan-wielding schoolgirl on her way to Wezz on a Friday would probably drink any 20-year old frat jock under the table. Although she’d probably then do unspeakable things to him while he was unconscious, which is another issue entirely.

The US is in exalted company, however. Only about a dozen countries have such a high legal drinking age, including such stalwarts of progressive thinking and liberalism as Tajikistan, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Cameroon, Kazakhstan and Israel. In fact in Israel you’re conscripted into the Defence Forces at 18, and can’t even enjoy a glass of champers to celebrate when you successfully ‘relocate’ your first Palestinian family from their home in the middle of the night. How inhumane is that?

Not only is the reasoning behind the law flawed, but it is also unrealistic to expect it to be enforced successfully. It is fairly easy for teenagers in Ireland to get their hands on drink if they want it, but the fact that these kids are invariably still in school, and under the care of their parents, severely limits their opportunities to get wasted. The fact that it still occurs so regularly speaks volumes for the ingenuity of our teenagers, by the way, who are forever being maligned in the media for wanting to enjoy one of life’s great pleasures a year or two before it is arbitrarily deemed to be socially acceptable.

In the US, on the other hand, you have college students living in dorm rooms hundreds of miles from home, all of them old enough to drive, smoke cigarettes, get married, vote, or join the army. And these adults are expected to go through their last few years of education before joining the workforce without enjoying the occasional tipple? Common sense dictates that they will drink regardless, so why not allow them to legally have a few beers in a bar as opposed to making them hold illicit parties where everyone drinks out of red cups like some kind of playschool lunchtime, only with more whiskey and a lower standard of conversation.

America’s drinking laws are symptomatic of the country’s attitude toward its citizens. Apparently all that freedom and democracy only go as far as the door to the bar, after that you’re on your own. As for the Irish, I’m sure most of them are dying to get back to a country that embraces our weakness for alcohol without judgement. As unhealthy an attitude as that may be, it also happens to be the prevailing one among the Irish people. Now that’s democracy in action. Sláinte.


Emigration, Emigration, Emigration

Have you noticed that every article written on the topic of young people emigrating from these shores is quick to bemoan the fact that we are losing intelligent, valuable young minds with the potential for future greatness? Veritable entrepreneurs in waiting, every one of them, with just the kind of chutzpah and initiative we need to reach up with our grubby little hand, grab Europe by the ankle, and drag ourselves out of this quagmire of economic shite. Oh if only some of these politicians of ours had an ounce of what these young people ha…yadda yadda etc. etc.

Nobody mentions the fact that we’re also cutting loose an awful lot of very average people who have the potential to become very ordinary and contribute absolutely nothing of value. It is still a shame to be losing so many of our most promising citizens, however. The headache of rearranging the daytime TV schedule once all of our arts graduates have left is just one of the multitude of problems we’ll be faced with if this en masse evacuation keeps up.

If recent figures are to be believed, it appears we are haemorrhaging young, vibrant grey matter at an alarming rate. The last time young Irish people left the motherland in such quantities was when we were kind enough to build New York for the Yanks. They were so impressed with our work they even asked us to stay on and police the city and put out all their fires for them too. The time before that our youngsters left hanging off the side of a boat, looking to go anywhere you could find a daycent spud.

So the question is, now that this mass exodus of our brightest and best is underway once more and our sons and daughters are off to join NASA, become the next Steve Jobs or cure AIDS (read bartend in London, bartend in Vancouver or bartend in Sydney), what is to become of them?

The reality is that the internet, which has really taken off in the last few years after a slow start, has revolutionised the concept of emigration. In those bygone days you’d have Mammy fretting over whether that last jumper or packet of Oxo cubes reached you safely, waiting for weeks on end for a letter from across the water. These days, she can just go online five minutes after you’ve left the house and read your inane Facebook post about how awesome the Guinness tastes in Dublin airport.

After a month of Skyping and e-mailing has gone by and you’re uploading photos of yourself in the county colours in some shithole of a pub in Boston for your granny to see, your family will be sick of hearing from you. They’ll want you to come home so you can go back to ringing the house once a month and occasionally turning up with dirty laundry.

The point is that Irish people are good at planting our seed all over the world. Literally and figuratively. This is not only because we know the whole twinkly-eyed Irish-accented troubadour shtick goes down a treat with the rest of the world and gives us a license to act like depraved animals and call it craic. That’s fantastic and we take full advantage of it.

No, it is also because, unlike the Greeks and the Portugese and the, eh, people who live in Iceland, we’re not too worried about our short-term prosperity. Because we know that fifty, a hundred, two hundred years from now, this place will be stuffed to the gills with second and third generation Irish-Americans, Irish-Australians and Irish-wherever else we did a bit of ridin’, spending fifty euro for a “Kiss me I’m deadly” T-shirt in Carroll’s and six quid a pint in Temple Bar. We are such an economically savvy race that our tourism strategy is planned not by the year but by the generation.

In a world ruled by Google, Twitter, Facebook and their ilk, we have recognised that Irishness is a brand. Like any good marketing strategy, ours involves expansion, self-advertisement, and a nicely self-deprecating, friendly attitude for good measure. Let’s be honest; we all know that the Emerald Isle image, land of a hundred thousand welcomes and saints and scholars and all that, is complete nonsense. But they don’t know that. So let’s do as our forefathers before us have done, what comes naturally to us, and what we do best: whore ourselves out for money. No kissing though, that costs extra. Doesn’t everything these days…