After travelling back to the UK from Thailand, and having never travelled so far before, I’ve been easing myself back in to my working routine. The jet lag is a new experience for me. It’s not that it leaves you incapacitated, rather mildly disoriented. But then, I usually feel disoriented anyhow. My visit to Thailand was challenging on two front. Firstly, there is the need to learn quickly about a culture that on the surface is similar, but in reality is quite different. Secondly, the challenge of getting about and making sure that you are hitting the meetings and the events that you have set out to do.
International business travelling, it seems, is not for the easy-going. It requires a determination and a fortitude that does not come readily. The endless waiting in airports and hotel rooms, the half-life of conflicting time-zones and the inability to have precisely the right clothes for the climate. These are never really major inconveniences, but they have a cumulative effect that results in a displacement that keeps the traveler tired and slightly weary of the circumstances they are in. A hotel room, no matter how grand, is never a place to entirely relax because ones mind is always thinking when the next move or journey might be happening.
Getting to meet new people can be a problem. Outside of the circle of contacts that are made for business, the alternative options are that the business traveler sits in international bars consorting with other international travellers or ex-pats. Sports bars are an easy place to strike-up a conversation, while discussing the universal language of football. For those craving home-spun food the international bar usually offers a menu of familiar dishes while being ever-so slightly out of sync with the style.
The unfamiliarity of getting around, being taken from place to place in a taxi, using business expenses to pay for things that would ordinarily be avoided but which become an essential when travelling. Where you stay is important. Business hotels with business lounges and fitness suits keep the business traveller further isolated from the ebb-and-flow of the local communities. Most travellers hotels are situated centrally and don’t intermesh with suburban communities. It’s an experience that is half-dreamt and half-remembered.
If you can break through the surface-tension of this shadow-life and find your own reference points, then it’s more than possible to have a valuable experience. For me, and however appropriate or inappropriate this might have been, in Bangkok it was the shopping malls that gave me something to get a handle on. Not the big high-end shopping, but the malls full of independent traders and retailers. Hundreds of stall-holders selling smartphones and accessories. Just the sheer mass of devices on offer and the direct link with the traders. The lack of fancy shops and displays, branding-up expensive retail outlets, was replaced by direct sales. No frills, no extra costs, immediate service and direct contact with the owner of the stand. If the UK offered more of these market places, so that more traders could enter into the retail environment, then we would be much better off.
My most abiding observation, though, is from when we arrived back at Birmingham airport. After eighteen hours continuing flying and 10,000km, we walked through passport control to collect our bags. Reaching for a trolley only to have to find a £1 coin to use the few that where there. What is this about? How petty and how rude that our international visitors don’t get the complimentary use of a trolley for their bags. I hope that the people who impose this charge understand how this reflects badly on us as a nation and that it cheapens our ability to welcome guests as a good host should. This typified a lot of the things that have gone wrong in the UK for me, but alas, there won’t be anyone willing to sort it, we’ll just shrug our shoulders and say ‘what can you do?’