I was fortunate enough to visit many parts of the world when I was in the circus. Being a gorilla is a huge advantage, as the locals don’t expect you to speak their language or take an interest in their culture. The French, of course, are notoriously touchy about tourists speaking to them in English or asking for chutney with their salad; but all I had to say was “ooh-la-la” or “soixante-neuf” to have them eating out of the palm of my hand. It’s important not to overdo it, though. To act as if you have mastered the intricacies of a foreign culture in a few days is pretentious in the extreme – and more than a little irritating for your travelling companions. The decorous visitor must steer a middle course between behaving as if one is at home and going native.
Smacker Ramrod, the circus vet, was an excellent tourist. Having survived the food at an English boarding school, he resolved to eat anything offered to him while abroad. He would go along to a barbecue in Hong Kong, devour the fried meat put on his plate, and nonchalantly wash it down with rice wine after discovering it was snake. He never minded being tricked into eating something weird and always reacted with the perfect deadpan expression after being told what it was. Allowing foreigners to laugh at your expense, he explained, was the British way. Another habit of his was to treat the prostitutes he met like the finest ladies in the land. “It’s a little late in the evening for two exquisite virgins to be out on the streets unescorted,” he once said to a pair of call girls in Melbourne. They laughed so much that they ended up offering him half-price for a threesome with lesbian acts.
Smacker certainly wasn’t a sex tourist, I should stress. He was as happy chatting up prostitutes in Soho as in Bangkok. A man should never travel thousands of miles purely for sex, for such is the road to perdition and damnation. For women, the issues are more complex. There is much to be said for the scorned matron repairing to a sun-drenched Elysium, where she can writhe beneath the loins of a lustful gigolo without damage to her reputation. It pleases my soul to contemplate a world in which countless Shirley Valentines are having their flesh kneaded by an army of swarthy Pedros. If we can’t appreciate each other’s comforts and delights, we are no better than the hyena.
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