HAVE A DREAM THAT, one day, the unwashed, unslept, ill-fed and tightly-packed
masses in coach will rise up and slaughter the pampered occupants of business
and first-class sections of international flights. It will be an awful,
senseless incident, like Entebbe or Lockerbie, but if any common experience
has the potential to inflame class resentment and make tenuous assumptions
predicated on words like "democracy" and "equality" seem like callow fictions,
seven hours in a fully-booked Boeing 747-400 might be just the thing.
Never mind that it takes the first-class traveller just
as long to get where they're going as the cramped occupant of coach --
the minor amenities of better food, more courteous service, and capacious
leg- and ass-room more than compensate for most people. Certainly, the
few times I've been upgraded to the curtained cabin at the front of the
plane have shown me a world where tempers are hardly ever frayed; I'd become
so accustomed to the chorus of moans, sighs, groans, hisses and occasional
enraged barks that build to a crescendo in tourist class that I was surprised
that it was missing entirely in the adult seats at the front.
The simple truth is that the striving, aspirant, ambitious,
entitled, western traveller is not so enamoured with their fellow man,
even if they're on their way to the same three-star resort, that they like
to rub elbows and knees with them while trying to catch a bit of sleep
in a semi-upright position.
ENOUGH COMPLAINING ABOUT AIR TRAVEL. I'll gloss over the
third-world anarchy of JFK, and mention only in passing that half of our
tour group loses its luggage on the way from New York to Madrid. I've pretty
much forgotten the enormous line-up at customs and immigration, and will,
instead, begin my story on the bus.
The bus will be our home, on and off, for the next week.
A standard European tourist coach -- sans loo -- with enormous windows
and headrests that will only accomadate the average adult head in one,
centred and equipoised position. Our bus driver is curt, faintly surly,
and in no way happy about squiring us around the treasures of his country.
The longest conversation I have with him during the whole week happens
while we wait for the bathroom in a rest stop, and mostly involves grunts,
shrugs and hand gestures.
Our group is small enough, eight writers and two officials
from Turespaña. Dennis is the unofficial author of my trip, and
told Bob and I about it months ago. We form the core of a merry group of
conspirators who will make the tone of the trip somehow less than utterly
professional. Vincent, a political correspondent for Montreal's La Presse,
will become the fourth leg to our wobbly table.
We spot Michael in the endless line-up at JFK, carrying
three cameras with enormous lenses, and make bets as to whether he's with
us, or just on his way to Chechnya. Chris and Angela are two British women,
middle-aged, professional food and travel writers living in British Columbia.
Helen is from Manitoba, and usually covers the industrial hog-farming beat
out there. Like Vincent, she's been given the trip by her editors as a
reward for good work. She's also a lesbian, a basically unimportant fact
that, nonetheless, causes some inadvertant drama later in the trip.
Marguerita is our leader, a Catalunyan living in Canada
for over 15 years. Fernando is her boss, the head of the Toronto office
of Spanish Tourism. He seems bored and distracted for much of the trip,
and disappears at one point to visit his family in Zaragossa. He also doesn't
drink, a fact that, much more than Helen's lesbianism, will be the source
Jet-lagged and punchy, we finally get going, after establishing
that the missing luggage will join us two days later in Salamanca. Tempers
are raw and we could all use a good night's sleep, but it's only morning
here in Madrid, and we have a long bus ride ahead of us.