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The only difference between first class travellers and first class idiots is the price they pay.
Vijay Verghese, Editor, Smart Travel Asia

A picture says a thousand words

No buts or butts, no loins or lions, as we get to the bottom of things to explore the perfect non-sexist cover.

Vijay Verghese/ Editor

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Lion pictures scare the Bejeezus out of Hong Kong staff
Roaring good time or frightfully bad taste?/ illustration: Vijay Verghese.

‘TWAS the season to be jolly. So while shepherds washed their socks by night, we closed 2010 with a rousing Christmas cover featuring one of Boracay’s storied beaches. The sand was almost as white as a Heathrow runway in mid-December, the sky cerulean blue, and the palm fronds a beckoning shade of tropical green. This immediately aroused the wrath of some perceptive readers. Their ire was resolutely directed at the foreground of the image – a lady in a bikini, her back to the camera, holding in one hand a pair of iridescent pink slippers. Said one reader, “Isn't it something that they can’t rely on mere brilliant writing to sell their mag, they have to put a woman's butt directly in one's line of vision?” Chorused another, “I'm glad they didn't inflict a male butt on the readers!”

They are right of course. This is not idle kvetching. No buts. Women in bikinis are not native to the beach in the Philippines where it is more common to spot herds of stampeding wildebeest, the Vienna Boys’ Choir, Nelson Mandela, or perhaps even Mahatma Gandhi. We could have been less sexist and more politically correct but the alternative Mindanao beach locales featuring the heavily armed Abu Sayyaf invited the prospect of a swift and certain progression from yet another unpaid ransom to forgotten footnote in history – which is terribly unsatisfying, especially if you happen to own a Nikon D300.

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Over the past year our covers have depicted a variety of random subjects including a dog (sex undetermined, possibly male), a bed (masculine gender in both French and Hindi), a mime artiste (likely male), an African lion (definitely male unless covertly transgendered), a giraffe, the Hong Kong skyline, a mosque, a man in front of a trans-Siberian train, and a solitary coconut on the beach. Not a bikini in sight. Hurrah.

Yet these pictures caused much unease. The magnificent lion terrified our Hong Kong staff and one young lady averted her eyes. “This is so scary,” she whimpered. In concrete Hong Kong anything remotely natural is terrifying. This includes blue skies and clean air. While visitors to the city have to be shielded from Dior price tags that could cause terminal shock, Hongkongers who don’t bat an eyelid at multiple zeroes scampering across their shopping bills have to be kept well away from pictures of slobbering mutts and the regal King of the Jungle, unless reduced to a cartoon.

No women, no animals, no men, and no shockingly blue Photoshopped skies. An all-white blank cover would be bold, non-conformist and utterly egalitarian

Offense lurks everywhere. It is axiomatic that a good magazine cover should have a human being on it somewhere. People relate to people. But, as an online travel magazine with sober taste and a monstrously large conscience, we have to draw a line. No women, no animals, no men (as that too could be sexist for some), and no shockingly blue Photoshopped skies. An all-white blank cover would be bold, non-conformist and utterly egalitarian. What about nature? The moon is feminine in Portuguese but masculine in Polish and Hindi. Thus some may find it acceptable as a dumb male accessory but we find that bosomy orb too Freudian and bristling with barely concealed prurience. No moons. The humble spud is masculine in Russian so you can photograph, mash, boil and toss potatoes with a clear conscience. But even a putz like me would never dare capture a Rolex in 20 megapixels. Rolex, according to the French, is quintessentially feminine. Le Boeing, on the other hand, remains stoutly masculine and open to photographic exploitation.

If in doubt, check a dictionary. Thoughtfully, over its 35 years, Microsoft has made British English utterly inaccessible on Word. This is an arcane dialect that baby boomers may recall from nostalgic re-screenings of Monty Python and Blackadder and is only spoken by around one billion people. We are therefore politely auto-corrected to the more direct color and humor, without the distracting intervention of the humble monophthong “u”. Someone should thank those folks in Redmond by dropping a few heavy, unabridged Oxford dictionaries on programmers’ heads.

So while we heroically battled sexism on our pages, what were people the world over doing in 2010? According to the Google zeitgeist round up, iPad and Justin Bieber were among the fastest rising search words. In India the most frequent how-to queries were 1) how to get pregnant, 2) kiss, and 3) impress a girl (hopefully not in that order). Studiously correct Singaporeans were obsessed with defining “love” and “babe”. Thais were preoccupied with the “red situation” while Hongkongers explored Macau, Shanghai and Taiwan as their top three holiday destinations. Americans and Australians were in a tizzy over Chatroulette, the bizarre random live video hook-up.

We have bravely opened the year with a face on the cover, a monk at Angkor Wat, thus blaspheming against Christians, Jews, Muslims, Zoroastrians, Taoists and giant pandas. But, in the pithy words of Everest pathfinder George Mallory, we took this photograph, “Because it’s there.” Happy New Year.

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