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Friendship is a rocket

Vijay Verghese, Editor, Smart Travel AsiaFacebook believes it is my brother’s keeper. But what does that have to do with Mars, Marco Polo and globalisation?


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by Vijay Verghese/ Editor

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Dealing with odd-bods from Mars

While my brother and I were resolving this with a little help from our friends, where was FB?

THE other day Facebook reminded me that I ‘have been friends with [my younger brother] Rahul for nine years’ and this would be a good time to ‘celebrate’ our friendship. It suggested a range of pictures for this heart-tugging occasion. It was kind of Facebook to remind me of my brother, who I think I've known since he was born 56 years ago. I’m not sure when we became friends.

We usually celebrate in much the manner of my father, by sitting in strong-jawed silence on the sofa, feet outstretched, arms locked about our chests, gazing into the middle distance. Occasionally one of us might blurt out, ‘Hmm.’ When he was younger and more animated – especially after losing in a game of Monopoly – I’d hurl him on the nearest bed to ensure a soft landing so my mother wouldn’t get to learn of our celebrations.

He later flew to Mars in India’s first manned space mission circa 1964, hollering for help inside my father’s cupboard while I gave the whole thing an almighty shake. Our parents’ early return from dinner – and my father’s grim countenance upon discovering the rueful state of his clothes, and progeny – put an end to that nascent programme until 24 September 2014 when India spectacularly got a probe orbiting the red planet. The whole Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) enterprise was far cheaper than NASA though not quite as stylish and colour coordinated as IKEA.

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This is stuff Facebook (which launched in 2004) has no knowledge of, yet it has taken over my entire life and grows more intimate by the day. Everyday it cheerily whispers, ‘Good morning Vijay’ and offers other hints lest I forget my friends or what I should be doing. It is deeply concerned I have not scheduled any events or hounded my address book contacts to link-up on FB. It wants ever more nuggets of personal information so advertisers can stalk me.

{He later flew to Mars in India’s first manned space mission circa 1964, hollering for help inside my father’s cupboard while I gave the whole thing an almighty shake

Perhaps this is the ‘globalisation’ that Mark Zuckerberg has decided to champion with his platform, and I’m all for it, if nothing more than to cock a snook at Mr Trump’s avowed silo ‘nationalism’ where good neighbourliness is all but forgotten.

Nothing is more global, powerful, and transformative, than travel.

The World Tourism Organization calculated total global arrivals in 2015 at 1.2 billion, a climb of four percent, and a similar rate was expected for 2016. That is a phenomenal number of people breaking – or clambering over – walls and building bridges. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) has calculated roughly 3.6 billion passengers for 2016 (the additional growth driven largely by China, though the biggest total numbers, in descending order, are from USA, UK, Germany, Spain and France). One of the fastest growth markets for air travel now is within Russia and the former Soviet bloc states.

Every merchant and traveller has helped in the cross-pollination and spread of culture and commerce whether by fortune, fraud, or force, since the dawn of time.

Intrepid travellers and scholars like the fastidious Chinese Hsuen Tsang (AD 602-664), the indefatigable Moroccan Ibn Batuta (AD 1304-1368), and merchant adventurers like Marco Polo, (AD 1254-1324), pushed the boundaries of knowledge, conjuring up Buddhist sacred text translations, vivid travelogues, spaghetti, gunpowder, and pantaloons – this last, a boon for large hairy men, hitherto sashaying about in skirts and tights.

The Roman Empire literally stitched civilizations together. It was left to the British East India Company to arrive in the subcontinent in the early 1600s to bring a disparate world together and commence the process of globalisation in the modern sense, which really meant shipping as much opium as possible to China and carting all that unimaginable Sino-Indian wealth – tea, cotton, silk, gold, and sugar – to Blighty. The Honourable Company was in turn replaced by the Crown, which continued a similar brand of globalisation, making off with more loot and the legendary Koh-i-Noor diamond.

Is it any wonder Trump wants a wall? But travel has changed the world forever.

And as people venture forth into places new, they seek references and information to reassure them all’s well, more so in this era of random terror. Facebook is one place people turn in order to gauge their friends’ sentiments and preferences. Research is key. But trusted sources are few. A recent ITB study carried out by the Worms University of Applied Sciences found huge reliance (46 percent) on reviews prior to purchase of accommodation. As many as 70 percent of the respondents viewed up to 20 sites, yet as many as 40.50 percent were ‘definite’ about the existence of ‘counterfeit’ reviews.

The chaos caused by fake reviews, and algorithms created by online applications attempting to ‘understand’ human nature – an endless and impossible task because of the sheer unpredictability of people – is a new challenge, especially for Gen Y millennials who form over a quarter of global travellers. Big on time, light on wallet, they tend to spend longer at destinations and are more adventurous, occasionally blurting out complete comprehensible sentences and actually communicating with one another using a long forgotten free app, the HUMAN VOICE.

Perhaps I might interest them in Mars (the Trappist-1 planets may need a larger cupboard). But first I need to call my brother and ask if he remembers me.

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