Michael was taken off Lemsip and given Moldova. It was only fair. Planning the Lemsip campaign, he hadn’t slept in his own bed for a fortnight, curling up on the couch in reception between late-night brainstorms and the cleaner’s arrival each morning. Everyone agreed that Michael had done well. Moldova was his reward.
It was seen by his colleagues as a jolly – a cushy trip to Europe to help the local tourist board re-brand the nation’s image. But Michael knew it was an opportunity, not a holiday. He turned down a free ticket for his wife – which led to some premature rumours – and instead focused on the charms of Moldova.
He glanced at the established tourist spots – the Alexandr Pushkin House, the Stanca-Jeloboc Forest – then explored further, noting the less obvious attractions. The Pencil Museum in Soroca (open Tuesday to Thursday). The 80-year-old cheese shop with its 102-year-old owner. Michael’s map was soon covered in blue biro, an intricate tattoo of secrets that Moldova would reveal only to the most attentive visitor.
When he returned to London, he wrote up reviews of these delights, forwarding them onto a friendly PR agency who then forwarded them onto a coterie of amenable journalists. Michael was surprised by how much of his work was lifted directly by the travel supplements. He felt a thrill of pride, seeing his metaphors in national newspapers. At last he felt like a real ’creative’.
Moldavian Airways reported a 22% rise in demand. Hotels in Tipova were fully booked in the depths of the low season. Local farmers turned their livestock out into the cold and offered their barns as rustic accommodation. The Pencil Museum opened on Mondays. It was an economic revolution.
Michael’s success with Moldova led to approaches from other nations. Moldova begat Abkhazia begat Nagorno-Karabakh begat Wallis & Futuna which, between them, begat Guinea-Bissau and the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic. And this was merely the beginning.
After six months, the agency let another consultant take Michael’s desk. Michael was spending all his time abroad, emailing his findings and sleeping in airport lounges. Jetlag became irrelevant with 24-hour bars and video-on-demand in-flight entertainment. Languages blended into one another. His hands were infused with the odour of hygienic wipes.
It was in the Servisair lounge of Calgary International Airport, on his way to the Republic of Nauru, that Michael fell asleep on his album of newspaper clippings and missed his connecting flight. For his schedule, it was disastrous. If he didn’t make it to Nauru, he’d never reach Pohnpei and it would take another week to get back on track.
The strip lights flickered as Michael had an idea. This disaster could be avoided. He’d read the guidebooks and had a brochure from the hotel. The airport had internet access. From this Servisair chair, upholstered in the same carpet as the floor, Michael decided he could create a credible account of Nauru.
The place was so isolated that few would dispute his assertions. It was the world’s smallest island nation. The only republic without an official capital. This much was indisputably true.
Consulting Wikipedia, Michael wrote a beautifully observed description of how he saw the Nauruan noddy bird hunters in action using centuries-old techniques to lasso the birds in mid-air as the sun set on the sugar-white beaches of this unspoilt island paradise.
It was some of his finest work. He sent off the piece, rearranged his flights to Pohnpei, and tried not to think about the risk he had just taken.
His boldness was rewarded. On his way to Lesotho, Michael found Nauru in the travel sections of the Guardian, the Times and the Derby Evening Telegraph. Michael’s boss forwarded an email from the client asking for help in organising more flights, and Michael happily obliged.
Then he noticed a personal postcript from his boss: "…it’s a remarkable achievement, especially considering your recent domestic difficulties." Michael’s heart swelled again. His work was remarkable.
He immediately contacted the Visitor Relations Officer of Lesotho, saying that he wouldn’t require an official greeting when he landed. Any guidance during his visit could be sent to him by email.
With that, Michael headed for the nearest ticket desk and booked himself on the next flight to London, England.
Straight off the plane, he sat down in his lounge and started work, News 24 playing on the TV behind him. He was disappointed to find that his broadband had been cut off while he was away, but this challenge only fuelled his creativity.
Lesotho, he decided, was a mountainous region with pure, clean air and magnificent wildlife. Mountain lions roamed free in the streets and visitors were advised not to accept hotel rooms on the ground floor, which were usually reserved for the elderly and incapacitated. Some of the more progressive locals felt that this practice only encouraged the lions, but the chief shaman believed that it was the best way to maintain a strong, healthy population.
The strength and health of the population was most vigorously tested at Easter, when the ’Running of the Lions’ was held in downtown Maseru. Between fifty and a hundred lions would be released into the barricaded high street, where a select group of young men and women – traditionally chosen from among the shaman’s political opponents – tried to outrun them. The chase could go on for several hours, though it more often finished considerably sooner. It was a fine spectacle, recommended for safari visitors and extreme sports fans alike.
Michael polished the details and emailed the report to the office, Cc-ing his contacts in Africa, preparing them for an influx of adrenalin junkies and Germans.
Deciding against the empty double bed upstairs, Michael inflated his neck support, put on his eye mask and fell asleep to the soothing susurration of round-the-clock news.
The Lesotho clippings took pride of place in Michael’s album. One travel editor had managed to source a photo of a mountain lion for the cover of the supplement. What’s more, the travellers’ websites were filling up with favourable comments about Maseru and the eccentric townsfolk who dismissed scare-stories about lions, presumably on the orders of the chief shaman.
The BlackBerry was buzzing with requests from journalists and tour operators. Where would be the next hotspot? What unknown idyll would he reveal to the world today?
Michael checked his itinerary. He was due on the island of Atafu. He couldn’t remember much from the briefing, but that wasn’t why his hands shook as he tapped away at his tiny keyboard. His writing was in demand.
Atafu is in the south Pacific off the coast of New Zealand. The only town on the island, Snafu, is built around volcanic springs that shoot a steady stream of sulphurous water straight into the air. Such is the steadiness of these jets that geyser birds are known to build their nests on top of them.
By watching the water pressure, Atafuans can predict the changing of the seasons. In winter, the geology of the region alters, shortening the jets and bringing the nests within reach. At this point, the geyser birds take to the air and migrate north to the fountains of Nevada.
The waters of Atafu are also said to have restorative properties. Bathing in the hot springs has cured spinal injuries and reversed amputations. Results are not guaranteed, but for an extra fifty drachma, the provost will sacrifice a sloth to the water gods on your behalf, substantially increasing the chances of success. Fresh towels are provided.
Michael pressed ’Send’ and arranged for extra flights from Wellington to Atafu before microwaving a vegetarian pasta for one. The emails started coming in. The Telegraph travel editor was ecstatic. The Guardian promised him the cover. The News of the World finally started a travel section. It was another literary triumph, and Michael grinned as he ate his cannelloni from a plastic tray with a plastic fork.
Polishing off the pasta, Michael checked his travel planner to find out where his next flight of fancy would be touching down.
That was odd. His schedule appeared to be empty.
He emailed his boss, but all he got was a cheerful reply recommending that he stay in Atafu for a well-earned break away from the worries of home.
But Michael didn’t want a break. Later that evening, as he coloured in the letters of the note left by his wife, another email came from a journalist asking for the next trendy hideaway, the next big thing.
Michael started to worry. He worried that his fictions would be found out, but more than that, he worried that his editors might not publish him again if he couldn’t give them what they wanted.
He put on his airsickness bracelets and packed and unpacked his bags to relax. As he completed the eighth unpacking of his cabin bag, he felt a lightness spread through his body, as though the lounge was starting its final approach toward some distant landing strip. He knew what to do.
The remote island republic of Alminia, he declared, is a low-lying country of innocent tranquillity. It floats like a languorous lily pad in the Indian Ocean, unnoticed by the cargo ships that speed past hundreds of miles to the north.
The subterranean culture of this untouched land is unique. Take, for example, the ancient paintings of the Tureq cave complex. With an unprecedented understanding of perspective, they show prehistoric tribesmen in photographic detail as they perform everyday tasks such as skinning mammoths and holding fondue parties.
The main chamber of the complex is home to a distant relative of the Komodo dragon known as the Alminian dragon of Tureq. The Alminian dragon differs from its Indonesian cousin in that it grows up to eighty feet in length, can fly, and has the ability to breathe fire. Natives prefer not to disturb the creature, but can be persuaded to give guided tours for a handful of beans.
Alminia has no hotels. However, visitors can be assured of accommodation as the locals assume that all strangers are the reincarnation of their ancestors. Not only will you be treated as a revered guest, but a temple will be built and a public holiday declared in your honour. Couples may request a double or twin temple.
Michael stopped himself from writing more before he said something fanciful. Plausibility was vital.
He sent the article to the PR company who sent it onto the journalists and the tour operators. The travel firms, thrilled by this new destination, asked Michael for details of its location. He checked the world map in the back of his diary and chose a set of coordinates somewhere between Madagascar and Australia. The tour operators did the rest.
The supplements were published, the public were astonished, and trips to Alminia were booked at £900 a time (flights only). Michael was elated by the response.
When the first charter flight disappeared in the middle of the ocean, the tour operator and the airline decided it might be best to ignore it. Nobody wanted a lawsuit. When the second and third planes ran out of fuel circling an empty stretch of water, the tour operator thought he should probably mention it to Michael.
Michael responded by writing blissful online reviews of Alminia in the names of other holidaymakers, explaining how heartbreaking it is to leave the island once you’re there. It was no surprise that so few visitors ever went back to their families. Even writing a postcard was a distressing reminder of home.
And so the Alminian tourist trade grew, unconstrained by contradiction, and one by one, curious travel journalists flew out to pay a visit. None of them ever returned to their desks. By the end of the year, the only reliable travel writer was that Michael fellow from the agency, and his words filled every column of every travel supplement in the land. Thank goodness for Michael. Michael’s such a lifesaver.
© David Varela, 2008
The Alminian Dragon of Tureq was read by Will Goodhand at the Liars’ League Lore & Legend event on Tuesday March 11th, 2008.
David Varela is a freelance writer who won’t sit still. He’s written radio plays, stage plays, interactive drama, speeches, websites, ad campaigns, short films, short stories, short poems and a very long treasure hunt. People have given him awards but he doesn’t like to make a fuss.