I don’t think the word ‘luxury’ ever came into my head at any point, on any of the seven trips. Given that it was Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant arranging my itinerary, I didn’t expect there to be any pampering. But even so, it would be fair to say that a fair amount of what I saw shocked me.
When you go abroad you need some sense of control in what is an unknown environment. At no point did I know what was coming next. When you set out on an adventure you plan things: your route, your destination, where you might stop for a sandwich and a coffee. But this was a step into the unknown, and I’m not into surprises. I have quite a normal life and to suddenly take me out of that, stick me in a different country where no one understands me, eat stuff I didn’t want to eat… it was frightening.
The TV series, at times, made me look disturbed. But it was a lot to cope with, and the reality was that I did visit some very special places. I’d say Mexico was my favourite. I think it’s a really complete place. The weather is good there, the food wholesome and, unlike some other locations, our accommodation was okay most of the time. The people were pretty sound and they have a real spirit. Mexicans are independent people who have a strong and unique cultural identity — you have to respect that.
If you’re brave, go five minutes off the tourist track. I’ve been 50 yards away from the Taj Mahal, the Great Pyramids and Machu Picchu and it was an eye-opener. Right next to these monumental sights, some people are living on the breadline. It was shocking, but I’m glad I’ve seen it. And it was right that we showed it — it wasn’t a standard travel programme.
I’m a reluctant traveller. But whenever I come back from somewhere, I look at photographs and I think it’s good that I’ve been there. I don’t want to be told when I should like something. The world has many extraordinary, stunning sights, but the best ones are those places you discover yourself — the places where you inhale the atmosphere. I knew a lot about the destinations I was going to see — I’d read books, seen them on the telly — and it’s good to say I’ve been there. But often I’d wander around for a bit and realise they were matching my expectations, not exceeding them. There barely seemed a spare moment where I couldn’t hear a travel correspondent saying that the place they were in ‘took their breath away’.
I expected Egypt to be mainly beige and brown. A bit like the 1970s. It was.
China surprised me a lot. I was wrong about that. I always thought it was more hi-tech and then suddenly it was just lots of people smashing toads in the head with hammers.
I was ill in India. More ill than I’ve ever been. I expected it, though. Our bodies are used to some things and not others. Not getting on with everything you come across is to be expected and you can’t complain about it — that’s part of the holiday experience in India. The germs are big, you can’t avoid them. But take that away and India was pretty special.
I have learned that where Ricky and Stephen are concerned, there’s no point moaning, because no one’s listening. I was calling up the director who was in London saying I’d had enough, but no one was paying any attention.
I’ve learned that I like a beach. And that it’d be good to see more of America. I went to New York years ago and didn’t think too much of it at the time, but like any traveller I think the more places you visit, the better your understanding of what is special.
I’m taking a break at the moment. I’ve always got book ideas on the go and, despite some experiences on the series, I’ll no doubt be working with Ricky and Stephen on new projects. I’ve heard some whispers that they’re already talking about doing a second series. Things would need to improve, because I’m thinking: ‘Well, if it’s going to be like that again, I’m going to start putting my phone on divert’.
We live in a world where people like telling everyone what they’re doing and what they’re thinking, especially when they travel. In a sense, you don’t need to travel to travel.
Pilkington is a close friend of comedy couplet Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant.
The Emmy Award-nominated radio producer first met Ricky and Stephen when he was a radio producer at XFM.
He visited all Seven Wonders of the World in Sky1’s An Idiot Abroad.
Pilkington, who hails from Manchester, has so far penned three humorous books: The World of Karl Pilkington, Happyslapped by a Jellyfish and Karlology.
He is a regular on The Ricky Gervais Show podcast and animated TV adaptation.
Published in the Mar/Apr 2011 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)