Rome: A Manual holiday

Bedsores and pixelated fish, I did not enjoy the virtual Maldives…read more 

In my defence, I did look online and it did say in the small print-they do manual holidays.

It’s weird how technology changes things. It’s so inconsistent. It’s hard to know what drives it. Why do some things become completely different and some don’t. Only one thing stays the same, somehow the masses always get the off cuts.

I am sitting in a travel agency – looking across a desk at someone who may or may not be human-I can’t tell. Certainly there will be a human supervisor in here somewhere and it could be her.

She smiles. I smile-it’s a holiday shop-she’s happy, I’m going to be happy, it’s how it works.

I always preferred holiday shop to travel agent and now it’s more accurate.

She starts, ‘Where would you like to go?’

‘Rome,’ I say, sounding more nervous than I should.

‘Ooh, its really popular, which century?’, she says enthusiastically. I am wearing my best clothes so I look respectable and believable.

‘Real time,’ and I pause because here is where it gets difficult. Then I just think- no don’t be intimidated- keep going! The words just come out,  ‘I want to physically go to Rome.’

She looks at me oddly.

‘Of course.’ she says but I can tell she doesn’t understand me.

I say it again, ‘Actually physically go to Rome.’

This time she gets it. She leans back in her chair and looks at me.

‘You mean actually go to Rome! Physically, in person, as in- taking your body to Rome?’

I nod. She’s a robot, I can tell because it occurs to her that her body and the rest of her aren’t one cohesive unit. She can be re-programmed, or re-souled as they now call it. I always think the obvious-we’ve been able to do that with shoes for a long time, lets not overhype the fact that we can do it with a robot. I should point out that I am in a minority on this point.  

‘Rome-Is that even possible?’ She realises she probably shouldn’t have said that-customer service and all.

‘Yes.’ I say. She looks flustered, in what I now see is a slightly mechanical way, an inhuman twist of the mouth I only just manage to catch.

‘I’ll see if it’s still actually there.’ She is back on track now, ‘some of these European cities, they’re just in virtual reality now. They don’t really exist.’ She is talking to me like I am five years old but she gets the idea.

‘Its ok,’ I say, ‘I checked and it is still there.’ I nod my head again.

‘Right,’ she says looking more flustered, ‘so a bus then?’  She looks down at the screen.

‘I think I’d need a plane- there’s some water in the way.’

She leans back in her chair and looks at me again.

‘A plane as in- a plane-like a flying thing type plane.’ There is just a hint of panic in this statement now.

I nod.

‘I don’t think we have them anymore. I mean-can you fly one?’

‘No ideally there’d be a pilot.’

She looks at me even more oddly. ‘How about Bath?’ I am beginning to worry about her programming, whether I am undermining it a bit. I’m sure there’s an offence about that, vexatious confusion of a near sentient being or something. I’ve no desire to be fined for something unintentional.

I keep at it, ‘No really my heart is set on Rome, in real time, actually going there.’

‘You mean manual travel, as in taking your actual body to Rome?’ Clearly I have not quite got through to her yet.


At this point I am worried her chair is going to tip over, she is leaning so far back.

‘We had someone take a bus to Bath last year.’ she says

‘Not Bath, Rome-plane, not bus.’

‘You know that you can go virtually to Rome, any time period at all?’

I sit back now, ‘I know but I physically want to go there. In person, me.’

Now she is sitting back and I am sitting back. An impasse

The woman in the chair next to me is booking her virtual holiday and the agent is asking her all the usual questions, How do you want to appear to other people on holiday? Do you want to appear taller on holiday, do you want to be thinner, do you want to be tanned, have a day of sunburn, eat etc etc. Do you want us to handle your social media in virtual reality or do you have a provider? Because virtual holidays are not like you think. Its not some waltz through a different reality, it’s more of a half way house. You get a chair and a headset and an avatar-well an avatar that everyone else can see on your holiday. Its controlled by some kind of high tech link to your brain and a lot of twitching, but basically you are sitting still and it is moving around and you have the sensation of moving but actually you are largely still. Its not quite how virtual reality was promised to us because that is hugely expensive, this way is cheap and efficient and much better for the environment.

The options for a virtual holiday are endless. You can appear as someone else, you can even be someone famous. You can have a great time or alternatively you can be robbed at knife point, you can be sun burned or tanned, you can eat what you want and never put on an ounce because you are actually fed intravenously the whole time. All of it, almost event can be pre planned, everything -except you can opt for a surprise box-which is a random event that will occur in your holiday, most people don’t. You can change options midway through, you simply find a virtual kiosk and change your plans. Depending on what that change is, it will either be free or cost more.

I did a virtual holiday to the Maldives last year. It was a group tour. I was the only one who didn’t choose the taller and thinner option. I also thought the whole virtual reality thing looked a bit cartoonish around the edges. I went snorkelling and some of the fish were pixelated. Plus there were issues around water temperature. I should have asked for a refund

It was only 5 days but 5 days too long. Plus after sitting in a chair for 5 days despite the best efforts of being fed intravenously and the physio-bots (and you need that because you don’t really move at all), I had bedsores. I should have sued. Bedsores and pixelated fish, I did not enjoy the virtual Maldives.

It’s hard to explain what these ‘package’ virtual tours are like, aside from telling you they are not like holidays at all. Basically at some point airports and planes got fitted with row upon row of chairs each with a ‘virtual reality headset’, its like economy class on a long haul flight only worse. You sit there on your package holiday and it happens to you and they feed you and massage your muscles so you can stand up at the end. It’s meant to be amazing but its horrendous. The smell of the place when you first walk in, oh  did I forget to mention the irrigation required to remove the waste-lets not forget that. Use your imagination.

Anyway some people love it because you can go anywhere and look like anything. Mostly holidays are populated with very thin, very tall, very annoying people who can’t afford their own platform to actually move about in a proper virtual reality.

I can see the travel agent still staring at me. She gets up and goes over to another woman. They are looking at me and conferring-I wonder if they are going to call the police-they might think I really am some kind of nuisance time waster type person on some kind of vexatious programming mission. I try not to panic. I just want to go to Rome.

The other woman comes over to me. ‘Hi I’m Jenna.’ she says, very slowly,  ‘And you are?’

I try and figure out whether to give a fake name, I don’t, ‘Tuesday I say-after the day of the week.’

‘Well Tuesday’ and now she is talking at me like I’m a five year old, even slower than before,  ‘We specialise in virtual tours, we don’t do man-u-al holidays.’ She spells out each syllable.

‘But your website,’ I start.

‘Wrong’ she says loudly and crisply and looks down at me.

They both just stand there, staring at me. I start to redden. I feel uncomfortable. I reach down and grab my bag, push the chair back, pick up my coat. I stumble out a ‘Thank you’, followed by a mumbled ‘Sorry’ and leave.  

I wonder what would happen if I just started walking, kept walking, found the water, a boat, kept going, just went to Rome. Can you even do that anymore. Maybe not. I’ve no idea. I can see them looking out of the window to make sure I have gone. They don’t want me back. I will go home, find a virtual tour. Was it so bad- after a few weeks the bed sores healed and really the only fish left in this world are pixelated and I should count myself lucky that I even know what a real one looks  like.

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