Junking the junket

A couple of years ago, I was picked to go the US on a junket. When I mentioned this to a colleague, she shook my hand and congratulated me. I searched her face for a smirk, an ironically raised eyebrow. But her smile was genuine and her brow was a permanent chicane that had nothing to do with irony and everything to do with tweezers. Apparently, I learned, junkets to the first world are prestigious.

The junket is an amusing institution. You get a junket if your boss is pleased with you, that is, if you have no life apart from work. Or it’s a placatory bait, especially around appraisal time when employees, unsatisfied with raises, threaten to quit. Journalists love junkets as they love freebies. And the junket is the ultimate freebie. So getting to go on one is a matter of prestige. I’ve seen junket-returned journos distributing the mini chocolates they bought at the airport duty free and being thumped on the back by colleagues.

A junket usually involves corporate companies or tourism departments flying you to foreign countries to visit factories, inspect new hotels, participate in conferences or attend festivals. In return you give them a bit of publicity in your “esteemed publication”. Journalistic ethics? Never heard of it.

After four junkets, I decided I wouldn’t go on any more. (Despite the siren song of business class travel.) The niggling conscience could no longer be ignored. And I realised how boring most of them are. Listening to PR drivel, even if is in a fancy hotel in a foreign country, is just boring. The only fantastic junket I’ve been on was the World Gourmet Summit in Singapore. There were no speeches, only food. Lunch at a nice restaurant in the city followed by a master-class by some Michelin-starred chef, followed by sampling the stuff prepared at the class, followed by a ten course meal. But the trip was an exception.

My first junket was to Genting Highland in Malaysia, an endless amusement park set atop a hill in the midst of ancient rainforests. The perfect setting for a dystopian sci-fi film. Expecting to travel with other journos, I was surprised to find waiting for me at Bombay airport, just one other writer and a group of college kids who had been awarded a free trip to Malaysia after creating the winning model of the Petronas Towers at a competition. Not sure why the Malaysian tourism department threw us together. The best part of the trip was eating laksa.

A few years later, I travelled to Anaheim in California to attend a convention for fans of a company known for its animated films. Not much fun if you’re not a fan. Anaheim itself was a bore. It’s a lifeless town where all you see on the streets are palm trees and the odd Puerto Rican.

The latest junket was to Milan for an event promoting a coffee company. I spent a day and half conducting phoney interviews and a day and half exploring Milan. It’s a funny city. The women are ridiculously well dressed. And the men are ridiculously predatory, cruising the streets like sharks and occasionally throwing some rapid, flirtatious Italin at you. The high point of this trip, apart from business class travel of course and walking on the roof of the Duomo, was a visit to the museum in the Sforza Castle. This time, a bent old lady threw some rapid Italian at me as I stood next to the naked statue of a boy. She grabbed her crotch (that might be the most shocking thing I’ve ever seen) and gestured at the statue. The only word I understood was ‘piccolino’. But that was enough to tell me she was voicing her opinion on the marble lad’s tiny wee wee.

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