Tag Archives: travel

Real Travelling? ( Thoughts on a Mexican bus.)

8 Jan

I’m sitting on a long distance coach in southern Mexico. It’s an 8 hour journey from Palanque to San Cristobel de Las Casas. There are 2 drivers working in shifts. The coach may stop at some point for a leg-stretch and a toilet opportunity( we all have our 5 peso coins at the ready.) On the other hand we may not stop, so we’ll have to cross our legs and stick it out. It seems to depend on the whim of the driver. I am in a small group of travellers and at least half of us have dodgy tummies. In this part of the world they call it “Montezuma’s revenge”! There is a toilet at the back of the coach but we are not encouraged to use it because of the smells.

Every now and then we slow to a near standstill because of major road-works. Sometimes it seems as if the diggers have only scraped the road into being just before we arrived! Periodically, we stop at toll-booths or get stuck in jams as we slowly grind our way through an unknown town or city. Some passengers try to doze or read but are constantly disturbed by the on-board “entertainment” — a second-rate Hollywood blockbuster badly dubbed into Spanish. Why am I telling you all this? Well, my question is: ” Is this real travelling?” Elsewhere in southern Mexico, holiday-makers are sunning themselves on the beaches of Cancun, flopping by their hotel pools or wallowing in jacuzzis. Many have flown huge distances to be there. Are they “real” travellers too?

This debate first started in my head when I heard someone describing a planned overland journey from Italy to Serbia by road and rail. It sounded like a really interesting and exciting thing to do and I was quietly envious. But then I was informed that this wasn’t “real travelling.” When I enquired what was, the answer was: roughing it in the back of a lorry crossing Ethiopia or some other remote area of east Africa. It seems that the journey from Milan to Belgrade was :too comfortable,  too predictable and too safe to be considered as “real travelling.” Maybe to be thought of as “real” by the seasoned traveller, a journey has to have elements of: risk, unpredictability or even danger. These are the ingredients designed to give one a real “buzz”. It’s when the adrenaline really starts to flow. Maybe this is why for some, travel is so addictive. It is a form of tourism but with a real edge to it. Unlike the everyday vacationer, the intrepid traveller does not seek out comfort, safety and relaxation. It is just the opposite that is the name of the game. In his book” The Great Patagonian Express”, Paul Theroux writes: ” Travel is not a vacation, and it is often the opposite of a rest.” He goes on: ” I craved a little risk, some danger, an untoward event, a vivid discomfort.” He even courted loneliness in order to achieve these aims.

I sense that there is a sort of travelling hierarchy in play here. The term “real” suggests that some forms of travel are not genuine and therefore are less valuable experiences.. These “lesser” travellers are given labels such as “tourists” or “holiday-makers.” Maybe we should not be judging travel experiences as “real” or “not real”, but should just acknowledge that they are “different.”

Travel for some is a kind of religion. They talk of having gap-years or career- breaks in order to go travelling. They congregate in hostels, bars and cafes, and swap travel stories. They ask questions such as “How long have you been on the road?”, “Where have you been?” and “Where are you going next?” For them, it seems as if it’s the journey that is more important than the actual destination. The implication is that this is not just a physical journey across time and space, but a journey of personal development. It is often said that travel broadens the mind. It helps one to escape the confines of everyday life. I agree with that. It’s why I look forward to my trips so much. However is there such a thing as a hierarchy of travel, or putting it less judgementally – can travel and travellers be categorised into distinct types?

Serious travellers live out of back-packs, endlessly journeying for months on end, visiting town after town, country after country. Some of the people we met in Central America were amazed that we were only visiting Mexico, Guatemala and Costa Rica. Why weren’t we going on into Panama and then the countries of South America? These long-term travellers are always restlessly moving on, travelling but never arriving. The journey’s the thing, not the destination.

The next category I suggest is the “ordinary” traveller, for want of a better description. For this person, travel is more of a hobby rather than a full-time occupation ( or obsession!) This person makes a journey, even quite a long one, but once he/she gets to the destination, tends to stay in that vicinity, exploring places of interest within striking distance of their base. The ordinary traveller is more likely to use a suitcase rather than a back-pack and only usually has to unpack it once. This person is often interested in the culture and history of the place being visited and is open to new experiences. He or she may well go to quite an exotic destination and suffer a mild bout of “culture shock.”  However, this type of traveller’s trip has definite parameters in terms of both time and distance. The journey has to be tightly organised and packaged to a certain extent because the traveller has only a limited amount of time and has to return, sooner rather than later to: work, family, the post, bills and all those other things that stabilise and ground many of our lives. I think for this type of “traveller”, it’s the destination that lures them to leave home rather than the journey.

To answer my own question, I think I am more of a “traveller” than a so-called “real traveller” I have only gone on 3 really long journeys in my entire life and all have been embarked upon in the luxury of my retirement years. This central American odyssey is one of them. Before, I was too busy working and raising a family to contemplate anything too ambitious or expensive. I had “staycations” in Britain or ventured on short trips into western Europe. On this trip I told a few stories about my youth-hostelling days in the English Lake District and the Yorkshire Dales. ” Did you go back-packing when you were younger?” asked a young Aussie in our group. The answer had to be “no” because I always had to get back to work on Monday morning. Thus, although I travelled around on these trips, I couldn’t be regarded as a “real” traveller. They wouldn’t have been able to make much of a road movie out of my rambling weekends or music festival trips. I had to make my precious time count and didn’t have the luxury of being perpetually “on the road.” After-all, my name is Stuart Bates, not Jack Kerouac!

Our coach has slowed to negotiate a series of bumps that announce the arrival of a village. Street sellers laden with oranges and bananas move amongst the slow moving traffic trying to sell their wares. An old man sits under the shade of his little, improvised stall, his table stacked with pineapples. People walk around under umbrellas because the sun is so hot and high above. Others have a snack in a tacos restaurant. Another old man trundles slowly by on a sort of cycle-rickshaw. I’m surprised because this is rural Mexico not China or south-east Asia. We are on the coast and just out at sea I watch brown pelicans dive-bombing into the water to catch fish. Yesterday, we saw toucans and howler monkeys in the jungle and visited an ancient Mayan temple complex. Now, we are passing fields of swaying sugar cane. My leg itches and I look down at 3 red insect bites on my right foot and leg. Repellant is as essential as sun-cream on this trip. Is this “real travelling”? Maybe it is — I don’t know.

My final category of traveller is the humble and much derided tourist. In a sense, all people visiting places away from their own homes are tourists. They are on tour. They are so obviously different from the local inhabitants. However, for some tourists, the main attractions of visiting a different place are the hotter, sunnier climate and the chance to have a rest. They simply fly and flop. Their interactions with the locals involve mainly hotel and restaurant staff and the owners of souvenir shops in the resort. They primarily only meet local people who provide them with services and goods that make their holidays smooth and comfortable. In one sense, this can be seen as a sort of “Downton Abbey” scenario with the rich tourists playing the part of the aristocrats and the poorer locals being cast as the servants. It can be an unequal relationship based on the disparities of wealth, especially when people from the so-called “Developed world” visit a “Developing Country”. On the other hand, one could argue it’s a “win- win” situation. The tourists get an enjoyable, relaxing holiday, while the local people earn much appreciated cash and are provided with employment.

The question remains though –Is this type of tourism “real” travel? It depends on what one means by “real.” If one’s definition involves getting to know the country that one has travelled to, then this type of more sedentary traveller might not qualify. Is lying on a beach in Cancun learning about the real Mexico? Is visiting the expensive shopping malls of Dubai, enhancing one’s knowledge of Arab culture or of Bedouin lifestyle? The answer is probably “no”. Mass tourism with universal entertainment and international cuisine does not encourage an appreciation or understanding of local culture. However, hardworking people deserve rest and recreation, and are obviously free to spend their money as they wish. I may not categorise them as real travellers but I don’t suppose they give a fig for what I think. After-all, I myself am not a real traveller. I spend much more  time at home than on the road or up in the air.

We are now driving up into the spectacular mountains near the Mexican-Guatemalan border. My ears have just popped. We have been journeying for 7 hours with just one twenty minute break. The drivers decided to have a quick snack at a roadside café. Most of the passengers are asleep after eating too much pop corn to keep their stomachs happy. A young Liam Neeson is incongruously speaking Spanish on the coach video. It is nearly Christmas but nearly 30 degrees outside in the late afternoon. Is this “real travel”? Who knows and who cares anyway?



Ditching the Comfy Blanket.

6 Nov

I am just about to leave the safety of my own home, to fly halfway across the world to an unknown, unpredictable destination. OK, I know I’m going to Costa Rica, followed by southern Mexico and Guatemala, but I’ve never been to Central America before, so I truly don’t know what to expect. Am I going to be walking into danger? Is there a robber out there just waiting to relieve a naïve, innocent tourist of his money and valuables? I’m travelling with my wife, Chris, so I won’t be completely alone. But it’s interesting that when we tell people of our forthcoming adventure, for every person who expresses excitement, there will be another who points out potential dangers or problems. “Mexico. isn’t that where you can catch the zika virus?” “Mexico. isn’t that where there are violent drug wars?” I’ve tried to shrug these worries aside and let the excitement of exploring 3 new, exotic countries, take over. However, my initial thrill at being able to visit such far-away destinations, to immerse myself in cultures very different from my own, has often been tempered by fears. It’s funny how the negative often seems to outweigh the positive in our lives.

Maybe its our advanced age. Chris and I are both in the second half of our sixties. It’s the age when travel insurance companies get nervous and charge higher premiums. It’s the age when we are not as strong as we used to be. We don’t have as much energy as we used to and thoughts of rest and sleep are more to the fore than in the past. Our long experience of life has informed us of the potential problems that could arise from any situation. The recklessness and bravado of youth has gone. I normally look forward to a foreign holiday and relish the new experiences I may undergo. However, this holiday build- up has been tinged by worry and by careful perusal of the insurance policy small print. The phrase “What if?” had often been on our lips. What if we fall ill? What if we get bitten by a mosquito or a rabid dog? What if we get lost or get robbed of all our money? Unbelievably, we’ve even discussed death and the repatriation of bodies! It’s been ridiculous at times. We’re supposed to be embarking on a fascinating and stimulating adventure, yet, at times, we have been beset by fears. Yes, maybe it is our age.

We are going on two organised tours. One is to see the wildlife and tropical landscapes of Costa Rica. The other is to explore the legacy of the Mayan civilisation in the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico and in neighbouring Guatemala. It should be great. But these are not luxury tours, travelling by air-conditioned coaches and staying in 5 star hotels. ( We couldn’t afford that anyway.) We will be lodging in clean but basic hotels and travelling around on public transport and mini-buses. What’s more, horror of horrors, we will be expected to carry our own luggage! In the strong tropical sun, will be able to manage? The tours are not high-octane, adrenaline pumping, outdoor-activity affairs, but are mainly sightseeing with the occasional small nature hike. However, when the company found out our great age, we had to answer a comprehensive health and fitness questionnaire before we were allowed to book. I suddenly realised that I’m getting old. Soon I’ll be getting to the stage where my body can’t keep up with my mind.

Another exciting but also worrying aspect of the trip is that we have to make our own way out there, changing planes in big, busy American airports, and will also make out own way back. This is very different to some tours that I know of, where a taxi picks you up from your own doorstep and drops you back there at the end. Such companies pride themselves on organising absolutely everything for their clients so that they don’t have to worry about a thing. The holiday makers are completely spoon-fed. The reasoning is that a holiday’s purpose is primarily to relax and enjoy. All anxiety must be taken away. Tour reps guide you through the complexities of air-travel and meet you when you arrive. The transfer from airport to hotel is taken care of as is everything else. The whole experience is, in theory, free from worry. Chris and I are not going to have this comfort. But, despite the anxiety, I am also very excited about organising my own journey and will get a great sense of satisfaction that “I did it my way.” The other way is reassuring and comforting, but is also a bit like being treated as a school child. I still like to think for myself, instead of letting other people, or technical appliances, do my thinking for me. Thinking, I believe, is becoming an endangered activity. How else can one explain the inexorable rise of the sat-nav and the smart-phone, contraptions that do our thinking for us. In the middle of our double holiday, we have to transfer ourselves from Costa Rica to Mexico. An early flight from an airport I’ve never departed from, where everyone speaks Spanish. ( which I don’t.) There’s plenty of scope for worry and confusion there. What if the bus or taxi doesn’t turn up? What if we cannot find our check-in desk? What if we lose out tickets or passports. What if we cannot find our way to the departure gate? Airports are busy places — what about pick-pockets? Oh, shut up Stuart! It’s going to be great! It’s not everyday you fly from Costa Rica to southern Mexico with a stop-over in El Salvador! It beats catching the local bus into Middlesbrough. Yes, despite the nagging worries. and despite my age, I’m actually really looking forward to it!

I visited my 90 year old mother yesterday, in Chesterfield, Derbyshire. At her age my mum loves and thrives on the predictability of routine. Church on Sunday, hairdresser on Friday, coffee morning on Saturday, cleaner on Monday and Thursday, carers 4 times a day. Her short=term memory is slipping away, but mum’s regular routine helps her to cope and make sense of her existence. Routine is her comfy blanket. Can you remember what a panic it was when, if you were a parent, you mislaid your 2 year old’s comfy blanket? How will he or she get to sleep without that comforting, familiar object to cling on to? It’s funny how the beginning and end stages of one’s life can be so similar. Both the very old and the very young like the comforts of routine and familiar surroundings. In between these two age extremes however, many people, including myself, crave and seek out the excitement of adventure which inevitably involves leaving the familiarities of home and striking off into the unknown. This is why I find travel so intoxicating. I may experience confusion and culture shock, I may be beset by niggling worries, but the sheer adrenaline-producing excitement of visiting new, strange places and discovering new things often makes for an unforgettable experience. Foreign travel, I have had to remind myself, is stepping out of one’s comfort-zone and entering the unpredictable unknown. I still experience the spine-tingling thrill of expectation. I’m not going to be completely in control of my own destiny. ( Sometimes I think we are too hung-up about “control.”) Surprises lay in wait to ambush me on my journey and not all of them may be pleasant. However, I still want to go. The potential thrill of the new still outweighs  the comfort and predictability of the old.

I’m going to abandon my comfy blanket and set out into the unknown. In a way, I know how Tolkein’s “Hobbit” felt at the beginning of his great quest,  except I hope my adventure will not be quite so exciting as his!

First Stirrings of Wanderlust.

25 May

I started travelling very early. As a child in the 1950’s I went all round the World, crossing oceans and continents, learning the name of every capital city I encountered and becoming familiar with many a currency. Yes, I admit it, I was an avid stamp collector! I inherited my dad’s bulging stamp album which not only enabled me to wander around the globe but also allowed me to journey into the past. The Germany section for instance, was full of Nazi swastikas and the British part spanned over a century, right back to a proud row of Penny Reds, each displaying Queen Victoria’s head.
Love of travel, or wanderlust, begins in the mind. It’s prompted by curiosity and a thirst for knowledge. It’s a constant yearning to move from the known into the unknown — a voyage of discovery. Books, music, TV programmes, films, and in my case, a stamp collection, can bring the wider world into our living rooms. We can all be armchair travellers without the need for passports.
I was lucky because my father worked for British Railways. He was a stoker then an engine driver. So, although we were far from wealthy, our family was able to go on 5 free rail journeys a year and as many third priced trips as we desired. We could roam the entire country, as far as the rail network could take us. The immediate post-war era also saw the introduction of legislation that gave ordinary, working people the right to have a couple of weeks paid holiday every year. Previously, people up to and including the 1930’s never had that right or privilege. Leisure travel had been the preserve of the rich. Thanks to this legislation, we were part of a first wave of families who enjoyed an annual vacation. Our family visited a seaside resort every year — buckets and spades, sand castles, paddling in the sea, jumping the waves, strolling along the promenade, sunbathing in deck chairs, licking ices creams and scoffing fish, chips and mushy peas. It was all recorded on my dad’s trusty Kodak box camera which churned out black and white holiday snaps to go in the album.
On our holidays, we did all the traditional British seaside activities, staying in “boarding houses” ( B and B’s) and later on caravan parks. Probably the most exciting feature of the holiday though was the journey itself. We packed our suitcases and travelled by bus or taxi to the station. There, a steam train would noisily arrive to pluck us off the platform and dramatically whisk us far away from all that was familiar. It was a great adventure, a journey into the unknown. It might seem tame now, but for a child in the fifties, before the age of budget airlines, this train journey to unknown corners of the country, counted as a thrilling experience. It was a definite highlight of the year.
Inevitably, these regular train journeys and my dad’s job as an engine driver, led to me becoming a train spotter. This was very popular in the 1950’s and 60’s despite its “nerdy” reputation these days. This led me to yet more travel, both real and vicarious. I went to Doncaster, York, Bristol, Crewe and Carlisle to spot locomotives from different regions. Back at home, as I sat on a grassy bank just outside our local station, my thoughts ran riot with questions. Where was that express heading to? Where had it come from? How long did the journey take? Some trains were given exotic sounding names which further triggered my imagination. As “The Flying Scotsman” raced by, my mind travelled to Scotland, a country I had never visited in real life. What was it like? Did all the men wear kilts and play the bagpipes? What would I find if I was one of the passengers disembarking at Edinburgh Waverley station? Going the other way, speeding south, I imagined stepping out into London, the country’s glamorous capital. Living in the Derbyshire sticks I had no experience of big, bustling cities. My parents didn’t do city breaks, preferring instead the relaxation and bracing air of the coast.
So I got off to a good start in the world of travel. My wanderlust was activated at an early stage. I thank my parents and especially my dad for this. Once I got to school, history and geography lessons increased and intensified my fascination with far away places, in the past and the present. I remember doing a project in primary school, aged 8 or 9, about how a bar of milk chocolate is made. I sent off for information from Cadburys, the Milk Marketing Board and Tate and Lisle. My research took me on a fascinating journey to the British countryside, the sugar cane plantations of the West Indies and the tropical rain forest region of Ghana in West Africa. My appetite was whetted and not just for chocolate!
The most significant cause of my life-long wanderlust however, was probably a negative one. As I entered adolescence I got increasingly frustrated by the backwater status of the town I lived in, and the insularity of many of its people. They seemed content to stay there all their lives, to remain amongst the familiar and not seek out the new. This insularity and lack of adventure seemed to apply to many members of my own family, especially those in the elder generations. I was born in New Whittington, which was just one small part of Chesterfield, a medium sized north midlands town. Numerous relatives on my mum’s side also lived in this tiny geographical area. At one point, several of my relations lived in the same street. Numerous uncles, aunties, cousins, great uncles and great aunts lived within a stone’s throw of my maternal grandparents’ house. They worked in the local mines or in the iron and steel works and seemingly had no pressing reason to move away. It was still the age of the extended family. We all lived in close proximity to each other, in a village atmosphere where everybody knew everybody else. A stranger would have stuck out like a sore thumb. I suppose it was reassuring and comforting to have family members so close. My parents moved out of New Whittington once they acquired their own house. However, they only went about 3 or 4 miles down the road! Even today, they live just a few miles from where they were born.
This perceived lack of adventure frustrated me very much when I was a teenager. It was almost as if we were still living in medieval times when most ordinary folk did not travel more than one day’s walk from their village in their entire lives! ( Unless conscripted to fight and maybe die for the glorification of their monarch in France.) Most people around me were content to stay well within their comfort zones. They seemed happy to stay in the town where they and their parents ( and probably their grandparents) were born, and visit just a small number of “safe” places not too far away. I really appreciated the yearly holidays my parents took me on, but after 15 years or so, I started to tire of the traditional seaside resort. We went to different places: Blackpool, Scarborough, Great Yarmouth, Margate, Weymouth, but they all served up roughly the same ingredients and they gradually all began to merge into one. I was desperate to visit different sorts of places. I wanted to see big cities and to experience moors, hills, lakes and mountains. In the end, our annual seaside holidays were like slipping on a comfortable but restricting strait-jacket. I wanted to go to different types of places and have contrasting experiences.
Most of all, I wanted to visit other countries — all those exotic places just across the English Channel. What was it like to listen to a different language, eat different foods, see different architecture and observe a different life-style? The prospect of travelling abroad was not frightening for me but very exciting.
My parents must have sensed my growing restlessness and frustration because they kindly paid for me to go on a school trip to the south of France. This was a wonderful opportunity for me. Thus it was that at 16 years old, I finally got off this island to discover something of the world beyond. We crossed the channel, travelled to Paris and then took the night train south to Biarritz, in south west France. I was: awe-struck by the mountain scenery of the Pyrenees, fascinated by the pavement cafes, horrified by the Basque version of a bull fight, immersed in the lyrical babble of the French language and had coffee and croissants for breakfast. I ate the biggest, juiciest peaches I had ever seen, saw the strange Basque game of pelote and smelt a lot of garlic.( an alien experience for me in 1966.) It was like a locked door suddenly bursting open and revealing a whole new world beyond. That school trip to France was : exhausting, disorientating and at times, nerve-wracking. But, at the same time, it was full of wonderful surprises, new, exhilarating experiences and fantastic scenery. It dramatically showed me that there was much more to life than my home town of Chesterfield. It revealed the thrill of the new.
Two years later, I saved up my paper-round money to go with a friend to Adriatic Italy. We travelled through Belgium, Germany and Austria by coach. It was a long but memorable journey. I remember waking up in the splendid scenery of the Bavarian Alps and finding I was deaf. The altitude had made my ears pop! It was the beginning of a life time of travelling and exploring, the seeking out of new sights, sounds and experiences. My life-long wanderlust was up and running.

WEEKEND AWAY — The Ups and Downs of Travel.

15 Aug

The strange events began when a poor cow wandered on to the mainline south of York. The inevitable messy and fatal collision was not only traumatic for the train driver and others directly involved, but it caused a long delay on the London to Edinburgh route for the rest of the day. I was en-route to meet up with my son, Ian, in the capital. We were then to fly out to Eindhoven in The Netherlands, where his wife, Nanayaa, works.
The southbound East Coast train slid to a halt somewhere north of York. We just sat there for 20 minutes looking out over anonymous fields. The train-manager explained that we had got caught up in the log-jam caused by the earlier cow incident. From then on, it was constant stop-start and crawl all the way to Doncaster and beyond. Only after Peterborough did we pick up speed but by then we were a full hour behind schedule.
Previously settled and content passengers now became restless and even anxious. All their carefully laid plans were starting to unravel. It’s no fun to be stuck in a situation over which one has no control. They hit their mobiles en-masse, explaining to waiting friends, family and colleagues why they were going to be late. The sad story of the cow and the train was repeated over and over again, sometimes with humour, sometimes with irritation, occasionally with anger. Nobody alas seemed to care about the unfortunate animal, just that their travel plans had been disrupted by its untimely death. I just sent a quiet text to Ian.
One positive outcome of all this, a silver lining to the cloud, was that people came out of their private zones and started to talk to their neighbours. Barriers broke down and a hint of the Dunkirk spirit set in. I got to know that the lady reading the Daphne du Maurier mystery next to me, was from Falkirk and was meeting up with her sister from Ham to go on holiday to Majorca. Like me she was facing an early morning alarm call and flight the next day. She constantly updated her sibling on our stuttering progress so that she didn’t have to pay a hefty parking fee at Kings Cross.
Unbeknown to me, this delayed journey south was to set the tone for an incident- strewn weekend. This was only the beginning.
Travel can be both exciting and stressful in equal measure. By making a journey, travellers voluntarily leave their everyday comfort-zones and embark on an unpredictable series of events largely controlled by others. The feeling of not being responsible can be liberating and even exhilarating, but can also lead to frustration and worry. Even if you travel in your own car, there is always the chance of a break-down, of getting lost or of getting stuck in an endless traffic jam which you have no control over. Travelling by public transport puts one even more in other people’s hands and more subject to the whim of chance. The first thing you have to do is to conform to a timetable dictated by someone else. So if the airline decides to fly at 6-30am, that means you have to be at the airport by 5-30 at the latest, and you end up struggling out of bed in the middle of the night.
Thus it was that Ian and I were dragging our clothes on and cleaning our teeth at 3-45am to allow time for our trek from Canary Wharf to London Stansted in Essex. We were flying with Ryanair to Eindhoven. It was not long before we started to depart from the script!
The taxi arrived early but when we didn’t come out straight away, the driver, for reasons known only to himself, decided to go away again and fit in another local call. Thus by the time he condescended to return, we were already late.
Stratford interchange, near the Olympic park in east London, is a surreal place at night. It was here where we were to catch our airport transfer coach. A weird forest of large, flood-lit golden leaves rears up at the side of the road — an attempt at modern art. Trains, buses, taxis and private cars constantly come and go even though it is the middle of the night when most people are still tucked up in bed. Huddled together on the dark pavement are the travellers, dragging cases and carrying ruck-sacks, like a bedraggled army of refugees. Some shuffle from foot to foot to keep themselves warm and stay awake. Others cling to lovers in one last forlorn embrace. Ticket sellers from two competing coach companies mingle with the crowd touting for custom, but most people are waiting to see which coach comes first. It was difficult to realize that all this was happening at 4-45am.
Ian and I missed our preferred coach because of the late running taxi. We waited slightly anxiously for the next one. Inevitably it was late and set off for Stansted even later as everyone had to load their luggage and belatedly purchase their tickets.
We had already checked in online and didn’t have any hold luggage to deposit, but, as is the norm at any big airport, we still had to queue! The line of people waiting to pass through security looked absolutely enormous. When I saw the masses of people my heart sank. We could well miss our flight. Ryanair is an airline famous for not waiting for stragglers. Luckily what had seemed like one huge queue turned out to be 4 queues for separate conveyor belts and x-ray scanners. So we thankfully progressed more quickly than I had at first expected.

Being a reasonably experienced flyer, I had made sure that no liquids were packed into my cabin bag. However, as I walked through the x-ray barrier without bother, I saw to my dismay ( and Ian’s) that my bag had come under suspicion and had been pulled. Was this just a random check that they sometimes do? I had to stand there, wasting precious minutes while a uniformed officer combed through my belongings. He was as bemused as I was. Then he went back to my small deodorant stick. Had this triggered the scanner? This was probably the culprit he concluded. Although not a liquid, it was classified as a “gel” even though it was pretty solid. Apparently, the airport authorities thought I might be clever enough to make a bomb with my roll-on deodorant in the aeroplane toilet during the 45 minute flight to Eindhoven. This Dutch city is famous for the brain-power of the boffins in its university and research establishments. Maybe Stansted Security thought I was one of them!
Actually, I don’t think they thought about it at all. They were merely following the rules. These rules have been applied to long-suffering air travellers for years now, ever since a would-be terrorist attempted to make an explosive device from the aforementioned liquids and/or gels. Anyway my deodorant was popped in a see- through bag and passed its security scan at the second attempt. I was relieved to be taken off the list of suspected terrorists.
Ian and I hurried to the gate which must have been at least a quarter of a mile away. All the screens said — “Eindhoven: Final call.” We made it with just over 5 minutes to spare. The queue was already moving through. After all that, the actual flight, which took off on time, was fairly tranquil, except for an alarmingly bumpy landing. So, at last, we were released from the tunnel of uncertainty to enjoy a late breakfast in another country. If it had been a normal day, I, as a retired person of leisure, would have been just getting up and starting my stretching and yawning routine.
The weekend in The Netherlands was great. We explored Eindhoven, visited picturesque and historical Maastricht and spent quality time with Ian’s wife, Nanayaa. The summer sun shone, we sat in atmospheric pavement cafes, we saw lots of interesting sights and we relaxed.
Then it was time for the return journey, another train of events over which we had little control. This involved arriving at the airport 10 hours too early for our flight ( our mistake), having to hurriedly evacuate a café that had a very loud hissing gas leak, having a truck catch fire immediately in front of our plane( causing a 50 minute delay), and waiting another long 50 minutes for a late running National Express Coach from Stansted back to central London.( no explanation given.)
When I eventually got home to north-east England, the next day, I had enjoyed a fascinating and very enjoyable long weekend, but it was really nice to just stay still and to be back in control!


14 Mar

I’m going to Albania this April. When I tell people this, their reactions range from surprise to incredulity. Maybe that’s the first reason  I’m going — I like to be unpredictable. Most people want to know “why?” The fact is that I’ve wanted to go there for ages but for most of my lifetime Albania was cut off from the rest of the world. I wasn’t allowed to visit it. Up until 1990 it was difficult to freely visit any of the communist countries on the other side of Churchill’s “Iron Curtain.” However Albania was probably the most sealed- off country of all, because it’s rulers not only opposed the capitalist countries of the west, but also eventually fell out with their Communist allies — firstly Yugoslavia which was next door, then the USSR (Russia) and finally, it’s last major friend: China, after the death of Mao. Albania became one of the main “Billy No Mates” of the world. It had many similarities with the mysterious, cut-off country of North Korea, except that Albania is not some remote country at the far end of Asia but a European nation, sharing a border with Greece and just across the Adriatic Sea from Italy. So now that Albania has at last opened itself up to visitors from outside, I am desperately curious to go. What will it be like to visit a country that has been completely separated from the rest of the continent ( and the world) for most of my lifetime? Will it be like some modern-day Pompeii — trapped in time, its past preserved? In some ways, I imagine it’s going to be like travelling back in time. I’m surprised that there’s not been a stampede to  visit this “strange” country on our doorstep. Yet the truth is,  most people seem to have only barely heard of it and have probably never dreamt of visiting it. Most seem to have little idea where it is located. Even my travel buddy, Eric, who has travelled extensively round the world, only had a vague idea about Albania, at first tentatively suggesting that it might be close to Russia. OK, I’ll come clean — I’m an ex Geography teacher and what’s more: an ex-stamp-collector, so I’m pedantically hot about where places are in the world. For most of my life, I have never been far from my atlas. As a child looking at all those exotic sounding places on map after map was the stuff of dreams. Now, in my adult life, I am resolved to visit as many of them as possible, and that includes Albania.

People go on holiday for many different reasons. Some want a change of scene, some seek the sun, some want a rest from the hurly-burly of everyday life. I have empathy for all these tourists and over the years, have joined their ranks for the very same reasons.  I have done my share of lying on a beach or sitting by a pool, reading a book and having the occasional refreshing dip. Others like to stay in expensive spas and hotels in order to be petted and pampered and be waited on hand and foot. I must admit that that sounds pretty tempting too but I’ve never done it because I haven’t had enough money. My main aim when I travel is to experience a different culture. I’m a cultural tourist. They say a change is as good as a rest and one cannot get more of a change than visiting a foreign country. I find it very stimulating to be in a country where everyday life is very different from what I’m used to. Bill Bryson compared arriving in a far-away, foreign country as being like a 5 year old again because everything is new, surprising and exciting. It gives me a buzz to be in a strange environment where everything is potentially interesting and a fascinating novelty. Whether its the language, the food and drink, the architecture, the dress, the religion, the traditions — all is different from life at home and constitutes a big adventure. For instance, have you eaten any “ajvar” with a glass of “salep” lately?  Of course it can all be a bit frightening and nerve-wracking as well, but that’s what gives this type of travel its edge. I think it’s boring to play safe all the time. To me Albania will be a wonderful adventure precisely because I don’t know what will happen and what to expect. Australia is much further away on the other side of the world, is a spectacular place to visit and a fantastic holiday destination. However, to me Australia is nowhere near as exciting as Albania because I already know Australians speak familiar, comforting English, watch TV channels that I can understand, drive on the left and have an easily recognisable western life-style. Going there is largely playing safe inmy opinion. Unless I decide to go swimming with sharks or try to survive in the heat of the bush, Australia doesn’t really represent as much of a challenge as going to an obscure country in a forgotten corner of my own continent. I’m taking a risk going to Albania but it’s that very risk that makes the destination so appealing.

So Eric and I are going to a country where a shake of the head means “yes” and a nod represents “no.”  We are travelling to a country that is part Muslim and part orthodox Christian but which also officially embraced atheism in its recent past. We are visiting a place which has 17,000 round concrete bunkers which it doesn’t know how to get rid of. In Albania every town and village has 2 names for some unknown reason and the buses don’t have their destinations displayed. We will have to take a torch in order to avoid falling into large potholes during one of the regular power-cuts. We will have to steer well clear of packs of mangy dogs while trying to locate undecipherable addresses. But we are also going to drive through spectacular mountains and perhaps glimpse shepherds in traditional dress. We will walk on empty but beautiful Adriatic beaches and visit Ancient Greek/Roman/ Venetian/Ottoman archaeological sites that nobody’s ever heard of. We will be visiting medieval mosques and churches and hope to see some strikingly beautiful icons. We will also be surprisingly following in the footsteps of the Romantic poet Lord Byron, who described it as like being in paradise. ( Mind you — that’s probably something to do with the fact that he was a guest of the famously debauched ottoman prince, Ali pasha, whose court was notorious for its sexual license.)  Strangest of all, we may encounter a ” sworn virgin.” I know Eric is particularly excited about this! Apparently in the north there is a big shortage of males, so some women or their families make this decision to avoid an unwanted arranged marriage or keep a “male” heir in the family. Once the decision has been made the “sworn virgin” becomes a man and is treated as such in all aspects of life — from clothes, job, hairstyle, eating, drinking to smoking. It sounds fascinating doesn’t it? Don’t think you’d get much of that in: London New York or Sydney. Maybe that’s why Byron was so keen to include it in his itinerary?

This is not meant to be a tourist advert for Albania so I won’t list all the attractions I’ve researched. Anyway, I’m sure there are many sights and experiences that I don’t know about. There’s not even a Rough Guide for Albania as far as I know. But to be honest, this very lack of information is the main attraction of the place. It creates an aura of mystery about Albania and makes it a fertile place for exploration. When Eric and I fly off from Gatwick to Tirana it will be a case of: into the unknown. Inspired by Captain James T Kirk, if you’ll excuse me comparing the Balkans with Outer Space, we will be pushing back our personal frontiers of knowledge and experience. We are absolutely determined to boldly go where neither of us has gone before! That’s why we’re flying to Albania this April.

ROME — No coins in the fountain, but we’ll still be back!

2 Nov

THANKS A LOT JULIUS!  —  I came, I saw and I photographed. It was October,2011 and I was at last taking up Julius’s open offer of a reciprocal visit. On my 62nd birthday I stood in the middle of St Peter’s Square, gazing at the great domed basilica. The fountains were gushing, the tourists were queueing and I was watching the statues on top of Bernini’s curving collonades slowly turning into silouettes as the late afternoon sun dipped. I had made it to Rome at long last! It’s the “Eternal City” that uniquely and generously offers two countries for the price of one — Italy and the Vatican. Eat your heart out Tescos! What follows are a few of my impressions.

THE COLOSSEUM FROM OUR WINDOW  —  Our 2nd floor apartment lay just a stone’s throw from the Colosseum. I leant out of the window, pushed the shutters back and looked left. There it was, shining in the floodlights — ancient Rome’s greatest amphitheatre just at the bottom of our street!

Half an hour earlier, it had been a surreal experience suddenly driving around the Colosseum in our taxi, as if we had stumbled upon an abandoned film set. Next to it stood an ancient triumphal arch. ” O look, it’s the Arch of Constantine!” I exclaimed, like the good History teacher that I am. It was like a giant textbook suddenly springing to life! Now I was gaping at it through our window. Separating us from the 9th Wonder of the ancient World was: a cobbled street, a line of pavement cafes, tightly parked cars with moter-bikes squashed inbetween them, a half-excavated gladiators’ academy and a cream-coloured early Christian basilica. The next morning, I watched the first school groups and parties of tourists arrive to visit the Basilica of San Clemente with its 3 layers of Roman history. On our second day we visited this fascinating place ourselves.

MIXED-UP HISTORY and STRANGE JUXTAPOSITIONS.   —   San Clemente is a 12th century Greek style church which sits on top of a 4th Century Basilica, which in turn is built over the remains of a 3rd Century pagan, Mithran temple. The historical multi-layering of San Clemente is typical of Rome as a whole. The city groans beneath the weight of its own history. Different eras and architectural styles crowd in on one another, creating a constant whirl of confusing juxtapositions. A medieval bell-tower rises up beside an ancient arch; a flamboyant Baroque church- facade looms up behind the columned porch of an early temple, and so on. In certain places, like The Forum, buildings of different ages mix together in an intoxicating jumble, all the time being encircled by open-topped bus tours and camera touting tourists.

TOURISTS OR TRAVELLERS?  —  There is supposed to be a subtle difference between a traveller and a tourist. Travellers, it is claimed, are a bit more thoughtful in their choice of sights , not just flocking to the more obvious, famous destinations which appear on most people’s tick lists. I smugly think I belong to the former category but probably am also a fully paid-up member of the latter. Whatever — Rome pays host to thousands of tourists AND travellers. This must be especially so in the height of summer but parts of it were still very busy when we visited in mid-October. It appears that Rome has developed into a whole year destination. The trouble is , many of the visiters want to go the same places, the so-called tourist ” honey-pots”. Thus the hordes of people we encountered at the foot of the Spanish Steps one morning were probably mostly the same as those we had met throwing their coins into the Trevi Fountain the previous evening.

You can always tell when you are approaching a tourist “honey-pot”. The crowds thicken and the streets start filling up with souvenir stalls, buskers, pavement cafes and ice-cream parlours. You will probably get to meet a golden Tutankhamen or a silver Statue of Liberty who only move when a coin is put into their pot. I got to kiss the daintily gloved hand of a Jane Austin -style lady in the Piazza Navona, for the bargain price of 1 Euro. Sometimes it seems as if tourists are a bit like sheep, all flocking to the same few places just because they are famous. On the other hand, a more discerning traveller might seek out more obscure but equally rewarding sights, or wander down quiet streets and through deserted squares just to see what exciting surprise might pop up. Chris and I tried to do a bit of both. We visited a mixture of the famous and the obscure and did our fair share of aimless but fascinating wandering.

We walked around Rome most of the time. apart from a couple of Metro journeys. I have never been attracted to the easy but expensive convenience of the open-topped bus tour. This seems to me to be a way of seeing everything without actually seeing anything. Whizzing round the Colosseum and taking a couple of hurried, blurred photos is no substitute for actually visiting the building and soaking in its history. We visited it shortly after opening time and it was still quite busy. It was awe-inspiring standing inside the 2000 year old stadium and imagining 70,000 people blood-thirstingly screaming at brutal gladiator fights or hapless criminals and Christains being torn apart by wild beasts. However, by the time we left at around 10-30am, any historical atmosphere had been ruined by the hordes of tourists pouring in. It’s ironic that they seemed to be destroying the very thing they had come to experience. Sometimes, modern tourism is like that — killing the goose that laid the golden egg. Maybe budget airlines are partly to blame for opening up foreign travel to so many people, but then again, if it wasn’t for Ryanair and their like, we would probably have not been there either!

WHAT I LOVED.  —  I loved the evocative ruins of the Forum and the Palatine and Celian Hills. I loved the Renaissances palaces, the over-the-top Baroque churches and the piazzas with their flamboyant statues and fountains. I loved the faded yellow, orange and red buildings of the old town, glowing in the sun. I loved the sculptured, pollarded trees with their deep green tops. The multi-flavoured ice creams were absolutely delicious like everywhere in Italy. I loved looking at the hieroglyphics on the ancient obelisks that seemed to punctuate every grand piazza even though we were in Italy not Egypt. They were a reminder that the Romans were plunderers as well as civilisers. However, the most memorable moments for me were entering 5 special places of worship. ( 5 of the many in Rome.)

The first two were Greek style early Christian basilicas : San Clemente and San Saba. Both have shining medieval mosaics, fading but still colourful frescoes, stately columns and geometrically patterned marble floors. The 3rd and 4th were 16th Century Renaissance churches — San Luigi dei Francesi and Santa Maria del Popolo. Both had strikingly luminous works by Caravaggio, in side chapels, looking as though they were painted just yesterday. The intense light and shade, the dramatic foreshortening and the startling realism make this a thrilling experience. They even eclipsed the spectacularly frescoed ceilings.

The final unforgettable place of worship was the incomparable Pantheon — the Roman temple of all gods. It was later converted into a church. Entered between giant Corinthian columns, one enters a majestic circular splace, surrounded by ornate shrines and tombs of the “great” and the “good”, including that of Raphael, which we somehow managed to miss! However most of one’s attention is taken by the huge, hemispherical dome that just seems to hang magically in thin air, with no visible support. It was designed by the Emperor Hadrian himself in the 2nd Century AD. Sunlight pours through a circle in the centre of the dome, its shafts illuminating different sections of the coffered ceiling as the sun moves across the sky. There is little else to do but sit down and stare until one is in danger of contracting permanent neck-ache. Awe-inspiring seems to be a phrase specially invented for this ancient building.

FINAL THOUGHTS — NO COINS IN THE FOUNTAIN.  —   So that’s our first visit to the “Eternal City”. Yes, it’s got lots of noisy traffic, crowds of tourists, enough pizza and pasta to feed a small army every day, pestering street sellers and devious pick-pockets. But Rome is also a beautiful, enchanting place full of memorable sights, sounds and smells. I know we will be back, though we never actually threw any coins into the tourists’ favourite fountain.

Northumberland Coast walk, part 3 — Final days: Seahouses to Cresswell.

30 Oct

I realize that after my last 2 blogs in this sequence, I am in danger of rendering a blow by blow account of the whole bl–dy walk! So I’ll let you off and just present a series of snippets and snapshots of the last few days.

* Blistered and sunburnt, we walked forever into the south.   * Dark, tilted rocks in Beadnell Bay   * Boarded-up holiday chalets dotted amongst the dunes.

* Dodging yet more flying golf balls by following the blue posts across the Links.   *A lovely cup of tea at Newton by the Sea.   *A little green bordered on 3 sides by tiny white cottages.

* The distinctive, evocative shape of Dunstanborough Castle shimmers in the morning heat haze.

* Passing by the bird-hide at Newton Pool where we saw the short-eared owl with Clive just 2 months before. We borrowed his binoculars to look at it. ( He’s sorely missed.)

* A brown stoat darts up through the rocks below the castle.   *Weasels are weasily recognised and stoats are stotally different. ( Colin reminded me.)

* The oak-smoked kippers of Craster.   * Dark, brooding basalt cliffs smeared with the guano of countless gulls.

* The cliff top bathing house of Howick hall.   * Rumbling Kern – where the sea gets forced into a whirlpool hollow and makes the growling noise of distant thunder.

* The giant early-warning golfball of RAF Boulmer. ( very apt, considering the density of golf courses on this coastline.)

* Picturesque Alnmouth — a huddle of red-rooved houses, grassy cliffs, a huge shining beach and the river snaking into the sea.

* Opposite Alnmouth is a large sandy hill with a cross on top and a ruined old chapel at the bottom.

* Entering Warkworth over the medieval bridge and looking up to the dominating Castle Keep, former stronghold of the Percys.

* Walking by the River Coquet with 3 grey herons fishing, a group of dark cormorants spreading their wings and a regal procession of 9 swans —  all are perfectly reflected in the water.

* Amble marina crowded with pleasure boats.   * The lighthouse on Coquet Island flashing red in the morning mist.

* Walking by the dunes and wetlands off idyllic Druridge Bay, and thinking — they once wanted to build a nuclear power station here!

* Cresswell, near Ashington — the official start of the walk — but for us it was the end!   * Celebratory ice-creams and then we stand beside the “official” sign-board for the commerative picture.

Thanks to Colin McMillan for his excellent organisation and company. In memory of Clive Taylor, our much missed MATE.