‘Surface Male’, the book about my travels, came out in March 2012 – see Publications.
JOHN’S EMAILS HOME FROM HIS VOYAGE ROUND THE WORLD WITHOUT FLYING IN 2002
March 31: The Atlantic – aboard the QM2
Just a quick one coz it costs more from here. I’ve had five comfortable, restful & interesting days, unwinding. Swam 125 lengths this morning – each one is only 8 metres, so that’s only 1 km in total. Trying to get fitter without getting fatter – food v tempting. I only take the lift down and walk up stairs from Deck 1 to Deck 12.
Two wonderful talks by a very lively and expressive 75-year-old Rita Moreno (who played Anita in the film of West Side Story). Many thanks to you all for helping me to get away. Expect a fuller (and florider) report from Florida.
April 4: St Petersburg, Florida
Sitting in the air-conditioned ‘Business Center’ of an expensive hotel in downtown St Petersburg, a smart town and resort on the West Coast, surrounded on most sides by water, reminding me of San Francisco Bay.
After disembarking from QM2, with the satisfaction of knowing I was already one fifth of the way round the world if you go by time difference, I was glad to say ’goodbye’ to the hyper-luxury of a world-famous cruise liner and get into what I really enjoy – bumbling along, living on my wits and generally roughing it.
Next day through the Everglades by air-conditioned Greyhound bus to Fort Myers, where I footled around in the heat, then took the next bus to St P’s. Carrying a lot of items for the day in a carrier bag with a hole in the bottom. In a high-class luggage shop selling prestigious names I bought a handy and strong bag with lots of pockets and a zip, reduced from $200 to £50. It still looked $200, but I soon fixed that!
April 10: Fort Walton Beach
On the gulf coast of Florida, my last stop in the state. Sorted my kit and sent a suitcase-full home in a suitcase. Cooler now and raining slightly. Saw three alligators – in a cage. The other locals are friendly, open, straightforward and blessed with common sense. Had a fascinating weekend with Anne’s relations, born-again Christians, who took me to their church – material for the book!
April 13: Houston, Texas
The language difficulties have started sooner than I expected. I could have done with some knowledge of Spanish last night in a Mexican Restaurant. No one spoke English and I ended up eating and paying for twice as much as expected, by accidentally ordering a meal intended for two persons.
I stumbled on ‘Fresh Air Friday’, a picnic in the park with a band and lots of stalls such as ‘Mothers for Clean Air’ and ‘Help Clean the Air We Breathe.’ The taller skyscrapers disappear into the clouds.
April 16: Brownsville, Texas
This is my last stop in the US. I hope to walk over the Rio Grande into Mexico – how’s that for romantic? American towns are often spread out and designed – if that’s the right word – for motorists. Thus everywhere has its own parking but if you’re on foot you can walk miles looking for basics such as post office, somewhere selling maps, visitor centre and so on. Brownsville, on the other hand, has something I hadn’t encountered until then in the Southern States, a high street – shops on both sides of the road, touching, competing with each other and metres from the greyhound Bus Station and my hotel. Everything is incredibly cheap. You’ve heard of downmarket – this is rock-bottom market. My room has a fridge, a TV, air-conditioning, shower, loo. I’m sitting in the pleasant hotel lobby typing this – at no extra charge – and all for $40 a night including tax. And I’ve only seen one cockroach!
April 23: Puebla, Mexico
The Mexicans are small and quite the sweetest, warmest people (with a pleasing sense of humour) I’ve met in my travels and in my life – so far. The affectionate way they relate to each other – and to me – on its own makes it worth coming all this way. I am still adjusting to the life of the long-distance traveller. The hardest thing is to have to learn the geography of a new city from scratch every day or two – with few clues. I’ve often got lost in vast networks of confusing streets, with strange names, only occasionally posted and legible. I’ve just realised why it’s so hot – we’re in the tropics. First time for me. Lovely in the shade, I must say.
I’ve seen only three Europeans in a week. Of course it’s a bit too noisy, dusty, untidy, a mixture of bold endeavours and deteriorating shambles, for traditional tourism. – at any rate the places I’ve been to. Everything is really cheap. I just had a satisfying – and of course tasty – lunch for 30 pesos (£1.50).
April 29: Tapachula
Arrived this evening at Tapachula, a staging post for Guatemala. Apart from an upset tummy, which lasted less than 24 hours, all has gone well. I have experienced the heavy tropical rain I’d heard about – marvellous thunderstorm in Oaxaca. The bus station here was flooded.
Last night I arrived 9pm in Tuxtla and had to walk 35 minutes before I found a single hotel. It turned out to be low dive charging the equivalent of £5 a night and gave me marvellous material for the book. Tonight I have picked the best hotel and I have air conditioning. Now I must put on my anti-mosquito spray (before dusk) and go and find something to eat.
May 3: Guatemala City
Big, noisy, chaotic metropolis. My first night, the only place I could find to stay was a cell with no window and no ventilation, sharing loo, basin and shower with 11 other cells. Then I moved to a nice international hotel. The Guatemalans are just as lovely as the Mexicans and couldn’t be more helpful. Many of the hotel staff speak English. Outside I have a lot of fun. When I get my dictionary out and struggle to make myself understood, a woman who wants to practise comes to help me. It’s my new way of meeting the opposite sex. Went to the British Embassy to register my presence in the country.
The heat between 10am and 6pm is tiring. So is the stress of moving about, especially at night ie about 9pm after a meal – looking over my shoulder, not passing doorways or dark corners, always looking purposeful and confident, never like a victim. All the acting and people watching over the years comes in useful. The people are sweet and I haven’t seen any nastiness, but I feel I cannot let my guard down. The language is a challenge. Writing things down helps – both ways. I can guess a lot of Spanish words when I see them written down.
The pleasant and amusing encounters, the constant note taking and the occasional contact with my home base (as now), not to mention the tremendous feeling of adventure, all keep me pressing on.
May 6: San Salvador, El Salvador
I am boiling with rage. I sit at a screen writing something interesting to you and it never reaches you because of the insane system these so-called high-class hotels have for charging computer time. They insist on selling 15-minute slots, which are only worth 11 minutes ‘cause it takes 4 minutes to get onto the Internet. And they start charging as soon as you key in your password. The system doesn’t tell you how much time you’ve got left so inevitably you go a second over and whatever you’ve written is junked – even though you’ve called for a copy to go to my folder. I’ve written a good piece on the local buses, which is lost for ever. Why don’t they do what the hot and dingy Internet cafés do – just let you use the computer as long as you want and then ask you pay for however long it is?
I seem to be shooting along. This new country, which uses the US dollar, appears more prosperous and better organised than Mexico or Guatemala. Bits are indistinguishable from the States, including this hotel, where they speak English. I can’t penetrate their accents but they are kind and very patient.
May 9: La Union, El Salvador
Last night I was in San Vicente, in another airless cell with a careless smell. The only way I could find the light switch in the night was to put the television on. Everything had been getting me down – particularly the heat and the metro Centre, a vast complex of interconnecting shopping malls, in which I went berserk trying to buy a map. But I’ve got away from the big cities and calmed down a lot.
I arrived this evening at La Union at the south-eastern end of El Salvador and walked to the port to investigate the sea ferry to Costa Rica. Big landscaping and building work is in progress to develop the port. As a result two services have closed down – the ferry I was hoping to take and a shorter ferry across the inlet to Nicaragua. Meanwhile the far-seeing Comfort Hotels group have seen the development as an opportunity – to cash in first on the additional personnel here for the project and second on the extra business the enlarged port will bring. The hotel is a year old and beautiful. It’s on raised ground with a lovely view across the water to Nicaragua and its mountains. You can also enjoy a clear prospect of the building work, with vast areas of uncovered red soil. I’m looking forward to a good night in a quiet proper hotel – and all at El Salvador prices!
May 12: San Marcos de Colón, Honduras
I went by bus to the El Salvador/Honduras border. I stood my ground with the currency touts on both sides. Luckily there was a Western Union office, who took ages, but at least I felt secure. Then I got a bus to Nacaome, the nearest town on the Honduran side. We had a three-hour power cut, which improved the appearance of my room no end.
The next day I moved on to Choluteca. For the first time in my life I bribed a policeman. He saw me in the town square looking for a hotel. He introduced himself as ‘police’, said he would take me to a hotel. While the landlady was asking me a question he reminded me he was ‘police’ and said he would like one of the drinks in the glass-fronted fridges in front of him. I asked him what he’d like. He ordered it and I paid for it. I pointedly didn’t order a drink for myself. It’s one thing to carry out police orders, quite another to socialise with them. It wasn’t even the best hotel in town (I later discovered) – just another cell. Still, better than a police cell.
Talked to a Nicaraguan woman in a restaurant. She was the motorbike messenger, who delivered orders taken by this so-called ‘Chinese’ restaurant. She lives in Honduras coz ‘there’s too much wars’ in Nicaragua. She gave me some useful tips.
I’m now in San Marcos de Colón, very close to the border with Nicaragua, in a basic, but very new, hotel, with a magnificent view over the town, tree-covered hills and mountains in the distance. We had a thunderstorm and downpour. The enormous curved, plastic roof rattle impressively.
May 14: Jinotepe, Nicaragua
I am well through Nicaragua, having stayed last night in Managua (the capital). I’d been warned about Nicaragua but I’ve seen nothing unpleasant yet, but I sense it’s the least happy of all the countries I’ve visited so far and I felt anxious in the big city last night. I’m really looking forward to Costa Rica, but most of all I’m looking forward to collapsing on a ship and letting someone else worry about where we’re going, security, board, lodgings and water. I’m due to join the ship on 5th June.
May 17: Puntarenas, Costa Rica
On the shore of Lago de Nicaragua, a man was washing a horse in the water, a woman a big pile of washing while her two little boys played in the lake. I bathed myself, keeping my T-shirt on against the dangerous rays of the midday sun. I had to keep close to my kit so I only went in to a depth of 18 inches. I couldn’t swim, but I had a jolly committed wallow. If the water had been any warmer, it would not have been safe to bathe a baby in it. The best bit was coming out in my wet top, while the breeze drew the latent heat of evaporation from my body.
I took buses along the lake in the direction of Costa Rica, but found no hotel. So I ended up at the border with little option but to cross late afternoon. The frontier was the usual muddle and it was getting dark when I was looking for a bus on the Costa Rican side. Remember, in this part of the world, they turn the sun off at 6.30pm sharp. Luckily two tall and Sloaney girls from Sussex, who both spoke Spanish, found out for me which was the nearest town likely to have hotels and which bus would take me there. One of the girls was extremely fed up because she had had a bag (containing her passport) pinched from the overhead luggage rack. ‘I put it up there for only a moment’! They were retracing their steps to go to the British Embassy. I always have my valuables on my person, but it showed me how easily you can make a mistake.
I stayed one night in a hotel with the most wonderful view from my window, even better from the communal balcony – woods, sea, headlands and islands. Lengthy bus journey next to Puntarenas. I knew we were calling at another town first but, as I have only a school geography map, which shows just the main towns and not one road, I’d no idea we’d be going 90km out of my way.
Costa Rica is ahead of all the other countries I’ve seen in Central America. The place is geared up for tourists – tidy, organised and purposeful. There is only a fraction of the usual rubbish tipped at the roadside. I am absolutely ready for these higher standards, but while it is appealing it is, of course, less exotic. You can’t have it both ways!
May 21: San José
I had three nights in Puntarenas. Marvellous thunderstorms over the Pacific. Another time the ocean was calm enough to swim in. Visited a rain forest but saw few animals as it was raining! In San José (the capital) I went to the opening of an international poetry festival – didn’t understand a word. Waiting for my boots to be mended. I think it was the heat that unstuck the sole of one. Still scheduled to join my ship at the Atlantic end of the Panama Canal on 5th June.
May 26: Changuinola, Panama
I took a bus to another rain forest, to try and do better than last time. It was raining heavily when I set out. I got drenched to the skin on my way to the bus station. I got the driver to drop me at the official entrance to the forest. My plan was to stay the night in a lodge and see the animals the next day. I was turned away as you have to book the lodge 24 hours in advance. I waited three-quarters of an hour in heavy rain. No bus would stop for me, because you can’t buy tickets on the bus. The sixth bus driver took pity on me and took me to the next ticket office, and then on to a hotel. I was in a bad state when I arrived and my hearing aid had packed up. I had a horrible misunderstanding with the receptionist.
The next day I went on to the Port of Limón, where I stayed two nights and licked my wounds. Then I moved along the coast to Cahuita, a laid back, rather West Indian place, full of restaurants, bars, tour operators, car-hire shops and wooden cabanas to rent. I stayed in one of these only seven metres from the Caribbean I had a dip but couldn’t swim because it was too rocky.
Then on to cross the last border I have to face in central America. I am staying in a down-market place called Changuinola. I’ve done my washing, bought a marvellous map of the country, planned my route through it – I have to dip down to the south and go along the main arterial road in the south to Panama City and then strike north again to get to the Atlantic end of the Canal. The buses go every half hour to David, which is where I shall head tomorrow. I’m sitting in an Internet café. There’s a smell of chips coming from somewhere. The air conditioning is extremely effective and I feel chilly. The fan is directed straight at my right eye, which is watering. One moment it’s too hot, the next you’re down with pneumonia.
May 31: Panama City
From David, I took the bus to San Salvador (not that one!). Next day I was off to Panama City. I had toothache and wanted as much time as possible to get the thing sorted out.
I am staying in the Hotel Milan. In the same road is a family dental practice. I’d deliberately had my teeth checked before I left England in March, but this present trouble either hadn’t started or the Wareham dentist hadn’t picked it up. These guys picked it up and ran with it. I called first at 9.15am. By 10 o’clock I’d been seen, x-rayed, photographed, shown the pictures and given an appointment for 8am the next day with a man who specialises in root fillings.
Luckily both dentists spoke excellent English. We are so lucky that English is common among the professional classes in so many countries. Dr M (the root man) persuaded me that, as I couldn’t locate the pain precisely in one or other of a pair of adjacent gnashers, the only sensible course was root fillings in both. He gave me fantastic injections so that I didn’t feel a thing (to start with!). All I had to suffer was the ache of keeping my mouth open. ‘Don’t close, my friend, don’t close!’ and the continual belief that I was about to choke on my own secretions. The second filling was progressively more painful. I am sure the reason was that the anaesthetic was wearing off. By the time I was back in the waiting room forgetting to pay the $750, I could hardly think straight – let alone keep still. But they gave me 24-hour-lasting painkillers and a note to the hospital for something stronger if I needed it.
As soon as I was back in the hotel I took the painkiller, put the ‘ Do not Disturb’ notice on my door, got into bed and tried to distract myself with television. By the evening I was in a wine bar, eating soup and spaghetti Bolognese. On Monday I will have the temporary fillings replaced with permanent.
June 5: Colón
The good ship Tikeibank arrives at Cristobal (the port of Colón at the Atlantic end of the Panama Canal) at 12 noon tomorrow. I shall go aboard tomorrow afternoon. My hammock is the one next to the big man who keeps falling out. What he doesn’t know is that he is next to the little man who snores!
June 7: Aboard MV Tikeibank
I got on board MV Tikeibank yesterday afternoon. Began the transit of the Canal and associated natural waterways at 6pm. This morning we are lying at anchor at the Pacific end to let Atlantic-bound ships through. This is a merchant ship and not beautiful on deck, but everything else including the crew is lovely. The six other passengers are v pleasant.
On my last night in Colon (the roughest place I’ve seen so far), where as the only European I must have stood out from the crowd, I was mugged. I lost a draw-string bag, which had served me well. With it went my battered Spanish dictionary, containing a sheet in Spanish of my personal details (so I hope you don’t get any nasty messages), a thin waterproof the worse for the heat, my reading glasses and an almost-full notebook of notes – which I will have to rewrite from memory. Nothing of value to my assailant.
My glasses went flying. Two women, who saw it happen, picked them up and brought them to me. They took me to two policeman in the street, who went with me to my hotel. I hardly slept and the next day I couldn’t wait to get away. What upset me most was knowing that I had done two foolish things. Despite being told many times never to resist a mugger, it happened quickly and I’m afraid I instinctively held onto the strings while the guy pulled on the bag. He hit me in the face with his other hand, when I instinctively did let go. The second thing was that without realising I had wandered into what they told me afterwards was a no-go area. I was trying to get out but didn’t quite make it to safer territory. I feel bad about not being more responsible – careless on my last day on land. I was lucky to get away with a black eye and a sore head.
The next day I was too scared to go onto the street. Luckily I was able to have breakfast in the hotel and I got a taxi from the door to the shipping agents’ office. It was an enormous relief to get on the ship. I can now relax in a well-ordered and friendly atmosphere. I love you all.
We are now at the Pacific end of the Panama Canal waiting to take on fuel. I am well and all is lovely.
Been aboard a week now. My cabin is well arranged and convenient with air conditioning, video/dvd viewer, desk/dressing table, shower, loo, washbasin and a for’ard view over the tackle for handling freight.
The captain is a big easy-going man with a lively sense of humour – “Morning, campers!” Life is informal and friendly. We (the seven passengers) eat with the officers. We are all a thoroughly decent bunch. The officers are British, the crew Russian. We can go onto the bridge when we want as long as we don’t disrupt the work. The monkey island (above the bridge) affords a marvellous view. I sat up there today to watch the sun set (at 5.15!). I’ve seen “flying” fish and dolphins.
There’s not much to do. You need to like reading. Most of the passengers are doing the world cruise and they are regular users of the small gym. I have yet to do so or to investigate the little pool. But I have managed to unwind after eight weeks in central America. I tried to organise a Scrabble tournament but got no takers.
The transit of the Panama Canal was a highlight for everyone. We did it in stages because of various delays but always moving at night when the lights are magical.
The concept, the engineering and the co-ordination are immensely impressive eg the tugs and pilots or the electric locomotives on each side of the locks that steady and pull forward the ships once they’re in the first lock. Psychologically and aesthetically the transit was an uplifting experience.
Yesterday we crossed the Equator about 8 am our time. In the afternoon four cadets crossing the line for the first time were subject to an initiation ceremony – having to drink strange substances, parts of their head hair shaved and coloured goo tipped over them and then being hosed down. Two Russian stewardesses, I and another passenger were subject to a milder form of this. There was a barbecue for the whole ship in the evening. Some lovely skies – and sunsets, quick but impressive.
June 21: Papeete, Tahiti
We arrived in Papeete (the port and capital) last night and I watched the tug nudging us into our berth. I saw for the first time on this ship the tying-up process and studied the start of the unloading. The best thing was the dockers springing about on top of the containers and hooking the hoist onto each corner. If that container is higher than the others, they abseil down the side using the hoisting wires while they are still slack, then get out of the way while the thing goes up. An enormous door in the side of the hull opens and a ramp comes down to let the vehicles we’ve been carrying drive off, including a big earth mover.
I took an ordinary bus to the Botanic Gardens on the other side of the main island. This consists of steep wooded mountains and hills in the middle, surrounded by a fairly narrow area of flat land where everyone lives, inside a highly irregular coastline. The bus was close to the water all the way.
I’d a lunch of mahi-mahi (fish) in the gardens restaurant with the Pacific lapping beneath my window. The gardens were wonderful – realistic streams running through them, wonderful trees and giant bamboo. Next door is the fascinating Gauguin Museum.
On the way back I continued round the island. The bus was empty so I chose the best seat for looking out. The road ran on cliff tops and close to beaches all the way. Late afternoon – lots of people were bathing or surfing and the whole thing seemed like a playground. Eventually we’d a sunset as well, so it was a spectacular drive.
June 26th: Aboard MV Tikeibank:
We are crossing the International Date Line about now and the captain cancelled Monday 25th. Yesterday morning the engines cut out. One was still running, but not driving the ship. We turned in the wind but didn’t move forward. I know because some yellow paint chippings swept or blown overboard stayed close to the hull. I started writing (in my head) a story for Readers Digest called “Adrift in the Pacific”. But after 80 minutes of this we were off again.
Later I was sunning myself on the deck when the captain came off the bridge and beckoned me to come and see a whale. The dear man had spotted it ahead of the ship so I had all the time the ship took to pass the creature until it was out of sight. It was the width of a football pitch away from us. It leaped out of the water and flopped back in – to rid itself of barnacles, the captain said. It did this several times and also performed the old trick – blowing water up in an elegant fountain.
Today the swell was greater than I’d experienced before and I just caught a cup of coffee before it fell to the floor, having migrated across my desk unnoticed. The ship was pitching more than usual and for hours I felt slightly nauseous.
I have seen albatross! Today and yesterday these wonderful birds, majestic and graceful in flight (which is what they spend most of their time doing) have been following the ship – close enough for me to enjoy their seamless aerobatics.
We had a little party last night. That is to say dinner was a buffet in the lounge with wine on the house. This was to mark the fact that Kurt, a writer who lives in South Island, New Zealand, and I are leaving the ship tomorrow. I wrote a poem for the occasion, with humorous references to all present. It went down very well.
July 1: Auckland
After the places I’ve passed through, New Zealand is like coming home. Auckland is a visitor-friendly city with the added advantage for me that I speak the language fluently. I secured the last ticket for the last night of a play at the Skycity Theatre – ‘Who wants to be 100?’, about four men in an old people’s home – alternately sad and riotously funny. Wonderful to enjoy a production and hear (almost) every word.
I’m in the process of booking arrangements (through an agent with Freighter Travel) to go as a passenger on a German freight ship to Sydney 8th July, in time to spend a few days with Mary and Simon.
July 5: Tauranga, North Island
Took a bus to the Coromandel Peninsula, beautiful but unreal with its pointed hills clothed in grass or forest, exotic trees, plump sheep, English-looking cows, irregular and spectacular coastline, strange rocks, gorgeous beaches, well-maintained roads, neat wooden buildings, well-ordered towns – like a full-scale model of somebody’s dream country.
I stayed two nights in backpacking hostels, then went to Hamilton yesterday, where I spent most of today with Anne’s friends, who showed me something of this attractive city and took me round Hamilton Gardens, which are stunning, before driving me to Tauranga. My ship turned out to be sailing from here tomorrow Friday instead of Auckland Sunday. Three nights aboard the Cap Beatrice.
July 10: Sydney
The German ship was cheerless compared with Tikeibank. The officers were dour Russians. I was glad of the company of the only other passenger, a Kiwi farrier, looking after five horses also crossing the Tasman Sea.
July 17: Melbourne
Six lovely days in Sydney with Mary & Simon, enjoying some family life and easy conversation. The irregularly shaped harbour and the hilliness of the city mean that there’s a fascinating new vista around every corner. It’s their winter but there are lots of cafés, where people sit outside for lunch, some even for breakfast! Ferries do a circular tour and let you get on and off when you want. In the delightful Botanic Gardens I saw some 50 large fruit bats hanging in the trees. The zoo slopes down to the water’s edge. If you tire of the animals, you can just enjoy the view. Amazing bird show – slick, varied, colourful, exhilarating and educational. Birds swooping over our heads – ‘Don’t duck, the birds will just fly lower!’
I’m in the ‘All Nations Backpackers Hotel’. I’m 40 years older than almost everyone else. By paying extra I’ve got a room to myself with a double bunk – sharing washing facilities, including a communal washing trough, kitchen, living room, Internet access, TV etc. Went to a comedy evening in the pub next door and enjoyed being picked on by the female compere. I’ve got a company in Port Melbourne to start the process of obtaining the visas I need for Asia.
I’m treating Melbourne as a continuous arts festival I’ve stumbled on. I’ve been to three plays and am booked to see Ian McKellan in Chekhov’s ‘The Seagull’. Exhibition on the Great Wall of China. I worked hard on my fear of heights 56 stories up on the viewing deck of the second highest skyscraper in the city.
The Old Melbourne Gaol has been turned into a museum You can enter most of the cells, which have pictures and stories of inmates hanged in the gaol. I’ve also seen the Museum of Immigration. Both museums show Australia confronting its short history in a more frank and honest way than you would see in the UK or the US. There was an international film festival in Melbourne. Saw two films in a highly theatrical cinema, which was also the box office for the festival. It was full of arty people and had a marvellous buzz. I have a place on a ship from Fremantle (the port of Perth) on or around August 12 to Klang (the port of Kuala Lumpur).
August 7: Perth
On my last day in Melbourne I collected my visas, then set off west by train. The train manager’s announcements were clear, friendly and full of jokes. The Australians are the only people I know (apart from the British) with whom you can chance a joke with a complete stranger, knowing they will take it in good part and enjoy it. In fact it’s a good way of getting into conversation with someone. Talked to lots of people in the café on the train. A beauty therapist came up to me and said, ‘May I sit here and talk to you?’
I spent two nights in a little place called Nhill (halfway between Melbourne and Adelaide) where I spent hours in the local historical society’s museum. I saw daffodils blooming. It was very cold when the sun went down but there was a wood fire in the hotel and an electric blanket on my bed. I’d a day and a night in the very photogenic Adelaide. Then I caught the Indian-Pacific to Perth. I’d a ‘Red Kangaroo’ sleeper to myself. The café on the train was like a club. A lady who used to live in Western Australia gave me some pointers for Perth and Fremantle – and told me her life history. We travelled the longest straight railway track in the world through the Nullarbor (treeless) Plain, a barren but fascinating landscape. There was an occasional audio commentary on the train. Saw wild camels, kangaroos and the wedge-tailed eagle.
We stopped half an hour in Cook, an isolated, semi-deserted town. I strode to the end of the train to photograph the track disappearing into the distance. Didn’t hear the signal to get aboard again. Luckily I used my eyes. Otherwise I might have had a half a week without my luggage in a lonely place, throwing throw myself on the mercy of the woman who runs the souvenir shop and missing my ship to Malaysia. We also stopped in the gold-mining town of Kalgoorlie, where I joined a coach tour of the town and peered into a mine, the biggest hole I had ever seen.
Saw three dolphins very close to the jetty I was standing on. Concert last night by the Juniper Chamber Orchestra – baroque and classical music in the Government House Ballroom. Very grand setting with government staff on duty in uniform. I felt scruffy in my travelling trousers and hiking boots. Luckily the evening also featured the works of a Perth sculptor, so I hoped people would think I was an arty type. One of the sculptures (a life-size figure) was standing in the foyer. The title of the piece was stuck to her base. I got down on my hands and knees to read it. While I was down there I noticed the price – 20,000 Australian dollars. As you can imagine I got up very carefully.
August 21: Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
On the ship I had the owner’s suite, unnecessarily spacious with three portholes and a good forward view. I used the big desk to sort out my papers. The other two passengers were two decks down and looked at nothing but a wall of containers, so I invited them up to my grand if temporary abode. Ben was a young man from Perth with long wavy blond hair and a passion for travel. Tobias was a Swiss musician in his thirties, quiet, sensitive, with long thin wrists. He’d been studying with an Australian pianist in Canberra. I was lucky to have company – and people who shared two of my interests, travel and music, especially as the officers were men of few words (most of them Russian). Generally calm seas, beautiful sunsets and air rapidly getting warmer as we headed almost due north back into the Tropics. We passed between Sumatra and Java and then between Sumatra and Malaysia. Numerous islands of different sizes, ditto ships. Came into Klang Harbour between 10pm and 11pm last night. The Quayside looked magical with white and yellow lights all around and some ships and boats ablaze with light.
Next morning, as Tobias and I left the docks in a taxi, I saw MV Tikeibank (the ship that had taken me across the Pacific). Tobias and I took the train. He got off to stay with another piano teacher before taking a ship back to Italy. I went on to Kuala Lumpur Central where I checked in to the YMCA.
KL is an excellent place to begin a trip across Asia. There is a soup of races – Malay, Chinese, Indian etc and a Babel of religions – Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist (not strictly a religion, I know) and Christian. I feel safe in the YMCA because of the institutional nature of this big building and the civilised behaviour of its visitors. There are classes in many languages including English and people playing tennis rather badly on the hard courts in front of us. You can have “toasts with jam” for breakfast.
Throughout the city I have little difficulty communicating because almost everyone has some English and couldn’t be more helpful. The expected mix of skyscrapers and market stalls. Just now it looks wild – decked everywhere with the Malaysian flag (which, with its red and white stripes and yellow heavenly bodies on a blue background, has an unfortunate resemblance to the flag of the USA) ahead of the 50th anniversary of the country’s independence on August 31st. In the parks they’re busy with the bedding plants. I spent two hours in the national history museum learning about the peninsula’s various foreign occupations. Of these the British came out best, the Japanese worst. I’m going back today to study the last 50 years. It only costs one ringgit (about 17p). Everything is very cheap here.
August 28: Khon Kaen, Thailand
I’m in Thailand. And if I could possibly forget it, I am reminded by giant gilt-framed photos of His Majesty by the roadside, fairly big ones in shop windows and numerous historical pics inside the hotels. Yesterday, being Monday, great numbers wore yellow tops out of respect to this revered monarch.
I got here by train. I was worried about sharing a sleeper with a stranger. I needn’t have worried – there were lots of strangers. I felt much safer in a communal sleeping car. In the bunk opposite me was a jolly Australian, so we swapped travelling stories. I was glad of his company when we crossed the border into Thailand. We all had to get off the train to go through customs and immigration. The guard told us we could leave our luggage on the train but Matt and I agreed we wouldn’t fall for that old trick and we took our rucksacks with us. Imagine my relief when I saw the train pull out of the station – for refuelling and refilling of water. I saw some people who stayed on the train – presumably to avoid the authorities. Don’t know what happened to them – no doubt tied to some rusting rolling stock and quietly sawn to pieces with a fish-gutting knife.
The next two train journeys (to get me to Bangkok) I did by day, breaking the journey in Sura Thani. Thus I saw lots of Thai countryside and got to sleep in stationary beds at night. Arrived late in Bangkok so shot into the Station Hotel, where I either stewed in the heat or shivered in the powerful ‘air con’. It was lovely the next morning to meet my nephew Chris, who gave me a superb intro to the wonders of Bangkok and its comprehensive transport system.
He showed me the temple of the Emerald Buddha and the Paragon mall, which lives up to its name, a paragon of retail design and ambience – I’d say in the top league of malls worldwide. He led me down the underground, up to the skytrain, along the murky waters of the river in a ferry (shades of Sydney Harbour) – and in a taxi too. In the evening his girlfriend Jib (pronounced ‘Jeep’) joined us and I took the two of them to her choice of restaurant, for some Thai food to beat all the memorable Thai restaurants I’d encountered in the west. Two live musicians played the Sore Duong. If I believed I would go to a heaven it would be that sort of music I’d expect to greet me.
The next day, half remembering Chris’s instructions and bumbling along in my usual style, I traversed the city again but on my own. In a restaurant I was invited to join three young Thai women for a birthday lunch. The birthday girl, a stewardess on Thai Airlines, took me in her car to a theatre to get a ticket for a show that evening, recommended by Chris. This turned out to be a tour de force to make the Grand March in Aida look like a church ramble. We had a river on stage deep enough for someone to bathe in it, mythical creatures, big heads, shadow puppets, real goats, a live elephant a metre from my nostrils, music, drumming, rain, thunder, lightning, statues coming alive and an aerial ballet to make Peter Pan look like the school high jump. An hour and half without a single hesitation. A most impressive spectacle, if, for me, not particularly involving!
Next day I came on here to Khon Kaen, where I am nursing a cold, while lapping up the comforts of the Hotel Sofitel. I’ll spare you the details. Readers of my book will not get off so lightly. Tomorrow – third class to Nong Khai.
August 29: Vientianne, Laos
I am in Laos, wrestling with a new currency. I exchanged four one-thousand Thai-baht notes for a wad of 10,000 Lao-kip notes so thick that in my back pocket it makes sitting uncomfortable. Third class rail was fine. Very noisy, with rattling doors and windows. The rain came in, but nobody stole my luggage – not even once. Rode in a tuk-tuk – bright and breezy. My cold is better. The heat and big bowls of Thai (or Lao) soup have been very comforting. I now feel I’m going to make it. So I will take care and hang on in there!
August 31: Vinh, Vietnam
Travelling in this part of the world is slower than I expected, distances great. I have to press on. I cut Laos short. I arrived this morning in Vinh. I wrote a nice account of getting here and what it’s like but, a propos of nothing – the machine wiped it. I am too upset to write it all out again. I hope this gets to you.
Some of you told me that Laos would be beautiful. From the bus to Vietnam I saw the silhouettes of mountains and the Mekong River by moonlight. Then, in the morning sunshine, the bright green plains of Vietnam – winding rivers with sand banks and spits of sand, people in the familiar conical hats harvesting the rice, traffic crazy, people ditto. It’s so noisy in this Internet café and I’m tired. I’m going to pack it in. Next time I’ll save each paragraph as I go.
September 5: Hanoi, Vietnam
The bus ride from Vinh was a nail-biting hurtle. Our driver’s style was spirited and aggressive. Trying to overtake at the narrowest opportunity, often having to drop back to where he’d been as a bus or other unstoppable sped towards us down the path he’d hope to take – often smoking and all the while playing his discordant ensemble of horns.
I booked into a hotel near the bus station. Couldn’t find it on my little map. The reason was that we were further out of the city than I thought and off the map. Couldn’t find an ATM that would play. Two put me in a panic, ‘Your card is due shortly to expire. Contact your bank.’ I raided my secret dollar reserve until I was down to just a few. The banks were closed for Independence Day. I couldn’t afford to buy food. I had some Thai baht but the exchange people were closed too. Finally I moved into the centre (the old quarter) with almost my last dollar. Mercifully, I found a 24-hour ATM run by my own dear HSBC, where I drew a few million dong. What a relief! It was 11am. I’d eaten nothing except a tiny carton of orange-flavoured milk (rather sickly) since lunch the previous day. I was now in the tourist area with lots of smart places to eat in. I had a marvellous late breakfast of scrambled egg, bacon, crusty bread and coffee. One moment in the gutter, the next in the butter!
I spent yesterday on last-minute preparations for China, including striving to replenish my stock of dollars. Everyone is happy to take them. The only people I can find to give them out are the jewellers. I had one of those evenings that have to go in the book – classic John Barclay material. I wrote this up before going to bed instead of putting my mind to the bus journey into China I’d planned for today.
The guy here in the Camellia 5 Hotel (recommended by Lonely Planet – they speak good English and couldn’t be more helpful) had got me a ticket for the 7.30am bus. And he’d organised transport for me to the bus. I got it into my head that we were leaving the hotel at 7.30, so I was gaily ordering my breakfast (here in the hotel). ‘It’s too early for breakfast,’ the guy said. I didn’t realise that he meant ‘too late’! and calmly ate my breakfast. Suddenly there was a mad scramble to get me to the bus – rucksack, small bags and all, on the back of a scooter, in the rain! As we sped along I realised I’d left my camera under my bed. You will wonder how I managed to get this far! I wasn’t going to leave without it and the pictures I’d taken since Melbourne so I opted to miss the bus and come back to the hotel. I was abject in my apology. They are getting me on the same bus tomorrow. More than I deserve!
September 7: Nanning, China
I have moved up to what I hope will be the highest level of difficulty. Internet extremely difficult. Don’t expect much more than place names from me. Money extremely difficult. HSBC hasn’t travelled the 700 km here from Hong Kong. No ATM takes my card. Very few people have English, but they really try to help. I may go to Hong Kong for money, and try another route for crossing Asia.
September 10: Guangzhou
I was particularly frustrated in Nanning. It took me ages to find an Internet outlet. The natives give any old answer to fob you off so they don’t lose face. Thus you waste time following false leads and in my case go wild. You have to follow the leads because occasionally they work and they’re often all you’ve got. When I did find an Internet café it was in a basement with lighting deliberately kept extremely dim, so the only way I could see the keyboard was to take my specs off every time and put my eyes three inches from the keys then put my glasses back on to see . . .
Sorry I’ve gopt to go
September 12: Lanzhou
Guangzhou was my last stop in the Tropics – just south of the Tropic of Cancer. I have just arrived in a cool and rainy Lanzhou, (the Internet café smells of burning coke) some 900 miles north and west of Guangzhou, after a day-and-a-half train journey with two nights aboard the train. I was in a middle bunk in a long line of threesomes. A bit cramped but the locals were very sweet, passing up to me anything I dropped. Little tip-up seats in the long passage provide two seats for every six passengers. Otherwise you have to get on your bunk or sit, usually sharing, on a bottom bunk.
My last message was cut short because, although I traipsed around the shops for hours I couldn’t find an Internet cafe. Desperate, I went into a shop with a graphic-design service. There was a computer not in use, which a man said I could use for free, but suddenly the guy who earlier had been using the machine came in, knowing nothing of this arrangement and wanting to get back to work. So I had to close down quickly. Today I was lucky. I came out of the train station about 8am, put my rucksack in the left luggage, had a breakfast of rather salty noodles and bits. Then I spotted an illuminated sign for ‘Internet’. I actually recognised the two Chinese characters of the Chinese word for it!
I was very stressed in Nanning. Everything seemed against me. In particular the thought that I couldn’t get any money out was scary. However, things looked up in Guangzhou, so I didn’t have to go to Hong Kong. And now I’m more or less on top again. The frustrations I’ve faced and some ridiculous situations I’ve been in will make wonderful material for the book. At times I seemed to spending as much time writing my notes as having weird experiences, and very little time doing anything else.
September 15: Urumqi
In good spirits, particularly after meeting an ex-pat British guy from Shanghai, who is big in tomatoes, and his British women cousins and friends, all of whom have been meeting up in my hotel. I had breakfast with them all. David, the tomato king, is blond, well over six feet tall and speaks Chinese with such total assurance that the natives have nowhere to hide – very amusing!
The train ride across the western reaches of this big country was amazing – much of it a barren desert of red sandstone rocks and red sand, as lifeless as the surface of the moon. Obviously missing my grandchildren, I made friends with a six-year old Chinese boy on the train, communicating through funny faces, gestures and drawings. He quickly mastered the art of refolding my map of China.
Tomorrow I board a bus for the 24-hour journey over mountains to Almaty in Kazakhstan. If we take the road I think we will, we’ll be close to 3,000m above sea level.
I’m still in Urumqi, because I can’t get a visa for Kazakhstan. I’d forgotten that this was one visa my agent left to me to get in Urumqi. After a long drive through the night, I was turned back at the border and told I’d have to go to Bejing. The drive back to Urumqi, however, was by daylight – and spectacular, with the surprise of a lake at 2,000m. We had a ‘comfort stop’ at a similar height. The air must have been some of the sweetest in China!
I am now trying to get the visa here. I don’t fancy going all the way to Bejing! I will not fly. That would negate the whole project.
With great difficulty I found the Kazakhstan Consulate and put in my application for a visa. Should be ready on Monday. I’ll be on the bus that night. Then I have 16 days to get across Kazakhstan and Russia cause my Russian visa runs out on the 9th of October! As the travelling gets more hairy so the possibilities for the book develop. The last section may be called ‘A Race Against Time’. Meanwhile we are one week into Ramadan and all the hotels are full – I have to keep changing hotel. An old problem has re-appeared – getting cash. I found a single bank that accepted my card but it ‘timed out’ and didn’t pay anything.
September 27: Almaty, Kazakhstan
Got visa. Arrived Almaty late Tuesday evening after a long and tedious bus journey. Managed to get the only showers unlocked at midnight – as I was stinking, One of the joys of being in Kaz is that I can at last buy spray-on deodorant, which the Chinese don’t seem to need! The country is very pleasant and it’s a delightful time of year. A proper autumn, with golden leaves on the poplar trees and ground. In the tropics there is no sense of season except rainy ones. The air is cold here but the sun very warm. I’ve been wandering around the tree-lined streets of Almaty, which like Greater London has residential areas between the shops and offices. Very pleasant, although it took me ages to track down an Internet café. Fewer English speakers and notices than in China, but you can have a stab at reading signs eg café has only one letter different. (I can’t tell whether it’s Kazakh or Russian.) I was thrilled correctly to have guessed their word for ‘Internet’. I’m on the 3.15pm train today to Kandagach.
October 3: Volgograd, Russia
Kandagach was something of a one-horse town. No hotel, and hardly anything we would call a shop – although I did find a restaurant for lunch. So I moved onto Atyrau – on the edge of the Caspian Sea according to my Cooks Timetable. Nearly got in a taxi and said, ‘Take me to the sea!’ Luckily I checked. It’s 800km! In this impoverished place, where the roads are tarmacked but the ‘pavements’ are made of extremely uneven dried mud, I was molested and tormented by a very strange young man. I didn’t know how it would end so I threw him off by crossing a busy road, which he didn’t like one bit, and then immediately getting into conversation (in sign language, of course) with two men on the other side. Very scary, but I felt I handled it really well, which prevented my morale from dropping.
From Atyrau I went to Baskunchak in Russia. Even smaller than Kandagach. No hotel, no restaurant, just a food shop. They let me sleep in the staff flat in the station until 3am, when I was collected and put on the train to Volgograd, formerly Stalingrad., where I am now, in a nice hotel with a beautiful and charming receptionist. The river is a bright blue and very wide. Lovely to have lots of fresh air after so much time on trains. Culturally I don’t feel so far from home. Only three hours time difference from London! Next big place Kharkiv in Ukraine.
October 10: L’viv, Ukraine
In the event I didn’t go to Kharkiv but to Kiev, or Kyiv as it’s sometimes spelled, cause it was more direct. On the way there I had one night in Vinnytsia – for those of you plotting my route – where I stayed in the Savoy Hotel! I’m still having adventures, some hairier than others, to keep me on my, now rather tired, toes.
I crossed the country by train. The countryside is beautiful in a kind of natural, rustic way – a bit like the raw material from which the old masters built up their masterpieces. More varied than Russia and, as we approached L’viv (or Lvov) in the west, delightful – hilly, always changing – with rivers, very small fields, farmsteads with horses, cows, goats, numerous geese and ducks, little wells with tiny roofs and everywhere enough trees (all shades of autumn colours) to make it interesting, but no forests, which can get dull. Last night, I arrived quite late but managed to get a beautiful dinner in the Grand Hotel (L’viv). A pianist was tinkling Schubert. Three businessmen on the next table were speaking English and when they saw me listening invited me to join them. Two were German and if I go to Cologne one will show me some of the sights. L’viv is full of attractive buildings, a little cluttered for easy photography, but it could be the next popular destination for the long weekend. Heading for Krakow in Poland.
Should be in England about 23rd October to catch some of the family at half term – back in Dorset a bit after that.
October 16: Dresden
I seem to be picking out places of particular significance in World War 2: Volgograd (Stalingrad), Poland, Germany and Belgium, including Auschwitz and Dresden, where I am now, nursing a bad cold in the warm sunshine. So, to fill you in on my itinerary, it was Krakow, Oswiecim (renamed Auschwitz by the Nazis), Katowice, Wroclaw, Dresden. I will tell you about my visit to the Auschwitz Museum on another occasion.
The journey from Wroclaw to Dresden – by train to Legnica, bus to Zgorzelec and light railway across the border to Görlitz was sheer pleasure (a constantly changing bucolic scene, with autumn colours, unbroken sky and bright sunshine. I was the only person crossing the border. Two officials visited me in my comfortable coach, inspected my passport and said, ‘Danke Schön. (The umlaut is very easy on this German keyboard.) The formality lasted 40 seconds and it was the most pleasant crossing of the whole trip so far.
Now resting up in Dresden, where the water in the hotel is hot enough for steam inhalations for my cold. I have been as far as the Elbe, seen some of the stunning architecture and had lunch outside.
At the station I knew I was close to home when, at my command, euros came out of the ATM. After six months of deprivation, I cried a little when I saw the European edition of the London Times. Of course I had to buy it. My next bulletin will probably be from a small fishing boat in the North Sea.
October 19: Derby
I am back in England, having completed the challenge I set myself. It was like a marathon with lots of interesting resting places. I am elated, satisfied, tired and thrilled to be back. I met with abundant kindness while I was away, but it’s good to be back among my own sort of people – the British are such individuals, a bit scruffy, but happy in their own skins – and I naturally feel at home with them.
The last bit of the journey went very quickly. I enjoyed a lovely train journey from Dresden to Frankfurt. The German train was fast, smooth and comfortable. Very difficult to take photographs out of the window because of the speed. One night in a hostel in Frankfurt, then on to Cologne to find Michael, the German business consultant I’d met in L’viv. Turned out he was out of the country (we hadn’t a specific date.) The weather was cold and wet so I just went on to Brussels. When I got there I found there was a French rail strike brewing, so I sprang on the first Eurostar and got to Waterloo at 7.30pm last night, completing the loop because I’d set out from Waterloo. That was on March 26th. So I have been away a little over half a year. A marvellous, fascinating, educational, heartening, stimulating and tiring business.
A word about the Auschwitz Museum. This is the death camp, the buildings and whole camp as they were. Inside, collections of gruesome reminders of those who suffered there – hair, glasses, artificial limbs, named suitcases and so on. I’d seen some good television programmes about Auschwitz but I was still shocked by the overall ill-treatment of prisoners at every turn. I stayed in a youth meeting centre organised as an exercise in reconciliation between Germany and Poland. Lot of people, born about half a century after these terrible events. I am interested in how to prevent atrocities – and there have been quite a few since WW2. So – much food for thought!
I am now in Derby waiting to join Edward and family here and recuperate before returning to Wareham next weekend. I will try to see you all one way or another but in the meantime I feel lucky to have an opportunity to go on such an odyssey. There were times when I was low and times when I thought of cutting my losses and flying (yes!) home. At those times you were a tremendous support to me. Thank you very much. I’ll be in touch again soon.
See book this lead to: Publications.