Life on Board

We were on a minibus recently, being heartily gouged by the Argentines (as usual), this time for a short transfer between Ushuaia and the local national park (14km on good roads? One whole hour and $20 each please! Oh, and Las Malvinas belong to them, no really). Anyway, we got chatting with an English couple, and the conversation turned to Antarctica cruises. Had they been on one? The answer came back that they were “not cruise people”. It was an answer we understood – not only are the trips pretty pricey, but cruises generally have an association of retired ladies and gentlemen in double breasted blazers drinking slightly too many pink gins at lunchtime. The occasional bingo night maybe? Perhaps a Perry Como-themed dining extravaganza or two, followed by slightly moth-eaten tuxedos at the captain’s table? Was this how life on board a cruise ship was going to be?

Er, no.

Our boat had two main types of people on board. About two thirds were older or retired couples who had planned the trip a good year or so in advance. And these were not the Florida-grotty tour group types we had come across elsewhere – for the most part they were extremely well travelled, reasonably well heeled, fairly open to new experiences and with a good suite of stories to liven up dinner time. There was a faintly crazy Vietnam vet and his lovely wife (who had been frostbitten climbing Aconcagua the year before and who we ran into carrying HUGE rucksacks in the Torres del Paine a week later), a happily retired Texan couple who had been dating for 20 years and were on board to celebrate her 65th birthday (complete with singing Costa Rican waiters, the inevitable guitar and the perhaps less inevitable plastic tray rhythm section). A solo Aussie who had happily attended his only son’s wedding a week before and was on board to celebrate a quasi-honeymoon of his own. A cast of characters, if you will.

The Sea Spirit, avec icebergs. Our cabin is, erm, completely invisible in this photo

The Sea Spirit, avec icebergs. Our cabin is, erm, completely invisible in this photo

And then there were the young ‘uns. Oh yes, the young ‘uns. We were made pretty darn drowsy by our super-strength sea sickness pills (honest, guv’nor) and so didn’t spend too much time each evening laying into the open bar. However, a good third of the passengers were young travelers who had booked at the last minute, and were determined to get their  money’s worth. Oh yes.

So, Lucy and I would retire to bed pretty soon after dinner each day, tired out by the early starts, the multiple extraordinary Antarctic landings; the excellent lectures throughout the day on glaciology, whales, bird life and rugged-beardy-explorer history; a hearty and usually pretty good three course dinner; and a cheeky beer while watching the sun go down. Hey – you’re in Antarctica, what is the point of being hungover? In fact, we were so well behaved that we didn’t actually pick up on the gossip until the last night of the trip, when I couldn’t resist the lure of a dodgy sound system and even dodgier pop music and decided to give my sea legs a damn good boogie. Well…

…it turns out that the young crowd had spent most of the trip drinking vast quantities of free beer, dancing frenetically while the ship heaved on the swell and hooking up with each other. And they had clearly been watching too much bad American television – one particular faintly balding stud had apparently spent most of the trip in bed with not one, but two of the woo girls on board. And he claimed to have found himself a third on an off night. One even went swimming in the sea naked. We were utterly woebegoggled. I mean, Lucy and I like a good party as much as the next man (and the next two ladies), but seriously?

Lucy in full-on whale spotting mode. And pretty good at it she was too!

Lucy in full-on whale spotting mode. And pretty good at it she was too!

Guys, we’re getting old. Perhaps it’s even time to move back to London and settle down?

Sweet Cravings

This is going to be a little hard to explain, so please bear with me.

Our plan for the trip included a certain amount of “flashpacking”. Loosely defined, this involves slumming it for most of the trip – sleeping on floors, taking overnight buses, finding interesting backpacker haunts in the high mountains and on white sand beaches, spending next to nothing in awe-inspiring and remote places. The flash part is then taking the money we have saved as a result and checking into the occasional lovely hotel – we aren’t students any more after all, and there are some beautiful hotels in the world where we hoped to benefit from cheap third world prices. Our plan was to check in, unpack the collared shirts and high heels, hand our filthy backpacks in toto to the laundry, hop in the shower and drink shockingly cheap cocktails until everything comes back clean and we can head back into the wilderness. And it hasn’t really worked.

There are a couple of reasons for this. First of all, our “slumming it” turned out to be shockingly expensive: beer might be cheap in parts of the world, but petrol isn’t (OK, so it’s free in Turkmenistan, but that’s another story). A large part of our budget has been taken up by internal flights in countries where there is no other option. Cars and buses to take us to the out-of-the-way places on our itinerary don’t come particularly cheap either. And Papua New Guinea showed us that even $180 hotel rooms come complete with filthy sheets and cockroaches. Secondly, hoteliers are no fools, and a beer in an international standard hotel costs pretty much the same all around the world no matter what the base price of the beer is in that country. Hotel laundries worldwide play the same game: I have written about this before, but hotel prices for washing clothes make me angry and I refuse to pay them on point of principle, in Vanuatu as well as in Vegas. As a result, we have done some flashy things (hopefully not unforgiveably so) but we haven’t ever checked into a nice holiday resort and lapped up luxury for a few days.

So the conversation (when it happened) didn’t take either of us by surprise. We were sleeping on (yet another) floor, this time on a two day trek through local villages to Inle Lake in Myanmar. The trek was nice, but nothing extraordinary, and we both decided that (i) we are just too old to sleep on floors anymore and (ii) we have perhaps had just a little too much of it on this journey. We will always make exceptions for exceptional things – take us to Rwanda to see gorillas, for example, and we’ll happily sleep wedged in the fork of a tree if we have to – but as a way of life, we would like a comfortable bed and our own bathroom, please.

So yes, for the next few weeks at least, screw the honorable ruggedness. I’d like a Mai Tai and a chilled bottle of water please – you’ll find us by the pool.

Perfectly nice accommodation, although the see-through walls, the lack of bedding and the smoky fire under the floor could perhaps be improved on

Perfectly nice accommodation, although the see-through walls, the lack of bedding and the smoky fire under the floor could perhaps be improved on

Somewhat better accommodation – although our private balcony over the lake was perhaps a little shady, and it was a long walk to the bar(!)

Somewhat better accommodation – although our private balcony over the lake was perhaps a little shady, and it was a long walk to the bar(!)

In With the Outlaws

Or rather, out with the in-laws. For last week I had my first family holiday with Lucy’s Mum and Dad. And very nice it was too!

This being Round the World With James & Lucy, and this being the Garrett family, we didn’t spend our first holiday together going somewhere nice and sensible. Oh no. Instead of, say, hiring a nice cottage in the countryside, or perhaps heading off to the beach somewhere, we arranged to … meet up in a rooftop bar in Cambodia and do the rounds of Angkor Wat together. Result!

It was a truly excellent four days. We soon settled into the holiday routine – up not too early for a good breakfast; hop two by two into our motorbike tuk tuk contraption driven by our trusty driver; off temple bashing until we wilted from the extraordinary humid heat; a long lazy lunch, rounded out by fresh spring rolls and fresh coconut juice; more temple bashing in the afternoon (or maybe a sneaky snooze); then glad rags on for a fortifying gin & tonic or two; and off for a delicious dinner in one of the best restaurants in town. It was tough, I tell you.

More on Angkor Wat / Siem Reap later – it isn’t known as one of the best temple sites in the world for nothing and we may have taken a picture or two. For now, picture us on a happy holiday, with not a sleeping-on-the-floor, a scary man with a machete or a pit toilet in sight!

Being Bad in Bangkok

Ahhh, Bangkok.

Famous for dodgy fake gear, drugs, sex shows and lady-boys. Quite the reputation to live up to but Bangkok always manages…. effortlessly. It’s hard to stumble more than a few yards without being offered finest quality Rolexes with maybe a free Louis Vuitton bag thrown in to carry your loot home in. All real, of course. The seedier offers don’t fall far behind either; I still recall visiting Bangkok as a teenager with my family. Wandering down Patpong market, the lovely ladies were trying to entice my poor father in to their establishments with offers of free drinks galore… plus some other stuff that I didn’t understand. Hoping to put them off a little, he pointed out that he was there with his wife and entire family – response: “No problem, they can come in too!”. Unbelievably, we didn’t take them up on their kind offer.

Of course the city also has a more pleasant side and a number of world class tourist attractions. The Emerald Buddha (really made of jade, which I think is cheating but he’s a cool little dude anyway so I guess fair’s fair. Though he really is little – can’t be more than 8 inches high) housed within his amazingly intricately decorative Palace. The Golden Buddha – better named this time, being very very big and very, very gold. And the famed floating market with thousands of hawkers all lined up in their canoes to sell their wares (usually bananas. There’s really a LOT of bananas in Bangkok. Let’s carefully avoid the obvious jokes here). It’s an amazing tourist destination and needs a fair few days just to take it all in.

Then there’s the clothes shops, and in particular the tailors – Bangkok is probably the finest place in Asia to get a little custom made something or other made up. It’s here that the famed “3 suits in 3 days” service started up, and they do stick to their word on this (although one should also note that the word doesn’t include anything about said suits needing to look good, or in fact to even fit….).

How to fit it all in?

Well, for us it was pretty easy. We did ASOLUTELY nothing. We lazed round the pool. We ate dinner in the hotel for heaven’s sake. The most activity we got up to was catching up with an old work friend for lunch (pretty exhausting stuff)…. at our hotel. All of which we’re excusing by the fact that I’d picked up a nasty coldy-fluey thing in Japan and basically slept for most of the time we were there.

Although to be really honest, it was just a really lovely hotel, and we were kind of excited to hang round the pool for a day or two.

Anyway, Bangkok is the city of vice. And if my vice happens to be sloth, who’s to argue?

The single solitary photograph we took in Bangkok. Ladies and gentlemen, half a cocktail!

The single solitary photograph we took in Bangkok. Ladies and gentlemen, half a cocktail!

Box Ticking

We have been to Japan before. A two week holiday a few years ago whetted our appetite for all things Japanese, hence our desire to shoehorn a return trip into the gap in our itinerary caused by the immovable blocks of Christmas and, er, the North Korean National day in September. We loved it last time, and we loved it this time. But we had some chores to complete.

Last time we were here we ranged all over the country, we skied in Hokkaido, we took the Japanese equivalent of the Orient Express (for which you have to win tickets in a lottery), we temple bashed in Nara, misery touristed in Hiroshima, monastery stayed in Koya-San, and Kabuki-ed in Tokyo. We ate everything we could get our hands on and stayed in a range of high and low class hotels the length of the country. But we missed out on a few things – seasonality, time constraints and mild case of culture shock prevented us from doing everything we wanted to. Hence the requirement for a little box ticking.

Well, you know your life isn’t too bad when your mandatory box ticking involves going to a Sumo tournament and tasting poisonous Fugu puffer fish. Life is tough, yet again.

Sumo. Well. It’s amazing. The bouts typically last less than ten seconds, but that misses the point. It’s the mandatory four minutes per bout of facing off, warming up, strutting and posturing that really make the occasion. Our American friends won’t know what the hell I am talking about at this point, but do you remember that time when the Scottish ladies’ curling team got a gold medal at the winter Olympics? For about three days everyone in the UK suddenly became world class curling experts, able to discuss at length the tactical implications of scrubbing vs polishing ice, stone positioning and the correct usage of the slippery and spiked shoes. It was bizarre, and it overtook us at the Sumo:

“Oh, look at that decisive foot stamp. He’s so aggressive. He’s definitely got the upper hand”

“What an effective ceremonial-salt-chucking there – the Yokozuna’s overhand salt toss. Punchy!”

“My lord, he leaned so far forward on his hands there in warm up! How can the opponent possibly respond?”

“Did you see the half-hearted honorific brow mopping there? His fighting spirit must be broken!”

(and, my personal favorite, from Lucy) “He’s wearing lovely green pants. I think he’s definitely going to win.”

Sumo is deeply bizarre, heavily tied up in ritual, almost perfectly opaque to outsiders, and definitely worth a visit if you happen to be in town when a match is on.

Eating Fugu on the other hand, is deeply bizarre, heavily tied up in ritual, almost perfectly opaque to outsiders and worth doing just once in your life for the sole reason that you can say you have done it. We journeyed to the spiritual home of Fugu in Shimonoseki (where even the manhole covers have cartoon blowfish on them) and tried a full “setto” of blowfish in a specialist blowfish restaurant. Our English friends won’t know what the hell I am talking about at this point, but … well … Meh. It was just chewy sashimi without any of the famed mouth numbness that signifies near-poisoning (interestingly the Japanese word for “sashimi” isn’t actually “sashimi” but “o-tsukuri” – who knew?).

Perhaps they don’t serve the good stuff to foreigners; perhaps we don’t know the Japanese for “hurt me, chef”; perhaps we had too much beer for lunch. Anyway – tick.

Expectation Management

And so we fell ignominiously out of the bottom of Tibet and into Nepal.

Our experience in Nepal started much like our experiences in many other places – we successfully negotiated ourselves into a taxi from the border at such a cut price rate that the driver felt obliged not only to pick up a girlfriend of his on our dime (complete with actual, real life, actually projectile puking baby) but also to stop for a puncture, a tire repair and a fifteen minute stop (just five minutes from our hotel) to pick up spare parts for his car. So far so James-&-Lucy travel standard, we thought. In fact, so far so easy, as the wheels actually stayed on the car this time.

But then our ruggedness completely failed us. It’s not that we weren’t trying mind, it’s just that Nepal is so … erm … nice in comparison to some of the other places we have been.

We bounced through Kathmandu (nice hotel; taxis turn up on time; food’s pretty good if you like curry; people speak English; and machetes aren’t a fashion accessory) took a plane to Pokhara (they sell white toblerones at the airport; there is actually an airport; we didn’t have to hire our own plane or anything) and checked into our hotel (honeymoon suite with a balcony for $55; laundry, mineral water and cheap beer within easy reach; working internet; and a sunny roof terrace with a view of the mountains for a spot of yoga). It was all so … convenient. Things worked. There were restaurants near the lake with proper Illy espresso machines. We couldn’t believe it.

So, feeling the need for a bit of rugged, we headed off on our trek. Now, trekking in Nepal has a deserved reputation for being pretty hardcore – the views are spectacular; the accommodation is pretty basic and the treks are steep, high and hard work. Our particular trek to Poon Hill took us over 3,100 meters in five days – well high enough to bring you down with altitude sickness if you’re unlucky. So, as we set off for the mountains (brushing off the street hawkers trying to flog us … warm freshly baked croissants) we were pretty fired up!

Actually … perhaps we were a little too fired up. You see, we had just come from ten days on the Tibetan plateau at altitudes up to 5,000+m. Our easy acclimatization days (complete with a little light jogging) had been in Lhasa above 3,500m, and we were in Nepal because we had balked at the prospect of a Tibetan trek involving ten hour days walking behind yaks over high passes and possibly camping in the snow. So when our guide suggested that we stop after about four hours on the first day we were politely surprised. When our room had a private hot shower we were amazed. And when the restaurants served flaming roast chicken and had bottles of Bordeaux for sale we were shocked.

It was all very pleasant, but it wasn’t really what we were there for. We were as altitude acclimatized as perhaps we will ever be in our entire lives, we had failed at our ambition of hardcore trekking in Tibet and we were on a mission. Our poor, beleaguered guide (who didn’t really help himself, to be honest) kept tacking on bits and pieces of trail as we kept walking further and further each day. He kept trying to hold us back – would we like some tea? Would we like to stop for an early lunch? Would we like to stop for the day at 1pm? – but eventually we simply ran out of trek.

And so, after bashing round his suggested five-to-six day hike in four days we found ourselves back in Pokhara eating delicious vanilla gelato and feeling very happy, if ever so slightly deflated.

Incidentally, Pokhara is where I had my best meal ever, anywhere. I had spent the best part of three months in India as an 18 year old gap year student on £6 a day and due to fine Indian budget cuisine I had lost the best part of three stones in weight (about 42 lbs or 19kg – incidentally, I am doing better this time, and have only lost about one stone). I had just spent three days flat on my back in Varanasi watching dead bodies floating down the Ganges just under my hotel window and being about as sick as it is possible to be without going to hospital. Having come to the slightly teenage and melodramatic decision that if I didn’t get out of India I might die, I hauled on my backpack, crawled on my hands and knees up the steps outside the hotel and caught the first bus to Nepal.

My best meal ever? It was a buffalo burger, chips, coleslaw and a beer in a nameless reggae joint in Pokhara. It was hot, hearty and h-delicious, and I was the happiest man alive. And when I woke up in the middle of the night and was violently sick because my stomach was so unused to food? I was still the happiest man alive – you see, I had stashed a mars bar just in case.

In Sickness & In Health (Or: Qantas Pyjama Power!!)

Here’s a strange thing: pretty much ever since James and I got engaged, we’ve both been ill. Not anything life threatening of course, just a string of various low level traveler maladies that have had us both (a) feeling distinctly under the weather and (b) being about as far from glamorous as it’s possible for a newly engaged couple to be. Frankly I’m rather relieved the question has already been popped and cannot be un-popped….

Being sick on the road, particularly in relatively underdeveloped countries, leads to some deep, philosophical thoughts allowing us, after much debate, to come up with the following exhaustive definition.

“Luxury” is:

  • A room warm enough to take off at least one of your five layers in. Failing that, plenty of bedclothes
  • With a double bed large enough for both of us, with a real mattress
  • Sheets on said bed. If you’re feeling particularly kind, make them clean sheets
  • A toilet. Which flushes. In a bathroom which is all our very own
  • Toilet paper. Of the non Soviet variety (it’s definitely eco-friendly, put it that way)
  • And last but not least (did I mention we weren’t well), the ability to dispose of said toilet paper in the toilet without inadvertently flooding half of Central Asia’s sewage systems (no, we haven’t….yet…)

Suffice to say that, for the moment at least, we are not living in luxury. That’s ok though, because we have a secret weapon (you thought I was going to say “each other”, didn’t you?).

We have our Qantas pyjamas.

That’s right, ladies and gentlemen. When times get tough, the tough get into their Qantas pyjamas. These are a rather nice cotton jersey affair in a muted mud brown colour – VERY tasteful – which started out life as rather high class numbers, provided solely to Qantas’ first class passengers for their extra snuggly comfort. They have subsequently suffered something of a fall from grace: nowadays, we use them basically as shields against all unpleasantness. To expound:

  • Bed has no sheets? No problem – Qantas pyjamas will shield you from contact with stray foreign body hair
  • Bed has sheets but of questionable provenance and cleanliness? Qantas pyjamas will protect you from venereal disease
  • Room is glacial, bed has one thin coverlet? Qantas pyjamas are guaranteed to prevent hypothermia
  • Frequent visitor to the shared toilet? Qantas pyjamas ensure you make that repeated trip in style
  • Fiance starting to look somewhat askance at your pale, tired face? Qantas pyjamas make you look both cute and (I’m quietly confident in this) pretty darn SEXY

Thank God we’ve got them. You see the whole “sickness and health” lark doesn’t actually kick in until the wedding bells have rung. We’re not worried though.

We’ve got Qantas Pyjama Power!

Carry on up to Khiva

Sometimes when you travel, every now and again and only if you’re lucky, you find that you have … a moment. Circumstances combine in some weird way that puts you in the perfect place at the perfect time to get just a particularly … well, perfect mental snapshot of a place and time. And if you’re really lucky, your idealized vision isn’t then too hard hit by subsequent travel hassle experience so you get to hang onto it.

All of which happened to me in Khiva. Khiva is probably the least famous of the Silk Road Big 3, and faces some criticism for having being restored too pristinely, if you will – the Old Town is often accused of being like a museum rather than a living town, so our expectations weren’t actually that high. Plus when we arrived, James came down with a slight bug and promptly fell into a pretty deep sleep (at 5pm), leaving me to wander the town. Which is how I ended up walking through Khiva’s ancient alleys, as the sun set over the minarets and the moon rose into a perfect sickle, with the muezzin calling the faithful to prayer and the faint smell of woodsmoke and shashlyk in the air. If anyone out there ever wants to create a multi-sensory Silk Road experience, this is definitely the place to start!

The next day, with James back to full strength, was our first taste of the Silk Road proper. Mesmerisingly beautiful sites, history and romance coming out your ears (in the next installment of an occasional comment on modern restoration, to me Khiva gets it right. Sure, the whole old city has been made to look “in keeping”, but actually this style of mud-walled building is pretty common over the region which is why the modern stuff ends up being able to blend in, despite addition of satellite dishes and double glazed windows. Plus more importantly to me, the charm of the place has been retained, and in spades – in a way that Samarkand for example has singularly failed to do. Maybe it’s slightly over zealous, but for me the Silk Road came to life in Khiva. I could see the dusty caravans arriving after weeks in the desert and hear the cries of street hawkers and slavers; and let’s face it, that’s no mean feat to achieve with an investment banker!!) – with no hassle and almost no tourists.

Good job we had a decent encounter with a swindling taxi driver the next day – otherwise the place would just have been TOO disconcertingly perfect!!

Where I belong

We were pretty excited leaving Vanuatu. Why? First class Qantas flight on the A380. Yeah baby!

This was the first of the first class legs of our round-the-world ticket (something we had decided to treat ourselves with when our trip got postponed for a few months earlier this year – you only live once) and in the A380 to boot, so we were pretty excited. The fact that we’d been living in the bush for the last few weeks didn’t exactly hurt either.

First stop, Sydney, where we stayed at the Holiday Inn (FANTASTIC view over Sydney harbor) and had a wonderful, indulgent meal at Rockpool (thanks for the recommendation, Dan) to get us into the right frame of mind. Then up bright and early so we’d have plenty of time to enjoy that FIRST CLASS lounge (Eggs Benedict and champagne for breakfast – yeah!) before boarding the plane and settling in to eat and drink our money’s worth with a fantastic 4 course lunch with matching wines, port and brandy. The seats are set up as quite self-contained pods, so James got some escape from me up until lunch time, when you can pull out a jump seat for dinner a deux (he was thrilled. Honest). A short siesta and a movie or two later, and we were in Hong Kong!

Of course, we now think this is how we should be treated in life, so it was fortunate that the short hop from HK to Beijing was also first class. First class dim sum, tea and champagne.

I could get VERY used to this!!

Return to Ci-VILA-zation

All in all, it’d been a pretty rough 2 weeks in Vanuatu; limited electricity, no plumbing, and lots of near-naked men. Fun and all, but we were jolly glad to be getting back to Port Vila, the nation’s capital and home of such excitements as running hot water; good bread (and pastries!! Gotta love the French ex-colonies), restaurants; and coffee. We spent a few days there, relaxing, diving (well, James did; I, wonder of wonders, had a mani-pedi J) and having a thoroughly lovely time of it eating lovely food and drinking some nice wine….and coffee. We’d bought some espresso coffee powder in PNG as a way of using up our last kina, and I felt sure we’d be able, with a little cunning, to turn it into a tasty hot beverage. Experiment 1 utilized some tissue paper and a sieve. It failed, unless you happen to like cold-ish Turkish coffee. Experiment 2 was James’ invention, and somewhat more successful: a centrifuge constructed out of an empty soda bottle, our travel washing line, and James. See technical illustration below:

The other and rather time consuming part of our Vila trip was a whole-scale decontamination of our wardrobe. The volcano trip in Ambrym, with associated dampness and smoke, combined with a week with no running water, had left us…well, smelling a little more native than we would have liked. We suddenly realized why we’d not suffered from flies in recent days. Still, the fine city of Vila has a lovely launderette that magicked our nasty stinking rotting items back into our wardrobe just in time for us to doll ourselves up for a 3 course French dinner complete with cocktails and wine.

Civilization’s great.