All posts by wheatypetesworld

Zimbabwe – Flying Mhunga Air

I got up at five-thirty to meet my first Zimbabwean bus. I didn’t like that. I like my bed too much. But the buses arrive early because there is fierce competition between rival bus companies to fill their vehicles. So the day after I arrived in Harare I took one of the slubberdegullion Renault taxis, with its pinpricks of light filtering through the floor and every other conceivable piece of bodywork, down to the bus station bound for Masvingo and then on to Renco. The driver had to turn off the engine in order to get it into first gear.

At six a.m. Harare bus station is teeming with vivid colour. Forget timetables; the buses depart as soon as they are full. That way you get to stops and pick up the passengers before the others. You know that the departure will be soon when the driver starts an elongated period of noisy engine-revving. Don’t try to ask anyone when the bus will leave – you always get the answer you most want to hear. This is the polite thing to do. It satisfies you. But only in the short term.

The Masvingo bus triggers new pandemonium as it arrives. It is besieged from all sides. The hoisting of bags onto the roof, or babies through the windows is accompanied by a surge towards the door. The rip tide of bodies carries me onto the bus. The four hundred km journey south will take five hours.

There was something worryingly unconvincing about that “Kukura Kurewra Bus Company” bus right from the start. It would only move in the lower gears and howled its protests. It was not even following the Masvingo road and is billowing a thick, black cloud of acrid smoke from the back. So the first (unscheduled) stop is the “Kukura Kurewra Bus Company” depot. They must surely have known the state of the bus before setting out, but the priority is to get it filled up before repairs can be attempted. Nobody seemed to mind much. Even the mechanics didn’t seem all that bothered. A dozen of them are lounging around on tyres ignoring the sick vehicle. Eventually one saunters over. The bus is hot and crowded: some children in smart purple and white uniforms; old bearded men with crooks; mothers with infants. Some spill out into the depot for the hour or so it took to fix the bus.

Now we are back on the road, lurching along to a cacophony of raucous chatter, animal bleatings intermingled with music from the static-ridden speakers, the crashing of metal panels and bus groans. The music is lively, optimistic and compulsive. The guitars belt out the intricate cadences of traditional mbira (a sort of hand-held thumb piano) patterns. The voices of the ancestors were believed to speak through the mbira.

After passing the industrial suburbs with their sheet-metal factories, tyre manufacturers, tobacco companies and engineering works, our gaudy little island of colourful noise-pollution is in the bush. It is a dusty landscape, a long, barbed-wire clad road with occasional clusters of round thatched huts or roadside bottle stores. Soon we are amongst huge whale-back hills. These are kopjes – enormous single rocks shaped by the weathering of the granite, some house-sized boulders balancing precariously on top of others, dwarfing the trees at their base. Meanwhile the black smoke is belching from the side of the bus now.

We passed four police checkpoints. When I asked what they were looking for, it seemed that the police did not actually know themselves. They were just doing their job. Sometimes they make everyone get off, take all the luggage down from the roof and undertake a search. They line everyone up, men on one side, women on the other and civil servants (who they must see as hermaphrodites) in the middle. The Air Zimbabwe magazine had proudly boasted that if you have forgotten your shaving mirror, then you can ask a policeman to borrow his boots. But these roadside boots would have needed a good dusting and polish first.

As soon as we hit Masvingo Bus Station we are under siege by Harare-bound travellers. A man shoves his bag through the window for me to reserve his seat. It takes a full ten minutes to fight our way off. There are no Renco buses. We are told that there may be one at six, but then again there may not. Taxi drivers helpfully offer to assist. So faced with a long wait for a bus that may, or may not materialise, we eventually succumb, one of the drivers being known to my brother who was working at a school in Renco. So negotiations begin. What clinched the deal was the fact that a young woman agreed to come down to Renco for the night with the driver. We stop off at his house to collect his ghetto-blaster-of-which-he-was-extremely-proud and for him to do his own negotiations on the price demanded by the woman. He is an effervescent character, smiling and joking all the way along the dirt road. We slow when he wants to chat to some friends and my suspicions are aroused because he does not actually stop and they have to jog up the road to continue the conversation. We were never in that much of a hurry. As we pull off he turns back to us with a smile the size of a horizon, proclaiming: “I have no brakes but I am stopping the car with the gears. I am a good driver!” He did a lot of turning round. I reserve judgement as to his driving abilities. He must have been reasonably competent to get us to Renco without the luxury of brakes, but on the other hand he could not have been of a completely sound mind to have even attempted it in the first place, especially given the state of the road. But of one thing I was sure: never have I seen anyone, anywhere, who could drive so far whilst spending so much time with his eyes averting the road ahead. The only people who suffered from his lack of brakes were the poor souls at the stream that crossed the road at one point. Despite his shouted warning and frantic gesticulations (no hands too now), he was unable to prevent the high-speed, brakeless taxi from giving them a good shower. Everyone fell about laughing. Eventually we coast to a stop in Renco.

The town is frequently known as Renco Mine, which is a pretty accurate description just as is the way South Africa at the time was always called Racist South Africa in the press. My brother assures me that the RSA they have on their stamps is commonly understood to stand for this rather than the Republic of South Africa. Likewise Renco is a town owned lock stock and barrel by Rio Tinto who were mining for gold there. The mine itself, all the houses, the three bars, the shops, golf course, squash court and land all belong to the multinational. Mine employees are allocated housing according to their grade so if you are promoted then you also have to move house. The managers live up by the golf course (complete with a water hazard inhabited by a hippo). Here the houses are spacious and airy. The miners live in the township and the middle grade workers’ housing separates the two areas. In fact many miners sub-let their houses and live in traditional round huts to supplement their income. The gold is expected to last for another six years. After that it will be lights-out in Renco just as it was in its sister town, Empress. When Rio Tinto left they sold the whole town to the army. At first the military occupied the affluent houses above the town. But the sewers were soon blocked because old shirts were used in the absence of toilet paper. So they moved to the middle grade housing, but not before they had stripped their old accommodation of anything that could be removed and sold. This included bathroom fittings as well as door and window frames. But soon the sewers to the new lodgings were blocked too and it was at this point that the army decided that they had never wanted to buy the town in the first place and pressured Rio Tinto to buy it back. However there was the problem of the unnaturally swift depreciation in the value of the properties. The government decided to uncover the missing fixtures and fittings so set about searching in the most obvious place – the surrounding villages – and in the process recovered the loot as well as something they had not bargained for: a veritable cache of arms, uniforms, ammunition and other supplies: in short, government property. When the gold runs out in Renco the minimal wages it brought to the local people will disappear along with the security guards and (white) managers. The swimming pools will run stagnant and the golf course will be reclaimed by the bush. People will probably go back to the land where in the dry season around Christmas the earth stands hard as iron, in the wet the rain simply washes the ground away. Only the original inhabitants will be left to eek out a meagre living – unless the army decides to buy the town.

We were befriended by an old-time Rhodesian at the great Zimbabwe – Chubby Gallagher. He was kind enough to give us a lift back to Masvingo Bus Station on our return to Renco. “Where’s the booking office?” he enquires, which betrays the fact that he obviously has never been to a bus station before. He is actually quite shocked. We assure him that we will be ok and set off in search of a Renco Bus. It does not take long for the bus company touts to find us.

“Where are you going?”

“Renco Mine.”

“This bus is for Renco.”

“It’s all right. We will wait for one with some seats. It’s three hours from here.”

“Five dollars forty for Renco Mine,” he declares as he ejects two people from their seats. “Here are two seats.”

And here is our problem. If we do the decent thing and reject the seats then he will lose face. This will be a problem for us all. In the end we have little choice as we are bustled onto the “Magwizi” bus against the flow of alighting passengers: a blind woman with a begging-bowl and a baby on her back; a fruit vendor and a man selling nail-clippers. In the meantime a wheel is being changed on the bus. By the time it leaves it is packed as full as a sardine can, but the conductor is still trying to pull more people inside; however some are left behind. They pursue us all the way to the garage where the wheel is changed again and are rewarded with a place on the bus somehow squashing between babies, chickens, bodies and bags.

To be a bus conductor you actually need near-superhuman qualities. You need to be able to fight your way up and down the interior through a solidly-blocked aisle to collect fares. You have to be fit too. This is so that you can climb up on to the roof via the swinging door with the bus at full speed to collect and deposit luggage. Speed is of the essence to get there before your rivals so you don’t actually come to a halt at the stops and you must swing aboard via the door. The man’s energy in the stifling ninety-seven degree heat is incredible and his agility in flip-flops is indeed super-human.

When we returned to Harare two buses arrived at the stop at the same time. For no particular reason, except perhaps the sense of disorientation which accompanies the arrival of any bus, we chose the “Zimbabwe Omnibus Company” over “Magwizi”. As we rattle away “Magwizi” is in hot pursuit, but has greater acceleration and races up to within yards of “Z.O.C.” Finally it passes, both sets of passengers yelling and gesticulating wildly at each other. The “Magwizi” conductor is swinging on the door, making lunatic gestures at his rival. So now we are in the dust storm thrown up by “Magwizi”, which swirls in through the windows. Another day of danger and excitement on the buses.

“Z.O.C.” dropped us on the outskirts of Harare and we take an “emergency taxi” (cheap fare, but crammed with anyone who wants to chance it) to the bus station to be greeted by the usual riot of touts/conductors. Hands tug at our clothes in the melee, numerous individuals pointing purposefully at their “official loader” badges and jostling each other. It is the school holidays, so the buses are on “emergency timetable”, which means they are fuller than ever, if that is possible. The word “emergency”, when applied to modes of transport, is less to do with catastrophe and more to do with vast numbers of people here. So for the “emergency” in “emergency taxi” or “emergency timetable” read “dangerously overcrowded”.

We travelled once on  the “Tanda Tavaruwa” bus out of Masvingo bound eventually for the Eastern Highlands – “Scotland with snakes” is how my brother described it to us. There is a wait at the bus station: the driver has not even got to the revving-of-the-engine-stage yet. But it was sort of worth it – this was actually quite a comfortable bus with soft seats. For reasons inexplicable and unknown, the Tanda buses have the word “Mhunga” (a drought-resistant cereal plant or millet from which they make the staple food which is a thick, tasteless porridge – how can anything so bland be so disgusting was the best description I heard of this) emblazoned across the front, and for this reason, as well as their comfortable nature, they are known in Renco as Mhunga Air. The bus is as densely packed as ever affording no opportunity to recover from the ordeal of actually getting aboard and hoisting the rucksacks onto the roof. As we are pulling out of Masvingo, I see a man with a bucket in the middle reservation of the wide road washing the trees with a broom. For that brief moment, in the stifling heat and hubbub of the bus, I had the distinct and disquieting impression of having gone totally insane.   The bus station in Harare is in as much of a state of emergency as the one in Masvingo.

The next day we travel to the airport for a flight to Victoria Falls and it is then that I travelled on the crème-de-la-crème, the haut monde, blue-blood, dog’s bollocks of all buses: the airport bus from the Meikles hotel. And to top it all, the propellered Viscount that usually does this run has been replaced by the president’s plush personal jet, which he lends to Air Zimbawe when he is not using it. An equally smart (tourist bus) is there to take us to the town from the airport.

It was soon back to the real world when we travelled out to the Eastern Highlands from Harare. It leaves at five am. The touts were out in force. There is a wait but eventually a “B & C Bus Company” bus pulls in to be greeted by the usual crush. An “official loader” grabs the bags and passes them up to the roof, aggressively demanding four dollars for his work. In the midst of the scrum I notice a hand slipping into my pocket. My hand joins that of the intruder and I turn to him, saying,

“You’re not a very nice man, are you?”

He stares ahead as if he has not heard and shoves me through the door. Once inside verbal communication is rendered impossible by the volume of the radio. The conductor is wearing an affable smile and pink nail varnish. His shirt is unbuttoned to the navel and he sports a garish replica diamond necklace. We rattle out of Harare through a township and rows upon rows of faceless blocks of flats. The bus lurches through the suburbs frothing its symphony of engine screeches, raucous chatter and the lively static-ridden zimbo-pop radio station. It has the optimistic words “B & C Luxury Tours” emblazoned across the side. In towns along the way the windows become an opaque tableau of flattened fruit-sellers pressed against the glass. At one the conductor instructs everyone standing in the aisle to crouch down. The bus is over-crowded and he doesn’t want to get stopped in town where there are certainly policemen about. His instruction is greeted with compliant laughter. Fares of those who have just got on are passed down the line of squatters. Once out of town the conductor giggles as he tells everyone they can get up now.

Our way back to Renco was on the “Shu-Shine Bus Company” vehicle, which sat revving its engine noisily for a full half-hour in order to encourage would-be travellers. Then there is the usual wait for a Renco bus. We sit on the steps of a bottle store for a cooling drink and a bag of stale crisps. For some reason, crisps were always stale when you bought them.  A man approaches and asks if I would like to play table football with him. I accept. It is not long before another man asks if he can join in too and it’s two against one. After a while a bystander observes that two against one is not fair and joins my side. He is a very good player and has this trick of trapping the ball under the player and flicking it at a gazillion miles an hour, with unerring accuracy and unstoppable, into the goal. It sounds as if it will go straight through the wood as it hits the goal with an authoritative, ear-piercing thump.

“I bet you two bucks we score the next goal,” my partner ventures. The opposition accept, but predictably we win the wager. My partner hands me a dollar: “Your half of the winnings,” he tells me. I try to demur but he is insistent. He then places a ten dollar bill on the table.

“You think you can win?”

There are only three balls left, which means that we only need score one while they must score all three. The two men opposite look at each other and then one slaps a twenty dollar bill down on the table.

“You must put in ten as well,” he tells me with an air of gravity. I turn to go, thanking them for the game. But by this time a crowd has gathered around us and I am jostled back to the table. The bet seems too good to be true. A forty dollar pot when my partner is obviously the best player by far. Things are happening in a loud and confusing manner. One minute a friendly game, the next some heavy betting. Rather than pushing through the crowd and walking away I turn back to the table.

But astonishingly, my partner suddenly seems to have lost his skill. It is as if it were three players against one. We lose our bet. Or to be more precise, I lose ten dollars while the three friends saunter off to the bar with my ten dollars. They had been working together and played quite an elaborate trick on me. I didn’t fell angry at being duped – they had played their roles to perfection and I had a begrudging appreciation of their audacity. Ten dollars was no great shakes for me and it is better than having ten dollars taken through the threat of, or actual, bodily harm.

The last bus I took was back to the first: “Kukura Kurewa” returning to Harare. After a short while I can hear an eerie hissing coming from the bush. It is a puncture – quite a regular event on these uneven roads which we had been lucky not to encounter before. There are many willing hands and much useful advice offered. The wheel is soon changed. The driver is a portly man wearing a beige safari suit, a wide-brimmed wicker Stetson and aviator shades who drove like a maniac. It was a fitting journey to end on, sort of summing up the whole bus travel experience (except airport buses): mechanical instability, borderline insanity, good humour, cacophony, over-crowding and an aching backside by the end of it. The driver swerves to avoid a donkey which is rolling in the road to relieve an itch, reminding me that bus crashes are not infrequent. If this happens the driver must run away as fast as he can or he will be lynched. So add danger to that list. But do not let that deter you; these buses give an intimate and intense window into everyday life and should not be missed in Zimbabwe.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

A Beatle, a bum and a brewery – tales from Oxfordshire

Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire, England: I know, I know, it smacks of upper class, the Regatta and so forth, but let’s scratch the surface a bit.  It is a story of people, the type of story that makes the travel worthwhile.  So here it is: bums, a brewery and a Beatle.

I lived there, where my father was a minister, in a manse once occupied by the Rev. Humphrey Gainsborough (brother of the more famous painter) who had reputedly invented a steam engine with a separate condenser.  His model was stolen from the Manse shortly before James Watt patented the idea.  But let’s start with the bums.

United Reformed Church, Henley-on-Thames

“Chalky” White was his name.  Well known, and begrudgingly loved by the local magistrates, he lived off his wits, knocking on people’s doors declaring himself a “tree surgeon”, offering advice on “trees in need of urgent attention” and may be responsible for some trees you see there today.  He’d break a shop window every autumn, or commit some such crime in order to spend a six month sentence inside in the warm, which the magistrates kindly granted every time.  Look out for his work next time you’re there.

Now to Colin, employed by Brakspear’s brewery out of kindness.  Colin was, in today’s terminology, a Special Needs case.  He was not one of those regulars in the pubs who were given special badges to be charged regular prices during the Regatta when beer went up in price and Pimms was served.  He was just good old foul-mouthed Colin with his obsession for dog racing, who once greeted an important visitor to Brakspear’s with the words “Warm, innit?”  After the guest answered in the affirmative, Colin’s knowing response, accompanied by a nudge and a wink, was “Dogs don’t like it when it’s warm”.  I don’t know how the important visitor reacted.  Brakspear’s was sold to a large national brewery after over two hundred and fifty years as a family run business and has now been converted to a Hotel du Vin, where I once stayed for one (very expensive) night. The ghosts of the envied draymen, given tips, meals or beer at the pubs they delivered to, Colin himself, or the many brewery workers who were free to help themselves to the barrel kept in the yard (but sacked if they got drunk) may still be around.  It was fun to work down in the cellar, which is now the carpark for the boutique hotel.  You get valet parking, partly, I think, to help avoid the ancient metal pillars down there.   There were rails, like miniature train tracks with no sleepers embedded into the floor which fitted the rims around the middle of the barrels perfectly so controlled the direction of rolling. Barrels and kegs were too big and heavy to kick around, but firkins and pins were perfect.  You could play barrel-ball kicking/rolling them around the cellar.  Colin used to call himself “Banger” and you could often hear him shouting out encouragement to himself as he worked: “Go on Banger.  Need yer leggins.  Warm innit?”   Brakspear’s were a family firm and looked after their employees well.  When their general manager was busted for possession of cannabis and served a six month stretch they promoted him when he came out. And kept Colin on come what may.  Colin was famous for his exploits when “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” was being filmed off in the beautiful nearby Hambledon valley and the director had hired local people to hold down the hot air balloon.  The wind got up and he decided enough was enough.  “Just let it go!” he proclaimed.  Off went the balloon… with Colin, who had tied the rope around his ankle…

Brakspear’s may have been taken over, but the name still lives on and one of their pubs in town, the Three Tuns, was where George Harrison used to drink with his brother.  It is a tiny place and up until John Lennon was shot you may still have run into him there of an evening.

The Three Tuns

I was living at the Manse but when my father undertook an exchange to America was when the Beatle experience happened.  The church tower was crumbling and there was an effort to raise restoration funds.  As the exchange clergyman told it, a scruffy man knocked on the door one day.  “How much do you need for the tower?” he asked.  He was sent to the church treasurer’s house where he was told by the irate Christian to remove his Rolls Royce from in front of the driveway because he was off to work.  So George spoke to his wife, after moving his car, and wrote out a cheque on the spot for the entire sum, on the condition that no-one should know about it.  When you see the spire on the URC church in Henley, thank George for that.  I somehow inherited the scruffy old chair he sat in when at my house (which was known as George Harrison’s chair) and carted this heirloom round with me for years afterwards, until it got lost somewhere along the way.

So look out for ungainly trees, drink at the Three Tuns, admire the church spire and stay in the former brewery.  But if you do, think of the stories behind them.

With Refugees on the Hungary-Austria Border

Day 1

It’s not about migration, it is simply a humanitarian crisis, it really is. I have been to Syria, met some lovely people there and now see normal, professional, poor or war-ravaged migrants just like you or I, but here… now… homeless, sleeping rough and victims of the poverty gap. Peaches the campervan doesn’t like that, and neither do we… So…

Today was a strange day. The lovely Peaches was packed full of clothes, cool boxes full of hot food, sanitary items, sweet treats and home baked cakes. We’d spent the day cooking in our flat in Bratislava – 9am to 3pm – and then climbing into the orange flower-covered and totally lovely VW (who is constantly photographed here in Slovakia) before driving down to the Austria-Hungary border to feed refugees. That was the plan. What a weird experience.

Packed to her Peachy rafters

Our ex-colleague/friend who has been doing this for a few weekends now had got a group together and organised it. We were meant to meet a train with 2000 refugees on it up from Gyor (the Hungarian pronunciation is “Jee- You’re”) but the police were closing roads to the border all over the shop and amassing a significant presence in this small–out-of-the-way village and told us in German that they would not let the newly arrived people stop to eat here at the train station and would make them walk down to the Austrian border about 4 K’s away, so sent us there. We soon found ourselves at a closed border, waiting for a very deliberately delayed train designed to arrive late because they had “lost the engine” so that the refugees would have to cross the border at between 1 & 4 a.m. when there’s more likely to be no press there we were told by aid workers. There were many diverse people there to help when we arrived: Ibrahim and his mates working for an NGO charity from Bolton and Sheffield who had been driving around from Yorkshire heading to Croatia and Serbia with boxes and boxes full of clothes trying to get to Greece but were turned back all the way, and told to turn round and go back or I’ll shoot you by a Hungarian policeman at 1 am last night; Austrian Red Cross workers; a Slovak car full, and I mean FULL of family sized packets of crisps/biscuits pressed up against every window… and lots of very tired, slightly bemused, very grateful but cheerful (mostly Syrian) refugees who didn’t realise how close it is to an extremely cold wintertime here.

A full Slovak car

A very strange day. We managed to negotiate a passage into Austria to deliver the food to the refugees that side who are waiting for a bus, but only the first vehicle of our convoy of three is let past. After that Austrian border police are telling us via the screaming-in-German method to get the f*** out of here, just put your foot on the gas and go, whilst stamping hard on the ground and banging on car roofs (but not of the Brazilian Bay T2-too-tall-to-get-into-carparks-around-here: well done Peachy!) because “they” had closed the border – according to the Hungarians – all a bit confusing. Finally we are driving off up the road to get into Austria from Hungary via the highway, a detour of a full ten K’s, but escorted by the Red Cross who co-ordinate everybody going along to help and got us down the closed road off the highway on the Austrian side of the border. And so the food that we had lovingly spent all day preparing eventually was allowed to be delivered to those people who needed it. It did not feel very satisfying.

Nothing else

But the thought of all these people, families with their tiny children, older adolescents looking not much different from their counterparts in Europe, except that all that they had was the clothes they stood up in and worn out shoes or inappropriate flip flops, a brother looking after his wheelchair-bound sibling, smiles that could bring on a career in modelling under other circumstances… all that which we saw today, the victims walking off through end-of-nowhere Hungarian villages and then to end-of-nowhere Austrian villages, looking for a place to sleep for the night, or if they are lucky getting put on a bus to the next place after queuing for 9 hours… where it all starts again… well I was thinking about that tucked up in my bed last night.

3 Hegyeshalom Nickelsdorf border 10-10-15
Off towards Austria

That’s what my Peaches did this weekend. Good job, Peaches. Good but very small job.

Day 2

When we got home from work on Friday night it was raining. Low clouds obscuring the hills around here and even the top floors of some of the apartment blocks. There is a thick persistent rain, the kind that just soaks you whatever you wear and I am aware sitting on my balcony, that half an hour away there are families sleeping out in this. Four thousand refugees arrived at the Austrian-Hungarian border today. Four thousand people sleeping out in this. We collect every piece of warm clothing we can possibly spare, and luckily the daughter seems to have recently undergone a growth spirt.

Saturday we cook up a vegetable stew and couscous and transfer it to cool boxes to keep warm. The local network had put us in touch with two young Ecuadorian sisters, Gabriella and Veronica, who want to come over too today. So we head off into Austria, avoiding any brush with Hungary after last week. The route is through Austrian villages like ghost towns. Smart bungalows with polite gardens behind low walls and railings at the edge and near the centre houses giving onto the path then tree-lined grass. Cars parked at right angles to the road on driveways between the lawns. One café and one shop. Both closed. And not a soul about.
“Here,” Gabriella tells us, “we say no children cry and no dogs bark.”

Down at Nickelsdorf things are a lot more organised than last weekend. The road to the border crossing is closed and we are directed off to the Red Cross centre. We pass taxis lined up further than we could see and later learnt that they were there to offer a one hundred and fifty euro ride to Vienna, the commonly agreed, well-publicised fair fare via Austrian TV. The taxi from Bratislava to Vienna, which is further, costs fifty. At the centre they are able to take our clothes and to transfer the still hot food to receptacles to take down to the border where there a thousand people stuck. We offer to volunteer in the makeshift building where there about three hundred beds and spend the rest of the day sorting clothes into boxes, matching up shoes and putting them in the boxes by size, and making a gazillion sandwiches. They are expecting two thousand more arrivals today and another estimated two thousand tomorrow. All in all eleven thousand individuals will have crossed in three days. There is a trickle into the centre. Most of the volunteers are Austrians, many of whom will be here until midnight. A supercilious policeman is going around sneering at the volunteers:
“Why are you here? How long will you do this for? Why don’t you go home?”
But the full time Red Cross workers tell us that we must have all hands on sandwich making now because the two thousand expected are imminent and they need to get the food down to the border.

A rather debonair looking man, silver haired, tall, and thin is trying on a pair of shoes. He has no socks, and makes no attempt to get any warm clothing, just to replace his worn out shoes, as if he were embarrassed to take more than the minimum. We tell Iona to take him a pair of thick socks. He is delighted and turns his kindly eyes downward, beaming at her. Taking her cheeks gently in his hands he tenderly kisses the top of her head, thanking her. “Marsh’hallah (rough translation – sweetie pie), sank you.” I remember just about enough Arabic to ask him min wayne – where are you from?
“Min Souriya,” he replies: Syria. In broken English he tells me he is from Aleppo. And he was in hospital when, “My house down.”
He is here with his daughters, both of whom were at university. One was studying engineering and spoke good English. They want to know whether to go to England, Switzerland or Germany to continue her studies. What a peaceful, lovely family they were. And what could I tell them? That England has pulled up the drawbridge to migrants, that he had better have money to send them to university in Switzerland?
“Germany is open.” I tell him. I don’t even believe myself sometimes! We make sure he is pointed towards the warm clothing.

Others who arrived were from Afghanistan and Somalia.

We are given a word in German by the Red Cross to say to the Austrian police at the closed off road and directed down to the border to help serve the food we had spent the day preparing. There were many there. Some families were sleeping rough and there is a bit of a scrum around the clothing. It is not pretty and there is rubbish everywhere. Some are waiting for buses to take them to the Red Cross Centre, others are simply camping down where they are. The buses would not start to arrive until nine o’clock – we saw them heading towards the border reception centre just as we were leaving.

Iona, at six, has been working absolutely flat out on all tasks all day. Twelve hours. Amazing. And now she is keen to go down and give out sweets to the children. How proud we felt.

Sorting donated clothes and shoes

One large, Afghan family we spent time talking to. Although we had no common language. The old lady’s smile was something I took away with me today, and will keep with me. They will sleep outside tonight.

Her smile is unforgettable…

And so it goes on… In the end it was not the expected 2000, it was 20,000 through on Sunday.

Day 3

The long line of cabs has been moved from the road out of Nickelsdorf to the lane behind the border post, less visible and off down past the police road block. And so they should hide. Hide in shame. In an emotional outpouring of sympathy for the plight of the refugees, their fellow human beings, who are still streaming through the Hungary-Austria border between Hegyeshalom and Nickelsdorf, the taxi drivers have agreed to put up the fair to Vienna to one hundred and seventy Euros. There can be no justification for this. If is a shameful and shameless exploitation of desperate people. They have become legalized people traffickers.

The Red Cross camp is very quiet. The authorities seem to have elected to bus people out straight from the border as quickly as possible, or throw them to the sharks driving taxis, bypassing the aid available. So we volunteer at the centre, get official jackets and identity badges to go down to the border post with the hot food we have prepared and a box of bananas. Gabriella, our Ecuadorian friend from last week, is there and we meet a lady who had driven down from York with a hired van full of the supplies she had collected. The people waiting for a bus are hungry. There is immediately a crowd around us jostling for the hot food. One young Syrian stops to chat in perfect English. She calmly stands there telling us how her Lebanese Mum taught her the language while others elbow, shoulder and stretch out arms through any space they can find through those in front of them, surrounding her as we hand out the food as fast as we can. Imagine a dignified lady standing stock still sipping tea in the middle of the rush hour in a London underground station. We suddenly realise that in our frantic efforts to distribute the stew at full speed we have actually missed her and hand her some of the hot food. These people are really hungry, especially the children and two of them end up in a tug of war with a plastic bowl, an it’s mine, no mine scenario which ends up being settled with one biting the other on the hand. In ten minutes both cool boxes are empty. There is no more we can do except go back to the centre and sort out the clothes we had brought down into the boxes. There are a lot of donations down here. I wonder if they will let any of the arrivals come here to the beds, blankets, food and shelter tonight. Who knows? The priority is to move the people on as quickly as possible after the trains arrive rather than to feed them, clothe them or to offer them shelter for the night. And if they can be squeezed for one hundred and seventy euros along the way, even better.

It just got even less pretty.

On the way home Iona asked,
“Mama, why isn’t everyone from school helping the refugees?”
“Well, maybe because they are different.”
“What do you mean, Mama?”
“Well because they have a different coloured skin, or believe in a different god. Maybe they are afraid of the refugees.”
Her reaction was to laugh with spontaneous gusto, long and unrestrained, as if someone were tickling her. Maybe if we were all six then this crisis would be resolved very quickly.

Day 4

I am too tired to write about this in detail now. It’s been a long day.  10,000 through Heygeshalom/Nickelesdorf border this week. Many without shoes.  4 coolboxes of  vegetable stew and a curious pasta that they eat here (a bit like couscous) fed 80-100 people.  Hot food gone in 20 minutes, 20 boxes of clothes gone in one hour.  All day light rain. Winter coming very soon. It was a four and a half hour wait for the train.
We met doctors from Bratislava who were Syrian and came to help. Many refugees are suffering from depression and stress related disorders.  But still time to laugh when a man sat on a bag that he thought would seat him well, but was empty and he ended up a lot nearer the tarmac than planned!  His accompanying females were amused.

27 Hegyeshalom Nickelsdorf border 10-10-15
Time to laugh when he sat on an empty bag ending up a lot nearer the tarmac than planned

Sweets – here they are the international language of children.

0 Hegyeshalom Nickelsdorf border 10-10-15
Sweets – the international language of children

Clothes and blankets and nappies and cosmetics all snapped up. But one toddler walking in nothing but a soggy footed baby grow. We had no shoes to give her.   This train, the second of four for the day, bought another 1000+ through. The average is 4-5 trains daily with 1000 to 1500 people on each.

When the refugees are over the Austrian border there will be a clean-up operation by the volunteers.  Many asked us for shoes –  the one thing that we did not have, but was desperately needed. Some told us they were heading for Sweden. Even the 4K walk from the station to the border would be tough for those in need of footwear… and it’s a long way from here to Sweden.

Yes, a long day for us and, I suspect, another long day for them. Followed by a cold, wet night.  Prepare for rain well, I think. It will get very cold very quickly here now. The young and the old will die outside in this. That is the hard reality. The elephant in the European room.

Day 5

It feels like meeting old friends this week, shaking hands with the familiar faces. But a sombre mood.  The Swiss team, Gabriella, the American Pastor and his wife, and many familiar Slovaks. We all know that there are only two more trains to come through.

16 Hegyeshalom Nickelsdorf border 10-10-15
Yalla, yalla, faster, faster

Hungary has closed the Croatian border having completed the razor wire fence and no more will come through this border after today.  The Red Cross workers tell us that the first train to arrive contains people who have been locked in the stationary train for 23 hours so to expect some traumatised people. And what a wild, mud spattered lot they were.

It has been raining heavily in this area this week. So many, so inappropriately clothed, 2000 of them on this first train. And the now familiar pleas for shoes.

Luckily our contact in the university in Bratislava has so many boxes of donated clothes that Peaches is packed to her VW rafters and above so we actually needed another two cars to transport all the donations.
And there were individual tales we learnt.

One poor, poor young woman, who could not have been more than in her early 20’s, with her baby, a huge bruise and totally bloodshot eye who was so clearly completely traumatised. A faraway look in her eyes, too tired even to cry although this is obviously what she is doing inside, in sandals. We sit her down and she begins to breastfeed her crying baby – something so totally taboo in her society in public that she has clearly lost all dignity, hope and sense of reality. My wife takes her child while we look for clothes blankets and shoes for her and the infant. We have learnt that some items need to be kept in the locked van for such desperate cases, but every time we open it up to do this people start to hassle for shoes or whatever, even if there is no real need. She is on her own with her baby.

Where did that bruise come from?

Goodness knows where her bruised face and completely red eye came from. My heart bled.
And then were the familiar faces from the Swiss team who asked me to take a group photo in front of the lorry they arrived with. It started as two people asking for volunteers and donations and ended with 60 people and over 10,000 Swiss francs. One of them was a chef and children’s party entertainer. She has a bucket filled with water and washing up liquid and is blowing bubbles using two garden canes attached by a weighted string on the end which makes the most enormous bubbles. Inappropriate? Not on your nelly. These children have not played happily for goodness knows how long. They are children, children, and they need to play. She had it right in so many ways. The smiles tell it all… dammit, they were, just for a brief moment having real fun. Is that not what anyone would wish for their children?

There is time to brew up some coffee and chat to our friends while we wait for the last train. It is a remarkable contrast to the last. Mostly Syrians. Even handing out plastic bags to these people, clutching armfuls of food, clothing or other items is a simple service well worthwhile. They are so calm, polite and grateful for such small kindnesses that we can offer that it is truly humbling experience. The Red Cross Medical team are very busy.

A wife with battered shoes is taken away from prying eyes by her husband. She has not lost her dignity. Her feet are covered in mud and my wife and her husband take her off to the side to remove her flimsy shoes, wash her feet and then arrange for a wheelchair for her to be taken for medical help for her trench-foot. Medical help was so needed.

Trench-foot was one problem, as were snake bites, chest infections and many more…

Another wheelchair is used for a child, who must have been about four years old, who is just shaking and shaking, not even acknowledging the sweets that were put into her lap. It is so, so pitiful.  Depression, snakebites and any number of other conditions added to the misery.

28 Hegyeshalom Nickelsdorf border 10-10-15
And where many of these lovely people are now. The eyes tell the story.

So now Hungary is closed. But this will make no difference to these people. All they want to do is walk through the country. They certainly do not want to stay there given the way that they are treated. So now they must find a longer route. But that won’t stop them coming. They are coming from Syria, Somalia, Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq and goodness knows where else.

My daughter was buzzing around using the little Arabic we had taught her to say “Marhaba” (hello) and giving out sweets. Making friends. What all children would do? And every time she is “Habibi’d” (Sweetie-pie-ed) and kissed by grateful parents I have to swallow, very, very hard. We all did a lot of this today. It has not hardened us to the extent that it does not hurt. But this is the fifth week now and Iona actually asks each Friday if we can go and help the refugees. We’ve just read the BFG where the Queen of England saves the day and that is what she wants to do now for these refugees – write to the Queen who will sort it all out. How I wish she could sort it out. But look at the pictures: the bubbles actually made a heart at one point.

A heart starts to form

And then, at another point the evening sunlight shone directly into the bucket from where the bubbles came.

And the toilets have a hopeful Bob Marley lyric sprayed on to the side of them.

A sign of hope

Maybe, just maybe there may be some small, small hope. I would like to think so. None of us will never forget today.  I learned of others who were banding together to help in a similar way in Budapest, for example (read their story here).  Many wrote blogs from their time in the “Jungle” in Calais (further reading here).  We all share this hope.

And finally, can I express my sincere thanks to Austrian taxi drivers who have now put the tariff up to 200 Euros for the ride to Vienna. Get in there now before it is too late, it is your last chance to make big money from these people. But it is still only 50 from Bratislava.

Please see this blog entry for photos from Damascus to see how stunning it was.

The Sounds of Silence – from our home in Stupava, Slovakia

I republished this post because my friends Martin Bellamy and Alison Bellamy reminded me of this. It still means a lot to me: that walnut tree with the rope swing chair; the woodshed full of wood we inherited at the end of the garden; those shrubs that all went pop with a big sound, all exactly on the same day that they decided to explode each year; the constant rotation of flowers that the clever previous owners had planted to give all-year-round surprises and pleasure; that fridge and rope swing seat on the terrace with the big table we salvaged when the kitchen was renovated with low hanging lights over it; those big beams, similarly salvaged for seats around the fire pit under the walnut tree and the evenings we spent there with friends; that garage full of ancient communist days’ memorabilia – wood burners, old tools and cigar boxes etc… ; an old window saved from a previous renovation that was now shelving embedded in the terrace wall; the little Japanese garden Tash made; the old well in the garden; that nutty rabbit that used to free range around the whole caboodle; a fabulous 50th surprise birthday party enjoying all of the above and people flying to get there; even that time the neighbours’ child, Branco, climbed over our wall and set fire to one of our daughter’s dolls for reasons unknown; those birds that nested on the terrace outside the door and listening to the sounds of silence of an evening on the terrace…  Here is the original post:

I am sitting on the terrace of my house: Stupava, 20 k’s north of Bratislava, Slovakia. Sometimes the walnut tree, planted the day this house was finished, seventy years ago, and it’s attendant pines, fill with birds and they get this crazy call and answer conversation going. When the rush hour hum of the motorway two k’s away (only during the week) isn’t there it is magical. And then there are the speakers in the streets in towns and villages all over Slovakia. Hangers-on on since communist times, these are used to announce town events, deaths, marriages and the like. But when not even a mouse stirs elsewhere in the house, and it is evening, you get this curious echoing effect from the speakers in streets all around the town. Goodness knows what they are saying. They start with a sort of jolly country accordion jingle and then the echoey call and answer tidings mingle into a jumbled mess of announcements. And tonight my thoughts take me back to one post-poker night echoing in the early morning streets of Amman six or so years ago.

Swaying homeward, floating on exhaustion and Amstel beers, the Mosque call begins all around me. The streets were so empty in the first glimmers of sunlight that morning, silhouetting some of the mosques against the rising golden dawn, that the apartment blocks are acting as sound deflectors. So the timeless chant that somehow always managed to give an “everything is ok” feel to life here, the reminder to come to pray, starts to envelop me from every side, a three dimensional, melancholy colliding of calls. Some of the Imams are shrill, some passionate, and some deep. Here they all combine, and it is beautiful.

But we are still on my terrace this evening contemplating the sounds of travel over a cigarette. And now the thought train travels to Africa. Who can forget the sound of the African bush when camping at night? Or the distant hum of the Smoke That Thunders (Mosi oa Tunya – otherwise and more ridiculously known as Victoria Falls)? And talking of Zimbabwe, what about the clashing of metal panels over potholes, raucous conversations, goat bleating and the glorious static ridden Zimbo pop radio stations that together make up the signature tune of African buses? Or maybe even waves on the beach in Bali backed with hotel voicings? Carnival in Trinidad? And we haven’t even started on Indian train journeys. I think that sounds have all the colour of sights.

Here are some of the visuals to back the sounds:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Bratislava is for life, not just for Christmas Markets


Do you want to go deeper than these Christmas markets?
It was a bank holiday this week in Slovakia to commemorate the uprising in 1945 against the Nazi occupation. But this is just one of many festivals going on at this time of the year. When people think of Bratislava they are likely to envisage Christmas markets and snow, or perhaps stag do’s. Maybe even the castle or the UFO bridge. Quite right too, these all happen here. But what a shame to not get a little deeper into the place. You can do Vienna, Budapest and Bratislava Christmas markets in three or even two days starting from here, warm yourself with the delicious punches and buy things that people don’t really want, but interesting artifacts nevertheless, plus have a fantastic time yourself in the process. Believe me, from Nurnburg to Budapest Christmas markets you will have a fantastic time. I know, I have done them. And they all seem much of a muchness to me. There are only so many times you can buy the ceramic, wooden or sweet trinkets before they become boring. You will still enjoy the markets though. But if you want to get under the skin of a place, for example Slovakia, then come when the local festivals are due. Now. In September/October.

Devinska Nova Ves is a large village, or small town, about 16 km north of Bratislava. Its wide main street is lined with old houses, there is an enormous Volkswagen factory and a few tower blocks, but it’s nothing special really. But in 2012 it came to the attention of the world’s press, even Reuters. It was all about a bridge.

Devinska Nova Ves (or DNV as I will call it from now) is on the Morava River. The border between Slovakia and Austria. The Morava flows down to join the Danube and in Cold War times this was a heavily militarized zone. Barbed wire fences and constant patrols by border guards. Many people died trying to run to freedom through the wire here. If they had tried swimming they would have had to deal with some serious currents on both the Danube and Morava rivers. In 2012 a bridge was completed over the river at DNV to join what was formerly an impenetrable frontier. The Bratislava Regional Assembly set up a Facebook vote to name this historically significant link between the old communist block and Western Europe. The Regional Governor, Pavol Freso, affirmed that they would probably go with the people’s wishes. That is until the “Chuck Norris Bridge” polled more than 25 times as many votes as the Regional Assembly’s proposal. Or indeed any other suggestions. Now Reuters started to take an interest. Chuck Norris was always a source of jokes concerning kitchy fun or macho invincibility in Slovakia (Chuck Norris can delete the recycling bin… Giraffes were created when Chuck Norris hit a horse under the chin…), but hardly a feasible choice for naming a bridge (No-one walks over Chuck Norris later was mentioned by the Assembly). But you can walk or cycle over this historic bridge today at any time of the year. The floodplains beneath you will be a Site of Special Scientific Interest, teeming with rare flora and fauna. The river will remind you of the historic border you are crossing from Slovakia to Schlosshoff Castle in Austria, where you may even catch a festival of gardening if you are lucky.

About two kilometers South of DNV lies the village of Devin, where the Morava joins the Danube. Today it is festival day in Devin. There are so many festivals at this time of year. Broadly harvest type celebrations, but it could be a dance festival in the small concrete amphitheatre-let in between the tower blocks in Dubravka on the Northern outskirts of Bratislava, where teenagers perform traditional folk dances in traditional costume; or a ceramics festival in Pezinok (small town North East of Bratislava); the Cabbage Festival in Stupava (a bit further out than DNV with local craft and food stalls, traditional dancers, folk groups, or even samba orchestras); or today’s Medieval festival in Devin. If you sit on a bus out of Bratislava today you may well sit next to a knight, complete with chain mail, sword and helmet on his mobile phone. Then you will get to the site itself.

Devin Castle, first mentioned in 864 in written records, lying atop a cliff on a rocky outcrop overlooking the Danube. In the thirteenth century it was the frontier post of the Hungarian Empire.

It featured on a coin and a note of the former Czechoslovak currency (koruna) in Cold War times as an important national symbol. Now it lies in ruins (thank Napoleon for that). We drive to the Festival from our home in Stupava and the highway is blocked off for the road runners, the first signs of the event. My daughter Mollie (4 “AND A HALF” years old) instructs me to tell the policeman to let us through, but I think better of it. We will just wait. At the castle we pay our eight Euro entrance fee, and then walk up past “medieval” tents with costumed people sitting around cooking over open fires in iron pots, with metal beakers to drink from and wooden bowls from which to eat. It has the feel of an authentic camp.

All the men have long hair and a young man is undressing to his boxer shorts to put on his chain mail vest, leather thigh protectors, boots, helmet and heavy knee length jacket.




This slideshow requires JavaScript.

We walk up the hill to the ruins, where Mollie is delighted to shout “bottom” down the 55 metre well on the cliff top and enjoy its echo. From up here you can see the Danube curving round where the Morava joins it, and look down on Devin. Or across to the mountain between here and Dubravka.

Steep terraced vines sweep down to the village from the Dacha’s (summer homes, often small wooden villas here) on the mountain top. One huge, elegant residence dominates all of these. I later found out that this belongs to the Russian mafia. We walk back down the hill through the encampments and Mollie gets her face painted on the way. There is a stage below and the announcements suddenly include some English: “The last man standing.” Some sort of contest is about to begin. Here they are. Now they don their full helmets and five men on each side face each other for a “fight”. So… it is not just an excuse for a medieval barbeque, a bit of dressing up outside a tent, and full bosomed women enjoying the attention in their Medieval costumes. A choreographed re-enactment! How wrong I was. Apart from beers (1 euro a pint), picnics, and waffles grilled over open fires on wooden rolling pin type affairs, there are actually men fighting over there. But not choreographed. Not in the least. This is some sort of competition. Lines of five men walk towards each other.

Then all hell breaks loose. While two knights fight, one man is smashing the hilt of his sword down on the head of another who has his back to him, being engaged in one to one combat with one of his opponents. I work out that the aim is to get another man to the ground, when he has to retire from the competition. Huge cheers erupt from the crowd as the victors leave the battle.

But worse is to come. Next time it is an axe, not the sharp side, but the blunt side, repeatedly hammering down on one member of the next team. He has a metal helmet on, but I am sure that will be sore in the morning. These guys are serious! The fallen knight removes his helmet, blood streaming down the back of his head, and is led to the first aid (medieval) tent. What is going on here? If you want to play knights, then, hey, each to their own. But this?! It did at least give quite a vivid impression of Medieval warfare around here. Perhaps a little too vivid though. After the fight, white vans, some emblazoned with medieval crests, drive up the hill to collect what is left of their teams. We retire to the coffee tent, a Czech café styling itself on an Arabic Shisha lounge where a member of the medical team is crashed out next to the hubbly bubbly while away to our left a belly dancer takes to the stage. This is all getting a bit too diverse, shall we say… “It’s like a theatre” is my wife’s comment. It’s certainly not like any festival we have been to in England before, that’s for sure. “You wouldn’t get into a festival for eight euro’s in England”, is my reply. “That’s bottom too much money!” is Mollie’s comment. Now there is an archery contest and some poor bugger is kneeling, holding a six foot pole with a cabbage on the top of it for the archers to shoot at while running. Health and safety executive field day! They would flip their corporate lid if they had seen the “Two euro’s to chuck three axes at the target” stall which crossed the path. “ Just wait there for a moment,” you say to yourself. Enough already, too much. We leave the festival and walk down to the river. Here you can throw a stone over the Morava into Austria. Which is why so many tried their luck here. If it wasn’t running through the militarized zone and the barbed wire then trying to swim to freedom, it was (possibly homemade) hang gliders from the hilltops. Down by the confluence of rivers there is a serious ceremony taking place. Flags and sombre faces down by the monument to the unsuccessful attempts to leave the Iron Curtain. Over four hundred people died between 1945 and 1989 attempting this.
Nearly one a month for 44 years from one small village on the Austrian border. Each name listed on the sculpture and explained in four languages. Judging by their ages, the seated assembly down here could well have been the brothers or sisters, or even the parents of these poor, desperate unfortunates who died for what all Slovaks have today. So there you have it. Five km road racers, sites of SSI, foul mouthed four year olds (she’s so like her mother), uprisings against the Nazi occupation, Russian mafia, Medieval knights, belly dancers, would be escapees of communism, shisha lounges, waffles, Chuck Norris and beer tents. What a festival! Or you could do the Christmas market. And as a post script, the Bratislava Regional Assembly, led by Pavol Freso, in their infinite wisdom and in memory of the people who died trying to leave the communist block for democracy, actually rejected the 12,599 votes for the “Chuck Norris Bridge” in favour of the “Freedom Cycling Bridge” (457 votes), which is now it’s official name. However, thanks to Reuters, it is even today easily findable in Google under its more democratic name.

PS: If my daughter were able to understand any of this, I am absolutely sure that she would say, “But that’s bottom democracy!”

PPS: What a senseless waste of lives. These human beings were only trying to make their lives better. They died for their optimism. Full respect to these people.

Road-tripping through Europe




This slideshow requires JavaScript.


I have driven the Brussels ring road three times in my life. Each time it has been packed with far too many cars, driving far too fast and close, whilst negotiating nutty junctions. And each time I have seen an accident. Thanks to Brussels, Belgium has one of the highest death rates per capita in traffic in the European Union. This is mainly due to the fact that many Belgians speed at drastic levels. Take my word for it: the Brussels Ring is a nightmare concerning traffic and averages at least one accident per day. My hatred has developed into an obsessive fear, bordering on a phobia. Despite trying to persuade Marilyn, the Satnav, to send us south of the ring road via Waterloo, I make the mistake of listening to her at one point and ended up on the dreaded road anyway. I definitely need to be more assertive when it comes to Marilyn.

The previous night’s stop before traveling to Liechtenstein had been in the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg. We plan to fill up on petrol there where it is cheap, and cigarettes are only a third more expensive than in Slovakia, so we stop at the first service station. The queues could have signified an oil crisis, but in fact merely show that everyone else has had the same idea. There are two boys directing the vehicles into lines for the twelve pumps and a bit of a party atmosphere. People are hanging around chatting outside their cars or motor homes while they wait. But it is efficient. Fill up, drive to the booth (a bit like the ones on toll bridges) where the cashier pushes open a metal drawer to collect the money, pass over the card reader or give change. Up goes the barrier and off you go. Or you would have done had the motorway not been such a stop start affair.  I was looking forward to Luxembourg, simply because I have never met anyone from there.  I don’t even know what they call themselves.  Luxembourgish?  Maybe Luxemburgers.  Nevertheless they were an elusive race, even in their own country.  At the service station there were German and Belgian cars, French and Dutch, but no Luxembourgolian.  I bought a baguette and coffee but don’t ask the girl who served me where she is from.  If I started a “Where are you from?” conversation with a random young female, even if in an honest quest to meet my first Luxembourgino, Tash would… well let’s just say “I choose life”.  Another way to get yourself in trouble at a Luxembourgillon service station would be to take advantage of the free massage service offered to travellers by a very nice young lady.  I sort of like Luxembourg but still cannot say for sure if I have met a Luxembourgian.  Finally we head off the motorway into a rolling, rural setting which reminded me of Devon. I had thought of Luxembourg as a city. Wrong. The goal of finding out more about the little countries beginning with ‘L’ is achieved, however I did manage to lose my car key in Luxembourg. Tash had assured me that it must be somewhere in the camper, so I had used her key. Mine never turned up though. Finally, in desperation I later emailed the friendly Dutch couple who ran the campsite. They immediately replied that they had found the key in the shower and were kind enough to send it to Slovakia, refusing any payment for their efforts.  The whole sorry affair with the key was just another chapter in the lost car keys in Europe saga. Once, in the Ardeche, Tash had pulled me in to a river to swim. The Vauxhall’s keys were in the pocket of my swimming shorts. The keys are, to this day, at the bottom of a river in the Ardeche. All this led to an encounter with Eric le Garagiste. But not before I had had to purchase a pair of Incredible Hulk swimming goggles to search the muddy water, much to Tash’s amusement. Eric le Garagiste, his side kick used to tell us, was always out buying bread, or eggs, or doing whatever it was that he did all day. But rarely did he ever take on the role of Garagiste. We did catch up with him once, only to have a conversation about how he did not want to break the window to get in, and how if it had been a French car he would have been in by now. The conversation ended with him pronouncing solemnly, “La prochaine fois, Monsieur, achetez Francais!” All this took days and it was not until the evening of the day before our ferry back from Calais that he was in. OK, the car started with a screwdriver, which Eric le Garagiste/obsessive grocery buyer kindly donated, and now it was an all nighter back to the port. This did at least have the advantage of a drive through the very centre of Paris in the small hours when the streets were completely empty.

I have a wall map at home with pins in the places we have visited. Tash smugly points out that I should have one of Europe, but with pins showing the places where I have lost car keys after the Luxembourg incident. “I never lost any keys before I met you,” I tell her sulkily.

The return journeys from the UK to Slovakia have taken us  through France, Belgium Holland, Switzerland, Luxembourg, Liechtenstein, Italy, Slovenia, Hungary, Germany, and Austria. Some days we drove four countries in 12 hours.  We collect fridge magnets for our van, “Peaches”, at the places we stay. Last time we had not got one from Belgium and had decided to stop in Bouillon for a night and hopefully to find a magnet. Belgium, a country of countless friteries and no toilet paper on campsites.  In fact, the Belgian appetite for frites is so keen that you can actually buy potatoes from twenty-four-hour vending machines, so you need never need run out of the raw materials for chips (see See the article here).



Bouillon is a pretty riverside town in the south of the country, has a castle above it and styles itself with a medieval theme. It was there that we found the perfect fridge magnet – a cone of chips backed by the Belgian flag.

The perfect answer to a long, hot day travelling: HAVE A WATER FIGHT!


The brown tourist roadside signs in Belgium showing the delights of the regions often have photographs on them. But why would I want to look at a photo when I can see exactly the same scene through the windscreen simply by looking away from the sign? Then there are the usual berserk slip roads into the fast lane or doubling as entry and exit roads. Whoever is responsible for these roads must have had chip fat on the brain, if you ask me. Or just be insane. Having said that though, the people in Belgium we found to be friendly and helpful. The campsite and friterie owners had lent us an electric hook up cable for free and were interested to chat about our travels.

We crossed the Maginot Line near the fortress of Hakenburg. This line of concrete bunkers, tank obstacles, artillery or machine gun posts, and other defences, was constructed in the thirties by France along its borders with Germany.   Although it successfully dissuaded a direct attack, it was a monumental failure, as the Germans indeed invaded Belgium, defeated the French army, flanked the Maginot Line through the Ardennes forest and via the Low countries, completely sweeping by the line, and subsequently conquered France within days. The Maginot Line was impervious to most forms of attack, and had state-of-the-art living conditions for garrisoned troops, including air conditioning, comfortable eating areas and underground railways.   It is a stark reminder that all these open borders, with little more than a blue EEC “Welcome to wherever” sign and a few deserted buildings (Liechtenstein/Switzerland and the UK being the only exceptions), that we cross so freely, were actually hard won, long-fought-over dividing lines in the past. You cannot help but appreciate the freedom and relative peace of today when this strikes you.

Do you ever fantasize about “The Sound of Music”?  Bear with me, it’s about a road.  Are you impressed by Cheddar Gorge, or are pine clad mountains your thing, or do  you actually dream of running naked, hand in hand with Julie Andrews (or Christopher Plummer) through upland flower meadows, with her(or him) intoning softly, “Oh Pete… why did I ever even bother with that surly, sour-faced loser Von Trap when there are men like you in this world…  come with me into the forest!”?  Obviously, it goes without saying, I am not one of those people; only the worst kind of sick, perverted, menopausal mind, with no regard for the feelings of his wife and who was clearly smack bang in the middle of his sad midlife crisis would ever even dare to fantasize in such a way.  But if any of this ticks even a small box, then the E31 between Freiburg and Geisingen will be the road for you to take through Southern Germany.


This is close to the source of the Danube, but still some six hours from the majestic, wide, fast flowing river we know and love so well from our home in Bratislava. Marilyn guides us south around Bodensee before sending us via Munich to the A8, giving us great views of the Austrian Tyrol off to our right.

Why we like Austrian service stations.




Germany is a country to explore more and offers some breathtaking scenery. And then into Austria and back to Slovakia, before heading down to Italy. In Austria we have learned to love the service stations! In the UK these can be a bit like a cattle market with their teeming fast food joints, but at least you may get a Marks and Spencer’s, or even a Waitrose if you are lucky. And in Italy they are like a cattle market conducted in a Reliant Robin. But the Austrian version is more like a stately home with rare breeds roaming free in the landscaped grounds. The food is fabulous, served by smart waiting staff in a rarefied atmosphere of wood panelling, china lanterns are hanging on chains over each table, old ceramics line shelves between double curtained windows looking out onto the lovely lake. And for once I am glad to have listened to Marilyn. All is forgiven. We are friends again.


Getting to Know Liechtenstein

What a country!

Some places seem to attract people who give rise to serendipity. I hoped that Liechtenstein would be one of those. At the campsite just outside Vaduz, there is a wide mix of nationalities and storytellers all: a Scottish family, a South African of Liechtensteiner parentage and the wild-haired, handle-bar moustachioed character standing in front of me now, peering through bottle thick lenses while I sit over my morning coffee outside the camper van. The sun is rising over the mountains on the other side of the valley and he cuts a striking figure silhouetted against this backdrop. Somewhere on the wrong side of sixty, the man has a suitcase on wheels, more suited to plane travel than hiking. He and the lady he describes as his “girlfriend” travel light. Just the flight-bag and small backpacks. I ask where he is from but he just shrugs.
“I am a citizen of the world; I have lived so many places. Now I live in London. I was born in Belarus. I served in the Russian Army for a while. Do you know the only country in Europe to still have the death penalty? Belarus!”

He has tales to tell of the Red Army, describing how soldiers were made to run, with bare torso, but heavy backpacks, in temperatures down to minus twenty. Many contracted pneumonia. In Moscow, he complains, there are no Russians. Everyone has an accent; Tartars, Georgians, Armenians and scores of others, from deepest Asia to the shores of the Baltic. He learns that we have come from Slovakia, smiles wryly and confides, “When Hitler invaded Poland from the north, they came from the south. And then when the Russians came they welcomed them!”

His girlfriend arrives back from her shower and they tramp off towards the mountains, heading for Italy.

Liechtenstein is a member of a federation of small countries. They even have their own Olympics. You must have a population of fewer than one million to be a member. We had driven through Vaduz on the way to the campsite, but I had just thought that it was another of those quaint little towns with a castle on a hill. The mountains are on a grand scale, but the rest of the “little and large” country, like the capital city, compensate by way of a clean, Lilliputian charm. Like the Tyrol, the chalet style houses seem overly large, but the border post was tiny. They waved us through but were giving the occupants of the Polish car ahead of us a bit of a hard time at the border.

We spent a great day just driving up a mountain to where the road finished.

Liechtenstein has the claim to fame of being a world leader: the number one exporter of… dentures! Judging by the apparent affluence, people do probably live long and healthy lives. The rarely exported wines here are, apparently, excellent. At eighteen euro’s for the cheapest, people probably can’t afford to shorten their lives by over-indulging anyway. That, along with the clear alpine air no doubt conspires to give people every chance of enjoying their excellent dentures, in turn creating a booming industry for the younger generation. It is a beautiful landscape and was indeed the begetter of encounters. What a country!


On Satnavs – Slovakia-Austria-Liechenstein-Germany-Luxembourg-Belgium-France-UK Trip

We decided one time to visit the little countries starting with “L” on one of our regular journeys between Slovakia and the UK.  So a satnav would be useful, we thought.  But I prefer maps any day!  I can spend hours reading an atlas of Europe, planning routes and working out where we are near, enjoying the romance of place names and finding the best or most scenic route to take.  You can’t have a relationship like that with a satnav.  So I am firmly on the side of maps, but whenever I ask my wife to navigate she goes into a blind panic and it ends up in cross words! Is there a term, like disgeographia, for this quirk? Sadly I also argue with Satnavs.  Which all goes to show that you can have some sort of relationship with the beast.

We are a family of three; myself, Tash, and our daughter Mollie (who now uses her middle name, Iona), but sometimes we are four. The fourth is Marilyn, our Satnav. She has taken through fifteen European countries with a rather varied level of success, it has to be said.  Occasionally I needed to play assertive father with my equally assertive three-year-old, but with Marilyn I am only just learning. Having worked out that I can fool her by omitting house numbers and giving road numbers as via points (Marilyn, that is, not Iona), I keep her off Swiss motorways, which cost a year’s worth of vignette, even if you’re only there for a day. It probably said all this in the manual, but real men, as the saying goes, don’t read the instructions. Mollie/Iona, who at the time was living in a totally pink world of princesses, fairies and big bad wolves, was totally convinced that Marilyn was a real person. At times family members have disagreements; Marilyn is no different, especially when she tries to send us via Switzerland and its wretched motorway fees. She bangs on about the “highlighted route”, with me shouting, “WE ARE NOT GOING TO SWITZERLAND, MARILYN!” This gives Mollie the chance to indulge in her damn-beloved “Why?” questions.
“Why is Baba cross with Marilyn? Why Marilyn her not answer me, Mama? Why Marilyn want us to go there?”
Eventually Mollie elects to support the black box, shouting at me on her behalf.
“Baba! You made Marilyn sad! Now I’m very cross with you!”
Marilyn, goes silent. For some reason there are no more voice commands until Belgium. I think Mollie may have been right about Marilyn being real. She is actually sulking! I wonder what she is wearing and how old she is? Tash, for her part, and because this musing was unfortunately vocalized, will tell you that this is all just part of a mid-life crisis. But I‘m still with Mollie when it comes to Marilyn. She is real to me.

Malaysia – In the footsteps of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

I never knew my Great Uncle Ron. He was killed in Malaya (as it then was) in 1941, serving with the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. But the very mention of his name, by any of my generation or younger of the family to any of the older members of the family would automatically elicit the same response, verbatim: “You would have loved Ron.” He had become a sort of family saint. Ronald Joseph Baxter had suffered from TB in his teenage years and was consequently considered infirm, so was delighted to be accepted for active service at the age of twenty five in order to prove to himself, as well as to other people, that he was fighting fit. He was to die before his 26th birthday. Soon after training he was sent to Singapore. Ron was a staunch Christian and a member of the Oxford Group, or Moral Re-Armament, a band of intellectuals which included in its numbers some quite influential people and called for a moral reappraisal in the pre-war years to avoid the impending conflict. They even had their working members exempted from active service, but when Ernest Bevin became Minister of Labour in 1940, he decided to conscript them. Over 2,500 clergy and ministers signed a petition opposing this, and 174 Members of Parliament put down a motion stating the same. Bevin made clear that he would resign from the Government if he was defeated, and the Government put a three-line whip upon its supporters. As a result, the Oxford Group workers were excluded from the Exemption from Military Service bill.

In his letters from Singapore Ron talks of meeting another member of the group, one Mrs Jessie (“Bobbie”) Geake, a teacher at a girls’ school. She had smiled when he offered to lend her his copy of Daphne du Maurier’s “Come Wind, Come Weather”: stories of ordinary Britons who had found hope and new life through MRA, which my Grandad had sent him, saying “I helped her put it together.” In this book she says, “What they are doing up and down the country in helping men and women solve their problems, and prepare them for whatever lies ahead, will prove to be of national importance in the days to come.” The book sold 650,000 copies in Britain alone. Du Maurier, as you will have gathered, was another member of Moral Re-Armament.

Skip forward to Christmas 2001. For the first time in a number of years, myself and my two brothers with families are at my parents’ house. Talk after dinner turns to family stories and Uncle Ron makes his appearance in the conversation.

“You would have loved Ron,” my father begins, “he was such a kind and gentle man.” He tells us that he still has the telegram informing the family of Ron’s death somewhere and goes up to the attic to look for it. Ron had been killed by a shell in Battalion HQ about twenty miles south of Ipoh, Malaysia. He was buried nearby and after the war was reinterred at Taiping War Cemetery about the same distance north of Ipoh. My father returns, having found the telegram. The date the fatal shell fell was 29th December 1941. Sixty years to this very day, 29th December 2001, exactly sixty years to the day that he fell. I felt a bit shocked at this coincidence. My Dad had not looked at the telegram in a good while; it was in a box of family memorabilia he had not opened since my Grandfather passed away. It was strange that it had happened when all the family, for once, were gathered. It was as if Ron was nodding to us from beyond. Then and there I swore that one day I would go and put some flowers on his grave on behalf of the family. My Dad was touched.

“You would have loved Ron,” was his reaction.

It was another ten years until I had the opportunity to do what I had promised . My father, by this time, was growing visibly frailer each time I saw him, his body riddled with cancer – too frail to travel, but not too frail to instruct me to take lots of pictures. Some friends of ours were living in Jakarta and this was close enough to Taiping to combine a visit with my family pilgrimage. Having each a young child, it was decided that me and Steve would make the trip, which would be quite a hard travel, and his wife, Jennifer made the bookings, flights and hotel. She was good at that sort of thing. But I am not sure whether or not it was to ensure that we appreciated the fact that the girls had, quite literally, been left holding the babies while the boys went off, that influenced a five am flight departure. It meant getting up at two. Personally I like to think that my big-hearted Canadian friend Jennifer simply worked out the plane bus connections for a whole day’s travel. I had told Steve that I would go alone, and was pleased that he wouldn’t hear of it, for he is an excellent travel companion who also had local knowledge. He kept the trip upbeat when we were tired on arrival in Ipoh, proclaiming, “OK, so where are the whores?” And took many of the photos I passed on to my Dad, whilst maintaining an absolute respect of what this was all about.

Jakarta’s streets are quiet this morning. Amazing. It is such a mad mosh pit of frenzied traffic in the daytime. Tens of thousands of scooters, cars crawling along, inching through the streets and dodging pedestrians, cyclists, animals and carts. So 3.00 am is a pleasant time to be out and about. At the airport I fill out my departure card. Steve is stopped and told to fill one in, even though he has got residency, which he duly does in the name of “Mickey Mouse” hailing from the Planet Zog. The surly immigration officer smiles as she takes it, not even bothering to read it. The flight is delayed by four hours but finally we arrive in Kuala Lumpur via Singapore, in time to get a bus from the airport to Ipoh. It takes about four hours and is modern and comfortable. We follow the route that the Argylls took by train north to the state of Perak.

Getting off in Ipoh, at what we assume is the centre, after fourteen hours travelling we find ourselves beside a quiet dual carriageway. It turns out that we are some miles out of town so we wait for a taxi. And wait. After an hour or so one stops. Unfortunately the driver does not actually know Ipoh very well and spends an hour and a half looking for the hotel, phoning friends for assistance and creasing up his face in confusion when we show him our map. Many phone calls, numerous enquiries of other drivers and pedestrians and scores of circles later we get to the hotel. “No pets and no durians,” proclaims the sign at reception. Ipoh was a tin mining town, and this, along with rubber plantations, once provided great wealth for the place. Not now though. Its centre is resplendent in crumbling grandeur in pastel shades. The only building still clad in its pompous colonial elegance is the Royal Ipoh Club, the name is spelled out in white stones on the flowered bank overlooking a lush green expanse of playing fields where cricket, polo and rugby were once played.  It looks haughtily down in its mock Tudor grace on the ramshackle facades of formerly beautiful buildings and pavements that tilt at every angle, open drains and potholes that could swallow you up to the knee and teenagers playing games of football on the still green grass. The classically Victorian train station hotel is, like so many others, shut down with some of the shutters hanging precariously from one hinge. It is from here that Ron would have disembarked from a train on the Kuala Lumpur to Butterworth line. The functioning station still stands, but like so much of the town’s colonial architecture, is falling slowly into decay.

Ipoh is famous for its street food so finding somewhere to eat and enjoy a well earned beer after sixteen hours travelling, before setting off to Taiping the next day, seems appropriate. The only way to get there from Ipoh is by taxi. It is a drive through steaming, forest clad mountains. But at least today’s driver seems to know his onions. And where to buy fresh flowers. Most shops only sell plastic bouquets because the heat just wilts fresh ones here. Fortuitously the man knows a flower shop with a fridge and I can buy a fresh bunch to which I attach the card I had made. We stop off at the state museum in Taiping, the oldest in Malaysia, and then head out to the cemetery. It is set in the jungle between lush, rolling hills offering many more shades of green than I had ever imagined were feasible in this world.

A perfect lawn and lines of gravestones laid out in neat rows in the sun. A palm lined avenue leading to a memorial, while gardeners dressed in green cotton work shirts and trousers, with straw hats, silently tend the immaculate cemetery which is laid out on both sides of the road.

Ornate gates face each other across the tarmac. Three hundred and twenty nine known casualties from Indian, British and Commonwealth armies rest here along with five hundred unidentified troops. Most of these seem to be “An unknown soldier of the Indian army.” We spend some time wandering the rows and I soon find what I have come to see. I wonder what would have happened to Ron had he survived. The pictures I have seen of Highlanders who went through the Japanese camps make me think that he was actually one of the lucky ones. He did not suffer like the other ones, their legs like matchsticks and with sad, tired, determined eyes. I wonder what happened to Mrs Geake. I later found out that she had been evacuated to South Africa with her two sons and subsequently became the head of the school when she returned after the war. Her husband, I suspect, was not so lucky. The flowers are laid respectfully on the grave and I stand mulling over all of these thoughts. The mission has been done.

But the hard travel is not over. We had booked a return bus, however have forgotten that there is a one hour time difference and after a leisurely breakfast we discover that we have missed the bus and the only way to catch our flight is to get a long distance taxi. The trip had started at two am in the morning, continued with a long flight delay, a bus ride to a taxi that hadn’t the faintest idea of where we wanted to go so basically just drove around until he stumbled across it, a missed bus and ended with two very tired bodies by the time we get back to Jakarta.

My Dad, who passed away last year, could not thank me enough. Why do sons always crave the approval and respect of their fathers? But that’s what this trip did. A good few more you-would-have-loved-Ron’s later and several I-can’t-thank-you-enough’s and I can look back on the trip as one which I will never forget. For all of his family, for those who did, and those who would have loved Ron, the flowers were laid. On behalf of all of us. And through this travel, through reading the letters he sent to his brother, researching the history of his regiment’s campaign in Asia and finding out about the lives of those who were there with him, in following in his footsteps from Singapore to his last resting place in Taiping, even though I never met him, maybe, just maybe I did get to know him… just a little.

With grateful thanks to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Up through the Vrisic Pass – Slovenia

Petrol heads, bikers, hikers, canoeists and mountain-lovers: DON’T tell anyone about this part of Slovenia!

Every year we travel back from Bratislava to the UK in our lovely camper, Peaches. Here is something for all petrol heads or bikers out there. But still don’t tell anyone else!

San Baronto, Tuscany, Italy.

Mollie is now firm friends with the Belgians across the way. Three little girls, each one dressed entirely in pink, aged 1 ½ , 2 ¾, and 5 works well. The shipping has been put back a day but we still decide to head off today. We are on the road by 9.30 and soon hit the autostrade towards the eastern coast of Italy. Once again I am in awe of the engineering of all these Appenine tunnels and viaducts so high and remote in the mountains. As we come out of one tunnel it looks as if we have hit the top of the range and are actually amongst clouds. It was thirty one degrees when we left this morning but the temperature drops sharply up here. Soon we are over the mountains on a flat agricultural plain and are about twenty-five kilometres from the Adriatic coast. Only the volcanic peaks of Euganei break the monotony of the flatlands.

The service stations here in Italy, a nation renowned for its cuisine, do not do it justice. Every one is the same. Not quite enough parking spaces or petrol pumps, no grass or other area to sit and a shop/café/bar that is frantic and overcrowded, with long queues at both of the checkouts. We soon leave the autostrade and head off to the mountain range we had been following for a while on our right. These form the border between Italy and the former Yugoslavia, now Slovenia. These mountains are incredible for their sheer drops and steep peaks, pretty villages and azure rivers. The border post is a sad, deserted collection of dilapidated buildings on the zigzag road.

By now it is nearly six o’clock.

We have been on the road for nine hours and when I spot a sign to a campsite at the village of Trnovo Soci, in the Soca valley, we decide to stop over here. The mountains of northeast Slovenia are enough to tempt anyone to want to stay – a rugged, dramatic paradise, largely devoid of the trappings of international tourism. Definitely don’t tell anyone. The campsite is the equivalent of surfer city, Slovenian style. Except that the wetsuit clad people here are not surfers, but white water rafters. We need an adaptor for the electrical hook up, bringing back memories of the fifty Euro deposit we had to pay in Switzerland, but here they lend us one for free. The campsite is a fraction of the price too, in a superb location engulfed in dramatic scenery, and the welcome is warm. Most of the campers are Slovenian although I do spot one Czech, one Italian and one Finnish vehicle.

The river as seen from the rickety wooden-slatted rope bridge far above, is an amazing sight, frothing white rapids breaking above the turquoise water as it heads back towards Italy. Tomorrow the Vrsic Pass.

Day 11, Slovenia to Austria

Today I met the Vrsic Pass.

Wow! What a day’s drive! The shortest one of the whole trip in terms of distance covered at about 40km, but a full day’s drive. The Julian Alps are incomparable. We leave Trnovo Soci and follow the Soca River. It somehow manages to convey the impression of crystal clear water whilst at the same time offering the sort of vivid turquoise that only mountain waters or clean tropical oceans seem to possess. One of the advantages of a left hand drive along this valley is that Tash, rather than me, is closest to the somewhat worrying drop. We have programmed Marilyn to send us off to the left just past the village of Soca to drive the pass. But she is confused, repeatedly telling us to turn right under circumstances which would prove highly injurious to ones health, not to say fatal, for reasons which will become clear. The problem is that you can‟t just tell her that that you want to go via such and such a town, she insists on the street and house number. So you make one up that matches a real street.

Consequently if you do not hit the exact address as you pass through a town she keeps trying to send you back there, even if it is off sheer drops or into rock faces. Hence the phrase “Oh shut the f*** up, Marilyn” becomes one that is increasingly deployed. She has done a first class job getting us around Europe, but sometimes you just want to take the scenic route, and still ask her to get you to the campsite.

We are now heading for vertical mountains which fill the windscreen. You have to lean forward to see the sky. The thought occurs: how the hell will we get over that? The answer is in first gear, with the help of fifty hairpin bends and 6547 careful’s from Tash. This is the Vrsic Pass. The most amazing road I have ever driven. I rarely managed second gear on the way up. It is an understandably popular route with bikers, but cyclists?! Maybe it is some sort of rite of passage, but there were plenty of them. The landscape would have provided a near impenetrable natural border between the former Yugoslavia and Austria or Italy but for hundreds of years the path over the Vrsic range was a route for shopping, going to fairs, seeing a doctor or accessing pasture land for the locals. The demand for timber necessitated the widening of the path in about 1909, work later carried out by Russian prisoners of war. Over ten thousand of them toiled up here, protected by avalanche fences. The road is only open an average of seven months each year even today because of this danger. Despite this protection over three hundred of the Russians perished, along with their guards in two devastating avalanches. A restored chapel exists to honour their memory and five or so years ago the Slovenian government renamed this section “The Russian Road”. The views defy description and Peaches‟ brakes are starting to smell by the time we get down the other side. The Lonely Planet guide to Central Europe describes the road as “hair-raising” and “spine-tingling”, something I had purposefully avoided informing Tash of beforehand. On the way down we take a break beside an alpine meadow nestled amongst the peaks.

We are staring up past cattle, which, Tash insists, look dangerous, to Prisank, at 2547 metres the highest in the area.

Near the summit is a hole in the mountainside through which the sky is visible. It gives the impression of a giant Cyclops looking down on us. The jagged edges around the 80 metre high, 40 metre wide window have been given names by the locals; the Bishops Head and The Pagan Girl stare down on beech and spruce forest, rhododendrons, between alder or larch covered slopes. Some of these are dwarf species near the top of the tree line.

After a lunch stop in the ski resort of Kranjska Gora we take a comparatively tame route through the Wurzen Pass and another deserted border post into Austria. Tonight’s camp is at Villach, described as a “stunning lakeside location”, but after the Julian Alps these mountains seem more like gentle hills. All appears overly sanitised and almost unnatural. Too clean, like Switzerland. Neither flamboyant Italy, closed-for-lunch France nor midge-infested Scotland can come anything but second to Slovenia in my mountain list.  And I, for one, am totally enamoured with the gloriously beautiful country of Scotland but Slovenia tops even that!


July 2021.

This was my first ever blog on this site. And here is a little update: if you want to know why I love the berserk, spiritual, beautiful and confusing country of India, then check out this link for a perfect example – What Time is it Actually in Mumbai?

There are simply not enough words to describe it. There are quite a lot of words here. But if you want to know what it is like to backpack in India… then read on.

31-07-07 Mumbai (Bombay)

“Would you like to buy a cow?”

This is not your usual hawker. Hashish or handbags, yes. Sandals or saris, yes. But a cow? The man’s dark eyes and mischievous smile radiate beneath the hood of his cagoule in the Mumbai monsoon rain. I tell him it won’t fit in my rucksack, and it will need a separate ticket for the plane.

“But with all these bombs on planes a cow is a safer way to travel,” he assures me. “You can sit on the cow and your wife can lead it along.”

I wonder what he is really selling.

“Actually that was a joke; I just say that to break the ice.” He asks  about our stay in Mumbai, telling us that we should see the “hidden parts”,  Mahalaxmi dhobi ghat (a place where clothes are washed) , where some 5000 men use open air toughs to beat the dirt out of the garments, the slum where  several million people live, and so forth.

I wonder what he is selling. He asks when we are leaving, and  having ascertained that we have a few hours to kill in Mumbai before our train  south, offers his services as a guide to these amazing sights… so he wasn’t  really selling a cow… At the train station a rat runs past my foot.

Mumbai Shopping Mall

People step forward gingerly. The security guards offer words of encouragement. They hesitate, some step back, losing confidence.

Others stride bravely without so much as a glance at the security  guard.

The timid ones look back at their companions, a look of pride and achievement on their beaming faces.

They have made it. They are on the escalator.

Three days of trains from Mumbai to Panaji in Goa, where we stay a night, then to Allepey (Allapuza) in Kerala via Enakulam.

5-08-07 Sona Homestay Guest House, Allepey, Kerala

If you ask Joseph, the proprietor of the guesthouse, a simple question, like how long a backwater trip takes, he will regale you with half an hour’s worth of story telling. Stories of adventurers sailing back and forth between towns under the full moon (“I told my wife they would not be back that night”) or of people marooned up a tree on a snake-infested island (“I told him not to leave on that day”). Each tale is punctuated by the lively seventy three year old’s infectious giggle, at frequent intervals. He is a perfect host, something of a mystic and laughs through his tales of the people who have passed through Sona: pretenders to the French throne; BBC film crews and movie directors.

Sona is an idyll. Confusingly, Joseph’s son is also called Sona. Peace, calm and mosquitoes. To the chorus of night insects, you sleep in a four-poster bed under a mosquito net and wake up to a pot of fresh coffee and delicious banana pancakes on the “sit out”, your own private view of the beautiful garden here. Coconut palms, banana and durian trees tower over the brightly coloured flowers where by night fireflies pursue their erratic flight, by day dazzling birds and in the morning the bats come in from their nocturnal hunting to sleep in the branches. And Joseph always has a tale to tell. A happy, kind and hospitable character (“We like to treat people as guests in our house”) who seems to find everything very funny. Sona is a kilometre and a half from town, a pleasant meander along the canal side. If you want a backwater trip, Joseph knows  the best one. If you want an Ayurvedic massage, Joseph knows where to go. But he is not touting like most others. He is concerned to give his guests the best experience. This romantic setting, and the genuine warmth, love and joyful zest for life that simply exude from this interesting man make this the perfect antidote to the madness of Mumbai. And the answer to my question about how long a backwater trip takes (after the half an hour of enthralling storytelling) I  now know, and it is this: how long is a piece of string?

Joseph’s answer to the time of a Backwater Trip (which I can only summarise here):

“Well, you know we had this man staying here from Switzerland, David his name was. He stayed with us for three months, he would go away for a few days sometimes. He was always saying that he wanted to do a solo backwater trip, and one day he said this was the day. I tried to persuade him not to go. I told him that the first of June was no good and that he would be back, but he said he was strong, like a boar. Anyway, he went. I said to my wife that he would be back by the next evening. And he did come back, the following day. I could see he was in a terrible state and these men came after him carrying the engine and bits of the boat and all David’s things. ‘David,’ I said,’what happened?’

He said to me, ‘I cannot tell you now, now I must just sleep. When I wake up we will tell you the story.’

And he went to his room and slept all that day. I asked these men and they told me what happened. David had gone to an island, but all the local fishermen know that this island is infested with snakes, very poisonous snakes. Many, many snakes. It is where three rivers meet and the snakes, they come down the rivers.

David had gone up a tree and four snakes were coming up there after  him. He spent all night, like this, praying the snakes would not get him.   And him, strong like a boar! The fishermen found him the next morning.   All of his things had drifted off.

‘Don’t worry,’ they said, ‘we know Sona. We will get your things and  take you there.’ This is what they told me while he was asleep.   But, you know, he made friends with the son of an Indian ambassador. He  had been all over the world but he had this disease, when he was a child, and  could not walk… how do you call this… ah yes, thank you… polio. He and David decided to do this trip to another village when the moon was big, and I said to my wife, ‘They will not be back tonight.’ And sure enough, at twelve o’clock, I got this phone call from David. “I will not be back tonight.” And do you know what they had done? They spent all night going just back and forward like this, just watching the moon on the water. When I was young we used to go out in a boat when the moon was big, and just sit there listening to fairy tales. It is very special when the moon is big. It makes this thing on the water. It is a phenomenon. So to answer your question, ‘How long does a backwater trip take?’… the answer is… I don’t know!” (Insert frequent giggles).

8-08-07 Allepey

Joseph worked with Mother Theresa in Calcutta. He laughs as he tells us how stubborn she was. Once she had made up her mind there was no changing it. She wanted some land and insisted that as she was using it for God’s work it should be given for free. Joseph negotiated a deal so that she could get it for one rupee per acre, but still she was adamant that she would not pay for it, even when he explained that only the president could give land away and this could take months or even years, because it had to go through several government committees before going up to be passed by the full parliament. In the end Joseph paid the one rupee per acre and gave her the land to use.

“But,” he maintains, “I could tell she was a saint. When you touched her you could feel this electricity all up your arm, like this,” he says, wistfully patting his shoulder.

Kerala is known as “God’s Own Country”. After yesterday’s backwater  trip I can see why (but please don’t tell any Yorkshiremen this!)

We just happened to be in town today when the colourful parade passed through to mark the opening of the Snake Boat Festival. I had an Ayurvedic treatment, where they drip oil onto your forehead to open your third eye. The two men chatted all they way through, then they spilt some oil into my first (left) eye. OUCH!

A man claiming to be a professor of Hindu mythology and a Brahmin invited us to eat at the temple where there would be Kathakali dancers and a parade of decorated elephants… but it turned out that he was just trying to trick us into buying him a few beers and take twice the price for them. He did not succeed. Tash had him worked out pretty quickly, but it took me until he said, “You must give me four hundred rupees for this beer.” We got up and left,  despite his protests. Tash has inner voices of reason; I am sensitive when it comes to a question of beer!

10-08-07 Varkala

We left the rucksacks at Sona and took small bags, two buses and an auto-rickshaw to Varkala, or Glastonbury-on-the-Malabar-coast, where the Funky Art Café serves a fantastic paneer cheese and cashew nut curry cooked in coconut milk and the waiters sell you hashish. I had a pair of trousers made. Very cool to sit on the cliffs watching the night roll in with the monsoon rains sweeping towards us from the sea, dry on the terrace of the rooftop restaurant.

11-08-07 The Nehru Trophy, Allepey

It is the Snake Boat Races today. Some of these impressive craft have one hundred and forty rowers and travel at quite a speed. “There is even one race where the boats are entirely manned by women” booms the lady who is doing the commentary in English before she is cut off by the even louder male who is doing the same job in Malayalam (the state’s language). He frequently interrupts her quaintly archaic observations throughout the day. It is VERY crowded, an interesting rather than pleasant experience. We went back to Sona, where the races are live on television and Sona the person, not Sona the Guest House, if you see what I mean, took pity on our heavy bags and arranged an auto-rickshaw. The man had to come the back way because the police had closed off the road due to the races. As it turned out the driver offered to take us the full sixty km to Kochi we had planned on getting a bus from town. Door to door service and no sweating under heavy bags amongst bus crowds. This has to be a bargain.

Kochi (Cochin)

The Lonely Planet guide describes some of the service in the restaurants of Kochi as “indifferent”. But the Chariot Sea Front Restaurant (where I had a nice “quali flower” curry) rewrites the book. It is not so much a question of indifference as one of quite simply not being very good at service in restaurants. Things like forgetting some of the order, but rushing around a lot, or trying to take your food or drink off you while you are still eating or drinking, but still rushing around a lot. Covering one nostril with a finger so that you can snot into the street with the other one just before picking up the plates to take to diners is my personal favourite though.

13-08-07 Jaipur

The capital city of Rajasthan; Jaipur… how to describe Jaipur? A mad mosh pit of motorbikes, auto rickshaws, camel carts, more motorbikes, cars, ox carts, cows, goats, pigs, people, even more motorbikes, cycle rickshaws, buses, lorries and many more cows wondering amongst many more motorbikes, each with its volume set to full. Incessant noise. Crossing the road is to step into the carousel whirring at full speed. You could walk on the pavement and brave the filth, the hawkers and the homeless and have your path blocked in front of every shop by their owners, giving clever and persistent lines in hard sell.

The Palace of Winds is an oasis of calm, an island of tranquil beauty, where the maharajah’s wives would peer between the intricate lattice work and through the tiny windows on festival days so that they could see without being seen. The equally sublime City Palace is just as lovely. The clothes of one maharajah, who had an amazing one hundred and eight wives, was two metres tall and one point two metres wide have to be seen to be believed. At least there was plenty of him to go round all those wives, I suppose.

Step out of the palaces and you are back in the mayhem. Cycle rickshaw  drivers follow you up the road asking where you are going and “no thank you” has to be repeated… and repeated…your way blocked in front of shops, children hassling for money, following, following. Then you are assaulted by the colours of Rajasthan. Jaipur, the Pink City,painted in the traditional colour of hospitality, the whole lot, under the orders of the Maharajah to welcome the future King Edward V111. The idea stuck and now any householder who paints their dwelling in a different colour within the city walls is fined five hundred rupees per day until they conform. The scale of poverty is astounding,

from the cycle rickshaw drivers who sleep on their vehicles to dusty, dusky souls living on traffic islands, next to the palaces, and everywhere else. And the noise of the car horns is incredible. Even in the tiny back streets you are dodging motorbikes.

Thank goodness for Mr Singh’s quiet two star hotel. The Pearl Palace lives up to its name and has been exquisitely furnished, with skill and a good deal of love. “Dear Staff, please treat our guests well, they keep us in business”, proclaims the notice at reception. The first hot shower since arriving in India, a cheap rooftop restaurant, laundry and room service as well as breakfast in bed at no extra cost, smiling, welcoming and hardworking staff. This is our own haven, our own palace. But how to reconcile this with the true insanity going on all around? Mayhem and calm, comfort and destitution. Love it, hate it. I’m really not sure.

15-08-07 A Four and a Half Bus Ride from Jaipur to Pushkar

Bus drivers out of Jaipur drive south with one hand on the wheel. The other hand is on the horn. You have to blast your way out of this city. Pushkar is on a lake up in the mountains. What a place! A pele-mele of sacred hindu temples and hotels, tourist shops and monks, cows, monkeys and motorbikes. But the hawkers are far less in your face than in Jaipur. This is the site of an annual camel fair and pilgrimage. It is a curious mix of spirituality, bhang lassi sellers, the sound of hindu chants or Indian trance music. If you like shopping this place is heaven! It is so good to tone down after the madness of Jaipur.

In the Rainbow café the music competes with the singing from the kitchen. It has floor cushions around low tables overlooking the magnificent lake. Steps, temples and washing ghats tumble down to the water. Pigeons, cows, dogs and monkeys compete for the food put down for them. The whole town is vegetarian and there is a list of rules for visitors. Tash and I got told off for walking with our shoes on where we shouldn’t have. You are not allowed to show signs of affection in public and there is to be no meat, alcohol or drugs (except for the surreptitiously named Baba Special Lassi).  Tash and I share one and had a lovely evening in the brightly-painted Rainbow Café, playing cards and drinking coffee.

In the Rainbow Cafe

The spectacle of the old waiter in the loin cloth dancing to the Cheeky Girls’ “Touch my Bum”, his thin legs strutting rhythmically beneath his baggy lungi, while from the kitchen there comes a raucous, happy, but unconnected singing from the chefs, who seem to have been at the bhang lassi, huge ants everywhere and many other creatures hopping about on the floor cushions, big green lizards catching moths, their bright bodies standing out garishly against the purple, orange and yellow walls.

16-08-07 Pushkar

We got up for the sunrise over the lake. This was amazing, given that we were up in the middle of the night to change rooms once we discovered how many bugs we were sharing our bed with. The new room has a toilet that can only be described as shockingly disgraceful. As we walked to a café for breakfast (which was dismal – weak watery coffee) there was an incident; Tash got butted by a cow that she walked into while ambling along looking around but not where she was going. She maintains that she was charged and gored by a rampaging bull. On closer inspection some of the wondering cows are definitely bulls. In truth the beast hooked its horns under her top and she was unsure if it was one of those with long and very pointed horns and had cut her. Luckily it was only a bruise but she was quite shaken. Then we moved hotels, had a siesta and started the day again with a second breakfast, damn fine coffee and bhang lassi in the Baba Rooftop Restaurant.

The rest of the day we walked around the lake, to the quiet side away from the bustle of the shops ending up in the Sunset Restaurant, appropriately watching the sunset, the freaks and listening to the musicians on the street. The man who danced around to the amazing drummers looked as if he had blown into Pushkar in the sixties, had bhang lassi for breakfast every morning, then somewhere along the way had lost his marbles, given up washing, started going to temples, and decades later is still here.

21-08-07 Udaipur

It has been said that in some way people end up with the faces they deserve.  Cruelty or bitterness can etch their own marks into the skin. Equally kindness can create benevolence, almost intangible, something in the lustre of the eyes. Some faces are lined by age, wisdom or experience, others, like the monk in the Jain temple at Ranakpur, somehow radiate peace, youth and purity, an inner peace which brings its own wisdom. In the Jain temple Tash and I are interviewed for national television about our views on photography in such sites. Ranakpur is a temple with one thousand four hundred and forty four white marble pillars, each one an individual, intricately carved column.

The overall effect is one of tranquillity and beauty. We had shard a taxi with an Australian student and a Swiss mountaineer to do the two hundred kilometre round trip to Ranakpur and the impressive Kumbalgarh Fort.

Our hotel room in Udaipur has three windows overlooking the lake. The Bond film “Octopussy” was shot here and plays in many restaurants every night! Udaipur is widely acknowledged as one of the world’s most beautiful cities. The bed is set into an alcove in such a way that one side is a window over the lake and the foot overlooks the dhobi ghat. It is certainly a nice view to wake up to. And in Udaipur I had a very smart, silk Nehru suit made, almost Roger Moore in its elegance… well with a bit of imagination, one can at least feel like Roger Moore… almost.

The Eidelweiss Café serves the best damn fine coffee in town. Sadly it also induces Tash to sing that awful song from “The Sound of Music”… repeatedly. The numerous motorbikes, sometimes carrying whole families, worry me even more since witnessing three people coming off their bikes in ones day. Tash is still wary of cows. I hope we never come across a cow on a motorbike.

8-09 Udaipur to Mumbai

There is a long wait at the bus station for the overdue bus. Thankgoodness for the bhang lassi we had first – it eases the tedium. And a very good thing came out of this wait. I have found a way to stop Tash from singing that dreadful Eidelweiss song, even though we went to the café for breakfast again. Tash is sitting there grimacing at the sound of a good, throaty hack from a rickshaw driver. She detests this. So all I have to do is to sing, “I’m too s(insert hack)exy for my phlegm, too s(insert hack)exy for my phlegm…” This is fantastic! And to cap it all we did actually see a cow on a motorbike. We didn’t really, I made that last bit up. Although this is a long wait I have found the song to end all songs. Maybe I will insert a hack into the word “phlegm” next time for added effect. On the bus I am woken up by the bumping to see Tash in mid-air having been launched there from the bed as we hit yet another pothole. The last night in Mumbai we enjoy a tasty thali and watch the sunset on Juhu Beach, where a man asks if he can take our photograph. Here the tourists have become the sights. It seems like an appropriately bizarre way to end the trip and the sunset is stunning.

The Malodourous Departure From India

The customs lady asks me to open my rucksack at the airport. But once she catches the scent of a month’s worth of clothes that, even though clean, have never quite dried in the humid air, she quickly and with great authority orders me to close the bag. Oh me! How to remember this experience in all it’s vivid liveliness? And do you know what? After this Indian trip I think I actually might know the answer: go and buy a cow.