Jakarta. Well sort of

This visit begins with a few days at a conference, hence the lack of updates so far. It’s in Greater Jakarta rather than the city itself, and exploration has been limited simply by the impossibility of getting into the city from where I am. 

Traffic issues are notorious in Jakarta where a journey of a dozen kilometres is likely to take at least an hour and possibly longer. It isn’t helped by a system of road tolls on the motorways that in some instances can be only a few hundred yards apart. Chaos ensues. 

Tomorrow is when the journey proper begins and that’s when the posts will start to come and it gets more interesting. But arrival in Jakarta did have one item of note, and something frequent travellers will note with interest: immigration is painless. In fact easier than going through at home. Quite startling in fact, I was asked how long I was staying (no queue) the passport was stamped and it was done. 

In this day and age that simple pleasure is really quite something. 

Off Again

Working on the principle that travel only fully seeps into the soul when done regularly, it’s time to set off again.  This time the itinerary will comprise Indonesia, and whereas the last visit was just a brief sojourn to Bali, this time it will be more extensive.

Jakarta is the first port of call, but most of it will be a journey through the tourist sites and attractions of this massive and highly populous country.  As ever, there will be updates on the trip as it unfolds, subject to wifi restrictions in the more isolated locations.

A new destination is the most exciting part of travelling, new experiences, sights and people offer a different perspective on our own lives.

See you on the other side.

The Olympics

Four years ago, I was a volunteer for the London Olympics. In my childhood dreams I was a competitor, but as with almost everyone reality soon intruded on that ambition. 

Therefore when London won the bid back in 2005 my hope was to somehow be part of it, and when the call went out for ordinary people to assist, I signed up along with a couple of million others. By the time the Games were upon us that number had shrunk massively, but the volunteer numbers were still astounding, the involvement still impressive. 

A home Olympics is a once in a lifetime opportunity. I run a small business, I have some degree of flexibility. But it was an investment, a commitment and any other term you care to choose for deciding to give up my time to help.  I’m not noble, I’m not a selfless saint – I wanted to be part of it. 

I was assigned to the rate card team, and the months before the Games began was given over to training sessions as to what was expected, and a dawning realisation that this was real. Turning up to a training session hideously hungover from watching Manchester City beating United on their way to THAT last minute title win may not have been my finest moment, but an awareness of the scale of what was happening was never far away. 

I worked in the Olympic Village and learnt a few valuable lessons. That only a minority of the athletes present win medals was part of it, that the excitement at seeing those early medallists was shared by all those there to compete was startling. That the openness of the athletes talking to those of us there to help was simply joyous. 

There are so many things I could tell you. The member of the Irish team telling me that since it was unlikely they would ever host a Games meant that as far as they were concerned this was their home event was touching. That he proceeded to talk about how the love from the British crowd for our family across the water had been felt by the whole Irish team nearly made me weep. 

Perhaps I could tell you the downsides. But the truth is there were so few. In the end I saw barely any sporting action. But I was part of the Olympics. I was a small part of making it happen. 

As I finished my last shift, as I went to Stratford station, a sign said “Rio, this way, 2016”. Beautiful. 

People of Brazil, you will have three weeks where you are the centre of the world. It is not real life, and real life cannot be eclipsed or pushed aside by a sporting occasion. But I envy you. We had it four years ago, and it was extraordinary. It is now your turn, your privilege. Enjoy it. Just…enjoy it. It really is that special. 

Travelling – A Guide for the Terminally Stupid

One of the “joys” of travel is watching your fellow humans happily go through the experience without being remotely aware of what is going on. Sometimes it’s amusing, sometimes it leaves you shaking your head in disbelief. So here’s a non-exhaustive list of the basics:

1) Check In
Seriously, what the hell are you doing? It takes 30 seconds to show your boarding pass and passport, pop the bag down and get it all done. The agent really doesn’t care about your family history or the hotel you’ve booked or the fact you’ve just recovered from a heavy cold and nor do the 300 people behind you. You’re told the baggage limits when you book. Did you seriously think they wouldn’t notice the grand piano you’re trying to check in?

2) Airport Security
I don’t know whether you’ve noticed or not, but security is fairly common these days, some might even say it’s to be expected. The queues that go with it are too, meaning you have several minutes to know what to do. Special clue here: watch the people in front of you.  So why do you wait until the security officer actually starts talking to you before you think it might be an idea to empty your pockets? Why do you wait until the belt before realising the €50 in change might trigger the alarm? Put it all in your bag while you’re in the queue. Take your belt off before you wander through the gate. This is clearly challenging stuff.

3) Travelators
Stand on the right. Just stand on the bloody right. It’s the same the world over, get out of the way will you?

4) Leaving Baggage Unattended
Oh come on, you aren’t that stupid are you? Are you?

5) Getting to the Gate on Time
Airports are very good you know. They put the time up on your ticket and tell you at check in. Then they also put it up on the screens too, which tells you if there’s a delay. Oh and where to go. And when.

Get your arse out of Wetherspoons and down to where the aircraft is. 200 other people managed it, why didn’t you?

6) Escalators
Take a look behind you. See all those people moving at the same speed as you? What do you think will happen when you decide to stop at the top or bottom?

7) Visas
The airport is really not the best place to realise you needed one

8) Flying economy
It’s crap. Everyone else on board knows this too, loudly whining about the seat to the crew doesn’t do anything except ensure everyone else on board is silently contemplating violence.

9) It’s not a playground
Yes, kids are excited. That’s great too, and really rather
charming. But other people do exist, and maybe, just maybe want to walk through the terminal without being tripped up.

10) We don’t do this at home
The point about travelling is to have new experiences. It’s a different country. They are not required to do everything the way we do. Don’t like it, don’t go. Amazingly enough, they do some things better too. If you actually tried them instead of complaining that the signs aren’t in English you might appreciate that.

11) The Food
Just a thought here, but if you don’t for example like Indian food, India probably wasn’t your best choice of holiday. Oh and the lack of a Burger King in the tiny, remote village you’ve selected from Google Maps is your problem, not theirs.

12) The Locals
They actually live there you know. Stop treating them like zoo exhibits

13) The Wildlife
That selfie next to a lion isn’t a good idea. Actually, what am I saying? Go ahead, in fact you’ll be doing us all a favour. I once saw someone standing up to the waist fishing in the Daintree river. That everyone else was there to see the crocodiles might have been a clue.

14) Insects
You’ve gone somewhere tropical. What did you expect? Seriously, what did you expect?

15) Overcrowding
You’ve gone to one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world, and you’re amazed that other people have had the same idea.

16) The Wet Season
Why did you think it was so cheap? They’ve even given you a hint in the title. Oh and it might be why the landscape is so green too. And while I’m at it, did you actually think about why it’s called a rainforest?

17) Monuments
Yes, you’re right, they’ve been there for a thousand years just waiting for you to carve your initials into the stone. Everyone else is deeply impressed, that’s why they’re there actually – to see just who the numpty who has ruined a global landmark is.

18) Clothing
Of course there’s nothing wrong with walking through a Dubai mall in your bikini or speedos. Why would anyone think that might be a problem?

19) Clapping when the Flight Lands
This is fine if you happen to be being flown by the Wright Brothers a hundred years ago. These days, amazingly enough, the pilot has actually done it before. In fact the definition of a good pilot is one who has the same number of landings as take offs and you didn’t applaud that did you? If a passenger in your car stands and applauds you when you drop them off safely then its allowed. Otherwise you’ve just made everyone else shrivel into their seat in embarrassment.

20) Holiday Clothes
That sarong you bought on holiday looked ok when you were on holiday. In the High Street when you get home, you just look a twat.

Ignoring the threat – Munich

Last week I was scheduled to go to Munich; it was a work trip to see colleagues at the ICS European office, with a couple of days tagged on to the weekend to spend time with friend and colleague Rhett Lego from the Conjoint Marketing Group.

I’d been looking forward to it for a while, not just because of the chance to catch up with people, but also because despite visiting many times previously, it had always been purely for work and almost always in the suburbs. The centre remained largely unexplored except for one short visit.

Munich hit the headlines last week given the shootings and the timing of the trip turned out to be less than ideal. Due to meet Rhett on Friday evening, messages were coming in from him that the trains were being halted as the police thought gunmen were heading in to the city.

Still, I waited outside a bar just off Marienplatz and was about to order a drink when mayhem broke out, hundreds of people running from the square in panic, with some falling and being hurt. At the time I was thinking that I hadn’t heard any gunfire, but clearly in such circumstances the individual has no idea what is happening or what caused it; that it ultimately proved to be a false alarm doesn’t affect the situation at the time.

So clearly this is the time to get out of the city and go home, right?

No. You see there’s nowhere in the world that’s completely safe, and while that evening was disconcerting, it also showed the very best of people too. The bar staff were fabulous, reassuring those who were distressed and looking after them, while amused at my response of deciding that since I was in a bar I might as well have a beer. After a couple of hours, we were all let out and so I walked back to the hotel, where of course the reality of the false alarms in the centre was becoming apparent.

Saturday morning I went back into the centre, again meeting in Marienplatz and heading off for a brunch. The city would surely be empty and subdued – except that it wasn’t at all. People were sat outside, the cafes were full, the squares were busy, the street performers were out in force. In other words it was normal, a mix of locals and tourists in an attractive regional city with much to offer.

And here is the point, it is the easiest thing to decide to head home, and once home to stay home. It’s also completely understandable, events like those in Munich are shocking and distressing, but the truth is that it can happen anywhere, and the alternative to accepting that is to never leave the house.

Munich as a city break has so much to offer, the architecture is outstanding, the Bavarian food delicious, while the numerous beer gardens are a delightful place to spend a few hours at very little cost given the ridiculously low prices. It’s also fairly flat so wandering and exploring is the key to experiencing the city.

I’ve never quite understood why Germany is not a more popular destination for the British. Sure, it lacks beaches except in the north, so that kind of holiday is unlikely, but the people are so warm and welcoming and the cultural fit with the British is a strong one. On one previous visit I carelessly allowed my passport to fall out of my bag whilst in a provincial station. A lady found it, and searched all the platforms until she found me and returned it. She didn’t speak any English and in common with much of the English speaking nations, my language skills are pathetic. So being able to convey thanks beyond repeated dankes was limited. But while I have no doubt that this would happen in many places, it is also illustrative that I was entirely unsurprised it would happen in Germany.

We live in troubled times, but it cannot stop us from living our lives and experiencing the joy of trouble and the pleasure of spending times with our fellow people. The Germans were undoubtedly shocked, but they showed the best possible response by getting on with their weekend. In the English Garden the surfers (yes really) were demonstrating their skills before the ever appreciative audience, the families were playing on the grass and the tourists were exploring.

Hard as it may be sometimes, it’s the only way. I love Munich, it’s a truly wonderful place. I’m glad I was there, even on that Friday night, and I’m even more glad I stayed for what turned out to be the best weekend imaginable – a great city, great people and good friends.

Never let us forget the importance of that.

Heading home

So that’s it. Sat on the tarmac at Bangkok ready for the journey back. It’s been a long one, 24 days in total, so it’s nice to be heading home.

There will be more posts in the coming days, reflections on the destinations seen and the things done. But for the moment it’s time to relax.

Thanks for following the journey.

Not just sun, sea and sand

It is a big part of it of course, and probably the principal attraction for many. However for a place to have a life beyond the nightclubs and bars there needs to be further attractions available, and particularly so for the long haul traveller, for whom there is usually no shortage of alternatives closer to home.

It is that which makes Bali different. A Hindu enclave in a Muslim country, the religious culture is central to so much of life there, every house almost has a temple, though naturally in the cities where space is at a premium they are much smaller. Out of town large parts of each home is given over to it, a startling sight for a western tourist undoubtedly. Equally, life is governed by consultation with the local temple, whether it be for marriage, births or more mundane matters. The visitor can partake in some of this, for many temples offer blessings. Initially, this sounds like the worst kind of cheesiness, a sop to those pretending to throw themselves into local life, but in reality it done rather well. Certainly these things are not done on a production line with numerous others alongside, but instead are very individual.

Belief is a different matter, but as an insight into the Balinese culture it does have value, for the elders will take their time over explaining the customs and what they mean for the local people.

image

Some of the agriculture is given over to the growing of plants that act as offerings, which does give a clue to the scale of it all. Such donations can be seen all over the streets, small boxes containing numerous different items and with different meanings. Likewise the dashboard of the car will likely have the same. It is ubiquitous and it won’t be long before the tourist takes its presence for granted. Careful where you walk though.

Rice remains the staple crop and the terracing built in order to extract the widest area of husbandry is certainly an attraction. It is both beautiful and architecturally impressive. Yet most production is simply in the fields, and the farming is still largely by hand and unmechanised. It is somewhat inefficient certainly, to the point that rice is imported more cheaply than it can be produced locally, but a walk through those fields is a cheap but relaxing way to get the feel of a place.

image

There are sights aplenty, particular when heading out of the main tourist areas, and plenty of activities too. Mount Agung is the highest peak on the island, and an active volcano considered one of the world’s most likely for a massive eruption in the next century. The volcanic activity historically is, of course a large part of the explanation for the exceptional fertility of the soil.

image

The Bali visit was a short one, making a thorough exploration impossible. A beach holiday here undoubtedly offers many attractions, but getting out and seeing what else it has to offer is imperative if not to rather miss the point of the place. From my own perspective there was so much left unexplored that limited time left a sense of frustration and unfinished business. An occupational hazard maybe, but the point in the previous post about only scratching the surface proved to be only too true.

Air to Bali

Bali is a destination beloved of backpackers over many years, the combination of low prices and great weather proving irresistible. The geographical location also attracts Australians in particular, as their closest foreign resort island. Indeed, the very use of the term ‘exotic’ when referring to holidays is partly defined by the location. No matter how attractive a place might be it is relegated to the normal if it happens to be on the doorstep.

That is why Bali is always going to be a special attraction for people from the UK, Europe or the Americas; it has that air of being somewhere special and magical. For Australians that might be a European island destination instead – distance turns the beautiful into something even more exclusive.

It does mean that Bali operates on at least two different levels; Kuta fulfills the mass market and backpacking needs while further along the coast towards Seminyak you find the more exclusive retreats, while inland to Ubud there is the flavour of a more authentic Bali.

Those travelling from great distances are rather more inclined to do the kind of exploration that turns Bali from being just another beach destination into something special. For islands around the world suffer from the same problem, that large numbers come to the resorts and don’t explore beyond. Majorca is a stunningly beautiful island, largely ignored by the majority who visit in favour of the nightlife and resorts. And that is of course ok, but the side benefit of taking the trouble to come from afar is that more time is set aside. Two centre holidays, excursions, trying to find the soul of the place becomes much more the focus.

Without long enough to truly do that, it is a matter of scratching the surface. Scratching will commence shortly.

Reflections

The Laos part of the journey is drawing to a close, to come is the trip across the border to Thailand and then a flight down to Bali for a few days exploring. So it is the right time to think back over the trip and and the experience.

Prior to this one, my only previous time in the country was a couple of days in Luang Prabang. That’s how most people do it, the city is as much a draw for Laos as Siem Reap is for Cambodia. Thus much tourism involves flying in, having a quick look around and then moving to the next destination. It’s understandable too, it’s the one genuinely famous place that appears on so many travel wishlists. Yet it’s no different (except in scale) to the situation in many other countries. In the UK London is the big draw and many tourists go there and consider they’ve visited the country. Hardly the case.

This particular itinerary involved starting at Luang Prabang, heading our north east before describing a large semi circle and aiming down the finger to the south east of the country. Being work it was necessarily compacted in terms of time, but with a limit on that it was the only way to experience a decent portion of the nation in the time available. Holidays will likely take in some elements of it but not all, unless an unusually long amount of time is available, but it’s not easy to decide which parts should be omitted.

Laos is an extraordinary, fascinating country. It has limited western influence, particularly from tourism, and the lack of western fast food outlets is a strong indicator of that. It therefore appeals strongly to kind of traveller who seeks unusual destinations, off the beaten track, away from the usual volumes.

Nature is a big part of it, trekking, eco-tourism, historical tourism, and actually foodie tourism too. The landscape is stunning, the attractions peaceful, and you are unlikely to be pushed along at the pace of all the others. It does require a degree of independent mindset, and a realisation that this is not a wealthy country. The roads and the towns are anything but we’ll maintained or spotlessly clean so those hoping for an anemic environment comparable to home will be disappointed. But the nature of travel, as opposed to simply holidaying, is to seek out these places, especially because in the years ahead it will change.

The curse of the traveller is finding that no matter where you go, everything is the same. Monoculture prevails all too often. Therefore finding somewhere radically different can be challenging yes, but ultimately thoroughly rewarding.

Laos is one of those places. There are a finishing number and Laos too may no longer be one in the years ahead. Going there while it still is should be on the list of all those who appreciate the diversity of our wonderful planet. It’s time to think about somewhere you haven’t up till now. It’s easier than you think.