I awoke with tired legs from the last couple of days walking round and dodging the throngs of christmas shoppers. It was one of those dull grey flat days that I had been expecting for the entire trip, Id been lucky with the weather so far. Luckily enough this was the day Id picked to go calling on clients and most were organised for mid to late afternoon when it would be getting dark anyway. So to compensate for the late start, the dull crappy day I thought I’d sample some of the local cuisine (yet again). When I’d stayed in London before everthing was horrendously expensive, I thought this trip would be no different. I’d ordered an oyster card in advance and loaded it up with the equivalent of day rates for the trip. Its not hard to believe that after only 2 and a half days in London, the transport costs had exceeded the entire hong kong trip!
The hotel had a couple of ‘greasy spoon’ type cafes across the road so I thought Id give them ago. Id chosen to stay between cricklewood and kilburn as Id wanted to sample a bit of non-tourist London. One of my aunts had lived up near Tottenham for a while so was keen to get out and about with ‘locals’. The ‘locals’ in the cafe consisted mostly of Irish and Polish men, the type of guys who would be usually working on building sites at this time of day if it wasnt for the recession.
The fry up would have choked 2 horses, never mind one, and cost about 7 quid and I genuinely thought I wouldnt eat anything else for a week. Prompting the later in the day well worn phrase of ‘no, I’m not hungry, but I could eat something’ that became the passphrase for my Canada/US trip last year.
Spending most of the morning in and out of the London transport system you get the feeling of how it has seemed to have grown organically rather than someone actually sitting down and designing it. It may have been designed, indeed it wasnt until I was 21 that I realised that Northern Ireland busses and railways actually had a timetable rather than just turning up and waiting for the next one.
Glad I wasnt taking many photos today as the train broke down, tube line was closed, roadworks for the busses and I only had 200 quid cash on me so couldnt take a taxi into town.
I could have been a one off but in my 4 month sojourn in London I decided Id try out this commuting lark for a week to see if I could hack it. My girlfriend at the time was living in Felixstowe so Id get the 6:30am train to Ipswich with the supposed connection to London Liverpool street which would put me at my desk by 8:50am. Well thats the theory… I dont think I was at my desk before 9:15am any morning. Im sure things have improved but at the time I worked with a guy who had a similar commute, he saw his kids only at the weekends despite living in the same house. He would be out of the house in the morning before they got up and back home long after they went to bed. I know its necessary but what sort of a life is that, not one for me really.
So I ask again, how on earth are they going to carry off the Olympics? Im only adding these lines in to wind English people up, every time theres an Olympics or World Cup or any major event, a lot of the pre-event publicity is on how much of a shambles it is going to be.
Reminds me of sitting in an internet cafe in Tokyo during the 2002 world cup. A number of US journalist were giving one of the fifa officials earache about all the problems they were having and one said ‘we told you about these problems yesterday’, to which the very polite official said ‘no sir, the problems you told us about yesterday have been fixed, these are new problems’. I suspect that wont be the case in London
As well as spending the vast majority of the morning in various states of waiting for parts of london transport to arrive I thought Id head over to Harrods and have a look round at how the other half lives. There had been an edtiorial in the papers about how Knightsbridge and Kensington had some of the most expensive parking in the world. I can well believe it as one of the houses I walked past cost more to rent per month than my whole house originally cost me!
I took a walk past One Hyde Park and joined the window shoppers outside the McLaren shop, some of the most expensive real estate in the world. I felt I didnt have enough money to even stand on the street outside! Across the road is Harvey Nichols and I’ve never been there, billed as the young persons Harrods I’ll have to have a look the next time Im over as I needed to get across town for various meetings. Just as I walked down the side, one of the security personnel asked me to move on. Well I was moving on, just not quick enough obviously and I wondered what was up. He said he thought I was paparazzi and Lady GaGa was about to come out and they’d been asked to clear the pavement. I laughed saying Id photographed her before but was heading on anyway. Oh PS mate, your building is on fire….
In between meetings I managed to get to the Imperial War Museum and their Don McCullin exhibition. I only had a quick look round, not enough to do it justice. Definitely worth a visit if you are in the area.
I had a few follow up meetings on my last full day but during the free time the weather did work out for me again.
The phone apps Id mentioned in my last post did work wonders for highlighting some of the current events and I made a detour down to the South Bank for the chocolate food festival. No purchases here but wandering round the smell of cooking chocolate was enough!
It might seem odd but in the whole time Ive been coming to London I cant remember ever going anywhere near Buckingham Palace. Probably one of the must sees, if for nothing else than to say you have seen it. Its one of those weird places where tourists gather and just stand and stare. I watched loads of people just staring through the gates and I wondered if they thought the Queen would just pop out and say hello. Its not as if they just stopped, took a photo and cleared off, it took me about 15 mins to walk past the area and most of the people who were there when I arrived were still there and still staring through the railings. Would hate to see if if there was something on!
I enjoyed my trip to London, maybe I needed that break away from it to go back and appreciate it as one of the outstanding tourist cities instead of just a place to work ridiculous hours. I certainly saw more of it in my 4 days here than I did in the whole 4 months of working there. It was good to go back and wander round some of the old haunts and have a look round some new places. I’ll certainly be planning a return sometime in 2012, but maybe not anywhere near the Olympics
The main areas I wanted to visit were Stanley and the Stanley market, the Aberdeen ‘village’ and its fish market, Sha Tin and the 10,000 buddhas monastery and if possible fit a trip in to Ngong Ping on the morning I was leaving.
Travel in Hong Kong is so easy and so cheap, stanley and aberdeen are less than an hour on the bus and probably less than 2 quid return, Sha Tin is a bit further for a few quid more and Ngong Ping isnt that far from the airport (if you can avoid going anywhere near Disneyland).
I didnt think Id been to Stanley before but walking round the market it did look vaguely familiar, if I had been there before it was only to the market. Thats not really a surprise as the first time I was there it had been a closed peninsula due to the British Military base and the 2nd time it had just been turned over to a Chinese military base. 14 years later commercialism and development have taken over but the market is still thriving and the peninsula has mostly been opened up with only a small part of it still reserved. I took a wander up to the Military Cemetary and walked past a field that was very familiar to me. Id definitely not been here before as it was within the old military base and it took me a while to work out why it was familiar. Back in 1977 when I was seven years old we had a batch of photos sent to us of my cousins in Hong Kong and here was the very same field complete with school on the cliff face in the background. I think I still have that old yellowing photo somewhere but here I was standing in virtually the spot the photo was taken. I resisted the opportunity to take a photo from the same spot as it wouldnt have anywhere near the meaning and time has moved on. How much time has moved on is almost like watching a sci fi film at the time. Back in 1977 the post took weeks to get to us and if you wanted to ring HK we went down to the only phone in the street and contacted the international operator and ‘booked’ a time for the call. That night I went back to the hotel and sent my cousin a message on facebook!
As well as the hustle bustle of the market where the prices seem to be lower and more ‘fixed’ than the other more touristy markets in Kowloon. The market here seems to be more for doing business than for haggling and getting the feel for things. Dont quote me on it but my feelings of Stanley market was that the goods were of a higher quality than other markets, certainly the silk/traditional clothing and the electronics. Times have indeed changed when you walk through the market dodging low flying toy helicopters.
The Murray building and the Tin Hau temple are worth a look, the temple if for nothing else than to see the weird tiger skin hanging on the wall. The official story was that it was shot by a local policeman as it ravaged the place, others say it was an escapee from the zoo shot by the Japanese during the invasion as well as other equally wild but equally plausible stories. Why its hanging on the temple wall 70 years later though isnt really explained.
I didnt get the chance to sample the waterfront restaurants as the US Navy was in town and the place was bunged and they didnt look like the type of guys to argue with… …although saying that I do remember starting an argument with Dutch special forces in a night club in Prague (over women of course) which ended up with us in a singing competition at a tram stop long after the sun came up with no women in sight (well none that didnt have a look of disgust on their face).
Moving swiftly along the next trip was to the quaint fishing village of Aberdeen. To be fair though even 14 years ago it was skyscrapers and very little left of a quaint fishing village.
I fancied having a wander around the famous fish market where the local fishing boats unload their catch and it is auctioned off, packed into lorries still alive, then shipped around the country. Its a proper working area so isnt accessible to everyone so as long as I watched my steps, got out of peoples way and didnt make a nuisance of myself Id be ok. Surprisingly I did do all of the above but my problems came from a different direction. Learning my lesson from the previous trips out at rush hour I went against all guide book advice to get across first thing and thought Id catch the last hour of trading, which was useful as the workers were more open to photos than during the mad phase of the operations. I also thought I’d learned from my blisters of the previous few days so first thing I burst all the existing ones and dressed the sores…
…only to find out the whole fish market tanks are live fish, crabs etc. Now back home everything is packed in ice and then sold, here they are kept in live tanks, transferred to live tanks, then transferred to vans with live water tanks and then into the restaurants where they swim about until lunchtime. What has this got to do with blisters, well all the tanks overflow keeping the fish alive so the full floor of the fish market is under about 2 inches of water. Salt water. Ow…
I thought that there wouldnt be a better place to get some seafood for lunch so took the courtesy ferry across to the famous jumbo floating restaurant. Id been to the restaurant before but hadnt actually eaten there but this time would be different. Its an amazing place and again I had old photos of my aunts dressed to the nines having nights out on the 3 storey floating restaurant complexes. Of course I was in my usual look like a pauper and try not to get robbed sweaty travel clothes so thought a cordened off screened area awaited. I got the top restaurant and asked for a table for one. Certainly sir, what name is the reservation under? Eh? Its sunday lunchtime, we are fully booked. Ah balls! I still havent eaten at the jumbo restaurant!
It was the same story in a lot of the restaurants and the town centre was hectic so I took a sampan tour of the harbour (again dont pay the main price, haggle, pretend to walk away and so on) before heading into the town for some Char Siu fast food style.
The journey to Sha Tin was interesting as it was good to be back on an integrated transport system, tram from the hotel to central, subway to Kowloon Tong station then old KCR train to Sha Tin station, no more than a few minutes delay in each station and no more than a couple of quid single. Oh how Id long for that a month later in London, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
Id avoided Sha Tin for a couple of days as one of the big horseracing meetings was on. Now with family history and considering Id been going to Horse Racing since before I was born (think about it) I did feel Id miss out but needs must and all that, gotta use the good days for photos!
Id missed the 10,000 buddha monastery on previous trips so thought Id pay it a visit this time, directions were simple, out of the train station, past the traditional chinese village, up the hill and its on the left hand side. I did this but didnt think it looked like any of the photos Id seen in the old guide books but having had enough photos published in guide books and mentioned in blogs before about trades descriptions and photos in blue skies etc I though it might just be one wee small area of the monastery that all the photos are taken of.
It was hot, humid, very polluted and a lot of steps to the top of the hill (which the guidebooks warn you about). I got to the top and most of the lower levels were chinese columbariums where the ashes of the dead are placed. Not having been to a big buddhist monastery before I didnt know it was normal.
Up until this point Id been walking around on memory, a 14 year old guidebook and well, lets be honest, using the force. Standing at the top of this hill, sweat pouring out of me, sore leg, finding it hard to breathe with the pollution and almost out of water I thought Id turn to technology. I had downloaded the trip advisor hong kong app and thought Id just check with it using my smartphone and waited on a gps fix….
…Standing in this Buddhist temple I started to contemplate my own personal path to enlightenment as the gps fix locked and the trip advisor app loaded. I clicked on the tourist spot the gps indicator was flashing at. ‘This is the Po Fook Hill cemetery that many people mistake for the 10,000 Buddha monastery which is on the opposite facing hill’.
I turned around to see the monastery, on the opposite hill indeed with all the steps down and all the steps up. I had indeed had my path enlightened although I dont think Buddha would have approved of my language at this point. Further reading of the Po Fook Hill site revealed the presence of a lift to the top from the car park. I know buddhists sometimes ring bells but do they have a clucking one?
Down at the entrance to the real 10,000 Buddha monastery I was accosted by one of the fake monks who inhabit the site who block tourists path until they part with some cash. This guy was head and shoulders taller than me and kept stepping in my way. Which didnt do the bad leg nor the blisters any good. When he grabbed my arm he got a full mouthful of Belfast vernacular. Im assuming he wasnt fluent in English but the speed of his letting go and backing off did indicate I had helped enlighten him somewhat.
When I say the top of the path to the ten thousand buddha monastery was breathtaking I meant it. I couldnt bloody breathe! Good job theres a wee shop up there selling tea and water etc. The monastery itself is worth a visit and check out the embalmed body of the founder mounted on the altar! Take a trip up to the top of the 9 storey pagoda. You cant see anything out of it, I just want you to suffer like I did
Every so often, no matter how bad you feel, no matter how bad a day you are having and how wrecked you feel there is always something that will crack you up. Just outside the toilets in the monastery was a sign, which yes is well meaning and warns tourist to not feed the monkeys but….
Just the mix of the words ‘beware’ and ‘monkey attack’ had me in near fits of laughter as all I could imagine was me standing taking a piss in the loos only to be set upon by Bruce Lee trained ninja monkeys. The idea of monkeys all dressed in black flying out at me through the bushes was just too much!
On the train back I had a look through the trip advisor app and the number one tourist attraction in Hong Kong was the symphony of lights down at the harbour. Now I hadnt seen this before and everyone raved about it online. So I went down an hour early, picked my spot, got jostled endlessly by ignorant tourists but thought it would be worth the hassle. In the hour or so before the kowloon promenade speakers were knocking out classical and some rock music, just the sort of accompanyment you would expect to a sound, light and laser show which incorporates most of the buildings in Central Hong Kong and some of those in Kowloon (the Avenue of stars is the best place for viewing). When the show started it was a half hour long and to be perfectly honest seemed like a lifetime. Those who rated this the number one thing to see in Hong Kong were either staying on a boat in the middle of the harbour or really need to get out more. Now I appreciate the music may have been ‘classical chinese’ music but to me it was just ding ding noise but then again Im starting to sound like the tourists I used to slag off the last times I was here, so heres a short clip of the finale so that you can make up your own minds but dont hold your breath…
The last trip was up the Ngong Ping cablecar to the Ngong Ping tourist village and up to the Big Buddha. The plan was simple, get to the airport, check the bags in, get to the cable car and then spend some time at the big buddha. Of course what it didnt tell you was that you can check your bags in at the airport express terminal…. … in Hong Kong Island, not at the airport and I really thought I was going to be stuck here all day lying on my bags in an airport. Thankfully there was a left luggage place so I went to the cable car unburdened! Which was just as well as an hour standing in the queue with it just long enough to think it wasnt worth spending the extra tenner for the queue jumping ticket. Trust me it is! You can also opt for the glass bottomed cable car. Not for me in a million years – my fear of heights is bad enough but when you are in a cable car and can see planes taking off way down below you, gaving a glass bottom is quite likely to bring on an evacuated bottom if you know what I mean.
Speaking of which, Ive always had this ‘rule’ of traveling. Dont eat anything dodgy during the entire stay and if you want to go for say that chinese herbal tea from a street stall or the seafood prawns from hong kong harbour then do it on the last night/day, that way if you get the shits on the plane home it doesnt really matter. This has been a good rule for me and one I tell everyone, probably because Ive never ever put it into practice…
…until now. It wasnt the fear of heights that scared me on the cable car trip, it was the fear that every fart might end up sounding like trying to squeeze the last bit of shower gel out of the plastic container.
Packing the immodium in the left luggage perhaps wasnt my brightest idea.
The pollution was so bad you could see very little and almost had to be on the big buddha so photos were pointless and with my stomach doing somersaults discretion was the better part of valour and time to start winding my way home.
Overall it was a good trip, Id seen a lot more of Hong Kong than both my previous trips combined but thats down to this being a work trip rather than a holiday. I would recommend Hong Kong to anyone, even if it is just to wander around the place, get some good food, do a bit of haggling and shopping and maybe get to some of the outlying places rather than just central and kowloon.
Well it has been over a month since I got home and well over a month since my last blog post. When I wrote the last blog post I was still sitting in Canada, pretty much packing up and ready to get the flight home. Did I say ready? Well prepared to get the flight home is more appropriate.
Its hard to believe its been a month already, just as it was hard to beleive a month traveling had gone by. In the last few weeks Ive been catching up with my other photo work, getting back in touch with students, starting to wade through the thousands of images to be edited, captioned and uploaded to various sites and sitting watching the rain bounce off the windows.
Its been a tough couple of weeks, not just from the work perspective and the fitting it all in whilst trying to get a house and everything back to normal. The boring mundane ordering of heating oil and cutting the grass dont quite compare to flying over nigara falls in the helicopter but they have to be done.
Its also been a wrench leaving my friends, its not that I dont have good friends here but there is something about traveling together that bonds people. I have 3 close friends that I have traveled the world with and I remember the first day they met, it was down in dublin airport and none of them had met before. I had traveled with them all individually but not as a group so hadnt even considered the dynamics. Our first task as a unit was to report all our luggage missing on arrival so it was a baptism of fire. There is something about the bonds of friendship made whilst traveling that go beyond normal friendship and I have that in abundance now with my friends here, in Canada and in South America.
People have asked what the highlight of the trip was, of course there are loads of things I could mention and already have in the blog but like my trip to South America there is one thing that stands out for me, the people I travelled with and the people I met. Whilst I didnt quite need emergency room treatment as in Buenos Aires, I was treated like a friends by strangers and welcomed into the family by people who didnt need to do that.
Oh but here, did I mention we got buzzed by a crop duster in North Dakota?
With the recent events in London and indeed Belfast it is sometimes easy to draw the conclusion that the world is going to hell and in a bloody quick manner but when someone in nowheresville Iowa comes over to your table and asks how you are and what you are doing there and recommends the platter then its not that bad. When you are invited to a family barbecue even though you arent part of the family but feel like it by the end of the evening then it shows there are more good people than bad in the world.
But Im not knocking the sales of water cannon photos or soldiers on the streets.
It was my first trip to Canada and definitely wont be the last, I felt at home there, I felt as though it was the same as here only different. Ive been so taken with the place I spent the first couple of weeks looking at visa regulations and work permits and the like. There is a danger that the grass is always greener and boy if I complain about the winters here then…
…well you get the point.
I have always been a traveler, even when I didnt know it, its not really about the start or the end or even the bit in the middle, its about the journey as a whole, its not so much about what you see but how it affects you and what you do about it afterwards. Its about meeting people and seeing that we are pretty much the same the world over, we want to be fed and a roof over our head and if we can all have a laugh in the process, so much the better. The world financial system can go down the toilet but as long as you can put food on the table, thats pretty much all that should matter.
I am back to earth with a bump here but it is home and always will be home, I missed the soft grass and the soft rain (ok Ive had enough of that already) and sitting out on the lough fishing as the sun goes down is now an experience having met someone who has never seen the sea. Not to mention the freshly caught mackerel barbequed with friends.
Im waxing lyrical about the trip and the place but I’ll bring it back to the people, it would not have been half as much fun without the old and new friends on the trip and I think if we’d sat in the house for a month it would have been equally as enjoyable.
Just saying thank you isnt really enough, I am a wee boy from the Falls Road in Belfast, I should never have seen the things Ive seen (good and bad) and would never have imagined Id have been to the places I only ever read about or saw on a wee small black and white portable tv as a kid. That means its all an experience, its all good (even the bad bits).
Life is not a rehearsal so even if its just lying on the grass, sitting out in the rain, go and do something you havent done before, say yes to something you would normally say no to and see what happens along the way.
So thanks to everyone I met in the US/Canada, its been emotional Its also been great craic and would I do it again – 4 weeks ago I’d probably have said no, now I’ll say maybe, in 4 weeks time I’ll probably have a bag packed.
After Ive got the rest of the photos edited of course…. ..better get back to work and pull a few all nighters!
Firstly a couple of my usual bug bears with travelling in the US or more specifically, spending money in the US. You walk into a shop and it might say 2.99 for a large coffee so you hand over 3 dollars to be told it actually costs 3.27.
That price doesnt include tax sir.
It just doesnt.
FFS sort it out, get with the rest of the real world, if its in electronic format or stick on prices then add the sodding sales tax. If you are a hotel and quote 91 dollars then charge me 114 on my credit card then I will bloody well complain to my credit card provider in the UK. Ok I wont but its the principle of the thing.
Bloody stupid idea.
Oh and dont get me started on tipping. That 2.99 coffee now costs me 4 dollars as we tip here. Just pay your staff decent wages and include it in the price of the coffee! Its not rocket science.
How much to license this photo – 50 dollars – ok can you invoice us? Yes that will be 325 dollars total then. What? Well tax and sales and admin and issuing a paper invoice oh and we request a 500% tip at all times.
Bloody hell, travelling through the US is just a series of Ryanair purchases.
Right, got that off my chest.
Facebook is a marvellous thing, it enables me to turn my phone off and avoid all those Indian call centres, wedding price list requests, photography students looking summer jobs and the odd strange request to see if I can help photographing bull semen. (yes that is real – you really couldnt make that one up – 2 calls – each time I was travelling and in the middle of the night where I was).
Just turn on wifi and use facebook on the phone for updates.
Well thats when it does update of course, which explains why Im sitting in my boxers with a cup of coffee in my hotel room when the leaving time has been bumped forward to 9:30 and the rest of the team are in the hotel lobby.
Still they went and got me a cracker barrel breakfast – took them a bloody hour and a half but if Id got my arse out of gear quicker it wouldnt have been a problem.
Today it was all about Memphis, getting to Graceland. Its hard to meet someone who isnt an Elvis fan of some description so being this close and not going would be a waste of an opportunity. Yes its about a 4 hour detour but we may not be this way again so didnt want any regrets. The original plan was to stay in Memphis and spend the evening on Beale Street after Graceland but with the change of route home due to the flooding (including a nuclear power station – safe my arse!) and the apparently horrific crime rate in Memphis, it was wise to get on the road as soon as we can.
I had expected that Graceland would be a bit OTT but I cant really say it was that out of place. Elvis invented bling long before the word bling ever came along and certainly if I had his money, fame, good looks and status Id be a hell of a lot more tacky than he was. Again you have to remember this was in the 50s/60s/70s so totally beyond the normal for then but compared to some of the tat thats shown on MTV its quite tame.
It was a great insight into Elvis life, I was only a kid when he died and remember seeing TV pictures of people with candles outside Graceland and here am I standing in the house itself. The upstairs is still closed to visitors, the sceptics saying that when the visitors start to dwindle they will open that as well but I prefer the conspiracy theory that hes sitting up there in his rocking chair having a laugh at the rest of us.
Hes not really dead at all but working on a duet album with Michael Jackson and going out for a morning ride each day on Shergar.
Just in case he was at home we pressed the old original gate intercom to see if we could catch anyone out.
Another must see was the Lorraine Hotel, on this spot Martin Luther King was shot as he walked out of his hotel room on the second floor. Its now the National Civil Rights Museum and has a wreath where he fell and the car is still parked outside. Judging by the coach loads of people arriving and leaving this too is an important spot.
As Beale street was close we headed for a walk down it and a quick drink in one of the bars. There is a bar there just serving slush cocktails but unfortunately as we were all going to be driving at some point it was the one and only non-alcoholic one in the bar. We probably looked like aliens all asking for the non-alcoholic varieties.
The downtown area has a bad reputation and the place was swarming with cops, I suppose it is reassuring there are that many squad cars around but inevitably lead to the ‘lets get the f*ck out of dodge’. I wonder if Dodge City is nice
Doing such a momentous trip really gives you an appreciation of what the life of the interstate truckers is like, hours and hours of open highway driving, not knowing where you are sleeping and all that. Each day we drove a larger distance than is possible in Ireland in a straight line. Sooner or later you are going to end up in the water!
A few years ago I did a tour of the west coast of the USA and tried to keep off the interstates and visit some of the non-chained restaurants, hotels etc on the way. It made for a more interesting trip and ave Gorman did an ‘unchained’ trip where he did just that but with a lot of hassle.
Of course the problem with doing this is that there are few roadsigns and driving off the interstate seems to be meant for locals, not tourists. Of course if we had turned the voice on, on the sat nav we might have got by better but with the huge amount of flooding and roads closed it was inevitable that we would get caught up in it.
The other issue with this sort of travelling is that sometimes when you give yourself a cut off time for driving and just pick the nearest hotel/motel then you can end up staying somewhere where you have absolutely no clue where you are. Our first stop after Memphis was somewhere near St Louis but to this day I still have no idea where.
It does have its plus point though as you find wee places like Mount Pleasant, the town square looking like the set out of back to the future and lovely local diner where the local poetry group was meeting and doing some readings etc.
Oh and they served food as well.
For me this is pretty much the real USA, people here are very welcoming and want to hear strangers stories and have the time to sit and chat with them. I like others often judge the book by its cover and often only get to see major cities, airports etc which are impersonal in most nations but get out into the sticks and meet some real people and the attitude changes. Without doubt in every small town we were welcomed and genuinely felt guilty that we didnt have more time to spend in those communities than just sitting in some nice but bland hotel waiting for the next tour bus.
It gets to the stage you do just live out of your luggage and it was time for me to buy some new luggage. The wheels had literally come off my previous bag (bought in Chicago funnily enough) and I got a set of new ones which will probably kill my baggage allowance on the flight home. How come when you leave home with 5kg left in your allowance, and you buy nothing (ok a bottle of Jack Daniels, oh and some ice wine, oh and new socks and boxers and and) your bag is overweight on the way home.
Saying that though I did used to regularly fly with one airline which would not penalise people for being overweight leaving Belfast but would sting them severely on the way home.
As we decided to give the area involving the flooded Nuclear power station (which was safe apparently) a miss we headed North via Iowa then Minneapolis (which I still cant pronounce). This gave us the opportunity to visit the Mall of America.
Now it is argued that this can be seen from space but someone should tell the highways agency it might be worth while sticking a few signs up. The only signs we saw were within one interstate turn and by then it was too late, that was after the sat nav took us 10 miles out of the way. Even in the hotel across the road where you could see the Mall itself, people were asking for directions.
We arrived at the Mall just after closing so had something to eat – sorry no photos – I was too hungry – buffalo burger I believe, just in case you are wondering. Got a hotel across the road and then would hit the mall in the morning.
The mall was amazing, not just for the size of the place.
Oh and wee tip, if you are busting for a pee, run into the mall of america with one of your travelling companions, head straight for the row of urinals where he decides to make comment on the vastness of the mall with the immortal words ‘can you believe the size of this thing’ whilst relieving himself, you tend to find the people around you zip up quickly and head out of the bog with wet fingers.
Have to say I nearly peed all over my shoes at that comment I laughed so much…
The Mall has a funfair which would rival one of the disney resorts but we couldnt stay and only saw about 1/10th of the shops before hitting the road. We needed to get to the border for 9pm to make sure all the road crossings were open…
We raced through the flat lands of North Dakota, which has to be seen to be believed. I know people tell you its flat but you have no comprehension of the term. Even when Im out on my boat on the sea in a flat calm day you can still see coastline and mountains in the distance, this is just flat. So flat we could see the crop duster dusting the fields in the distance. They would dust, fly up and round then fly under the power lines, over the interstate and start dusting again. When he made his turn when we approached he probably thought he would time it just right to pass behind us. Of course with me hanging out the back with the camera giving the driver instructions to hold up just enough let him pass in front of us, well lets just say it was very close and I can still almost taste whatever they were spraying.
We reached the border about 10pm and Canada was closed. Sorry folks, closed for the night, try again later.
Like seriously? WTF? So we drove back the 12 miles to the nearest town and scared the shit out of the local cop by walkin up to the car in the dark and asking directions to a 24hr border post.
He did wish me well on my journey and Im sure the guy was genuine and meant well but when hes sitting in his car with his hand on his gun, its not very reassuring.
On the way to the 24hr post this stupid wee bird decided he wanted to hover over something on the road just in front of us as we were doing 70mph. We didnt get to see the aftermath, probably just disintegrated, like pigeons perhaps.
We got to the border post and it was a less arduous experience than entering the states.
Do you guys have any alcohol?
I have a bottle of Jack Daniels Single Cask I bought at the factory.
Do you guys have any livestock on board?
Are you sure?
Ok then, on you go.
Pulling out of the border post it did feel like a weight removed but we couldnt get too complacent as not more than 100 yards on a deer ran out across the road in the darkness and behind it a whole field of deer looked on.
It was all about putting the miles in then, up to Brandon and do the drive around looking for hotel at 1am in the morning. Found a lovely hotel – Victoria hotel or something like that – beautifully cooked hot breakfast – again no pics, sorry I was starving but it was eggs benedict.
Packing the car in the morning the front of the car was covered in dead mosquitos, oh and a small black bird headfirst into the headlight assembly, cartoon style with feet sticking straight out. Straight to the scene of the accident! The border guard must have seen it, he couldnt have missed it!
Finally we managed to make it back to Saskatoon.
The stats are 11 US states, 2 Canadian provinces, 2 time zones, 4642 miles driven in 11 days, one dead raccoon, one smuggled illegal immigrant dead bird, back in time to put the kettle on before band rehearsals.
Would I do it again? Standard answer is not in a million years, then ask me a week later and its a maybe and a month later I’ll be planning the next one.
Thing is though, after 3 full days in Saskatoon we are on the road again to Winnipeg for another 9 hour each way drive and a couple of days at the Winnipeg folk festival.
Ah this rock and roll lifestyle, you could get used to it…
Ireland is often described as having 40 shades of green, its usually not until you go away from the place and then come back that you see this. On the bus from Belfast to Dublin airport for my trip to Canada and the US it was a good chance to take the time to look around me. Often Im just driving down the road and dont get to see the scenery rushing past. Im going to be seeing a lot of scenery rushing past over the next couple of weeks.
As I write Im sitting in Saskatoon, Canada. Home of the land of the living skies and they arent kidding. It does feel odd to not really see any hills and see cloud formations over prairies into the distance.
Its been a long journey so far, Belfast to Dublin, overnight in Dublin airport, then off to Toronto, couple of days in Toronto then off to Saskatoon.
Thing is though it doesnt really feel weird/different at all, it all feels pretty normal, another day, another city. Ive never been to Canada before but felt as if I had, Ive a few Canadian friends through my association with the Belfast Ice Hockey team and through working for a Canadian company for 4 years in a previous life.
So far its been the friendly welcoming country that everyone has said it would be.
I started in Dublin and got the chance to look at the new airport terminal as I was staying in the grounds of the airport for an early flight to Toronto. The new building is impressive but I got the overwhelming feeling that there were a lot of one way tickets being bought. A lot of young people at the airport with very heavy bags and a lot of tearful goodbyes. Looks like the old days of emigration have returned.
I was flying out with Air Canada and have to say I was impressed with the service on the flight, even though at one point the captain pointed out a Delta airlines flight only 1000 feet below us! Canadian customs wasnt as big a pain as their US equivalents and it was then on to the hotel via a bus with power connections and free wifi – whats that all aboot?
I was a bit concerned about the hotel in all honesty, Id booked it in advance via priceline and of course the day after Id booked and paid for it with no refunds allowed, two reviews came up which called it a dump, smack in the middle of the red light district. Charming! At least it would allow for interesting photos.
I neednt have worried as I somehow managed to get a suite, which I didnt know about until I got into the room and wondered where the hell the bed was – oh that would be down the corridor.
Quick shower and out and down to Yonge Dundas Square to have a look around. It did seem odd that the city tour busses started their last route at 4:50pm and there was no night version so be warned if you are only there for a day! The ticket is valid for 7 days but not a lot of use to me with only one full day in Toronto and then on to Niagara Falls. Did I mention I would be going over Niagara Falls in a helicopter? Ah minor point.
I’ll not go into too much detail about the trip, I’ll leave that to the photos when I eventually get home and eventually get the thousands of images edited and uploaded, I’ve just a few proofs done and uploaded here.
Toronto is a great city as you would expect, very welcoming. Id recommend the open top bus tour and the harbour tour but the weather I had was rubbish, more like Belfast than Toronto so do be warned. I didnt get the photos I had planned but then again what I had planned on a 36 hour schedule was probably unrealistic anyway. Certainly the blisters on my feet and the sunburn from an overcast day will testify to that.
Im not going to say Niagara Falls was a disappointment, it just wasnt that big a deal. I did the day tour which stopped very briefly at a winery and allowed me to purchase a couple of bottles of the famous ice wine and then little more than a drive through of Niagara on the Lake (which lets be honest is more than enough).
I was looking forward to the Maid of the Mist trip but had been tempered by comments from a few Canadians I met at Iguazu Falls in Argentina. Id been under Iguazu in a fast rib and when I say I got soaked there I got soaked right through to the shorts despite wearing waterproofs. Niagara was a bit tame in comparison.
Of course I still havent got over getting into a helicopter and just taking off so that was again a high point of the trip so far. Weather wasnt particularly great but the photos still arent bad at all.
Friends do say that trouble follows me everywhere so the flight from Toronto to Saskatoon was scheduled for the first day of the Air Canada strike so up early to see if I could get my flight at all! Got checked in ok and even got some photos of the strikers!
It was then on to Saskatoon and staying with my friends Stephen and Tera Maguire. Theres been a lot of catching up and just chilling out, but mostly eating! Tomorrow we depart on a 3 day drive from Saskatoon Canada to Nashville USA. Its a punishing schedule but should be yet another one of those trips of a lifetime.
Oh and I have to mention Tim Hortons, no particular reason but anyone who has been to Canada will know what I mean…
Will try to keep the blog ongoing as the trip progresses…
I was listening to the radio the other day when they were discussing the British Governments plan to boost tourism to the UK. The presenter was from Belfast and he said that we have lovely countryside, areas of outstanding natural beauty, areas of special scientific interest and you are positively falling over ancient and modern heritage. Yet the tourists want to see the areas of the troubles, where so and so was shot, which areas were blown up etc etc.
To emphasise the point I have an image published in the current edition of the Sunday Times travel magazine special on Ireland. Is it a photo of the sun rising over Belfast, No. Is it a photo of the sun setting on the Giants causeway, No. Is it the food, the people, any number of ancient monuments, castles, valleys, countryside… No. Its a photo of a loyalist wall mural.
The Northern Ireland Tourist Board and associated city organisations spend a fortune promoting ‘Luxury Belfast’ or come and get engaged in Northern Ireland. Im from here and I didnt get engaged in Northern Ireland. All this is dreamed up by marketing gurus and people getting ‘on message.’ Im sure there are focus groups and people just wanting junkets in the luxury hotels around Belfast. They spend a fortune producing glitzy ads try to attract different demographics whilst ignoring the vast majority of things going on here and what the local people are actually trying to promote.
Im all for marketing and having a message, I preach it to clients often enough but somewhere when promoting tourism you should have people who have actually travelled, and not just a fortnight in Ibiza, Blackpool or Portrush.
Ive travelled on all 5 continents, Ive flown from bucket seat 3rd World airlines where landing was usually considered optional to First Class inter continental British Airways. Ive stayed in all ranges from the ‘Places to stay – top end’ to campsites and youth hostels with fresh blood on the walls. Ive sat on dirty ground eating food from street vendors to silver service personal waiter service in what looked liked a remnant of old collonialism (with the price to match). Ive enjoyed watching puppet street theatre in Prague to candlelit opera in the Tsars summer palace in Moscow.
All a slightly exaggerated way of saying, Ive got about a bit.
In every single place, in every single language, every single person has asked me about ‘the war’.
Thats what Belfast is known for. Whether we like it or not, thats what we should be selling. You cant go to Berlin and not go to the Wall, you cant go to Cyprus and not overlook no mans land, Krakow and not go to Auschwitz. Maybe its because Im from here but I go to every conflict area and hole in the hedge when travelling.
It pishes down here most of the time so I do feel like I should be prosecuted under the trades description act for some of my photos so sell people what they are going to get.
As for the luxury end of the market, I dont know who does their research but when Ive booked luxury Ive done it from home, Ive been picked up at the airport, looked after until Ive went home. Not once have I went from my youth hostel or campsite and picked up a luxury brochure by accident when looking for my best fry in Belfast deal and decided to go to the Merchant or Four Square on the strength of it. Madness.
Last week I went for a walk along the Lagan at night to do some photos, it was a poor night photographically and in the 2 hours I was out I spotted 4 lost looking tourists, wandering around looking, well lost. Any other city in the world with a riverside similar to ours would have a bit of life, street entertainment, stalls, people walking up and down and you could get a fecking cup of coffee after 9pm!
Maybe thats all the tourists we have on a wet thursday night in August in Belfast, maybe they are all at the Giants Causeway, lapping up the Luxury hotels, popping the question down in Fermanagh or helping the locals beat the living shit out of each other in Ardoyne. Maybe they dont want to walk along a still river at night, soak up the maritime heritage, buy a cuppa and a a bit of tat that will sit on the foreign equivalent of a fireplace for years to say ‘Ive been to Belfast’.
I once drove 17 hours straight to get a signed piece of paper to say Id crossed the arctic circle. I was in Bergen with a few mates and it rains there 360 days a year (bit like here) so after 3 days of rain we hired a car and drove north at speed. Thats what tourists do.
Sell them the war tours, sell them the murals, its what we have thats unique in the world. When we have them here sell them Belfast waterfront, Bangor, Newry, Armagh, Derry, Omagh, Fermanagh. Give them the option of going on a tour to the ancient monuments, christian heritage, world heritage sites, inland waterways, surfing holidays, walking holidays, boating holidays, whiskey and drink tours, etc etc, you might even sell the odd engagement ring or persuade people to upgrade hotel for one night. Who knows they may even come back after we have sold them a poncho with the giants causeway on the back of it.
As for the waterfront, well there is a recession on but when the titanic quarter is built, and it is already showing signs of life with luxury car makers moving in, then it will be a thoroughfare and with people will come the need for stalls, street entertainment, nightlife etc.
Possibly one of the worlds future ‘best kept secrets’…
Until then, keep selling the troubles, whilst people here still remember what it was.
Its the eve of the World Cup. Its not quite Christmas Eve but its not far off.
Firstly to those who say ‘its only a game’, ‘is that football on again’, ‘it it nearly over yet’, ‘wasnt this on yesterday’, I say Wise Up!
4 weeks of almost non-stop football. Schedules rearranged, painting, gardening, eating timed to coincide with halftimes, times between games and thankfully a decent hour of the day for games to start.
There is absolutely nothing like it on earth, truly the greatest show on earth.
Ive been one of the lucky people who has actually been to a World Cup. Ive always raved about live sports or events and since before I can remember Ive been going to live football, gaa, dog and horse racing, boxing, music, events and honestly to those people who have ever only seen these things on tv, add a big event to the list of things to do before you die.
I got a taster back in 1998 when I was lucky or unlucky enough to be in Paris a couple of days before the world cup started. Walking down the Champs Elysees the place was filled with people from what seemed like every nation on the globe. Groups of fans everywhere and I’ll never forget the Brazilians dancing to the Samba band within earshot of the Arc De Triomphe. Those young ladies must have been very cold indeed
Four years later I was there in Japan. It was one of those ‘if I dont do it now I will never do it’ moments. I blew everything I owned to get there, it was a make or break point in my life and if things were going to go downhill at least I would have the memories. It was a long way to go but Ireland had got there and I remember taking the phone call to say I’d got tickets. It was a great excuse to visit Japan and go completely overboard in another culture. Well thats what I thought until I got there. It was many cultures as we moved around, mini Germany in one place, mini Mexico in another, the three dancing girls from Cameroon who I didnt get a photo of.
Its hard to describe but everywhere you go you had to wear your countries shirt, I dont think there was a day in the 2 weeks I didnt wear one. Good job I had a couple or it would have been a bit of a smelly time. People just looked and smiled, people would come up to you in the street and engage you in conversation even though you had absolutely no idea what they were talking about. It didnt seem to matter really.
With any event of this magnitude there are always problems, we couldnt get tickets for other games despite setting the alarm for 2am and going to the internet cafe across the road. The ticketing system couldnt cope so on the tv there was coverage of stadiums within 10 mins train ride with 10k empty seats. I remember sitting in one of the many press hangouts in Tokyo and some journalists from a ‘soccer’ country were giving one of the local fixers a lot of grief. They listed problem after problem and the Japanese guy just smiled nodded and very politely wrote everything down. One of the journos finished off by saying ‘we told you about these problems yesterday’ to which the guy replied ‘No sir, we fixed all yesterdays problems, these are new problems today’. Brilliant!
We did manage to get tickets for the Mexico v Croatia game which was a great meeting of cultures. The croatian fans looked like every biker gang from hell you had ever met cross bred with soviet special forces, scary looking people who still would smile and sing and get on like loons. I guess those years of civil war do rub off. The mexico fans were the opposite, singing dancing and mehico mehico ra ra ra is burned into my skull. It was a two hour train journey to the game and they never paused for breath. They must have been working in shifts as no-one could sing for 2 hours, or so I thought. When Ireland equalised against Germany I genuinely saw a whole stadium shake to people dancing up and down. Even turning the lights off and the last train going were not enough to stop people singing and dancing.
Footballs like that, its a passion, not a sport. I guess other people will say that about whatever sport or art they follow. I think its important to have that sort of passion in your life. You know you are alive.
The morning we went to the Mexico game our hotel foyer was full with some of the most beautiful women I had ever seen. Above the mehico mehico ra ra ra there was an announcement then a hushed silence. I thought I had gone deaf. There was a series of names being called out and I realised that this group of about 20 people only had about 10 tickets between them. Heartbreak.
Not that we needed more mehico mehico ra ra ra but more that I could have ordered 4 tickets instead of just 2 and made two of these young ladies year by just giving them a ticket whilst they sat there weeping Sure come with us
I remember writing an online diary for the friends back home, a blog before blogs were invented. Even back in 2002 free internet in hotels and internet cafes were commonplace in Japan. It was the first time Id really seen the mobile phone phenomenon of an entire crowd taking pictures and video of a game and sending them to people. Of course there was the discussion that it was unfair that locals who didnt know the game, had no allegiances on the pitch, could get tickets and just sit there as impartial observers. I have to say it did feel odd sitting in a 40,000 seater stadium after a goal where 30,000 people clapped politely whilst 10k irish fans were going completely ape. Eventually as the tournament progressed the local fans learned jump up and down and scream and hopefully we learned how to run trains on time.
I hope this is a good World Cup but again we say that every time. My first memory of watching a World Cup was Argentina in 1978. I dont remember much about it to be honest other than ticker tape and fans just going nuts.
1982 was slightly different, two words, Gerry Armstrong. I remember watching Northern Ireland v Spain in my grannies house, people were crammed into her living room and I remember being half on half off the end of one of the chairs the whole time. When Gerry Armstrong scored you could hear the whole street cheering. When Mal Donaghy was sent off, even my Granny tutted and it wasnt just at the swearing going on around her.
1986 I was in the middle of my O Levels and I had the choice one night of sitting up late to cram for my history exam or sit and watch Brazil with my dad. Brazil won and I sat the next day during my O level trying to remember a tv programme about the Cuban Missile Crisis. In 1986 Northern Ireland were put out by a superb display by Brazil, Pat Jennings last game and what a goal by Josimar. It was just like watching Brazil.
1990. I was offered a ticket for the quarter final Ireland v Italy. My passport didnt come in time. Maybe that one extra screaming voice would have been enough to keep that Schillaci goal from going in.
1994. I crashed my bike a few weeks before the tournament and had to watch it with my arm in a sling. Not really much of a problem until you consider that I was supposed to go! Still the disappointment of watching it on tv while my mates watched it in the stadium was overcome when Ray Houghton scored against Italy in the first game.
1998. Watching the final on a wee black and white tv in a hotel in Moscow.
2002. Being there.
2006. painting one wall at a time in between games and at halftimes.
2010. Getting a boat ready between games and halftimes?
So who to support in this one. Im sorry to say I subscribe to the ABE principal (anyone but England). Its not a deep down hatred of England, its more that if they did well or won the thing we would never hear the end of it. Saying that though this year its definitely a case of ABF – anyone but France. People say we should really let the Thierry Henry thing go. To all my english friends, yes when you let the Maradona Hand of God thing go then so will we
I just hope its a good tournament and I’ll be having a sneaky following for Argentina seeing I spent some time there in the last year. Of course Ive also been to Brazil, Uruguay, Algeria (sort of), USA, Italy, seen Paraguay, Spain and have a mate from Chile. It will be interesting to see North Korea play, particularly as the people from North Korea wont.
Like I know North and South Korea have been mortal enemies for over 50 years but come on, this is football!
Just over 24 hours away from the first game South Africa v Mehico Mehico Ra Ra Ra. I wonder if I will ever get that out of my head.
I really like Liverpool, I always have. I have family there and its always sad leaving. It has some of the friendliest people in England.
Having said that after spending a Saturday night photographing my nephews band practice I had to drive round a burning car, a burning van, police across the main road, helicopter in the sky with searchlight shining down etc etc. It was slightly nostalgic, looking like Belfast during the troubles without the actual troubles bit.
Now with a good bright day spare before heading home I decided Id drive up the Lancashire coast and see Blackpool. Down the years I’ve given Blackpool a bum rap. It all stems from stories as a kid of people going to Blackpool on holidays and sort of describing it something short of Las Vegas and Disneyland all rolled into one. Now given my cynical views I thought this might be slightly over exaggerating.
It was further added to by an ex-girlfriend who kept suggesting it as a holiday destination when I was suggesting the likes of Hong Kong, Florida, Mexico, Carribean etc. I knew then it was never going to last.
So I thought Id be fair and although it was a bright almost summery day it was bloody cold and it was April in a no fly zone. The only other no fly zone Id heard of was southern Iraq. I didnt want to draw comparisons.
On the way to blackpool I heading into Southport, a lovely Victorian town which has seen better days and is aging as much as its residents. Gods waiting room really wouldnt be in it.
I stopped off at Southport Pier for some fish and chips and stupidly decided to walk the length of the pier, rather than waiting on the tram. Take it from me, wait on the tram!
After lunch which was hideously expensive (and why do people in England not give receipts?) it was off to Blackpool. I parked up on the seafront, got my parking ticket and headed off for a coffee. I looked back at the car and there was already a traffic warden checking my parking ticket and tax disc. Being a Northern Ireland registered car he spent a bit of time looking at it. Now he was wearing a bright red uniform and maybe Im slipping but I didnt see him the length of the seafront, so I can only conclude he was a stealth traffic warden. Maybe a cloak of invisibility or maybe they come up from the ground but it did make me set a reminder on my phone. I didnt see me getting a seconds leeway or being able to talk my way out of a ticket here.
Walking round Blackpool it really did make me realise that in Northern Ireland we have still no idea what this credit crunch/financial crisis is all about. We are going to be in for a big shock with this new government and when ultimately the axe will fall.
Im sure that Blackpool is a lot of things to a lot of people and Im blowing my chance of ever working for their tourist board but its not for me, Id say it would be a holiday hell for me although not packed it is full of interesting characters and a lot of them seemed to want to talk. Not really talk to me, more talk at me. Interesting.
I definitely got the ‘not a lot to see here, move along’ impression and after Id spent a fiver on a cup of scalding nescafe and 4 microwaved donuts I realised it was time to leave.
Blackpool, been there done that, didnt buy the kiss me quick hat or t-shirt.
The journey home was reasonably uneventful apart from a 3 hour delay on the ferry then an ‘incident’ breaking out on board. Alarm bells going, crew running up to the passenger area, walking through hurriedly, sweating, then going into the restaurant/galley area. Nothing to be alarmed about apparently, just a minor incident they were hoping to get under control.
Half an hour later the incident was ‘under control’ but there would be no afternoon tea.
That will be the scones that set the kitchen on fire then.
Meanwhile back at the ranch we’ve had 24 hour coverage of the ‘hung parliament’.
Thats democracy for you, still it kept the discussion on how shite England are going to be in the World Cup out of the headlines for another week.
Ive been travelling this week and as Id booked the ferry to Liverpool I didnt think Id be affected by the biblical cloud of volcanic ash that has brought chaos and pestilence (well maybe not pestilence) to the whole of europe.
To be honest the only thing Id noticed was that it got quieter at home at night as there were no evening or tourism night flights flying lower than they should be over my house on the way to the international airport.
Id never seen the amount of foot passengers on that ferry before in my life. I dont think the ferry companies had either, loads of bags with air baggage tickets on them indicating a lot of one way journeys.
Now if Id have been one of those people stranded this would be a more interesting blog but lets be honest, for the vast majority of us the only hassle would have been not getting fresh strawberries from Spain.
After an evening based in Liverpool it was across to the peak district, an area Id never visited before despite driving past many a time. Id planned two days there, a couple of days back at Liverpool and if the weather was right a few days back up in the lake district (again somewhere I’d never been).
Driving across northern England it reminded me a lot of Jeremy Clarksons rants. Every couple of miles was a speed camera, speed bumps and all sorts of warning signs. Now this leads me to two conclusions, people in England cant drive properly or there truly is a nanny state. Funny thing is theres an election on and there are very few election posters. Areas of Northern Ireland are plastered in them, maybe we have less TVs so people dont know theres an election on or as a people we enjoy the false smiling faces of people we never see for 4 years at a time. Maybe in England the posters may just end up as visual clutter in amongst the speed warning signs and the slow down and the signs for housing estates (like what?).
The other odd thing is that driving through North Manchester you then hit country, then 20 miles or so of country then Sheffield. Theres no real suburbs, its city then country then city again. Its odd, as I said to one of the tourists in last nights B+B, in Ireland you drive through wilderness for an hour to get to the wilderness. Its like someone in the UK decided they were going to have countryside here and here and here and then just build like mad around it.
Its also the first time Ive been through England on St Georges Day. At first I thought theyd just got the flags out early for the World Cup so then started asking around for events. Well, err, umm, errr, thats about it really.
I also find the reaction of tourism places quite mixed here. I turned up at one castle entrance run by english heritage a half an hour before the opening times (10am) and was told to come back by the staff. Hmmm. Not impressed. Ive never come across this at home or most other places, usually people have a bit of leeway and after all I could have just climbed over the wall and got in without paying.
Id to queue for about 20 mins in the tourist office in Buxton to get information on B+Bs. I wasnt interested in paying them 3 quid to get them to ring on my behalf, after all I do have a phone and do speak English (of sorts). I just wanted a brochure with details of B+Bs in it, which of course wasnt on display. Very odd. I did feel like not bothering to spend my hard earned crisp bank of england notes in their coffee shop but did need to sit down and plan out the route.
I spent the night in a wee town called Castleton and again the reactions were mixed. I rang round a few B+Bs who although they had vacancies at 6pm on a thursday night, they wanted me to pay for a full double room for two people instead of single occupancy. Im sorry but 55 quid for a b+b is tearing the hole out of it. 30 mins drive was a hotel chain with rooms for 29 quid a night and I wanted to go to local businesses. One did say that 50 quid for a B+B for the night with no parking spaces did include a great british breakfast so I enquired if it was cooked by Gordon Ramsey or Jamie Oliver. They didnt see the sarcasm.
I eventually found a great B+B the causeway house in Castleton where the owner Janet couldnt have been more helpful. She sorted me out with a driving route the following day (which the tourist office wouldnt recommend because they wanted to promote walking and cycling which is fair enough until you point out you have a damaged leg and cant walk or cycle), advised me on where in town had the best food (the rabbit pie in The George was excellent) and generally made my stay very comfortable indeed. Comfortable room, reasonable price, great filling breakfast and hosts who couldnt do enough for you. Big thumbs up.
The tourist office in Castleton was equally helpful, tracing out details on maps, telling me where to skip if I didnt have time and advising the best times for certain points given the light if I was interested in photography.
Which brings me to the title of the blog. One of the tourist attractions near Castleton is a cave called the Devils Arsehole. No honestly! After a pint or two of the local guest ale in The George with my dinner I did try to avoid being 16 again by asking everyone I met if they could give me directions to the Devils Arsehole.
‘Can you tell me where the Arsehole is?’
‘Is there a good route up the Arsehole?’
‘I hear the Devils Arsehole attraction is a bit shitty, what do you think?’
Id love to say I tried all this but it was thursday night in the peak district in April and I was the only sinner walking the streets. Bummer.
So I went back to the B+B to try and find either the Liverpool game on the TV or the prime ministerial debates. Because of the valley theres no Sky TV or channel 5, radio reception is poor and theres no 3G. So for the first time in a long time I was left with a choice of only 4 channels.
I got back just in time to watch Have I Got News for You and Jeremy Clarkson was presenting and ranting about speed cameras. I feel your pain mate, I really do.
More England photos here
Well not quite but if it wasnt so bloody cold I might have.
Its been almost two weeks since I embarked on what would be a reasonably long journey home. I left after I was scheduled to leave and got home at the same time as I should have, but did it feel like a long journey.
Firstly the outbound flight from Buenos Aires was delayed as expected. Washington was snowed in so my much anticipated visit to the Smithsonian museum was cancelled. Slightly gutted but having waited in the queue for check in for two hours Id have paid everything I owned for a teleport system.
So two hours waiting, we know the flight isnt leaving, we are through ‘security’ and standing in line, of course they decide to stop check-in right as muggins gets to the front of the queue. So two hours of waiting for them to officially tell us we were going to Chicago even though we’ve known it for hours. With an hour left to wait I received the email from United Airlines telling me the flight that should have left an hour ago was delayed. Well no shit sherlock.
At this point United did appear to be the worst airline I’ve ever flown with, they could have just checked us all in, given us our seats and sorted it out later. No. Of course they did a re-check-in which seemed to me stupid as about 1/4 the passengers had already got their seats and boarding cards and were waiting at the gate. Again I would have assumed that it would cause chaos to reassign those seats to the next 1/4 of passengers. They didnt and it did. I did mention that everything in South America seemed to result in a discussion that would normally last about 30 secs at home before someone said ‘look just sit the f**k down’.
Even the first class passengers and the 17 levels of segregation that United apply to passengers above cattle class had to stand and wait as well. Sometimes theres a lot to be said for Ryanairs, every man for themselves policy.
The flight the day before was delayed and so this one was packed. Now I’ll have to admit, being a single bloke on a 14 hour flight you do hold out hope of some nice looking woman taking the empty seat beside you. If she could speak english and was looking a part exchange on an EU passport then all the better.
Dont be stupid.
Now, in the last couple of days there was the case where a larger than life film actor/director was asked to leave a United airlines flight because he should really have booked two tickets. Well normally Id have sympathy but now Im thinking of asking for a refund on the 40% of my seat that I didnt actually use on the flight due to the overspill of the passenger beside me.
So after 6 hours awake I went to the stewardesses and asked if there were any spare seats or could I just sleep on the floor in the kitchen. Their reply of ‘you must be joking’ wasnt exactly what I wanted to hear.
I did think about my reply carefully from quips like ‘if I was joking I would have said, a man walks into a bar with a duck on his head’ to ‘can I have some clean water as I’d like to wash my body before we all meet my maker’ to just taking her overly made up face and smashing it into the still warm plate of microwave airline meals beside her.
No matter what I said would probably end up in the plane diverting to some central american airport with my heathrow ticket being exchanged for one to Guantanamo Bay.
Back to my half seat I went and resigned myself to elbowing my fellow passenger in the ribs and kicking him in the ankles when he tried to play footsie. Im sure he wonders where all his bruises have come from.
Travelling through the US is a nightmare. Im not going to do it again if I can humanly avoid it. Ive mentioned the one carry on bag and the queues for immigration even though you are going nowhere near US soil. If I have to go through the US again it will be from Dublin where I can clear US immigration in Dublin. Another hour queueing for immigration, then waiting for my bag and taking it through customs only to drop it off a further 100 yards later for it to go to Belfast.
To be honest though it was a relief to see it, and to see it intact. There were rumours about stuff being nicked from bags in Buenos Aires airport. When checking through security there I was asked what was in my checkin bag, I was specifically asked if there were any camcorders, digital cameras and anything else worth nicking, sorry above 50 USD. When I said yes, there was a big sticker put on my bag. I dont think it said ‘ransack through here’ but it may as well have. One of the joys of travelling with an old beaten up bag with only one wheel and one other trick I learned years ago. Three days before you are due to come home, soak some of your dirty clothes. t-shirt and trousers is enough. Put them in a plastic bag and leave them in the heat. When you go to leave, put it at the top of your bag and cut it open before quickly closing the bag. If anyone opens that bag, smells that and still rifles through it looking for valuables, they are more than welcome to the contents.
By the time I got to my destination gate I had no idea who I was, where I was, where I was going and quite frankly I didnt really care. Having been to Chicago a couple of times before I just wanted to lie down somewhere but needed something to eat. If you are in Chicago they have their own brewery called Goose Island and they do a nice Christmas Ale. This wasnt christmas but I thought Id try the local brew anyway. Of course I got funny looks at 9:30am asking for a beer but hey I’d no idea what time it was.
I splurged on the 50 dollars it cost to get access to the frequent flyer lounge as quite frankly it was a bargain. Lovely soft seats, free net access, tv, papers etc etc. Free soft drinks, well not like UK free, but US free served by a barman which attracts the obligatory 1 dollar tip. Now Im not against tipping barstaff but hey if you are travelling to another country and I know the US people find that strange you dont necessarily carry US money. Particularly when you dont think you are going to spend much time there. Besides which in the UK you have fridges with cans of stuff and dont need 4 bar staff to change the TV station for you.
I just want to go home.
To cut another long story short, soon enough I was home, in my own house and I realise how quiet it is where I live. Silence.
I remember moving here from Belfast City and spending the first couple of weeks waking up because it was ‘too quiet’. When things went quiet in the area of the city I lived it generally meant it was going to get real loud real quick.
So Ive had a few emails from people asking me to go through what gear I use, how I used it etc etc etc. To be perfectly honest I’d rather stick pins in my eyes than talk photo gear and Im sure most peoples eyes would glaze over as well. I’ll leave the photo talk to photo forums but heres a few things that did make my life a lot easier whilst travelling.
Noise cancelling headphones – absolutely superb. I baulked at the price of these things just to use on planes etc but they really are worth their weight in gold. Apart from using them on planes, ferries, in airports etc they are useful in noisy hotel rooms, disconnect them, turn on the noise cancelling and go to sleep.
Wee small plastic bottles less than 60ml. You dont really realise how difficult air travel has become until you try to book a flight with hand luggage only where the destination is full of mosquitos and 40C+ You cant buy that small a bottle of sun cream so the ability to pack some into smaller bottles to pack in hand luggage and avoid a one way rendition flight is understated. I do wonder why they persist with this rubbish as lets be honest if I wanted to take a plane down, I’d buy a bottle of vodka and a lighter in duty free and then see if the aircrew thought I was joking.
Besides which if they’d applied the air safety laws that were in force on September 11th, the hijackers would never have got on the planes in the first place. When you have a load of people on a watch list, you just dont let them get on a plane. Back here during the troubles you couldnt go 100 yards in the car without some military patrol appearing from somewhere.
Maybe if security spent less time robbing us all of our purchased in the security zone bottles of water and duty free which by its nature had to be purchased airside, and actually out chasing ‘terrorists’ then wed all travel a lot easier with less hassle.
Im ranting again but seriously, who gives the UK border protection jobsworths the right to photograph me then stick a sticker right across the front of the harp on my irish passport. It might only just be a sticker but that harp can get you out of trouble quicker than you can say ‘no inglaterra’. Yes it does wash off but thats not the point, Im going to tell the minister for foreign affairs, after all the passport is his property still.
My smartphone, ok I couldnt make any actual calls with it for some reason to do with no reciprocal arrangements with some networks, but the ability to use wifi to check email, carry pdf maps etc etc. Its not an iphone so the battery lasts about a week and if Id had the wit to bring a headphone adaptor I could have used it to play my mp3s and could have left the ipod at home.
The ipod nano itself is again worth its weight in gold. I’ve the ministry of sound chill out sessions just for travelling, put the headphones in, get into bed, press play…. …and I’ve never heard the end of that album.
A microfibre travel towel. Small, light, very absorbent, for places like the waterfalls and easy to carry. It was a tip from a good friend of mine who travelled a lot.
‘Memory’ AA batteries. I was very sceptical about the use of these type of batteries. Basically they discharge slowly and keep their charge longer. Its not until you are travelling until you realise that the ability to keep charge for a couple of days is a godsend. No need to bring chargers for a quick trip with light or possible usage.
Ive mentioned the plastic carrier bag tricks before, to keeping the camera dry, putting all your creams and lotions in in your main baggage in case one goes pop and wrecks all the clothes in your bag, to putting on your hands and feet to avoid leaving footprints… …sorry meant to say to avoid your feet and hands getting soaked…
Pencils. Its like the old joke, NASA spent 1 million dollars developing a pen that would write in space, the Russians just used pencils.
The netbook I left at home. I have since found out that the hard drive failure in my macbook is a ‘known problem’. Known in that it was known by mac and theyve sat on it for 3-4 years. They issued an advisory note and extended warranty last week, a month too late for me. If I’d known the hard drive was likely to fail, I’d have had it changed before I left. Dont get me started on the ipad.
Only one last thing to do (other than edit the photos from the trip) and its to retire the passport. Its my 2nd full Irish passport and the first one was a four continenter. This one has been to all 5 continents and I think it deserves a break from travelling…… …although theres some cheap flight emails on the go at the minute…