New York 1997. Part 1.

In these times where travel is reduced to pedestrian or armchair varieties, Anecdotage posts will not be related to current travel or even to travel plans, as who knows when or where the next journey will be?

But all is not lost, reader, because travel for this writer began long before blogging. And along the way, hand-written travel journals began to accompany the journeys, so it is to these journals that I am turning for inspiration, with a little modern history included.

To provide some back story, this first set of posts concerns a 1997 trip to New York, taken very early in Husband and my relationship-five months in, in fact. That the idea had hatched during one of Husband’s previous dalliances might have been off-putting was something I set on to the back burner, the exciting thought of a visit to such an iconic city proving a more powerful pull than retrospective peevishness.

We began by booking a ‘Flydrive’, meaning to augment the week’s visit by a drive up to Niagara Falls via Boston-a cunning plan, as we thought. In many ways this only serves to demonstrate that detailed planning of trips does not always lead to holiday perfection…

We packed, we grabbed our tickets, we took advantage of a friend’s offer of a lift to Heathrow airport, then we were underway, a brilliant flight taking us in an arc over Canada and offering some spectacular views below. This is something I’ve continued to love about flying, the fascinating bird’s eye landscapes, but while I indulge in this pastime on flights, Husband will always have taken the opportunity to sleep, arriving refreshed and ready for anything, while I will be wiped out and needing an immediate snooze.

Arriving to JFK and getting through we duly found our way to the car hire depot to pick up our vehicle. There it was that we discovered neither of us had thought to bring a driving licence. It was a poignant, wince-making moment. ‘Could my friend fax it through?’ I asked the po-faced staff member, and ‘NO’ was the reply.

Without our own wheels we took a cab into the city and to the room we’d booked at ‘West Side Studios’. The cab cost a hefty slice of our holiday budget, the driver was taciturn and spoke minimal English. Had we been armed with more research we’d have known that the airport is served by a subway straight into the city.

It was late evening and dark by the time we reached the north Manhattan block but having deposited the luggage we gamely struck out into the locale and found a jazz bar where a competent trio were playing live. By this time I was struggling to stay awake and Husband was up for a late evening at the bar. And, remember, we’d not long been an item. There is nothing like travel for discovering compromise.

In the morning we set out to explore Manhattan, using the subway and our feet. My initial misgivings of riding the subway were quickly dispelled. It was safe, clean and easy to use. We were only a few stops from Penn Station so everywhere was accessible. We walked the streets, marvelling at the perpendicular nature of the city and craning our necks.

We’d been recommended a ‘Circle Line’ tour on a ferry that circled Manhattan; a good way to start, except that New York was shrouded in thick fog. It was, nevertheless atmospheric and informative, though cold and damp. We stood by the funnel to catch its warmth.

Meanwhile, as we walked, subwayed and ferried our way around we pondered on one knotty problem. How would we get to visit Boston and Niagara now, without a vehicle?

Returning in Blissful Ignorance…

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Packing for a return journey is different from packing to begin a trip. When you prepare you place your ironed and folded, or rolled clothes neatly into your case. You take care to put shoes into bags; use every small compartment in the space and perhaps, if you are ultra fastidious [I am not], place layers of tissue paper between your pressed garments.

To leave, however you are likely to have more unwashed items than laundered. They may be in a tangled heap in the base of your hotel wardrobe- beachwear, underwear, evening outfits all mingled together in an unsavoury melee. In the case of Husband and myself the unwashed clothes will also be combined.

So rather than layering it into a case with loving care it gets thrust into any crevice available, an un-fragrant mush of sweat-ridden garments to be dealt with later, when you are able to face the chore of unpacking.

Check-out is by midday, although as with any humane hotel there is a room set aside for showering and changing into travel gear as our airport pick up is not until five. Once we’ve breakfasted and packed there’s only time for an hour or two lounging around in the sun before we need to go and ready ourselves. The hotel hosts a different clientele now as the German contingent has left and a Russian influx has taken over.

We’ve been allocated a swisher room than ours for showering and changing-a small suite with a private plunge pool, but it’s stuffy inside the tall fence and I’m not envious. With half and hour or so to kill we wander across the road to our nearest bar and have a beer before our taxi rolls up to take us for the first leg of our return.

It’s back to Koh Samui’s beautiful airport. Check-in is easy this time, although there’s very little here to while away the long wait in departure. At this point we feel no need to don masks as thus far there is no virus on the island. In departure there is a kiosk with gratis snacks and cold drinks-a delightful touch.

I spot a staff member strolling around with a placard and notice that it bears our name. Horrors! Husband’s case has something undesirable inside it. He is whisked away to oust the offending item, leaving me wondering if I’ll see him again. Eventually he returns, having retrieved a cigarette lighter he’d inadvertently packed. We’d bought it to light the mosquito coil on our balcony. I suppress the shame I feel more than he exhibits and we board the plane, where there is barely time for the mini-meal before we are touching down at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport again.

This time we take care to wear our masks and use our gel as we navigate along the extensive arms of the hub. It is midnight. The flight to the UK, we discover, is delayed.

At once the idea of 13 cramped hours feels unacceptable so we make our way to the Thai Airways desk, and in a reckless rush we upgrade our seats to Business Class-an eye-watering sum. Will we be seated together? The masked check-in lady tells us that we will be able to see one another but not seated side-by-side; a description that I do not fully understand until we board the plane.

Now we can use the business class lounge and although it takes several miles of airport wandering to locate it, when we do we can sink into comfortable chairs, help ourselves to a banquet consisting of every possible comestible and quaff an unending supply of drinks. It is hard to resist the urge to binge but tiredness craves calories!

Then it’s down to the gate and at last to the plane-accessed by a privileged short cut. We find ourselves on the upper floor of this gargantuan, winged behemoth.

There is our accommodation. They are not so much seats as nests. Compact pods furnished with screens, trays and best of all-buttons that stretch the seat into a fully reclining bed. Heaven in a cabin seat!

Thai business class

Husband’s pod lies just over the low screen, so I can wave and smile at him. As I’m getting settled a masked cabin steward lady approaches with a tray bearing orange juice or [wait for it] champagne. She addresses me by name and hands me a menu. It is all overwhelming. I’m not hungry but feel obliged to consume the meal I’ve chosen, accessorised with real crockery and cutlery.

I attempt to watch a film but have watched all I wanted to see on the outward flight, also I am exhausted and seduced by the comfort of the stretch, the place to lift my feet. I press the buttons, snuggle in the blanket and sleep.

We touch down at Heathrow. It is cold, dank and indecently early.

How ignorant we were, then, of what was to come!

A Long Journey to the Sun

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Winter sun. The post-Christmas adverts are full of it, and as the UK drowns once again in a deluge of depressing damp, these old bones itch with a longing for hard, brittle, hot sun to dry them out.

We leave our house at lunchtime, taking one last look at the flood lake that covers the water meadows behind our house and head off to get the airport coach. Health issues preclude early morning starts for me and these days we overnight at an airport hotel; this time it’s the Hilton, being the only hotel with easy access to Heathrow terminal 2. It’s fine except that, as is usual in chain hotels the room is over-hot with no fathomable means to turn down the temperature. After I’ve removed the too-plump duvet from its cover we finally get to sleep.

We’ve decided to get out of our winter sun rut and swap the West Indies for Thailand, having not been for some years. The flight is long to Bangkok and followed by another, domestic flight but perhaps some passengers will have cancelled due to the sudden, rampant appearance of ‘Coronavirus’ that is running riot in China; in truth we’ve vacillated, considered aborting the trip, although since there’s no advice from the foreign office for Thailand, no money would be refunded were we to cancel.

We’re armed with face masks and hand gel for the journey. There’s more than enough time for a coffee and to tug on my flight socks for the 11 hours to come.

Thailand is 7 hours ahead of us so there’s some darkness as we travel forward in time to Bangkok. I am happy enough to while the hours catching up on films I’ve missed, watching three movies in a row, meanwhile there’s a reasonable meal and later a snack.

At last the Thai Airways plane touches down at Bangkok and there is that unfamiliar bombardment of warmth/fumes/humidity as we exit, stretching our legs for the long, long trek through Suvarnabhumi Airport, which must have some of the longest airport walks, endless tubes to get to check-ins, desks, bag-drops, international, domestic, immigration and the rest.

Here we don our masks, stifling in the unaccustomed warmth and join the collected mass of bodies queueing to get our fingerprints scanned, our passports scrutinised and our photos taken. There are ‘health check’ points, though not for us and more than half the fellow-travellers are sporting masks, as are we. The wait is long, hot and airless.

Despite our continued route through on to a domestic flight we must undergo more security before we are allowed into the gate area for the flight to Koh Samui. I’m alarmed when our water is discarded and subsequently discover that no water is available to purchase at the gate. I’m starting to feel thirsty and get the ominous, prickly feeling that precedes cystitis. There is no option except to fill a bottle from the fountain, an unknown. I decide to take the risk. and while it tastes rank it’s better than dehydration.

There is not much more than an hour to Koh Samui and when we arrive we step out into a green, flower-filled oasis, the airport buildings airy, open-sided huts. This is reputedly the ‘world’s most beautiful airport’ and I’m not about to dispute it.

In the taxi to our hotel I gaze out, somewhat stupefied by lack of sleep, though grateful for the air-conditioned cab. By now we’ve been up for 17 hours and have yet to acclimatise to the fierce temperature.

At hotel check-in all I can do is nod wearily and sign things, before we stumble to our room and fall into bed.

We are here…

Our Lives in their Hands

We are all in others’ hands. From before we are born, to being brought up, to getting an education, to driving our cars or stepping on to a bus or train, to earning money, to visiting the GP; in every single area of our lives we depend on others for our safety and wellbeing.

I watched a news report from Syria, in which a sick baby, afflicted with a hole in his heart had to be rescued from his incubator when the hospital treating him was bombed. The young paramedic carried the baby, drip and all. in his arms and held him during the bumpy ambulance ride. The baby gazed calmly up into the medic’s eyes and reached towards his face. After this journey the baby needed to transfer to another ambulance and a swap of personnel. This young child remained calm and trusting as he was passed from one pair of arms to another.

The extent of our dependence on others is never so stark as when we fly, stepping into a vehicle and surrendering ourselves to the mercy of the pilots and crew.

Trust in each other has to be the most important factor in conducting our lives. On an international scale, when we as nations don’t trust other countries, this is where conflicts are likely to arise. To behave in sneaky, underhand behaviour leads to double-dealing and confrontations. How much better to be open, to allow free movement and to share knowledge.

You could live on an island, become self-sufficient, never communicate. What kind of life would that be? Those currently in quarantine from the Coronavirus and others incarcerated on a cruise ship and isolated from the rest of us are finding life dull and difficult-even for two weeks; and this is with the benefits of internet communication. The admirable ‘Abels’, trapped in their cruise ship cabin are passing the time by becoming media stars. Elsewhere there is quarantine blogging from bored internees.

We are off to Thailand. We’ve deliberated long and hard, consulted others, read up [probably too much], prepared, acquired masks and gels. We’ll comply with any checks and instructions, steer clear of crowds, wash our hands. We’ll go to our destination and relax. We’ll be depending on others-and so will everybody else…

Tarring with the same Brush

I’ve just spent a week in foreign parts and I’m more convinced than ever that differing nationalities bear traits that identify them.

Observation of such characteristics is one of the strategies I’ve adopted to assuage some of the more tedious aspects of long-haul travel. On the plane I’m happy enough, these days to adopt the upright, confined posture required to utilise the seat, to pay attention to the cabin crew, to watch the movies, to get up and do my exercises, to mutely wait in line for the unsavoury joys of the lavatory, to eat and drink everything that is offered and hope to sleep.

Off the plane however there is the long, zig-zagging queue in the pens for immigration control, the stinging bark of the customs officers [no-we didn’t know we needed to complete the back of the form] and the customary thrill of waiting to discover if your luggage arrived too.

At the rear of the queue an unseemly stampede erupted as one or two of the tapes marking the lanes became unhitched, prompting severe and hasty action on the part of the officials. The couple immediately behind us [whose nationality shall remain nameless but has a reputation for somewhat self-preserving acts on holiday] spotted a gap and ducked under a tape to skip to the front, upon which stern officials corrected the error and they were returned to their place.

After we’d all shuffled along for what seemed hours [although in reality probably only about 30 minutes], a family with very young children were relieved of the stresses of jollying along two tiny tots after an eight hour flight and were ‘fast-tracked’ through to the front.

At the hotel we entered a jolly mix of races from both sides of the Atlantic [and beyond]. There are loud, garrulous types whose principal ambition is to be best buddy with every member of staff, to feel special and take selfies with all of these new best friends. Their conversations with companions are held publicly in order for others to share. A man at the bar told someone the other side of us enquiring after his holiday he had no complaints and smiled nervously when I said complaints were more interesting.

Meanwhile a gentleman with a keen interest in filming everything panned around the bar, the customers, his tiny son, the entertainment, the beach and the diners with abandon, using his mobile phone as if welded to it.

Then there are we British; reserved. We are polite. We say please and thank you-and sorry. I imagine we are held by most other nationalities to be cold and unfriendly. Our sense of humour can be difficult to spot, acerbic, sarcastic and cynical as it is.

And then one night my conclusions were overturned when we met a charming young couple of New Yorkers who initiated conversation. They were interested, interesting and wonderful company. Mea culpa. One should never generalise…

Flights of Fancy [not]

To fly anywhere these days requires surrendering yourself to a surreal experience in which you are engulfed in a dystopian world and required to submit to various practices which never occur in your normal, day-to-day life.

First you must access the airport. If you drive there you must take your vehicle to one of countless, vast car parks marked with ‘bays’. Your vehicle is spookily ‘recognised’ and allowed in. You wait in a remote shelter for a shuttle bus, which exists solely for the purpose of car park to airport, airport to car park.

If you arrive by public transport you may stay in an airport hotel. They are strange, anonymous tower blocks accommodating all nationalities, everyone staying for just one night, the hospitality focused on food, drink and sleep-with TV and WIFI thrown in and, of course a shuttle bus to the terminal. In your room, which has a view over the access road, the car park or a petrol station you may be prey to gabbling in foreign tongues as they impregnate the thin walls separating you from next door. There are rumblings as suitcases are trundled along the carpeted corridors and feverish key card insertions. Your dreams are punctuated by strange roars and muffled voices.

Next morning you rise up, shower in your en-suite [serviceable], down a quick cup of tea and trundle your own case to the lift, where you descend to the lobby. Others pulling cases may join you. It is early. Almost everyone is silent, save for the bus driver, who greets with an almost indecent jollity. There is a diverse assortment of luggage, from gargantuan, shiny designer to old, battered, market-for-peanuts [ours]. The bus rattles around the hotels collecting travellers then on to the terminal to spew you all out.

You claw your case from the rack and traipse with it and everyone else, following the yellow arrows to ‘departures’. You locate your ‘check-in’ from the screen [what did they do before screens?]. You join a long, meandering queue penned in with webbing, in which you shuffle and shuffle, shifting your wheelie case a few inches at a time towards the check-in desk.

At last you gain the desk and an unsmiling, efficient check-in clerk who scrutinises your paperwork in a brusque way and affixes labels to your case, now lolling on the scales before you bid it goodbye-praying that you may meet again at your destination.

Lightened of your burden, you join the next queue for another shuffle to be relieved of your belt, your shoes and your dignity as you are scanned and deemed non-threatening enough to fly. You are then released into the cavernous shopping outlet that is the departures lounge and set about filling the hours until the flight leaves in the most painless fashion achievable. For some this means an early start in the ‘English pub’. For others a swoop into the retail outlets.

You are called to the ‘gate’. You travel endless corridors on a moving belt. Your documents get another perusal. You wait for your seat number to be called. You walk down a ramp, along another corridor, through a hatchway into the metal tube that is your conveyance. You are greeted by the handmaidens and handmen who are to minister to you. You locate the seat and shoehorn yourself into it, fasten the belt, plug in to the entertainment, eat everything they give you, sleep a bit, get stiff, hot, yawn a lot.

You arrive. Has it been worth it? Actually yes-we are in Barbados!