Solo to Africa

I followed up my first piece of solo travel, a ski trip to Bulgaria by booking [that same year-1996] a holiday to The Gambia, West Africa. I’d realised I could cope on my own. No, there was nobody to sit next to on the plane. No, there was nobody to make hissed asides about the other passengers to. No there was guaranteed fellow-diner, fellow-planner or fellow-sharer. But neither was there anyone to disagree with my preferred itinerary, to set an agenda, to complain if I wanted to look in a shop, go on a trip or chat to strangers.

Africa, though was a leap of faith; far further from home, far more alien. And this time there’d be no skill to learn, no tuition as a prop, no ready-made group to tag along with. But it was a package, meaning there would be a tour guide and a good, big, anonymous hotel with what looked [from the photos] to be pleasant rooms and facilities.

Profiting from my experiences of the Bulgarian trip, I weathered the flight, the transfer and my first meal without feeling reduced or pathetic this time. But it was curious to note that there was a disproportionate number of middle-aged, single women on the plane. and as we collected our cases in arrivals, taxis began to zoom in and disgorge beautiful, young black men, into whose arms these women flung themselves.

After we’d touched down in Banjul and a tractor had fetched our luggage I went along to the team talk, the one where the tour operator tries to flog you as many expensive trips as they can. One or two sounded appealing and I ended up opting to go along on a two day outing later in the week, to the interior by mini-bus and staying on an island in the Gambia River, which sounded interesting.

The hotel grounds extended to the beach and I ventured along there on that first day. My room, along with most others was situated amongst the landscaped tropical palms and flowers and giant monitor lizards could be spotted weaving their way around the gardens, tongues flickering in and out in a hunt for tasty prey. On the beach I sought help from a friendly gay couple in taking care of my belongings while I set a tentative toe into the sea, where the waves were lively, to say the least. During this cautious bit of paddling a young man who seemed to be passing by engaged me in conversation, offering to be my ‘guide’. I declined.

But from then on, for the next couple of days I was dogged by the young man. Whenever I stepped out of the hotel gates he was there. He accompanied me up the street, followed me around the tourist market, opposite the hotel, approached me whenever I braved the beach, haunted my every waking hour. I was unable to shake him off-even when I took a trip along the beach to a neighbouring hotel to see a girl I’d met on the plane who was on a drumming course. He came with me into her hotel, sitting with us as we tried to chat, until her drumming teacher came along and spoke to him and he made a reluctant exit.

From then I felt free and the week’s adventures began…

Ski 96: Part 2

It was the first morning after my arrival to the ski resort hotel in Borovets, Bulgaria, 1996. I’d retired to my room the previous evening, having dined with a reluctant but polite couple and was resigned to more humiliation at breakfast, although my mood lightened at the prospect of the day ahead. I knew I’d need to get into my borrowed ski suit and take the lift down to the ‘boot room’, where I’d be kitted out with boots and skis and get to meet the instructor.

The boot room, in the bowels of the hotel was a hive of activity, with instructors marshalling differing ability levels to make groups. I gravitated towards the call for beginners, nervous grins and feeble jokes giving their status away. Whilst I was on the fringe of this group, it consisted of those whose partners were seasoned, or at least intermediate skiers and had gone to other groups, so I was not to be the only single person during the daytime, at least. There was common ground in our shared nerves and soon we were confessing our anxieties as we were kitted out and shown how to put on the boots. Then our long-suffering instructor, Georgi led us, stumbling, out into the bright, white snow as we carried our skis and poles and I thought I’d never worn anything so uncomfortable as ski boots in my whole life.

Outside the hotel, on the nursery slopes, we got our skis on. We were to learn to sidestep up the slope and, most importantly, how to stop, using the famous ‘snow-plough’ method. We all set to, following Georgi’s instructions as best we could and with varying levels of success. We fell over a lot, the tumbles causing much hilarity and I could understand the term ‘break the ice’ as we all bonded over our ineptitude. By lunchtime we were already a bunch of mates with a shared purpose and I could feel the warm relief of belonging even in the freezing snow.

You can’t underestimate how tiring learning to ski is. At the end of the day we were all ready to collapse. I couldn’t wait to get out of the boots, which I was sure had given me blood blisters on my lower legs. But everyone was eager to debrief our experiences in the hotel bar, myself included, so before hot showers and dinner we repaired there for hot chocolate and brandy, a beverage whose restorative powers were a match for the exaggerated recounts of our day.

‘You must come and eat with us!’, one friendly couple told me. There were no more lone dinners. Hereafter we skied, dined, drank, shared stories and spent our evenings as a group-joined by spouses or friends from other groups but firmly a set of companions with experiences in common.

The following day we were to learn to master the button lift. This dastardly contraption was to become my nemesis. A circular seat attached to a line must be grabbed and straddled in order to ascend the slope. Skis, however remain on the snow and must be kept in perfect parallel throughout the ascent, otherwise you must let go and start again. Could I keep parallel? No. I could grab the seat. I could get onto it. But my skis became wayward, uncontrollable limbs, veering off at angles after a few metres. Each turn was a failure and I needed to be fed back through the turnstile by the ever-patient Georgi while the remainder of the group waited at the top. Seven times I tried, finally making it to the top on the eighth go, arriving to a cheering group of what had now become firm friends.

The Loneliness of the Short Distance Skier.

Are you someone who is comfortable to travel alone? Are you confident in crossing borders, boarding planes, boats or trains, or solo driving? Are you happy eating meals alone at a table in a restaurant, nobody to share your day’s experiences or make plans with? Many people are fine with single holidays. There can be benefits. You can please yourself, eat where you want, stay or go, choose to have company or not. But it takes nerve to dine alone, to travel with an empty seat next to you, to explain to a tour guide that you are not with anyone else.

During the 90s I took two lone holidays, both in the same year. The first was an experiment, prompted by a big change in my life and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t anxious after booking it. In fact, as the departure day approached I became increasingly stressed at the idea, waking at night at the thought that I’d be alone, that I would be an object of pity or derision.

My decision to try skiing turned out to be a sensible one. As I dithered and wondered whether to cancel the trip, a friend convinced me to view it as if I were on a course and since I was used to undertaking training for work this idea gave me more confidence. Skiing has never been a budget holiday option, but this was 1996 and I’d found a week’s trip to Borovets in Bulgaria, including flights, hotel, lift passes, ski hire, boot hire and tuition, for the princely sum of £500. I’d also borrowed a ski suit and was good to go.

You have to remember, however, that this was Bulgaria. Seasoned skiers would baulk at the idea of Bulgarian slopes, which are considered ‘easy’. Easy was fine for me; the easier the better!

The fact that I don’t recall the flight out indicates that it was no problem. I arrived to the airport at Sofia and found the ‘courier’ waiting at the barrier. Then I got my first experience of singleton stigma.

‘Which party are you with?’ asked the young man.

‘I’m not with a party’, I replied. This confused him. It was several minutes before he gave up the question and indicated the coach I was to board. I slunk to the back of the bus and sank down into the seat, where I stared out of the window until we arrived at the hotel.

I checked in and found my room, after which I was to get a second wave of humiliation in the restaurant. Armed with a book, I made my way to a table laid for four. It took some time for a waiter to approach, presumably due to my solitude. The tables around me began to fill up with chattering ‘parties’ until the only remaining spare seats were at my table. A couple entered the room and surveyed the scene, in which there were no remaining empty tables, then slowly made their way to mine-and sat down. I thanked them for sitting at my table.

Next week: The transformative power of shared activity…

India 1998: Down

As we continued our tour bus descent out of Ladakh, following the shelf-like, dirt roads and stopping to wait for repairs en route, the temperature warmed a little and the mountainsides became greener, whilst also gaining humidity. Pockets of cloud hugged the hillsides and hung in the air. But there were also remnants of snow clinging to shady rock faces, grimy with road dirt and fume deposits.

In a valley with a gushing river tumbling over rocks was the De Lai Llama’s residence, allegedly, modest, elegant and spare. Opportunistic sellers of warm socks and prayer flags were dotted around the villa, their stalls canvas tents.

One spot had become a shrine dedicated to lovers, where couples came to be photographed having taken marriage vows, framed in front of an elaborate heart.

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We came to Manali and the ‘Highland’ hotel-an unappealing travelodge-style building made from white concrete, but with views down the misty valley. Manali was damply humid and thronged with backpackers, its shopping areas bustling, its streets and entrances occupied by stray dogs. There were myriad ‘health’ shops touting remedial medicines for all kinds of ailments, the town having a reputation as a health spa. We took advantage of the ‘hot baths’, donning our swimming gear and piling into a steaming pool with fellow tour members.

In a back street we encountered a hairy, white yak, and extraordinary beast with alarming curved horns and long, flowing white hair, looking like a creature from a Grimm’s Fairy Tale. But while the yak was saddled and available for rides we declined the offer.

Next day our bus continued on downwards until the steeply plunging sides of the valleys petered out into hillsides. Husband had been missing coffee, a beverage that had been lacking from our diet for many days, so at our morning rest stop we asked for a cup each, a request that was met with a glass of hot, sweet milk. Several attempts and glasses later we gave up and had tea.

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For our last night’s stop before returning to Delhi we got to stay in unaccustomed luxury in a beautiful hotel called ‘Timbertrail’, which boasted magnificent views over the surrounding, wooded hills and a sun terrace with a swimming pool. The sun emerged and by now the temperatures were warm enough for a dip, plus some relaxing on a sun-lounger.

The next day’s travel was by train, on down to Delhi. Trains in India are a delight, with a gentile, 50s ambience. Uniformed staff walked the carriages, serving meals on trays. No sawdust sandwiches and plastic-wrapped flapjacks here-but pristine crockery and cutlery and a freshly prepared curry.

And so back to Delhi, to our original hotel.

We planned to go out for a meal together, our entire group with Adrian, who’d been our excellent guide and good-natured companion throughout the adventure, coaxing, explaining, planning and keeping everyone on track and happy.

This was India’s national day, their Independence Day. Delhi was closed. In our hotel, quiet as the grave, there were no bar facilities, no leisure facilities, no facilities. The swimming pool had been drained.

We had a day to kill before our flight back to the UK. We had a desultory walk in the nearby streets, which were deserted. Our fellow tourers lolled around in the lounge area, although when one or two began to play cards they were prohibited from such a frivolous activity by members of staff.

This, then was the mother of all anti-climaxes. Adrian succeeded in finding a restaurant that was open. We went there. We ate a meal [alcohol-free]. We slept, rose, got our flights. A strange ending. But the entire escapade made memories to last a lifetime.

India 1998. Hot!

We completed our visit to Jaipur with a look at its Red Fort, perched high above a lake in a picturesque setting and more impressive for it than Delhi’s Red Fort. Since access to the fort was by an ascent of a steep hill-and in searing heat, we were treated to elephant transport, climbing up to a scaffold and waiting to be loaded on to the howdah [a seat strapped to the elephant’s back which accommodates several passengers]. Once we were installed on the howdah our elephant commenced its stately, swaying saunter up the hill, accompanied by numerous peddlers of gifts and goods, who called up and gestured to us en route.

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Husband’s attention was captured by one of the traders, who was keeping up with us whilst carrying a large selection of hats. Husband is prone to buying wide-brimmed summer headwear and continues to expand his hat wardrobe to this day, littering the house with them, bought from varied sources and countries, so as we continued swaying up the path to the fort he negotiated for a hat he fancied, finally reaching a satisfactory price and having the hat tossed up to him where he sat.

We disembarked on to an identical platform at the top, the fort entrance and went to the interior, which was ornate and beautiful, with mirror-inlaid frescoes and intricately patterned ceilings.

Afterwards, waiting  for our coach we were entertained by watching the off-duty elephants bathing in the lake with their mahouts. And as we stood, the mahout, astride his elephant, approached us and gestured for us to place a rupee note on to the end of the elephant’s trunk, which we did, delighted as the elephant passed the money back to the handler. A cunning trick, and the kind of activity that Paratha frowned upon, but by now we’d had enough of her control freakery and were opting out of some of her rules, at one point asking the bus driver to let us off on the way to yet another of her factory outlets.

Next day we were off on the coach again, this time to a bird sanctuary where we were to take a tour of the reserve by rickshaw before spending the night in the custom-built hotel.

The temperature at the bird reserve was uncomfortably hot-and exacerbated by its humidity. This was a damp, marshy piece of land, a haven for birds but an endurance trial for tourists. Enthusiastic as we are about wildlife we wilted in the sticky, cloying heat. We took our bicycle rickshaw tour, accompanied by another rickshaw carrying Steve and Jane.

The reserve was home to, among others, weaver birds, who’d woven their tiny basket nests and suspended them from the pendulous branches of palm trees.

The hotel was a modern, concrete, two-story block. We were allocated a first floor room flanked by a wide balcony that ran the length of the floor. As dusk fell this balcony gathered a covering of beetle-type insects so thick we couldn’t walk anywhere except on the top of them. It was a thick, crunchy, beetle carpet and the air and every surface crackled with them. Walking into our room was like entering a steam oven. We would never be able to sleep inside it. We contemplated hauling the mattress on to the balcony and quickly pushed the thought aside when we looked at the beetle layer.

But we were lucky. Our friends’ room was directly below and many degrees cooler. Would we like to sleep on their floor? We didn’t hesitate and hefted our mattress over the rail.

Next morning we were to travel to the last point of the Triangle. Agra!

India 1998. Part 3. The Pink City.

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Jaipur. Of all the world famous sights and sites in India’s Golden Triangle this was to become my favourite. I began to fall in love with The Pink City as we drew into its centre, past the beautiful Palace of the Winds and on towards our hotel, The Bissau, a grand old merchant’s house in an inauspicious side street. It was comfortable enough, with an ancient but serviceable swimming pool and within walking distance of the city.

Along the street camel carts and tuk-tuks jostled for position and cows wandered unperturbed amongst the teeming traffic. As yet we’d had no chance to wander unsupervised, to peruse the street stalls or to take a ride in a tiny, noisy, careering tuk-tuk and we couldn’t wait. Paratha, though had other plans. On no account were we to fraternise with locals, eat anywhere other than the hotel or purchase anything other than in an outlet of her choosing.

With our co-conspirators Steve and Jane we announced that we wouldn’t require a hotel dinner that evening as we’d find a restaurant of our choosing somewhere in the town. Paratha baulked, telling us that ‘nowhere would be open’. We said we’d take a chance then we set off together to explore the delights of Jaipur, exiting the hotel and taking care to step over the sheep’s head that lolled in a puddle by the roadside.

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Jaipur was not closed. It was as open as it is possible for a city to be, a riotous conglomeration of traffic, stalls, shops, shrines, animals and commerce. Steve and Husband declared that they’d like to visit the barber’s, a swanky, gleaming grooming parlour for men where Jane and I sat, enthralled while the men were liberally daubed with foam and shaved with terrifying cut-throat razors, swathed in hot towels, trimmed, primped and burnished, after which they must have felt wonderful in the searing heat of the afternoon.

We explored the colourful streets, marvelled at the goods on offer, bought things. We got our white-knuckle tuk-tuk ride, screeching with pleasurable terror as we tore round roundabouts and buzzed along in clouds of noxious fumes. As evening drew on we went to the jewellery quarter where items were sold by weight, and like a child in a sweet shop I was spoilt for choice, buying earrings and necklaces, still my beautiful and much-loved, favourite accessories to this day.

Later we found a restaurant and had dinner together, just the four of us, enjoying local cuisine and a cosy, non-hotel ambience.

Next day we were due to tour Jaipur’s Red Fort, accessible by elephant-and who could argue with that?

New York 1997. Part 6. A Fitting Finale.

We departed Buffalo and arrived late to Penn Station, too late to purchase tickets to Boston next day-another early start.

The subway from Westside to the station was becoming familiar and there was time for coffee before boarding the train, which was packed. Leaving New York via The Bronx was a much more dramatic and interesting journey than going out through New Jersey and there was a fine view of Manhattan’s skyscrapers as we left. Later, though, the scenes were the same dull, monotonous, derelict industrial sites that we’d seen before.

The train pulled into Boston at midday and we walked out into a proper station concourse, fitting for a large city in the way that Buffalo’s facilities were not. There were shops, cafes and bars-all very smart and clean. But we wondered how to go about finding a hotel. An information desk provided travel help, though not accommodation. We persevered and were pointed in the direction of ‘Hotel Reservations’ in a different part of the station, also bizarrely serving as a cigar stall. A sturdy, jovial woman called Marsha claimed to be there to help. After asking our ‘requirements’ she phoned several hotels. They were able to offer one night, but not two. We assured her we’d cope with staying ‘out of town’ provided it was on a subway route and sure enough, Marsha came up trumps. The ‘Hotel Farrington’. ‘You what?’ she hissed. ‘It’s messy? You have a back-packers’ room?’ She cast us an enquiring look. ‘OK-OK. They don’t mind. They’ll take it.’ She gave us a copied set of instructions for the route then we handed her the $5 booking fee and thanked her-feeling relieved and grateful, which was ironic when you consider what was to come.

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We studied the directions-a ‘red line’ train and a ‘green line’ train. Emerging into the Boston sunshine, towering buildings reared at us as we plunged down into the subway and to an unusually unhelpful ticket clerk. The Boston subway was newer and cleaner than that of New York, the trains quaint and picturesque, like historic trams. A number of lines converged and you had to clamber up steps into these tram-like compartments. ‘Boston College’ was our train. It rumbled along, slowing and almost stopping at intervals then emerged into a sunlit boulevard lined with college buildings and blocks. an ivy-clad ‘Alfred Morse Auditorium’ and several Oxford-like university piles. This was Boston University and Harvard lay just across the river in ‘Cambridge’. Boston is a university city and the society, pace, buildings and people reflected this.

As instructed we stepped down at the 3rd stop, located the street and walked; far, it seemed, carrying bags in the hot sun, but we came to Farrington Avenue and thus to Number 23. Farrington Avenue was elegant and tree-lined with large timber houses, one of which was our hotel, accessed by steps up to the polished doors. We entered into a grand, wood-panelled room, styled with antiques, chaises and a huge, burnished desk for reception. So far so good!

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The young woman there motioned us to a sofa. She had an unhurried air. It seemed unlikely that in this gleaming, gracious, stripped-pine, polished building there would be a ‘messy’ room. The woman took our details and searched around in some drawers for a key as one or two people drifted in and out. At last she led us out and up the road to another house of the same style, but here the similarity stopped. It had a neglected, decadent look, it’s wooden floors dusty, dirty and unkempt. We were led up two sets of stairs, weary of bag-carrying by now. The woman dithered at the top as we looked on, aghast. The entire building appeared like some kind of squat. She descended back one flight, apologising, round a corner and past what might have once been a kitchen but a quick glimpse made me shudder, through a once-glorious lounge area. Off this, behind a frosted glass screen was our room.

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It was dirty, cramped and unpleasant and the sheets worn and threadbare, though clean. The woman left us, saying that coffee and muffins would be served next morning from 8-10am. We threw the bags in and looked around in disgust, venturing out to see the bathroom, which would not have been out of place on the set of ‘The Young Ones’. It was grim. But the towels were clean.

Nevertheless, Boston awaited. We left everything and went to the subway to go into town, alighting at Park Street, where all was green and there were food stalls and folks enjoying the sunshine. Deciding on a trolley-bus tour we were told that next morning would be better due to rush-hour. Instead we walked the ‘Freedom’ trail, following a red line on the sidewalk and taking in the sights. Boston seemed a relaxed city, very conscious of its history and sporting a great many Irish pubs staffed by an unending stock of Irishmen, Bostonians proud of their history and eager to help with sightseeing suggestions. There was a huge market square like Covent Garden boasting gift shops, cafes and restaurants and it was here that we stopped to eat, choosing an outside table in the warm evening.

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Everywhere teemed with people and musicians played South American music as we ate, the food good and washed down with Samuel Adams Boston-brewed beer.

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By the time we returned we were too tired for a last drink at the Irish bar on our street. In the ‘hotel’ a man was wandering about on our floor looking for a screwdriver as the lock on his door had broken. We braved the shower together, using some discarded towels to stand on then tip-toed back to the room, through the dust and dirt of the lounge, to fall at last into bed. Then someone came into the lounge, putting on lights and TV, neither sound or light muffled by the tatty blind over the glass door. We groaned as a conversation also began, the TV, thankfully as dysfunctional as the rest of the place was extinguished and peace settled.

The Farrington breakfast was dispensed at reception, coffee and enormous muffins dispensed by an elderly. frail man at a table. Chatting to an Australian woman who confirmed the lack of Boston rooms we discovered that it was Graduation Week at Harvard, hence all was booked in advance. We had to grateful for our flea-pit!

We returned to Boston centre for the trolley tour, waiting while crocodiles of schoolchildren were shepherded along the streets. The tour began; the now-familiar, carefully rehearsed monologue punctuated by the odd joke. We got off at Charles Street, a quaint, though expensive row of shops with quirky signs, everything engineered for faux antiquity. We ate then took the next bus which drove past Harvard, through an up-market area and into theatreland where we left to walk on to Chinatown and on to the docks and the Boston Tea Party ship [unimpressive].

In the market square we had coffee and relaxed. The remaining time was dripping away. It would be our final evening in Boston and in the USA. We got a subway to Hynes Convention Centre for an ascent of the Prudential Tower, a tame 50 floors, to look over Boston at dusk. At the top it was quiet but with a stunning view over the blocks and landmarks of the city. It was a contemplative end to the trip.

At the ‘hotel’ a couple had moved into the next door hovel to ours and were complaining loudly, their remarks clear through the flimsy plywood between the rooms. ‘This room’s so Fucking depressing!’ cried the woman and the man’s low voice could be heard placating. We showered and went to ‘Arthur’s’, a small seafood cafe we’d spotted and had a last beer at the Irish bar. On our return the TV was silent, as were the next-door couple.

At the muffin and coffee breakfast next morning, two refined Oregon ladies proudly revealed the were in Boston for a reception in honour of Jackie Kennedy. Their home town had a population of 350 and this was an adventure for them. They were tremulous at the idea of the Boston subway so we told them they’d enjoy the experience for its period charm, and we recommended the trolley-bus tour.

Finally it was time to pack, lug the bags to the subway and to the station, board the New York train and sink back into our seats to watch the New England scenery float past with its quaint and pretty towns and villages, lakes and marinas, white churches and pastel, weather-board houses. The sky clouded briefly then cleared as we came to New York. The trip was done…

New York 1997. Part 4.

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Tuesday. Train to Buffalo day. After an early start and with a scaled down bag of packed items we went to Penn Station and boarded the Amtrak train, impressively huge, silver and sleek with wide comfortable armchair seats. A small dining car sold snacks-good enough for a breakfast of coffee, bagels and cream cheese.

The journey out from New York was the most diverting part, it transpired as what followed was hours of attractive but not dynamic scenery. Tiredness and monotony led to some gentle skirmishing [if you’ve followed from the start you’ll know that the relationship was in its infancy].

At intervals the train stopped. Albany, Rochester, Syracuse, towns heard of in some way and now in context. Some passengers were travelling direct to Niagara; a few heading on to Toronto. We alighted at Buffalo, expecting to go straight to ‘Tourist Information’ and being disillusioned. Buffalo Station had nothing more than a ticket office-and a tiny one at that. One railway official remained as the train chugged off in the direction of Niagara. He looked at his watch. ‘Aaahm about to close up at fooour!’ he announced. We’d still to find accommodation and the bus station, for getting to Niagara next day.

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The buildings of Buffalo reared up in a menacing, unwelcoming way as the railroad man pointed vaguely in the direction of the bus station and suggested The Radisson or The Hilton in response to enquiries. We heaved our bags across the road and walked the few blocks to the bus station, where the wall-mounted schedule was incomprehensible. Braving the disdain of the ticket clerk we were none the wiser. I threw myself at his mercy. ‘We’re English’ I told him. ‘We’re all a bit dim. Please would you help explain this?’ He softened. ‘Sure. You go get schedule 40 and I’ll show you.’ I sighed. A cold sore had begun its ominous tingle at the corner of my mouth.

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Now we had to tackle the hotel problem. The transit police suggested the Hotel Lenox and that we’d need a cab [of course] to get there. The driver spent the entire journey earnestly trying to persuade us to take his cab direct to Niagara. ‘You can get a motel down there for 30 dollars and give me 30 dollars-that’s less than you’ll spend at the Lenox’. He laboured his point several times, until Husband gently persuaded him otherwise. ‘We’ll stay here now,’ he replied, ‘we like looking at places so we’ll have a look at Buffalo’, at which the driver capitulated and suggested a restaurant-‘The Anchor’, home of the famous ‘Buffalo wings’. Who knew?

The Lenox was once grand but now a decadent pile skulking in front of the Holiday Inn. The room was adequate.

Buffalo was not the tourist Mecca I’d expected. We debated our options, with this town seeming less hospitable by the minute. A connection to Boston, the next destination, was impossible. I suggested a flight, but there was no reply from any of the freephone numbers we called for ticket agencies. Maybe reception could help? The receptionist seemed invigorated by the challenge- a small, pale, bespectacled girl, offering the phone, finding numbers.

We were introduced to ‘Mr Pellegrino’, the hotelier, an effusive character who extolled the virtues of the Anchor Bar. ‘Tell them Mr Pellegrino sent you!’ and gave us a card. He was a portly ex-cop.

The travel research was not going well. Only one airline flew direct from Buffalo to Boston and the ticket was $301.

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We went out to find The Anchor, a red brick pub standing alone on a corner. The sun was still warm and the evening crisp and clear, the beer excellent. Here in the quiet gloom of the restaurant 3 mountainous men were consuming gargantuan meals while a family in the corner were setting into a banquet, with plates covering the whole table. A nearby couple appeared to be eating the entire menu of food. We were surrounded by eating machines-dwarfed by them. But the famous, spicy chicken wings were very good and following the meal we decided to look at the town…

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!

Lamai and Food Heaven

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The road that runs parallel to Lamai Beach passes the front of our hotel and teems with all kinds of traffic, from endless convoys of scooters to chugging, motorised kitchens, their driver negotiating the twists and turns while a bubbling vat of something delicious sizzles away next to them. While the traffic is not fast, it’s difficult to cross over without the help of the security guard.

All we can manage, having limited our daytime sleep to two and a half hours in order to try and adjust to Thailand time is to stroll across to the small bar and restaurant facing the hotel. Here we can sit upstairs in summer clothing on an open balcony and watch the world go by in all its fascinating variety while we sip a Chang beer and enjoy the balmy warmth-a novelty for us, coming from our UK winter.

We peruse the menu. I’m confident that here in Thailand I can find a variety of benign meals to suit my very contrary constitution, which eschews spicy things. And I do. Thai food is choc-a-bloc with stir fried vegetables, delicate rice and noodle dishes and fresh, delicious seafood. So I plump for fat prawns and broccoli with fried rice. In the unaccustomed heat a selection of a few, modestly proportioned dishes is perfect.

It’s all we need for today and having managed to stay up past ten we retire early, hoping to sleep all night. The room is spacious, though gloomy. We are unable to fathom the workings of the coffee machine and will need water and non-dairy milk so a foray into the mini supermarket along the road will be necessary tomorrow.

The day dawns hot [35 degrees], blistering as we make our way to breakfast, which offers every possible need or desire, including, miraculously, soya milk!

And while it’s too hot to do much, other than loll about in the shade, reading, Lamai Beach stretches in a sandy curve fringed with coconut palms, a steady breeze mitigating the searing heat.

The mini-market is a treasure trove for oat milk, beers and water but yields no coffee-making equipment, not so much as a pack of filters. We step across to the coffee bar across the street instead, where air conditioned comfort and some creditable pastries are available.

The evening temperatures are perfect and a short walk across a bridge takes us to an open market square where an abundance of food stalls provides an evening meal, and a lively bar with a music stage provides the entertainment-a competent covers band with a charismatic girl singer. We can sit in the open eating freshly grilled kebabs and sipping from a delicate coconut then enjoy some stomping music. How much better does it get than this?