Flight. A Dubious Pleasure.

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Once we’ve returned home from the Italian lakes in our camper van there’s barely a week to go before we are off again-this time by air. A week is just enough time to tackle the mountain of laundry we’ve brought back, scrub the van until it’s spotless, host a modest family gathering and even undertake a basic garden tidy-up, before we think about what we will need in our next destination: visiting friends in beautiful Norway.

Although our flights are booked, we’ve not opted to check in any suitcases, thinking that with the budget airline we’re using we’ll try and make do with hand luggage. In effect, however this is impossible-there are medicines and basics in sponge bags to take. Whatever do other people do? We suck it up, compromise and pay for one checked in case.

Due to my health shortcomings we are unable to travel to Gatwick early in the morning so I book us into an on-airport hotel for the night which means a rail trip or two, but it all goes smoothly except that my small, ancient cabin bag chooses now to foul up by having its handle stuck out. Then I’m compelled to buy a new one from the bag-wrap man at Gatwick. Once we’re installed in the hotel we can relax in the bar with its outstanding view of the short-stay, multi-story car park.

So far so good-and dinner is acceptable. But the room’s air-con will not sink below 20 degrees and the squidgy bed has a hugely thick quilt, which all makes for a hot and uncomfortable night.

Next morning we cross the road to the terminal and get the dinky shuttle to the south terminal, where the check in queue is mercifully short.

We do the security thing. Queue in the pen, unload everything into trays, walk through the door-frame, collect the trays, repack everything, wait for Husband. Husband, being special, has a personalised scan due to his pacemaker. At last, reunited at the repacking bay, we can trundle past all the ‘duty-free’ outlets for an outrageously expensive coffee, which has not deterred the massed swarms of people in transit, judging by the lack of empty tables.

I wander the shopping outlets, the activity the airport has summoned us early for, picking up a bottle of water and some wet wipes. We get another coffee.

It is time to go to ‘gate’. Our departure gate lies at the outermost extent of the airport’s appendages, which requires us to trundle along lengthy corridors punctuated by travelators. The wheelie case grumbles along the moving pavement like an angry bee. There is another wait and we are finally summoned to the queue for seats in the poky cylinder in which we are to spend our next two hours.

The flight is busier than I expected and we must share our row of three seats with another, but we all smile politely and greet in our British way as the cabin staff do their demo and check that we’re strapped in while the plane rolls along in its own queue towards the runway. From the porthole I spot the assorted planes in front and behind us as we wait our turn; then we are in position, breath-holding until the engines roar and we are hurtling along, that brief momentary flutter of panic that we may not rise before the end of the tarmac but we are up, up and away.

On this two hour flight there is no trolley service [unless you buy it], no small bag of nibbles and a drink, no warm tissue, no screens. We settle down to read until the aircraft begins its descent into Oslo, where we are to change for the onward flight, and have to undergo security again despite going through the transfer corridor. What are we supposed to have procured en route? The rigorous security man confiscates the unopened water I’ve bought at Gatwick and tips the water out of my reusable one. Wonderful.

Later we are high above the snowy peaks along Norway’s west coast and then descending into Aalesund. Looking down on the stunning landscape is enough to make me forget all the hassle of flying.

But the last time we came was by van. Drive to the port, check in, show passports, queue for 45 minutes [enough time to brew up a coffee] and drive on to the ferry. Read, have breakfast, drive off. No contest!

 

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!

A Long Tale of Long Tails

                Despite the blazing sun, white sandy beach, extensive, tropical gardens, azure sea, herds of cushioned sunbeds and unlimited mango shakes, after two days of lolling around reading ‘The Count of Monte Cristo’ [which I can highly recommend when travelling to foreign climes] I was itching for some activity.

                ‘This hotel is too posh for us’ was Husband’s pronouncement-a judgement I considered perhaps appropriate for him, but did not necessarily relate to myself.

                The fact was, the hotel-or rather the ‘resort’ as it liked to be known was certainly ‘posh’, in that it boasted two infinity pools, a spa, three restaurants, numerous bars [including one of those incorporated into a swimming pool], a fitness centre, beach barbecues, those low platforms with cushions for lounging around, coy, individual nooks furnished with pairs of sun loungers and a range of accommodation including private suites with personal pools etc

                That it was plush and luxurious could not be ignored. Neither could the problem that it was a taxi or a long tail boat ride away from anywhere we wanted to visit or activity we’d like to undertake.

                We set off for the nearest town, Ao Nang- a busy seaside resort awash with tourists; not unlike Torquay in high season, but with hot weather. Along the shore throngs of long tail boats bobbed gently in the waves, waiting to take eager tourists to a variety of destinations. We bought our tickets from the booth at the end of the promenade and were amongst the waiting passengers swept down on to the beach and into the sea to heave ourselves up a crude ladder [a dousing is unavoidable] and into the boat.

                A few minutes later we were chugging past an astonishing array of limestone outcrops and fascinating, sculptural cliff formations dotted with tiny fringes of beach as we made our way to Railay Rocks-a popular magnet for tourists; as demonstrated by the multitude of boats jostling for position on the beach. Most were disgorging visitors, some of whom were shouldering luggage in an attempt to keep it dry as they waded ashore.

                If you ignore the ‘walking street’ with its cafes, bars, shops and trinket sellers and walk through to the other side of the peninsula [ten minutes at most] you come to a bay furnished with mangroves. You turn right and walk towards the end and right again to encounter a warren of fantastic caves with dangling creepers and hoards of cheeky macaques; continue through the cave complex to a beach so beautiful as to be almost unreal, although predictably busy. Here there were more boats, some sporting fast food menus-fresh roasted corn, spring rolls and burgers. There were more caves, this time bizarre forests of enormous phalluses replacing the monkeys.

                Later we walked past the burgeoning hotels, bars and [strangely] a Thai boxing ring, around the mangrove bay to the other end. It was wilder, quieter with pockets of discreet accommodation. Later we joined the assembly of waiting passengers on the beach for our return to Ao Nang and our shuttle back to the opulent splendour of  the resort.

 

Elvis and the Egyptian Odyssey

                In the 1970s I undertook some independent, backpacker type travel to Egypt. This meant heaving round a large rucksack and using local transport, in the main, although when you are young this kind of travel seems adventurous rather than daunting. The trip involved flights to Athens, ferry from Piraeus to Alexandria [two days on a vehicle ferry, nights on deck in a sleeping bag], finding a hotel on arrival, moving on by bus to Cairo, finding a hotel, travelling to Luxor down along the Nile on a sleeper train and on to Aswan by minibus; five weeks in all. It was my first sojourn outside of Europe.

                Arriving to the port of Alexandria was a culture shock, since I had not expected Africa’s north coast to feel so alien, so exotic or unnerving. After a long, slow entry through early morning mist to the quayside past skeletal wrecks of long sunken vessels we docked, to be met by a teeming array of jostling, robed porters, hawkers and tourist fleecers. Alighting from the ferry there followed a brief, unseemly struggle to retain control of my rucksack but apart from this there was little to cause alarm or suspicion during the entirety of the trip.

                Everyone we met was eager to help, and not necessarily for remuneration. An enquiry re whereabouts of hotels would be met by offers to accompany us, carry luggage etc. On bus journeys, where the vehicle would resemble a termite nest we would invariably stand, but seated passengers would take items we were carrying on their laps. Conversations were struck wherever we went, with the local population keen to find out about us. There was no suspicion, threat or mistrust.

                The festival of Ramadan took place towards the end of our stay. We’d returned to Alexandria with a few days free to visit the beach and relax. Waiting for a bus to take us back from the beach to the town a couple in a car stopped and offered us a lift. “Did we know”, they asked us, “that Elvis Presley died today?”

                They were keen to chat, needing to pass the time until they could break their fast and eat. I fell ill with food poisoning two days before we left for Piraeous and was compelled to run the gauntlet of the doorless holes in the ground that amounted to the ferry terminal ‘facilities’. Despite this I retained memories of Egypt as a fascinating, beautiful country; packed with history, enigma and mystique.

                I have made one more visit to Egypt since that time-to the tourist Red Sea resort of Sharm El Sheikh, for one week-and one week too many!

                I feel no more desire to return to Egypt now than to stick my hand into a hornets’ nest. Nor do I wish to visit any troubled Moslem countries. In the forty or so years that have passed since that innocent piece of travel those parts of the world have changed, become edgy, uneasy places at best-war torn hell holes at worst. Are we ever to move on from historic grievances, bury hatchets and let the by’s be gone? Or are we to be forever the ‘infidel’ and they, forever the ‘heathen’, locked into a spiral of hate and mistrust?

                Of one thing, however, there can be no doubt. I will always know what year it was that Elvis died…it was 1977.