Tag Archives: travel

Terrors of the deep

There’s a baby on the Tube. Sitting in a pushchair, cooing away, dribbling down a rattle and grinning at strangers as though we live in a world where not every stranger is a rampant paedophile. It’s placid, it’s cute and it’s happy. Everybody loves a happy baby.

Then it coughs. And not the cough you’d expect from a human that size – the full hack, crackling like an old man 30 fags deep into a 50-a-day habit, with a pipe for pudding.

Continue reading Terrors of the deep

A B&B in Baku

As a man with nothing to save for and no offspring to syphon it away, money serves three purposes for me.

First, it buys toilet paper. On the one hand, bog roll symbolises mundane bills and unavoidable life expenses, but while clutched in the other it serves to hurriedly wipe away the terrifying results of money’s second purpose, dipsomania.

The third is foreign travel. Much as I love Britain’s glorious combination of comforting bigotry, polite sadism and fields, so many fields, seeing other parts of the world is now my principal route to joy. As I write, I’m in the 40th country I’ve visited, before my fourth decade is up, and I’m proud of that.

And as I write I can see two things. One is a jungle, right next to this hotel, from where a troupe of capuchin monkeys emerged yesterday to steal a fat man’s plantain.

The other is tourists.

Continue reading A B&B in Baku

Morning is broken

The little man with the tiny backpack runs up the steps of Embankment tube, wriggling like a wee ginger salmon with a tazer up the shitter. He looks very much like Alan McGee. I’m so certain he’s Scottish I’ll eat a haggis if he’s not despite assurances haggis is filled with colon juice, battery acid, insects and whatever else radge bastards assault themselves with.

I’ve missed him in the past two weeks, my bespectacled chum. But we’re together again Alan, me old fucker. The ‘festive season’ is done. We’re back in the commute.

Continue reading Morning is broken

Reservations for one

I go on holiday a lot on my own. It’s that, or not go away at all, and it’s fine by me. However, this small fact tends to catch many other people by surprise. Here are some examples of why I am increasingly pissed off with my solo travels being a ‘thing’.

1. I am in Himeji, a Japanese castle town. It’s cherry blossom season and the queue to get into the castle is ridiculously long, so I’ve decided to sit in the park and read for a while. A Japanese family sits on the bench next to me. The elderly matriarch strikes up a conversation.
“Where are you from?”
“London.”
“Where is your husband?”
[That in itself would be enough to make me spit.]
“Oh, I’m here on my own.”
“You’re so brave!” she says, clutching her hands to her head.

2. I am in a restaurant in Osaka. The nice Taiwanese owner and her assistant are fussing around me.
“Where are you from?”
“England.”
“You on your own?”
“Yes.”
“Ah. Why?”
Always the implication: woman, where is your husband?

3. I am in a Pret at Gatwick, buying a bacon sandwich. The cashier is chatty and asks me where I’m going.
“Norway.”
“On business or going home?”
a) There is no way I can ever pass for Norwegian, but thanks for the compliment.
b) I am wearing jeans and a schlubby t-shirt, carrying a backpack on the verge of falling apart. If I’m travelling on business I ought to be fired on the spot.
c) When I said I’m actually going on holiday, the guy was taken so much by surprise that he genuinely didn’t know what to say.

4. I am in a Starbucks in Oita. I love Starbucks in Japan. They do excellent iced teas. Anyway, I’m in Starbucks and momentarily confused about where to throw away my empty cup. A young man shows me and takes the opportunity to practice his English, having recently been to study in Bristol. He asks me if I’m an exchange student (bless him, I was 36 at the time) or TEFL. I tell him I’m on holiday. “Why?” he asks, baffled to the verge of distress.

(To be fair, he had a point; Oita isn’t a major tourist destination. But it’s very well connected for travel to various interesting towns so, you know, it’s my holiday and shut up.)

5. I am in Austria, waiting at a bus stop. A woman walks up and starts chatting to me in German. I break in and explain, in halting GCSE, that I’m English and on holiday. She looks me up and down in surprise, purses her lips and moves away.

6. I am in St Petersburg, Russia, waiting at a tram stop. A woman walks up and starts chatting to me in Russian. I break in and explain, with no attempt at the language because my knowledge consists of one 60 minute school lesson when our German teacher got bored once and tried to teach us Russian and Swedish, that I’m English and on holiday. She looks me up and down in surprise, purses her lips and moves away.

7. I am in Flåm, Norway. I am getting happily pissed on a stupidly expensive bottle of imperial porter. I realise the brewery restaurant is starting to fill up so I’d better let them know I want to eat. “Sorry,” says the barman. “We don’t do reservations for one.” But, I want to say, you just wrote down the name of that guy before me. Luckily the nicer barman who sold me the stupidly expensive bottle of beer appears, remembers me and scribbles me down on the wait list.

8. I am sitting outside a cafe in Cordoba. Everyone else around me has drinks. People come in after me, sit down and get served. Every single member of the wait staff ignores me. This may be paranoia, but by this point in my life it feels well founded. Do they think I’m waiting for my boyfriend? Eventually I get up and walk off.

9. I am sick of being given the shittiest hotel rooms. I once saw an episode of CSI – you know, the original Las Vegas version before they brought in Sam from Cheers – in which the chisel-jawed one describes the room at the end of the corridor by the fire escape as the ‘murder room’. I am always getting that fucking hotel room. I once got a room that wasn’t just at the end of the corridor, but through an emergency exit and into a tiny annexe where no-one would hear me scream.

This might sound like I’m asking for special treatment because I’m a woman on my own and, well, there is a sort of argument here that if a hotelier knows ahead that a woman is booking in by herself, maybe don’t punt her off in the room where she’s isolated. But mainly I’m just fed up of getting shoved in the corner. Nobody puts me in a corner. Except hotels. And restaurants.

10. I have no stories about the time I spent a week and a half in Qatar. Where you’d think there’d be at least some raised eyebrows.

Why is it remarkable – literally, to be remarked upon – that I, a female human, have left my home and ventured abroad? Without a chaperone, no less? I mean, we have the vote now, why can’t we be content to sit around the kitchen and plop out a series of babies?

The thing I hate most is that I know I’m already curtailing the range of my travel because I’m on my own. There are places I want to see but I wouldn’t feel safe without company (male or female). I’d also love to go to Chile, take one of those boats to Antarctica and see the penguins, but some fucking middle aged couple or other would attempt to ‘take me under their wing’ and I’d simply have to kill them. So to have it repeatedly brought to my attention that I’m travelling solo in places that I’m fine with – that’s annoying.

But what’s worse is that I’m not sure I even have the energy to rage about it any more. It’d probably just be easier to sign up for Tinder.

Fifth Avenue

There was a smug grin on my face as I took my seat on the plane. My shopping trip to New York was going to be fabulous. A great end to a week which had thus far proved to be as enjoyable as eating your own shit.

Talking of shit, that was precisely why I was feeling so smug.

Not because I had just taken one but because I was sure that I wouldn’t have to. I was flying with Virgin Atlantic, which had to be a good thing. My friend had not been so lucky just a few weeks earlier. His last minute decision to travel had resulted in him flying with Air India. Following three curries and a distinctly dodgy samosa he was in serious shit, literally, by the time he reached the terminal at JFK.

Suffering a nightmare episode of Delhi belly, he was apprehended by customs officers at the airport because they thought he might have swallowed cocaine. His ordeal was soon over when it became obvious what had happened.

So there I was feeling suitably self-satisfied when an enormous fat fucker boarded and tried to sit next to me. The man was so vast that he couldn’t squeeze his unsightly arse into the seat. He planted his blubber onto the arm rests and I had his disgusting butt cheeks encroaching into my personal space.

The flight attendant’s visionary solution to the problem was to raise the arm rest between my seat and his. Stupid bitch. The wide bodied aircraft simply wasn’t wide enough. I spent 7 hours rammed into half a seat surrounded by a fugue of rancid body odour. What the fuck?

I know all about travelling at short notice, but surely people have time to wash.

At one point the attendant returned to ask if I needed anything. As it appeared that my neighbour’s flab hadn’t affected his hearing I couldn’t request a clothes peg for my nose. I was tempted to ask if the on board services included liposuction but I was fairly sure that this would only be available in first class. I also considered enquiring about a defibrillator as this guy was a heart attack waiting to happen. Then I realised that I didn’t care if he died as long as that meant he wouldn’t be sitting next to me. So I kept my mouth shut.

The fat twat even had the temerity to complain because he hadn’t been upgraded!

The plane eventually landed at JFK, a miracle up there with the second coming of Christ given the weight it had been carrying. My clothes now stunk like a refuse tip in Sao Paolo and there was an unpleasant damp patch on my trousers. For one ghastly moment I thought that I might have shit myself after all but it was just Mr Blobby’s stinky sweat.

When the plane’s door opened I charged off in the direction of immigration and was determined to put as much distance between myself and the great unwashed as I could. I needn’t have bothered because he was miles back dragging himself along like a beached walrus.

The environment in the terminal provided temporary relief. I stank like a skunk and so most people steered cleared of me. I was enjoying my new found freedom until the guy in front of me in the queue unleashed a massive fart. How I wished  I’d asked for that clothes peg.

After what seemed like an eternity I finally had my feet on the magic yellow line and would be next to be called forward for the obligatory interrogation. The immigration officers at JFK must do their training at Guantanamo. I wondered whether I was in for waterboarding, sexual assault or a mock execution. All this to drop a few quid on Fifth Avenue!

Just as I was about to step forward, every immigration official suddenly stood up and left. Christ, I thought, how bad do I smell? It turned out that I wasn’t the problem – the selfish fucks were on a work to rule. I was fed some bullshit about their working conditions and pay. Like I cared!  It was the end of their shift so they just left without waiting for their replacements. Never mind that I had travelled for 7 hours, had been queuing for 90 minutes and smelt like a bag lady.

I had an explosive event. No shit involved just a lot of expletives and the proffering of several uncharitable thoughts about New York. At about the moment that I said fuck for the eleventh time I was escorted to an official, had my passport stamped and was allowed to leave. Well when I say allowed, I mean dragged to the door and virtually thrown through it.

All I had to do now was take a taxi to my hotel. The taxi ride is always the crowning glory of any visit to New York. Most of the cab drivers don’t have the least idea where they’re going and on this occasion my driver’s arrival in the country had clearly only just preceded mine. Evidently the Holiday Inn was not, in fact, in New York, it was somewhere in New Jersey. At least that was where I was by the time I got out of the cab in disgust.  How could I possibly be in Hackensack? Fuck me! New York? You can stuff it up your arse. Next time it’s Lakeside.

Lonely tears of Sancerre

Business travel sucks. That is an incontrovertible fact.

If you aren’t travelling alone, you will be travelling with colleagues. Both of these are bad in different ways.

Travelling alone isn’t inherently bad. In fact, sometimes it’s a pleasure to not have to interact with another human being and pretend you don’t mind when they want to go to the same godawful bar three nights in a row, or visit a museum you have less than zero interest in. And flying alone is the ideal opportunity to lie under a blanket watching films your partner doesn’t want to see while being given free alcohol.

But travelling alone for business is just shit.

It starts when you need to go to the toilet at the airport and you have no-one to watch your bags, so if you don’t want them to be blown up by the bomb squad you have to take them into the cubicle with you. This is the point where you commence an obstacle course of angling your legs around a suitcase and trying to not let anything touch the piss-soaked floor while simultaneously re-arranging your clothing and not dropping your phone down the toilet.

Once you arrive, your evenings will be spent inwardly crying lonely tears of Sancerre while you eat overcooked pasta in the hotel restaurant and hope that all the wine won’t be itemised on your bill. Opting for room service and TV instead will mean you just spend 45 bastard minutes trying to find something to watch in a language you can understand – something that isn’t Storage Hunters – all the while knowing your partner will be watching the final episode of Happy Valley without you.

If you travel with colleagues, imagine someone you work with who you don’t actually like very much. Now imagine being confined to a seat next to them for 8-12 hours. Now imagine it’s an overnight flight and they want to talk shop for the whole journey, or they don’t drink. And remember, if you do manage to sleep, you’ll be sleeping just inches away from a colleague you don’t like very much. You are sleeping with your colleague.

You’re welcome!

Even worse, you will be staying in the same hotel, so you’ll effectively also be co-habiting with this person for the next week. Never underestimate the sheer teeth-clenching awfulness of eating breakfast, lunch and dinner with someone you don’t like very much for Five. Whole. Days. And not even being married to them.

Fuck that shit.

When you tell people you’re going abroad for business, they will invariably say ‘Gosh, how glamorous!’ and say they’re jealous. I’m here to tell you that business travel is not glamorous.

No-one who has had cockroaches running over their feet and hand luggage at 4am in Indian baggage reclaim would agree. Neither would anyone who is sent abroad for an indefinite period of time and expected to pay for the whole fucking trip on their own credit card before claiming it back on expenses. Nor would someone who is forced to take an illicit taxi to get to the office driven by an old man in a full length leather coat who may or may not be a serial killer.

None of that is glamorous.

Expenses. Bafflingly, some companies believe sending their employees abroad with no money is a privilege for which we should be grateful. I’m pretty sure that was a punishment for something in medieval times.

I mean, who wouldn’t be grateful to bankroll a trip costing thousands of pounds in flights, hotels, taxis and meals for an international company with billionaire owners and millionaire shareholders? What’s that? Your card is maxed out, you’ve just moved house and you don’t have a spare £8,000 in the bank? Can’t pay for your hotel or flight up front, sorry, not company policy. Can you get an increase on your credit card limit and we’ll pay you back in two months? Thanks everso.

Aside from companies brainwashing employees into thinking anyone notices if they work 27 extra hours every week, expense trips are the biggest fucking con out there. Stop thinking about it as a free trip to another country. Start thinking about it as an insidious method of encroaching even more on your personal time while getting you to pay for it. Not so glamorous now, huh?

Somewhere along the line, it became normal to do the actual travelling bit of business travel in your own time rather than the company’s. What? The? Actual? Fuck? How the shitting hell did it come about that not only are you expected to pay to go and work in an unfamiliar office with shit coffee for a week, you have to fly there on your own time?

Oh, it’s that privilege again.

Sleep? Sleep is for wimps! If you were really and truly committed to your company, you’d work a full day, take an overnight flight and be in the office abroad bright and early.

I’d love to be able to say this is me getting all hyperbolic, but it isn’t. This is an actual thing that some colossal bed-wetting wanker dreamed up, dressed up in the worst kind of corporate tub-thumpery from a company which issues press releases telling everyone how much it cares for its employees.

The exits are here, here, here and here.

But it’s cheap

There’s pleasure to be had in the very act of argument, provided it’s about something meaningful and not “I can’t believe you didn’t reply to my text, it’s like you don’t even love me”. Sometimes you can lay out the most coherent arguments in a debate, trumping every opposing idea with the calm dexterity of Lincoln or Aristotle, knowing no sane person could resist your electrifying reasoning and that they will undoubtedly embrace your philosophy with immediate effect. You lean back contentedly, basking in triumph.

And your opponent slowly lifts their gaze from their smartphone and says: “Hmmmm? Oh, sorry. Just sorting myself out an Uber.”

Continue reading But it’s cheap

Economy Comfort

I’ve had the unfortunate fortune to spend a lot of time on planes recently. I’m fortunate because they took me somewhere I love being, if only it didn’t take so damn long to get there.

Long haul flights are bearable – just – so long as we abide by certain rules. Don’t talk to me, unless offering a hot towel, food and drink or, in an emergency, offering to assist me in gouging out the eyes of the moron who’s stopped beside me to get at his hand luggage. There are no exceptions to the second rule: don’t touch me. Never keen on human contact, all I want on a long plane journey is to be left alone to hunker down with the seatback TV, a copy of the New Yorker and the sound of my sanity folding itself up and slipping into the overhead bins at around hour eight.

On this trip, however, nobody had read the factsheet. Boarded early at Amsterdam and settled into my seat (on the aisle of the middle four), the Japanese couple with the middle allocation arrived. They snuck up from behind so I didn’t see them coming but still, there was no attempt to get my attention or generally indicate their presence before the woman started literally climbing across me to get to her seat.

“Woah, hang on, let me get out, no, stop, oh God that’s your arse in my face, please, just wait,” I said, but as I was to be constantly reminded over the next fortnight, my Japanese is abysmal and English isn’t that commonly spoken by the natives. At least that’s my hope, since I muttered “for fuck’s sake” as I finally vacated my seat and let her husband through. Later in the flight, the woman vaulted the person sitting in the other aisle seat on her return from the loo.

All right, I thought, maybe just this one woman is nuts, or too shy to attempt communication with horrible Westerners. Until a couple of hours later when I saw a middle-aged European woman stand on the armrests to get past a man sitting in an aisle seat. Did she know him? I don’t know. I hope so. He was definitely awake though, and appeared to be neither disabled nor halfwitted and thus, I assume, able to stand the fuck up.

Is this a thing now? Are people now too lazy to stand up for others, or has it suddenly become acceptable to clamber over one another? Is it a new sexual fetish I missed while reading the New Yorker rather than Cosmo? Or has society descended to the point where we can’t be arsed to expend a couple of seconds to say “excuse me”?

On the return leg, the airline upgraded my schlubby cheap seat to ‘Economy Comfort’, right at the front of the cabin. Nice. I was slightly less happy to see a woman with a baby across the aisle. But, you know, families have to fly as well, and I’d have headphones for when it started screaming.

Except screaming wasn’t the problem. I don’t know this baby’s age; as is going to become very clear, I’m not the maternal type. Whatever the age is where they’re still breastfeeding and able to toddle about. And mum saw absolutely no problem with letting baby wander around the plane. Including into the row where I was sitting. She helped it walk over to the window. Now, there’s improved legroom in Economy Comfort, but not that fucking much. Then she left it to explore its surroundings, which included my TV screen and legs.

Increasing horror doubtless apparent all over my face, mum says “Oh, is he bothering you?”. Yes. Yes, he’s bothering me, smearing his breastmilk-and-sputum coated fingers across everything in sight. Rather than say this, I more politically highlighted the face mask I was wearing to shield my increasing attempts to cough up a lung (when we all start to die in a few weeks of a hybrid Asian-European flu, I apologise now as patient zero) and said something about how it’d be better if the fruit of her womb wasn’t in my immediate spluttering zone.

This was all while still at the gate. During take off, the kid sat on her lap and she pointed at things out the window, finger hovering inches from my nose. When the seatbelt signs were off, the baby went free range again and nearly got run over by the drinks trolley appearing from behind the business class curtain. (At one point he went running into business class, with mum aware but unconcerned. Cabin crew had to ask her not to let this happen again.) I myself had to dislodge the baby’s fingers from an abandoned dinner tray, which it was about to pull down on itself, and swiftly remove from my own table a bottle of water and tumbler of (medicinal) brandy when the kid got curious again. Maybe I should have left it to its own devices and had a guilt-free conversation with a steward along the lines of: “Please may I have another large glass of free booze, as my last is soaking into this child”.

Personal space. It shouldn’t be hard. Even on planes, where several hundred bodies are densely packed together, we all have delineated areas. Respect mine and I won’t have to cause an international incident. You have been warned.

A chorus of deflating airbeds

This morning, as I tried to return to my paid purgatorium in a bid not to starve, a burly, bald South African man barred my entry to the train station. Here was a hulking solid figure of a man who could probably use my entire body as a toothpick or a dildo depending on his mood. Get any more macho than him and you’d have to climb out of a cave brandishing a rolled up copy of Nuts at a bear.

He politely informed me that I wouldn’t get past him and his eyebrows implied he could bench-press me into submission, of which I had no doubt. He also said the trains were too crowded and so to avoid a Battle Royale on wheels scenario no-one would be taking the train from Forest Gate this morning. He even recommended a bus stop down the road. A veritable Gollum and as courteous as a Michelin star waiter, he was met with feeble protestations from my fellow commuters that sounded more like a chorus of deflating airbeds than it did the defiance of scorned season ticket holders with ‘executive’ littered somewhere in their job titles.

Defeated at the first hurdle, we moodily trudged back out of the station. The sun was rising with the effort of a leprous pensioner afflicted with erectile dysfunction and all around there pulsed a mounting panic in the face of this break from routine. Routine is sacred to Londoners; it’s what enables them to face the degrading conditions they impose upon themselves without engaging in regular rush hour killing sprees or weeping like the children of despots at the denial of a second private island.

Well, routine and cocaine. Copious quantities of cocaine; linger in a bathroom anywhere in central London and you’d think they all have year-round colds given the ubiquitous sniffling that emanates from behind closed cubicle doors. This was 7:55am on a Tuesday and presumably too early for powdered courage, so instead they went back to their self-help podcasts without much fight. The certain predictability of an unpleasant situation like the morning commute is infinitely more valuable than all of the cocaine in the city and helps to preserve harmony in the collective stasis through which we float to our employment-shaped cages.

I was quite resolved to walking to Stratford and braving the underground there, but for kicks I thought I’d take a trip to the zoo and see the bus stop. It looked like a shipwreck with the desolate survivors clinging to a floating clump of debris. They swayed back and forth like a drunken hydra in a gentle breeze as they simultaneously clung to one another to avoid falling into traffic and, repulsed by the human contact, jostled one another to ensure their space on the bus.

Anyone would’ve thought they were waiting for the last ride out of Saigon. It made no difference as the bus was already packed tighter than a porn star’s anus and so it didn’t stop and merely sped on by, chased by the murmurs of anguish that belied a very real fear among stranded commuters who looked like beasts that had lived their lives in cosy captivity, and having been released into the wild were now contemplating self-destruction via their ties.

It was about this time when everyone’s ears seemed to have sprouted a phone. A chirruping of panicked explanations was hastily discoursed to the slave masters on the other end of each call and apologies came stammering out in almost every dialect. It was like watching a man dictating his will to a solicitor whilst drowning in quicksand. This only served to strengthen the will to secure a position on the next life-boat bound for the city, for at the centre of every Londoner’s universe is their job. They usually demonstrate their importance with vigorous marching about pavements irrespective of the other insect-like beings that stray into their path – even when they’re clutching a piping hot latte that cost more than a black market pancreas – who they scold with their eyes for having the audacity to be crushed beneath their feet.

Today was different though – today was London with the face torn off. The smouldering sense of smug satisfaction that usually shrouds the suit-clad somnambulists of our nation’s capital had evaporated, along with their hopes of picking up some sort of super-food bullshit breakfast in a polystyrene box before their pre-meeting yoga session on the roof of their offices. My heart bleeds for them. At least with the tube strikes people were reminded in advance that they’re little more than beetles stumbling blindly across the surface of a mound of shit, but today came with no warning shot – just a merciless gut punch that left commuters clutching their iPhones and their briefcases as the last vestige of familiarity in this brutal, godless world. The illusion of being the special ones at the palpitating heart of the country was lifted and upon beholding their mutual hideousness they promptly died and left a litter of carcasses around the bus stop.

The underground was fraught with a perfumed lust for violence. It was a fist-fight of sideways glances and tut-tutting. There are minefields with more compassion than Londoners in the midst of such an exodus. Reports of the toughness of Londoners has been greatly exaggerated it seems. When suddenly the smooth-talking, shiny-shoed, shiny-faced city-slickers were faced with their subterranean god going all Old Testament on their pampered asses, they fell to their knees begging the forgiveness of the sun who they abandoned in favour of the city. Tomorrow morning, when all is righted and the plague cured, they will have forgotten that they pledged their first-born to the sun-god for the sake of some goddamned movement on the Central Line. And so the suave sense of superiority over everyone and everything will be restored and London dares not to whisper a word about the day it shat its pants over a delayed railway service.

This tale is dedicated to all the foul, myopic troglodytes who stalk about the 7:47am TfL rail service from Forest Gate; the same self-congratulating dirtbags who ooze the kind of satisfaction usually reserved for a man who’s learnt to fellate himself. Go fuck yourselves, it’s always too early in the day for that kind of self-belief; their kind of smuggery would make you think they built London by themselves, brick by brick, whilst blindfolded, after scoring the winning goal in the World Cup with their 8 foot long penis. It was good seeing you become the jellified human colostomy bags you truly are. See you tomorrow.