89. The End of the World, Trip!

(Written: 29th July 2011)
Iceland has always been one of the countries of the world that I’ve wanted to visit but I don’t really know why. I think the main reason could be because of its name, the “land of ice” but other than that it has to be said that I do harbour a little animosity over the country due to the “cod wars” which as we know wasn’t actually a war! Having said that I do completely agree with what the Icelanders said they wanted to achieve and completely support their principles. However, the way in which they did it and the hypocrisy of their stance to me leaves the place morally vacant. Yes cod was overfished by British trawlers, but you don’t randomly claim 200 nautical miles of sea from your coast without international agreement. And to get your own way you do not, during the height of the cold war, take sides with the Soviet Union and threaten to close the NATO base on the island thus removing the cold war buffer zone. You do not then go on to order a large number of Soviet made war ships. To me this was blackmail of the worst kind, a blackmail which could have lead to disaster on a massive scale and one the British had no choice but to give in to. Although the British agreed not to fish in the 200 nautical mile radius, they still did not recognise it as official territorial waters.

Then there’s the point of taking the moral high ground of not fishing a species that were becoming endangered. I could not agree more with this but here is one problem with Iceland. They still hunt endangered whales and did at the time. So they are either morally challenged or in actual fact they really wanted exclusive fishing rights in the area and were prepared to get it by threatening the start of a really cold war. So thinking about it why the hell did I come here!

Well that was clear. I did it as I wanted to see if I could get back to the UK from New Zealand on flights taking less than 5 hours and the answer to that is yes. The flight from Boston had taken a relatively short 04h33m37s. But I had four days here so I thought I’d see about hiring a car. Ahhh, they wanted £70 a day for a tiny car, I think not. What’s quite amazing is that they double the car hire for June and July as it’s the only time the weather is relatively nice but no one can afford them so hundreds of them sit idle outside the hire buildings.

So for one guy travelling alone it was far cheaper to do a couple of day trips and although I barely saw a quarter of the island it gave me a good idea of what the place looked like. There is some amazing scenery, with ancient volcanoes, remnants of massive lava flows, boiling hot geysers and thundering waterfalls. You also get the opportunity to stand on the North American tectonic plate and look across at the Eurasian plate pulling away in the opposite direction, a metaphor for North American and European relations if there ever was one. You could technically stand on the European side and throw stones at the American side if you wanted but no one did as there were no French guys in our group to do it. Although I only had a small tasted of the place it has to be said that for those of an outdoor persuasion it is a must visit kind of place but bring a coat as even it midsummer it barely gets above 15 degrees in the daytime. Although it has to be said that I do not know what constitutes daytime as during mid June to Mid July it doesn’t actually get dark! As St Petersburg confused me at the start of this trip I was out walking and it was only by looking at my watch did I realise it was 11pm.

Having talked about its beauty, it has to be said that if you can afford it go to New Zealand as it has Iceland plus a whole lot more, but for somewhere just a 2.5hour flight away from London it’s a pretty place. And the morally vacant people? Well, the world did look badly upon Iceland when they voted not to pay the rest of the world back after the financial collapse of the country. The companies here all but stole overseas peoples’ hard earned savings and gave it to people here who could not afford to pay it back, but looking back what would you have done in a vote if one of the choices was making you kids pay for it with 40 years worth of payments? I think it would have been the same result. Most Icelanders I met were amazingly apologetic about it but also amazingly defensive but all said that they do hope to pay the money back and when a more achievable way is found, they will do it.

So visiting did change my opinion of Iceland somewhat. I still think the brinkmanship of the past was dangerous but I think the people on the streets here more than make up for those problems. All they have to do in my eyes now is to stop needlessly hunting for whales. But it was time to go. It has to be said my heart wasn’t really in it as I was thinking about “real life” which I would arrive back into in just one more day. After 379 days it was going to be a little weird and a little depressing. So much so that I couldn’t actually sleep on my last night and it wasn’t because it didn’t get dark!

I used to think that coming home after a holiday overseas was a bit like returning to a well used and well loved comfort blanket. But now I’ve come to realise that it’s more a straightjacket with padding. Back to the 9 to 5, back to the yes boss no boss, back to being an irrelevant cog in a massive machine which probably never even noticed that I was gone. I guess that’s why I like going to places and particularly those less well travelled. There I’m different, people are interested in me and not just because they want to steal from me! But because I’m a stranger in their midst. For a brief time, for one year, I had a story and even though I say so myself it was quite a good one. The backpackers\’ I met were interested in the places I’d been and they had never been before and the locals could never understand why I never wanted to fly when to them this was the best and easiest way to travel! So after a year in the limelight, I now have to get used to being just another commuter on the way to a dreary office in central London…. …. Although that being said, I’ll still be rollerblading so I may stand out a bit! I mean once you have an audience….. But in the mean time it was back to Sheffield to end the trip where it started. And amazingly, if I include this final stop as my final night of the trip, this was to be exactly the 200th place I’ve slept in on my little adventure!

So after a year, in summary, Overland challenge FAILED! Thanks to a 58 minute flight caused by a very unhelpful Aussie Immigration and an Aussie shipping company. The 5 hour flight challenge on the way back, FAILED, thanks to having to backtrack to New Caledonia and the volcano in Chile stopping all flights from New Zealand. But the flight that broke the challenge was just one minute and two seconds over. The challenge to have an average flight time of less than 2 hours 43 mins…… Achieved! My average flight time was 2 hours 26 minutes. So the trip wasn’t a complete failure then….. but it has to be said, I’m still gutted about not being able to complete the prime objective of my year out. Thanks for your help Australia….

Thanks to all those who chose to follow my blog and I hope you get to visit some of the places I visited soon….. signing off, Darren

88. Yeah, But We Killed More British Right!

(Written: 21st July 2011)
You know when you’ve arrived in the USA when you can just sit in an airport for hours on end mesmerised by the size of the people wobbling by! This was Dallas, this was the Deep South, this was the land of the supersize! But it was good to get off the plane. I’d flown American Airlines and it has to be said, it was the worst plane I’ve ever been on with the worst service I’ve ever had. Walking down the aisle I had to duck down to avoid the 1980’s TV’s that were stuck to the ceiling. I also had my usual problem with American stewardesses in that when I ask for a coffee they nearly always bring me a coke. On this occasion the lady apologised stating that she could not understand my English as I had a strong foreign accent! Who the hell’s got a foreign accent? I’m an English person speaking English! She was from Texas with a drawl so large she was on the verge of having a stroke! Who the hell was she to comment on my very English accent! Sadly the only way I’ve ever been able to get a coffee at first request in America is to put on an outrageous New York accent and say “I’d like a quwaffee.”

Before heading into Dallas I briefly visited its sister city of Fort Worth. There’s not much to say about this place other than it was like a ghost town apart from the odd beggar and surprisingly the first beggars I’ve encounter since Australia, what does that say about the world! But America has been making a concerted effort to clean up and make safe lots of downtown areas. But as clean as they have made them, they have also made them sterile. It was midday but downtown Fort Worth was as quiet as the News of the World press office. Maybe this was partly down to the heat which was currently in the low 40’s but there was nothing here, no shops and just a stream of empty busses passing through.

As there was nothing to amuse me I headed off on the short trip to Dallas. To be fair, the only reason I was here was that as a child for some reason I used to like watching the Trashy American soap ‘dallas\’ but I grew up! It was even hotter here, the state is actually in the middle of a heat wave with the temperature not dipping below 35degs C (not even at night) for nearly a month, but at least there were people out in the street here. This included people involved in a fantastic new sport called “fat guy wheelchair racing.” What happens in this sport is that an able bodied person like myself walks normally down the street but then a guy who has become so obese that they need a special 6 wheeled wheelchair for stability, then tries to speed past you in his chair by honking his horn and then swearing at you when he gets past. I wish he could have seen the irony in that if he was on his feet he would have no way been able to keep up with me. But then a proper race was on, there was a fat woman in a chair a little further on who was so large that she was all but laid down as she could not sit upright due to the fat around her waist. But boy, when she was overtaken the race was on. There is very little funnier in life than watching two enormous people in wheelchairs (in them purely because their weight) zooming down a “sidewalk” avoiding “trash cans” and “mail boxes.”

As this was the most exciting thing in town I decided to head back to the airport for my flight to Boston but before I did I noticed a few people hanging around a grassy knoll. I thought it might be something touristy so headed over and quickly discovered that it was “the” grassy knoll. I knew about the Kennedy assassination and had previously been to Arlington cemetery in Washington DC to see his grave but for some reason I always thought he was killed in Huston Texas, but it turns out it was Dallas and I was standing just feet away from where X marked the spot! It’s a very American thing to have major tourist spots based on where people have been assassinated. I’ve been to the memorial to Lincoln in the theatre where he was killed in Washington and Lennon’s memorial in Central Park opposite the Dakota buildings New York. I’ve never thought about the spot where the only British Prime Minster to be assassinated, Spenser Perceval, being a tourist site. It’s a very weird thing really but I guess what is more weird is the old book repository building where the shots were believed to have been fired, there’s a museum and cafe called “the sixth floor,” bad taste or inspired name!!!!!!

Back on my next American Airline flight it was refreshing to see that stewardesses more represented the local demographic, they were fat with thick Texan accents! The captain’s accent was the best, it was so Texan that it must have physically hurt or at the very least would have a dislocated jaw, I wanted to go over and ask the stewardess whether he could say the line, “Bobby, you know our daddy would turn in his grave!” A reference to Dallas and a phrase JR frequently used. But I was restrained even though when I asked for a coffee I got another sodding coke!

I was a bit wary arriving into Boston, Massachusetts in the early hours as years ago downtown was not the place to be but to my surprise the downtown area has really picked up from what I remember from a fleeting visit 12 years ago. In the bright light of day the next morning I was amazed to see how the place had changed. Downtown really is the place people want to visit and live, this is at complete odds with the practically all of the other major cities in the country with the exception of New York. To celebrate this new found safety I went to a Diner for breakfast and had a traditional American breakfast muffin. Urrrgggg, is there nothing they don’t add sugar and cinnamon to? Maple syrup and cinnamon sort of work on the sausage and egg muffin but there was far too much. One more of these and I’d be wheelchair racing with an insulin drip! But I managed to find the best thing ever invented in America, the slurpy. We would call these ‘slush puppies\’ but here the slurpy is an art form and in the hot and humid weather it is fantastic.

But I was here to see the sights and not he slurpies so I hopped onto a walking tour. As you may imagine being the home of the Boston Tea party I did expect a bit of nationalistic gloating about the war of independence but the direction they are teaching the history now appears to be a little strange and more than a little worrying.

Previously and correctly they talked about the time between 1620 and 1776 as the British period or the colonial period, now they call it the period of British occupation! This makes no sense as the British and representatives of the crown came over on the first ships to land in America. Using this argument then clearly the current Americans are also occupiers as they still occupy the land of the Native Americans. Unless they actually mean this which I doubt I find the deliberate change of such terminology worrying and quite insulting to history. Also most of the early leaders of the revolution had very British names so they should know where their origins were if at any point they thought themselves native. In fact one was called Carr which has definite origins in Sheffield, UK. But America is good at changing history, if I said who invented he modern useable light bulb most would say Edison, similarly if I said who invented moving pictures people would say Edison! Do a quick search on the Internet and you will find it’s not the case. The former is considered to be invented by a British guy called Swan for the latter and a French guy I can’t remember his name (who disappeared in mysterious circumstances before he went to America to patent his device!). In fact the oldest film he took was of a street scene in Headingly, Leeds, UK which is older than Edison’s patent!

But I just kept quiet and smiled through gritted teeth as I expected a little nationalistic fervour but then came a comment on the first battle of the war of independence. To be fair to the guide he was giving a good description of the battle. The British eventually won the battle of Bunker Hill but as they were attacking a well defended hill they lost practically twice as many soldiers than the Americans. Unfortunately this is quite normal when attacking such a defensive position but sadly there are a number of Americans who can’t take losing, even though they eventually won the war. So after being told that the revolutionary forces lost the battle a rather rotund guy with his retarded family shouted out “yeah, but we killed more British right” and then whooped and waved his hand in the air. Others in the group then joined in the whooping. Wow, I thought. I could never cheer someone’s death particularly those who were fighting because they had to rather than because they wanted to. Similarly unlike many Americans I could also not cheer in the death of Osama Bin Laden, no matter what he did, you should never cheer someones death particularly as in this case it makes you as bad as him. Death is nothing to cheer about. It was quite uncomfortable being British and being surrounded by people cheering the death of the British, if anything a little racist, so I just apologised to the guide for leaving and walked off. I hope that they realised how inappropriate they were by my actions but I doubt it. It was so uncomfortable. I hope this guy goes to Dresden in Germany and shouts “we killed more Germans than you killed us” and then we’ll see what happens. But I’ve travelled enough to know that these guys are a minority in America and the vast majority of Americans are unbelievably nice, unbelievably helpful and unbelievably kind, unfortunately the others just tend to be a very loud minority!

I walked back to the centre and the old graveyards from the original settlement. There is something that is pretty much uniquely American about graveyards here; they put the American flag everywhere which I really don’t like. I kind of understand why a military cemetery would have these but these were just public graves. I find it quite sick. When you die you’re meant to be free of worldly goods including nationality. Actually looking at the dates on the headstones most buried here were actually British when they died, was this another insult? Probably not, but I really don’t like outward signs of nationalism.

Back at the hostel I got ready to leave and fly north to Iceland on my attempt to get back to the UK on 5 hour or less flights. Even though it will be the longest distance I’ve flown on the way back, the route follows the Gulf Stream which adds at least 10% to the speed. So as it’s timetabled as 5h10m I should just make it. But there was just one thing I had to do back at the hostel in light of today’s events. There were American flags all over the entrance with a flag in the centre with words “These colours don’t run!” actually it said “colors” but they can’t spell properly. As this was in reference to not running away from battles in Afghanistan and Iraq. I thought that in terms of history and some of the errors Someone should remind them that at least on three occasions those colours did run and very fast. Korea where the north was lost, Somalia and of course Vietnam. So I left a little post-it note on the flag sayinhg “aprt from…..”, I’ll leav it to them to find the relevant details. Then again, they killed more of the enemy in all of these places so maybe they did win! But I was now on the plane…. And breathe out…….

87. 0h 4 Vucks Gate

(Written: 18th July 2011)
Arriving in Panama the first thing to hit me after the heat and amazingly high humidity was the huge American influence. The tipping for everything irritation. Someone helps you find a taxi even though you can see the bright yellow things from miles away…. tip. Someone opens a door for you, tip….. I said to one guy, ” and there was me thinking that you did it out of the kindness if your heart.” but he didn’t see the funny side and just reiterated that I should pay him for the “help” I never wanted or asked for.

With the drop of 2600 meters I started to feel better almost straight away as my symptoms became easily manageable. But now I had something else to fight, the humidity. I honestly don’t think I’ve ever been anywhere quite so humid in my entire life, I was sweating even when I was motionless! Any clothes I got out of my bag would feel damp in seconds and if you got anything wet, well it would stay wet. But it’s not only the people and clothes that suffer, so do the buildings of the old town. I managed to find a hotel in the old town with a damp but luckily cool room. But walking around town you can see that practically every other building is in a state of ruin. Much of this ruin was caused by the American invasion in 1989, something they did quite a lot in the 1980’s! But once there was a small hole in a roof or wall and no one to repair them, damp attacked the wooden floors and within a few years all that would remain are the empty shells you see today. It is very sad to see, however, rather selfishly these decaying buildings are far more picturesque than those that have been “reconstructed” as these appear a little fake. More like a Disney interpretation of what the old town used to look like rather then what it actually was.

Contrasting against this on the other side of the bay is the new Panama built on the revenue from the famous Panama Canal which was handed over to the Panamanians from the USA a little over 10 years ago. But I couldn’t leave panama without visiting the canal. I can’t say the museum was really worth it but it’s still quite impressive to see the big cargo ships being threaded throughout the relatively narrow locks. It would have been far much better to travel by boat the entire length of the canal to get a better impression as to its size and the scale of the manmade lake that makes up much of the route. But that might have cost quite a bit to do as it turns out most ships crossing the canal pay between $350,000US to $400,000US to do so! That’s about a quarter of a million pounds but I guess for what you get that isn’t a lot. I mean it’s barely a one bedroom flat in a dodgy area if London, but in terms if shipping, to go the entire loop around south America rather than taking the canal would have taken about two weeks and cost $4million dollars to do! So it seems like s bargain in comparison!

Heading back to the guesthouse I found a British couple in heated discussion with the owner. It turned out that they’d had all their money stolen which amounted to $830US. They said that they had left it in the pillowcase for safekeeping when they went out and were accusing the maid of taking it when she changed the bedding. I didn’t know whether to believe them or not as who puts all of their money in a pillowcase in a dormitory for safe keeping! It didn’t seem right somehow although they did go off with the police. After they went the guesthouse manager said that more than likely they were trying it on to get money from either him or the insurance, it turned out that this happens quite often and by other British backpackers although the last ones were caught out when the money was found hidden in one of their shoes!

But it was time to hop over to Cancun in Mexico, via Miami as it’s cheaper that way! But as nothing is ever easy I had problems at the airport when they said immigration would not allow me to get on the plane because I didn’t have the right information. I needed to show that I had permission to enter the USA which I of course had, but I hadn’t printed the email out as I figured I wouldn’t need it. After rushing around to find a computer with the Internet on it, I was lucky to find that as I habitually send copies of confirmations to myself just in case, I had done so here and was able to print a copy. But back at the check in the lady said she still couldn’t let me on the plane as I had not submitted an address in the USA where I would be stopping. I explained that I was just in transit in the USA for 3 hours and therefore did not have nor require an address. She was adamant that I could not board the plane until I gave an address even though I was connecting to another plane from her company for which she’d just checked me in! I then added that as I had shown my Esta permission which clearly showed that as a British citizen I didn’t need to give an address she then said, sorry I can’t let you on. I couldn’t believe the stupidity! In the end knowing full well that this was purely company policy and in no way would be sent to American immigration I made up an address… 04 Vucks Gate South Fork Dallas 90210 OC USA They accepted it and I was on the plane! Idiots! For those who don’t get the references in the address, the first line was pure annoyance with the zero pronounced like an “o” making the top line sound like what I was really thinking. The remaining lines were addresses from popular American TV shows, namely Dallas, Beverly Hills 90210 and The OC!

Getting through immigration in the states took the usual hour to get through mainly caused by the fact that they only had one person checking all the non-US citizens. By contrast in Mexico I was straight through in 10 minutes. But Mexico is an odd place really. Near the border with the USA policemen and drug dealers are being killed every day in what seems to be a never ending and increasing spiral of violence and retaliation. When I arrived the headline in one of the papers was about a police chief who had just been assassinated. But then in complete contrast you have the Yucatan peninsula which is relatively calm and unlike many other Latin American cities, is quite safe to walk around in. I suppose being isolated on the opposite side of the Gulf of Mexico provides some protection. The town of Cancun itself can easily be missed off any tour, it’s a completely featureless place and has no buildings of any historic worth or interest. There is a famed holiday area which I didn’t head to as my log cabin and swimming pool hidden in a secret enclave in the city did me fine. But I was really here to see what is now considered to be one of the new “modern” Seven Wonders of the World. In fact this was the only one I haven’t seen after visiting the rest over my many backpacking years…. The others are The Taj Mahal (India), Petra (Jordan), Christ the Redeemer (Brazil), Colosseum (Italy), Great Wall of China (China) and the lost city of Machu Picchu (Peru)…..

Chichen Itza is one of the many Maya cities in his part of the world but is meant to be the most spectacular. Walking around the site it was hard not to be impressed at the monumental structures and the history associated with them but for me the amount of tourists completely destroyed the atmosphere. Like the terracotta warriors, people pushed, shouted and jostled to see stuff and touts constantly tried to sell their souvenirs which included a really annoying whistle which made the round of a roaring Jaguar. On top of this were the old dears shouting things like “Walter look here, I think this is where they sacrificed virgins.” as tempting as it was I didn’t go over and say, “don’t worry, I think you\’re quite safe!”

I remember visiting the equally impressive Tikal in Guatemala nearly 10 years ago and I basically had the whole place to myself, the quiet eeriness punctuated by the screams of monkeys added a fantastically emotive soundtrack of the ruins as they lay surrounded by the encroaching jungle. I hope it has not succumbed to the mass tourism of this place. “Walter, I’ve found the bathroom, you want to go? You know what your bladder’s like” was not the emotive sound I thought I would hear before coming here. But the site, if not overly repaired is still nice to visit although you are no longer allowed to climb to the top of the main pyramid. The climb was stopped permanently after a rather unfit American lady discovered a quicker way to get to the bottom than walking. Needless to say it never caught on.

What amazed me more though was how two distinct civilisations that never met on either side of the Atlantic Ocean came to develop the same type of buildings and similar types of gods. The pyramids do strike a somewhat similar resemblance to those in Egypt but you could argue that this is to be expected due to this being the most stable form of large building you could design. But the gods? Both civilisations held the cat in high regard with carvings everywhere and most strikingly, both civilisations created a god with a human body but the head of a bird. For me it just shows how similar we are as a human race to come up with the same solutions for the same problems or beliefs although both civilisations never met….. Or was it intelligent design???? Nope!!!!!

But these thoughts aside, my all too short visit to Mexico was over but my short introduction has left me intrigued and I will definitely come back here in the future to visit some of the more historical but less touristy areas of the country. But the next stop was Dallas, after all, I had given my address as South Fork so I’d better go!