8 January 2005

A guide to throwing up on aeroplanes

sea-bandsNot many people enjoy flying, especially in aircraft. By the time I was 9 I had already been around the world more than 6 times based on air miles, and every one of them was spent clutching the barf bag like a comforter. I can’t remember a single flight on which I didn’t have occasion to use it on take-off, but the culmination was that famous school flight to Whyalla in northern South Australia during which I threw up on my friend Martin. That my friendship with him survived that incident is a great testimony to, well, something or other. Ironically, the plane was a Focker Friendship.

Flying was ever thus for me. As an adult I began to commute around Australia with terrifying regularity, and each flight left me greener than the last. I tried every pharmaceutical remedy known to humanity. Most left me spaced out or completely dehydrated. That seems to be a good outcome at a party, but not on a flight.

Finally, a pharmacist put me on to Sea-Bands and my life was changed forever. These little elasticated wristbands look like they’ve fallen off a 1/3 scale John McEnroe doll, and have a hard plastic ‘button’ in them which presses on an acupressure point on each wrist.

Frankly, I am the world’s biggest sceptic when it comes to his sort of thing. I am no fan of accubabble, and have no credible scientific explanation for their operation, but dammit, Sea-Bands work! From the first moment I flew with them, I have thrown up not once, and almost every flight has been pleasurable. After a lifetime of air-vomit, what a surprise it is to find myself coming off flights feeling fresher than when I went on.

I’ll try to describe the difference I experience without too much intimate detail about diced carrots. I have always had that sensation of my stomach rising as the plane begins its first major ascent. Previously my stomach would start to rise, then keep rising until it had come out of my mouth into the sick bag or onto the poor wretch beside me. With the Sea-Bands, that rising sensation just seems to stop a moment after it begins. In practice it’s pretty dramatic, and works even in the car. When I have car sick passengers I point out to them firstly where the electric window controls are, then where the acupressure point is, and tell them to press down there with their thumbs. In several years my upholstery has not been soiled by spew on a single occasion.

And I’m happy to report that Sea-Bands acquitted themselves with great aplomb on their first major overseas assignment. Despite a great deal of turbulence, especially from Singapore to Frankfurt, I flew well.

For me, Sea-Bands really have been life changing, and I recommend them without hesitation. There are competitors out there which may work just as well, but Sea-Bands are subtler-looking than other brands I’ve seen, and no-one want to advertise being a ‘bad flyer’.Go to eebahgum!

7 January 2005

Travelog: Spy games and a flasher (picture below) in Berlin

Everything I knew about Berlin I learnt from spy novels and reruns of Hogan’s Heroes. Len Deighton and John le CarrĂ© in particular served as my pre-visit guidebooks, and taught me that the simple act of calling a thoroughfare ‘strasse’ rather than street would transform it, at least in the mind’s eye, into a place of history and culture, with a delicious hint of intrigue.

As my flight arrived at 9 am, with my eventual destination being Poland, I thought of spending a day sightseeing. Then Joanna and Jonathan, who had preceded me to Poland, suggested they join me. So I set about finding a hotel using Google and the words ‘cheap’, ‘budget’ and the like. That’s how I happened upon the Hotel Crystal, on Kantstrasse, relatively low-cost and close to everything. Reviewers on the web seemed to think the place clean, but what really caught my attention were phrases such as “a piece of the old Germany” and “like something out of a Cold War novel”. I was in like a bullet from a Kaleshnikov.

The Hotel turned out to be everything I could have imagined. The small darkly wooded reception area with ancient Chesterfields led to a tiny archaic lift in which no self-respecting woman could have travelled mit baggage. Worn carpet led through a twist of gloomy corridor to the small dark brown door which was to be ours. The room itself had a very high dark brown ceiling, joined to the heavily worn carpet by fading 60s wallpaper. It was clean, had a large and respectable bathroom, and was charmingly daggy. I was not disappointed.

That was before I had sampled the beds, of course. The wretched things, composed of two single mattresses in a double frame, sagged like huge sagging things (the only decent simile I could think of was unpleasant) and started me on a procession of backaches I was to endure for some weeks. I found myself sleeping perched on the very edge because it was the only firm spot from which I would not roll into the bottomless abyss which lay in the middle.

What this bed needed, I opined on several occasions, was a ruddy great board under the mattresses. On our last day, as we were packing to leave, I searched under the beds for anything we may have dropped, and lo and behold, under each mattress was a cupboard door, matching the cupboard in our room. So much for my initial hypothesis. New working hypothesis (which I unfortunately did not have time to test): what this bed needed was to be thrown from an upper story window.

Of course, what ultimately makes a place is the people, and so it was with the Hotel Crystal. The owner was a small, angular and quite elderly woman with a huge, frizzy blonde wig, who insisted on wearing tight animal print leggings and alligator stilettos. It’s almost too obvious to say she looked like the Madam of Berlin brothel. Joanna was reminded of the Leonard Cohen song Closing Time:

My very sweet companion gets me full and gets me laughing
She’s a hundred but she’s wearing something tight.

But the character of the moment was the Day Manager, Vasco. From the outset he wore the drole smirk of an eccentric public school master, and amused himself by making obtuse comments about anything and everything. We were at a loss to decide whether he was rude, weird, very funny, or some combination of all three. What Vasco Said became a daily topic of conversation. As time passed we grew to like him increasingly, and actually found him helpful in an indirect way as he clearly started to warm to us as well.

Vasco was in our room one morning attempting unsuccessfully to fix our telephone which had lost the somewhat defining ability to make telephone calls. Somehow the conversation turned to names, and under some badgering from us he confessed that his surname was ‘Flasher’. Apparently telephone enquirers regularly hung up on hearing this, and when he sent out confirmation faxes there were an unusually high number of no-shows.

Joanna and Vasco

But it gets worse. His father’s name was Alfonse, which to an Englishman is smarmy enough, but in many parts of Europe actually means ‘pimp’. Alfonse Flasher. The mind boggles.Go to eebahgum!

6 January 2005

It's too hot in Europe in winter

I was born and lived my early life in the tropics (Ghana and Nigeria respectively) and have resided in Australia for the last three decades. With that backdrop, there’s no doubting that Europe feels cold in winter. Temperatures in Berlin during my stay ranged from 0°C to 4°C, and there was often mild drizzle. Of course, I had travelled with hat, scarf and gloves, but found myself buying new gloves because I couldn’t operate the camera in my existing ones (who’d have thought of checking that in Australia where it had been 36°C the day before I left?) and a new beanie.

Clive's tea cosy

Thus attired, I was able to cope pretty well with the cold. My nose ran regularly (but noses run in my family, har de har) and it’s rather amusing to go to a street food vendor asking for a cold drink and be given one of the counter, because the drinks outside are colder than the ones in the fridge.

The real problem I found with the cold was, in fact, the heat indoors. Every hotel room, house and shop I have seen in Germany or Poland is too damned hot. The locals may consider that snug, but it’s past that, with the effect that the air is often too dry and still. Sleeping with so little humidity left me dry, parched and itchy-eyed, and on our return to the hotel each evening we found ourselves turning off the central heating and opening up all the windows.

The other annoyance was having to dress and undress all the time. Every time I walked into a shop I was suddenly boiling and had to take of hat, scarf, gloves, coat, warm layer and sometimes mid layer. The sort of adventure shops at which I buy my warmwear encourage us to dress in layers, and that’s great advice for flexibility, light travel weight, etc. But it is, conspicuously, not what the locals tend to do. Many of them have huge, thick coats with fur-lined collars that seem precisely made for the temperature differential between indoors and out. That's not a real alternative for travellers simply becasue of the bulk, but perhaps when I acquire my chateau on the French Reviera I shall keep a collection of such coats there in readiness for my next visit.Go to eebahgum!

3 January 2005

Travelog: Frankfurt Airport

Frankfurt Airport is apparently the second largest in Europe but is ancient, dated and grubby for the most part. By some cruel accident of fate I was stuck with a little over two hours in transit. Not long enough to sleep nor leave, so I set about exploring. Alluring signs promised the hope of endless high class shopping, but it was 6 in the morning and they seemed only to lead, via long stationary travelators, to austere polished granite corridors with a few closed and barred shops. The slightest hint of stale cigarette odour hung delicately in the empty corridors, something I was to encounter regularly in Germany.

Frankfurt airport

As a child I remember being completely overwhelmed with excitement at the solitary bleakness of such airports. But that was the late 1960s in Calcutta, Bahrain, Damascus. In 2004 Germany it was less impressive.

So I set about finding departure lounge A18 for my flight to Berlin. Being an EU passport holder, I lined up in the ‘express lane’ with a slight buzz of excitement—this was the first time I was, as it were, using my EU passport in anger. The only problem was, everyone else there was an EU passport holder as well, so the express lane moved like a drunken bratwurst, while the non-express lane was empty.

Finally I was waved through with the reluctant instruction to “go to left, one hundred meters, red door”. If I had hoped this would take me to my destination I was sadly mistaken. It took me instead to a 500 m corridor with static travelators, which took me to another, then another, before I finally arrived at a small lift well. This took me up two floors to a (you guessed it) 500 m corridor with static travelators, then another, before another lift took me back down two floors to another corridor and series of gates which led me to a (yawn) corridor with…

You may be forgiven for thinking I am exaggerating the extent of my tour of the Frankfurt sites, but I assure you, it’s not far off the mark. This sojourn finally took me to a far more modern corridor with actual people and a coffee shop and stuff, and lo and behold, my departure lounge! This was clearly a much newer section of the airport and was actually quite modern and attractive in a slightly austere way.

I alighted atop a stool with a good cup of German English Breakfast, and watched an interesting transaction between the waitress and a whining young American tourist. He was already the third I had seen who seemed to think Germany backward because he was having difficulty understanding the money, menus and language. Whining Americans are a site familiar to most travellers, I imagine. It seems there is a conscious attempt on the part of some of them to give the US a bad name, as if US foreign policy were not enough. They should be given a crash course in Cultural Respect 101 before allowing them to leave the country.

My Lufthansa flight was much in keeping with Frankfurt airport—rather old and jaded, inferior even to a cheap Australian domestic flight, though the service was fine, and the plane had Recarro leather seats, stylish in a car, not much good for mass transit, especially for those of us with no hair! Never a fan of the touch of cold, clammy leather on the back of my head, I had to lean slightly forward for the entire flight, so was thankful to finally alight in Berlin just before 9 am.Go to eebahgum!

2 January 2005

Travelog: Bottomless Singapore

It was one of the first things that struck me—unlike their fat-arsed Australian counterparts, most Singaporeans have no bums. They are a slim, small-hipped people with very petite behinds. Sounds like the start of a bad joke. “So what do they sit on?” “Chairs!” Boom, boom!

Acknowledging the different local build, Marks & Spencers, that bastion of ordinary Englishness, have racks full of bras made specially for Asian women, though I’m sure they’d be happy to sell them to men or women of any ethnicity.

Singers Marks & Sparks bras

With only five hours between flights most sensible people would enjoy the air-conditioned sumptuousness of Changi airport, surely the world’s finest, with its magnificent shops, excellent eateries, free movie lounge. fitness centre, pool and tropical gardens.

But not I. I decided to make a dash through customs and jump on the SMRT (Singapore Mass Rail Transit system). With enthusiastic but unintelligible instructions from one of the station staff who seemed to think me his mission in life, I finally managed to work out where I was going and purchase a ticket. “Where to now?” I asked, because I couldn’t actually see the train station. “Now you just take the train,” he said, and pointed vaguely towards a huge atrium behind glass doors. So there I went, but where was the station? Where was the platform? Then I realised that this huge, spotless, shiny hall was the station and the platform, separated from the actual track by extensive sliding doors which only open when there’s a train on the other side of them. Neat, tidy, sensible and safe, words easily associated with many aspects of Singapore.

Singapore MRT station

The train is smooth and quiet and became very full as we headed for the city. A fascinating ethnic mix of Malays, Indians, Chinese ignored me on mass, with odd sideways comments to a friend. I was conspicuously touristy, with functional lightweight travel gear, juggling a large map and with the Nikon D70 as a necklace. And I was conspicuously the only such person on the train.

In fact, for a city which hosted in excess of 8 million tourists in the last year alone, there were precious few of us about, even on Orchard Road, the heart of Singapore’s shopping precinct. The amazing range of shopping may appeal to tourists, but it exists primarily for locals. My theory is that Singapore shopping has evolved as a means to escape the oppressive humidity. Each time you cross the threshold into a shopping centre a cool wave of air-conditioning washes blissfully over your face. It’s an amazing relief, rather like the first 3 seconds at the urinal. On the other hand, walking back out into the humidity is the opposite experience. I cope with these conditions so badly now that I find it hard to believe I was born and brought up in the tropics.

Singapore at Christmas is a dazzling spectacle. Every shop, building and lamppost is awash with lights and colour, and even at 10 pm on a Sunday night on Boxing Day, there are people everywhere as most of the shops are still open. There’s a buzz in the air, though, which is much more than just petty consumerism at its most vigorous. There’s actually a genuine feeling of enjoyment, energy, and socialness as well. The air is rich with enthusiastic conversation and laughter, and the bright lights of the shopping centres are constantly punctuated by the flash of digital cameras. Suddenly I felt less like a tourist.

Singapore crowds at 10pm on Sunday

Outside one shopping centre was this lavish Christmas tree, and every passing group seemed to want to be photographed with it. But since everyone had a camera, everyone started photographing every group. This young couple with their chihuahuas must have had dozens of photos taken of them by complete strangers, and became amusingly embarrassed.

Embarassed couple with dogs

And if there is one memory I will take out of Singapore today, it’s that people were universally happy, enthusiastic and helpful. When I was last in Singers about 10 years ago, I only seemed to sense that in Little India. This time it was everywhere, from the airport staff to shopkeepers to taxi drivers. On the way back to the airport my driver actually asked me to add my email address to the several others in the back of his notebook. He’s passing them on to his wife and daughter so they can practice their English and learn about different parts of the world, and he insists I am to visit his family next time I am in town.

Frankly, that won’t be soon enough. Singapore really is a great place to visit, but I always seem to be here for only a few hours at a time, and therefore only do the touristy things. Next time round I am determined to take a few days and get out of the city and experience more of the place. It charms really do seem bottomless.Go to eebahgum!