The Neverending Journey

Picture the scene. It’s Sunday morning, we’ve not slept properly since Thursday night. We’ve been travelling for 3 days, and are on the final leg of our journey, a 7-hour ferry. Only we’ve been on it for 2 hours and it’s not set off yet.

There are chickens flying around the boat, which have just been recaptured by their owners, and there’s a group of about 12 kids crowding around our children pointing, laughing, and generally gawping at the on board entertainment (the existence of triplets).

The endurance test began with a couple of flights, then a long taxi ride and some haggling over bus fares, so fierce that even Fergus got into a shouting match. After a very short nights sleep in a truly disgusting hole of a hotel, we set off on our 14-hour bus journey (I kid you not). The bus was packed, people on stools all down the aisle, chickens, luggage and men smoking everywhere. The smell from the strange Indonesian clove-scented cigarettes is sickening; I thought I was going to throw up most of the way. Thankfully, the girls all dropped off, but sadly it coincided with us all having to exit the bus to go on our first ferry.

Two hours later, after an on board captive-audience toy sales pitch set in a fog of cigarette smoke, we clamboured back onto the bus, when Scarlett’s seat broke. It did provide some entertainment as it swung back further than the full recline position, so she was effectively lying on the lap of the lady behind her. Futile attempts by the bus conductor to repair it with some string continued the entertainment; in the end we were in luck and someone got off the bus so she could swap seats.

The girls all managed to get back to sleep, only to be turfed off the bus again for the complimentary lunch. Now, I’m not a fussy eater, as anyone will tell you, and I’ll try anything once. But there was something about the luke-warm vat of fish-head curry, left lying in the sun for hours, that just didn’t appeal somehow. We bought ice lollies. The only other food we’ve had en route is a pot noodle, some deep fried seaweed and a few biscuits, plus a few chewy mint sweets a nice Indonesian lady gave our children. There have been a few eaterys along the way, but you know when you senses scream food poisoning? Spontaneous 3 day fast.

It was the last 6 hours or so that were the worst. I was just daydreaming and looking out of the window, lost in Adele’s greatest hits on my ipod shuffle, when the terrible thing happened. My ears physically recoiled as the on-board sound system spluttered into life, booming Indonesian pop hits at full volume, making even listening to music through headphones impossible. This woke up everyone on the bus (most of whom had been sleeping); then TV screens were pulled down from the ceiling with karoke-style words on so you could sing along. Thankfully, no one did. I’m not quite sure what planet the driver was on at this point. I guess he must have been thinking, “I know what this bus of overtired, frazzled, grateful-to-be sleeping people need; some high energy, high volume music to wake everyone up and rattle their nerves to breaking point.”

I thought about getting off, but that wouldn’t have helped. Miles from anywhere, I’d only have to find another bus, which would be the same. Possibly worse. I thought about crying. That wouldn’t help either. I thought about the poor children, who seemed to be dealing with it better than me. So I smiled, looked out of the window, and tried to daydream through the cacophony. We were bound to arrive eventually.

Eventually arrived rather sooner than expected. Around 2 hours from our final destination, we were told the bus goes no further, and we have to change busses. Odd, as we’d bought a direct ticket, but never mind. We were ushered to our new bus, a small, ancient tin can, pitch black with no driver. Luckily, there was one guy who spoke great English, who explained that we were welcome to sleep on the bus, and it would be setting off to our final destination at 5am. It was 9pm. So much for direct. He was very helpful though, and showed us a to nearby hotel, where we took their top priced ‘VIP room’ (£9) and were treated to a reasonably clean, not too damp resting place, where we snatched 6 hours sleep.

The 4.30 alarm was a killer, but we made it onto the bus by 5am. It set off at 6am. We were still in plenty of time for the ferry though, as it was suppose to set off at 8am, but set off at 10am. At least we have seats on the boat, and the TV is on but actually muted with subtitles (this is a first). We’ve seen some World Cup qualifier highlights, and are now 10 mins into Pretty Woman. All good so far. Here’s to hoping that the karaoke isn’t about to start up.

It was always going to be a tough one. We were pretty tired after clocking up the kilometers in Java, followed swiftly by a flight up to Borneo for our boat trip, which was spectacular but remote. In fact, we called a family discussion to decide if the journey from the heart of the jungle to the island of Komodo was worth it. I think we were all tempted to check into one of the great value 5 star hotels in Java and hole up for a week instead. But where’s the fun in that? And surprisingly, it was the girls who persuaded us to take this once in a lifetime chance to see the Komodo dragons.

It didn’t help that we deliberated so long over the price of flying a huge chunk of the journey, that when we finally decided to fly, the flights had sold out. And that the bus turned out to be quite a lot more than the guidebook suggested, despite shopping around and haggling (which did almost halve the first quote), but even so our 3 days of torture have saved us the princely sum of £90. If there’s a flight back, we’re on it, whatever the price!

We look a motley crew as we make the final leg of this epic journey. In fact, we sat down for a coffee & the café owner brought out a comb for the children. The town of Labuan Bajo looms on the horizon, where the Lonely Planet promises a café called The Lounge that sells ‘home comfort food, think burgers that need 2 hands, fish & chips…’. Now that’s something to look forward to. And there’s beer available as it’s a predominately Catholic corner of Indonesia; we’ve seen nothing but Biltang Zero (a no-alcohol beer) for a couple of weeks.

We should be able to afford the luxury of staying still for 3 whole days, our longest stay in Indonesia, before taking a 2-day trip to Komodo from Labuan Bajo. The dragons are something I’ve been longing to see for years, so I’m sure the horror of this journey will melt away once we arrive and prepare for the trip.

However, we then have to get back again…!

Waiting for a taxi to the airport in Pankalan Bun, Borneo

Waiting for a taxi to the airport in Pankalan Bun, Borneo

Collecting our bags at Surabaya airport between connections

Collecting our bags at Surabaya airport between connections

Walking to the ferry with "dodobears" in Sape, Sumbawa

Walking to the ferry with “dodobears” in Sape, Sumbawa

Favorit by name... but not our favourite by any stretch.

Favorit by name… but not our favourite by any stretch.

Passing the time with some light programming during our 7-hour ferry crossing to Flores

Passing the time with some light programming during our 7-hour ferry crossing to Flores

Nearly there!

Nearly there!

We're there! Pulling into Labuan Bajo harbour, Flores. We've made it!

We’re there! Pulling into Labuan Bajo harbour, Flores. We’ve made it!

The famously-beautiful Flores sunset. Best enjoyed with a very well-earned beer.

The famously-beautiful Flores sunset. Best enjoyed with a very well-earned beer.

All Aboard the Night Train

It’s 3:58am. I’m lying on a top bunk. Beneath me, Evie and Jem lie top-to-tail in another. Across the aisle, Janet’s sleeping above Scarlett, who’s sharing her bunk with the baggage we couldn’t fit in the rack. I can hear Scarlett snoring gently.

We’re on the night train from Bangkok to Surat Thani, en-route to the island of Koh Samui where we plan to spend Christmas. Note I’ve avoided the term “sleeper train”. I’ve not really managed to sleep, the bunks not being made for normal-sized six-foot-sixers like myself. Still, I’m glad I’m here – partly because sleeper trains are inherently exciting and partly because, after all today’s upsets, we nearly didn’t make it at all.

The Pain Coffin (aka My Bunk on the Night Train)

The Pain Coffin (aka My Bunk on the Night Train)

Janet and I travelled on this same train 13 years ago, last time we were backpacking, and it was just as exciting then. Although it’s sad to find the train has fallen into neglect since then. Where there used to be polished steel and crisp, white paintwork, there’s now a line of grime in the joints of the steelwork and the paint is chipped and scratched. The ladder to my bunk has a rivet missing and is tied on with red string. The bedside lamps and fans no longer work. The obvious pride that was once taken in the carriages has gone.

Not that I noticed any of that as we lumbered up the platform with our seven backpacks, laptop bag, camera bag, two crutches, three children, one broken leg and two red-faced, sweating parents.

It had all been so carefully planned. The train left at 7:30pm. Our late checkout at the hotel allowed us to lounge by the pool till 4:00. In the intervening hours we’d graze on delicious Thai street food before returning to our hotel, picking up our bags and catching a taxi to the train station with plenty of time to spare.

Only it didn’t quite work out that way.

As we desperately tried to fit all our belongings back into our bags, already well past our 4pm checkout, we had a horrible realisation.

At some point during the previous day’s journey from Kathmandu to Bangkok, the main strap on Scarlett’s rucksack had broken. Retrieving her pack from the baggage conveyor, I’d noticed that it was now only tied on. Still, the strap was still there and I was sure it could be sewn back in place.

It was only as we hurriedly repacked this afternoon that we discovered something was missing from the bag. And not just any something. One of the most precious of all our somethings: Scarlett’s teddy bear, Stitch. Her favourite bear. The only toy she was allowed to bring travelling. The bear that I’d once raced halfway across Yorkshire to buy on the eve of her birthday because it was the last one available anywhere and she’d fallen in love with him weeks before.

I can only assume that her had bag burst open when the strap broke causing Stitch to fall out and be lost in the hold of the plane or at a cargo terminal in Kathmandu, New Delhi or Bangkok.

Scarlett was devastated. Her sisters were fraught. Janet was in tears. I felt lost in grief. I’d packed him. Why had I put him near the top? Why hadn’t I tied him onto the bag like normal? Why hadn’t we put him in hand luggage?

I called the airport. No teddy bears in  Lost and Found.

Was there a department store or mall nearby? Yes. Mah Boon Kong. MBK. “Lots of teddy bears there,” the manager assured me.

“Shall we see if we can find you a teddy bear in Bangkok?” I asked Scarlett, staying calm for everyone’s sake

“But he won’t be the same! He won’t be my Stitchy!”

“I know. No-one will ever replace Stitch. But you could cuddle him and he could make you feel just a little but better. Shall we just have a look?”


Leaving our bags at the hotel, we piled into a taxi. Behind me, Scarlett sat hollow-eyed, her lip trembling, half-buried in Janet’s arms. “I’ll be brave. Don’t be upset, Mummy,” she whispered. I could see her holding back tears.

MBK was not nearby. And it was huge; six floors of little shops, crowded with after-work shoppers. I carried Scarlett, my arms aching by the time we found a toy shop, and they only had a few teddies but two were nice. After much deliberation, Scarlett chose one with a scarf and a label reading, “Huddle Cuddle”. That was his name, apparently. A good sign?

Then back through the teeming mall, a long taxi queue and… Bangkok rush hour.

With an hour and a half to go, our taxi at a standstill, it dawned on me that we might not get back to our hotel and on to the station in time for our train.

With an hour to go, still nowhere near our hotel, we started making desperate plans. Turn the taxi around and head straight for the station while I jumped out and took a motorcycle taxi to the hotel and another taxi onwards? But I didn’t know how I’d carry all the bags myself and didn’t want to leave Janet with a shell-shocked, broken-legged Scarlett and two anxious sisters. All get out and walk? With Tettie on crutches? And where were we, even?

With forty-five minutes to go, we still weren’t at the hotel. We’d never make the train. Why hadn’t we brought our luggage to the mall?

We had to try to make it. Jumping out of the taxi, and with me carrying Scarlett, we ran for the hotel. It wasn’t far.

Thirty-five minutes left and we had our bags. Our many, many, very heavy bags. What was all this stuff? We even had a pair of trekking poles Janet hadn’t dared throw away because they belonged to her mum. I took a big rucksack and Scarlett. Evie and Jem took a smaller rucksack and crutch each, Janet took the other big bag, Scarlett’s small rucksack and the two day bags. We ran for the Metro.

I’d been on the Metro that morning, to buy the tickets. It had been a leisurely 20-minute stroll to the station, another 10 minutes to the ticket office, a few minutes to buy a token, a minute or two more to the platform, five minutes wait for the train, another 10 minutes to Hua Lamphong, the end of the line and Bangkok’s central train station, and finally a further 5 minutes to the platforms.

We ran. Twice we had to stop and let Scarlett hobble along on crutches so my arms could recover and her sisters could have a rest from carrying crutches. Somewhere along the way we dumped the walking poles (sorry, Nana).

Along packed pavements full of commuters we ran, the air thick with heat and petrol fumes. Through the futuristic subway and its icy air-con.  Up and down escalators, stairs, lifts. As we reached the platform, a metro train pulled away, leaving us cursing and tapping our feet. Another came. Inside we paced ike caged animals, impatiently counting down the stations. Then out. And up. And into Hua Lamphong!

With moments to spare we collapsed onto the train, wheezing, shaken, sweaty but triumphant. We’d made it.

Huddle Cuddle, Tettoe's New Bear

Of course, Huddle Cuddle won’t ever replace Stitch. But at least Scarlett won’t be bearless over Christmas on Koh Samui. And he now has his own exciting story of how he joined our family, just like his predecessor.

Street Life

As much as I’ve come to dislike the noise, hassle and creeping throat infections endemic to Kathmandu, I always like the taxi journeys here.

Maybe it’s because of our first taxi ride from the airport, when I was fresh with excitement for our trip and flooded with the sheer relief at no longer being on a long haul flight, but just looking out of the window is endlessly entertaining. Scene after scene flashes by, almost too briefly to take in. Even as my mind tries to process what I’ve seen, I’m confronted with something new to surprise me. And it’s all made even more exhilarating by the constant shriek of car horns and the fact that right of way seems to go to whichever driver has the most guts and whichever vehicle has the most inertia.

A few of the vignettes I glimpsed on our last break-neck journey through Kathmandu:

A forlorn-looking man sits at a metal table, a single joint of meat and a cleaver upon it. Will he sell it before it goes bad?

A grubby girl in torn clothes crouches on the curb. On a blanket before her she has arranged beautiful piles of chillis and garlic.

A man welding in flip-flops. Sparks scatter over passing traffic.

Two small children wearing fluffy pyjamas, no more than three years old, walk along hand-in-hand beside the traffic.

A crowd clamours around a tea stall. The stall next door remains ignored.

A man disassembling a motor on the pavement.

A sign for an English Boarding School with the word academy misspelled.

Confectionary-coloured buildings: pink, turquoise, lime green, yellow.

Cows crowding at an intersection cause three main roads to slow to a crawl as drivers inch past them.

A woman with five children clustered around her legs makes a dash across the traffic to a chorus of beeping horns and screeching brakes.

An open door reveals a room no larger than our kitchen back home, filled almost entirely with one bed for the whole family.

A woman washes at a public pump, deftly juggling wet hair, toiletries and a sarong to conceal her modesty.

A row of lorries, more ornately painted than a gypsy caravans.

Little shops everywhere. In doorways. On railings. On pavements. Stalls, carts, trays round necks. The air of desperation and poverty increases as the size of premises diminishes.

Dogs everywhere; sleeping, loping, sunbathing, begging, stopping traffic. Some look relatively healthy. More are scabrous or mangy. One has an open wound on its head, what looks like brain showing through.

A gang of laughing teenagers playing on their phones. All the boys are holding hands.

Chickens scratch at the rubble of a collapsed building.

A Quiet Night in Kathmandu

I’d never seen Kathmandu so quiet.

I didn’t notice it at first. I was too busy wedging myself into the tiny taxi’s front seat, my knees hard against the dashboard, my neck craned forward to stop my head banging against the roof. And of course, there was the inevitable (and inevitably futile) attempt to get the seatbelt working.

But when I started watching the streets zoom past, it occurred to me that something was very different tonight. Where was the rest of the traffic? Where were all the people? Why were we zooming not crawling?

Even the taxi driver seemed confused. Without a stream of other taxis and mopeds to follow, he hit several potholes, had to swerve to avoid a dog wandering across a deserted junction and even drove on the wrong side of the dual carriageway for part of the journey. Or maybe he was just unused to being able to drive at over 20 miles an hour. I rather doubt he had ever reached such dizzying speeds before.

Whatever the cause, neither he nor his car seemed at ease. The engine rattled disquietingly and, as we progressed, he pulled his coat up over his mouth and his hat low, as if doing so would prevent his vehicle attracting attention.

As we drove the 20 minutes to the tourist district of Thamel, the only other residents of Kathmandu we saw were worried-looking older men hurrying for the shelter of home or small knots of younger men apparently come out to wonder at the emptiness.

Plus many, many groups of lathi or assault rifle wielding policemen in combat fatigues or even riot gear.

It’s election day tomorrow – the first in five years – and here in Nepal, there’s none of the ennui associated with elections back home.

Over the last few weeks we’ve seen rallies, marches and demonstrations everywhere we’ve been. Some were just small but most were thronged with enthusiastic supporters. Even in the mountains, where we’d hoped to sit (or rather walk) this time out, there were leaflets scattered on the paths and posters glued to the walls of every village.

The gatherings have all been peaceful so far (if generally noisy – Nepalese PAs all seem to be bought from the same supplier Metallica uses) but there are apparently threats of violence, especially from the communists if things don’t go their way*.

We’re safe here in the hospital, of course, but the staff have warned us that everything will close tomorrow and transport will be impossible, and the day after we hopefully leave the city.

So why did I brave the streets on the verge of a nationwide riot?

To collect our laundry, of course. Political instability or no, you have to have clean pants.

* (I won’t pretend I understand the political situation. There seem to be a dizzying number of political parties, and each group brandishes a different prominent symbol.

I can recognize the communists (with hammer and sickle, of course) but other major groups carry pictures of cows, suns, flaming brands or umbrellas (for this last group it’s apparently acceptable to just carry actual umbrellas instead of an umbrellas banner… or in some cases to just wear an 80s-style umbrella hat ­– a cunning plan our own parties could learn from; whenever rain threatened, anyone who didn’t support you would have to either carry your emblem around or get wet. Win-win.).

I even saw one rally where they flags showed something remarkably close to the  the Conservative Party’s oak tree symbol. Do they have a Nepalese wing?)