The End

10th October 2011

I am coming home. Now what are your other two wishes?

I'm currently in Vienna staying with my mum, which is the perfect place to let my mind catch up with my body. It’s bloody Baltic down here, as it was when I left London nearly three years ago. The great lemon in the sky has started its annual hibernation and the air is heavy with the sound of pattering on taut umbrellas. I have mainly been sleeping and catching up on UK news. A bunch of people calling themselves "the Conservative Party" appear to be in charge.

I have finally come to the end of this deranged road trip of the mind. The journey has resembled my life in miniature, with me flitting merrily from minor crisis to minor crisis. Thinking back to the spectacular collection of cock-ups, I’m just as surprised as you are that I'm still alive.

In my jet-lagged state, I find the memories running together - Oran, Tamanrasset, Hoi An, Varanasi, Baluchistan, Chengdu, Ani, Pavones, Khajuraho, Bali, Damascus, Udaipur, Seoul, Everest, Beirut, Amritsar, Komodo, Peshawar, San Francisco, Jiuzhaigou, Banff. Have I really been to all these places and many more?

Memories are never as clear as we would like. When I try to bring one into focus and hold the image in my mind, it wobbles and slips away, dissolving into an abstract blend of impressions. Occasionally I remember a fragment I had forgotten, like the Pashtun chief teaching me that the way to free a bayonet is to shoot into the body. Or the argument I had on a bus in Vietnam about whether "RPG" stands for "Role Playing Game" or "Rocket Propelled Grenade". I swear that story is true. Now that's what I call hardcore, edge-of-the-seat stuff right there.

Where was I? I have just got home from shopping for a new laptop charger. The first guy wanted €100. I'm sorry to say that this sort of impertinence is increasingly common in the modern world. I gave him my right-between-the-eyes look. I’m not the kind of man who is going to pay €100 for a charger, no matter how decadent and luxurious. The Roman Empire, in its last days of intemperance and dissolution, would have been awash with €100 chargers. Even the slaves would have had them.

I declined to buy the thing and we exchanged a look of mutual contempt, like two women wearing the same hat in the members’ enclosure at Henley. I thanked him anyway and whistled all the way back to my mum's apartment. "If you are patient in one moment of anger, you will escape a hundred moments of sorrow."

My hour is near!

Recent Travels
Since my last post, I have driven round Washington State and taken a cruise up to Juneau. My friend Christer had some business in Seattle so I joined him there and we spent a week hiking in the North Cascades and the Olympic peninsula. The Cascades are not particularly high, but they are very scenic and we were lucky with the weather. Christer was making a big deal about some minor ailment, so I carried the gear for both of us, albeit with the utmost resentment and bad grace:

The Hoh area of Olympic National Park is a spectacularly beautiful and atmospheric rainforest with gigantic Sitka Spruce and Red Cedar trees. We saw a black bear at less than 100 yards. Well worth the trip.

The main news item that week was the story of 50 wild animals, including 18 tigers, which escaped from a private zoo. The police sadly shot most of them, but a week later one baboon still remained at large. We were rooting for the little guy. Fortunately for him this happened in Ohio, a place where it's not easy to make the distinction between a baboon and the general population.

I don't have much to say about the cruise to Juneau. It rained a lot so I didn't get any good pictures. I shared a cabin with a friendly American who insisted on forcing me to hear the "good news". Travel has definitely made me less receptive, mainly because it has exposed me to so many religions. Let's say there are 50 major religions in the world. They are totally irreconcilable, thus the absolute best case is that 49 are nonsense. He nevertheless seemed happy to put his faith in a supreme being - even one that never returns his calls.

I then spent a few days in Vancouver arranging for the car to be shipped back to the UK and doing a bit of drinking at Halloween:

General Thoughts
Once upon a time there was a guy. He thought there might be more to life than money and fortunately had the money to find out what that could be. He bought a car and drove across the world's most filthy and irrelevant countries. He set up a website. He posted some pictures, a few rants and some other bits and bobs. Then he went home. Was it worth it? The short answer is yes. The long answer is yes, definitely.

Many people go overseas expecting to have an “authentic” experience, which means they want to confirm the image they have in their minds of naked brown people living in huts. They are often disappointed to find an urban population with mobile phones. Lazy journalists and anti-globalisation types suggest that travel will become redundant as the world becomes increasingly homogenised. This is total nonsense. When hell freezes over, Llasa will still be nothing like Zurich. Just avoid the shuffling tour bus crowds, get rid of that gay little bottle of hand sanitizer and get amongst it.

The question you might ask is, after what you could uncharitably describe as the longest and most self-indulgent holiday in history, what did I get out of it other than a chai addiction and five words of Chinese? Here are some reasons to do a trip:

  • It’s fun.

  • Expanding your frame of reference. You don't have to travel to understand the world. Thoughtful people can get a pretty good idea of what's going on from their front porch. Proust spent almost his whole adult life in bed. Still, home is an agglomeration of habits, commitments and complacency. "A man takes the limits of his own field of vision for the limits of the world". At some point in their lives, everyone should live outside their own country. Reading travel literature or watching Palin on TV only gives you the surface, the pictures and anecdotes, that provide a weak and distorted impression of what the experience more richly entails, of what being there is really like.

  • Education. I see travel as part of a lifelong process of informal and self-directed education. Travel, like reading, is not just for information. When I read, I rarely remember the specific places, names or numbers. However, I learn to think. Every new piece of information reshapes the mold I cast ideas in and adjusts the set of filters I analyse them through. I forget the facts, but I never go back to thinking about the world the way I did before. That said, despite considerable time spent pondering the mysteries of existence, here's the truth: I still have no idea what the hell is going on. Do you?

  • One of the reasons I went on the trip was to scope out places where I might want to live at a later date. "Everyone's seeking the same thing: an imaginary place, their own castle in the air, and their very own special corner of it." I found several. Unfortunately, a place is only as good as the people you know in it, otherwise there's no chance I would be returning to England at all.

    There's a tendency among travellers to see the third world as a pre-modern paradise. It's worth remembering that the rate of getting shot in the back while trying to escape from the country is pretty low in England. They also see the locals as blameless saints, like those complaining monks in Burma. I concede that poor people are invariably kind and polite, but I have a suspicion that has less to do with that fact that they are intrinsically better, and more with the high relative status of rich white Europeans. In other words, money doesn't change you, it just reveals who you are when you no longer have to be nice.

  • Learning to live with less. When I left London, the loss of my possessions gave me an agreeable sense of irresponsibility. I totally believe that living without alot of stuff for an extended period of time is the key step to realising that you don't need most of it. Having shit is worthless. Doing shit is everything. Also, when you travel, every now and again someone will steal all of your stuff. That way you learn the value of things, and not just the price.

  • Relaxing: In a place like India, you have to stop pre-planning every aspect of your life and let things take their natural course. I’ve perfected the art, if that’s what it is, of not giving a crap about the ding in my car door or the stain on my shirt.

    Favourite countries
    This is a personal list. I am not saying that certain countries are better than others. Travelling in India feels like voluntarily submitting to the Ludovico technique from "A Clockwork Orange". Nevertheless, I love the place.

    In no particular order:

  • Magical India.
  • Plucky little Lebanon.
  • Fascinating Japan.
  • Oppressed Myanmar.
  • Diverse Colombia.
  • Medieval Tibet.
  • The cheery Philippines.
  • Embattled Pakistan.
  • Vibrant Brazil.

    Least Favourite Countries
  • Russia. One of the most deeply cynical and corrupt places on the planet. Blessed with abundant prisons, radiation and moonshine.
  • Libya. I hope they sort out their situation but I’m not eager to go back.
  • Honduras. Poor, dirty and dangerous.
  • Brunei. Like a third-rate Switzerland. A profoundly uninteresting mix of mall culture and inbreeding.

    Most Memorable Moments
    Some places haunt you. For whatever reason, these are the most vivid memories I have of the trip:

  • Going to the smugglers bazaar in the tribal zone in western Pakistan and watching the Waziri hillmen, looking like the forty thieves, haggle over grenades and rocket launchers.
  • Paragliding over Oludeniz.
  • The 4000 Islands of Si Phan Don, Laos. Remember those endless summer days when you were a child? That's what life is like there. No agenda and all the time in the world.
  • Camping in the White desert in Western Egypt with the huge silver-bright moon lighting up the landscape.
  • Attending the biggest goat barbeque in history in Malargue, Argentina.
  • Summiting Mount Chachani (6100m) in Peru.
  • Trekking in the Canadian Rockies near Banff. A world of sculpted beauty, with dramatic peaks and verdant valleys stretching into the distance.
  • Attending a Tuareg wedding in the Sahara.
  • Seeing Shisen-do in Kyoto in the autumn, enjoying the gentle breath of light playing over the maple leaves.
  • Diving the cenote cave systems in Yucatan, Mexico.
  • Boating along the Ganges in Varanasi and watching the uncountable swarming multitudes wade into the river.
  • The felucca cruise from Aswan to Kom-Ombo. Three blissful days drifting down the Nile, watching sunsets and sleeping on deck.
  • Snorkeling the Similan Islands in Thailand. Gin clear water and the whitest, most powdery sand you've ever seen.
  • Chanting with the monks at Drepung monastery in Tibet.
  • Watching the sun go down in the Tadrart in the central Sahara, with the soft air blowing over the sand and the fading light silhouetting a line of camels moving over the crest of a distant dune.
  • Cycling through Nin-Binh, a forest of limestone karst formations in northern Vietnam.
  • Having a beer on the terrace at The Gourara hotel, overlooking the huge salt lake in Timimoun, Algeria. A seasonless world where the horizon stretches out forever.
  • Spending the night on Jugurtha's table, Tunisia.
  • Trekking in the jungle to see Orang-Utans in Borneo. An amazing experience, despite being bitten witless by leeches and mosquitos.
  • Diving Castle Rock in Komodo National Park. A unique dive site - my favourite of the trip.
  • Driving round Bali. This island has everything - the perfect combination of food, culture, climate and dusky-maiden skin tone.

    Worst Travellers
    The human race is chaotic, reckless, at times brilliant, mostly self-serving, good some of the time, evil slightly less of the time and occasionally downright self-destructive. The trip has reinforced my belief that people generally have good intentions and that the world is a fascinating beautiful place. You can and should trust your intuition about people, but having the right attitude is everything. "Friendly people live in a friendly world. Hostile people live in a hostile world. Same world.”

  • Russians: I'm not in the mood to be conciliatory. The whole lot of them look like Bukowski with a bad hangover and have violence and dishonesty running thick in their blood. "The difficulty in understanding the Russian is that we do not take cognizance of the fact that he is not a European, but an Asiatic, and therefore thinks deviously. We can no more understand a Russian than a Chinese or a Japanese, and from what I have seen of them, I have no particular desire to understand them except to ascertain how much lead or iron it takes to kill them. In addition to his other amiable characteristics, the Russian has no regard for human life and they are all out sons-of-bitches, barbarians, and chronic drunks."
  • Israelis: Every Israeli you meet seems to be on a mission to confirm negative stereotypes about Israelis being aggressive, tight-fisted racists.
  • The Brits: Although I am personally fond of their bad dress sense and comradely swearing, I can't deny that they tend to be shirtless binge drinkers who urinate in hotel sinks.
  • The Dutch: For some reason I tend to find them loud, abrasive and nowhere near as funny as they think. Also, I believe it was Shakespeare who observed that people who wear woolly hats in summer are not to be trusted.

    Car Trouble: A Pictorial

    "You've seriously damaged your career"
    Someone said this to me last week. What do I think about it? Let me paint a picture for you. You live in an apartment with lots of glass and tubular steel, sitting at a computer for most of your waking hours and chasing promotions that just attract more work. Then you get married. You have a baby. You talk about being tired all the time. You start taking things seriously. You rail about society going down the tubes because of indiscipline amongst the poor. You imagine Jeremy Clarkson is some kind of rebel instead of an idiotic shitbean. You live for your children and your debts as you toil onward to the indispositions of old age. Finally you become one of those pensioners who are too scared to leave the house in case the wind kills them.

    I would be totally OK with all this if I believed that people were actively choosing what's right for them, but they are mostly just conforming to social expectations. The only success is to build your life exactly the way you want it. For me, this means renouncing what people regard as "getting on", at least temporarily, and opting for a life of fun and adventure. You know we're dead at the end of this, right?

    I am planning some significant changes to my diet when I get back to England. Yeah, I know it's pretty late for that. There is a Chinese proverb: “The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. The second best time is now.” This is what I will probably look like in three years if I don't:

    I was going to do a round-up of the best food on the trip, but frankly I‘m too lazy. Be warned that if you’re offered a traditional regional dish in South America, you’re in for beans again, just in a different sauce. In Asia it means some foul concoction with offal in it, probably served with a root which, because it tastes like a tramp’s foot, they think is an aphrodisiac.

    Send in the clowns - The Greek Situation
    The European Union seems to have got us a spectacular financial meltdown as a surprise Christmas present. “Thanks, guys!” I thought. Then: “Didn’t you get us this last year?”. I had hoped that we'd learned our lesson and the era of Ponzi schemes was finally over. Except for climate change and the social security system in most developed countries.

    Like a runaway train going off the rails and smashing into the last chance saloon, the Greeks are in total meltdown and may well bring down the EU. How have we got to this point? Well, with capitalism working so well, the major players in Europe have been exporting it to increasingly unsuitable places to show it a good time. This has proved to be a spectacular mistake. Thank God I have absolute faith that the same people who got us into this mess will steer us effortlessly through the tricky waters ahead.

    I won't go into the political specifics. The who-runs-what and who-did-what. You'd be ready to bite off your own arm before I got halfway through. Suffice to say that paying their debts is as alien to the Greek way of life as proper hygiene and a credible military. We are in the umpteenth round of discussions and they're still complaining about "not making progress". Give me a tire iron, some gaffer tape and fifteen minutes alone in a room with them. I guarantee that progress will be made. Meanwhile the Italians are getting ready to get involved, waving their traditional white battle flag.

    This mid-life crisis was brought to you by Heineken. I hope you enjoyed it. A big thank-you to those who pointed out typos. To prevent future occurrences, I have sacked my entire editorial staff. I also apologise for the loose tone and bad language. To write like Joyce I would have to read a lot of Joyce and that's something I'll only do at gunpoint. If I've upset anyone with my various rants, it's not my intention. I believe - right or wrong - that my position is the most logical.

    By all means send me an email with your thoughts on the blog. The lazy element can just put A,B, C, D or E in the subject line. I will publish the results of the poll on the home page.

    POLL: How would you rate the blog?

    A) God speaks through you.
    B) Pure gold from the first sentence. For years I grazed in the pastures of ignorance, yearning for the green grass of enlightenment. Then you appeared, a shining beacon of perspicacity to light the path for rudderless souls such as myself.
    C) A shining antique amphora of a blog. The monkeys who typed Shakespeare couldn't have done it better. All other reading seems dull and lifeless by comparison.
    D) Average at best. More pictures of boobs!
    E) Utter rubbish. Except the bit about you and the transvestite. Ha ha ha. I wouldn't wipe my arse with the rest of it.

    What else? I am facing the reappearing picture of my life. A life in which I have to wear cool jeans, be witty, be normal, be unique, have white teeth, have lots of friends and pose like I'm a success. I'll be expected to clamber back onto the work-spend treadmill, complete with rush-hour tube journeys and the never-ending struggle to prove that I am smarter than other Oxbridge types. If all goes well, I will soon have a load of stuff I don't want and no time. Pray for me.

    On the positive side, I'll be seeing people I love dearly and have missed. Blah, feelings etc. Also some I owe money to. I intend to be the king of all dinner party bores and drive people mad by interrupting travel stories with: “That’s nothing, when I was in Afghanistan...". No matter what you've done, I experienced the same thing, only for me it was faster / better / cheaper / lasted longer.

    I will be holding a memorial service for my savings on my return. Fortunately, I have my peasant tastes to fall back on until the recession is over. Worst case, I can always head down to St Paul's with a tent. I long ago resolved not to complain about my life. No snowflake ever falls in the wrong place they say. I have fulfilled a dream that many have but never realise and am basically a happy man.

    I will also be in one place for long enough to have a relationship longer than four days. That would make a nice change. Jesus? Are you there Jesus? It's me, Harry. I would like a pretty brunette girlfriend with a nice bottom. All applications considered. I am as tall as a six-foot-three inch statue of a Greek god, with smooth tanned skin, strong sensitive fingers and sky-blue eyes. I like combat sports and can play chopsticks on the piano.

    I have been excitedly reading smart-phone reviews. The iPhone 4S or the Samsung Galaxy? Hmm. Even as you read this, tiny, malnourished hands are being worked to the bone to produce a chunk of black plastic which is costing the manufacturer 5p to make and £50 to market to cretins like me.

    Ah well, zero hour approacheth. I'm hungry. Off to see if that new sushi place down the street needs a bailout. I will shortly put up a “Favourite Pictures” folder. These are photos which are close to my heart and it gives me the slight sin of pride to post them again. If you would like to use any of the pictures for any purpose, mail me & I will send you the high-resolution original.

    It was a pleasure to write this blog. Thank you to everyone who ever visited, read and commented.

    So long.