Friday, 15 June 2018

Eighteen Hours in Ethiopia

It has been a tumultuous few months. I’ve never had reason to use that word, it always seems a little grand to describe most situations, but in this case, I think it fits.

As you will remember, our last few weeks in Asia last winter were less than ideal. We spent most of them sat nursing various ailments in hotel rooms, feeling thoroughly run down and miserable before finally admitting defeat and heading back our respective homes.

As I also mentioned, I had a long layover in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, on the way home. As tired and miserable as I felt at that point, I have to say I was pleasantly surprised by this place that was so different and alien to me. Ethiopian Airlines very generously provide a hotel room, transfers to and from the airport and as much buffet food as you can eat if you have a layover of six hours or more between two of their flights. Figuring that I might as well make the most of my 18 hours there, I joined the immigration queue upon landing and found myself standing next to a young Israeli couple on their way home after a long trip around Asia. We got talking and quickly discovered that we had reservations in the same hotel. After navigating a system made much more complicated than it needed to be and having to run up and down stairs a few times to get the required passes and stickers and little coloured cards, we were finally released into the warm East African morning sun.

The first thing that hit me was how friendly everyone we met was, probably amplified further by the unfriendliness we had experienced through most of the winter. We quickly identified where we would need to wait for our shuttle bus and before we knew it we were on our way through the quiet streets to the other side of town, arriving at our hotel a couple of hours after we had landed. Breakfast was awaiting us, served by the most attentive staff I’ve ever met. For something we weren’t paying for, I fully expected to be picking over what was left from an earlier shift, but no, everything was freshly cooked for us and once served, the waiting staff hovered nervously in case there was anything else we should request. After a quick power nap, we decided to hit the town.

Having done some reading in the few days before my flight I realised it was big business for local ‘tour guides’ to offer day trips to locations around the city. Most ran at around £150 per person for a few hours, much more than I was prepared to pay. I’d read that there wasn’t a great deal to see in the city, certainly nothing that justified £150 for a glorified taxi ride, and that it was easy enough to move around independently, so this is what we did.    

With my new Israeli friends, we decided that the Red Terror Museum sounded interesting and that there must be a bus we could catch to get there. First though, we’d have to acquire some local currency. Ethiopia operates a closed currency, the Birr, and it is apparently illegal to take more than 200 Birr out of the country when you leave. With this in mind, and after having to walk some distance to find a working ATM, I withdrew 500 Birr (just under £14), my plan being to have enough to last me the day, but little enough left over to allow me to take a couple of small bills home as a souvenir.

With cash now in our pockets, we found ourselves standing alongside what appeared to be a light rail line. I should probably explain that this was the last thing we’d expected to see. Running through the middle of dirt streets with no pavements, skirting scruffy markets and traders sat on the kerb selling small basketfuls of vegetables, the light rail wouldn’t have looked out of place in any modern city in the first world. Gleaming trains with spotless interiors, comfortable seats and announcements in English were the last thing we expected to find. After a brief search for a ticket booth, which turned out to be a small scruffy shack next to the bank, we had tickets to a stop that the seller assured us was nearest the museum for just 2 Birr each. Or five pence. We boarded the train, smiling in reply to the curious glances we were receiving from the locals. It’s clear most foreigners take the organised tour option and we were certainly a novelty.

Upon leaving the train we picked up our first proper hawker of the day. An overly friendly young man tagged along as we walked the few blocks to the museum, trying to fill us with as much information as he could summon despite our polite protestations that we did not need his assistance or guidance. Nonetheless, he followed us right to the door, telling us he would wait for us until we were done and then he would take us to see a monument nearby. Again, we declined, but he sat himself down on the wall and made himself comfortable, deaf to our deflection.

The museum was both interesting and harrowing, much in the same vein as the Killing Fields in Cambodia, and of course Auschwitz in Poland. We were welcomed warmly by the curator of the museum, thanked for coming and left to wander and view the exhibits at our leisure. Amongst the usual faded photographs and artefacts were cases containing skulls and personal belongings of some of the estimated half a million victims of the regime, murdered during the two years that followed the overthrowing the ruling emperor by communist Mengistu Haile Mariam, and rule passing to the Dergue, a military junta, the result being another horrific genocide in living memory.

We were all in a quiet and reflective mood as we left the museum an hour or so later, so we were not in the mood to immediately be jumped upon by our new friend, as eager as ever to persuade us to accompany him to whatever it was he wanted us to see. After a final firm ‘thank you, but no thank you’ his demeanour changed completely. He hissed something at us about wasting his time and then, rather unnecessarily he added ‘watch yourselves, you wouldn’t like to get robbed and your phones and money taken’ before skulking away. Luckily this was the only small bit of negativity we experienced in our short visit and he didn’t turn out to be representative of of the local people in general.

Immediately next to the museum there was a long stretch of bunting leading up a hill to what looked like an entrance. Asking around, the only response we got was that it was the ‘Expo’. Curious, we followed the path up the hill along with hundreds of locals. Soon enough we arrived at an entrance point where we were asked for 20 Birr each to enter that we paid willingly, despite having no idea at all what it was we were paying for or what we would find inside.

As it turns out, an ‘Expo’ in Addis Ababa is a grand name for a trade fair. What we found when we entered were a number of stands selling pretty much anything you could imagine, only in the case of clothing, textiles and household gadgets, the cheapest and poorest quality of these things I’ve ever seen. As we wandered, the only white folks in the place, we drew attention, but not in a bad way. Stall holders tripped over themselves to demonstrate their wheeled suitcases that appeared to be made of cardboard stuck together with copydex. They tried to convince us that we needed to buy their floor standing industrial-sized water bottle holder, all the while laughing and joking, knowing we wouldn’t, before passing us along to the next stand for the whole circus to start again. We ate tasty fried snacks from trays held high in the air by passing waiters and sampled locally produced coffee. I have no idea what these things cost, but it was fractions of pence. We stopped a while by a central arena where we were brought plastic cups of local beer for about 15 pence a pint. After trying to spend some of our Birr on souvenirs and gifts for friends and family, we realised our time was running short and so sadly we left the festivities behind and headed back to the light rail station.

Toilet roll 20p...Beer 15p...

Unlike our relatively luxurious journey to the museum, we hadn’t factored in that our departure from the Expo coincided with the end of a local football match and so we soon found ourselves standing on a packed platform full of football fans returning home from the game, draped in brightly coloured flags and creating the kind of buzz you’d find after a local team has won a game anywhere in the world. We caught the attention of a group of young guys who were in particularly high spirits and soon we were muddling our way through a conversation of sorts that mostly consisted of saying aloud the names of famous footballers from England to which a great cheer would go up when it was someone they recognised.

Shortly after, the first train arrived and it became clear we weren’t getting on it. These trains made rush hour in Mexico City look like a walk in the park. Already packed to the rafters, a few lucky(?) people were unceremoniously shoved through the open doors and held in as the doors shut behind them, before the train moved away leaving almost all the people waiting on the platform behind. The conversation started again and this was repeated as the next three or four trains arrived and departed without collecting any of us. Realising that we couldn’t just keep doing this for hours on end, we vowed to make it on to the next train. As it arrived and we moved forward, our new friends, all twenty or so of them, decided that if we were getting on, they were too. With the help of a friendly police officer who seemed to find the whole affair endlessly amusing, we were all crammed into a compartment and off we set. For the next sixteen stops we provided a source of entertainment for the entire carriage as we held a group English lesson and in return were taught a handful of words in Amharic.

Back at the hotel more food was served and shortly after, my new Israeli friends left to catch their earlier flight. This left me just enough time for a shower, more food and another nap before a phone call from reception advised me that my shuttle awaited downstairs. I’ve never known an airline lay on such a service and I can highly recommend them should you ever have the opportunity to fly with them. I’ll certainly consider a layover in Africa next time I’m heading over to Asia. Despite a delay of a couple of hours on my flight, I was soon airborne and on my way back to the tail end of winter in England, a couple of months ahead of schedule.

Stansted airport's foggy welcome home.

Upon arriving home my first priority became to rid myself of whatever had taken up residence in my stomach for the past couple of months. Tests showed precisely nothing, yet the fact that I could never be too far away from a bathroom and that my stomach was behaving like an old, grumbling cement mixer constantly reminded me that something was still not right. A week or two later Evan received a call to say he’d had a positive test for Giardiasis and was prescribed some antibiotics. I immediately headed down to my GP surgery and got a supply of the same. Ironically the following week I received a call to say that a second set of tests had shown Campylobacter in my system and so I received a second batch of pills to take on top of the first. I’m pleased to say that a couple of weeks later, after more than three months of trouble, I was finally free of my gremlins.

That wasn’t the end of my medical issues though. For some time I had been ignoring a growth on my thyroid, I guess I had been hoping that it would just go away on its own, but after having several people ask me about it while I was away this winter, including a border officer at the checkpoint as we entered Nepal bringing it up in random conversation, I realised that the lump had indeed grown to a size that required further inspection. I finally bit the bullet and went to see my doctor. He agreed straight away that it did indeed require investigation and set about referring me to an ENT surgeon as an ‘urgent’ case. A week or so later I met with an extremely laid back and friendly surgeon who recommended I have an ultrasound scan and possibly a biopsy, but reassured me that they’d get to the bottom of whatever it was and deal with it accordingly. He sent me away saying that I would be contacted in due course by the department responsible for scans. It was a little unnerving to receive a phone call from them only an hour later asking me to come in the next day. The ultrasound technician said she didn’t see anything that concerned her, but due to the size of the lump, 5cm in diameter apparently, she took a needle biopsy as a precaution.

I should say at this point that all the way through this process I hadn’t been in the slightest bit concerned about any of it. I’ve never been one to visit the doctor unnecessarily, in fact I’ll avoid it if I possibly can, but on this occasion it seemed like time was up on this particular issue and it clearly wasn’t going away on its own. To illustrate my point, the last time I went to see my doctor before this, I went to the reception to ask for an appointment and when I gave my doctor’s name, the receptionist looked at me strangely before telling me that he had left more than ten years previously!

A couple of weeks later I received a letter in the post one morning. Expecting it to be notifying me of my test results, I was a little startled to find it was an appointment to attend for surgery two weeks later. No explanation of why or what my biopsy had shown. Half an hour later the hospital called to confirm a second pre-admission appointment a week later, but frustratingly, they could not give me any details of my results, advising me that I would have to speak to my consultant at an appointment I had a few days later. I was obviously a little apprehensive when I attended this, but again the surgeon was very reassuring and explained that my biopsy had shown some suspicious cells and that the only way they could be sure what they were dealing with was to remove the growth and half of my thyroid. When I explained that I already knew this because I had received notification of a surgery date, his mouth dropped open and he apologised profusely that this had happened. Seeing that I wasn’t upset about it, he later smiled and quipped that for a service that was always being criticised for its long waiting lists and delays, the NHS had obviously been very efficient in this instance!

Eventually the surgery date came round and as my surgery time was late in the afternoon I was told I’d have to stay in overnight. Again, every single member of staff involved was lovely and I was made to feel completely at ease. The anaesthetist it turned out was a biker and it was half way through his story about an accident he had had that had caused him to lose his nerve for riding that I must have lost consciousness because I never did hear the end of the story. Two and a half hours later I came round and was moved up to the ward for the night, feeling surprisingly ok, in very little pain, but quite uncomfortable. The following day, after a night of being woken every half an hour for my blood pressure to be checked and my temperature taken (and a random cup of tea at 2am?!) I was discharged the following afternoon.

Reassuring arow to ensure I didn't come out minus a leg...

It seems the catering hasn't improved since I used to temp there as a kid serving ward meals!

Removal was non-negotiable, tape was a compromise.

My luxury ensuite room!

I can't recommend NHS tea or hot chocolate, but the service was amazing!

That was now almost three weeks ago and I’m pleased to say I have healed remarkably well. A week after surgery my stitches were removed, which was most excruciatingly painful part of the whole procedure, second only to having the drain they had had to insert during surgery removed the following morning. Apparently I heal very quickly and this only made the experience worse. I’m still a bit uncomfortable at times and get tired very quickly, but hopefully that can be corrected if need be with medication over the next few weeks. Having fortunately received an all clear on my post-surgery pathology last week, my biggest concern at this point is a significant weakness in my voice, a common side effect of this kind of surgery, which hopefully will improve in time. Some have said that my inability to make myself heard or talk for more than an hour or so without losing my voice isn’t a bad thing…

Two days...

Two weeks...

So what’s next? Honestly, I really don’t know at this point. Evan is obviously back in Canada trying to figure out his own set of medical challenges and we both need a bit of time now to heal and get well again.

It’s at this point that I’ve been stuck for a few days now and have at various points in time written several different endings to this post. Did you ever read the ‘Choose your own adventure’ books when you were a kid? They were the ones where every so often you’d reach a point in the story where you’d be given a choice to make. If you decided to take the path to the left and follow the cat then you had to turn to page 56 and continue reading. If you chose to turn around and retrace your footsteps, you had to go to page 114. Eventually, the ending to the story would be revealed depending on the choices you made at each junction.

The trouble I’m having with the ‘what happens next’ part at the moment is that I’m not fully in control of making those choices. Medical issues obviously still come into the equation too at this point, but hopefuly those will soon disappear. There are lots of factors involved and often from one day to the next I find myself leaning towards different paths. I’m also not the only one whose decisions affect the direction the story will take next.

All I can say for now is that I’m fairly certain that there will be another adventure at some point. It will no doubt involve motorbikes and travelling to far flung places. It will certainly involve a whole lot more care being taken over what is eaten and drunk! The rest of the details are, at this time, still a little fuzzy and undecided, but hopefully it won’t be too long before a plan starts to come together, whatever that may be. This last winter really knocked us both for six, but it hasn’t dampened either of our spirits in regards to getting back out there and exploring some more of this beautiful planet.

Watch this space, I’ll keep you posted.

Sunday, 8 April 2018

Back to the Bikes

Looking down on India through the plane window I remember thinking that it looked so harmless from up there. We had been talking to one of the instructors at the paragliding school about our experiences in India. He had smiled and asked us ‘You do know what INDIA stands for, right?’ I’ll Never Do It Again. I can see his point. I also reflected on the fact that I’d never before been on a plane and not been looking forward to landing in the country I was headed for.

Upon arrival in Delhi, to our surprise we found the place to be far more bearable than we’d anticipated. A friendly tourist information guy assured us that despite Indian Railways website stating that they had a ticket reservation counter at the airport, they in fact didn’t and according to our friend, never had. It was getting late so we decided to head into the city and back to the area where we had previously stayed. We figured out that we could check at the nearby reservation centre to see if we could get train tickets to Jodhpur for that evening and if not then we’d at least be in an area we knew and could find a place to stay the night.

We made it all the way from the arrivals hall to the airport metro station before the tedious crap started. We already had metro cards but needed to top them up. After queuing for twenty minutes in one of two queues as there was no top-up machine, a sullen looking attendant silently rolled his eyes to the right to indicate that I would have to join the other queue instead. Tired, I decided to take the ‘when in Rome’ approach. I pushed my way to the front of the other queue and held out my money, ignoring the disgruntled looks from other people waiting with the kind of callousness that usually got my own back up.

Luckily the metro system in Delhi is great and took us to within a couple of hundred yards of the main street in Paharganj. As we exited the metro we were stopped at the police crowd control barriers at the entrance to the main train station by a man who asked us if we had a train ticket. Catching us a little off guard as we only intended to use the pedestrian overpass to cross the road, we said we had not and explained to him where we were going. At this point he became very serious looking and he said ‘You did hear what happened three days ago didn’t you? You do know that tourists are not allowed to enter that area at the moment?’ Admitting we had not, he went on to tell us that there had been a lot of trouble in the area to which we were heading, caused by ‘the Muslims’ and that in order to enter we would have to take his mate’s official tuk tuk to an office where we would be able to get a permit. Realising that he was nothing but a common scammer, we decided nonetheless to let him have it his way and thanked him for his advice before laughing and walking 50 yards across the car park to the next station entrance where we accessed the overpass with no trouble. 

Ten minutes later we were standing in the reception of the Smyle Inn again, asking if they room for us that night. Luckily they did and conveniently they also offered a train ticket booking service for a few rupees. Within an hour we had a room, hot shower and train tickets for the following night. Not only that but we were able to keep the room until 7pm the following evening, a godsend as we were both still suffering with our stomachs and it was good to know we didn’t have to wander the streets all afternoon prior to leaving.

Another great thing about Smyle is that it’s located in the same alleyway as the fabulous Everest Bakery and Momo Cave. While fulfilling our Nepalese food craving (ok, not really, we ordered chicken and potatoes) we got talking to a group of European backpackers sat at the next table. One, a twenty-something Belgian guy, was having some issues with Indian immigration. He explained that he had inadvertently overstayed his visa by three days and when he had discovered his mistake, he had gone to the airport and asked to leave. The reply he got was quite astounding. He was advised that he would not be allowed to leave until he had obtained a ‘permission to exit’ from the immigration office in town. A little surprised that he wasn’t simply fined, scolded and allowed on to his flight, he followed this advice and made his way to the address he had been given. Here he was asked for 2,900 rupees (about $45) and told he would have to complete a series of paperwork by way of an application to leave. This included requesting a letter from his embassy asking permission for him to be allowed to leave and a signed form completed by every hotel and guesthouse he had stayed at, detailing the days he had stayed there with no gaps.

When we met him he had already been trying to complete this paperwork for nearly three weeks. In addition, without a valid visa to be in the country he was finding it hard to find places to stay as hotels would refuse him a bed. This meant he had to pay for more expensive rooms that he otherwise would and it was slowly bleeding him dry. It seemed incredulous to us that this would be the official system, but he assured us that many were in a similar situation. Every day he went back to the office, sometimes he would be asked for more receipt-less money, but he would always see the same people there, stuck in the same loop as he was. One man, he said, had already been stuck there for six months. Another had only overstayed because his flight was cancelled just before midnight and he physically couldn’t leave, but still he was treated in the same way. We made a mental note to get out of there long before we ever put ourselves in danger of ending up in a similar situation.

The overnight train to Jodhpur, again in sleeper class, was as uneventful as our first journey and early the next morning we arrived in the city we now felt so familiar with. We were there too early for just about everything, the square was quiet and even the coffee shop was yet to open, so we headed back to the guesthouse where we had stored our bikes. We hadn’t told them we were coming, but as we arrived they greeted us with smiles and open arms. We were glad to see that our bikes were still there and untouched. After breakfast our hosts were eager to ask what our plans were next and when we told them we that sadly, would be looking to sell the bikes, one of the brothers almost tripped over his own feet rushing to register his interest. He told us that he’d like to buy both because he wanted to eventually trade them up to buy a Royal Enfield.

Keen to move on as quickly as we could, we allowed him to inspect the paperwork and it was at this point that the question of the NOC came up. A ‘No Objection Certificate’ is a document that must be obtained from the existing registration authority to show that there are no outstanding claims, finance or road fines related to a vehicle before it is re-registered in a new state. It’s a bit like a combined HPI & police vehicle check. To obtain this the prospective buyer must visit in person the registration office, in this case in Chennai over 2,000km away, to obtain this certificate and then must re-register the bike within ten working days. There is no way to do this remotely. This is India remember; where it can be made difficult or impossible, it usually is.

Despite this, our host advised us that he would like to check this out with a friend and that he would return in one hour with an offer. It was 10am at this point. At 7pm that night we had started to get more than a little twitchy. After enquiring as to his whereabouts several times he eventually returned with a completely new approach to the deal. Now he was standoffish, saying he had discovered that registration was impossible and therefore he could not buy the bikes. However his mechanic friend would give us 3000 rupees each for them, a tenth of their value, and break them for spares if we were interested. Reluctant to write off two very good bikes, or more likely hand them over to our host for next to nothing as it was obviously a scam concocted between him and the mechanic to buy the bikes very cheap, we politely declined.

Next, at the suggestion of a local, we listed them on OLX, a local selling site. Despite making it very clear that we did not have NOC’s, hence the low asking price, I was quickly inundated with messages from local people desperate to buy the bikes. Most spoke little or no English and didn’t understand the advert and eventually I reached a point where I just had to ignore them. One man was very keen however, so I arranged to meet him in the square and accompanied him back to the guesthouse to view the bikes. In hindsight this was a really bad decision on my part.

As we arrived he was immediately jumped on by the guesthouse owner who, after talking to him in Hindi, sent him packing before relaying to us that they had explained the situation and he was no longer interested. This was disproved however as the man spent the whole of the next day calling me incessantly trying to explain that he still wanted to buy them, but the guesthouse owner had told him to go away and that he could not have the bikes! Not only this, but we soon discovered that pretty much every mechanic within a ten mile radius  had been offered the bikes and the local police’s attention had been drawn to the fact we were trying to sell them, something that made us very nervous given the grey area surrounding their legal ownership and registration.

In need of an escape from the craziness, we decided to take a breather and headed down to the square. Here we got talking to a friendly local business owner who was horrified at the way we were being manipulated and immediately offered to take the bikes off our hands for a fair price. He advised us to simply go back to the guesthouse, announce that we had found a buyer and ride the bikes out of there. Problem solved. This we did and for the first time in days we felt a sense of relief that the ordeal was over and we could move on.

Our relief was short-lived though. The following morning an angry group of local people stormed into the guesthouse where unfortunately we were staying a further night as Evan was feeling too ill to move. They claimed that our bikes were now parked in a private parking area and that they wanted to know the contact details of the people we had sold them to. Refusing to pass these on, I assured them I would resolve the problem and they offered me thirty minutes to get the bikes moved before they notified the police. A hurried visit to our buyer revealed a misunderstanding between the parties involved as the bikes were indeed parked in a space leased by his business, only the new security guard on the site had not realised the bikes were now in his possession.

From this point onwards we felt an overwhelming sense of need to get out of the town as soon as possible, that were we to stay even a day longer the bikes would cause us problems that we might never escape from. Early the next morning we skipped breakfast, packed up our things and with a huge smile and thanks for their kind hospitality, we paid up our bill and left. After a quick coffee at our favourite coffee shop to say goodbye, we headed for the train station – destination Jaipur. As we jumped in a tuk tuk to go to the station two police officers stepped out in front of it and motioned for our driver to pull over to the side of the road. Our level of paranoia shot through the roof, convinced that it was us they wanted to talk to. As it happened it was just a random stop and after checking the driver’s paperwork and writing him a ticket, they apologised for delaying us and sent us on our way.

Although we had originally planned to continue our travels in India by train, at this point I think it’s fair to say that both Evan and I were totally and absolutely done with India. Earlier that morning before we left the guesthouse, we had booked a red-eye flight for the following night to Bangkok. We didn’t really have any great desire to go to Thailand in particular, but it was the cheapest flight out of there we could find. Six hours spent sitting at the train station and a further seven hours on a train we arrived in Jaipur. I wish I could tell you nice things about the city, but we spent our entire time there shut in our hostel room, partly because we both felt so rough and partly because we just didn’t care what was out there anymore. Leaving for the airport couldn’t have come soon enough.

Now I know there will be people out there who will be reading this with a sense of scorn that we were being so defeatist and negative about the place, but I would challenge anyone to put themselves in the situation we were in, battling stomach bugs that we’d had for a month at least and feeling thoroughly miserable and do any different. We’re both seasoned travellers and neither of us shy away from tricky situations lightly, but on this occasion it was the right thing to do. I’m sad that there are more than likely some fantastic places that we didn’t get to see in the north of the country, and maybe one day all these negative memories will fade enough to make me want to return and explore some more, but that was not the time to do so.

India being India though, nothing was going to be simple until we had taken off and physically left the country of course. At the airport we found the desk of our old nemesis Air Asia, who with a smile requested that we place our small, carry-on sized backpacks on the conveyor belt to be weighed. The weight limit for Air Asia is 7kg but having flown all over the world this has never been checked or enforced. We don’t carry much more than this, but with our bike stuff in our bags, both of course were a little over the limit. Smiling patronisingly, the girl on the desk announced ‘That’ll be $50 each please to check your bags!’ Uh-uh, I don’t think so. No amount of arguing was going to get our bags on for free though, so just to be difficult, I unpacked my bag and put on every item of clothing I possibly could. My bag wasn’t greatly over, so when I returned to the belt to weigh it again reluctantly she let me pass. This left us with one bag overweight and half the fee to pay. Agreeing to pay the fee, but only if the bag was allowed on as carry on, a manager quickly agreed and the fee was paid.

After undressing and repacking my bag we were about to head through the security line when the manager came hurrying over to us. He apologised and said that he had undercharged us and that we must pay another 700 rupees. At this point we had reached almost boiling point. Realising that getting into a fight with airport staff would not end well though, I calmed the situation, we handed over the extra money, advised the airline staff that they were doing their country a huge disservice and that we could not wait to leave this hell-hole. 

For those of you rolling your eyes at us for arguing when we had clearly exceeded a published weight limit, I should probably add here that there were seven obvious foreigners in the check-in queue. Each and every one had their bag weighed and a charge was created for something whether it be bag size or weight. Everybody else in the queue was Indian and many had carry-on bags that were grossly larger than the permitted size and therefore, almost certainly overweight too. Several had two or three bags per person. Unsurprisingly not one of those people had their bags weighed, counted or charged for.

Obviously having witnessed this exchange, we were met shortly after by stony-faced security officers who were as difficult as they could be, repeatedly making us open our bags, confiscating what they could and repeatedly running them through the scanner. After this we were made to wait at immigration along with dozens of other people while the staff on the desks finished watching a YouTube video they were gathered around on one of their phones before we were stamped out. Add to all this an hour’s delay to our flight and you can appreciate the sense of relief when we finally took off.

Last winter we spent our time in South East Asia and I wrote at the time about my dislike for Thailand. I would now please like to retract anything and everything bad I said about the place. Bangkok was marvellous. This time we decided to choose our accommodation a little more carefully and stayed at the wonderful Khaosan Art Hotel, an Israeli owned business that is one of the best places we’d stayed in the entire trip. Everything about the place from the rooms, to the service, to the food was perfect.

Having spent a fair bit of time in Bangkok before, we didn’t do much during our time there. Both still sick, we hunted down some antibiotics in an attempt to kill off whatever was making us feel so ill. Our plan had been to rest awhile in the city, then, once we were feeling a bit better, to find a quiet beachside chalet for a month or so somewhere to relax and recover. At this point there was still no real change in Evan’s eyesight, so while we were there he sent the results from his tests back to a doctor in Canada to look over. The following morning he received a panicked phone call from the doctor advising him to return to Canada urgently for more investigations. I didn’t and still don’t think that was the right thing to do, but reluctant to ignore his advice, Evan booked a flight home. Feeling very much defeated, I did the same.

And so, just like that the trip was over. Flights were booked and three days later on a Saturday evening we sadly left the city behind, Evan on a plane bound for Manila in the Philippines, myself on a plane to Ethiopia. Both of us had long layovers and although I had 18 hours to explore Addis Ababa, my heart wasn’t really in it. Being there without Evan didn’t feel right at all. Just when I thought the trip couldn’t get any worse and right on the brink of finally finding something redeeming to do, we were done and headed back to the cold, grey, and likely snowy UK and Canada, a couple of months earlier than planned.


As you can appreciate my photo taking in these final weeks was non-existent, our minds firmly focussed elsewhere. Therefore, in an attempt to finish on a slightly more positive note I’ve looked back through the experiences we had over the previous four months and compiled a selection of pictures of the good bits, because despite all the crap we did have a few. I have no idea what will happen next, things really are in other people’s hands right now, but hopefully over the next little while we’ll figure it out and can start to look towards the future.

Luxury accommodation at Mardrid Airport!