One Night In Bangkok

My husband and I have almost mutually exclusive tastes when it comes to holidays. He acts as though he is going to drip towards an inevitable death if the temperature rises above about 20 Celsius, whereas I happily went for a run during my first humid night in Singapore; he likes to keep himself to himself, whereas I will go out of my way to talk to anyone I meet. When recently booking flights to the US the website asked if we wanted to pay extra to choose our seats in advance. He declined. “What if we don’t get to sit together?” I asked. “Then I can go to sleep and you can spend nine hours talking to whatever poor bugger sits next to you.”

Bangkok was my turn, and my victory. After years of exploring what I considered to be more interesting destinations alone, I dragged him with me with vain promises of historical sites and food that wouldn’t kill him. And this was a little mean of me.

Bangkok is everything I love about Asia, and everything that convinces him that next year we should just go to Lyme Regis – disorganised, loud, busy, full of cheerful people and so, so hot – the kind of hot that makes your glasses and your camera lens steam up. It’s a powder keg of chaotic joy with something for everyone – from the Gap Yah students stumbling down the Khao San Road to the aging hippies, with their reluctant teens in tow, reliving their youth, albeit in upmarket comfort off the back of their city salary.

Things got off to a bad start – our taxi driver took us to the wrong hotel, and was quite insistent that we should stay there anyway, even after the staff of said hotel almost physically pushed us back into the car and gestured wildly in the opposite direction. We finally arrived hot and bothered only to be told the swimming pool was closed for renovation and the café wouldn’t open until dinner time.

Tip 1 – In the same way that, in London, you are said to never be more than 10 feet from a rat, in Bangkok you are rarely more than 10 feet from a shopping centre, and they are invariably open 24 hours a day and, crucially, are air-conditioned. Our hotel turned out to be opposite the fabulous if bafflingly British-themed Terminal 21, and an hour later, refreshed and over-fed at very little expense, we happily made our way to the centre.

 

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Terminal 21, with its improbable (geographically inaccurate) London theme

 

Tip 2: Bangkok is very big (it appears as one of the 20 largest cities in the world on most lists) and has the traffic jams befitting of an oversized capital, but not necessarily the public transport to match. We were staying in Sukhumvit, which is amazingly well-connected if you’re there on business, but less so if you’re a tourist and want to do touristy things. I’m aware that public transport has probably improved a lot since we were last there, but plan your route wisely. Although my husband wasn’t keen, I’m a big fan of tuk-tuks – they’re small enough to weave through the choking traffic, and if you find you’re being taken in the wrong direction you can always just leap out (warning: not actually recommended.)

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Tip 3: Avoid temple fatigue. There are a LOT of temples in Bangkok, and an awful lot of people visiting them. We went to the Grand Palace (by convoluted route involving Sky Train, MRT, tuk-tuk and boat) and, though it is invariably one of those “must sees”, it’s also rammed with tour groups and every kind of hawker under the (intensely hot) sun. I would recommend a longer visit to Wat Pho, deservingly famous for its incredible reclining Buddha.

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The Reclining Buddha, reclining

Tip 4: Actually, do go for the tourist boats, or, if you’re staying in one of the plush hotels on the banks of the Chao Phraya, make use of their private crafts, of which we were quite jealous. I fear our marriage almost ended as I cajoled my husband onto a rickety riverbus full of schoolchildren and monks, worryingly low in the water with a disconcertingly spluttering engine. “It’s an experience,” I told him. “Yes.” He agreed curtly. “So is dysentery. It doesn’t mean I want it.”

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Error of judgement

Which brings me on to…

Tip 5: the Sky Bar at the State Tower (dress code applies) is a gorgeous place to wind down, though the owners know it and charge for drinks accordingly – a meal will set you back even further, so we went elsewhere, but it looked wonderful and probably worth it for an anniversary. Go there for sunset, as we did, and, tourist trap or not, you can’t help but be impressed.

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The decadence of the State Tower’s Sky Bar

But if the city does become too much…

Tip 6: there are many daytrips just an hour or two out of Bangkok where you can experience the more sedate side of Thailand, along with its beautiful scenery (more on this another time). The brave can go it alone as trains in particular are excellent, or there is a plentiful supply of tour companies willing to charge you for the full service so you don’t have to think about anything.

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Away from the City

And finally…

Tip 7: RELAX! Bangkok may be frenetic and loud and, with its bright lights and spicy foods, an attack on all the sense at once, but it’s also home to many luxury hotels, great restaurants and spas, as well as those vast shopping centres. Largely due to the presence of air conditioning we found ourselves in a bowling alley at the other-worldly Siam Paragon, which also turned out to be the home of the most extravagant ice cream parlour. And why not?

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A Tale of Two Cities

My adopted city is known the world over – a sprawling capital of over 9million people, once the centre of a vast empire that covered a third of the earth’s land surface, it is the seat of the British Royal Family and home to an array of national museums and galleries, from the Natural History Museum to the Tate. “When a man is tired of London,” according to Dr Johnson, “he is tired of life.

In contrast, my home city of Bradford gets a bad rap. Once a wealthy city at the centre of a thriving textiles industry, today it is more often associated with race riots and poverty than with culture and innovation – Wikipedia points out that some areas of the Bradford district “suffer from the highest levels of deprivation in the country… Infant mortality is double the national average.” Where Bradford appears in popular culture – and it does, often – it is generally as the setting for Rita, Sue and Bob, Too, or, in more recent years, the unrelentingly depressing  films The Arbor and The Selfish Giant.

I got a wonderful taste of this contrast recently running two 10k races in two months, one in Bradford and the other through the centre of London, where I can vicariously claim to live (in that my address is just inside a London postcode, out on the edge by the M1 that takes me back home again in 4 hours). Before the London run we were sent a fabulously glossy guide of the route with elaborate descriptions of what we would see along the way: “as you round the corner you will see on your left St Paul’s Cathedral, built by Sir Christopher Wren after the Great Fire of London. On your right, on the other side of the River, you will be able to see the Shard – Europe’s tallest building – rising majestically above the skyline.” The final 500 metres took us along the Mall, finishing directly in front of Buckingham Palace.

The Bradford 10k was not accompanied by such a guide, perhaps because it took us past boarded up Pound Shops, scrapyards and finished in front of a branch of Nando’s.

 

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Bradford’s beautiful City Park

 

In summary, Bradford is probably not on the top of anyone’s travel list. And yet it should be. Its short-lived and ultimately unsuccessful bid to become Capital of Culture in 2003 apparently off the back of Gareth Gates and Bombay Mix made me laugh and cry in equal measure, because, actually, there is easily enough to do in Bradford for a long weekend, for a tiny fraction of what you’d pay for an equivalent break in London. So in the hope of tempting you, here are a few things you can do

  1. The National Science and Media MuseumThis is utterly, fantastically brilliant, and was probably my favourite place as a child, in part because it had a little booth where you could read the “news”, and buy the video afterwards. (Yes. Video. That’s how old I am.) I went back recently and found to my delight that this feature is still there, though they’ve updated the news stories. (For years budding teenage Hugh Edwards got to relate the horror of the Ethiopian famine as part of a fun day out.)  Still completely free, the museum still features an array of interactive exhibits, with endless buttons to press and levers to pull. 30 years on it’s still one of my favourite places in the world

 

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Retro gaming at the National Media Museum

 

  1. Saltaire. I want to retire here. This glorious “village” was built by industrialist and philanthropist Titus Salt at the height of the Victorian era when Bradford was a manufacturing powerhouse, arguably because he didn’t want his workers to die off as quickly as they did elsewhere in the City, but either way it’s an astounding feat of social planning and now a World Heritage Site. The Mill at the centre of it all is also home to the largest collection of David Hockney paintings in the world – while Andrea Dunbar was introducing the world to the general goings-on of Buttershaw, fellow Bradfordian Hockney had hotfooted it to California and was busy painting young men leaping into swimming pools.
  2. Everything Bronte. The Bronte sisters were actually born in Bradford, though sadly their birthplace is once again a café rather than the museum you might expect. The more famous Parsonage, however, is just a short drive out from the city, and well worth a visit, with all the rooms eerily restored to their original décor from c1840.
  3. The Peace Museum. One of the lesser-known but glorious pieces of trivia about my alma mater, King’s College London, is that every year its War Studies Department plays a football match against Bradford’s Peace Studies department for the Tolstoy Cup. (It should be noted that Bradford usually wins.) Bradford University is also home of the Peace Museum, which is small and quirky but just so uniquely positive and so very Bradford in its idiosyncrasy that it’s worth a visit.
  4. Finally, a trip to Bradford just wouldn’t be complete without a curry. Much as Bradford’s famed cuisine might be the butt of jokes, there is a very good reason why the city was crowned Britain’s curry capital for six years in a row. There is, of course, a mouth-watering plethora of places to choose from, but my favourite are Omar’s Balti House, where the naans are as big as the table, and The Three Singhs, because, well, you have to respect a pun of such quality, and actually the curries are pretty good too.

Hotel Heaven…or Hell

So, from restaurants to hotels. I have stayed in a fair few over the years, ranging from the grand to the grimy, sumptuous to sleazy. The wildly varying budgets of myself and my employers mean I’ve experienced the full range, from the fabulously luxurious Four Seasons in Mumbai, to a small guesthouse in Margate where we were sent for a “teambuilding” weekend one November, and bonded not over Belbin Team Role assessments and building skyscrapers out of newspaper and Plasticine, but over set mealtimes with over-boiled vegetables from the freezer, and an interesting packeted dessert that tasted like toilet duck.

Putting this together, I stumbled over these reviews and figured that, in the grand scheme of things, I’d actually got away fairly lightly. But nonetheless there are a few things that, older and wiser, I would bear in mind now (money-permitting) when booking a hotel.

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Actually my favourite hotel in the world – chic but understated, Singapore’s Park Hotel Clarke Quay
  1. Location, location, location: Being in the centre of town isn’t everything. I’ve stayed in some lovely hotels just outside the centre and as long as there’s reliable public transport this isn’t necessarily a problem. I have stayed in far nicer hotels in expensive cities such as Zurich by picking something a few tram stops away, where the equivalent in a touristy area would have cost double. Conversely, and feeling rich, a few years ago we popped over to Copenhagen for a romantic weekend and treated ourselves to a hotel right next to Tivoli Gardens. Our hotel turned out to be a hostel, and our “double room” looked more like something you’d find in a bail hostel or army barracks, with two small, single metal beds positioned as far apart as possible (which in a tiny room admittedly wasn’t far) and which creaked disconcertingly when you moved. We tried to move them together, but unfortunately the only way to do that meant blocking the door. So it turned out to be not quite as romantic a weekend as we had hoped. In Prague we stayed in a hotel that billed itself as being “close to the action”, but we had foolishly not done our research as to what action that was. In this context “action” meant “Irish bars and stripper joints”, and it was populated entirely by loud British stag groups. One night we came back to find them having what can only be described as a “Widdle Off” outside the entrance, each with his flies undone seeing who could go on the longest. For the rest of the weekend I pretended to be French.

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    Where “close to the action” translates as “a bit like being in King’s Cross”
  2. “Quirky” hotels: if a hotel, in its write-up, claims to be “quirky”, you might want to find out exactly what that means. Generally I don’t like my hotels quirky. I like them to be clean, with soft beds, a good lock on the door, a decent shower and somewhere to get a drink. “Quirky” in my experience often translates as “disconcerting” or “expect mild peril”. By far the oddest hotel I ever stayed in was a James Bond themed hotel in Milan called the Admiral. It was a little way outside the city (see 1) and housed in a 1970s building that possibly looked mildly more inviting in the 1970s. Everything – and I mean everything – was Bond-themed, for no discernible reason – there was Bond soap and shower gel in the bathroom, and in the entrance hall there were display cases full of collectible cars and dolls and replica guns. The bar sold vodka martinis (shaken, not stirred) and the barman (the only staff member we saw the whole week, who also checked us in and out) looked like he could kill you with a neat flick of his hand. I presume it was just owned by a particularly eccentric man with a Bond fetish – even the rooms were named after the films and painstakingly yet not altogether accurately decorated. At the same time, we appeared to be the only guests and it was, at the very least, a little bit weird to the point of creepy.

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    Not a theme hotel, although it somehow reminds me of the Senate in Star Wars
  3. The gimmick: in the last couple of decades a whole range of hotels has sprung up across in the worlds in places you wouldn’t immediately think of as being conducive to a comfortable night’s sleep. Not content with a simple bed in a nice, grounded building with four walls, you can now dangle from the treetops or bed down in a cave, ex jumbo jet or sleep in what is effectively a human gym locker in one of Japan’s Capsule Hotels. While some of the hotels on this list look truly amazing (the one in the library is calling to me as I type), do nonetheless beware of the gimmick. Gimmicky hotels tend to be charging extortionate sums for you to do something which (they proudly proclaim) “you can’t do anywhere else”, but there’s a reason you can’t do it anywhere else: nobody in their right mind would want to do it. Take the Ice Hotel in Sweden. it has spawned a couple of poorer imitations in similarly offputtingly cold places, some just for show and others which welcome in paying guests. We went to the one in Quebec, though this one was called Hotel de Glace, because calling it something French makes it sound somehow more sophisticated and less bollock-tinglingly cold. They market their stays not as “nights”, but “experiences”, because you could sue a hotel for a truly terrible night, but nobody could deny that hypothermia is one heck of an experience. Yes, they are beautiful and breathtaking pieces of art;; yes, sipping warming spirits from glasses made of actual ice is indeed quite cool for a while; and yes, going to sleep with a massive Doctor Who-esque snow angel etched above your bed is certainly something new. But when you’re given an industrial sleeping bag and told proudly that in it you could survive at -40, doesn’t a normal person think “perhaps, but why would I want to?”

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    This room was heated to a balmy -5. It didn’t take long for the novelty to wear off.
  4. Soundproofing: insist upon it. I stayed in a rather grand hotel (the Fairmont Royal York – it’s been in numerous films) whose glamorous era-gone-by opulence is worth every penny BUT I was unluckily put into a room with a (locked) connecting door to  the adjacent room’s bathroom. This would have been fine, except that the occupant of said room had evidently had a rather heavy night, and/or a bad curry, and was experiencing a not inconsiderable level of discomfort at five o’clock the next morning. We involuntarily lived through every painful second of the next hour with him as he groaned, squeezed, gasped and sighed and (I’m pretty certain) at one point wept, accompanied by other, bodily noises which, having thus set the scene, I will leave to your imagination.

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    “Quirky”, or “101 Ways For Insects To Get Into Your Room”
  5. Local Wildlife: this could be anything. A friend of mine went to Bali and, having left the terrace door open overnight, woke up to find a monkey looking quizzically at her from the dresser (to be fair, she was staying on Monkey Forest Road, so that was a bit of a clue); in Greece, elaborately-decorated little green lizards somehow found their way into our apartment; in South Carolina, passive-aggressive signs  warned you not to leave your towels drying on the balcony, or passing pelicans would pinch them. Usually, though, it just means cockroaches.  I’ve had two major cockroach experiences that really stand out over the years. In Sydney, innocently getting up to go to the loo in the middle of the night, one scuttled across my bathroom floor that was so large that in my sleepy state I momentarily concluded to myself that it was a crayfish that had somehow mysteriously found its way into my apartment block. But worse than this were those I encountered in Hong Kong, which in addition to being generally other-wordly and capable of surviving an apocalypse were apparently suicidal and could fly. All night long I was kept awake by that horror film sound effect palpitation of their wings as they persistently hurled themselves at the elderly wall fan in the corner of my room, flutter-flutter-flutter-flutter-SMACK-SMACK…. The following morning after no sleep I found halves of cockroach all over my room. Turns out they’re not invincible after all.

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    Where baboons are apparently a substantial part of the clientele
  6. Read between the lines: what YOU think something means isn’t necessarily what the owner of the hotel thinks it means, so do more than a little cursory research before booking. In Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria – not necessarily an obvious tourist spot for the travelling Englishman at the end of March – we patted ourselves on the back at the marvellous deal we netted booking a “luxury suite” which, the hotel website claimed while describing said room next to a picture of some champagne chilling in a bucket, was “suitable for 4 people”. It cost us £27, and it turned out there was a reason for this: what we thought was a plush VIP suite turned out to be the kind of room which you used to get in a Travelodge in the 1980s: a standard double bed and a clunky pull-out sofa bed intended for your child. We were a married couple travelling with our best friend, which made for an awkward couple of nights during which we lay rigidly still in our double bed, and he tossed and turned uncomfortably in the kid’s bed about a foot away. (And to top it all, the bar was shut while we were there.)
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    View from our “luxury” suite, Veliko Tarnovo

     

 

Foodie Heaven…or Hell

I’ve recently been binge-watching Supersizers Go…, not because it has anything remotely to do with travel or indeed my regular job, but because I’m a little bit in love with Giles Coren. (OK, I am really a lot in love with Giles Coren.) The format is basically: Giles Coren and Sue Perkins spend a week “living” and eating the food of another era, invariably washed down with copious quantities of alcohol, and hilarity ensues. It’s actually rather marvelous. I wish they’d do a travel version.

One of the most fabulous things about travel is the opportunity to try different foods in their far more authentic forms than the often poor imitations we’re served at home. In Mumbai I was dazzled and delighted not by chicken tikka masala (invented, I think, in Glasgow?) but by spiced basa fillets and smoked hilsa (it’s a bit like a big, angry-looking herring), and in Hong Kong by various bits of animal I couldn’t identify, and was probably grateful not to. In Bethlehem I had one of the best meals I have ever experienced – mouth-watering hummus and falafel and lamb in a restaurant called Afteem.

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Meat on a stick, Marrakech.

But eating abroad also has its downsides. Imagine coming to the UK and eating what you thought were traditional British dishes – you’d have permanent indigestion, and mushy peas would be enough to give someone who hadn’t grown up with them some form of mild PTSD. I’ve had a number of similar experiences abroad, and am not informed enough to know if I was unlucky or having the sort of “experience” which will allow me at parties to pretend I was posh enough to have a gap year and get away with it. Here’s a rundown.

 

  1. Delhi Belly: you’re actually not allowed to go to India and not get ill. I think you sign something that says as much when you get your visa, and if you manage to stay well for your whole trip they don’t let you leave again. Nobody can put their finger on what it is – street food and ice cubes and generally delicate western constitutions all get the blame. The woman with whom I was working confidently blamed watermelon juice, and went into a slightly-too-graphic description of how bugs can get into it via tapwater, which every traveler knows will BRING INSTANT DEATH. Convinced I was nearing the end one night I texted my husband the words “I love you” from my hotel bathroom floor, and when pleasantly surprised to wake up again the next morning still relatively intact and very much alive. Surreptitiously warning my supervisor that I was a little unwell and may need to nip out occasionally, she lavishly presented me with my own toilet (“On the western-style toilet there is now a sign that says Out of Order, but IT IS NOT OUT OF ORDER! IT IS FOR YOU!) and every time I came back 20 people asked if I was OK
  2. Moving swiftly on, we come to offal. Pretty much every local specialty seems to involve parts of an animal you wouldn’t willingly/knowingly eat, and I’ve come to the conclusion it’s a ruse of the rest of the world against us. In Hong Kong I was given what I was told (this must have been lost in translation, as I have looked it up since and am assured nobody eats such a thing) “chicken bladders”. I went towards these tiny little things with my chopsticks to be told “don’t pierce them! The juice will escape”! Since you ask, it was like chewing a condom full of chicken gravy.
  3. Trying to please the tourists: one of the funniest and least inviting “meals” I encountered was the “English Breakfast” in a Spanish hotel, which was apparently provided “in response to customer demand”. It looked as though the chef had had an English breakfast painstakingly described to him but had never actually seen one, and the result was previously-beautiful Serrano ham fried to within an inch of its life and sitting in a centimeter of fat, dry scrambled eggs and baked beans made from scratch by mixing haricot beans with an improvised tomato sauce. We stuck to the pastries.
  4. Durian fruit. There must be someone somewhere who likes it. It must be something peculiar to particular cultures, like marmite, which you might possibly like by default if you are brought up with it. I tried durian once, and it was like eating vomit, only with an even more disconcerting texture. And what on earth possessed the first person to ever discover it was (in the loosest sense of the word) “edible” to take something that looks like a mutated porcupine and smells like a sewer, and think “I’ll see what that tastes like”. It’s banned on aeroplanes for a reason.
  5. National delicacies: snails, etc. I actually like chicken feet, one of those rites of passage you’re supposed to try in China; obligingly I have also tried snails in France. They taste of nothing. Rubber, at a push. This is why they’re served swimming in garlic and butter – so that there is something to taste. In this category fall countless other things, usually insects (scorpions, I’m told, are lovely and crispy, but I’ve never had the chance to try them) or snakes. So much still to try, so much disappointment still to come.
  6. Local booze: this really depends on where you are. In South Africa the Pinotage was, of course, fabulous, and in Canada the white wines of the Niagara region came as a pleasant surprise. In Europe, however, every country seems to have an obligatory “local” spirit that you could either clean your teeth or strip the paintwork from your walls with. Here’s a tip: if the guidebook tells you it was previously used for “medicinal purposes”, avoid it, as this translates as “will kill everything it touches”.
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The national drink of Latvia. No. Just no.

Dining Out On Pretension

Last year, in Lisbon, I did something very rare: I visited a Michelin starred restaurant. I love good food, but restaurants of such quality, and the inevitable accompanying pageantry, not to mention strain on my wallet, take me so far out of my comfort zone that I can’t even see my comfort zone any more. As a child, “going out for dinner” meant you stayed IN the restaurant for your fish and chips, rather than taking them away wrapped up in paper. This usually only occurred in the event of a birthday or a wake. Frankly, the mere presence of cutlery that wasn’t plastic made us feel we were getting a bit above ourselves. Nowadays I’ve just about got over seeing Pizza Express as decadent, but nonetheless this was still a rare treat.

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“Eating out”

So, how do you know you’re having a world-class dining experience rather than a standard Friday night at your bog-standard tandoori or local Wetherspoon? Here are some indicators:
–          The “tasting menu”. This is where you’re charged a set (usually large) amount of money for what is ultimately a series of canapes presented as mini courses which you need a magnifying glass to see.

–          The dishes feature mysterious ingredients or are so incomprehensibly titled that you can’t work out what they are, but are too afraid to ask. What, for example, is a Mahogany Clam? And how does he differ from a Standard Clam? Suddenly you find your tiny portion of meat comes with “jus” (as my dad calls it, “crap gravy”) and pea puree (substandard mushy peas). Other parts of your meal sound decidedly unappetising, but to admit this would be to show your lack of culture, so you keep quiet and eat your smoked salmon with “a smear of liquorice gel”, even though this sounds like something you’d rub on a mouth ulcer, and your “shaved fennel with birch syrup” (I promise I’m not making this up) even though, as far as you know, fennel isn’t particularly hairy and birch syrup sounds like a hippy remedy for a hangover.

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Jus

–          Each staff member has a designated job, and is apparently forbidden stray onto a colleague’s territory. You must not ask the person who puts the napkin on your knees (posh diners evidently being above doing this for themselves) if you can order wine, the wine waiter (sorry, sommelier) if you can order your food, expect the person from whom you order your food to actually be the person who then brings you your food, or ask the person who brings you your food for the bill. At the restaurant we visited, there was one waiter whose sole job seemed to be to replace pieces of cutlery, and he looked positively excited when the woman next to us dropped her knife, swiftly replacing it with more aplomb than was strictly necessary.

–          You are not allowed to eat or drink until the content of each course has been explained in extravagant detail. With each course, the sommelier appeared at our table and we were treated to a very informed description of the wine and why it was the best wine for what we were about to eat, and we had to nod sagely as we learned about the different types of grapes that grow along the Chilean/Argentinian border, feigning interest. We then had to go through the same charade with the food, with the waiter whose job it was to describe the food giving us an elaborate overview of what, owing to the tiny portions, would take us less time to eat than it took him to describe: “Here you have gently grilled, fresh shrimps which were caught just this morning off the Sussex coast. Their names were Barry and Derek, and they are served on a bed of fluffed quinoa with a light drizzle of menstrual jelly.” (OK, I made that last bit up.) When the Ballad of Barry and Derek was complete the first waiter whipped off the lid to reveal with a flourish their remains in all their small, overly-decorated glory.

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No, I don’t know what this is either. I think it might be sandpaper and some fairy dust

 

–          Once you have the wine, great care is taken that you do not pour this yourself. Instead, it is placed just out of reach, thus ensuring that the Head Wine Pourer stays in secure employment until retirement and you remain thirsty and increasingly concerned that the staff are passive-aggressively judging the speed of your alcohol consumption in their insistence that you wait a while being allowed more.

–          At the end of the meal, it is obligatory that you try the recommended “digestif”. This invariably tastes a bit like cough mixture.

–          The evening ends with a phone call from your bank querying if your card has been stolen or if you really did just voluntarily spend over £200 on coffin-roasted Trafalgar Square Pigeon with deadly nightshade compote and goat-sick glaze followed by organic blackcurrant soufflé sprinkled with locally-sourced vanilla-infused orphan tears.

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Duck with “popped corn”. Yes, Genuinely. There were no vegetables.

*Pictures from a range of dining experiences.

Long Live The Scarf!

There are certain things you would be advised to pack if you go travelling. Your passport, obviously; imodium, unless you enjoy living life on the edge; a spare set of underwear, in case you get delayed; Yorkshire tea, in case you are under the misapprehension that nowhere else in the world can produce tea as that from the famous plantations of Huddersfield.

When I was in Mumbai I bought a scarf from a stall in Worli. I bought it partly because I loved the colours, and partly because I had not yet mastered the knack of saying “no” to beaming and persistent vendors. But it’s probably now my favourite item of clothing, and is getting to be as well-travelled as I am, having ticked off 9 countries in 3 years.

In that time it’s been a scarf….

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…a shawl…

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…a makeshift hijab….

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It’s even been a blanket on cold flights. It remains the single most useful travel purchase ever made, and this is why I felt it warranted a blog post all of its own. Long live the scarf!

Libraries in Langa

On a recent trip to Cape Town I was asked to take over some books for the fledging library at the LEAP school in Langa, the oldest township on the Western Cape. The school educates children from local, high-need communities, preparing them for, in many cases, university entrance and life beyond Langa.

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In the entrance lobby at LEAP School, Langa

On our flight on the way back, an elderly white British couple were horrified that I’d visited a township. “Were you safe?” they wanted to know. They had been staying with family further up the coast, who apparently would rather take a longer route than drive somewhere beside the townships. “The people there will steal anything,” confided the woman who had gone out of her way to avoid such places during her three-week stay and had presumably based this statement on hearsay.

Well.

I was a little anxious about visiting, not for safety reasons, but because there can potentially be something uncomfortable about what my husband, who did not come with me, called “poverty tourism”. There can be a fine line between curiosity and contributing to the local economy by visiting (township tours are now very popular)  on the one hand, and gawping at a way of life that is unimaginable to our own pampered existence on the other. But the school had meticulously arranged my visit – the chance to meet and talk to students and see the school and also the area it serves.

Langa, like any other place, is a jumble of contradictions. To describe it as “poor” and move on is as meaningless as describing London as “rich”. Like any place, it has its wealthier residents – its teachers and nurses who live in very pretty, brightly-coloured permanent residences on the edge of the settlement, with their proud, well-tended gardens: my guide Lungiswa told me that it’s impossible to buy one of these as people hang on to them, and there are never any for sale; and like any place it has its poorer residents – the ones we think of when we think of townships – in their temporary, corrugated-iron shelters built practically on top of each other in no discernible pattern. In between the two are the modern, rather faceless blocks of government-built apartments – as characterless as anything you might see in Dalston or Dagenham. Do people prefer living in these, I ask, (hoping it isn’t a stupid question) or in the shacks? Yes, Lungiswa says, because they have heating, and so are warmer in the winter, and yes because they have inside toilets, but they are very small and anonymous. She is scathing, however, about some of the new housing. It was built, she said, because of the World Cup. “The government didn’t want tourists to see our houses,” she says, “so they built some new homes to hide us, because we are bad for South Africa’s image.” The driver argues that it doesn’t matter why they were built, it’s a step in the right direction and the new homes are a great benefit for the area. They argue a little as I sink into the back seat and decide not to offer an opinion.

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But Langa is not devoid of facilities. Like anywhere in sports-mad South Africa there are quite a few sports pitches; there is a supermarket; there are bright and enterprising local shops, carwashes and other services operating out of people’s homes or roadside stalls; and there is a wonderful library that felt so identical to my own in Burnt Oak that I felt a strange sort of deja-vu for a moment. The library – a community facility with computers and internet access and a range of groups and services operating from it – is just the kind of local resource our own government is closing down back in the UK.

Even the shacks are not necessarily what they seem as you drive past them from a distance on the main road, bemoaning poverty from a safe distance. Walking past one, I’m surprised to see it’s fitted with what looks like an IKEA show kitchen; others have solar panels and satellite dishes; many have little but clearly lovingly-tended flower pots around them.

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The school itself radiates pure joy, and pupils and teachers alike are obviously justifiably proud of it. The library is growing but they are very keen to increase the number of fiction books available – they have a lot of text books donated by various schemes and projects, but to encourage children to read and engage they need fiction. I had brought over, spread carefully across suitcases and hand luggage to max out the luggage weight restrictions, a donation of books from one of their visiting teachers and a donation of original novels from London-based author of teen fiction Miriam Halahmy. Visiting an English class first hand, I was excited to see the children striding up and down the dusty yard as they enthusiastically enacted scenes from a play, which would not have been possible without donated books.

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Students explore the new books in the school library

As part of my visit I visited two classes. The first, a serious group of budding accountants, journalists and nurses studying for their matriculation, listened with disconcerting attentiveness while I talked about London and the UK education system, aware that there are very, very few scholarships for undergraduate students, putting it out of their reach for the time being but making postgraduate study an option for the future. The second, though, 13 and 14 year olds, gifted me one of the most enjoyable 15 minutes of my life, leading to an impromptu, passionate discussion about football, (“your team beat Chelsea? But I have not heard of your team!”) and my connection with the school, the teacher who had donated the books. “We love Miss Lindsay!” chorused the class. “She is our favourite teacher.” “Miss Lindsay was my favourite teacher too, around twenty years ago.” One girl’s eyes widen. “Twenty years ago? You are SO OLD!” Before I can stop them my phone is taken out of my hand, and eventually returned five minutes later with about 20 selfies added to the memory. “Will you put us on the internet?” It would be my pleasure – so here they are:

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I would very much like to go back to Langa in the future and see how it’s doing. I would like to follow the careers of every single one of those bright, intelligent, enthusiastic children. I was touched by the wonderful welcome, privileged to have been invited, impressed by the teachers and their hard work and dedication. I wish them all the best in their small corner of this wonderful, complicated, beautiful country.

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