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Sunday, 6 January 2013

Travels - When Things Go Wrong...

On my last post, Travels - Looking Back, someone posted a comment saying that there are many who travel long distance, but know little of their own local environment. Reading this comment has given me an idea for this blog, as my memory is full of travel experiences. However, some of the most cherished were those which did not require the boarding of an airline. This was because I was fortunate enough to find time indeed for more localised areas, places of interest closer to home. But where is the connection between local travel and things going wrong? Let's see as we go along.

My home town is Bracknell, some thirty miles (48km) west of London. It was one of several built under the New Town scheme of the early 1960s with the purpose of drawing the population out of London to settle into a fully functional community, which has all the facilities required for a decent standard of living, including a sport and leisure complex, parks and open spaces, as well as a modern industrial estate. But the downside to this is that Bracknell is, and has always been, as touristy as a metal scrapyard. As one friend of mine used to answer when I asked,

Is there anything of interest in Bracknell?

Yes, the road out!

But where we live, Ascot is nearby, the next town rather, itself of no tourist interest, unless one is into horse racing. The modern grandstand is the home of Royal Ascot, called that because it's the venue where our Queen attends annually in June. About eight miles (13km) from Bracknell is Windsor, the nearest Royal and historic town, built on the River Thames, which can be truly classed as touristy. It is dominated by the world's largest fully functional castle, which building began by William the Conqueror in the 1070s with construction continuing into the centuries following.

Windsor Castle

Before the fire which destroyed a section of the castle in November 1992, there were many occasions when I cycled up to Windsor castle and went in, free, to gaze across the panorama, taking in the sports fields of nearby Eton from the castle parapet. Here I would meditate, away from the busy world while also taking in the nearby River Thames. But since the restoration was completed in 1997, having to now pay as well as the need to pass through tighter security to get to the same spot is a deterrent.

The UK is an elongated island north of the European mainland, separated by the English Channel, a finger of the Atlantic ocean making one of the busiest seas for shipping. So what is determined as "local"? The holiday resort of Blackpool, on the Irish Sea, is about the same distance from home as Paris. If I were to travel as far north as John O'Groats, on the Northern tip of  mainland Scotland (which I did in 1990) - this would still be classed as a British holiday, home holiday or "staycation" - but geographically, I would be further away from home than much of France, Germany, Switzerland and Denmark, and the whole of Ireland, Holland and Belgium.

So I recall in 1985, the year I decided more of a "local" destination, Rouen. This French city, made famous by the execution of nineteen year old Jeanne d'Arc in May 1431, is about two thirds of the way north between Paris and the coastal port of Dieppe, one of several which receive passengers from ferries plying across the Channel. (For comparison, Rouen is about the same distance from Bracknell as Manchester.) Once having found a room at a small hotel close to the station, I was able to take a train into Paris Gare St. Lazare several times during my stay at Rouen.

But on one of those days, I decided to visit Dieppe on a more leisurely pace than that of catching a ferry back to the UK. Foolishly, I decided to keep my banking cards safe in the hotel room, optimistic that such a short train ride to Dieppe would be uneventful. As the train was about to pull into the terminus, it passed under a long tunnel, something which stuck in my mind. Towards the end of the day, I made my way into Gare Dieppe for the return train to Rouen. Seeing one destined for Paris, as I supposed, all trains from Dieppe to Paris must stop at Rouen, I did not give it any more thought.

That is until the express train gathered speed and shot through a number of village stations. Then I realised that the train did not pass through the long tunnel just outside of town. I broke into a sweat. Were there more than one line linking Dieppe to Paris? Did I board the wrong train? And was I hurtling towards Paris with absolutely nothing to fall back on? My banking cards were at the hotel. I had just a few coins in my pocket. Not enough to pay for a ticket from Paris to Rouen. I dreaded the thought of being marooned in Paris, with no money and nowhere to stay! I started to panic as the train flew through another station without any hint of slowing down.

Then the conductor arrived to inspect the tickets. I showed him mine and stammered, "Rouen?"
The guard looked puzzled, shook his head and walked off, as if I asked for Timbuktu. He hadn't a clue what I ought to do, so surprising to me of one who ought to have known something of the network in his area.

But I was not alone in the carriage. Opposite my seat sat three or four teenagers. The one who sat the nearest to me asked in French if there was a problem. I simply answered, "Rouen?" - "Treno, Rouen?
The lad, realising that I could not speak French, carefully pronounced, "Serqueux." He then recited,  gesticulating like he would to a child, taking in the whole train we were on, "Dieppe, Serqueux, Paris." Then pointing to me, recited, "Serqueux." - "Amiens, Serqueux, Rouen."

He then offered me a peppermint as I began to feel a rush of relief. Change at Serqueux for Rouen. When at last I felt the brakes applied in preparation to stop at Serqueux, I could not thank the lads well enough. The ninety-minute wait all alone in the well-decorated waiting room was something I would never had swapped for being helplessly marooned in Paris.

Beautiful at it is, Paris is no place to be marooned with no money!

For me, train travel is just as exhilarating as flying. Holidays taken to the Continent (i.e. mainland Europe) were mostly done by boat-train, as I preferred to fly over longer distances. But train travel did have its drawbacks. Like in 1981 when I was backpacking northern Italy. One Friday evening I was standing in a crowded train from Pisa to Firenze when a professional pickpocket successfully emptied my pocket of my wad of Traveller's Cheques. So successful was his endeavour that I knew nothing of it until after reserving a bed at a city pensione (a hotel where several guests share a room, dormitory style. It is close to being a hostel, but without the self catering facilities.) It was while I was checking everything that I discovered that the chequebook was missing. With absolutely no money at all, first I had to spend a couple of hours waiting at the city police station for an interview, instead of spending time exploring the city. Then I had to depend on the generosity of the proprietor, who fed me each morning with a little piece of bread and some coffee until the banks re-opened on the Monday. Believe me. Being stuck in a foreign city without any money, not even to buy a snack, was certainly no fun!

I had no money here in Florence, but at least I had a place to stay.

Then the third occasion, years later in 2000. On this occasion Alex and I were celebrating our first anniversary with a holiday in Israel. But what I was not aware of, was that their New Year celebrations, or Rosh HaShannah, was at the start of October that year instead of the normal September. As usual, due to an overlook on my part, I did not cash enough traveller's cheques when I had the chance earlier on in Tiberias. We alighted the Egged Bus at Haifa, which by then had totally shut down ready for the Jewish national holiday. By then we have had a room booked at a Christian Conference Centre in a village of Isfyia, on the summit of Mt. Carmel, a good several miles away from where we were. I reasoned that such a distance can be covered by foot, so Alex and I, laden with heavy rucksacks, made our way from the bus station, through the city, and then we started on a stepped path up the hillside. We could not help but admire the stunning views of the city and the sweeping Bay of Akko.

On the summit of Carmel, we walked a little further until the Haifa University tower block came into view - a good few miles away. The village of Isfyia was an equal distance further away, making it practically impossible to venture any further. We found a roadside bench, and we sat down and stayed put, with my face buried in the palms of my hands in hopelessness. With me, I was used to sleeping under the stars. I did this a number of times when away from home in my bachelor days. But I would not let my wife sleep outside. I was worried, very concerned.

The tower block of Haifa University can be seen for miles.

Presently an empty taxi heading for Haifa stopped, and the driver poked his head out of the window and called out, asking if there was a problem. I called back saying that we need to get to Stella Carmel in Isfyia, but we had no money. He then told us to wait there, and drove on, only to re-appear on our side, and beckoned us in, while loading our rucksacks into the trunk. When we repeated that we had no money, he gave us ten shekels with the explanation that he was a pastor of a Christian church in Haifa, and he would not allow himself to drive past us if he suspected that we had a problem.

These experiences testify such foolish or ignorant decisions made as a backpacker, much due to lack of proper research, or as in the case of the Italian train journey, lack of proper looking after of my belongings, especially money. It goes to show, no matter how experienced or enthusiastic over something I love doing, mistakes can so easily happen.

But how reassuring it is to know that God is watching over us as believers. Due to some young people, the taxi driver and the hotel proprietor all being at the right place at the right time, God can demonstrate his promise:

Casting all your cares upon him, for he cares for you. (1 Peter 5:7)
Then you shall walk in thy way safely, and thy foot shall not stumble. (Proverbs 3:23)

Certainly, God keeps his word.


  1. Frank, this isn't about the post. We both have google blogs and I can't upload pix from my PC to my blog; have you had the same trouble?

    1. Dear Tim,
      Thankyou for your comment, and yes, you have confirmed my suspicion that has changed the way we can load images to our blogs.
      On your editing page you have two options, both buttons directly above the editing box. One is the "Compose" button and the other is the HTML button.
      To load an image, click on the HTML button. The cursor will then be brought to the beginning of the text. Scroll down to where you want the picture to be and click your curser there.
      Then click "image" and download as normal.
      When the image is loaded, its code will appear in the text. Click back to "compose".
      I hope all goes well with you,
      God bless,

    2. Thanks Frank; I really appreciate your kind help. Yes, we both noticed something has changed; if it ain't broke, why fix it!? Anyway, when I've uploaded my pix I'm going to read your post.

  2. Amen. Just think how much of a blessing the things that went wrong proved to be a blessing. So often we are so upset by the problems we ignore what God is doing.

  3. Hey Frank! Thank you for checking out my quiz. I went back and double checked the question in my book, and I had misquoted it. It was suppose to read "the wide gate and the broad road" lead. Thank you for pointing that out. I have been having a lot of trouble with my computer and my mouse, so I was pretty frazzled while typing my post last night. Thank you again, and I always appreciate it when someone cares enough to let me know my mistakes. Especially when typing God's Word. You are a wonderful friend, and faithful reader. God Bless,


  4. More travels from Frank; I can't get enough of reading about your travels Frank. I suppose reading about travelling is the next best thing to actually travelling isn't it? To travel is to truly broaden the mind and it's also romantic in a kind of way too; all the people you meet, all the different experiences, all the different kinds of food. God has truly created a wonderful world out there hasn't He?!

    When I went to Northern Italy for about a month I stayed exclusively in youth hostels and found that it was easy to make fast friends in them, people from all over the world would suddenly accompany you to museums or restaurants or places of interest or just spend time getting lost here and there; ah bliss! I want to see more of Spain, would love to see France and have a hankering to see Morocco as well, amongst so many other places. I love just being somewhere nice, with the whole day ahead of me, and all the possibilities that being somewhere new and different brings.

    God watched over me there as well. I literally went on a wing and a prayer and there were countless times where I had no idea where I was going and yet always things fell into place.

  5. Hi Frank,
    when I look back on our travels, some of the things that appeared to 'go wrong' are remembered as the most interesting. You certainly have plenty of interesting things to look back on.

  6. Frank, this is a really good read and very intersting, thank you for posting.

  7. Hey Frank! Thank you for your coment on my post. I enjoy it that we can have discussion about such things. I'm not trying to convert you to my way of thinking of course, but here are a couple of things to ponder. There is only one side to the truth because God is truth, and His Word is settled in Heaven. Also, here are a couple of posts which might interest you. I don't know if you have had the chance to read them or not. I hope you will like them.

    God Bless,

  8. Fascinating journeys indeed! You're right, though, getting stuck in a foreign town with no money can definitely be stressful. We thoroughly enjoyed our visit to Windsor and to Paris, but not so much to Blackpool. We went there every May for several years for the British Open Ballroom Championships, where we enjoyed competing in the largest and most prestigious competition in the world. Unfortunately, we always had to arrive over Bank Holiday weekend, and the local revelry often got so out of hand that we had to wind our way around people passed out from drinking. The town itself is quite touristy and the beaches too cold and polluted for swimming.
    Thanks as always for the entertaining & enlightening post, & God bless,