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Saturday, 29 October 2016

A Miracle For Us In Israel.

In previous blogs, I have always shared my experience as a lone backpacking independent traveller. Sure enough, that has always been my preferred way to explore our beautiful and historic planet during my bachelor days. Like that, any risk of bickering, disagreements, or missing out on a venue for another's preference, along with a lack of affordable time, were all avoided. Instead, I went wherever I wanted to go, and stayed at a venue as long as I decided, with no questions asked. As a result, I tended to be very approachable, friendly, and quite chatty to anyone I came across, and that especially in the member's kitchen at any backpacker's hostel. Of course, after I married Alex, much of that had changed. This includes acceptance of package trips where both single-venue travel itinerary and hotel accommodation were pre-arranged by the company in charge of the trip, whether it be Thomson's, Thomas Cook, or some other travel operator. The very sort of holiday I would have looked with disdain before I married. For example, our honeymoon was a package trip to a Greek destination with Thomson's, the first of such trips since a package trip to Spain with a college friend as far back as 28 years, in 1972.

But at least Alex and I did enjoy an independent backpacking trip to Israel in the year 2000, to celebrate our first wedding anniversary. And I rate this trip as backpacking because we spent our time together at three separate venues: The first at a hostel in Tiberias, a town on the western shore of Lake Galilee, the second venue at the Stella Carmel Christian Guest House at the small village of Isfiya, not far from Haifa, and the third at the New Swedish Hostel right in the heart of the Old City of Jerusalem. And as with any independent trip, we made our own way to each of these hotels through means of public buses and taxis. However, there was one big mistake we have made with that particular trip, and that was in the timing of the decision to make the journey from Tiberias to Haifa. We chose, of all days, the eve of Rosh Hashanah, or New Year's Day for the Jews in Israel, when the entire nation shuts down - every shop, all public transport, all administrative services - making the whole land look as if every human being had vanished. So we were stuck in the deserted city of Haifa, after the very last bus from Tiberias has pulled into the depot. 

Furthermore, we couldn't see any Sheruts (shared taxi) to take us to Stella Carmel, and we were also strapped for cash, with just a few shekels in my pocket, having foolishly neglected to cash a Traveller's Cheque at a bank in Tiberias while we still had the chance. So although carrying a large book of cheques, we were basically penniless, and therefore we had little option but to attempt to walk from the city of Haifa to Stella Carmel, using the skyscraper of the University of Haifa as a guide post. For I not only knew about the University, but also its location, from the time I was a volunteer at Stella Carmel more than six years previously in 1994. But what I didn't realise was that Isfiya was just over twelve miles 20 km from Haifa Bus Station, and to add to the situation, not only did I have a heavy rucksack on my back, but there was a mountain to climb, Mount Carmel, a ridge of high ground 1,700 feet, 525 metres from sea level. And oh yes, Alex was 18 weeks pregnant with our first daughter.

Haifa University.

So we climbed the mountainside, using a series of stairways which cuts through the rising suburbs of the city. Near the top, as we were about to arrive at the beautiful summit town of Karmelia, we turned and looked back at the fascinating panorama of the whole city, its large harbour functioning as the only commercial goods port for the whole country, and the rest of the coastline leading north to Accra, a medieval port a few miles further away. Strange, really. Only three years earlier, whilst still single, I had a vivid dream of standing at that very spot, with an unrecognisable female whom I did not know at the time. Was this the fulfilment of an apparently prophetic dream?

After passing through Karmelia, we found the main road to Isfiya, and for the first time we saw the upper floors of the University skyscraper - far, far away. Then I knew that I have severely underestimated the distance from one venue to the other. It would have taken several hours to arrive at our destination, as there was still a considerable distance between the University and the village of Isfiya. I could say that the tower block marks approximately halfway between where we were and the guest house, and it was soon to get dark. We walked a little further, the heavy rucksack bearing down on my shoulders. As we passed a residential area, we spotted a vacant roadside bench, and we both sat down. I covered my face with both of my hands, and it felt as if I was about to cry. As a seasoned traveller, how could I possibly have got both of us into such a disastrous situation? How could a wanting of a little pre-trip research would make such a difference? (No Internet back then.) I confessed to Alex, sitting next to me, that I was unworthy to be called an experienced traveller. I felt desperate, not so much for my sake as I have handled similar situations in the past. Rather I was desperate for my beloved wife and her unborn. 

Although at a residential area, a fence ran alongside the road, leaving no access to any of the nearby houses where I might have called for help. So we just sat there, remaining undecided what to do next - proceed with the walk which would have been too much for Alex as well as for myself, or spend the coming night here on the bench - and jeopardising Alex's safety as well as losing an already-paid night at the guest house?

After a short while, I saw a taxi halt directly in front of us on the other side of the dual carriageway, on its way to Haifa. The driver called out and asked if we were going anywhere. I shouted back that we are heading for Isfiya, but have hardly any money between us. The driver then shouted across to remain where we are, he'll be back. A couple of minutes later he arrived on our side of the road, and beckoned us in. Again I told him that we had no money between us, only traveller's cheques, as we had forgotten to cash one of them whilst still in Tiberias. 

"Never mind about that, please get in."

As we headed the right way, the driver wanted to know more about us. We told him that we are Christian backpackers out on a trip to celebrate our wedding anniversary, still two days away. He then reached for his wallet and pulled out a ten-shekel note. 

"Please take it." The driver insisted.

When I told him that our final destination was Stella Carmel, we also felt that somehow he already knew.

"Aside from driving a taxi, I'm also a pastor of a Christian church in the city, and I was on my way there when I saw the two of you, and I felt God telling me to stop and tend to you."

It was a miracle! For I don't believe in mere coincidences, I knew there and then that the mercy of God had intervened. Of all vehicle drivers passing us to and fro along the busy carriageway, the one taxi driver who spotted us happened to be a church pastor, in tune with what God was telling him. The driver dropped us off by the front door of the guest house, and bidding us farewell, he drove off, leaving us to check in at Reception, the very desk where I sat and administered six years earlier.

Stella Carmel Guest House.

And there are other hosteling trips I did overseas with other people - all of us young(ish) unmarried men. Four trips, if I remember, all between 1986 and 1989. The first two trips with four other mates, the third one with two of the same friends. And the fourth with just one from the group, making two of us on that particular trip. And the first two being actual cycling holidays across Holland, Belgium and Germany. And the fourth trip was also a (very testing) cycling holiday in France, over the hilly terrain of Normandy. This leaves just the third trip, without our bicycles, to Cologne in Germany, the three of us on a single-venue trip on the boat-train out from London to the English Channel crossing between Dover and Ostend in Belgium, and then by train on to Cologne. In all, by travelling with a group of friends, even independent from any operator, I have learned the meaning of fellowship and team co-operation through in-depth experiences which solo travel does not impart.

To travel as husband and wife is one thing, to travel in a small group so diverse is quite another. Between Alex and myself, there is that oneness of spirit which is unique only to married couples. My compulsion to protect my wife at an adverse situation was out of a special love reserved only for her, knowing that any harm coming to her would also hurt me badly as well, even if not physically. But among a group of young, unmarried men, we all had the instinctive ability to look after ourselves without the need for protection - at least not on the level as my wife needed while we were in Israel. 

Instead, while I spoke tender words to my wife whilst at our travels, between us men there was a lot of harmless teasing, with the ability for each of us to laugh at ourselves. And that was the real core of fellowship - the ability to laugh at oneself. Because this allowed each one of us to crack jokes at one another without hurting the recipient, or to pierce his heart, with myself being an easy target for teasing! There was even one moment I thought I had lost my bunch of keys, all on a single keyring, or that I had left them behind at the hostel where we spent the previous night. So there I was in a panic, emptying my backpack on the ground, and while I was rifling nervously through the contents, one of my mates called out what was that lump bulging out one of my pockets. When I shoved my hand into the pocket, lo and behold, there were the keys! This particular incident has become the main source of laughter and endless teasing for years to come, believe me! But the secret of such joviality was to laugh with them.

But once on the road, we all cycled in harmony, often with myself leading. And there was one occasion when I was called at from behind to slow down, because one of our group was struggling. So I slowed down for the rest of the leg of the journey. (And to right the balance, there was another occasion when I was struggling, and I had to call out to the rest to ease it a little.) But whatever we might have faced or experienced during these trips, there was that one single bond which held us all together, and that was our unity in Jesus Christ. Except for one, the rest of us all attended a church of our own choice, and our universal belief in the historicity of the Bible being the inspired Word of God. But the exception was an unbeliever who came with us on the first trip (replaced by another, a believer, on the second trip). Yet he knew what the rest of us believed in and had respect for our faith, and has enjoyed a deep friendship with us before marrying and moving away.

But also what I have found very intriguing about these trips, especially with our bicycles, is that there was no social class distinction among us. Our small group consisted of an accountant, a banker, an architectural assistant, a kitchen porter, and a domestic window cleaner (that is, me). None of us had upheld one job being greater or with a higher status than another. The unbeliever who accompanied us on the first trip also worked at an office desk. But there was not an iota of snobbery found among us. Such is the wonder of the power of the Holy Spirit in us. 

At Brussels, Belgium, 1987

Unity in Christ. The only power that can bring a bunch of men of such diverse opinions and such different ways of life to one of agreement among us. Like with my solo trips, we spent each night at a different hostel. But rather unlike hosteling as a lone individual where I tend to make conversation easily, in a group we tended to keep ourselves to ourselves, without giving any time to fellow hostellers. In a way that was a shame, because with Jesus Christ in us, I'm sure we could have offered something. 

But the point in all this is, whether as a married couple or a group of unmarried young men, God takes delight in fellowship. As it is written,

How good it is when brothers live together in unity! 
It is like precious oil on the head, running down on the beard, running down on Aaron's beard, running down upon the collar of his robes.
It is as if the dew of Hermon were falling on Mount Zion.
For the LORD bestows his blessing, even life for evermore.
Psalm 133.

For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them.
Matthew 18:20.

Love is the greatest force in the Universe, for God, its Creator, is Love.

Saturday, 22 October 2016

A Nerd Among Backpackers...

I had just exited the elevator at the Ground Floor within the recently opened backpackers hostel, which is just across the road from the Central Station. Not that the building itself was new. Rather it looked rather well-used, as it spent most of its life as just another office block right in the heart of Sydney, quite a walk away from the Harbour which boasts both the famous Bridge and close to it, the Opera House. However, its recent conversion from office to hostel meant that greeting me at the Ground Floor was a spanking new Reception, its long counter empty except for just one young female clerk, at that moment busy serving a customer. So like anyone else with a sound mind, I queued up behind him to wait my turn.

Sydney Central Hostel, visited  July/August, 1997.

As the customer in front was still being served, another young man appeared, looking to be in his late twenties, possibly early thirties. Instead of waiting behind me, he leaned next to me across the counter, and as the first backpacker was leaving, this new-arrival beckoned the clerk over, and I saw that she slightly bowed her head as if some form of obeisance. Immediately I raised my voice, and if any possible onlooker might have perceived to be in a belligerent tone, I told him direct to get in the queue and wait his turn. He face immediately turned red with rage over such an act of impudence, and delivered a torrent of expletives, including a quick lecture on how rude and disgraceful for me to have questioned what he saw was his rights. The clerk, perhaps feeling a little embarrassment, proceeded to serve me.

This particular incident remains unfazed in my memory for the past near-twenty years. For of all my entire travel and hosteling experiences in meeting so many people, this guy was dressed to the hilt in a business suit, shirt and tie, making him stand out like a sore thumb among the casually-dressed hosteling public. Or at least, if it wasn't for my sudden intervention, he would have successfully enticed the swooning clerk to skip over my turn to attend to his need, whatever need it might have been. 

I must be honest here, it was his style of dress which spurred me to intervene the way I did. Dressed up in a business suit and tie. In turn, a different kind of response I would have given to a casually dressed backpacker committing the same offence. More likely, it would have been a gentle tap on his shoulder and asking whether he was aware that he had jumped the queue. What was he doing here anyway? My one and only theory, and one I find to be most plausible, is that he was on a business trip to represent his company at a conference, and therefore received travel and accommodation allowance from his employers. But instead of staying at the Grand, Marriott, or Hilton Hotel, with such expenses which his allowance would have fully covered, he decided on a much cheaper backpacker's hostel, and then pocket the excess. The guilt resulting might have been the cause of his sudden rage at Reception.

And such is the world of backpacking, that golden moment in life when the last person on the planet I would have wanted to share the hostel with, was a man in a business suit. To me, backpacking and hostelling has always been an escape from the real human world of business and commerce, into a world of culture, history, and natural beauty. And startling coincidences.

The 1997 trip to Australia was part of what I call The Travel Triathlon, a Round-the-World solo trip taking in Singapore, Australia, and the United States. On that particular, rather eventful morning, I was planning a two-day trip to Blue Mountains National Park, a two-hour Intercity train journey out of Sydney Central Station. All I had to do was to make sure that a bed at the City Central Hostel was reserved on my return, for a further stay of seven days, before heading to the international airport to board the overnight flight to Los Angeles. I loved the Intercity train ride from Sydney Central to Katoomba, a country station in the midst of Blue Mountains National Park, a canyon totally covered with Eucalyptus trees which gives off a blue mist. On a calm day this mist hangs in the air, hence the name. It was there where I searched for a small hostel to spend the one night, along with hiking along a trail passing through dense rainforest and spectacular waterfalls. And also where Australian trains are concerned, the trains that run on the major Intercity line also runs underground as the Metro service to the Harbour and neighbouring districts. It's rather like having an Intercity 125 running through the Piccadilly, Northern, or District Line of the London Underground! Such is their culture.

Wentworth Falls, Blue Mountains National Park.

I guess it had all started whilst backpacking across the United States two years earlier in 1995. After spending a night at a rather dingy hotel in central Manhattan, my first stop after a long Greyhound bus journey, was at St. Louis, Missouri. There I found an equally dingy hostel which, to my surprise, was affiliated to Hosteling International, well known for their thorough inspections for qualification into membership. I booked in for a couple of nights. I saw a mouse dash across the kitchen floor, and there were dead cockroaches in the food storage cubicles. Yet it wasn't long before I made friends with a young German backpacker, sharing our travel experiences whilst cooking our meals in the member's kitchen. When, during the conversation, I told him that I had forgotten to bring the Greyhound route map, which came with the Ameripass ticket, he was willing to give me his, making the rest of the trip better organised.

After spending several days at the Grand Canyon, and then at Phoenix, Arizona, I finally arrived at San Diego, early the next morning, and by chance came across the city YMCA building, with one of its floors let out to a H.I. affiliated backpacker's hostel. For me, it was the very best hostel I have ever visited, and I spent five nights there. Again, at the kitchen I made friends with two brothers from Scotland, and after dinner, with one other fellow, we played table football. Then on one evening, I became part of a group of four who went out to paint the town red. What lay beneath all this, a lone backpacker going out with a group of recently-made friends? Simple really. The want of love and acceptance.

Acceptance. This which can transform lone travel to an electrifying adventure! The need for acceptance. Like after the rest of the group had moved on, I remained in San Diego, where I shared a two-bed dorm with an Australian builder, whose contract had just ended, and he was preparing to fly home. The telling of his travels and building contracts whilst abroad was the inspiration which led to my own travels Down Under, two years later. Meanwhile, a young Jewish woman arrived to spend a couple of nights. When she learned that I was leaving for Santa Monica on the same day she was leaving, she too booked a bed at the same hostel, and asked me to accompany her all the way to the Los Angeles coastal district. She wanted my company for protection. This was fully justified, as after arrival at Los Angeles Greyhound Terminal, we had to wait for a connecting bus to the coastal district - at a rather iffy part of the city. But we stayed together, sharing our experiences. And our faiths. She was Jewish. It gave me the opportunity to testify about Jesus Christ - like I did to two backpackers at the hostel in Phoenix.

San Diego Harbour - taken August 1997.

Two years later, in 1997, I was on the Australian Greyhound Bus, using the same kind of pass ticket as I did in America. Having snorkelled at the Great Barrier Reef at both Green Island and Low Isle coral cays, I was heading south towards Brisbane and eventually Sydney. The bus pulled in for an hour's service stop, where I enjoyed a snack at the cafeteria. Presently another bus pulled in for the same reason, and emptied of all passengers into the cafeteria. So there I was, literally at the other side of the world,  alone - thousands of miles away from family and from everyone who knew me, whether they be friends, acquaintances, or clientèle. 

"Hey, Frank!"

I looked up. "Who are you?" I asked the young man standing over me. "And how do you know me?"
"Don't you remember? The hostel in St. Louis? I gave you that map!"

I was astonished. Heavens! After chatting for a while, I boarded the bus. But that is what the sense of acceptance was all about while travelling and hosteling. Getting on well with fellow backpackers, sharing experiences, making friends. Even finding opportunities in sharing my faith without putting the listener off or hardening his heart. Wonderful, that is, all except with the suited businessman in Sydney, of course. The only time I have ever experienced anger and hostility while hosteling, both within and outside the UK, it had to be with a fellow dressed in a suit, shirt and tie!

Which brings me forward to the present. While I was browsing through the Internet, I came across a message which read:

Once Saved Always Saved - An Ancient Programmer's Proverb.

I admit, I was rather intrigued by such a message. Because I am an fervent advocate of Eternal Security of the Believer, or if you like, Once Saved Always Saved, basically he was calling me a nerd - for believing in and advocating such a wonderful truth. And that is what I found so wonderful about travel and particularly hosteling. You seldom come across religious people - at least I hadn't so far. Christians, yes. I came across a group of believers at a roller skating rink in Winnipeg during a backpacking trip way back in 1977. Then, more recently in 1998, I found myself chatting to a group of Christians at the H.I. hostel in Boston Massachusetts. As far as I recall, not one of them has ever made any derogatory remarks to other people or the beliefs of fellow brothers.

In referral to the above quote on the Internet, by clicking on various links connected with such a statement, I discovered that yes, salvation was through grace through faith in Christ, but after that you are obliged to "Keep the Commandments", including the keeping of the Jewish Sabbath. Apparently, according to this author, failing to keep the commandments would result in eternal loss. I wonder how anyone with some degree of intelligence can come to such a disastrous conclusion in Biblical soteriology! If only he understood what the apostle Paul has written when he compiled his letter to the churches in Galatia. That is, he who wants to keep the Law must keep the whole Law, which includes circumcision, and all the Jewish rituals and animal sacrifice (Galatians 5:3, also James 2:10). Failure to keep the whole Law perfectly result in condemnation. 

And I wouldn't be at all surprised that such a person would find it extremely difficult - dare say impossible - to love a brother in Christ who disagrees with him, or fail to live according to his expectations. Such a lack of love is the very root of sin and a serious breach of the Law, no matter how hard he may try to keep it.

Yes, there are two nerds among backpackers mentioned here. The man in a suit at a Sydney hostel is one. 

The other nerd must be me, for believing in Once Saved Always Saved.

Saturday, 15 October 2016

The Death of Innocent Travel.

Our recent trip to Paris, highlighted in last week's post, has confirmed what I was expecting is taking place in the world of Travel - the slow death of trust in the visitor by those at work in the tourist industry, and particularly by the management of a specific attraction. No longer perceived by them as a visitor respected for playing a minor role for the upkeep of the venue through payment of his admission fees. Instead, as I see it, rather to be perceived as a burdensome modern-day tourist: Complaining, annoying, dissatisfied, impatient, a nuisance, and worst of all, a potential source of a terrorist threat. In the back of the mind of every staff member, each one of us visitors could be a suicide bomber intent of blowing the attraction sky high, with the cost of his own life as well as taking the lives of everyone else within the vicinity.

And all this became immediately apparent when we approached the Eiffel Tower, indeed the very symbol of Paris, on our wedding anniversary. At both at the north and south approaches, there were some things present which certainly weren't there the last time I was in Paris in 1985 - Security gates, where the bag belonging to each visitor was searched. This together with long queues at the Tower entrance gates snaking along switchback-style to hide its off-putting true length. Fortunately for us, due to our morning arrival, this queue wasn't very long, and we estimated around a ten to fifteen minute wait as we watched three or four tellers busy selling admission tickets. However, credit goes to one of the staff members for noticing my wife's wheelchair and singling us out for fast-track admission, bypassing the queue.

The whole set-up was quite different to that of 1985, my last visit to Paris. Back then, on my own, people milled around the base of the Tower after arriving from both Champs de Mars to the south and from the Trocodero, north across the River Seine, without coming across any security barriers. Hardly any queues for the lifts going up, my ascent to the very top to admire the dizzying views of the city was quite uneventful by comparison to the efforts needed to get up there at present.

Whether it's to do with the stereotypical view of the panicking Italian, with his arms gesticulating in an emotional tirade over something which has no evidence of ever having occurred in his country or vicinity, there was one significant change when visiting the ancient Catacombs de San Giovanni, in the Sicilian city of Siracusa in 2007, also as part of our wedding anniversary celebration. Here we saw something which wasn't there when I last visited the attraction as a lone backpacker in 1982. It was a recently-completed departure lounge, not too dissimilar from an airport lounge except it being smaller in size and capacity. After paying the entrance fee, the visitor would wait in the lounge until the right time for the tour escort to arrive. By then, a significantly-sized party would have assembled in the lounge, which would then be led by the escort through a locked door into the Medieval churchyard and its ruins, and into the ancient tunnels. Furthermore, photography was forbidden during the tour.

Catacombs of St John, Sicily.

Alex, who was on the tour with me (no wheelchair back then), seemed quite happy, as were everyone else in the party. But I wasn't. Because in 1982, during my first visit, there were no tour escorts, no waiting lounge, no restricted sized parties. Instead, I along with everybody else, simply paid the entrance fee and then was free to enter the churchyard and underground tunnels at will, and I was allowed to saunter along at my own pace, taking photographs, and remaining until I was satisfied in seeing the better part of what was originally an ancient Greek aqueduct, before the early Christians used the tunnel walls to carve out what looks to be hundreds of niches to bury their dead. So how did I feel about the 2007 experience? Simply this: I, as an adult tourist, cannot be trusted to wander through the tunnels on my own like I did in 1982. It added to what I could clarify as a personal insult. The rest of the party, including my wife, did not appear to be in anyway unsettled by the comparatively short timeslot the escort allowed for the duration of the tour.

By checking on the Internet, it does look as if Italy had gone into panic mode where trust in tourists are concerned. Before 2007, my last visit to Italy was in 1982. Back then I had a wonderful backpacking trip throughout the length of the whole country, using the Ferrovie de Italia national pass ticket, allowing me to use any train without limit throughout the three week duration in Italy. Starting and finishing at Milan, Siracusa was the furthest point south I managed to reach, which also took in stops at the holiday resort and historical town of Taormina, with its famed ancient Greek and Roman theatre and spectacular vista points, and also a hike up to the rim of the active crater of Mount Etna. And I also stopped in Rome, like I did in 1973 and 1975. On both these occasions I was able to walk directly into the Roman Colosseum as easily as walking into a superstore, as well as amble without any restriction into the Basilica de San Pietro, and for a fee, made my way up to the Cupola.

Looking at recent Internet photos, I was not at all surprised at the now-limited entry into the Colosseum. Although tour parties seems to be well encouraged, unlike the Catacombs in Sicily, according to what I have read, one can still enter the attraction alone and as an individual. But the one significant change is the erection of fencing at all but two of the arches, the entrance and exit, whereas before, one can enter the Colosseum at any arch, just as countless generations did before.

Roman Colosseum - with fenced off arches.
The fencing off the multiple entrance arches, in my mind, has brought something of a shameful sense of distrust to the present tourist, if there's no better way of wording. Furthermore, there is an airport-style security check at the entrance, and according to the latest news, there is talk of forbidding entry of day-packs into the monument, let alone a traveller carrying a rucksack. Really, the magic in travel has evaporated. How fortunate that I was born at a time when it was not too late to travel whilst in my early twenties, and did what countless generations did before me, just amble into the Colosseum, free, even if just to while away the time.

The same applied to the Basilica de San Pietro, at the Vatican. Even in 1982, while stopping at Rome for the day on my way to Milan on an overnight train, I chose to visit the Vatican. I recall sauntering casually through the main entrance door, and a while later bought a ticket to climb all the way to the Cupola, the circular balcony on the summit of the dome, where there are excellent panoramas of the city. At present, although as with the Colosseum, one can enter the church as a lone tourist, and entry is still free, nevertheless, everyone has to go through a security check, where bags are constantly searched, causing long queues to form.

The pros and cons of modern travel! Just two weeks prior to writing this, we were on the super-fast, non-stop Eurostar train journey from London St. Pancras to Paris Gare du Nord. (And there were airport-style security gates at both St Pancras and Gare du Nord stations.) To me it was an exciting experience to whiz under the English Channel at 100 mph 162 km/h through a tunnel which entrance is located in England and its exit is already in France. Yet I recall with nostalgic fondness of the old boat-trains which pulled out of London Victoria, rattled through Kent to terminate at Folkstone Harbour, then to board a ferry to cross the Channel (a proper ship with bars and restaurants, and not a catamaran, as it is now), then to board an awaiting train at the French port of Boulogne, and remaining on the train as it first pulls into Paris du Nord terminus, then shunted around the edge of the French capital to Paris Gare de Lyon terminus, then sent on its way to Italy via the fast route to Dijon, then after stopping at Modane to have our passports checked, passing through the tunnel of Mont Cenis Pass under the Alps to emerge in Italy, with Bardonechia being the first Italian stop. By the time our train pulled into Roma Terminus, it has been roughly 24 hours after leaving Boulogne. The old boat-train to either Rome, or to Milan through Switzerland, was my means of European travel up to and including 1982. 

All that, along with easy access to all the ancient attractions, made Travel a source of simple, innocent joy. Nowadays the presence of security gates everywhere I visit, the lack of trust towards the tourist by the industry as a whole, as well as introduction of entry fees at sites that were once free for anyone to enter, has spoiled the joy of innocent travel to those born in the Baby-boom generation. But at least I can say what it was like to have experienced it.

I guess our younger generation has grown up with our present form of travel, and has never given it a second thought on what it might have been like during bygone years. For example, a present-day student visiting the Catacombs of St. John in Sicily would be glad to be part of an escorted tour group, without the slightest thought that some 34 years earlier, the same student would have had the opportunity to amble freely in the tunnels at his own pace and duration.

But in another way, I'm thankful for the extra security now in place. After all, I would feel very queasy if I saw a group of Muslims board the plane I have just boarded. It makes me think about how these site managers must feel when a group of Muslims enter their historic premises, especially if Islam consider these sites as "offensive to Allah" - and therefore must be blown up and demolished. This has been happening recently to ancient archaeological sites across the Middle East. Let's face it: It is the threat of these Islamic terrorists that has robbed Travel of its innocent joy.

I think all this could be a start of a partial fulfilment of the prophecy made by Jesus Christ, when he warned:

On the earth, nations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea. Men will faint with terror, apprehensive on what is coming on the world, for the heavenly bodies will be shaken.
Luke 21:25-26.

Saturday, 8 October 2016

A Wheelchair Abroad.

Most, if not all, of my regular readers are most likely aware of my passion for independent travel. It is something that I always loved from boyhood, when during my primary school days (under twelve years of age) I thought nothing of walking alone through the streets of my former home town of Central London. Then again, it was normal for children to play outside unsupervised, or in my case to wander off up to a couple of miles from home (I recall a walk from near Lupus Street in Pimlico to South Kensington, two miles away, and back again in an afternoon, much to the astonishment of my parents). The idea of paedophile was not even a word found in the English dictionary, let alone feeling wary in anticipation of their presence. As one elderly chap at the sauna said to me only the previous evening: These days parents no longer let their kids out of the front door alone.

Pimlico London, my childhood home

I think God was generous to allow me to be born during the Baby Boom, an era which began not long after the end of the second World War, and continued into the mid-sixties. Sure enough, as we marvel at the latest high technology, ease and speed of travel, and other commodities totally unknown during my younger days, unless God allows me up to another thirty years of lifespan, I won't be around to see even greater marvels coming into existence and into daily use, together with environment-friendly projects such as garden bridges spanning the River Thames, something still only on the drawing board as I write. But on the other hand I can't help sensing that living in hardier times - when parents almost kicked their kids out of the house to seek adventure, to gape at the black, soot-covered industrial buildings across the Thames with chimneys belching out black smoke, and hundreds of domestic chimneys releasing grey smoke from living room coal-burning fires, perhaps an occasional school day morning with the air visibility choked with smog, it might indeed be the right kind of environment to exercise the immune system. After all, peanut allergy now common in young children wasn't even heard of.

And how could I ever forget those all-green, slam-door trains which rolled in and out of nearby Victoria Station? Or the tremendously loud sound of the steam engine as it pulls out of the terminus, the semi-indoor structure amplifying the noise? The wooden panelling furnishing the interior of such trains, along with the side-corridor which ran the length of each coach, providing a level of luxury unknown by comparison of today's commuter trains. During my childhood, train travel was a very rare treat, as my father, having just passed his driving test, had become a fanatic of the steering wheel. So during the very rare times I found myself inside a train, such experiences remains unforgettable to this day.

And so as I grew older and more independent, so travel extended overseas. Having tasted a package holiday in 1972 to a hotel at a Spanish resort with a college mate, I decided that free-hand travel, better known as backpacking, was more to my ideal. I find choosing where to go, where to spend the night, even bed-hunting after arriving at a city or resort more of a mind-strengthening challenge, a contest of trial and error which broadens the horizon in a way that a package trip could never achieve anywhere near as much.

And so, having been spotted by a work colleague whilst trumping through the Creole streets of New Orleans in 1978, I was called brave after I was asked whether I was on my own. Brave? It was a form of praise which had beforehand had never entered my mind. And it didn't even end there. Seventeen years later in 1995, whilst flying to New York with United Airlines, one of the stewardesses took an interest in my Greyhound Bus "Ameripass" itinerary I'll be starting on after landing. After informing her of my planned visit to the Grand Canyon and afterwards finishing at San Francisco, after stopping at San Diego and Los Angeles whilst on the way, she gasped, My, you are brave! As with the previous occasion, I took in the compliment. But really, it had everything to do with my childhood walk from my Pimlico home to South Kensington some 32 years earlier.

Hiking into the Grand Canyon, both in 1978 and 1995, walking through a dodgy street through Downtown Los Angeles to get to a rather remotely-situated Greyhound Bus terminal, to snorkel over the Great Barrier Reef in 1997, and to hike through a rainforest of Blue Mountains National Park - all these, and more, were sources of excitement and the spirit of adventure. And that is despite one or two of my church friends warning me of dire consequences. But equipped with such knowledge, they either preferred to go with a fully escorted Christian group rather than take the plunge and going for it on their own, or remain at home.

So how did I feel about taking my wife out for a weekend in Paris to celebrate our Wedding Anniversary? The plan was to experience the Eurostar international train service from London St. Pancras to Paris Gare du Nord, passing under the English Channel through a 31.4 mile 50.87 km. long tunnel under the seabed. I was keen on the train. My wife was keen on Paris. The holiday was a perfect plan for both of us.

A Eurostar Train awaits departure from London St. Pancras.

Having been to Paris several times throughout the 1980's, I was no stranger to the French capital. This included standing on the top of the Eiffel Tower and watching the panorama transform from late afternoon daylight to early evening darkness. But for Alex, Paris was her first time experience. And to add to this, her first ever trip abroad in a wheelchair. Before then, we as a couple had travelled together to several places - The two Greek islands of Rhodes and Kos, Lanzarote of the Canary Islands, the Italian island of Sicily, Malta in the Southern Mediterranean, and Israel, including Eilat on the Red Sea, a narrow tongue of the Indian Ocean thriving with coral reefs. But with all these trips, Alex was not only able-bodied, but was able to walk and cycle long distances, out-sprint me, dance and skipped along well.

But not any more. She is now partially disabled. Whenever outdoors, she has to be in a wheelchair. This provided a very new challenge where travel is concerned. Especially in travelling abroad, taking the wheelchair out of the UK for the first time ever. And so after booking both train journeys and the hotel, and paying for them both, what challenges would we both face? So I decided to check with the website TripAdvisor, especially on Paris Gare du Nord.

There were more negative reviews on the station than positive. Recorded experiences of pickpocketing, unauthorised taxi drivers confronting the arrivals full face soon after stepping off the train, criminal gangs posing as authoritative station officials out to take advantage of the lost or confused. Tales of scam taxi drivers taking the victim to a slum area of the city, then only taking them to their hotel after further payment. Parting with fees ranging from 80 to 100 Euros, when the official taxi fee is only 15 Euros. With such dire reading of one review following another, all on the same theme, gradually my excitement for the trip turned into fear. A deep fear, not so much for myself as for my wife's safety. I felt as if all the demons in Hell came up to torment me, giving me visions of both of us being in a desperate state. On my own, I would know how to look after myself. But with a patient in a wheelchair, things were very different. I felt vulnerable.

On top of this, I discovered that the hotel I chose for both of us is located at Montparnasse, a district south of the city, about four miles 6.5 km from the terminus station. My original plan was a shortish walk to the hotel. Instead, some form of public transport was necessary. One which was wheelchair accessible. But thanks to the Internet, I became thoroughly acquainted with the Paris Metro/RER system. And there was one RER line linking Gare du Nord with Montparnasse - Line B, which was wheelchair accessible at all its stations, maybe because this particular line is near to ground level. I chose the station nearest the hotel - Denfert-Rochereau. As a result, every detail of the journey was carefully planned weeks before departure.

On the day, after stepping off the Eurostar at Paris Gare du Nord, I could see straight away why this particular terminus is far less favoured than its London counterpart, St Pancras. It does look like the sort of place for pickpockets and sham cabbies to linger around, on the lookout for the next victim. But glory be to God, nobody approached us. Instead, we found the RER Line B entrance, and we queued up to buy tickets. After this we made our way to the ticket barrier. But not only would the wheelchair-wide barrier refused to let us through, but it wouldn't even scan our tickets, even if they are appropriately striped. We were stuck there for probably thirty minutes, while watching hundreds of commuters pass through the individual barriers, each too narrow for a wheelchair.

It was eventually the kindness of one black commuter who saw our distress, asked us to stand at the barrier, and with his bank or pass card, swiped the terminal. At long last, the barrier opened and all three of us were able to make it to the station platform. I discovered at the other end, at Gare Denfert Rochereau, that wheelchair accessible barriers were operated by the cashier or platform porter, and I had to ask while I was buying the tickets. Talk about learning by trial and error. It makes travel so much exciting and adventurous!

Gare Du Nord, Paris

Overall, the whole trip was an eye opening experience. After checking in, airport style, at London and boarding the train, the ride was smooth and very fast. But it was the Channel Tunnel I found most impressive. The train enters the tunnel while still in England, and emerges out of the tunnel in France (reverse for the return journey). To me, the whole Eurostar system is the tangible symbol of the European Union. And history bears this out. A tunnel under the Channel was something the French had in mind for up to a century, maybe even further back in time. It was the British who were against the idea, fearing an invasion, and it was they who blocked the plan. The European Union has resurrected the concept in the 1980's and the Tunnel was eventually opened in May 6, 1994 after six years of construction.

Such ideals of political unity allowed such a trip like ours to take place. And aside of the sham technology of the French ticket barriers, the whole trip with the wheelchair was a stunning success, taking in the Tower of Eiffel (second floor only - the third at the top is not wheelchair accessible), a long walk along the River Seine to the Notre Dame Cathedral (over 5 km, 3 miles) which took the greater part of the day as we also stopped and rested by the glass pyramid at the Louvre, a spacious courtyard outside the famous art gallery where the Mona Lisa painting is housed. The open space was filled with happy people sauntering around. We watched a motorbike rally cross the River on one of the bridges and contrasted this to the solemn service taking place in the Notre Dame. We managed to arrive back at our hotel just before nightfall after walking approximately 12 km 7.4 miles pushing a wheelchair all the way and taking up the whole day, before commencing to return home on the following morning. 

As I see it, the walk from Pimlico to South Kensington and back had laid the foundation for the world of trial-and-error travel experience, with the climax, so far, of pushing a wheelchair accommodating a disabled patient across a foreign capital, rather than hiking the Grand Canyon as the climax.