Africa, Asia and Europe - Seattle to London

Africa, Asia and Europe - Seattle to London

Date: Fri, 9 Feb 1996

Subject: pics from JimBo

Pics in the mail this weekend for UK essays sent yesterday. First two were repeats. Could you please add URL links to Cyberia, Dragoman, and Adventure Center (latter two when available)? They are all helping me get net access.

Tanx JimBo

Date: Sun, 11 Feb 1996 10:22:27 GMT

From: Cyberia9


Subject: Klimagram 23: Lift Off

The final days prior to departure were intense as the pressure to accomplish every task derived from weeks and months of planning butted up against a non-refundable, non-transferable deadline.

The flight was leaving at 1:10 on February 1st whether I was ready or not. Heavy email activity coupled with working until the day before departure nearly did me in and drove the Spousal Unit wacky as well. However, being a composed sort of person familiar with a confused and/or panic-stricken public (typical medical library patrons), she devoted the necessary percentage of her time that it took to keep me focused and not foaming at the mouth.

Only through the miracle of sleep deprivation were we able to overcome the following obstacles.

- Reducing our material world to the 500 cubic feet provided by our storage locker became a problem when we realized we needed 550 cubic feet. But we arranged and re-arranged boxes, packing the locker tight, from floor to ceiling, and then moved the excess to my brother's basement. To repay him for the favor, I bestowed the honor of executor of the will covering the dissolution of that 550 cubic feet of estate, should both the Unit and I have to make claims under the repatriation of remains feature of our trip disaster insurance.

- Slicing up my thumb rather badly, one hour before the storage locker facility closed for the day. I was chopping up un-needed credit cards when my scissors slipped and, all of a sudden, there was blood all over the place. Since there wasn't time to get the wound stitched up, the Unit wrapped it in ten feet of gauze and made me lie down until the bleeding almost stopped. At that point she decided it was more important to deal my hysteria than a bloody thumb and we resumed packing as long as I kept my thumb out of the rooms in the apartment which were clean and ready for inspection by the landlord.

To my great relief, the car remained faithful despite the cold weather. I have an irrational fear of automotive malfunction in my hour of greatest need ever since, years ago, I was traumatized by a dirty, rotten Oldsmobile Cutlass which died on me in the middle of a busy intersection during evening rush hour a few hours before I left the country for a Mexican vacation. And this was my first backpack trip outside the USA, and in the company, more or less, of a blind date whom I had met through a classified ad in the newspaper. This is another unusual story which I can relate if demand warrants it.

The Unit and I labored hard that last night, packing up the last of our possessions, cleaning up the apartment, and disposing of the 300 extra boxes I had expropriated from my employer. Then it was time to pack up the gear we were taking with us, presumably a simple job since we prefer to travel light, carrying only a single bag small enough to fit under an airline seat. I am sure you have all seen the little cages the airlines use at their departure gates to check the size of carry-on luggage.

Around 1 AM we realized we had far too much stuff despite the addition of an old Army duffel bag for transporting the camping equipment we would need in Africa. A series of brutal, heart-rendering decisions about what to discard ensued. I valiantly argued against the necessity for an entire year's supply of female unmentionables.

[Just a minute, buster! This is Sue, the Voice of Authentication, Sensibility, and Sanity. Unknown to JimBo, that bag of "Sanitary Supplies" contains not only unmentionables but also a few of those things which keep me ...].

With tears on our taste buds, we eliminated all the food. Why carry food from home when one of the great travel experiences is sampling what the locals eat or surviving without it because you can't afford (or stomach) what the locals eat? However, when I looked at the lovely brown case of M&Ms, my heart and brain struggled with each other, sweet tooth against cold logic. Even now when I think about it, my stomach growls to let me know what I am missing. In the end, everything, not just the M&Ms, but the big jars of peanut butter, the fruitcake left over from Xmas, and the gourmet hot chocolate were all left behind. Life in Africa will not include processed sugar.

But even that was not enough weight reduction! Do you know what 50 paperback books weigh? Too much despite being measured against the potential boredom of slowly crossing the Sahara desert! After more anguished but ruthless discussion, the literary inventory was reduced to five novels per person plus ten travel guides and one dictionary.

You would think our luggage problems would have been over by this time but not hardly! In the airport we were stunned to learn that the combined luggage weighed 126 pounds. All those books plus the camping equipment and computing hardware combined drastically to undermine our mobility. My long-standing credo about traveling light, an absolute requirement for long range, budget travel became jeopardized. Both the Unit and I were ashamed. Have our comfort zones risen so high we can no longer rough it?

We managed to move our entourage of bags through the Denver and Gatwick airports because of only one reason: a miraculous little luggage cart with wheels on to which we strapped the duffel bag. Over my dead body would I ever buy such a touristy-looking device but this came as a gift from the Unit's boss who must have deduced trouble ahead from my early Klimagrams about our plans. I do not know how we will manage when we get to the third world. Can you envision me trundling down a dirt road towing a luggage cart with little three inch wheels behind me? Maybe I should buy a pith helmet to complete the absurdity of this scene!

By 1:10 in the afternoon both the Unit and I were happily strapped in our seats on a Delta Airlines jet, ready to leave the worries, fears, and negative thoughts behind as destiny took charge.

Stay tuned.

Copyright (c) 1996 Jet City JimBo

[This Kgram was uploaded courtesy of Dillions of Gower Street, the flagship store for the Dillions retail bookstore chain. In addition to more than 50 different departments stretching over 5 miles of shelving covering five floors, Dillions now offers internet access via its Cyberst@ation services. Personal exaggeration: if this store doesn't have the book you seek, it's either pornographic or in a display case in the British Museum.

From: Cyberia9


Klimagram 24: The Maree Hotel

4:00 AM finds me and the South African night manager at the Maree Hotel cooking a frozen pizza. There are no pans so we just lay it across the grill in the oven, turn the gas all the way on, and toss in a twist of burning paper.

Afterward I write in a reception area lit by dim 25 watt refrigerator light bulbs and orange street construction flashers to the thumping sound of music so hip I can't even categorize it. Hostel guests drift in from their Saturday nite club excursions, drink a few more beers, and then wander off to bed as the first rays of dawn strike the windows. Like most of the young Brits I have observed the last couple days, they are dark-haired and prefer black clothes. Could these guys really be vampires? I would retreat to the television room but the air is so thick the room resembles a cave full of dry ice. Other guests slouch in television-generated, blue auras, rolling skinny cigarettes, mesmerized by the boobs bouncing around on late night European cable.

After arriving in London the Spousal Unit and I proceeded to our target youth hostel - the Astor Museum Inn, located in the very heart of London directly across the street from the massive British Museum. The "Inn" is actually a private hostel with coed dormitory rooms and an "international grunge clientele" according to the Let's Go London guidebook. I had written to several hostels in advance and this one had promised a weekly rate of 65 pounds for a bed in a ten person dorm room - close to rock bottom for central London.

Upon arrival at the Museum Inn, I found no reason to dispute the description in Let's Go. In fact, the hostel's philosophy, prominently posted on their bulletin board, was: "You're young, you're free, you're on the other side of the world. For f**k's sake, have some fun!!!!" That's right - FOUR exclamation points. But the Inn did not have two beds free in the same room. So the manager/disk jockey called a sister hostel a couple blocks away to inquire about vacancies.

So here we are at the Maree Hotel. The last word is a misnomer. I reiterate it only because the paint in that part of the name has not peeled away yet. In a world of star-rated hotels, the Maree deserves only an asteroid, if that. It sits in the middle of an unbroken string of five story buildings along Gower Street with an accommodations rap sheet that goes from B&B to cheap hotel to low budget hostel with each floor carved into small rooms crammed with bunk beds.

The lack of space occasionally presents challenges. For example, the shower stall is an incredibly confining cube, an upright coffin measuring 18 inches on each side. [ Sue here - it's really two feet by two feet.] Either way getting cleaned up is an elbow banging experience until you master the regulation of the water nozzle.

The shower has separate valves for hot and cold but their effect is not additive. Instead, the flow from one valve appears to push the flow from the other valve back down its pipe. When you add a bit more hot, it reduces the flow of the cold as well, creating a scalding stream of water from the nozzle over your head. Conversely, when you add a bit of cold, it clobbers the existing supply of hot water, turning the stream of water icy cold in the best tradition of medieval and modern day torture. And here's the best part: cutting back on either valve has no effect at all unless you close the valve entirely, returning you to square one.

Perhaps I should say a few words about the marketing scheme for the Astor hostels. Their advertising logo is "Need a bed? Want some fun ..." Managed by young backpackers, they provide the essentials: dorm rooms, basic kitchen facilities, NO CURFEW, around-the-clock music and videos, and, most importantly, the camaraderie of like-minded, fellow travelers. Loneliness is an inseparable item in the traveler's pack unless he or she has brought a companion with them. Community facilities are cleaned daily by the staff who seem grateful for any work that allows them to stay away from home. Individual cleanliness, on the other hand, is a function of each guest's conscience. I recommend re-washing any cookware before using it.

The Unit and I are in the right place at the right time - a double room is free and we can have it for only nine pounds per person per nite! What luxury to sleep together behind a locked door so early on in the trip! Of course, the mass of splintered wood around the door jamb tells us not to take the security for granted. On the other hand, the floorboards are so squeaky, it would be impossible for an intruder to enter undetected while we are in the room. Of course, the room is so small that any intruder would bump into one if us if the Unit or I were standing. To avoid problems with personal space, one of us always lies down when the other wants to move about to use the sink or get into the miniature closet.

The really fantastic feature about the room is that it has an electrical outlet for the space heater. I can use it to recharge the laptop's batteries, quite a bonanza since the winter sun, when it appears, is so feeble I doubt the solar cells will work. This leads to a rigorous debate every evening - should we plug in the heater or the laptop?

The window looks out at scaffolding - the Maree is being annexed to a neighboring building which accounts for the state of benign neglect. The hostel is due to close in a few months so the gross lack of capital improvements is probably justifiable. Our room is on the second floor. The toilets and showers are on the first and fifth. I lament the fact that facilities are not located on the same floor at which I reside until the Unit points out that I will certainly get my fill when we reach Africa.

The place is fairly quiet until 10 or 11 at night when the inhabitants seem to become active, sounding much like a herd of cattle in the stairwell. This usually tapers off until the Mysterious Noise starts around 2 AM. At first we thought it was the clothes washer directly beneath us which emulates a propeller-driven aircraft on takeoff during its spin cycle. But a middle of the night journey to the bathroom revealed this is not so. The Mysterious Noise emanates from the roof, leading us to believe it is the hot water heater about to explode. Perhaps this is why the room price was so reasonable.

Nevertheless, all in all, we are quite satisfied, having a warm refuge to retreat to when privacy is desired or the bone-chilling dampness of the English winter warrants it. Actually we feel quite fortunate - the re-alignment of priorities which always occurs during our travels is underway.

Astor Hostels in London (est. 1974)

Museum Inn (next to British Museum / the West End / Soho)
27 Montague Street WC1 Tel: 0171 580 5360 Fax: 0171 636 7948

Quest (next to Hyde Park / Queensway / Portobello Market)
45 Queensborough Terrace W2 Tel: 0171 229 7782 Fax: 0171 727 8106

Victoria (next to Buckingham Palace / Tate Gallery / Westminister)
71 Belgrave Road SW1 Tel: 0171 834 3077 Fax: 0171 932 0693

Maree (next to West End Threatres / Soho / Covent Garden)
25 Gower Street WC1 Tel: 0171 636 4868 Fax: 0171 636 3442

Klimagram 25: On Stage - a Theatrical Debut

"Give me a cup of birdseed, please," I told the street vendor. "I want to feed the pigeons." I plunked down coins equal to what I thought was 25 pence.

"My God, if I sell yer that much, the birds 'll go berserk an' yer'll be torn apart or at least buried in droppings before yer get ten steps from the booth!" replied the proprietor, looking at my change. "This here's a one pound, not a five pence," he lectured, holding up a fat little coin with engraving on the rim.

I re-shuffled my change until I had the right amount and pushed the coins across the counter again. "Here yer go," the vendor said, handing me a double expresso size cup. "Make sure yer cover that cup with yer hand." "Why?" "You'll know in short order, mate."

Within three feet of the booth, the first pigeon lit on me and began picking at my cup of seeds. Ten more pigeons followed in the next couple steps. They sat in rows on my arms and perched on my head. I sprinkled a few seeds on the ground, momentarily leaving the cup uncovered. This was the moment the dozen or so birds loitering upon me were waiting for. When they all dove for the unguarded cup, I panicked, flinging contents of the cup into the air. I was immediately engulfed in a cloud of fluttering, blue-gray wings coming from all directions. In a couple minutes the feeding frenzy was over and the birds departed for the next tourist. I sat dazed on the ground in Trafalgar Square, wondering what calling cards all those pigeons had left behind.

The Spousal Unit and I were exploring the theater district of London. We walked past quaint corner bars of polished woodwork and leaded glass, through alleys so dim and narrow mirrors are used to reflect light into dingy lower windows. Nightlife is beyond our budget in London and, even if it wasn't, long johns and fleece sweatshirts are probably not appropriate evening wear.

And then there's the shoe problem - foot gear tends to be heavy and bulky. Therefore, one cannot carry the multitude of specialized shoes most of us have. For example, my closet contains running shoes, light hiking shoes, heavy hiking boots, bike shoes, hightop sneakers in different colors, cowboy boots, reef walkers, various sandals, dancing shoes, and a couple pairs of work shoes. So what did I bring on this trip, you ask? Since decent shoes in large sizes are notoriously hard to obtain in the third world, I bought a new pair of very rugged Adidas super-sneakers. They appeared indestructible, capable of surviving jungle rot in Africa as well as trekking in Himalaya. The downside is that they are ugly as sin. When I wear them even with a nice looking pair of jeans, there is no doubt that I am another dorky American tourist. The big rubber treads and long dangling shoe laces will be fine in the Sahara but I feel like a Neanderthal cave man when I walk through the perfumery at Harrods.

My dork-like appearance became my undoing that day in the Covent Gardens, a trendy collection of indoor and outdoor shops. The Unit and I had stopped to watch a street performer - a magician of sorts with great voice and presence. He called himself Famos Bramwells and was exhorting passerbys to form a circle about him by telling jokes and performing small tricks like making a lit cigarette disappear in his hand.

But the wind was chilly, making it difficult for him to corral his audience together. So he launched into his act. "I need a volunteer, the gentleman with a green coat wearing a white baseball cap." The crowd parted in front of me. Suddenly I realized he was describing me! There was no escape. I had irrevocably violated the cardinal rule of a Shy Person - never occupy the front row at a live performance. Trapped by this hyper man who ran about waving his arms and shouting hysterically, I slowly walked to the center of attention.

"What is your name?" "Jim." "And where in America are you from, Jim?" "Colorado." "Do you like that ball cap, Jim." "Yes." "Too bad, wear this," he cried tossing my Colorado cap aside and planting a tweed Sherlock Holmes hat on me.

"Are you on holiday or working, Jim?" "Well, working sort of - I'm an internet correspondent." "Call immigration, we've caught another illegal!" The humorous pokes at America continued as Famos begged the crowd to stay put despite the cold.

"Are you rich, Jim?" "No." "Come now, Jim, all you Americans have lots of money. Can you spare me a ten pound note?" I pulled out a handful of coins. "No, Jim, paper currency!" I displayed my subway pass. "Jim, you must have a ten pound note. All Americans are rich." I reluctantly extracted a ten pound note from my pocket.

Famos snatched it up and pranced before the crowd. "Great, Jim, now what would you do if I tear this bill in half?" I responded appropriately. "I'll tell you what - I'll just tear a small wedge out of the center." After doing that, he said, "Just put this bit of paper in your mouth, Jim." I complied.

With much fanfare and enthusiasm, primarily at my expense, the performance went on with Mr. Bramwells threatening all sorts of diabolical acts to my ten pound note. However, let me say that he did not capture all the laughs. When he needed dumb behavior, I became dumber than a brick. "Stand here, Jim." "Where?" "On that brick." "This brick?" "Yes, that brick, not the one in your head." But when his back was turned, I became a smartaleck which is not hard when you have money stuck to your lower lip. Plus I am always a sucker for an audience, both real and virtual.

Eventually Famos produced three envelopes and deposited my money in one of them. Sealing all three with my tongue, he then, much to my chagrin, made a great spectacle of tearing each of them in half. I continued to play along - after all, he did have my ten pound note and I wanted it back, the whole thing, not the scrap stuck to my lower lip.

"OK, Jim, guess what we are going to do now." "I can't imagine." He gave me a big Zippo cigarette lighter and we tried to set one of the envelope halves on fire. But the wind was too strong so he dashed to his little suitcase and pulled out a can of lighter fluid.

Feigning great anguish I burned all the envelopes on command from Famos. He then sprinkled lighter fluid in a circle around me on the cobblestones. I dutifully bent down to light it. "Oh no, Jim, don't immolate yourself here! Open the lighter and look inside." I did so and beheld my ten pond note wadded in a tight little ball. Unfolding it, I added the fragment from my mouth and held up the resulting match for the crowd to see. The audience applauded and cheered, grateful for any form of activity that might warm them up. Famos grabbed his hat back to pass around for contributions.

Thus I made my acting debut in the London theater district and even achieved a tiny measure of fame. As I strolled about the shops afterward, people who had witnessed the show greeted me with a "Hello, Jim" and a giggle.

Klimagram 26: Tongues, Fruit, and Valentines

Last on the news the announcers warned everyone to stay indoors because the temperature was expected to drop below zero (Centigrade, that is). Today I shall heed that advice and spend the day indoors drinking tea. Either the nasty cold, damp weather or exposure to voluminous quantities of second hand smoke has irritated my throat. At breakfast the lads who work in the hostel are in an uproar. Their manager is late and he brings the morning bread for the staff.

In official hostels, generally denoted by membership in AYH - American Youth Hostels, the guests themselves help maintain the facilities. In turn, the facilities are usually closed during the day to reduce wear and tear. In a private hostel like the Maree, the rules are much more flexible. Here, some of the residents work for the hostel, cleaning the premises and manning the front desk, in exchange for room and board. Since most of the occupants are very young and very eager to make a go of living in London, it is a symbiotic situation for both parties. It also lets the Maree exploit its basement space since that is where the staff is housed. Given their appearance, I often wonder if some members of the staff don't hang from the ceiling, arms and legs folded, like bats. The British predilection for everything black makes me think I am back in Seattle. It must be related to the gray, cloudy environment.

In addition to the day manager's tardiness, two other events have the lads excited. Today Mark, a very nice chap from New Zealand who runs the desk late in the evening and saunters about with a guitar case most other times, is keen to get his tongue pierced. We discuss earrings but wearing one or several is rather passť for the group. We are generations apart - the lads prefer hoops and I like studs. I describe the bellybutton piercing I once heard, not saw, in Boulder and receive a very unwelcome look from Mark. "That's not what I want to hear about, man!"

The second item of great interest this morning is a French girl that checked into the hostel last night. I'll spare you the details.

Yesterday the Spousal Unit and I scurried across town to visit Harrods, the famous British department store with the pretentious motto of "All things for all people, everywhere." Not quite I think - if you are a Wal Mart, K-Mart or Target devotee, you will find the pickings quite slim. The purpose of the visit was to procure a Harrods shopping bag so that the Unit's mother might parade about her small midwestern town with her knitting in it. These we found in abundance at $15 to $20 a pop.

According to Let's Go London, "[Harrods] can do everything from finding you a live rhinoceros to arranging your funeral." Well, keeping the Unit fed is enough of a problem and I have my own cremation plans, so neither of these extremes interested me. However, I did poke around a bit to gauge the scope of the massive store's offerings. Every counter seemed to have three clerks ready and waiting, the cosmetics arena was especially intimidating as I clomped through in my expedition class sneakers. I got the distinct impression they all knew I was on the last day of my three day English bathing cycle.

My questions were met with a polite "You'll have to talk with the press office - they handle all the journalists." So I conducted my observations secretively, jotting in my notepad and ignoring the plethora of sales people who activated themselves when I drifted within a yard of their stations. Like your average tourist I was eventually sucked into the big food mart whose variety and prices were astounding.

For example, you could get prepackaged bunches of edible flowers or one of a dozen varieties of orchids. Or choose from ostrich thighs, boar sausage, or wood pigeon. Bacon, one food I always miss overseas because it isn't crammed full of chemicals like in America, came in seventeen varieties including oyster, sweet pickle, streaky, and smoked.

The international cast of the fresh fruit department topped everything - a true indicator of how jet aircraft have reduced the size of the world. Harrods has a global produce market where nothing is out of season because all seasons are present somewhere on the planet at any point in time. Here it what I saw available for sale (and the list is by no means complete):

- grapes from South Africa and apricots from New Zealand
- tamarills from Columbia and kiwi fruit from France
- ramboutans from Thailand and peaches from Australia
- limes from Brazil and star fruit from Malaysia
- kumquats from Argentina and oranges from Spain
- blackberries from Chile and grapefruit from Florida
- red currants from Holland and paw paws from Ghana
- strawberries from California and passion fruit from Kenya
- lemons from Cyprus and pears from Korea
- melons from Venezeula and sharon fruit from Israel
- pomegranates from Iran and apples from too many countries to list

The compulsion to buy something became an itch that would not go away. I decided this would a good place to score early points for Valentine's Day. A sign proclaiming "Recipe of Love" caught my eye. It offered Aberdeen Angus fillet steaks for 31 pounds per kilogram (multiply by 1.6 to get dollars, folks). Expensive meat from Harrods ought to go over real well back in the hostel's kitchen where potatoes, noodles, and bread are the mainstays!

I moved on. Designer fruitcakes were only 39 pounds and the znood il sitt was on sale for only 2.20 per pound. Znood etc., by the way, refers to spring rolls, filled with a special milk and cream mixture, fried and then dipped in syrup. I kept moving. Suddenly there it was - one the Unit's favorite foods and what could be better than a specimen from the fanciest of food markets? And what was this item of sentimental ambrosia? A chocolate brownie, reputedly the finest in all the world, which I presented that night after a hearty dinner of spaghetti with reddish sauce (she had food power).

PS: Mark failed to get his tongue pierced. The sleazy place down in Portobello was all out of studs and the fancy place in Soho said he had too many veins on the bottom of his tongue. "How about a nice, repulsive tattoo?" I suggested. "Yeah, maybe something like 'I couldn't get my bloody tongue pierced so I got this stupid tattoo instead!' on my forehead."

Copyright (c) 1996 Jet City JimBo All rights reserved

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