For the next episode of the occasional dips into my memory I thought I would cover some events when travelling abroad. Most people think of international business trips as glamorous, which I suppose they can be at times, but they can also miss the less glamourous side.
I learnt a long time ago not to judge a country by the trip from the airport to your destination, whether that is your hotel or somebodies’ office. Have you ever noticed how the travel from an airport involves seeing the worst of a country? I now wait until I have had a sleep before I judge a country.
Two examples are the road from Sao Paulo main airport into the city, it is a motorway completely lined on both sides by billboards so that you can’t see the local countryside. Another is Mumbai where to get to the hotel we were staying in we had to travel through many slum areas, it certainly opens your eyes to how poor some people are.
Two of the scariest airports I have visited were in Libya. I had to catch a local flight from Tripoli to Benghazi and it was a small local plane that a couple of years previously had been subject to a terror attack. Before we were allowed on to the plane all of the luggage was laid out on the tarmac and you had to go an touch your baggage before they would load it. Once on the plane people were smoking and using their phones throughout the flight and when a guy at the front got a bit agitated a big man in a black leather jacket with a bulge under his arm escorted the guy to the back of the plane for the rest of the flight. I never saw the agitated man again.
When trying to leave Libya I duly arrived at the airport 3 hours in advance and thought I had plenty of time before my flight. I didn’t count on the extremely slow queue to check in nor the ten or so security check points throughout the airport before the steps of the plane. At each check point a man with a gun slowly looked through my passport, tutting loudly and occasionally looking at me and then my passport. Each of these checkpoints took too long, so much so that by the time I got to the last checkpoint it was 5 minutes before the scheduled take off and I was facing another man with a gun. I am convinced to this day he was waiting for a bribe to allow me on the plane, so I put my most naïve face on, quickly took my passport and scampered onto the plane. As I walked through the doors, they were closed behind me and the plane started to taxi away from the stand before I had even sat down…I was so relieved, it had taken me 3 hours to reach my seat.
Libya is still a very interesting place to visit and I’m glad I went but I was pleased to arrive back in England.
Another interesting airport is Pune in India, the flight from Mumbai was in a tiny plane, so small that myself and two colleagues were sat facing each other, knees intertwined and the luggage in string hammocks above our head. As you prepare to land at Pune, this was 1997, you look out of the window and see MIG fighter planes at the ready alongside anti-aircraft cannons pointing skywards. That was certainly a shock to the system.
Another interesting airport is the internal airport in Rio de Janeiro, to land you come in low over a bridge carrying rush hour traffic and to take off you point towards Sugar Loaf Mountain and veer off at the last possible moment. The landing strip itself is in the bay of Rio and so if a plane overshoots it lands in the sea, taxiing along the runway is interesting too as the plane gets to the very end and turns, it is then that you notice that the sea is under your window when you look out. Not long before I visited this airport a plane had misjudged its approach to the runway and its landing gear had clipped the bridge resulting in a lot of damage.
The airport inside the city of Sao Paulo is also interesting as the plane skims the tops of skyscrapers as it comes in to land, just to make it more interesting you fly over an internal motorway which is very busy. Fortunately, it didn’t happen to me but whilst I lived there a plane clipped the top of a skyscraper and came down on the busy motorway! That airport always made me nervous when I used it.
Enough of airports. I was on a train station in rural India and was very conscious I was the only foreigner stood there. On arriving in India I had cashed some travellers cheques into local currency but had not found enough things to buy to use up my large wad of grubby notes. So, standing on the station platform a little child came up to me looking dishevelled, hungry and lonely. I made the mistake of putting my hand in my pocket and pulled out a note worth about £1.50 and gave it to the child. The child ran off gleefully so I felt pleased with myself for having done a good deed. Then I heard a commotion as lots of other children came running towards me, all in the same dishevelled state holding out their hands and clamouring for money. At that moment the train arrived so my escort hustled me onto the train and then proceeded to chastise me for encouraging the local street children into begging. That was a difficult sight for somebody from a supposedly first world country as I am.
India is a beautiful country and one I would love to revisit one day.
I have found during my travels that despite what you hear and see on the news about countries and their populations when you get to meet the real people they are always lovely and accommodating and much more hospitable that some people in the UK.
If at all possible, and time allows, I have tried to take a tour of a city using the local guides and tour buses and it amazes me some of the things that get pointed out. In Vilnius, Lithuania, the city tour takes you past an ex KGB building that is riddled with bullet holes from a local dispute. In Istanbul you get to visit the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia which are both beautiful and fascinating buildings, well worth a visit if you get the chance. In Porto the open top bus trip was so interesting I went round twice and burnt my head in the sun as a result.
In Barcelona I took the city tour which was again fascinating but also it happened to be the time when there was a general strike and riots in the centre of Barcelona. Wondering what all the fuss was about with the sounds of riot guns and helicopters I decided to take a look at what was going on. On this visit I was with my wife so we started to walk down to the main square from our hotel. Shops were being looted, I saw on tv later the local Levis shop being ransacked and even the cash tills were seen being removed, people were running everywhere and chaos reigned. The crowd started to run towards us so we quickly turned around and started to run back to our hotel. Unfortunately, the riot police in a big black van came racing up the road and stopped next to where we were. A big, burly policeman dressed in black from head to toe, including a balaclava, jumped out and pointed his riot gun at me and my wife. We cowered in the shop doorway where we were stood as a loud bang rang out…the policeman had fired his gun towards us…to say we were petrified is a large understatement. I am not sure what he had fired but he jumped back in the van and it tore off down the road. Needless to say we lost our bottle and went back to the hotel and watched it all on TV instead…it was a lot safer. That being said the hotel locked the front doors and wouldn’t let anybody come in after we had arrived. My wife won’t travel overseas with me anymore!
Previous to the Barcelona incident, my wife had accompanied me to Cincinnati where she was detained at the airport for having a forged passport, or so the officer claimed. It took an hour to point out that she had other USA stamps in her passport and that it wasn’t a forgery. Once in Cincinnati we decided to go for a walk around the city centre and look for the library as my wife has a distant relative that ended up owning a factory there so she was going to do some research whilst there. We found the library but didn’t know how to get back to the city centre so we asked a policeman who was sitting there in his patrol car. He said that we shouldn’t be walking around lost and that we should jump into the back of his “cruiser” and he would take us back to the city centre. If you have never been in the back of an American police cruiser you are missing an experience. There were two plastic seats, presumably so they could be hosed out if necessary, and you are sitting in a cage. He duly took us back to the city centre but the look on people’s faces as we stumbled out of the back of his car was interesting, they didn’t realise he was only acting as a friendly taxi!
I have several other interesting stories about that trip to Cincinnati that I will keep for another post, including one about a visit to a graveyard!