Posts Tagged ‘london’

A coming film… The Worlds End….just happens to be written around my favorite pub which happens to be situated in my favorite neighborhood in the world… and coincidentally The Worlds End pub on Camden High Street, London appears in two of my novels…The Bloody Oath,,, and The Enablers. Now is that weird or what? Great travelers find great places wherever they may be. I remember traveling in the days before guide books and backpackers when there were only a few travelers, the world was still relatively pristine and unsullied,  and we’d meet in the oddest places simply because there were no other foreigners to be seen.

A small village in Bali for example….it was simple enough to ask a headman..”Is there any other foreigners here?” And they would send a child to find them. In Bangkok, the Malaysia hotel was the place to run into your friends and the odd CIA or KGB agent. Now of course such places are overrun with tourists looking for coincidental fame and we travelers do our best to avoid them. Strange as it may seem. in the late sixties and early seventies there were under a dozen hardcore travelers, all traders and traffickers of the exotic of the world, and we would meet constantly in airport bars, woodworking villages, gem mines, clothing districts….. And now the movie industry has ‘outed’ The Worlds End…and I’m sure the ancient dive will be awash in backpackers hoping some ‘cool’ will rub off on them…..argghhhh:(

The Worlds End has hosted Charles Dickens who set many of his novels in Camden…..Percy Shelly lived around the corner. The heavy oak floors are bowed from being stepped on since the seventeenth century, The ancient stone tred on the door step is swaybacked with use. I liked to sit looking out the imperfect panes of glass into the street and watch the world go by along the high street. The interior walls are black with five hundred years of pipe smoke. There are few places in London like The Worlds End…..I’m conflicted that they’d made my old haunt a movie set. Of course I say that about all the places that should have rested instead of being commercialized…..oh well…..sometimes it’s true…you can’t go back.

Enablers

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Bloody Oath

Trish and I are celebrating our one year anniversary in Dallas….but this is just the latest stop in a long line of stopovers. As Canadians, we are considered an anomaly. Most people in my country tend to hunker down, build a nest and stay in that one place for life, in the same job, short term vacation, paint the house every five years, have 1.2 children, put a different car in the driveway, buy a house they can’t afford, spend thirty five years trying to pay it off, divorce at least twice…. and never leave their comfort zone until  taken out in a box. Canadians in general are sedentary unimaginative and predictable people. The banks and government love them for acting like sitting ducks.

Many people emigrate,  we are nor immigrants…. we wander by choice. We have zero intention to stay in one place, instead we float in a dish of cream. When the milk runs dry we will  be on our way. In the past ten years in particular, we have been ‘on the road’ so to speak, living in hotel rooms and long stay executive apartments. I particularily like countries that rent furnished apartments by the week, like Australia. It’s liberating to move from one great view to another. I do not want plants or animals tying me down. I have a beautiful wife …why would I need a little furry buddy to assuage my inner emptiness? Aside from Dallas we have lived/ worked in  Paris , Amsterdam, London, Bristol, Beijing, Singapore, San Francisco, Bangkok, Hong Kong, New York, Maui, Helsinki,Denpassar,  and visited many places in between…..prior to that..  long stints in  Fiji and Brisbane homeschooling our son on the beaches. For university prep we gave the boy a top boarding school education and he went on to spend six years living on the campus of a great university. He is very independent and we’re quite proud of that.

The travelers lifestyle got under my skin when very young. I suppose you develop a mindset after a while where ‘home’ becomes a concept rather than a place. Our circle of friends are living around the world rather than the house-frau and her balding husband across the cul de sac. I’m permanently tanned from too much time in the sun, whereas in Canada they’re sounding alarms against the idea of even 15 minutes exposure. My travel flesh is deep and dark. My rotator cuffs  joints in arms and hips are grinding like an old transmission from too much time spent in swimming pools and surf lines…my travel bones are worn. And still I have no want to return ‘home’ and begin collecting china or automobiles….or even worse….take up golf.  This a hell of a lifestyle…. but someone has to live creatively.

Canadians in particular are jealous to the extreme, they covet  and become angry when anyone has something they cannot. It’s a peculiarity of the culture. You’ll find  conversations with Canadians  begin with  identifiers ‘what do you do….where do you live, how much do you make.. where have you been on holiday’? It is a Canadian caste system that defines who you are financially compared to every one else. They’ll want to know if they’re ahead or behind so that they can either envy you or despise you. Vancouver , for example has been polled as being the loneliest, least friendly, and difficult to make new friends in as a city…. there is a large population of people reporting some form of depression and mental illness due to the social isolation. People there are so covetous of anything another might have that they can’t decide to ‘just be normal’.A visitor to Vancouver will notice a desperation to own real estate and a huge number of newly leased cars…. but no theater scene, no music scene, art scene, no cool neighborhoods…..just a lot of miserable people sitting around telling you how great their city is as justification for what they’re paying every month. In fact…it has to be the most miserable , covetous place I have ever been.

But I remind people that what you do in life is a choice. ‘Change your mind.. change your life’… is a phrase that popped into my head when I began my career as a traveler hitchhiking around North America and then branching off to spend decades wandering the world. It works for me…..and if you don’t like where you are…pack a suitcase and go somewhere you do. Hey…it works for us. I guess I’ll have to keep my crown as ….THE KING OF PAIN.

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A storm was threatening to come in all day, a strong wind showed up first and knocked the walking out of me, so I hunkered down in the truck and listened to Texas troubadours on the radio. There’s a special kind of music made in Texas, like nowhere else, not rock, not country, not country rock, certainly not pop, it’s Texan, long on blues riffs and grinding guitars…the lyrics aren’t bad either. Licks like “she’s got the kiss of an angel and the bite of a rattle snake” just can’t be found anywhere else.

I’m sliding into Texas like a pair of old boots…and I don’t know why, maybe it’s the renegade radio, maybe the whistling wind, somethings got hold of me. This is not the first time in my life I’ve been away so long from the things I knew, that I’ve forgotten who I am. Did you ever leave home to travel and stay away so long that everyone you’d known had moved away or moved on…and you found that you’d become a stranger?

There’s a book I enjoyed when I was young by Robert Heinlein, ‘Stranger in a strange land’, about a Martian boy named Michael who has the power to become a part of whatever he sets his mind to, he calls the process of total assimilation ‘grokking’ and grok becomes a synonym and metaphor for true love. Trisha and I are a bit like that Martian boy, we have a tendency to become one with wherever we are. In London we become Londoners, New York New Yorkers, in Thailand we wrote books on how to become more attuned to Thai culture…and so on…..but here we are, totally immersed in Texas, twanging guitar music rules the day, wondering why we’d ever leave, though we know we will someday.

Reality distances itself the longer we stay away. Some one asked me recently on our Bangkok Living & Travel site when we would be coming back to Thailand, and it struck me that travel is about traveling…building memories that last forever…less about gathering a collection of particular or popular destinations. Red skies and blue dirt sunsets are the places we’re calling home for now.

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I could never say no to a travel opportunity. As a kid I would hitch hike across continents to catch a concert, visit a friend, on a dare, or just to see something strange, with no more than a moments notice. A recent invitation to revisit Paris was irresistible to the wanderlust side of me. Traveling half way around the world on a whim has become something of a normal occurrence in my life. Thanks to the Internet it takes no than a few wireless minutes to have arrangements made and reservations confirmed. I believe in living spontaneously, I’ve based my life on it. When I was younger I never thought about how I’d get to my destination, or where I’d be sleeping, all that was just a rough guide as to the direction I would travel. These days, with a gold card and a passport I’m good to travel for years without a hitch. In essence I’m reliving my childhood. Perhaps I should question whether I ever grew up.

My travel muse Patricia and I were in London. I was finishing a novel ( The Bloody Oath) that I had been working on for almost ten years. It was an exciting time as this was my largest project to date and had been a wild ride in terms of time and research. The climax and conclusion swung between Amsterdam and London. I had the visual stimulation of being ‘on scene’ and the book flew towards it’s inevitable final chapters. The idea of going to Paris came up in one of those idle conversation travelers often have over lamb chops and tea. I had lived in Paris as a young man and had always carried a torch in my heart for the city. The history and romance had overwhelmed me. Patricia and I had previously visited many times as a couple because of the explosive romantic appeal this ancient darling city has on a person and an intellectual curiosity we share with millions of other museum aficionado’s. Paris has several of the worlds most fantastic and complete museums and art galleries.

Whenever possible I like to travel by rail. Europe allows me every opportunity to indulge my fancy. I grew up with the railroad. You might say it’s in my blood. If you want to read about my fact-ionalized history with the railroad you might read my novel, ‘The Revenant’. I describe in detail my very first impressions of those smoking leviathans. When I ‘m riding the train I am transcendent, and I sleep better than at any other time. There’s something about that steady ‘clickety-clack’ of steel wheels on rigid track that sets my mind free. Naturally, the best place to begin a journey to the continent from England is St. Pancras Station, London. Another thing about me is that I am a creature of habit and I like to revisit memories as well as places and things. One of my favorite fish and chip shops, The Golden Hind, is on Marleybone Road. I can never visit London without a ration of Cod & Chips from a spectacular ‘Chippy’, mere blocks from the train station.

Our destination in Paris was the Gare du Nord where all the trains from Britain arrive. Fortunately , transportation into the heart of the city is as easy as the famous Paris Metro, attached to the station. From the station we were able to go direct to our stop at St.Michel, also known as the Latin Quarter. There are many districts to stay in Paris but St. Michel has always been my favorite as it is at the very center of the old city along the river Seine and at the epicenter of the Parisian culture dating back to the time before Roman occupation. I can’t explain why, except perhaps with my belief in reincarnation, but I feel an affinity to the winding lanes that splinter this district, as if I have lived there before. Every time we go to Paris, Patricia and I make a kind of obsessive compulsive pilgrimage to all our favorite sites. It’s almost as if I have been ordered to check in with the ghosts of ancient souls, the sinuous streets, that brooding river, and the beauty that exudes from every follicle of the porous limestone upon which the foundations of each building rest. The eyes on the faces of each famous portrait seem to know when I’m back in the Louvre and have a mysterious way of following me as I pass through the gallery.

Out of habit, Pat and I always find the simplest places to stay. The back streets of St. Michel are peppered with family owned hotels, some run by the same clan for generations. I like the familiarity and repetition of making friends among the hoteliers in the cities I frequent. This practice gives me a feeling that I am actually traveling from home to home away from home and never really being a stranger. Forgive me for not divulging the name of my comfortable little bolthole in St Michel, but in these days of guide book driven mass tourism, word spreads fast, look what happened to Thailand, Bali and Goa, paradise to crap fest, in one edition. It’s strangely comforting to know where every thing is, use the same clothes hangers, open the cabinet drawers and smell familiar smells coming from the kitchen. There are brief moments in ‘travel time’ where it may seem that you’d never left. I like to cozy up with those moments and let my mind drift as comfortably in that space as if I’d been laid out on a soft duvet of floating goose down.

Of all the seasons to travel to Paris, winter is not my favorite choice. The cold doesn’t effect the number of tourists in the streets, Paris is always packed with visitors. The new social order of the Russia’s and Eastern Europe has reinvigorated tourism at a time when North American tourists had begun to falter in the wake of the sub prime debacle. This would be a primarily ‘inside’ trip for Patricia and I who have become accustomed to warmer climates in the last several years. In fact it was damned cold and we had under dressed , this oversight had us hustling up the Blvd. St. Michel towards the shopping district to buy a jumper and a scarf. The best blocks for clothing here are between the Seine walking past the Sorbonne on the way to the Parc de Luxembourg at Blvd St.Germain. Once suitably attired in the latest Parisian styles we began our sojourn around the city. Whatever the weather, we like to walk as much as we can. The 1st through 4th arrondissments are packed with visuals as these are the center of the original city. The Ilse St.Louis and Notre Dame Cathedral in particular are necessary places to become reacquainted with and are both within steps of St.Michel.

My favorite things are the least likely to catch a tourists interest. I like to go into the ancient churches and wrap myself in the vibrations of fervent prayer. This time I stepped in to a choir practice at a church in existence since the middle ages. I felt as if I were swimming in time. I want to peer past the modern office fronts set into the walls and courtyards of prerevolutionairy ‘Hotels de Ville’ of the French aristocracy where if blocks of stone could talk the conversation would be never ending. Cobble stone lanes where iron stanchions still have rings to tie a horse tether to make my imagination swirl as I tilt along with my head in the clouds. I see spirits where many others see only fading architecture. I see stories reaching out over ages of time past when I see the rows of luxurious homes overlooking the palace that once were the bastions of courtiers to the Frankish kings. My mind is enlivened when I think that I am perhaps sharing the streets with Roman souls who walked in my footsteps thousands of years before me. This is why traveling is rarely about a visitation for me, but more of a communion. I have a strange way of ‘projecting’ myself into other worlds and times.

Guide books rave about the French cuisine, but I am street trash by calling, a routard by nature. I went after the freshly ironed waffles slathered with a thick coating of Nutella spread from a kiosk. Instead of complying with the entreaties of the friendly well meaning restaurant touts crying out lavish menus to passers by, I went for the crispy fries fresh from the boiling oil and smothered in thick mayonnaise with a liberally meat stuffed pita dressed in paper from a Tunisian vendor in the lane behind St. Severin’s. For desert I continued my pilgrimage to the one bookstore in the world that should rightly be enshrined as a holy place for writers and artists alike ‘Shakespeare & Company’ on Rue de la Bucherie’. If anything, it is a monument to the labour , tedium and poverty of an authors life. It’s musty smell should be encapsulated and sold as perfume. The lane smells like piss and I can imagine great artists from Balzac to Hemingway relieving themselves in the dark alcoves that punctuate ‘La Rue’ as they have all been patrons here.

In a final homage to those who have gone before me I took a seat at a river side cafe and wrote a few caffeine fueled lines until I felt sated with the spirit of Paris, my love.

The Trabzon border station into Iran from Turkey was chaotic.  Turkey was contemporary in 1975  compared to Medieval Iran. It was as if we’d slipped through a time portal into a world that had passed thousands of years before. Turkey was a  nation built on mud brick, Iran had been snatched from the dust. These people had nothing, not even shelter. At the ragged lean-to that Eddy, our intrepid driver, assured us was the border station, a wretchedly filthy and toothless man was butchering a goat on the sidewalk , bleeding the carcass into the street. The Magic Bus from London to New Delhi had arrived.

“Welcome to Iran,” Eddy called back to us. This was everyone’s first experience with the brutal poverty of Iran , a state which  would entertain us for the next several thousand miles across the bleak section of the world called Asia Minor. The big silver door had just been opened when a wild eyed young man in a ragged tunic jumped aboard wearing a military looking peaked cap as if blown in by a desert scirrocco . He shouted ‘Passport, Passport,” in a thick accent and waving his arms.

Eddy promptly turned him around by the scruff of his neck and eased him out the door without argument. “Your passport’s worth a thousand dollars in these parts,” he said. “Never let it out of your sight.” Instead we waited in the baking heat for several hours behind a train of trucks and trailers at the border  for the real guards to finish whatever they were doing and get to us. I had a brief chat with some  lorry drivers and they told me that depending on what they were carrying they could be here for days, “In Shah Allah,” God willing. When the border agents did finally come our way they were intercepted by others trying to jump the queue who insisted the Muslims should be allowed through first and that seemed to carry some influence with the guards.

The collection of shacks on the border was the last sign of human occupation for a thousand miles. We were in the deep desert, uninhabited except for the occasional nomad caravan of camels and shadow people in the distance. The sand had swallowed everything that had come before us. Heading towards the capital of Tehran was a grinding process because of the heat. We had to drive slowly so as not to bake the engine. At night an  incredible view of  unblemished constellations was visible from our stand on the ghostly silent road. The phrase ‘in the middle of nowhere’ took on a deeply profound new significance. After a day and a vigilant night  a white city began to  loom in the distance.  I thought I had been transported back to ancient Babylon.

As we entered the outer city limits,  grey desert began to transform into lush greenery. Paved roads replaced the dirt track highway. White low rise buildings were hung with layers of flowing leafy creepers, window ledges crowded with flowering pots in red and purple. The streets were deserted, shadow women in wraith like burka’s darted in and out of sight, we were in the empire of the Shah Reza Pahlavi, a brutal and repressive dictator. His close friends and regime supporters had surrounded themselves with a decadent  island of civilization not shared with the rest of the country. Eddy knew of a parking lot fairly close to the center of the city and we stopped there.

It was a walled caravansarai in every sense of the word except that these wandering merchants were not leading camels, they were the drivers of truck convoys laden with goods destined for hinterlands far beyond Tehran. Open air cold showers and roast mutton were welcomed by all but the women who had to bucket bath behind blankets and couldn’t eat within sight of the men’s camp. Sorry girls, that part of the world is still mired in proto-modernity. We men sat around an open fire swapping travel stories under the moon as travelers had along the silk road from the time of  ancient kingdoms that time had long since swept  into oblivion. I slept in the open that night under a pantheon of stars.  I thought that this scene had welcomed travelers on this  spot for perhaps thousands of years. It was like Marco Polo, in the 20th century.

Loaded with provisions we were road savvy zealots by the time we headed off to Meshed on the  Afghan border. We would cross at Herat. Little would we know the storm of war brewing in the Kremlin and how  Russia would invade Afghanistan within 18 months plunging the brutally impoverished country into a murderous no mans land for travelers . The farther east along the highway we sped, the farther back in time we traveled. When we came to the  Afghan border the Tardis  stopped spinning somewhere around the 6th  century. It was the first time I had encountered troglodytes, cave dwellers along the hillsides. The border guards didn’t have shoes or shirts under their threadbare uniform jackets let alone any obvious sense of the 20th century about them.

I had read about places like Herat in the journals of Marco Polo and the famous Arabic scholar/traveler Ibn Battuta. The red mud of the desert had been made to stand up into  rudimentary one story hovels on a simple frame of tortured wood poles. The peoples costume had something of the Aladdin flair. The extra large turbans  Afghan men wore and the long beards were something I hadn’t seen before. Their curled toed leather sandals were brilliant. I bought a pair.

It was only here where women wore  netting over the eye’s  so that nothing of their appearance could be seen by an outsider. They held the netting tight to their eyes to see where they were going and not trip over the full length hems of their blue or grey burkhas as they picked their way through the rubbish  strewn and sodden streets. Raw meat dangled on hooks in shop fronts, but none  made me hungry. Butchery seemed more like an act of tearing flesh off a dead animal in ragged strips rather than the linear precision we’d call presentable in the west. Flies were ubiquitous , no attempt was made to curtail their dominance.

Houses and shopfronts were interchangeable,  like  fortresses with heavy gates to bar forced entry . The courtyards were filled with animals, mostly goats and small donkey’s. Larger area’s had pens of bound camel , waiting on their knee’s for who knows what. The most memorable characteristic of the town was the incredible stench of sewage and blood. Guts were left to lay in the sun under black blankets of buzzing flies and ringed by snarling curs.

I would come back to Afghanistan in the months before the war to visit the Lapis blue lakes above the Bamiyan Valley  to see the incredible statues of Buddha carved into the cliff walls. The lakes are still there, the Buddha’s have been blown to smithereens by the Taliban after resting in the sleepy valley for 2500 years. Kabul was a  flyblown shotgun setting  of one miserable treet gilded by a single hotel, the Holiday Inn. It was such an anomaly we had to stop and have a drink in the bar. It was the only place serving alcohol for thousands of miles in either direction. The rectangular building looked like a space machine had landed in the midst of a 7th century biblical ghetto.

I fended off many offers to buy large and small firearms from various merchants in the Kabul Bazaar. It was  a country where every man young and old was armed to the teeth with pistols, knives, swords, muskets and modern weapons of every sort. Being a man and unarmed in this country was  unusual , they wanted me to load up for my own good. Looking back I should have know that something was up. The gun shops in the back lanes of Kabul were cranking out knock off weapons like a war was coming, it was, three decades worth and counting.

I was looking forward to the Khyber Pass crossing into Pakistan. We’d be retracing the footsteps of Alexander the Great, Darius, Genghis Khan the Moguls and the British Expeditionary Force. The police told us  we’d have to join a caravan of vehicles to cross through  Pushtun territory. Unruly tribesmen could make short work out of a busload of unarmed hippies.  Afghan tribal leaders have been murdering foreigners who dared cross into their territory since  Alexander. We’d stay with the caravan through the border region, past Peshawar and well on the way to Islamabad where the tribes no longer had the gun power to flaunt the national fantasies of the State of Pakistan.

I talked my way onto the roof of a loaded lorry so  I could ride through the Khyber in the open. It was breathtaking, I was sitting on the shoulders of my heroes, the great explorers. We wound through the winding pass on razor thin tracks cut into the side of raw mountain. Rock falls were evident , down in the valleys below at the worst corners, evidence of misfortune lay glinting in the unforgiving sun. Eddy assured us that Pakistan was nothing but filth and squalor, we took him at his word, and sped right through towards India. We would cross at Waguh, on the colonial Grand Trunk Road, the only passable land border between the feuding states of India and Pakistan.

The scene I  met at the border stuck in my mind forever, The Punjabi Sikh border guard met me as if I were a long lost relative being rescued from an ultimate evil. The impossibly tall man in full regalia shouted “Welcome to India Sir” and ushered me under a stone arch that divides the two mortal enemies. It was a strange feeling, but after so much time on the road I actually experienced an emotion of ‘home coming’. Every subsequent visit to India has brought back that memory. I feel very much at home there to this day. I answered his invitation with , “I’m really happy to be here”. Stamp stamp  and I was a native of India for the next six months as stated in my well used passport.

I can describe a state of mind where bliss and happiness, satisfaction and wonder are all rolled up into one beautiful moment. Amazingly, my companion travelers were all of the same  persuasion. Even the usually talkative and boisterous Eddy was pensive and contemplative as we made a bee-line towards Delhi. Everyone had their own plans around what they would do once we left the Tardis…ahem…Magic Bus.

The countryside was hypnotic. The Indians have chosen colour as their weapon against  drab clay and rusty earth. Everything was new, words, food, deeds, people, livestock, architecture. Fantastic ziggurat temples rose out of the flat soil, painted in every bright hue . The gods they housed were every bit as fantastic as the temples that housed them.

The city of New Delhi begins a thousand miles away from it’s epicenter. The build up in population is only a precursor to the crowded streets  in the city. It reached a point where we were  constantly shoulder to shoulder inside a seething mass of humanity. I was elated, afraid, in wonder, amused, all in a day. Our journey as a clan of intrepid travelers ended in a  nondescript parking lot in the Pahar Ganj district close to  Delhi railway station. This would prove fortuitous to me as I would ride the trains for months to discover this great land in a way that many Indians envy . I went everywhere, north-south-east-west , no matter the distance or hardship.

Eventually I found a virtually secret little place along the coast south of Bombay called Goa. There were only four other westerners there, no where to stay and no restaurants. Just an untended beach along the Arabian Sea.

I was fortunate to be introduced to a fisherman who agreed to move  his family out of his comfortable mud and cow dung thatch roofed shack with  outside well and pig cleaned outhouse, for the princely sum of sixteen cents a day. I had to get up early if I wanted  fresh fish from the boats on the beach.  I bought a kerosene cooker to make rice with the only two vegetables grown in local gardens, tomato and onion. My journey to India had just begun.

My editor has requested that I try to keep my columns  to 2000 words or less. This is not normally an issue, but this week is different. I have recently completed a circumnavigation of the planet in the space of 30 days. I waited a lifetime to do this, 2000 words is hardly enough.

I had always dreamed about circumnavigating the planet. I had coveted those ‘around the world’ tickets advertised in the newspaper travel section since I was a little kid. Some people read the sports page, others the comics, for me it was always the travel section. The idea appealed to me as being the keystone of the travelers Shangri-lah . I could be Cook or Magellan for a paltry $2500.00.It was the dream of a child, $2500 dollars was kings ransom and still is, an impossible dream.

 

It would remain my ultimate fantasy into adulthood. In spite of later traveling to 70 plus countries for business and pleasure over a thirty year period, I had never accomplished to circle the globe in one continuous flight-line. When the opportunity arose I leapt at the chance like a hungry tiger.

Fellow time traveler and captain of my heart Patricia and I spent several weeks plotting out our trip like two blue water sailors pouring over a chart table.We decided to visit as many favorite old favorites as  discover new destinations. We like to kick back in an old haunt and revisit a precious memory or two as much as making new ones. Travel is about relaxing, time on the road carving out new directions can be exhausting, a little ‘hammock time’ is good for your soul.

Admittedly, there are those special moments that make ‘hard travel’   worthwhile when something amazing appears out of nowhere after a long day beating the streets of a far flung capital or a trip through  bus travel hell to some jungle hideaway . One perfect photograph in the can or an idyllic sunset emblazoned on your conscious  is worth a million miles of trekking, bone cracking hours of riding a chicken bus, and the costs and effort of finally ‘being there’. If die hard travelers were a Medieval religious order we’d  be referred to as ‘fanatics’.

Our route would take us west across the Pacific, first to Hong Kong, then Beijing, down to Singapore, Shanghai via Bangkok, across the Russia’s to Helsinki, London, New York and finally to the back of beyond…Vancouver. We decided that we would accomplish all of this in 30 days. The confluence of time and budget were perfect but proposed certain limitations. We would be traveling on Air Miles , most accumulated from previous trips. The flights we booked and the hotels we stayed in had to be carefully picked as part of the ‘One World Alliance’ so that we could take full advantage of the discounts offered.

Day one was a flurry of activity, I was as giddy as a school girl skipping along on a summers day. This was the culmination of a lifetime of desire. My logistics coordinator and chief strategist had booked us on a flight leaving Vancouver at 10:00 PM Pacific Coast Time. This was designed to get us into Hong Kong with plenty of time to drop our bags at our favorite hotel, the Nathan, suitably named, on Nathan Road in Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon and be in time for a great seafood meal under the stars at the restaurant nexus in the middle of the Temple Street market.

The plan worked out perfectly. The following morning, after a Melatonin induced sleep for jet-lag we hit the early morning dim sum tables in Wan Chai on  Hong Kong island and then sped out to Mong Kok for some quick shopping. We knew HK well enough to have decided to spend an extra day in Beijing instead of hanging around. Chep Lap Kok  airport is only a short cab ride away. Off to Beijing.

Patricia had got a fantastic offer from The Wangfujing Hilton in Beijing on a three night stay. I was impressed by the luxury our budget had been able to buy us. Wangfujing District is central to most of the walking tours that fill central Beijing with options. We decided against the expensive tourist trap called the Great Wall and decided to spend our time with the people of Beijing. We found the famous Silk Road markets to be extensive, the food far too laden with MSG to be healthy and the Forbidden City so fantastic that we spent two full days wandering around like two dazed aliens pumped up on some kind of happy serum.

Singapore is an old favorite. It is a layer cake city, one above ground and one below, each equally as packed with things to do and see as the other. The super humid ground level Singapore is of course incredibly beautiful. The sea wall allows people to enjoy the entire city scape while dining al fresco under the stars while listening to free concerts or watching international street performers entertain the crowds. It is of course , very hot and humid.

But there is nothing like the Singapore experience of taking a tin plate of steaming fresh food from Smugglers Cove or Clark Quay and eating under the view of the famous Merlion water sculpture, the city line and now the new Marina Bay casino with it’s roof designed to resemble an ancient Arab Dhow plying the trade routes which made Singapore what it is. I stayed across the street from the Esplanade at the Mandarin Oriental to luxuriate in their infinity pool and to relive the famous breakfast spread.

 

The underground level of Singapore takes many first time visitors by surprise. In air conditioned comfort it is possible to commute from one side of the city to the other through and underground shopping concourse the likes of no Canadian city has envisioned. Singapore is also a city of neighborhoods. The Indian district centered on Serangoon Road host some of the finest Indian cuisine in Asia. Try the Masala Dosa.

Bangkok is a second home to Pat and I. We would never fly to Asia without staying for a few nights. For this very short visit we stayed in Bang Rak at the Best Western affiliate. The area gives you excellent access to the Chao Phraya river transportation and other transport options, like the Skytrain, to whisk you all over the city in air conditioned style. One train will take you north to Chat a Chak , or JJ market as its called locally.

This fantastic open air retail carnival offers one stop shopping for everything made in Thailand. Bangkok is an international design center and an array of clothing seldom seen in the west can be had for very reasonable prices…quickly. I love BKK for the food and Pat buys eyeglasses  because they are six times cheaper than in Vancouver for styles ten years in advance…’nuff said. Bangkok is a shoppers paradise.

A pollution warning over Shanghai caused us to change our plans at the last minute. We saw why when we landed in Shanghai , the entire city had become enveloped in ‘Brown Cloud’, a recent phenomenon in China where smog is so thick that the levels of toxic particulate in the air become ‘officially’ dangerous to your health. This is a good lesson about traveling anywhere, be flexible and ready for change. We didn’t mind missing Shanghai, it had been one of those ‘new ground’ choices and now we got to reschedule our time in places that meant much more to us.

I was fixated for 15 hours the entire time we flew over Russia. The geography is stunning. I became ‘the leaning man’ on the emergency door beside the rear washrooms, an unmoving sculpture with my face pressed against the double pane of plexiglass looking out at the scenery. Every once in a while the topography would change and I would rush back top my seat and click on the flight map to see which country and mountain range we were passing over. I felt childish, as if I were Marco Polo retracing the Silk Road east to west.

Our destination was Helsinki, Finland, a country we had visited previously and had fallen in love with. Pat and I had sworn to return and travel into the interior to discover the rue face of the Finnish people. The capital Helsinki had been built by an occupation force of Russians and Swedes. The Finnish soul was represented inland we had been told. Finland is an entirely under rated and under visited country.

By nature it has it’s solitudes and it is up to the visitor to discover Finland on it’s own terms.From the tropical heat of South East Asia we landed in Helsinki and it was snowing. We’d packed for this. Like the Boy Scouts, a good traveler is prepared. Our immediate destination in Finland after a jet lag rest in Helsinki was the northern resort town of Levi where were treated to reindeer tethered outside out window and Patricia getting her first case of frostbite. My camera batteries had to be specially adapted to the the polar freeze…what fun! Next we would train to Tempere, the second city of Finland.

London greeted us in the form of our friend ‘Ginger’, a cabbie we always call when we visit. He has ‘the knowledge’ and always knows the most interesting ways to Camden Town where we call home when here. There is no place more characteristically British than Camden Town, or should I say that Camden is more like a caricature than a true representation.  Either way, we love this microcosm of English life. Camden is ‘in the moment’ as they say. Wildly fashionable and derelict in the same moment. The High Street is lined with eccentricities that the average Canadian can’t imagine.

The restaurants and museums of London are truly spectacular. Most grand entertainment is free if you are a gallery, park and museum bug as I am. This trip I trod along the foot path beside the Camden Canal that leads to the London Zoo. I had always wanted to see this first in the world Victorian marvel.

 

I was getting settled in and headed out to Marks and Spencer for more Cornish Cruncher cheese and Hot Chocolate sticks when Patricia reminded me that we would be leaving for New York in the morning. “Anything you buy,” she said, “Is going to have to be eaten between here and there”. I love Cornish Cruncher more than I need sleep so we dined on this delightful specialty into the wee hours of the morning. I’m glad the Americans won’t let me bring any cheese into the country. All the more for me.

Flying into New York is a process, not an event. The security has become onerous. I am an extreme bug-a- phobe and ‘The Big Apple’ is suffering an infestation of bedbugs in every star of accommodation. I chose to stay a half hour away in the AKA White Plains suites which had not had a single reported instance. The quaint town is on the rail line direct to grand Central Station, an easy ride from our hotel.

Manhattan is timeless, we walked the chilly streets downtown towards Washington Square and Greenwich Village for coffee and the street life. Just for fun we visited the Guggenheim in the afternoon. A friend invited us for dinner in Chinatown and we finished with desert at the McDonald’s Time Square to catch the neon displays still there in an area that has transformed itself.

As we looked out at the garish lights Pat and I admitted to one another at how exhausted we were after an entire month on a high speed gambit around the world. Would we do it again, you bet. And that my friends, is how you write an article about traveling around the world in 2000 words or less. 1989 words.I just made it. Whew, I’m exhausted.

In all the world, there’s no place like London. I love the  city. I love the people,  museums,  tube, galleries, high streets, parks, restaurants , pubs and all the things that describe England as a quintessentially unique culture in the expanding homogeneity of a globalizing world. But what I love best about London is Camden Town. If London is a distillation of all things  British then Camden Town in North London, is the essential oil of everything English.

I have tested the charm of London’s many area’s during my visit’s to the city both for business and pleasure over the years . Every neighborhood has  unique charms that continue to draw special favor from repeat visitors to this magnificent city. To satisfy my particular tastes I head straight to Camden after arriving at Heathrow. When it comes to travel I am an admitted convenience nut. I want to access as many things as can be in the easiest manner  over the shortest time and cheapest way possible. I like to be at the center of things.

The Borough of Camden is most famous  for the world renowned Camden Market that straddles both sides of trendy Camden High Street between Regents Park and Primrose Hill. A more eccentric or eclectic High Street and market mix in Britain you will never find. The street  is where Goth and Glamor have married to form the perfect union of fashion eccentricity. Londoners are fashionista’s with a flair, they fear no trend nor do they hesitate to create  their own. Styles may be for  personal entertainment or designed to spark an international fever over fascinating hats, glittering belts or crisp crinolines worn under T-shirts to be carried around the world by awestruck aficionado’s. Some trends last mere moments on Camden High Street.

Enter the crowded covered, and uncovered, Camden market from any of the gates and  find yourself in an Ali Baba’s cave of merchandise from around the world. There is no specific logic to the mix, it’s eclectic by design, there are collectable furniture shops  beside  high end clothing boutiques or old vinyl records. My stop always includes the vintage leather jacket shop in the basement of ‘The Stables’ that sells everything for ten pounds regardless of condition. The market blends centuries of product, from verifyably antique to just plain tired,  fashion forward styles to ever so practical house ware brick a brac.

There are several  food courts that are not to be missed. The highly charged and competitive take away counters offer generous portions of international cuisine for three pounds a plate. Austin Powers must have designed the seating. Rows of motor scooter seats are lined along the canal for the perfect view of Camden Lock water way to watch a constant stream of barges , walkers, joggers and general passers by. The food choices don’t stop at the market walls , they spill out into the street where restaurants and pubs line  surrounding area lanes and roads offering fabulous selection.  Thai and Japanese,  traditional English and some of the best Italian food anywhere are found within the radius of a few blocks in any direction. Each block of this neighborhood deserves a foodies attention.

The canal  is always in use by commercial and residential barges. They ply their way into the lock, rise up to the next level and off they go. It’s endlessly fascinating to watch the comings and goings of this heavily  touristed  area. Don’t let the idea of wildly diverse crowds put you off, that’s what makes Camden as charming as it is. This street scene is a parade as you may have never witnessed,  not one to be missed. You’ll  mingle with colourful Mohawked punks promoting the area’s  tattoo parlours and music venues , tittering groups of Italian school girls on a weekend shopping junket, local families out for a stroll and everything in between.

There is a dreamy iron bridge that steps over the lock anchored by a gorgeous Weeping Willow on one side and the market on the other. In fact, you may have unknowingly seen this  view when watching a news story out of London  by your local affiliate reporting from there. The CBC News World building is a fixture of the lock-side . Reporters often use the Camden Bridge for a back shot. Every afternoon, young people meet on a cobblestone platform under that Weeping Willow to party. The custom is to bring cans of beer to consume away from the  pub because the price is lower that way.

I have my favorite places in Camden, as  many others have over the centuries who’ve been attracted by it’s inimitable and understated charms. I am one writer in a long line who finds the neighborhood inspiring in some unwitting way. Poet Dylan Thomas lived there, a stately blue plaque rests on the heritage listed house where he once resided and has always been a place of pilgrimage for me whenever I’m in town. Charles Dickens once lived here and placed  ‘A Christmas Carols’  Bob Crachit’s family in Camden as well as the Micawbers of David Copperfield and passages of Dombey and Son. Amy Winehouse was found deceased in her Camden Square home.

I’ve always stayed at the Holiday Inn Camden Locks for the brilliant location and modern suites. Where ever I travel these days I opt to stay fewer days  so that I can enjoy better quality food and lodgings . This is a personal choice. For my taste there is no fun  in ending the day in a less than satisfactory room for the sake of one or two extra days on the road. A full week of comfort is much more restful than two weeks where I’m not entirely comfortable. It’s one of those quality vs quantity arguments you can only have with yourself and your visa card.

I  like to ‘wander’ whenever I’m in Camden to refresh my love of the neighborhood. From the Holiday Inn on Jamestown Avenue I head down Arlington that runs parallel to the High Street. I like to relive past experiences when I can, I feel I get more out of a place that way. The original fresh fruit and vegetable market on Inverness Street is still a going concern albeit with fewer stalls than there were earlier in the century. It’s nice to know that many of the small shops are still in place, I wave, they don’t recognize me, I don’t care, it makes me feel good to buy a pomegranate and have a short conversation with the barrow man about the weather.

At the end of the block on Arlington at Parkway is the Good Fare restaurant run by the nicest Italian family. It’s a great place for a full English breakfast and a cup of tea, really bright and cozy. If I was to turn right I would visit the London Zoo two blocks up the road. A friendly cab driver named Tony told me that Neil Gallagher of Oasis fame lives in the street. There are some rather nice houses for the rich mixed in with rather ordinary Council Flats for the less famous. You can never be sure who you’ll rub shoulders with in one of the local shops. Across the street from the Good Fare stands a vacant shop that has a banner sign above the empty front window advertising monkeys for sale on one corner and a Tandoori franchise on the other. Camden has often been described as a place to find an ‘alternative lifestyle’. So far so good.

The High Street is an endless fascination, I like to walk up and down either side poking into the incredibly diverse shops. I’ll always find an excuse to ‘pop in’ to a new shop or one I have visited before. On my last trip I went into a general merchandise store catering to  Indian merchandise. I found the coolest shoes, I bought two pair, along with a little ceramic tea pot to use in the hotel room. I still send post cards to my friends stuck at home so I visit the post office for stamps, it’s also a bank. I collect metal cookie tins , the place for that fix is Marks and Spencers, ‘Marks and Sparks’ to ‘insiders’.

I’ve never met a cafe I didn’t like and Camden High Street is lined with every variety from ‘ mom and pop’ bistro’s to global franchises,  side by side. Quick food outlets like  Pret a Porte are easy on the wallet and serve reasonably good snacks and sandwiches. If you’re wanting something  substantial try a pub lunch in any of the famous pubs in the street. There’s a McDonald’s and a Burger King.

I  adore the ‘Worlds End’ pub  across  from the Camden tube station. It’s been in operation since the 1600’s. It reeks with character. ‘The End’ is a popular music venue  that hosts famous artists like ‘The Cranberries’. I have ended two  novels , The Bloody Oath’ and ‘The Enablers’ with the protagonist sitting at the rail of this fantastic  pub watching the world go by. The bar food is not half bad with a lager and lime . The Black Cap across the street is  a vintage  pub  dedicated to famous British drag entertainers.

Whether you’re walking down the High Street or decide to stroll the passage along the canal between Kentish Town and Regents Park, there’s always something to see or do around Camden. It’s one of the least boring places in the world as far as I’m concerned. Walk down to Abbey Road where the Beatles took the famous picture of themselves crossing the street in front of Abbey Road Studio’s, it’s a few blocks. The Rolling Stones sang about St. Johns Wood in the song ‘Nineteenth Nervous Breakdown’,  not far away. You can ‘get away from it all’ and overlook Camden Town by walking up the hill  towards Kentish Town on Chalk Farm Road. There’s some great little cafe’s up there.

Getting out at night is easy, you walk a few blocks . Try the retro Vinyl Bar on Inverness, it’s central and  lively.  Belushi’s on the High Street is top rated for  live rock bands ,  always fully loaded and ready to go.  ‘The Blue’s Kitchen’ on the High Street  is for the blues lovers, straight ahead good music and atmosphere, great staff.

I found  the staff in all the pubs, cafe’s and restaurants I have visited over the years  fun loving and hospitable . Bar tending and serving is a great job in London and  people  give off a really welcoming vibe,  nice when people are so cool. If you get lucky and score a ticket on the street or book ahead you might see a major band playing an intimate venue like ‘The Roundhouse’ or ‘The Underworld’ as often happens in London. Camden is considered one the main arteries for London’s music scene.

London is an expensive destination for most people, expensive but not impossible. I forget about the old days  when we would afford travel for extended periods of time by staying in flops and eating little. Today I enjoy London on a shoestring budget with a place like Camden as my focus for a shorter time. This area is so packed with inexpensive entertainment and excitement that a weeks vacation is exhausting and soul filling enough to make it seem  like I’ve been there  a month.

If you feel that you must see ‘the rest of London’,  remember, Piccadilly Circus is free, Trafalgar Square is free, the top museums are free to enter as are the fantastic parks and famous markets spread throughout the city. It costs nothing to window shop  through Selfriges on Oxford Street or Harrods in Knightsbridge. There is no charge for walking down ‘The Mall’ and gawking through the wrought iron gates of Buckingham Palace. For great entertainment on the cheap, walk down Camden High Street and tell me if you didn’t have the best time of your life.