Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Cycling For Weight-Loss

A Familiar Story
Many long-distance cyclists will have experienced it. You come across another westerner, cycling out in the wilds of Laos, Thailand or Borneo and you stop for a conversation. They seem to have cycled almost everywhere in the world worth cycling. There is a zeal in their eyes when they talk about it. Looking down you see sculpted calfs and a physique that belies the age of the rider - he says he's retired so he's probably in his sixties. Then you ask the question - "So how long have you been into cycling?"

And this is the familiar bit. Frequently these irrepressible enthusiasts will tell you that five or ten years ago they weighed twice or even three times as much as they do now, drank heavily and smoked forty a day. They hadn't ridden a bike since they were a kid.

"I had a heart attack. The doctors told me if I didn't change the way I lived I would be dead within a year. I stopped smoking, stopped the heavy drinking, stopped eating junk and got some regular exercise. Then a friend suggested I take up cycling."

What they then tell you is how the weight began to fall off them and their health began to return. But invariably they go on to talk about how they began to love the cycling - the buzz it gave them, the people they met, the places they went and the simple pleasure of being out in the countryside.

Countryside is made to cycle in

One Dutchman I met in Laos was a case in point. In fact his name was Kase. We met him at the bottom of a long steep hill somewhere north of Vientiane (the diminutive capital). We stopped.

"Are you okay, do you have a problem with the bike?"
"No no, my wife was telephoning from Holland so I stopped. Where are you from?"
"England. You're from Holland yes – is this your first time in Laos?"
"No my third. I'm on my way to Vietnam then I'll fly home from Saigon. Only three weeks this time."
"You do a lot of this then?"
"Oh yes. I'm nearly always away. I can't stop, because I love it so much. Six years ago I was so fat and unhealthy and my doctor told me to get exercise. I bought a bike and I found I loved cycling so much. Now Im obsessed – my family hardly see me. Ha ha, before they could always find me sitting in the chair, watching TV and drinking beer. Complaining! I love my life so much now. It's incredible. Anyhow I'm sorry I have to go, I want to make it to Luang Prabang tonight. Watch out for the hills, guys - there is a big one about one hour ahead. It continues up and up for about sixty kilometres... but the view is incredible. Enjoy it and watch out for the hot springs place – you can't miss it... incredible!"

The cycling paradise that is Laos

Miracle Weight-loss Formula
I always sigh when I hear someone say they are on a special weight-loss diet or that they are going to the gym. For a start these are unlikely to work because (unlike Kase) their way of life will not fundamentally change. Moreover, I cannot for the life of me understand why someone would suffer this kind of boring regime when they could be out there in the beauty of the world, enjoying the gentle motion of pedalling a bicycle. Cycling is the best route to fitness and good health I know. It's gentle - you are unlikely to suffer impact injuries etc that you may well experience in other sports - it's meditative, it needn't be expensive and you can do it almost anywhere. But the big selling point is that you can be going somewhere, visiting interesting places and enjoying beautiful scenery while you're getting your exercise. There is also a tremendous sense of achievement at the end of every day's ride and even more-so at the end of every expedition. In fact I would say I have rarely met a depressed, miserable or pessimistic long-distance cyclist.

Why endure the blandness of a gym when you could be out there doing it for real?

Next time you are thinking you need to go on a diet or that you should take out a gym membership, do yourself a favour, take a trip to your local cycle shop instead.

In 2008/9 Mark Swain cycled from Ireland to Tokyo, a journey of 10,000 miles, with his 18 year old son Sam. If you would like to read their bestselling travel book 'Long Road, Hard Lessons', you can find this, along with his two collections of short stories, on Amazon, Smashwords etc. 
In the UK his books can also be found in all Waterstones Bookstores.

Monday, 27 April 2015

Simple Pleasures

Waking again this morning to spring sunshine, my still dreamy mind leaped instantly to the thought of a cycle ride. Get out there on the lanes, amongst the trees, the English hedgerows, the sound of birdsong and the sobering sight of squashed hedgehogs. This week I passed 57. That's years old not miles per hour. Thank goodness my passion for expeditionary travel and the great outdoors is as strong as ever. I trust it will be a long time before I'm ready for the world of coach trips, zimmer-frames, tenna-pants, cream teas, gift shops and queues for the toilets.

The Benefits of Age
No doubt at some point my physical ability to cycle or walk long distances and over hilly terrain will begin diminish but so far it seems to be improving. What I lack in strength I seem to make up for in a more relaxed approach which seems to get me further and in a more pleasurable manner. My judgement is a bit better. I have learned from experience when it makes sense to stop, how much water and food to carry and most of all that I have nothing to prove to anyone, not even myself. I've done it all before so I can just enjoy it. This is a great stage to reach. It feels like a reward for years of self-induced pain and hardship. But the greatest reward of becoming a 'mature' cyclist, motorcyclist and rambler is to have the time. No longer the 2 week summer holiday once a year at the same time everyone else is out on the roads. No longer the all too brief weekend jaunt stolen between the intense responsibilities of work and child-rearing. Now I am more able to go where I want, when I want and almost for as long as I want. And the great thing about cycle touring is that you don't need a fortune to do it.

Where To Go
I tend to divide up my cycling, walking and motorcycling (I also squeeze in a few sailing trips with friends) trips into categories based upon the length of time they take and therefore the amount of preparation required.

Half-day & 1 day trips tend to involve cycling to a country pub - usually a micropub (http://micropubassociation.co.uk)
Long weekend trips naturally require a little more planning, but not much. These might involve a cycle tour of a number of micropubs in Kent, where I mostly live. We usually take a packed lunch and eat it in a churchyard as micropubs don't serve food. Basically they only serve beer - exceptionally good beer. You might get a pickled egg or a bag of crisps though if you're lucky. Sometimes I cycle alone somewhere, out to a farm shop or to visit a friend. Half-day motorcycle trips tend to follow the same pattern. The main thing is they require little or no pre-planning. A phone call the evening before or on the morning, fill my water-bottle and perhaps make a sandwich before I set off. It might be a trip across to France or Belgium. Motorcycle jaunts can be longer - perhaps down to Wales, up to Yorkshire or over to Belgium or France. Every so often I ride over to Ireland to see a race like the thrilling North-west 200 near the Giant's Causeway. One or two week trips usually involve going further. I often go with friends to cycle The Way of The Roses cycle route from Morecambe to Bridlington (coast to coast in Lancashire and Yorkshire). I've also recently started doing Camino walks (pilgrimage walks to Santiago de la Compostela in Spain) which can take months. It's not all old fogeys. And then there are expeditionary trips. These usually take anything from a month to a year. My longest was 9 months cycling from Ireland to Japan with my son. This November we are thinking of doing a one month cycle trip in India or Morocco. Last summer I cycled the Elbe in East Germany, down through Czech Republic and then back along the Danube with my wife (slowly). It's hard to be bored when you have a bike or a good pair of boots. I'm waiting to cycle The Himalayas at some point, but I'm in no rush. My body seems to work better than ever and that's probably thanks to this regular exercise.

 Men in lycra. A trip to Poperinge Beer Festival (Belgium)

 The road from Ireland to Tokyo was 10,000 miles. Thankfully not all of it was like this. 
Track over Mt Anai Mudi. Kerala, near to Munar.

 The NW200 Port Rush, Northern Ireland. They're at 200mph!

 The Way of The Roses, somewhere near York

Passing pilgrims on the Camino Finisterre, Galicia, Spain

Next Expedition
My son Sam and I are currently discussing the finer detail of a one month trip in India. This time we think we will either buy a couple of those old-fashioned Indian bicycles (very heavy and very unreliable) then give them away to some deserving local family at the end. Sam favours the idea of getting a couple of scooters (Honda C90 type) and riding them back to UK. I'm thinking we'd need to add at least another month for that but it sounds great. So long as the body holds up.  

In 2008/9 Mark Swain cycled from Ireland to Tokyo, a journey of 10,000 miles with his 18 year old son Sam. If you would like to read their bestselling travel book 'Long Road, Hard Lessons', you can find this, along with his two collections of short stories, on Amazon, Smashwords etc. 
In the UK his books can also be found in all Waterstones Bookstores.

Monday, 6 April 2015

Asia - Contempating an Overpopulated World

I have just returned from a one month tour of Asia - specifically Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong and China. With the exception of Malaysia, which outside of Kuala Lumpur is fairly sparsely populated, the trip served as a reminder of what we must accept we are moving towards in terms of density of population and how we might deal with it. 

World Population - The Statistics
World population officially passed 7 billion on 31 October 2011. According to the United Nations' World Population Prospects report,[4] the world population is currently growing by approximately 74 million people per year. Current United Nations predictions estimate that the world population will reach 9.0 billion around 2050, assuming a decrease in average fertility rate from 2.5 down to 2.0. Almost all growth will take place in the less developed regions, where today's 98.3 million population of underdeveloped countries is expected to increase to 7.8 billion in 2050. During 2005–2050, nine countries are expected to account for half of the world's projected population increase: IndiaPakistanNigeriaDemocratic Republic of the CongoBangladeshUgandaUnited StatesEthiopia, and China, listed according to the size of their contribution to population growth. China would be higher still in this list were it not for its One Child Policy (although this policy has been recently relaxed). More data is available on Wikipedia and other sites such as the UN, but the above statistics alone make startling reading, do they not?

Urban sprawl. Mexico City goes on and on. See Guardian pics on Overpopulated Planet.

What This Means To You And Me
Statistic tend to baffle. It sounds a lot but what does it mean in real terms? The naturalist and campaigner David Attenborough is a great campaigner for increased awareness and individual responsibility over human population growth. He campaigns via the organisation Population Matters and much detail can be found on their website about the likely practical realities of the issue. Population Matters are rather good at putting things into terms we can understand. People have differing opinions about what it all means to us but one thing is clear. People will not be able to continue living on this planet as we currently do. It has been said that by 2050, the only way the world will be able to support the predicted number of human beings is if we all live the way most Indians now do. This means a meagre vegetarian diet, travel by bicycle, very few cars, minimal overseas travel and only having a very small space within which to live. This extreme change in quality of life will shock most westerners. Of course if we do not manage to keep on top of the battle against drug-resistant viruses, then the population figures might be very different. But who would wish for that? It may well be us westerners with our sanitised lives that die-off first.

Hong Kong suburb of Tai Long Wan. Some think it ugly, but it works. 
There are parks & trees and under each group of buildings is a kindergarten, 
supermarket, laundry, cafes, tennis/basketball courts etc.
The Alternatives
If we look at China, with a current population of around 1.4b, we can see that ruthlessly restricting the birthrate via a one child policy does work. It will be interesting to see how people in western democracies respond to being told how many children they are allowed. Freedom of speech pales into insignificance by comparison. Asian cultures seem to more easily accept the concept of doing things for the good of their country or culture. Singapore is a prime example of where a vibrant capitalism in terms of monetary and trade policy has been easily accepted alongside rigid social policies involving restrictions (tax penalties etc) on the number of children you can have, on car use and in housing people in numerous collections of high-rise blocks. Hong Kong and Chinese cities have done the same. Huge new-towns of identical skyscraper apartments are increasingly prevalent. Elderly people grumble but most accept it as necessary and focus on the benefits. But how easily would we in the west adapt to such measures? Well the truth is we are unlikely to have the choice. Short term we could move to less populated wilderness areas but those would soon be overrun.

Not all of Singapore suburbs look like Bladerunner scenes.
Today near Jalan Kayu, an idyllic Singapore village where I was born. The local rail network links to MRT tube network.

The Model For The Future
China is embracing green energy and electric transport. There are estimated to be over 120m electric scooters in China and growing fast. Hong Kong copes well with population density. In the New Territories, not much more than half an hour out of Hong Kong Island and Kowloon, people live in quiet countryside. Commuting is a foreign concept to them. They also seem to like living close together. Like Singapore they have a myriad of new tower-block suburbs do deal with the demand to live there. But they are more chaotic than in Singapore - less happy to be told what to do. Lee Kuan Yew, the single-minded visionary who shaped the modern miracle that is Singapore, saw all of this coming and prepared for it. Looking at his country now, one can see that he probably got it exactly right. Singaporeans accepted being told what to do. Visitors marvel at the place but often criticise it for being somewhat sterile, perhaps robotic in its efficiency. As someone who was born there back in 1958 when it was markedly dirty and inefficient, I sympathise with that view. But unlike many beautiful cities elsewhere, Singapore is sustainable. Its people as well as its infrastructure are ready for a densely populated future. They will thrive while other places wither. But some things surprise me. Cycling is not a major form of transport, but then that is probably due to the heat (in Hong Kong they say it's because of the hills but I enjoyed some great cycling there). But why not legislate to demand electric vehicles only in the city centre (as in many Chinese cities now)? And with so much year-round sun why is every building not compulsorily fitted with solar panels? Perhaps they are waiting until things get really bad first? There is clearly still room for improvement. But looking at Singapore - a small island with a big population that punches well above its weight economically - I do feel I see the model for a sustainable future more than in most places. And that cheers me. With solar power and more facilities for cycling, I could put up with Singapore. 
China - 120m electric scooters and rising (they cost around £200 new)

Unlike Wilson Chan, most locals have yet to realise how good cycles are 
for getting around Hong Kong

By accepting high-rise living, Singaporeans can afford a large pristine jungle in the centre.
It provides recreation and cleans the air.

In 2008/9 Mark Swain cycled from Ireland to Tokyo, a journey of 10,000 miles with his 18 year old son Sam. If you would like to read their bestselling travel book 'Long Road, Hard Lessons', you can find this, along with his two collections of short stories, on Amazon, Smashwords etc. 
In the UK his books can also be found in all Waterstones Bookstores.

Sunday, 8 March 2015

Singapore - 50 Years of Change

Aromatic Old Singapore - City Of My Birth
I was born in Singapore's Changi Hospital in 1958. My father was an RAF aircraft engineer who was posted there soon after marrying my mother in the UK. We returned home to England a year later but were soon back (firstly in Malaysia) 5 years later, around 1963. Back in those days it was a dusty, hot Asian country placed right on the equator. With little air-con and high humidity, foreigners struggled to move about let alone work. Open drains ran along the side of the roads. As a small boy I regularly marvelled at the dead dogs and other pungent detritus that floated by as I walked with my mother to the local market. The dried fish aroma of that market in Serangoon Gardens (where we lived) kept me waiting outside, poking fearsome looking crabs in cages with pieces of straw. In the evenings after an afternoon at the swimming pool (we only went to school in the mornings due to the heat), I would wander off and play with local children in ramshackle kampongs. They taught me snippets of Chinese and how to play noughts & crosses. At Christmas, Santa Claus arrived in an Army helicopter. Snow was a mystery to me and I had little idea what it was to feel cold. It was a life of playing and eating at the swimming pool, Sundays playing sport at 'The Boys' Club', fishing at a local carp pond, or going to Cub Scouts. I remember the good aromas too - the smell of shops, of wet ground after monsoon rain, of starfruit, rambutans and durian, of the Indian man's mini-shop on wheels at the end of our road (which he slept under) and of varnished paper umbrellas. In most ways it was an idyllic life. So idyllic in fact that I have for many years after coming back to the UK (in 1969) been afraid to return there for fear that those memories would be shattered. I have heard many times since how much it has changed.

Singapore Waterfront back then had a rather pungent aroma

 My Parents and I - Ex-pats in Singapore 1958

A youthful Lee Kuan Yew of the same era

23 Blandford Drive, Serangoon Gardens Circa 1964

Modern Singapore
Apart from a brief visit while working on a cruise ship in 1982, this year is my first proper reencounter with the country (now barely larger than the enlarged city itself). I was prepared for it to be unrecognisable. As I said, I had been warned. There was no Changi airport when I lived here, only the small airport of Paya Lebar. As airports go, Changi airport is a marvellous place to arrive. Clean, efficient and relaxed it is very much a preparation for the city itself. The MRT train into the centre is cool and gets you into the city with so much less stress than almost any other airport link I know. And what a city! The waterfront of Singapore, especially at night, has few equals in my opinion and I've visited most. Long gone is the smell of raw sewage and floating garbage that used to cause my younger brother and I to cover our noses as we drove past the old harbour back in the 1960's. It is now a truly fragrant place. Everything is clean and modern in fact. One could be in San Francisco or Sydney. Everything the modern consumer or visitor could desire is efficiently on hand. The architecture is spectacular. People smile and are happy to be helpful to strangers. All manner of food and pleasant entertainment are available, not only Singaporean. Modern Singapore is a truly international place - and this is without doubt the secret of its success. I am of course sad for the loss of old Singapore, as I suspect anyone is about the places where they were happy as a child. But when I look at Singapore now I can't help being impressed by what has been achieved. I even feel proud to have been born here.

 23 Blandford Drive, Serangoon Gardens in 2015
One of only a few 1960's houses remaining

 Marina Bay Sands Hotel - Incredible!

 Waterfront views from No1 Raffles (Altitude) building at night.
Nightly light-show from the Marina Bay Sands Hotel.

The Gardens by the Bay are simply breathtaking - day or night

Singapore - International City
It would be an exaggeration to say that Singapore has not retained any of its Asian culture, but compromises have had to be made. It is undoubtedly a culture more easily acceptable to foreigners - mainly westerners and to global businesses. Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore's iconic former president of a generation, is now in poor health. Despite handing over the reins to others long ago, he has remained Singapore's guiding light. What he has achieved is nothing short of remarkable. It is a massive economic achievement and perhaps a social one too.

After independence from Malaysia 50 years ago this year (celebrations throughout summer 2015) he laid out a vision of a country where foreign companies could trade with confidence in contrast to the notorious inefficiency, bureaucracy and corruption of other Asian rivals. Singapore's citizens embraced this vision and threw their hard-working enthusiasm behind it. It is the almost unanimous support of this vision by its citizens over the years that has produced what is widely now seen as an economic and social miracle. N.B. Lee Kuan Yew previously brought about independence from Britain in 1963.

A weekend walk at Macritchie Reservoir & Nature Reserve
Proactive Social Welfare in action - and no litter anywhere

World Series cricket on TV
The 'Little India' quarter retains an atmosphere of Singapore past

Paragon of Social Responsibility
Tolerance and a decent standard of living for all is a somewhat surprising principal to find at the heart of a strongly capitalist society. Cultural differences are recognised and accommodated. Racism though seems noticeably absent.
In many ways Singapore's pragmatic system seems to me to blur the boundaries between communism and capitalism. Pragmatism though, is what it is all about. Back in the newly independent Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew was faced with a small island with only minor scope for expansion. As it quickly became a popular place to live, his government realised that decent housing for all was a key element of a civilised modern society. It was a major challenge which many at the time thought unrealistic. Modern tower blocks were built to provide municipal social housing for workers. These blocks have done their best to retain a social heart, with integral shops, food courts, sports facilities, hairdressers, nurseries and playgrounds etc often provided at ground level. Despite air-con and modern facilities, older residents of these tower-blocks bemoan the loss of the communal life they enjoyed in the old kampongs (collections of typically wooden village houses on stilts etc), but most now recognise the un-sustainability of that kind of low-density housing. There is no gain without some pain. Singapore's value system often strains at the seams. Many these days quietly feel that the government goes too far in its efforts to ensure racial and gender equality for example. Personally I have often felt moved during my recent time here, by how selfless Singaporeans can be. The desire to help others seems to me a rare example of what communism tried and largely failed to achieve with citizens understanding that to help others is to enhance the whole society and therefore indirectly to benefit themselves. I admire it, yet I don't always feel comfortable with it. There is a 1984 Orwellian paranoia in me, as I suspect there is in many other westerners. And yet I can see that if the human race is to survive in an evermore populated world, then Singapore may be the best model we could follow.
Lee Kuan Yew, I salute you!

Sadly a few days after I published this post, Lee Kuan Yew died. He was 92. People have said we are unlikely to see such vision and dedication in a national leader ever again. I am inclined to agree.

In 2008/9 Mark Swain cycled from Ireland to Tokyo, a journey of 10,000 miles with his 18 year old son Sam. If you would like to read their bestselling travel book 'Long Road, Hard Lessons', you can find this, along with his two collections of short stories, on Amazon, Smashwords etc. 
In the UK his books can also be found in all Waterstones Bookstores.

Friday, 20 February 2015

AFRICAR - By Anthony Howarth

Last October I rode my motorcycle down to Mortagne Sur Gironde to help car designer, photographer, film-maker & author Anthony Howarth saw his 30ft sailing boat in half and extend it by 5 metres. I wrote a blog about it: http://markswain-author.blogspot.co.uk/2014/10/two-authors-in-boat.html
Friends I told about it said Tony was crazy, but this project is nothing in comparison with his designing of a revolutionary off-road car with a plan to have it built all over the developing world. The following guest blog is a fascinating excerpt about the proving of the concept on a journey between the Arctic in Lapland and the equator in Africa. Anyone thinking of travelling overland through a developing country would do well to read this first!  Over to you Tony.

Thank you for the invitation to post something on your blog.

The Long Boat is proceeding, nothing special, just as planned. I expect it to be fit to go in the water toward the end of next summer. A return visit in the spring by Mark Swain will help it along, that is if you need the exercise? Somehow it is too early to write an interesting story about stretching a boat by five metres. You already wrote a good blog. Don’t want to compete. Anyway I am frail, although less frail than I was...

However! I noticed that you published a picture or two including the Africar station wagon, “The Wagon”, used on the 1984 Arctic to Equator trip while filming the TV series A Car for Africa. In my spare time, when not working on the Long Boat or writing Boat, People and Me Book 3,  I am slowly but steadily writing the three book series The Africar Affair. As you are one of the few people in the world privileged enough to have been driven in an Africar proof of concept vehicle, I thought perhaps, if you agree, an excerpt from The Africar Affair might be suitable?  

The Africar Affair – Excerpt from opening of Book 1

1. Desert Change.

Banging and swishing? Wheels through muddy potholes?

 “Will it never stop?” Asks People.
 “It’s a big continent.” I reply.  “It is the rainy season. We’re lucky the road is open at all!”

The walkie-talkie crackles.

 “I’m shtuck.”  Poor reception on the narrow track between huge jungle trees doesn’t mask Jan’s Dutch accent. 
“Again?” Exclaims People. “How come?”
 “It’s what happens driving a stylist’s idea of a four-by-four on real roads. Okay for discovering the route to a country supermarket in Dorset; in Africa it’s a joke. That Land Rover of his is a piece of shit. We’d better go get him. He’s been jacking himself up and digging himself out for six months, all the way from Egypt, through the Sudan and Central African Republic, poor bastard.”

I pick up the hand-set but don’t much like using it. Apart from the radios being illegal locally, it was here, in Eastern Zaire, in the 1960s that the walkie-talkie became the symbol of the mercenary. I rein in the other Africar. We turn round on the muddy narrow potholed jungle track. Not a manoeuvre I would choose to do with a Land Rover. We drive back a few kilometres to find John thoroughly stuck on an uneven water logged stretch of road which we had passed without noticing half an hour before.

It is all a question of ground clearance and axle articulation. That is the ability of the axles and suspension system to allow the wheels to conform to the road surface and so maintain drive. John has one front and one rear wheel rotating free of the road and the rear differential is resting in the Laterite.

All five of us try pushing to no effect. We try pulling with the Africar Wagon. Nothing happens apart from a lot of wheel spin. John jacks up the rear axle and puts a tall thin block of wood under it. Removing the jack leaves the axle free of the Laterite and precariously balanced.

We try pulling again with the Africar. This time the Land Rover lurches forwards, the axle falls off the piece of wood and finds grip. The Africar keeps pulling, maintaining a taught tow rope. The Land Rover, wheels spinning and griping and spinning, edges forwards until it is off the deformed section and all four wheels are back on the ground.

These conditions, unpaved roads in the equatorial and tropical rainy seasons, are precisely the conditions the Africar test vehicles were designed to cope with. Even in 2-wheel drive and fully loaded they were proving the concept every day and every hour of every day. Now that we are thousands of miles away from the prejudices and silliness of European 4x4 enthusiasts the Africars are truly proving their concept. It's what proof of concept vehicles are for!

We are late arriving at the mission station where we hope to make our camp. With the rain and the mud, a mission compound is preferable to camping under the dripping roadside jungle trees. They are Protestants; Norwegian, Belgian and British. They invite us to share their dinner. During the meal I reminisce about travelling these roads in the 1960s. The mission director puts a finger to his lips.

“You were here in the troubles?” He whispers.
 “Yes,” I say, not getting the message. “As a photographer, I worked a lot in Africa.  Wind of Change and all that. I was here in 1960 after the first elections and briefly in ‘64.  Mercenaries, Lumumba and Thsombe.” 
 “Shsh! You’d do well not to mention that here, in public, or at all.”  Assuming the worst, he is shocked. He looks around cautiously at the long-robed “house-boys” coming and going with our meal and standing about waiting for orders or tasks. 

I, in my turn, am shocked anew at the facility with which even Protestant missionaries take to a life with servants, almost the moment they set foot in Africa. There are several households within the mission compound. All have cooks, cleaners and “house boys” who wait on table. There are drivers and gardeners, doormen, guards and water carriers, nannies and washerwomen.

Academics speak of the Sea Change - The way in which European emigrants of varying backgrounds
and professions changed, perhaps regressed, in their outlook and habits, their very culture, as they progressed across the Atlantic to start a new life in the Americas.

I think one can equally talk of the Sahara Change or the Desert Change. For the most part completely reasonable people, missionaries, doctors, teachers, peace corps, and especially modern NGO staffers in the aid business, change, once south of the Sahara and regardless of  their colour, into people who resemble colonialists or white settlers more than modest church workers from Leeds or Haarlem, bent on good deeds. 

The missionaries graciously give us rooms, challenging my ungracious thoughts. The mosquitoes are fierce. I sleep under the net as I had done then. A net supported on a box of thin rods fixed to the legs of a canvas camp bed. Exhausted, sleeping deeply beside the river, the Congo, right in the centre of Stanleyville...

2. Fear Is In The Anticipation

They came for us at the mission station in the early morning. Two soldiers with AK 47s and a motor Chef of our group, that was me. They demanded our papers and our walkie-talkies.
bike. It was clear what they wanted. They demanded our papers, and our walkie-talkies.

“Oh, dear.” I said to People.
“Let’s hand them over.” She said. “I don’t think that gun’s got the safety on?” 

Embarrassed, I had to extract the radios from plastic bags hidden behind the head lamps of each vehicle. But that was not enough. They wanted all of us up, out of our beds and dressed. Waving their guns around, they demanded we get into our vehicles and follow them.

This was bad. They set off down the hill from the mission, one steering the motorbike the other sitting side-saddle on the pillion seat while erratically pointing both automatic rifles at our windscreen.

“We could run them off the road.” I mused aloud. “I doubt he can hit us with either of those guns.” 
“You serious?” asked People.
“You don’t mess about in Eastern Zaire,” I replied. “You don’t tangle with the Zaire army. These are Mobutu’s boys. I have no idea what they want but I know they’re dangerous.”
 “No way!” Said People, “We would never get away on these roads. Probably just want to check our radio licences.”
 “That’s the problem, we haven’t got any.”
 “Yes, but they don’t issue them either, so we couldn’t have any.”
“That logic’s a bit circular, People!”
 “Anyway the rest of our papers are good.”
 “Except Charles. Don’t forget Charley, his passport was stolen and that bit of paper from the Greek at the consulate in Niger is getting out of date.”
 “What do you mean, ‘getting out of date’?” People asked.
“Okay, it is out of date, it got out of date and it will never be in date again!” 

Irritable and gloomy and very nervous, I follow the motorcycle and the two gun toting pillion passenger out of town. At first we travel along the narrow and broken main road and then we turn off, to the left, onto a tiny jungle track. I, once again, get that ‘mass-grave lost in the jungle’ feeling. I begin to anticipate every possibility.

We arrive at a small clearing and a long low brick building. There are more soldiers, hanging about, smoking, listless. Dead eyes glance our way. We park the vehicles and stay in our seats. 

There is a conference on the steps of the building. Soldiers turn out their pockets. Various keys are tried in the large rusty padlock securing the chain through the slide bolt on the steel doors.

“They’ve locked themselves out of prison.” I say.

People doesn’t reply. She is concentrating on the situation. People tries to always be ready, prepared for anything one might call a situation. I, too, watch. I study the demeanour of the soldiers. You can tell a lot from how someone puts out a cigarette. And a fair amount from how they open a door!

They find a steel bar to break off the padlock. The doors swing open. There is no light inside. I am certain we are to be incarcerated in that building. To what end, I have no idea.

I have little hope. There are six of us including two women, there are now about ten of them, a ‘section’, all armed with automatic rifles. Whatever chance we had, was behind us, back there on the road. But People said, “No” and I trusted People’s sixth sense more than my own.

The highest rank present is the corporal who had ridden pillion. He walks languidly over to my window, props the barrel of his gun on the window frame, 

Si vous voulez, descendre?. Nous attendons un officier.”

So that’s the next move. We are waiting for an officer. My mind goes into overdrive as, with this new fragment of information I re-assess our position. In general, I know it’s better to be in the hands of an officer than a group of soldiers of uncertain discipline, without a command. 

There are three likely possibilities. The worst is an Idi Amin type, a bully holding his position by terrorising those around him. There are plenty of those in this army and this region. Come to think of it there are plenty in the British or American armies.

The best would be a trained officer, perhaps educated in Brussels, to whom I could explain that we are just passing through and are in no way involved with local disputes or rebels. He might believe me, he might even want to believe.

In between would be a career soldier who would probably not want to make any decision without higher authority. He would detain us until a ruling could be obtained from Kinshasa. That could take days, weeks or, more probably, months.

The last time something like that had happened to me, I had been imprisoned on the Tanzania – Zambia border. It had taken seven long days to get a clearance to enter Zambia by radio and those are relatively friendly, organised and disciplined countries when compared to the later out of control status of eastern Zaire.

We waited in the heat and the humidity. We had little to say to each other. Everyone knew the
danger. The body language of the soldiers who so casually surrounded us said it all.

I try to divert my thoughts to Africar. To my ideas of local manufacture of appropriate vehicles throughout the euphemistically called developing countries. Mostly the fourth world, I think, as I look around me. Our proof of concept vehicles which have brought us safely from Lapland in northern Sweden to the jungles of the Congo basin, are indicators of what makes an appropriate car. But local manufacture? Here?

I jump as I wake myself from my reverie. Of course here, why not. They bottle Coca Cola. Building cars may be a much larger enterprise but hardly more complicated. Just needs a well designed factory, training and corporate discipline. The last had been hard to establish at our development workshop in Coalville in England. My earlier experiences travelling south of the Sahara had suggested that it might be easier in Africa than in Leicestershire.

After four long nervous hours the officer arrived. He strode briskly into the building.

Bingo! I would put my money on Brussels. A few minutes later People and I are escorted inside.

3. Recklessness

The Major sat behind a large desk in an inner room at the back of the building. There was electric light and the faint hum of a generator nearby. The interior was not a prison, it was a sophisticated command centre in miniature.

He had our four walkie-talkies lying on the desk in front of him. Beside them were our passports and car papers. He held my passport and glancing at it, said,

Bonjour, monsieur...’Owarth. C’est vrai, ‘Owarth?
Non, pas exact. Howarth.” I replied as firmly as I could. He nodded.
Qu’est-ce que vous faites ici en Za├»re?
Nous sommes, we are passing through from Centre-Afrique to Uganda. That is all.  Our carnets will confirm that.”

“Yes?” He looked at me, a long practised look. Then, putting down my passport, he took a cigarette
from a polished hardwood cigarette box on the desk. He tapped it firm on the nail of his left thumb and leaning back in the leather executive armchair he took a gold lighter from a top pocket, just above his medals. Before he lit the cigarette he said,
“And what are these?” Pointing at the radios.

I was ready, at least I hoped I was ready. “Ils sont rien important - they are nothing important, just toys. They help us keep in touch between our vehicles on the road but they have no range. Seulement un kilometre, one kilometre, not far.”
“Is that so?” He said, smiling. He lit his cigarette and then leaning towards the door he called,
Jean Claude.”

The pillion corporal came into the room. The officer gave him one of the radios and picked up another for himself. They were familiar with the on/off buttons, the frequency selector and the squelch. Pressing the transmit button, the officer said,

Jean Claude, I want you to get Philippe and his moto.  You ride on the back and you talk to me every few seconds. The bridge is just a kilometre away, I want you to go that way continuing on until we lose contact. Then return. Understand, Over”
Oui? Mon commandant. Over.” Jean Claude, curious, looked questioningly at the major who nodded, indicating the door. The Corporal left. The Officer put his radio on the desk and turned up the volume.

“‘Ello, ‘ello, ici c’est Jean Claude, we are starting.”
“‘Ello we are climbing the first ‘ill.”
“‘Ello, we are passing the stream.”

Each time the officer responded by clicking the transmit button twice, rapidly.

“‘Ello ‘ello, I can see the bridge, a hundred metres...”

That was the last we heard. 

I waited, nervous. The officer watched me closely, then looked at the radios,
 “It seems you are honest Mr. ‘Owarth. You can go. Take your toys with you. But, I suggest you don’t use them anymore, in Zaire.”
“Thank you,” I said and smiled. Then I added, “Sir.”

He smiled back. 

The whole incident, which in anticipation threatened mortal danger and which had seriously scared me, had lasted almost a day. Everything had been propre.  Our treatment had been lenient. After all, we had broken the law of the land. It was a lesson. I wondered if he wanted a job managing a car factory when peace came to Zaire.

We are back on the disintegrating main road, heading south towards Kisangani, banging through pot holes and swishing through the deep mud and standing water, when People asks,
“How did you do that?”
“Those things are quite powerful, the range is easily three to five kilometres and in the desert sometimes a lot more.”
“Really?” I leave it hanging a while in the steamy Congo basin air. “It was what you might call an
un-calculated risk. In these trees and hills the range can be much reduced.”

People frowned for a moment.
“Hell of a way to make a movie!” She said.

I smiled and after a few minutes asked,
People, are we not supposed to be testing cars? Making a movie is peripheral, just an inconvenient side issue.”
 “As I said,” she said, “hell of a way to make a movie or cars, or the universe or everything. Thank you Douglas Adams, you are always there to rescue me when I need you. Was it 42?”

People says things like that.

Thanks Tony.
Books by Anthony Howarth are available on Amazon:

Sunday, 8 February 2015

Tokyo - Blade-runner City

I once lived in Tokyo (30 years ago) for a couple of years. I have been back fairly regularly since then, so I know it pretty well by now. It is probably still my favourite city and the place I first saw the epic film Blade-Runner on the big screen. Like the city, the film has had a lasting effect upon me.

West Shinjuku. High-rise defines the Tokyo Skyline.

Sumo is still a big part of Japanese life

The Culture 
Tokyo has of course changed vastly since I first lived there, but mostly for the better. The people are more accessible -they actually express opinions now and travel far more than they did back then. The Americanisation of the culture is still apparent, but it seems to be tailing off. Young Japanese now realise that their own traditional culture has much to offer and to be proud of without assimilating someone else's. 

Greater Tokyo is the world's largest city. Unless you take one of the legendary 'bullet trains' or fly, it seems to take forever to get out of the city. The concrete and shopping-mall street-scapes seem to go on forever before you get to anything remotely rural. There are parks, but they are few and the visitors to those parks are many. Watch them politely competing for a place to picnic in. 

Tokyo city is made up of many distinct historic areas. There are few really old buildings that are not reproductions. This is due to the tendency for earthquakes which may be the catalyst for the Japanese liking for all things new. It is perhaps contradictory in a culture with such deep reverence for their ancestors. 

Japan could not be said to be a religious country but the people certainly value a strong spiritual centre to their lives. Temples and rituals tend to be either Shinto or Buddhist. This lends itself to a liking of minimalism in visual arts and to the commissioning of some superb and courageous examples of modern architecture that so many visitors are impressed by. 

For me, probably the biggest attraction to Japan, and especially to Tokyo, is the cuisine. It is simply exceptional. Their own cuisine is generally subtle, sophisticated and meticulously prepared. Few leave Japan without falling in love with Japanese food. The vast variety of international food one finds in Tokyo can be overwhelming at times and the Japanese tendency to try do everything really well (if you are going to be bothered to do it at all) provides great rewards in the way of foreign dishes. I dream about Japanese food all the time I am away from Japan. 

Where To Hang Out 
Tokyo centre is generally accepted to be around Nihon-Bashi (Japan Bridge) /Tokyo Station area. In fact, like many larger cities, there are many centres depending on what you are looking for. Tokyo Station area is a business area but is also full of bars, restaurants (the still ubiquitous 'salarymen' have to go somewhere after work) and is close to some key museums as well as the historic and surprisingly tranquil Royal Palace.

The young flock to Harajuku for teenage fashion shops, fast food etc and to nearby and slightly more mature Shibuya, where the big fashion houses intermix on Omotesando Dori with the usual Irish Bars, Sushi Restaurants, Chic Coffee Shops and Ferrari dealers. Just east of here is Hiro-o and then Roppongi, both well known for trendy night clubs and Karaoke bars. Try 'Smash Hits' in Hiro-o for a great Karaoke bar with an incredible menu of western music and a seedy atmosphere possibly aimed at somewhere like Liverpool's original Cavern Club. It stays open until around 03.30am and has a proper stage with banked seating. 

Not far to the North West of Shibuya lies the truly Blade-runneresque Shinjuku (it is said to be Ridley Scott's inspiration for the movie setting). This is a busy shopping, bar and cafe area with great street food. Unfortunately the older area behind the station where the best street-food could be found has been redeveloped. Shinjuku has a young hi-tech feel like Shibuya. It is busy 24hrs a day, but then so is much of central Tokyo. The more traditional area of Shinjuku is Kabukicho, which is one of my favourite areas of Tokyo with small cafes, bars, cinemas etc. This area has changed relatively little in the last few decades, which is fairly rare in this city of constant change. 

I am particularly fond of the area around Tsujiji wholesale fish market. This is a very traditional area bordering onto Ginza and not too far from Tokyo station etc. They have been threatening to move it to a new modern location since 30yrs ago when I lived there but something keeps it where it is. Superstition is common in Japanese culture. In the fish market itself one will be astounded by the quantity and size of fish. You need to be there in the early hours to see it although you will make yourself unpopular if you get in the way of the frenetic trading and logistics of shifting such enormous quantities of fish in so little time. Nearby, however, you will find plenty to interest you in the street markets selling (unsurprisingly) fish, seafood and cooking equipment. There are some excellent restaurants around here and all reasonably priced. Needless to say the big selling point is the freshness of the ingredients.

Within easy reach of Shinjuku lies Ikebukero to the North and Nakano to the West. Both are vibrant areas to hang out, shop, eat, drink etc. In between lie smaller characterful areas such as Okubo and Takadanobaba (another of my particular favourites). 

These are just a taste of some of the more vibrant central areas that I know best. There is as much to be found in most of the other Tokyo areas like Ebisu, Kanda, Akasaka, Ueno, Otemachi, chic and somewhat traditional Ginza, Meguro, the latest electrical gadgets shops and the "Maid Cafes" of Akihabara, before you venture any further out. City life extends a long long way and you can experience it even without going to a single one of the places I have mentioned above. 

Food and Drink 
As I have said above, Japan has great traditional food, but Tokyo caters for international tastes and you can find the best quality in most of the world's cuisine here. There are many guides to help you. Time Out Guide to Tokyo is particularly good and generally kept up to date. There are also many websites and magazines but best to just ask as things change quickly in Tokyo. 

I adore sushi and sashimi (raw fish). I have never met a westerner (apart from dedicated veggies) who did not adore raw
fish once they had tried it. Don't be shy. You will be missing one of life's great treats. The fishmarket in downtown Tokyo, as I have mentioned, is a great tourist sight in the early morning but also an opportunity to eat really fresh (the best sashimi obviously). However the fish is quickly and efficiently transported far and wide, so sashimi everywhere should be super fresh in Tokyo. Prices vary,sometimes only due to the kudos of the establishment in which it is served. Take your pick. It depends upon whether the affluence of the location outweighs the consideration of price vs quality. Personally I like the experience of eating in a market straight from the boats. 

Sushi is similar in terms of the price versus quality equation. You needn't pay a lot but you can if you want to eat at the most chic places. 
At the bottom end of the sushi establishments (apart from what you get in plastic boxes in convenience stores) is the ubiquitous Kai-Ten Sushi Ya. These are the places with sushi on plates revolving on a conveyor belt. You sit at the counter (or sometimes at a connected table) and pick plates off as they go by. They have spread to other countries now so you may well be familiar with the system. There may be some subtle differences in Japan, however. Here you call out for the sushi of your choice, once you know what to ask for. But the big benefit for beginners is that it is good to be able to 'try with your eyes' before you pick things. Dishes are almost always delicious. In some places all plates cost the same (as low as 95Yen for two pieces). In others, more often there are different coloured plates signifying differences in price. Some plates can be up to 500Yen, so be careful. These places are relatively cheap but you can find good quality and they are almost never bad.You can often order miso soup and many of them these days have veggie sushi as well as cooked meat and stuff with mayonnaise etc. These, I have noticed, are popular with kids. 

Traditional Japanese Breakfast (no buttered toast)

Coffee Shops are a whole speciality culture in Japan. They vary from high-tech classy places in Shibuya where they
prepare the coffee like a religious ritual, to 1960's style cafes with formica tables. At the extremes you will find things like one place I know that is an ageing wooden tree-house serving home-made cakes and pasta also. The old woman who runs it encourages squirrels to come in from the trees and eat her delicious cakes. Many coffee shops serve breakfast food and snacks. 'Morning Set' usually consists of thick buttered toast, a small salad, eggs of some sort (often in a sandwich) along with tea or coffee and iced water. Starbucks has made inroads over the last 15 years but thankfully many of the traditional places survive. 

A Japanese beer is going to cost you around 500 yen for a large bottle in a street bar and 650 in a restaurant. A draught Guinness or Bass (yuk) will cost you around 1000 yen a pint in an Irish / English Bar. In an Issakaya type street bar you will be expected to eat as well (small dishes such as barb'qued chicken - Yakitori, salad, tofu steak, fish etc). In recent years a number of micro-pub style bars serving craft beers from around the world have sprung up. These are popular with locals as much as with homesick ex-pats.

What To See 
This is a hard one for me because I am not a great fan of the museum and gallery type of tourism (huge understatement). However, I would say that the best exhibitions of paintings I have ever seen (Van Gough, Modigliani, Monet, Vermeer, 20th Century Pop artists to name but a few) have been in Tokyo. They do it so well. As I said previously, if they bother to do something here, they do it well. 
On that basis there are numerous museums, historic buildings, some of the best modern architecture, galleries and botanical gardens etc here and they are all done well, so it is a great opportunity. I would just say though, save plenty of time for hanging out in bars, cafes, restaurants etc. because that's where you will find the people at their most alive and natural. 

Living On Tokyo Time 
For the sake of observance, or for those planning to stay and maybe work for a while in Tokyo (and many do) it is probably
worth my giving you an idea of how people tend to live their days and nights here.   
When I come to Tokyo I switch to a totally opposite time clock. My English friend (who I usually stay with) and I get up at around midday and go out for brunch (often sushi, sometimes soba or quality ramen noodles, or 'morning seto' if we are up earlier). After this we tend to go and visit somewhere, or meet someone in the afternoon to hang out in coffee shops or bars, and then pop home to check our e-mails, change clothes, watch a movie etc before heading out at around 10pm to an Issakaya (traditional bar with good food consumed slowly plate by plate over the evening, like tapas). We may go to more than one but generally we hangout there until around 3am, during which time various friends may or may not turn up - it is generally left open as a week to week thing on certain days, although sometimes specific arrangements are made to meet on a specific day / time. We go home at 3am (this is usually walking distance home). On other nights where we go further afield we tend to stay until 5.30am when the tubes start running again. We make toast, check e-mails, maybe watch another movie or UK Premiership Football live on cable TV then we fall asleep. 

Believe me this is a good and healthy life and a common one amongst young (or not so young) ex-pats in Tokyo. One can still find time to work on certain days or at selected times of day or night. Many still teach English, while others work as technical re-writers or as models. But even the locals work at odd times in Tokyo. This is a truly 24hr city. 

Getting Around 
Tokyo has an excellent transport network. It is not cheap but is reasonable given the cost of living here. 
The Metro maps are written in English (Roman script names) as well as Japanese. Announcements on the trains are also generally in English as well as Japanese. People are helpful and it is hard to go very wrong. There is a circle line known as the Yamanote Line (green) then many bisecting lines, many of which head way out of Tokyo, giving tourists ample opportunities for discovering less well-known places as well as visiting the known attractions. 

Taxis are pretty expensive but the only option after around 1am at night when the metro closes for a while. Buses are a fairly cheap option but harder to understand if you don't speak / read Japanese. Try though, it can be fun if you're not in a hurry. There are weekly tickets etc but this is more for convenience than cost since they don't often work out so much cheaper. 

A bicycle is a great way to get around Tokyo of course. The roads are congested and can be frightening on a bike, but most Japanese cyclists use the pavements. Call me a traditionalist but personally I prefer to take my chances on the road. 

Useful Lingo 
It is worth learning some Japanese. Like the English in particular, Japanese people are somewhat obsessed with politeness and formality (even young people). 
Many words (nouns mainly) are adopted from English (some from other languages also) so it is easy to guess - Hotel = Hoteru, Cake = Caykie, Beer = Biru, Airport = Airporto etc (no really!). 

Learning the 'Katakana' written script is useful for longer-term visitors since it is used for all foreign words and is a pretty easy phonetic alphabet to learn. 

Many people in Tokyo speak some English but as always, an ability to show you are trying to speak their language will take you a long way. In fact, being one of the world's most hospitable races, they will bend over backwards to help you. 

Excuse me - Sumimasen 
I'm sorry - Gomenasai 
Thank you - Arigatto Gozaimas 
Do you speak English - Eygo wah, hanashimaska? 
Do you understand? - Wakarimaska? 
I understand - Hai wakarimas 
I don't understand - Wakarimasen 
Hello - Konichi wah 
Good morning - Ohio Gozaimas 
Good evening - Konban wah 
Yes - Hai! 
No - (rarely used alone) Iyeh (or verb / noun plus nai
Good - Ee des  (Good eh? - Ee des nih?
Bad - Warui des 
How much / many - Ikura deska? 
What time is it? - Nanji deska? 
Where is the station - Eki wah, doko deska? 
Goodbye - Sayonara 
Delicious - Oshi des!
Cute - Kawaii

If you would like to read the bestselling travel book 'Long Road, Hard Lessons' by Mark Swain, you can find this, along with his two collections of short stories, on Amazon, Smashwords etc. 
In the UK his books can also be found in all Waterstones Bookstores.