Five Airlines to Fly With and Five to Avoid

Emirates

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The king of the skies; Emirates are my favourite airline in the world. The staff always go the extra mile (sorry) and their onboard food regularly wins international awards. Their frequent flier programme offers you the chance to trade miles for experiences such as Real Madrid tickets, Miami Open tennis, food festivals or Apple, Swarovski and Montblanc products. If you’re an opulent traveller, you’ll get looked after even more lavishly. The double decker A380 plane seats the business and first class flyers on the luxurious upper deck, separating you from the downstairs passengers like myself; the riffraff in cattle class.

Norwegian Air

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The third largest low cost carrier in Europe, the second largest airline in Scandinavia and my first choice for budget travel. Norwegian offer the cheapest transatlantic fares you’ll ever find, flying from Gatwick to New York, Florida, California and Las Vegas for a fraction of the price of their competitors. So low, in fact, that the group who represent American pilots have written to Donald Trump asking him to ban Norwegian Air because their aggressively low fares will ‘destroy our US airline industry and all the jobs associated with it’. Norwegian aren’t listening, they’ve just announced plans to expand their network to include flights from Manchester and Edinburgh.

British Airways

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Like a faithful butler in a well-worn tuxedo, British Airways remains an emblem of class and reliability. Last year, it ranked lowest on overall delay times and one of the highest on claim processing, so in the unlikely event you are delayed you’ll have a high chance of being financially compensated. Their fleet is ever expanding, and as of this year they’re also flying to New Orleans, Montpellier, Tallinn and Mykonos: time to start planning that holiday. Check out Holiday Pirates for discount business and first class fares and the chance to have your very own butler in the sky.

Viva Colombia

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Viva Colombia is South America’s answer to Ryan Air. If you’re travelling overland from Bogota to Medellin you can expect to spend 9 hours on a bumpy coach if you’re lucky. Book in advance with Viva and for the same price, around £25, you can complete the trip in 55 minutes. They also fly to Cartagena, the epitome of tropical Caribbean splendour, and Leticia, a border town in the Amazon jungle, if it’s adventure you’re after. 2017 marked the start of their expansion across the continent with bargain basement flights to Lima, Peru and more to follow soon. Watch out though, like Ryan Air, if you do contravene weight restrictions, they’ll happily fine you. Weigh that bag beforehand.

Samoa Air

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In 2012, Samoa Air famously introduced a pay-as-you-weigh fare structure. The decision begins to make sense when you learn that Air Samoa’s fleet is comprised of lightweight Cessna’s and Britten-Norman Islander aircraft, coupled with the fact that Samoa suffers from the one of the world’s highest obesity rates. So your gym sessions could end up saving you money and there’s less chance of your neighbour’s stomach spilling over onto your seat. Recent research found that 58% of Britons would not object to airlines introducing weighing machines at departure gates and charging heavier people more to travel, leading me to conclude that 42% of Britain is overweight.

AVOID

Saudia

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Saudi Arabia’s national carrier provided an unbridled carousel of disappointment when I flew with them for the first and last time. The staff were rude, the food was terrible and, even worse, there was no alcohol onboard. Inflight entertainment systems aren’t meant to be endured without a miniature bottle of red but Saudia’s would require a box of wine to render it enjoyable. Episodes of The Big Bang Theory were cut to 11 minutes and Gloria from Modern Family was blurred from the neck down. Any scene in every film involving references to sex, alcohol or general fun have been cut, which left all movies apart from Peppa Pig: The Golden Boots at a running time of 45 minutes to an hour.

Bulgaria Air 

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Bulgaria Air should borrow a ‘Mind The Gap’ sign from the London Underground. The space between the hastily assembled stairs and the entrance to the cabin was nearly a metre long. The cabin crew glared at me after I successfully traversed the drop; angry, it seemed, at having to work one person harder. I don’t expect the food to be complimentary on a short haul low-cost flight. But I do expect the £7 damp cheese toastie to be garnished with a smile and placed in front of me instead of being thrown with a grunt. If Bulgaria Air was a chocolate bar, it would be a CurlyWurly. Cheap, holes everywhere, and as the chewy bits linger in your teeth, you wonder if you should have upgraded to a Galaxy.

ExpressJet

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You’ve been waiting for your trip for months. You’re packing and unpacking a couple of times a day because you can’t decide what to bring. Eventually, you manage to squeeze everything into one bag to avoid the exorbitant charges for excess luggage. You board the plane and arrive safely at your destination, but your bag doesn’t. This is statistically most likely to happen if you’re flying with America’s ExpressJet Airlines, who lost 7,713 bags in March 2016 alone, at a rate of 3.97 misplaced bags per 1000 customers. If you have to fly with ExpressJet, maybe pack a smaller bag and take it on as hand luggage.

Lion Air 

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My airfare from Jakarta to Singapore was worryingly cheap. Whilst onboard Indonesia’s largest private carrier, we landed twice. This might sound like value for money but it was the result of navigational incompetence. We approached the ground at too harsh an angle, bounced up many metres in the air and eventually came back into contact with the runway twenty seconds later, leaving everyone onboard with a mild case of whiplash except the pilot, who I imagine was also nursing rather red cheeks.

Batik Air

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If I was going to play fuck, marry, kill with airlines, I’d probably sleep with Emirates, get betrothed to British Airways and murder Batik Air, if they didn’t kill me first. 2016 saw this Indonesian low cost airline bring home the notorious accolade of being the least safe airline in the world. In just 365 days, they managed an impressive array of blunders, including a runway overrun accident, a runway collision, missing a runway altogether and losing a plane’s tail, which does seem rather careless. In fact, flying Batik Air is the only time I would recommend flying with Lion Air. But if at all possible, don’t do either.

What have been your best and worst airline experiences? Let me know if the comments below!

 

The Top Ten Places to Visit in 2017

Toronto, Canada

2016 was a tough year for everyone but 2017 marks the Great White North’s 150th birthday and they’re inviting the world to celebrate with them. Canadians, along with the Dutch, are amongst the friendliest travellers I’ve met on my journeys. This generosity is being extended nationwide with the Discovery Pass that grants all visitors free entrance into any national park in 2017. July 1st is Canada Day and when the festivities really hit their climax. Dynamic Toronto will host street parades, a week of non stop parties, live music and a city full of friendly locals ready to welcome you to the biggest celebration of the year. 2016 will be a distant memory in no time at all.

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Aarhus, Denmark

Aarhus, Denmark’s second city, has long laboured in the shadow cast by Copenhagen. This is all set to change in 2017 as the Viking-founded city becomes the European Capital of Culture. Old meets new in Aarhus: a walk through the city takes you from the 12th century cathedral through cobbled backstreets with multicoloured terraces to the striking, ultramodern Iceberg apartment complex. Summer’s the time to book your flights here, when the sun rises at 4:30am and doesn’t set until after 10pm. Try and plan your visit to coincide with either Aarhus Festuge, a 10 day arts and culture festival in August, or NorthSide, a three day electronic and guitar music extravaganza in June.

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Cienfuegos, Cuba

Any city whose name translates as ‘one hundred fires’ already has a headstart in my book. But 2017 may well be the last year that Cuba retains all of it’s shabby 1950’s charm and splendour. The trade embargo with America has been lifted and foreign investment is beginning to filter through. While Havana, Varadero and Trinidad are well-trodden now, Cienfuegos is a lesser-known crumbling majesty of grand, colonial buildings in all the colours of the rainbow. You won’t find many tourists here, so you can blend in with the locals and discover what the world was like before it was conquered by technology. Horse and carts still traverse the streets alongside classic Chevrolets and Corvettes; Cienfuegos is the closest thing to a time machine you’ll find this year.

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Marseille, France

France’s second-biggest city is in the midst of a renaissance. The Old Port has been renovated, modern museums and galleries are springing up in every corner and the gritty sparkle isn’t going anywhere. Often dismissed as the black sheep of the Provencal coastline, it’s easy to forget that Marseille is part of the Côte d’Azur and paved with 1500 years of history. I don’t class this lowly status as a bad thing though, it translates into cheaper prices and less Arab and Russian oligarchs. Once you’ve drunk enough anise-flavoured Pastis in the roadside bars, make the short drive to Les Calanques. Here, you can sunbathe, cliff jump and hike amongst 20km of limestone rocks rising from the brilliant turquoise Mediterranean waters.

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Tbilisi, Georgia

I can’t speak for you, but I’m going to Tbilisi in 2017. There’s a 17th century fortress, winding lanes, leafy squares, Soviet plazas and funky bars. There’s a burgeoning digital nomad scene too: location independent techsters are arriving in increasing numbers to take advantage of the cheap cost of living, low crime rates and fast internet. Everyone who returns talks of a country that considers eating as important as breathing: think dumplings packed with minced beef and soup, leavened bread stuffed with cheese and pork and all washed down with sparkling wine perfected over 7,000 years of production, making Georgia the birthplace of the fermented grape. In October, Tbilisi hosts  the Jazz Festival and Tbilisoba, which celebrates all things Georgian; pageants, martial arts, music and dancing. I’ll see you in October.

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Medellin, Colombia

1970’s Colombia might have been ruled by narcotraffickers, but today Medellin is the king. The former kidnap capital of the world has been transformed by progressive policies that earned it the crown of Most Innovative City and the World City Prize 2016.  The City of Eternal Spring is majestically situated in a valley of surrounding mountains and things are looking up. Crime has plummeted, tourism is flourishing and the government have finally agreed a peace deal with the FARC rebels. Visit the Museum of Antioquia to explore the works of Fernando Botero, South America’s most famous artist. Wander through the bustling markets of downtown, then take the cable car into the hillside pueblos before bar hopping around Parque Lleras alongside beautiful locals and fellow travellers.

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San Blas, Panama

After Medellin, I headed north to Cartagena and caught a boat to Panama, via the most idyllic tropical islands I’ve ever visited. The San Blas are a group of 365 or so islands, no one’s really sure as banks of sand disappear and reemerge every day. What we do know, though, is the sand is white and fine, the sea is bathwater warm and coconut palms provide welcome shade. I ate lobster, drunk rum and coke and saw reef sharks, stingrays and barracuda whilst snorkelling. The San Blas are inhabited by the indigenous Kuna people. They sing lullabies as they go about their daily duties and rely on the magic of shamans to ward off evil spirits. There were around 20,000 spread across the islands, but thousands leave for the mainland in search of work every year. Sail there soon, before this unique way of life is lost forever.

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Taipei, Taiwan

Taipei is a curious metropolis; equally ancient and modern, simultaneously traditional and futuristic. In a time where the rest of the world seems to be imploding, Taiwan remains a beacon of peace. Public transport is fast and cheap, there are street food stands on every corner and nature is knitted into the fabric of the city. Every couple of blocks, hundred-year-old trees, riverside paths and wooded hillsides appear as you’re walking. Any country that stands up to China gets my respect, and Taiwan has certainly done that. China still claims Taiwan as its own, referring to the country as Chinese Taipei. Taiwan, though, has established its own government and run its affairs as an autonomous state since 1988, and 2017’s the time to find out why China’s so desperate to keep hold of Taipei.

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Cadiz, Spain

After Barcelona, Cadiz is my favourite city in Spain. It remains off many tourists’ radars due to its poor transport links, the closest airport is in Jerez, a half hour train journey away. However, people are wising up to the charms of Europe’s oldest inhabited city, so now’s the time to beat the crowds. It’s a romantic jumble of Spanish streets where Atlantic waves crash against eroded sea walls. The beaches are decorated with sun worshippers and artisan ice cream while the taverns drown in cold beer and echo with the sounds of flamenco and frying fish. Recently, it’s emerged as one of the cheapest places in Spain to enrol in a language course. And if you need further convincing, accommodation, food and drink are all also half the price you’d pay in Barcelona.

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Chefchaouen, Morocco

Portland, Oregon was originally going to be number ten on the list, but I had to cut it, because Trump. America’s loss is the sparkling blue city of Morocco’s gain. And if you’ve taken my advice and gone to Cadiz, Chefchaouen is just a short ferry ride away. You’ll pass through the ancient port of Tangiers and from there it’s a bus journey to the Blue City. Chefchaouen is an otherworldly escape nestled in the Rif mountains. The distinctive palette of blue and white buildings provide the perfect backdrop for idle strolls or hillside hikes. The cuisine is as good as any you’ll find in the Arab world, which is handy as the world’s best hashish is grown in the surrounding fields, if that happens to be your thing. Get there now, before Trump tries to ban all forms of travel outside of America.

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Crashing the Cuban Marathon

“Six mojitos please.” It was 1:45am in Havana. Training for the marathon was not running smoothly. Alex, a derivatives trader with a penchant for Crossfit, and I rose at seven the next morning. We’d set an alarm but it wasn’t necessary. The area surrounding our apartment was equipped with what I like to call the big five: roosters, dogs, builders, continuous salsa music and a screaming baby. We downed two coffees, a ham and cheese toastie and half a pineapple each on our balcony. The sky was painted in the clearest blue and the early morning sun felt pleasant on the skin. I laced up my black Converse trainers as tightly as they would go. We hadn’t registered for the Cuban marathon, but we were running it anyway.

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Gentle trombone music soundtracked our walk to the starting line. They were practicing for a show that evening. One of the men told me the two things all Cubans can afford are dancing and flirting. So, they do a lot of both. I’d tried to live like a local the previous night, but now it was marathon time. We ordered three preparatory waters from a street vendor. Cuba operates a two-currency system, so you have to double check prices and watch your change. “16 pesos,” he said. “Is each bottle really 5 pesos 33 and a third?” Alex asked. “15 pesos,” the vendor nodded in defeat.

We entered Havana Viejo, the touristic centre, and passed three restaurants proclaiming they were Ernest Hemingway’s favourite hideout; he sounds like quite an indecisive man. Down at the Malecon, the famous wall that separates the city from the sea, we found our first sight of the race.

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The course consisted of a 21km loop, which the participants were running twice to achieve the necessary distance. We walked backwards, passing runners who were completing their first lap of this unique track. The cityscape of Havana is a time warp like no other; a crumbling majesty of grand colonial buildings in all the colours of the rainbow.

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We used the pedometer on Alex’s phone to walk 10km away from the finish line; the longest distance that our strict training regime of mojitos, daiquiris and cigars would allow us to complete. Here, we found a police motorcade surrounded by television cameras and reporters. The Cuban record holder, currently in first place, was about to pass by.

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We waited for the trailing pack to catch him up but no one appeared. There were 5,000 or so other runners, but the professionals clearly hadn’t turned up. Twenty minutes later, the second and third placed runners arrived. We waited till the police were looking the other way, then slipped onto the tarmac and joined the race in fourth and fifth. 

The first couple of kilometres were enjoyable. Exuberant Cubans cheering from the roadside spurred me on until my legs began to feel heavy. Alex, Crossfit strength beginning to show, edged ahead of me as the pleasant morning sun morphed into blazing midday heat. Rivulets of sweat were dripping down my face and my breathing was becoming increasingly erratic. I grabbed a bag of water from a roadside table, bit into it and splashed the liquid over my face and hair. 

The shouts were louder now, the finish line was approaching. I felt pangs of cramp and guilt at tricking the crowd into offering their support. They were cheering for a fraud; I’d completed less than a quarter of a marathon. Still, it seemed foolish not to raise my arms aloft and punch the air in celebration as I crossed the finish line.

Reporters gathered, asking where I was from, how long I’d been training for and how I felt after coming fifth. England, eighteen months and hungover. We were ushered into a holding area where two typically laid-back Cubans in high-vis jackets congratulated us and asked to see our numbers. We were both topless, without numbers or proof of entrance. I said they’d fallen off midway through the race, because of the heat. The taller man nodded and asked our names. We told him. The shorter one leafed through a couple of hundred sheets of A4, trying to find ours in a list of thousands of names. He gave up and his eyes fell upon my black Converse trainers. Puzzled and suspicious, he pointed them out to his colleague. The taller man looked me up and down. I was red-faced, carrying a limp and still short of breath.

“Look at him, he’s a mess. Give them the medals.”

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Barcelona’s Stolen Goods Market

Every Sunday the underclass of Barcelona briefly rule the backstreets. Robbers, crooks, pickpockets and hustlers congregate, sacks of stolen goods hanging from their shoulders. They begin in Plaza Reial, laying out their groundsheets and arranging the previous week’s proceeds. Laptops, phones, cameras, paintings, football shirts and trainers on the left. To the right, a regrettable selection of lower-end goods; lighters, soiled clothes and other such trinkets. Snaking through the middle, a queue of curious bargain-hunters cast their eyes from side to side.

Then the police arrive, sparking a fire of panic. Goods are bundled back into the sacks and they flee down the warren of alleyways leading out of the plaza. One or two unfortunate, or slow, souls are arrested to keep up appearances and the rest skulk in sidestreets and on corners, waiting for the police to disperse. Then, they reconvene on my street.

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I perused the products from my balcony with a coffee and a cigarette. The same people are in the middle every time, the newcomers and beta males are shunted out to the dangerous edges, the parts where the police will arrive first. Straight ahead is hash alley, where Moroccan kids, too young to be prosecuted, deal for their families. They jump in and  out of doorways, passing money and weed between steel-barred windows.

I grabbed a handful of coins, locked up my apartment and went down to the street. “Don’t take photos!” A Spanish urchin growled at me.

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I stopped at the stall of an Algerian man I’d done petty business with on a previous occasion. I’d seen a Mont Blanc fountain pen. I picked it up to inspect. It was brand new and boxed but the nib looked broken so I asked to try it. He produced a scrap of paper from his pocket and I scribbled, unsuccessfully.

“It doesn’t work,” I said.

“It just needs new ink,” explained the Algerian.

“Nah, it looks broken,” I replied.

“Trust me, it will work,” he said. I am prepared to trust most men, but a man who makes his living shifting stolen goods on the holy day is not one of them.

I saw the Colombian cleaner of my building looking at some shoes, the Pakistani men who sold beer in the evenings inspecting the pile of phone chargers in front of a Nigerian man. Unwitting tourists were flinching at the flurry of illegal activity and hurrying through to safety.

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“No photos!” The Spanish urchin was shouting at me again so I quickened my pace. A flicker of silver captured my attention and I paused by the checked rug a Romanian man was presiding over. I looked closer, it was a minidisc player. I wondered how many Sunday’s he had been unsuccessfully bringing this to the party. I saw a mini wooden globe and investigated it more thoroughly.

“Policia!” A chorus of shouts echoed down the street and the vendors’ lives reverted to the same old game of cat and mouse. They grabbed their unsold possessions, launched their bags of swag over their shoulders and scattered. I was still holding the globe as the Romanian man prepared to flee. This was my last chance to purchase anything. I shoved two twenty cent pieces into his hands. He paused for a moment, grimaced, nodded then ran. I felt it was both competitively priced and mildly fitting for a venue that had briefly united the world.

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Charging into Battle

Sao Paulo is like Prince Harry in Vegas; a good idea that got out of hand. I recommend that anyone with an ego problem visits Rodoviaria Tiete, the principal bus terminal, and any lingering delusions of grandeur will swiftly pale into feelings of insignificance. Around twenty million residents have created the third largest metropolis in the world, dwarfed only by Tokyo and New York, and after fighting my way through the swarms of Paulistas battling for buses, I felt this was a conservative estimate.

Rodoviaria Tiete

I checked into Havana hostel and took my laptop to their Cuban-themed bar and immediately began researching exit routes. This is when I discovered my charger was broken. The receptionist told me about Rua 25 de Marzo, Brazil’s largest market, named to commemorate the signing of their first constitution on 25th March 1824. Soon after, waves of Middle Eastern and Asian immigrants began arriving and settling at the nearby port. Indeed, there are more Japanese, Chinese and Lebanese in Sao Paulo than anywhere other than their respective homelands. They opened shops and started trading with relative ease until the 1960’s when the area suffered from frequent flooding. The resulting necessity to sell inventory before it became water damaged established the market’s reputation as a centre for wholesale pricing. This sounded like the perfect place to pick up a cut-price charger.

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The market was clustered by genre. I walked through the jewelry district, the fashion area and the toy section before encountering the electronics. I asked a man, who appeared to be presiding over every appliance produced in the last decade, whether he had a Macbook charger. He said yes, and rustled through a laundry bag full of multicoloured wires. Finally, he produced a charger and handed it to me. It was white, which was a good start. I inspected the input device and screwed up my face in thought.
“I’m not sure this is gonna fit,” I said.
“What laptop do you have?” He asked.
“A Macbook Pro,” I replied.
“Yes, this will work,” he said. I had a feeling I could have told him I had a GameBoy and his answer would have been the same. I looked closely at the shape of the charger again and my doubts remained.
“I don’t think it will.”
“Trust me, this is the charger.”
“Okay, if I buy it, and it doesn’t work, can I bring it back tomorrow for a refund?”
“Of course,” he nodded.
“Okay,” I said and, sale confirmed, prepared myself for the bargaining process. We settled on a price of around £20, which seemed fair considering the extortive Apple store charges sixty. And there’s no Apple store in South America.
“I hope I don’t see you tomorrow,” I said as I walked away.

Back at the hostel, I took my laptop out of my locker and laid it on the table. I extracted the charger from its cheap plastic bag. I moved the charger towards the laptop and attempted to insert it. It didn’t fit. I took a deep breath and headed straight to the Cuban bar.

Cuban Bar

I was the first person at breakfast the following morning and had sunk three coffees to ready myself for battle before anyone else had even considered rising. By the time they did, I was on my way to the metro station; I had business to attend to. I marched through the first few streets of Rua 25 de Marzo, heart beating slightly faster than usual.

“He-llo!” I said, grinning widely. The Charger Man did not respond.
“Remember me?” I raised the cheap plastic bag with the charger inside. The Charger Man shrugged.
“Let me remind you. I bought this from you yesterday and you said if it didn’t work, you would give me a refund. And guess what? It doesn’t work. So, how about you give me that refund, we’ll say no more about it and I’ll be on my way.” The coffees were clearly still buzzing through my system.
“No, you buy, you keep,” he said, busying himself by untangling a football-sized squabble of wires.
“That’s funny, because yesterday you said you’d give me a full refund.” I had expected this, and I had a plan.
“No, sorry,” he said.
“So, here’s the deal,” I said. “Either you give me a refund or I will personally ensure you sell nothing for the entire day.”
He shrugged and shook his head.
“Okay, see you in two minutes.” I walked back to the toy section and bought a pink plastic Barbie chair for a couple of pounds. I returned to the Charger Man’s stall and sat right beside him. He eyed me suspiciously. For ten minutes. Then, an American couple arrived and asked if he had any headphones.

“Would you mind if I interjected?” I was on coffee number four now. The American couple looked at me.
“You’re probably wondering why I’m here,” I said, enjoying myself.
“Do you not work here?” The lady asked.
“On the contrary,” I answered after a large guzzle of coffee. “I am here to inform you that nothing this man is selling will work. And when it doesn’t, he will refuse to give the refund he promised, just like he did with me yesterday,” I shook the cheap plastic bag a little too vigorously and spilt some coffee on my shoes.
“Really?” The man asked.
“Oh yeah.” I nodded wildly. They consulted each other briefly and decided to leave. Whether this was because they were unwilling to buy a faulty pair of headphones or because they were scared of the weird, coffee-wielding maniac, we’ll never know.

Ten minutes later, a woman approached the Charger Man’s stall and said something in Portuguese. He rustled about in his laundry bag.
“He-llo! What are you looking for today?” I asked her. She looked at me blankly.
“English?” I asked. She shook her head. The Charger Man smirked.
I took my phone out, turned on data roaming and accessed Google Translate. I realised 3 Mobile would probably charge me more than the cost of the charger for the privilege, but this was war.
“Nada que você compra a partir daqui vai funcionar,” I said in my best Portuguese accent.
“Si?” She turned towards me, worried.
“Si.” I nodded, shaking the cheap, coffee stained plastic bag at her.
She paused, then left. The Charger Man emitted a rueful chuckle, shook his head then turned towards me. I waited for him to throttle me. He shook my hand and offered me my money back. I returned the bag with the charger and apologised for the coffee stains.

A few stalls further down, I found the model I required for £5 cheaper. Jubilant, I strutted triumphantly towards the metro station. En route, I passed a mini casino with slot machines. Feeling like the king of the world, I entered and briskly frittered away the £5 I had saved on the new charger. Realising I was now not only high on caffeine, but also dangerously confident, I considered returning to the hostel via the bus station, to bring my ego back down to earth.

Buddhism and Blackmail

“Hi sir, you want ganja?” The red-eyed man poked his scraggly head and cracked palms through the space where the train’s door presumably once stood. Picking up weed in Sri Lanka, it seems, is easier than Jamaica.

Sri Lankan Train

After a polite refusal, Thaksin introduced himself and stepped past me onto the Colombo to Hikkaduwa express. I returned to sitting on the open steps, staring outwards as palm tree jungles, buddhist shrines and cricket pitches rolled past. I was watching a farmer struggle to contain an unruly tribe of goats when I felt a tap on my shoulder and saw Thaksin’s right hand pointing at my battered blue leather bag.

“Puma?” Thaksin had just proved he was literate, or at least recognised logos.
“Yes.” I smiled back, unsure of whether I was required to further the conversation. He was grinning expectantly and clearly felt it was my duty to continue the dialogue.
“Fred Perry.” I pointed at my plimsolls. He shrugged, unimpressed.
“I have Puma trainers,” he announced.
I glanced down. He was wearing mangled black sandals.
“At home,” he added.

Hikkaduwa

I alighted at beautiful Hikkaduwa and Thaksin followed in his hunched shuffle. He had a full head of hair, two teeth and a winning smile that I couldn’t refuse. He showed me to his family’s guesthouse and gave me an en suite room for £3 a night, or £4.50 if you include the quarter bottle of local whisky he suggested I purchase on his behalf, which I classified as a finders fee. He informed me of a Buddhist celebration at the local temple that evening and encouraged me to accompany him. We agreed to meet at seven and he relieved me of a cigarette as he sloped out of the door, which I supposed was a light form of information tax.

I returned from the beach at seven to find Thaksin staring wistfully into the distance, cradling an empty can of lager. May is the holiest time of year for Buddhas, he explained on the walk to the temple, and is marked by a month of festivities across the country. May is Buddha’s birthday, when he achieved enlightenment and also the month in which he died.
“Today is Hikkaduwa’s celebration of Buddha, your timing is very lucky. We should buy beer,” Thaksin suggested. I bought us two beers and felt it was an appropriate tax for my good fortune. It seems that in Sri Lanka, you are excised even more frequently than they are in Scandinavia.

I enquired about Thaksin’s personal relationship with Buddha, curious about a man whose life was guided by a higher purpose than money and modern western ideals. Life is a series of pathways, Thaksin philosophised between giant gulps of Lion Lager, and there are good and bad pathways. Buddha never tells us which to take, but he appears to us through his teachings and offers guidance, he described.

We arrived at a crossroads; one path thronged with Buddhists following a handpainted arrow pointing towards the temple, the other was a dirt track through a stagnant swamp with an equally informative red signpost, featuring a crocodile.
“Sometimes, Buddha teaches us not to take the easy path. Hard work can bring great rewards,” he said. I didn’t like the direction this teaching was taking us.
Without hesitation, he strode into the darkness and a single splash was quickly followed by several squelches. Call me cynical, or unenlightened, but I wondered whether traversing a crocodile infested swamp was more likely to lead to the loss of a limb than a blessing from Buddha.

We emerged through some dense shrubbery and rejoined the marching buddhists just outside the entrance to the temple. My flip flops were dripping.
“I need to bin this beer now, right?” I asked with a shake of my can, pretty sure that a central tenet of Buddhism was no mind-altering substances are welcome. There were also two policemen standing guard at the entrance.
“No, not yet. Only when we enter the temples,” answered Thaksin.
“You sure?”
“Yes, I live here!” That was hard to argue with.
I could sense the spirituality as I approached, and prepared to feel the warm embrace of inner peace and tranquility when I entered.
GRAB! A policeman restrained me, snatching and locking my right arm at the same time. He was pointing incredulously at my left hand, which was clutching the can of lager. I was swung round one hundred and eighty degrees and frogmarched for three short steps until I arrived back on the other side of the entrance. It wasn’t quite as peaceful an introduction to Buddhism as I’d imagined.

The policeman motioned at me to remain where I was. He strutted over to his colleague and they quickly became embroiled in deep conversation. On my left, I noticed a third policeman bounding towards them excitedly, a hyena sniffing out a fresh carcass. I sensed I was about to become a victim of blackmail and hurriedly transplanted my money from my pocket into the depths of my underwear as they returned.

“You have drugs?” They began rifling through my pockets and found but a solitary packet of cigarettes. They regrouped and brainstormed possible bribes in frantic Sinhalese before approaching me again.
“Three cigarettes?” Suggested the man I assumed was the sergeant. He was sporting a corrupt moustache, which lent him the look of a man who’s an expert in falsifying documents.

Well, that sounds reasonable, I thought. In Sri Lanka, it seems the hustlers charge a higher rate of tax than the police. I offered them each a cigarette and my lighter and they all accepted. Then, they stole my lighter.

Transaction complete, the man with the moustache pushed me back over the threshold into a fairytale of temples and fairy lights.

Fairy Lit Temple

In Islam, if you contravene a central commandment you can get stoned to death. In Christianity, if you break the rules you’re sentenced to an afterlife of hell, fire and brimstone. In Buddhism, it will cost you three Lucky Strike; now, this is the religion for me.

Sri Lankan Buddhist Statue

Trapped in the World’s Tallest Building

It was 2013 and I was in Dubai, selling advertising space in private airport lounges to earn enough money to travel again. My colleague Michael and I were transporting furniture to our new office in the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building.

Tallest Towers

As we stumbled into reception carrying a cumbersome desk, we were shunted off to the service elevator by a surly security guard. We maneuvered our way inside and were joined by two Afghan members of the cleaning staff clutching a bucket and some rice. I was also carrying a mini portrait of Elvis Presley I used for inspiration on particularly barren days of business.

The lift was gliding seamlessly towards the 36th floor when the lights flickered off. The jangly sound of electronics complaining, then we shuddered to a halt at the 22nd, leaving us blind to the views outside.

We all looked around in the futile hope that one of us was a secret elevator engineer. The blank faces confirmed none of us were. I pressed the emergency button and an Indian voice answered. I explained our predicament succinctly and the Indian voice returned with something indecipherable. Michael and I both glanced at the two Afghans, wondering whether it would be racist and or stupid to assume they could understand him just because they come from the same continent. One of them manned up and took on the role of talking us to safety. So it wasn’t stupid, but probably was still racist. After a little less conversation he turned to us and said the words we had been waiting for.

“Someone is coming.”

“When?”
 I asked.

“Soon, I think,” came the less than certain response.

“Well in the meantime, we’ve got food, The King and a bucket.” Michael said, motioning at the rice, the portrait of Elvis and the bucket.

It was now that I saw one of the Afghan men shuffling uncomfortably between his two standing feet. I raised my glance upwards and was disheartened to see him staring longingly at the bucket. He crossed his legs. I looked over to Michael and his grimace confirmed we shared the same suspicious minds. Swiftly, we assumed a position on either side of the lift doors, gripped, then pulled as hard as our arms allowed. They edged apart seductively, flirting with our freedom. As a gap appeared we gave the doors a final yank to buy enough space to slink out onto the 22nd floor. We had escaped; an anticlimax perhaps, but a vastly preferable ending to an Afghan relieving himself in a bucket. We walked up the remaining 14 floors and went back to work to sell people stuff they didn’t really want. Viva Las Vegas.

Elvis

Motorbikes, Massages and Corruption

“I’m not missing our lotus leaf massage, grab the crowbar,” said Damo.

After arriving in Nha Trang on a night train from Da Nang, we lurked outside the station entrance in anticipation of receiving our motorbikes. It had taken us considerably longer than expected to traverse the Hai Van Pass, regularly voted as one of the world’s best roads.

Hai-van-pass

We were now racing against the clock and took the overnight train to ensure we made our 3pm appointment to review the spa at the five star Fusion Maia hotel. In Vietnam, they transport bikes on trains by constructing a makeshift wooden palate around the bike. It looks like half a fence has been inexactly nailed onto either side, joined by a few rogue hunks of wood on the top and bottom. As the bikes were unloaded off the train, we spotted ours in the first batch. We pointed this out to the man in charge, a diminutive Vietnamese man with a cheap cigarette poking out of his mouth and a crowbar in his right hand.

“No! Three o clock,” he shouted as we moved towards our bikes. It was now 1 o’ clock and we were still over a hundred kilometres from the hotel.

“Nah, don’t worry, we’ll just get them now.” We approached the crates encasing our bikes and tentatively felt how sturdy the structures were.

“No! Two o clock,” he shouted again and brandished the crowbar above his head, striding towards us purposefully. So the waiting time seemed to have decreased by an hour in less than a minute.

“No, we need them now,” we told him, sensing this was extremely unofficial. He paused to think.

Bikes 2

“Okay, 80 thousand dong.” If Vietnam was an airline it would be Ryan Air; it begins cheaply but the price doubles after taxes and unspecified fees. He pointed at both of us to signify it was eighty thousand each, and not a combined price. This is roughly three pounds, but that’s not the point. The point is we had already paid to transport the bikes and this thinly veiled bribe was just going to fund his next ten packs of cheap cigarettes.

‘Fuck off, mate,’ I thought. “No,” is what I actually said. He put his crowbar down and walked over to his desk to grab a pen and paper and begin the bargaining process. Whilst his back was turned, Damo grabbed the crowbar, I selected a short, blunt stick of wood and we began gently dismantling the wooden casing around our bikes. By smashing each piece of wood into smithereens and kicking away the debris.

Bikes

“No!” He shouted again and ran over to us looking both dismayed as he realised he would have to buy his own cigarettes and annoyed his power had been undermined.

“No! Eighty thousand.” If Vietnam was a game it would be Candy Crush; free to play at first but you’re forced to purchase before advancing, and it quickly degenerates into a saga. Fortunately, the spraying shards of wood were prohibiting him from coming any closer and we carried on smashing up the fencing as he waved his arms around in despair. He was the unwilling conductor of a destructive orchestra.

“No! Stop.”

BOOM. SMASH.

“No! Eighty thousand.”

CRACK. Shrapnel is flying around the station forecourt. A dystopian call and answer between the corrupt conductor and the disobedient musicians. This continued for five minutes; we slowly freed our bikes from the mesh of timber as beads of sweat fell from our foreheads to the floor. It transpired that eighty thousand would have been a fair price for this hard labour, but that’s not the point.

“Seventy thousand?” he shouted with less certainty than earlier. Now, this was not a fair price as we’d already completed the lions share of the work. We banished the final panel from being and the two sides fell to the floor with the grace of a fat man dropping a tuba. However, this left our bikes standing there, triumphantly unshackled. We dragged them out of the wreckage and the bike man, sensing defeat, helped us haul them from the carnage. We mounted our bikes, turned them on and rolled towards the exit.

“Ten thousand?” shouted the bike man. Roughly thirty pence was now his new price.

“Fuck off, mate.” I said as we zoomed out onto the main road in pursuit of our lotus leaf massage.

DSC02270

An Errant Bag and a Bottle of Booze

When the taxi stopped at the departure doors of Buenos Aires’ Ezeiza Airport, I felt the increasingly familiar pang of finality. That combination of affection and attachment that precede leaving a country you can’t envisage returning to anytime soon.

Ezeiza Airport
I was also worried that my bag wouldn’t arrive with me, as I was flying with two different airlines and stopping off in Sao Paulo for eight hours en route to Bogota. I made my reservations known to the staff at the Qatar Airways check-in desk and they laughed off my fears.
“We do this all the time, don’t worry,” they said.
After a pleasant two-part plane journey and an uncomfortable nap zigzagged across three plastic seats in Sao Paulo’s airport, I arrived in Bogota. As my fellow passengers collected their bags and began to disappear, I felt a creeping sense of doom enter my stomach. By the time the arrivals from the later San Francisco and Havana flights had also retrieved their baggage and strolled towards the exit, I was resigned to defeat. I opted to explore the duty free shop for ten minutes and hope my bag had miraculously appeared afterwards.

Duty Free

As I browsed the aisles of booze, I could sense I was being stalked by a bookish sales attendant. I acknowledged him and let it be known I did not require any assistance at this particular juncture.
I settled upon a $12 litre bottle of Medellin rum; a respected and established brand which would have cost double on the high street.
“Ooh no,” he said with a shake of his bespectacled head. “This one’s better,” and pointed at a bottle packaged in a golden cuboid.
“I would assume so, yeah. It’s 80 dollars. It’s also whisky.” I was struggling to mask my frustration.
“But if you buy two, the second ones half price?” He replied in a tone that implied I hadn’t appreciated quite how good a deal this was.
“Oh, so just 120 dollars?”
“Wait a minute,” he pulled a calculator out of his pocket.
“It’s 120.”
“Sorry, just a minute,” he raised a hand to stop me as I attempted to approach the till. He punched in the necessary numbers. “That’s 120 dollars,” he confirmed.
“Yeah, this is 12.” I walked towards the till.
“That’s cheaper,” he agreed, following me.
“Yup. Roughly a tenth.” I gave my credit card and boarding pass to the cashier.
The bookish attendant punched some more digits into his calculator and smiled at the result. “Exactly a tenth!”
I arrived back at the empty Baggage Reclaim Conveyer Belt 2 and admitted defeat. I went to the information booth and explained my predicament. They took the details of my hotel, apologised and promised to deliver my rucksack later that evening, or the next morning at latest. Disheartened, I skulked away then stopped, as I suddenly realised I was probably entitled to compensation. I queued again and informed them that I would be missing a wedding beacuse of their incompetence and required reimbursement as a result. They asked for my boarding pass, stamped it with a sticker and directed me to a pokey office booth outside.

LAX-Avianca

I explained my predicament to the suits at Avianca customer service, Colombia’s national carrier and the airline responsible for ensuring the safe transit of my luggage between Sao Paulo and Bogota. I re-mentioned my mystery wedding and gave some vague and generally unconvincing reasons why their temporary loss of my bag meant I was now unable to attend.

They nodded apologetically and asked for my boarding pass. “Were your toiletries in the bag?”

“Yes,” I replied, and a lady handed me an Avianca branded washbag complete with toothbrush, toothpaste, mini aftershave and facewipes. She picked up a pen and began copying details from my boarding pass onto the top sheet of a stack of forms. Then, she opened the drawer of her desk, counted out 80 dollars into an envelope, scribbled over the sticker on my boarding pass and returned it to me.

“Sorry for the inconvenience sir, the bag will be at your hotel as soon as possible,” she said.

“Don’t worry about it.” I said, wondering whether I should return to the duty free shop and purchase the golden cuboid of whisky.

A Doomed Dinner Date

I have forever been fearful of predicting the nationality of someone I have just met since a shameful moment in the Dubai Marina Mall branch of Waitrose on New Years Day 2014. I was innocently shopping with a Canadian girl who worked at Carluccios; we’d met and exchanged numbers whilst I was dining there during the run up to Christmas.

carluccio-s

Aside from possessing sparkling eyes and a come-to-bed smile, the sole piece of intelligence I’d gathered pertained to her job title of deputy head chef, a fact I’d independently confirmed through reading the name and title printed on the blue badge pinned above her right breast, and the lack of resistance she offered after I addressed her as Abigail, as the badge stated. In a transparent attempt to impress her, I had perhaps faintly amplified my culinary abilities and we’d agreed to meet in the Marina the following week to buy some food and serve up a storm back at mine. As we struck the deal, I was acutely aware that my performance in the kitchen would dictate whether I was allowed back on stage for an encore in the bedroom.

Dubai Marina 1
We met on the Marina Promenade and traded tales of our time in the world’s most superficial city as we wondered past the gleaming luxury yachts harboured at the water’s edge and the Arab men in matching white head-to-toe kandoras, segregated in separate cafes according to their keffiyehs, or headdresses; white for Emiratis, white and red cheques for the Saudis sitting next door and, further down towards the ocean, tied in a thick, white circle, the traditional turbans of the Omanis decorated a restaurant slouching in the shade of the Grosvenor House Hotel.

IMG_2136
We stopped at a crossroads of three concepts; direction, quality and price. On our left stood the red, white and blue corporate crest of Carrefour, a byword for affordably priced, serviceable food. On the right, Waitrose was sneering at the commoners shopping at their inferior rivals. It is worth noting that in Dubai, Waitrose is even less competitively priced than in England, as the Middle East’s inhospitable climate prohibits the production of almost everything except camel milk and oil, resulting in expensive imports from Europe, Asia and Australia. It is also worth noting that this supermarket slash dinner date occurred at the epicentre of my saving spree for South America, which placed me in the awkward position of canvassing for Carrefour, whilst pretending I really wasn’t fussed about where we ended up.
“Shall we go French?” I tried to sound as ambivalent as possible while shamelessly drawing on the stereotype of French food being superior.
“Oh, but the food in Waitrose is so much nicer,” Abigail reasoned.
“Oh, definitely,” I reluctantly agreed, conscious that my performance in the supermarket was effectively the support act for my concert in the kitchen. We entered Waitrose hand-in-hand, Abigail was grinning in genuine delight at entering an emporium of culinary excellence. I was attempting to suppress a scowl.

Waitrose
I’d given the meal a bit of thought on my stroll down to the promenade and had decided to suggest lasagne; an inclusive dish we could make together, with the added benefit of requiring considerable oven time to allow for a couple of glasses of wine. If she found this too ordinary, I had a wild card up my sleeve: salmon and sharkfish pie. Only a real cunt would call that ordinary.
“Do you know what we should make?” Abigail asked, looking sweetly up at me.
“Go on?” I answered, doubtful as to whether salmon and sharkfish pie would be the next words I heard.
“Moroccan tagine!” This really wasn’t going to plan.
“Okay, sure.” I said, mindful I was going to have to invent an urgent need for whatever was shelved in the furthest aisle away, and then furiously google the recipe behind her back. We wondered through the vegetable section: she was picking them and I was nodding with the certainty of a man who had a few Moroccan tagines under his belt as she dropped each item into the basket.
“Let me just go and grab some green tea,” I said, spying the tea aisle in the far corner.
“Ooh, I love green tea, I’ll come too,” she replied, apparently intent on scuppering every plan I hatched.
“I’ll get you some, you get the meat.” I was careful not to specify which meat exactly, and also hopeful it wasn’t a vegetarian dish.
I found Abigail shortly after, perusing the beef products. “I’m not sure if we’ve got paprika, so let’s get some just in case,” I said, with the confidence of a man who’s just been on Jamie Oliver’s website.
We arrived in the queue for the checkouts, with a basket full of unnecessarily premium ingredients. All the cashiers were Philippinos, the second most populous nationality in Dubai, a nation of expats, after Indians. I had picked up some Tagalog, the primary language in the Philippines, whilst travelling there the previous year. I decided to impress Abigail by making some rudimentary smalltalk in Tagalog as we arrived at checkout number six.
“Magandang gabi. Kumusta ka?” Good evening. How are you? I asked the Philippino girl.
The buzz of activity around us seemed to stop and silence enveloped checkout number six.
The Philippino girl was staring at me, outraged. I racked my brain in fear, had I unintentionally insulted her family or implied she enjoyed multiple sexual partners? In Vietnamese, I remembered, the word for chicken and prostitute is the same, and differs only in intonation. But there are no such complexities in Tagalog, I was sure. Abigail was looking at me curiously, in the way one does when wondering whether a TV dinner for one may have been a better idea. The Philippino girl and I were staring at each other, locked in an awkward stalemate. I considered repeating myself, in case the words had caught her by surprise or passed her by.
Then she spoke. And her words lifted the curtain of silence to reveal a secret garden of shame and ignorance.

“I’m Nepalese.”