Not Quite Paradise

I picked up the audio version of this book after returning from our recent holiday in Sri Lanka. I had so many lingering thoughts about the country and I wanted to get another perspective before it all faded out of my memory.

This is very different to Elephant Complex, a book that I started before we departed and had accompanied me on my journey. Not Quite Paradise takes a much more personal approach. The book is narrated by the author who moved from Arizona, USA to Sri Lanka with her 15-year old son soon after 9/11. The first part of the book serves as a pretty straightforward travel diary. I had seen a review on Goodreads which said that the book was “a so-so travelogue by another author whose observations are rather standard” but for me it was lovely to indulge a little bit in hearing someone talk first hand about places that we ourselves had recently visited and and to understand what it had felt like for her. However, as another reviewer notes, she “never explains what initially attracted her to Sri Lanka” and this remains a mystery. It must have been a great upheaval for her teenage son; they eventually decide that he will return home while she stays on for a little longer. Nothing very dramatic happens throughout this part of the book, but the pleasure is in the small details of life and interactions that she has with the people, her house and the landscape.

The second half is quite different. It starts during Christmas 2004 where she hears the awful news of the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami which brought devastation and death to the island. She is almost immediately compelled to return there to…I’m not quite sure what. See it first-hand? Report on the damage? Complete the book? She doesn’t give too much away about why she wanted to make the journey, but make it she did, and her writing covers a much broader scope of the island and its recent history as she travels around in this part of the book. Some of the accounts of the tsunami are devastating, even more so as they are weaved together with details and evidence of the long Sri Lankan Civil War. The book was a useful compliment to the topics covered in Elephant Complex and I was grateful to it filling in quite a few gaps in my knowledge and clearing up my misunderstandings from the other, denser, book. The timeline covered stops short of the brutal end of the civil war and felt slightly unfinished because of it.

I don’t think this will ever be held up as one of the greatest travelogues of all time but I did find it a very pleasant read — just what I was looking for after my own Sri Lankan journey.

Elephant Complex: Travels in Sri Lanka

Read this book before and during my holiday in Sri Lanka. Gives an excellent overview of the country and its history which reveals itself to the reader gradually, culminating in an account of the end of the civil war. The chapters are sequenced and themed in a general anti-clockwise journey around the island starting in Colombo/Negombo.

On my travels I met a scientist from England who said that he found this book quite dense; I was grateful to find that it wasn’t just me who felt this! I think that the subject matter is so complex (as per the title) that it couldn’t be anything but.

A very worthwhile read if you are visiting or have been to the island. A fascinating book about a unique country.

More to follow about our amazing holiday when I get the chance to write up my notes.

Barriers, forms and looking after your customers

I pay London Midland nearly £4,500 for my annual season ticket. On Monday morning after arriving in London, bleary-eyed and limping along from my weekend's cycling, I discovered that I had left my ticket in the wrong wallet. Due to Berkhamsted station not having any ticket barriers and my train rolling up to a platform at Euston that was also devoid of ticket readers I only realised my predicament when I descended to the tube for leg two of my commute. Tube journeys aren't that expensive if you use a contactless card so I just sighed at my dozyness, resigned myself to having to pay for a couple of tube trips, waved my credit card at the yellow reader and figured I'd deal with it when I got back to Euston.

On the way home I was in a rush to catch my train in order to get to a school governors' meeting. There is always an attendant at the barriers at Euston and I thought that just perhaps there would be a chance that I would be able to let him or her know what had happened and he would wave me through. I couldn't have been more wrong.

I have discovered that the process you have to go through is as follows:

  1. Get directed to the customer service window, usually staffed by only one person with a queue of people in front of it. On this occasion it meant that I missed my train.
  2. Explain your predicament to the customer service agent.
  3. Buy a ticket home (£14.40 off-peak from Euston to Berkhamsted!)
  4. Start your journey but remember not to put your ticket in any barrier at your destination as you need to hold onto it.
  5. At a later point, when you have your season ticket with you—probably in peak hours if this is when you usually travel—speak to another customer service agent and get a pink 1970s-style (actually revised in 1996!) carbon-copy form to fill out with your details. These details include your full credit card number and expiry date for all to see.
  6. Hand the form over along with the ticket to be refunded, your season ticket, your photocard and wait about ten minutes for the form to be added to and stamped.
  7. Be given the carbon copy of the form (see below) and be told that “they will call you if there are any questions, otherwise the money will be refunded in about ten days or so.”

At first it seemed bizarre to me that a company would treat its season-ticket buying customers like this, making them jump through hoops when there is a simple error. Then it dawned on me that there is probably no incentive to change—the process is such a pain that there is automatically a barrier to people pursuing refunds, resulting in more money for the company. They also have a monopoly—there is no other way of going from Berkhamsted to Euston on the train—and so it isn't that I can go to another train operator that makes a point of having better customer service than their peers.

To give the firm a little credit, they have made some things easier over recent times such as giving us the ability to log a 'Delay Repay' claim using their iPhone app. Perhaps this could be the next area to look at. I know that the company couldn't replace the outdated paper ticket system on their own, but having something on my phone that proves I am a gold-card holder would make life much easier.


St Albans clock tower

We recently had a lovely picnic in St Albans with a couple of our good friends who live there. I’ve always loved the town and it’s a great place to visit whether you’re a shopper or a tourist. The central part of the high street is pretty with a beautiful clock tower right in the centre, apparently the only medieval clock tower in the country.

One of our friends mentioned that you can climb the tower and I jumped at the chance. After giving the lovely old ladies 80p for a ticket at the entrance I heard the bell strike for three o’clock. They told me I was lucky I was on the ground floor and it was only after I got up to the belfry that I realised what they meant – the bell is BIG and you get to stand within an arm’s length of it. Being next to it and thinking that it could be struck at any time scared the wits out of me – I had visions of jumping at the sound and tumbling down the spiral staircase back to the entrance – so I legged it up to the rooftop.

The view from the top is fantastic – you get to see the cathedral as well as a lot of the town and surrounding countryside. On top of this, the masonry was covered with grafitti going back to the 1800s which completely fascinated me. I had the same spooky feeling I get when I see a photo of somewhere I know that was taken decades ago and can’t help thinking about the people that have stood in the same place years before. I took some pictures on my Blackberry but the camera is pretty crappy:

Old graffiti

If you want to see more, take a look at the set I’ve uploaded to Flickr.

If you visit St Albans, have 30 minutes to spare, are happy to climb an extremely narrow spiral staircase and want to chance your luck with the giant bell, it’s worth a visit!

Turning 30 on New Year’s Eve

New Year's EveI just had to get this post in before January was over!

I turned 30 on New Year’s Eve and to mark the occasion we had hired The Old Neptune, a wonderful 15th century house in the centre of Ipswich. My wife had arranged everything (wonderful as she is); in order to secure the house over the New Year period we had to get a committed bunch of friends together and book it up in early 2005, which we managed to do. Although at first glance it seemed quite expensive, when divided up between 24 people and paid for in stages it didn’t seem that much.

The place looked amazing on the website and the rooms looked gorgeous. In order to make sure that everyone got a fair chance of bagging one of the bigger/ older rooms, a couple of weeks before we went we put everyone’s name into a bag and made a video of a ‘live’ draw which we then posted on YouTube for all to see.

In reality the place was even better than it had looked on the website. To be able to enjoy the gorgeous front room and fire, lovely big kitchen and the wonderful dining room with so many good friends was just great.

A few of us had organised a quiz for the first night and we had karaoke and dancing on the second (which degenerated into a bizarre hatfest) – it was only by the third evening that I went to bed even vaguely sober!

For my 30th my wife made me a wonderful book with photos from my very early years all the way up to present day – a really great gift.

In the daytime we headed off to some of the lovely surrounding villages for some winter walks and pub lunches – Felixstowe was lovely (cheese and pineapple toasties, anyone?), we had a bite to eat at the King’s Head in Woodbridge and an enjoyable wander around the pretty village of Aldeburgh.

Thanks to everyone for making my 30th such a fun and special one. More photos in the Flickr group.

Not flying short haul

TrainAs the months and years roll by I find myself questioning more and more things that I do. I’ve been asked to go to Zürich for some meetings in a couple of weeks; a little while ago I would have been looking forward to a business class flight and eating out on expenses for a few nights but now the first thing that pops into my head is how bad the trip will be for the environment. There are stories appearing every day about the Siberian permafrost melting and revealing loads of woolly mammoth tusks as it does so (if that doesn’t mean much then take a look at the definition of permafrost) and the polar ice dramatically disappearing. I don’t really want to contribute to that more than I do already.

Yes, I know that I can carbon offset my flights but what good does that really do? The Carbon Trust aren’t a charity and to quote Rob Newman I can’t see them funding a project to put Bangladesh on stilts any time soon. Who they are, where they come from, who regulates them and how they came up with their pricing scheme is a bit of a mystery.

So, I’ve taken the step of looking into how to get from London to Zürich by rail. As soon as I did so I came across a splendid website which not only explains exactly how to do it but much more besides. If you’re off to Europe and enjoy travelling or simply hate flying then I seriously suggest you check it out. There are suggested routes, tips on how to get the best fares and information and pictures on the different types of carriage you can expect to encounter. The site also makes the point that a tonne of carbon dioxide emitted from a plane does 2.7 times the damage of it being emitted at ground level.

Basically, a trip to Zürich via Paris will take the best part of a day. I figured I could probably travel on a Monday and then get a sleeper service back to Paris through Friday night/ Saturday morning. I raised the thought with a few people at work today and can report that 80% think I’m nuts to even consider it. For example, when I called the travel desk to enquire whether they handled train bookings and said that I wanted to go to Zürich I was asked “Why on earth would you want to do that?” I lamely responded “Green reasons…” and started to feel a little bit nuts myself – hopefully she didn’t think that I had an obsessive colour preference or some kind of nasal condition. My boss called me “Swampy.” More seriously, he made the point that the time wouldn’t be as productive as time spent in the office – this is true, but during the whole office/ airport/ queue for security/ departure lounge/ short haul flight with food/ passport control-taxi rigmarole there is no opportunity to get a lot done whereas on a train I could at least work offline for a few hours. I might even catch up with all the emails and documents I’ve been meaning to read and get one or two of my own written.

In terms of cost, there isn’t that much of a difference between a first-class train fare and return business class flights; the train fares just seem a bit more random depending on what website, currency and method you choose to buy them.

I must admit that I do have utopian dreams of setting an example that the whole company begins to follow but in reality I know that I’d just be doing it because I believe it’s right. Plus, it would be great to see a bit of where I’m travelling to on the way.

What do you think? Have I lost the plot or am I right to be pursuing this?

Hotel reviews

Raheem ResidencyI had my first hotel review published on this week. If you haven’t been there, tripadvisor is a great website that hosts zillions of reviews of hotels all over the world. It’s great when you’re booking a last minute break and the travel agent website tells you what a fabulous hotel they have on offer – you can look it up on tripadvisor to see if it’s really a stinker.

The Raheem Residency didn’t have a single review and we had such a wonderful time there that I thought I’d give something back.

Once upon a time. not too long ago…

Entrance to The Lowry, Manchester…took a day out in Manchester, as the song goes. Well, it was a weekend out actually – Katie and I recently went up to Manchester for a birthday party and decided to make a weekend of it. I’d only been to Manchester once before and that was for a whistlestop trip when my brother was ill in hospital quite a few years ago. I was really pleasantly surprised by the place. We stayed at a good hotel and did quite a bit of sightseeing and shopping and all the time it felt a bit like a smaller version of central London but without the crowds of people everywhere.

The architecture in central Manchester is gorgeous and they’ve done a great job of blending new things like the G-Mex centre and the area around The Lowry with the older features. If you’re a city lover like me it’s definitely worth a trip.

Photo set now on Flickr.

The loudest tears on the way home

On my journey home on the train last night a young child in my carriage was having the loudest crying fit that I’ve heard for quite some time. You know something is loud and out-of-the-ordinary when people on the train actually start looking at each other – yes, acknowledging each other’s presence – and smiling in a “can you believe how loud that is?” sort of way. I can’t believe what a state children can get themselves worked up into! You just want to ask them what really could be so bad. Like these things do, it stopped almost as abruptly as it started and left an eerie silence on the carriage.

As I was busy sorting a few emails out on my PDA at the time and found that I couldn’t concentrate I quickly hit the record button with the intention of posting it here, but, listening to it now out of context, it just sounds harrowing and horrible. Consider yourself spared.

Sliding into a cold swimming pool

I’ve been going back through my collection of Flickr photos and renaming them so that they make a little more sense when stumbled across. Currently most of them are called something like ‘DSC000236’ which isn’t that descriptive. I came across one from our holiday in Turkey last year where I was trying to get into the pool without actually touching the water and it reminded me of a video we took; I’ve uploaded it here for your enjoyment. There’s more where that came from so watch this space! :o)

Holiday in Kerala

We’ve just got back today from an amazing two-week holiday in Kerala, India. For both of us it was our second visit to the country – Katie went to northern India a few years ago and I spent a week last year in Pune with work – so we knew a little about what to expect. It turned out to be even better than we had hoped it would be. Kerala is a gorgeous place, both in its scenery and in the people living there. From the old fort town of Kochi to the rolling tea-plantations of Munnar, the wildlife sanctuary at Periyar and the backwaters of Alappuzha, we had an amazing time.

Together we took some 700 photos over the past two weeks, a lot of which we hope to get on Flickr very soon. I’ll try and write a few smaller postings about our trip instead of one big one to make it a little more managable to read (as well as write!)