• Bob Taylor

Reflections - Day 66 - 72

Day 66 – 80 Reflections

To one and all thank you for reading any of the numerous blogs. They often amused me, I hope they did the same for you. These final reflections have been written over the few days from finishing the project in Sydney, to getting back to life in Sutton Coldfield. If any of them has inspired anyone to either read on, travel or donate to any cause that particularly conveys an emotional connection, then they have been a success. Please be less angry and laugh more with anyone that touches your life. Safe journeys to all of you.

Spike Milligan - Bless him

This junket has been an astonishing ride. No debate, no question, it has been incredible! What’s left inside my mind is a fusion of individual familiarities, events, musings and fodder that all keep bumping into each other. Experiences that haven’t got enough room in my noodle to be able to express themselves appropriately. I should perhaps consider renting another head, or maybe taking more time away from the keypad. Either way, the plain truth is that I am buzzing. I sometimes burst out laughing for no reason. Passers by think that I am certifiable or at very least irrational, especially when smiling with missing teeth. (How do you smile with missing teeth? – Surely you are only smiling with the teeth you have left?)

Reflections are great. They can rekindle emotions from a time somewhere between a minute ago or as far back as your first conscious thought. I tried to think of the time a few days ago, when I had completed my project in Sydney. I am on the steps of the Opera House, made my phone calls and messages or sent texts, and then noticeably the personal euphoria slowly began to seep away. What do I do now? It was a pseudo confounding moment, because I actually knew what the next few days would hold. Go find my Airbnb – kill three days exploring a city that I am so personally attached to – Fly back to the UK – and then…? It was odd because the past few weeks had been hectic, but not so, because I pretty much had it under control. The schedule was frantic, I’ll grant you, but the intensity was my fuel. Now it has to be a time to ponder, muse, or perhaps dwell. Notes and Scribblings (Great word: sounds like brothers and sisters arguing,) are the foundations for these reflections based on the things that I didn’t know, or at least actually comprehend.

I didn’t fully appreciate for example, the gift of connection between us clever hominids. We all possess it, but often choose to ignore it because our lives are too full of… clutter, for want of a better word. We often use time as an excuse for not doing something. Ignoring, or brushing things aside, well… it is easier, less effort, isn’t it? Yes, can’t be bothered – sure. Time is not precious my lovelies – we are! Get to grip with the indisputable fact that our stages are short.

Potentially language or expression could’ve possibly been a barrier or a least a difficult hurdle, but for some inherent reason, it wasn’t. Perhaps the best paradigms of which maybe… A little girl smiles because you took an interest in her colouring book, or a stranger shares their meal, because it seems right to do so, or a glimpse of an understanding of your trials, from the elderly. These are all things left unsaid that make our connections fantastic. Nine weeks of topical blogs have done exactly that for me. People, many of whom I’ve never met, have taken time to respond. Getting a reaction from another person, whether dear to you or not, is a great feeling. Imagine the adrenaline a rock star or a successful comedian gets when they receive an audience reaction that says ‘we’re with you.’ Now bring it down a peg or two, maybe just to the person next to you on the bus – the feeling is the same, it is simply a matter of scale.

I have just thought about the first and last acts of kindness, during the journey, from strangers – worlds apart. Day One in the town of Hildersheim, Germany, when Karina and her mother, returned my money paid for a bratwurst and Gluwein wishing me safe onward travel, getting tearful at the cause. Then yesterday, a lady watched me staring into a top loader washing machine, with the look of a bewildered orangutan. Washing machines are science fiction to me. They belong on the planet Zonk. Before today, if I touched one, I perceived that Lichtenstein may have blown up! Such was my reluctance to find out. She shared her washing powder and something called a fabric softener (???) with me, and said, “You don’t have to wear a high vis jacket and a crash hat to operate one of these mate!” Aussies, bless them – everyone is either Cobber; Mate; Sheila or Bruce. There have been many acts of kindness along the way. I am still touched by a complete stranger getting off the train, buying a loaf, getting back on and presenting me with it gesturing the name, “Uruzibet.” (He had instructed and paid for a guy to do this at the next station two hundred miles away in Uzbekistan.)

I am remembering a female busker in Shymkent, who sat cross legged on the floor of the railway station. She was wearing psychedelic trousers under a grubby kaftan, playing a small stringed balalaika or lute shaped instrument, with an egg balancing on her head. It was a boiled white ducks egg that perched precariously on her folded and tied hair. Its ovulatory movement held in place only by the thick hair. Her music an interesting blend of Indian folk and tortured alley cat. I recall asking an Uzbek tourist guide who was part of her audience of five, why the egg? He looked bemused that I hadn't worked it out for myself. He replied, “More money. It’s her USB.” (I assumed he meant unique selling point) I recall the face of a teenager who tried to pickpocket me, aghast at his detection. The noisy Vietnamese kids who laughed hysterically with each other when shown how to signal with their thumbs in the air. The Kazakh customs official who couldn’t grasp that a passport could conceivably be slightly longer than ten years. Or the face on the Cambodian bloke when I gave him my coat and thick fleece that had both performed brilliantly against temperatures witnessed at minus seventeen. He thought there was a catch to the gift. My eyes followed him in the street to a point where he started running fearing that I might want them back! The list swells as I delve further into the depths of it.

The first question that has been asked already, and I am sure, being an obvious one to some, will continue to be asked, “Did I enjoy it?” The answer is yes on reflection, but probably no during its undertaking. What am I talking about? Of course I did! I think that the emotion is more than likely based on the sense of achievement or purpose, rather than the pleasure of the enterprise. Oh yes I am sure to the bystander it may of sounded in parts glamourous, but I would contest that fervently, counter balancing the agenda and timetable. There was an enormous amount of waiting around for transport. Schedule changes or at worst no visible attention paid to a worthless timetable from the start. Equally there were times when I just couldn’t be sure how to manoeuvre. Some countries run like clockwork. For example, if a train is late in Germany you have the right to complain, with the ultimate right, after judiciary, of a full ticket refund. In China, I think that somebody may get shot if a train is late. It comes with a certain irony, based on the current virus origins, that I found Chinese railway and subways or Metros to be the cleanest of anywhere in the world. It is as alien to a Chinese to drop litter in a public place, as it is for us to fart in front of the queen. Every station had a virtual army of highly visible cleaners. Also, you cannot catch any public conveyance in China without being scanned, identified, and your bags being x-rayed. A pain, I imagine if you’re on a tight schedule perhaps, but if you know what to expect then you adapt or fail. Trains in Vietnam completely different and were an education. Literally running virtually through peoples lounges, hallways and bedrooms. Maybe they plan trains to coincide with any commercial breaks in the TV schedules. For me the pressure and perverse pleasure came from timings, cost, and in Asia, especially, the concerns around the ability to actually enter Australia, because of the virus restrictions imposed. I had to get to Sydney by the third of March or face enormous penalties from the airline over possible return flight changes. The cost of £0.21p per mile was so high on my agenda, when really who cares other than me? (There was no financial conditions imposed by any sponsors or donors.) So the personal pleasure that was to come, when I finished at £0.20.59p per mile was perhaps one of the greatest achievements for me. The total earth surface miles ended up as 16276 by all methods. I sort of knew I was up for the task, but there were times, have no doubt, that I was tested. Arriving somewhere and finding a train cancelled. Not rescheduled, but cancelled with no substitute or alternative. Also the likes of being called ‘Bobby no guns’ by a piss taking, gun toting Sumatran guardian of the peace, in the wrong side of town is not entirely a bad example. Being hemmed into a rear seat of a six seater, helplessly watching a maniac driver take unnecessary risks with his passengers lives, (my life in particular) on wet roads and pot holed tracks that had sheer jungle drops as verges. Sumatra still has a population of wild tigers!

I have about six hours to kill here in the Sydney burbs before my flight later, so I am taking coffee and breakfast, in a place called ‘The Boat Yard’ situated in La Perouse, Botany Bay.

Beautiful fruit and nut breakfast

I look across the bay to the place where Captain Cook came ashore to claim this land on 29th April 1770. Apparently both the Dutch and French had sailed to it and didn’t want the country, claiming that it was too hostile and unmanageable. More fool them I say. I read a residential poster informing people of the consultation process to build a new cruise ship terminal here, because the demand is so high nowadays. Circular Quay and Pyrmont (both historically cruise ship terminals in Sydney centre,) can’t cope, presumably. Actually from where I sit that might not be a bad idea because over the bay, Botany Port is a bit of an eyesore with its storage tanks and derricks. Who knows it may push the property prices up in the likes of the nearby suburbs of La Perouse, Malabar and even Coogie. All lovely places to reside in, having around twelve beautiful beaches (including Bondi,) within ten miles, to choose from at any time.

One much needed haircut later...

My vehicle (Toyah the Toyota) was returned as planned with no hiccups about the broken key. I had become quite attached to the old bus, that had served me well. I had done around 2300 miles in her all told, excluding the ones around Sydney after my arrival, and I found myself musing over her next occupant. Please be gentle with the old girl, I muttered to myself. Sounds like a goodbye request in the doorway of a retirement home. The free shuttle service to the airport, turned out not to be free after all, because apparently I didn’t qualify? I asked the guy, “Why didn't I qualify? Am I not tall enough?” He had thought it about as funny as a shark bite, so with no interaction, I boarded the expensive taxi that had been ordered for me. I decided to pull the taxi drivers leg because I felt I needed to, and it was my last day, and, well… why not? Also top dollar, should equate to top service. I had to walk one hundred yards to the cab because he couldn’t find the depot that had called him. Then I had to open his boot/trunk because he couldn’t be arsed to stow my backpack. He was as helpful as the advice given by a vagrant in a tailors. So by virtue of him innocuously being in victim alley, he was getting the prank of the day.

I said to him after about a mile, (I had already taken an instant disinclination, to anything he had said,) “Did you know that from the 2019 New South Wales produced a statute regarding Hackney carriage and taxi services therein? Correct me if I am wrong, but I believe that regulation 56, sub section five, paragraph ‘B’ states all meters must now talk?” I paused for effect, a quick look for the question mark above his head, before continuing, “It was brought in for the visually impaired, primarily because they could not estimate how much they were spending on fares.” I continued after gauging his perplexed attention, “So my friend your meter is of no consequence to me, no matter what it amounts to. May I see your fare table to calculate the appropriate fare that your license condition dictates?”

He replied hesitantly, “Er… Are you registered as visually impaired mate?” (I was not his mate – but he was an Australian import, so I had to forgive the colloquialism.)

I countered knowing that I was reeling in a big one here. The line was tight, the landing net ready, so here goes…. “No young man. I am partially sighted. I can see only the things that I look at!” Classic sentence that has no meaning but sounds correct. I had him! I stared directly forward and could feel him examining me at every set of lights. Inside I was howling! I started tapping the dashboard as though feeling for perspective.

He said guardedly, “What was the date of that statute again?”

I couldn’t resist one last knock, “Anyway it is no good showing me your fare table because I wouldn’t be able to read it.” I could have happily bet that he had given in and was thinking about Lego or some other complex structure, for the rest of the trip. His baffling expression, delightfully amused the life out of me, but have no real idea why?

Okay... but then what do you do?

I am now at Sydney’s Kingsford Smith International airport. The airport is named after the aviator Sir Charles Edward Kingsford Smith who was awarded the Australian MC after the first world war. He was the first Antipodean to fly transpacific to his homeland from the United States in 1928. (I found myself casually ruminating… how many Hershey bars had he packed for that trip?) Anyway, far too early to obtain a boarding pass I kill time in an airport watering hole. I note that there is about an hour to go before I can drop my faithful backpack. As I look at it, worn out, ripped and missing some essential straps, I am reminded of the countless times that I have packed and unpacked the darn thing, especially on sleeper trains, and in all manner of overnight rooms. For some improbable reason my mind shifted to animals, that have been a part of the journey. Then I realised that I was staring at a life size stuffed camel wearing a fez, on a display stand opposite. I will never forget being an involuntary stork rustler, (who could?) Or the mesmerising pandas in Chengdu. The close encounter with an endangered Woma python at Australia Zoo, possessing strange head markings that look like extraordinary eyes. Or the randy old exhibitionist white crocodile named Casper. The most distressing part of that day for me was the knowledge that koala bears are becoming increasingly endangered. They are a national symbol, and need to be protected at all costs. I learned that climate change, or the prevalent extraordinary weather patterns Australia has been witnessing of recent years, is having a tangible effect on them. Often when they are rescued from any natural disaster, or accidental contact with people, a new diet has to be replicated or experimentally reproduced for them. Let me explain. Koalas only eat Eucalyptus leaves, of which there are about one hundred and fifty different varieties, I’m led to believe. Each koala through genetics and local area availability will only take to a range of about half a dozen different types. And it is the recognition and supply of the individual acceptable types that delivers the problem, because their stomachs cannot accept the change. Their metabolisms cannot process unfamiliar leaves. When koalas are rescued for whatever reason, their dietary acceptance is a major issue for the animals welfare, no matter what its injuries or condition. Weaning them onto more common, easily obtainable varieties of leaves takes an enormous amount of time and effort. There are sadly, too many animals lost as a result of dietary incompatibility. On the subject of bears, I have to report that Ernie the journey bear stayed with me for the duration, but as time went on he was becoming a pain being attached to the back pack. He kept getting caught up by his key chain arrangement. So he went inside a special compartment in the bag. He was always with me but didn’t see much light of day during recent weeks, but served me well as a lucky mascot.

A first for me in that I am travelling with Qatar Airways. They came highly recommended, and I have to agree entirely with that sentiment. Their service was impeccable, providing steel cutlery with meals that were not only very well presented, but also delicious. I am coming in to land in Birmingham pretty soon. Oddly that fills me with some minor trepidation based on settling into a routine again. Normalcy was often what I hankered for while I was away, but strangely, as it fast approaches, I wonder what shape it will take. What is going to make me comfortable? No two ways about it though, a nice cup of tea in a china mug is high on the priority list.

It is now Sunday and five days have passed since returning home. The sleep patterns, that I thought were back to where they should be, have somehow thrown a hissy, as it is now three thirty in the morning. There are a few edges that are blurring, especially the early days of the project, but in the main the memories are unforgettably crisp. I have relayed a couple of stories, praised or criticised a few locations, and bizarrely refer to with fondness, some places that previously were way off my radar. As an education it was immense. Over the sixty five days, there were undoubtedly, times of wonder and profound times of hardship, but they entirely balanced. The overall experience was incredible without question, and there are some aspects that will be either repeated or improved upon by encompassing a more leisurely tourist approach. There were also things that through either circumstance, schedule or desire fell by the wayside. Likewise there were unexpected surprises, that emphatically deserve to be shared. I would urge anyone to follow their hearts in whatever ambitions they have. I was once told that there are always ten obstacles to not doing something, that get in the way of actually doing whatever it is you are considering. There is nothing wrong with following your heart, and anything can be achieved, you just have to want it enough. Whatever your dreams or aspirations, don’t allow the negatives to cloud ambition, you can do stuff! It is within your reach somehow, just figure it out, and believe that all circumstance is temporary. No one should judge any other persons objective. Whether it be knitting a tea cosy for Prince Charles, baking a cake for local charity, or climbing Mt. Everest, there will be a way to accomplish it. Whatever it is, get it done! Make yourself happy by achievement, and have a belly laugh or two while you’re doing it. I sincerely thank anyone who ever turned a page on these blogs, they were a joy to write.

Good luck in whatever you do. Go on surprise yourself!

Rob Taylor

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