Indiana Jones and the Teahouse

TeahouseA short travel related scribble which will be published in InTravel Mag, May 2013

In the absence of anything else we were done. Time to leave.

I turned and made the universal cheque, bill, l’addition, conto sign. I wrote on my hand in thin air with an imaginary pen in the direction of the young girl standing attentively nearby. Immediately she scurried away and I returned to savour the view for what remained of my time in the exquisite Chinese teahouse.

Our day to that point had taken us on a local taxi ride from our hotel in downtown Xi’an central China to the Lintong District of the city. We were deposited close to, but not exactly at, the entrance of the World Heritage site containing 8,000 life-sized terracotta warriors built to protect the first emperor of China. The close to drop off point was by design. A barely disguised local conspiracy to funnel the thousands of tourists heading to the famous site through a well constructed street seller ambush. From the drop off point there simply was no other way there. If you wanted to visit it you have to run the gauntlet and judging from the skin colour and girth of our fellow travellers most had travelled some way to be there. It wasn’t as if they could come back later when it was less busy.

In my experience the Chinese are only beaten by the Egyptians when it comes to selling. Persuade, talk, keep talking, be physical, angry, happy, keep talking. ‘No’ is simply not part of a street sellers vocabulary. It doesn’t register. Keep going, keep talking, keep pestering and eventually, if all else fails the customer will buy just to make it stop. Persistence is key and Chinese street sellers have this in abundance.

‘Don’t make eye contact’ I warned sternly as I gripped my girlfriend’s hand and pulled her firmly down the centre. I could see in my peripheral vision tourists being picked off with ease but we didn’t hesitate or falter. We kept going, body swerving the stand in front of you tactics and ignoring the calls, shouts and a plethora of terracotta offerings lining the route. An avenue of naked dancing medusas would have struggled to catch our eye that day. We were seasoned travellers, we had the boots, we had the hats, we had the bum bags. I even had the beard and it would take a lot more than a few shouts or a good price to make us fall into such a well-worn tourist trap.

Arriving at the entrance with our self-esteem and our wallets intact we breathed a sigh of relief and wiped plaster dust from our clothes. Behind us it was a feeding frenzy. A massacre. A lone tour guide held a flag high above the crowd, her flock were being picked off as she walked, pulled away, chewed up and spread to the wind. She arrived next to us. Alone and smiling. Perhaps she was part of the conspiracy too I thought.

We spent four hours wandering around the various marquees protecting the warriors marvelling at the sheer scale and craftsmanship on display. Whatever it was he had done it must have pretty damn serious judging from the protection Qin Shi Huang took with him into the afterlife. Eventually though it was time to leave.

Once more into the valley I thought as we stepped out into the humid spring day but fortunately the sellers were gone. The stalls were deserted. There was the odd tourist left standing outside looking confused and holding a life-sized replica warrior but apart from that it was deserted. There were one or two taxi’s waiting hopefully for the odd tourist not assigned to a bus tour (us) so we ambled towards them.

Next stop the Huaqing Hot Springs and a cup of tea in a teahouse.

Some time later the girl returned with the bill.

She spoke in Chinese to my girlfriend. Her voice was soft and she had a very appealing demeanour. Waif like. She handed me a small handwritten note with both hands, bowed and stood respectfully back. The note was littered with unintelligible symbols.

My girlfriend glanced at the note, looked at me and then said a few clarifying, sing, song words to the girl. Her expression was dark.

‘What’s wrong?’ I asked

‘We’ve been charged about €15 for the tea’

‘How much?!’

‘€15’

We’d been had. Been got.

For all our experience and savvy-ness we had fallen for the oldest trick in the book. Don’t turn on the meter in the cab then pluck a number from thin air at the end of the ride. Don’t mention the price before you pull away or consume, then inflate after the service has been performed.

We had fallen for it and I scratched my Indiana Jones beard feeling more like a British accountant on holiday than I ever had during ouradventure holiday. The girl stood by quietly smiling. She was smiling an ‘I got you smile’, that ‘You are so far away from home, try complaining, just try it white boy’ smile.

We looked at each other, the look was enough and we both knew it. That sinking feeling, that realisation we were not as worldly wise or tourist trap resistant as we had led ourselves to believe.

I started to count out the notes onto the table. As I finished I handed them over with a glare to our sweet young thieving hostess. She bowed yet again, smiled and then spoke in a thick, heavily accented English.

It wasn’t the jetlag and it isn’t my memory playing games with me. I am certain that as she spoke and for the briefest of moments her eyes glowed a deep dark red.

‘Each’ she said.

There’s something Vichy about the French

frenchconn1The problem with France is…….. Blank.

Everyone has their own ending, my favourite, often quoted one, which is supposed to have come from George W Bush is ‘they have no word for entrepreneur’.

The veracity of this quote is questionable but I like it anyhow.

In a Mike Shanks fantasy game of Blankety Blank the winning answer would be ‘the French’. Another quote of course but one I subscribe to. France is a wonderful country. From North to South it is full of beautiful and mesmerising scenery, history and has such a varied topography & climate, from High Alps to Mediterranean beaches. Who wouldn’t fall in love with such a country? The food is fantastic and the wine is superb.

So why is it every time I go there I find myself getting annoyed and wound up?

Why can’t I enjoy a coffee and pastry on the Champs Elysees without feeling like I am being ripped off and that I should drink and eat very quickly because the waiter has something better to do.
Why does he throw the change at me from a distance and why does it take a day to navigate my way through the bureaucratic process nightmare that is Charles de Gaulle airport?
Why do they mutter ‘English pig’ under their breath when I am purchasing something? Why do they love small pathetic, yappy dogs and have 26 different ways of saying ‘I give up’?

I have been treated badly and ripped off in a lot of places around the world. I have had my wallet violently taken from me in Prague and under threat in Istanbul, been sold products which didn’t actually exist in Jamaica, paid 6x the going rate for something in a lot of countries spanning both Africa and Asia but in France its somehow different.

In France if a waiter is rude to me or if a woman elbows me out of the way in a queue I detest that more than any of the other, more serious and sinister, things which have happened to me. I think this is because it happens all the time, everywhere in the country, it’s not a random isolated incident. It seems that the national sport is treat Mike Shanks, the English Pig, badly.

Some time ago, I was sat in a Chinese teahouse in central China. My fiancée and I had just returned from exploring the wonder that is the Terracotta Warriors near to the city of Xi’an. We were tired, jet-lagged and needed a rest. We ordered 2 teas from the incomprehensible menu and rested. I had always been under the misconception that tea in China was good. For all the tea in China, right?
Wrong – tea in China is simply hot water with a couple of flavourless twigs thrown in – Tetley would make a killing over there.
Anyhow we consumed the twig soup and waited for our young, appropriately dressed, waitress to return with the bill. She held out her hand and rattled something off in Chinese to my fiancée. My future wife’s Mandarin is good but she had clearly misunderstood and asked the young lady to write it down, just to be sure.

We had made the simple, non-worldly wise traveller mistake of not asking the price before we consumed and this young lady was going to make us pay. The number she wrote down was the equivalent of £10, for two cups of nothing!

We looked at each other as the realisation set in – we had been ripped off, again. Shaking our heads and throwing daggers at the waitress we took the notes from our bum-bag and passed them over.
All the time the girl smiled a knowing smile, a ‘I have won and there is nothing you can do about it’ smile. A ‘you are a million miles from anywhere near your comfort zone so don’t even try to argue with the bill’ smile.

Looking at the notes in her hand she addressed us both and spoke in a broken, heavily accented English.

‘Each’ was her reply.

I look back on this incident fondly and with humour. Yes we ended up paying £20- for two cups of hot water but we learned a valuable lesson that day and the young girl most likely needed the £20 more than we did.

If that had happened in Paris I shudder to think what my reaction would have been, I would probably still be languishing in a Parisian jail today telling everyone I am not English.

I am generalising of course, not all French people are rude, arrogant and have a superiority complex the size of the Louvre. It’s just that a significant proportion of the population do.

Could it be that my good old-fashioned British sense of fairplay is the root cause of my distaste?
The last time the French won against the British was 1066 but they managed to totally alter the culture and language of the UK, we have beaten them on every occasion since but I am at a loss to come up with anything in the French culture which is British.. The French refusal to buy British beef after the mental-cow outbreak, we won the court battle, they refused to pay the fine and quietly some time later the debt was written off. Retirement age, French Unions, the ghettos (Banlieues) all support my theory that the French don’t play fairly and I haven’t even mentioned the war or the Vichy. I think it is this coupled with my own, less than positive, experiences which tip me from general dislike to writing a blog entry about them.

Like I said I am generalising here, I work with and have met a lot of nice French people some I would consider friends, but compared to, say, the Italians there is no competition.

I will however continue in my quest to rid myself of such a negative bias. Its not healthy and I will continue travelling there, drinking their wine, quaffing the Fois Gras and Crème Brule until my distaste for them disappears or I die of an artery induced heart attack.

How many Frenchmen does it take to change a light bulb?

One – he holds the bulb and all of Europe revolves around him.

Vive la France.

The Queue – Part 2

simon_cowellDoncaster, Sunday night, very late.
His thumbs were a blur of teenage texting and the girl leaning on the counter had a face caked in what looked like at least an inch or two of make up. It was an immature attempt to look natural and/or sexy but had exactly the opposite effect – she ended up looking like a sulky, latex, balloon faced caricature of the ugly teenage girl which she was.
They spoke in their own feral language which at times vaguely resembled English and were so utterly absorbed in texting, chatting and sneering at the world, in fact anything but their job, that they failed to spot the large, well dressed, but crumpled looking man waiting to be served.
His face was the picture of stress and he nervously kept glancing at his watch. He was the only customer and after standing there for a while it became clear they had very little interest in serving him.

A large fist banged on the counter and that got their attention. They sulkily put away their respective phones and looked in his direction.
‘Uhuh?’ this was all long way from the ‘good evening Sir, my name is Chaz, welcome to McDonalds, how can I help you?’ they learned in fast food school, day one.
‘I need chicken nuggets, 3 portions of chips, 2 quarter pounders and three diet cokes. Also can you be quick as I need to catch a train in 10mins?’

He had travelled for 7 hours by train to end up in this restaurant. 4 of these hours were spent stuck in a field with no power, no heating, no food, it was sub zero outside whilst the men charged with fixing the overhead lines which had come crashing down 30mins into the journey idly rubbed their respective chins and drank tea pondering the problem.

He had two children with him and had just spent the weekend desperately trying to recover the sense of fun which had been promised to them for months. The weekend was a write off and now the journey home was starting to become serious.

They eventually called up a reserve engine, one which doesn’t depend on overhead power, and were dragged up to the grimmest town in already very grim North.
At least Doncaster had a fast food option next to the station as they waited 10mins for their connection.

It was -10c outside, the kids were tired, hungry and their sense of adventure had disappeared a long time ago.

Suffice it to say balloon face had chosen the wrong time and wrong customer to play sulky teenager with.

2 days later, Lille Railway station, very early.
‘Noh!’ French Chaz replied through her nose, her lips didn’t move, a particularly annoying ability, unique to our Gallic neighbors which basically said fuck off, piss off, I am better than you – lazy English pig, all with a snort of the nose.

He just stood there staring back at the frog-bitch, Parley vous English had been his seemingly innocuous, albeit slightly pathetic, question.
It was 7.30am, he had been travelling for 2days trying to get home.

A HD, plasma, flat screen, Technicolor fantasy involving a machete and her skull was running through his head. Please just give me the fucking coffee.
He wearily held his hand out and she snatched the correct coins before eventually passing him the warm drink.

This was the final leg of a journey which started the moment he waved goodbye to the boys on the train. At least they are safe he thought as their train pulled away, little knowing they had just embarked on their own adventure.

He took the coffee and trudged towards the TGV, crowds of people rushed around, similar to himself, large trolley bags all sporting the same white tags. A three letter acronym which marked them – LHR.

Finding his reserved seat, he relaxed, sipped his coffee and idly watched as the train pulled out of a depressingly grey and frozen Lille main station. As he did so his mind pondered the weekend and the catalogue, the bumper Littlewoods Christmas edition, of problems they had faced.

The Friday night 8 hour marathon flight from Zurich to London, the last minute round trip Allan had to take, London to Glasgow and back with the boys. The ice-skating car park which should have been the M25, the cancelled football match and the unscheduled overnight in picturesque Reading. The cancelled US trip, the 12 hour marathon broken train journey they had to endure, the ferry, the snow, the cold and the ice.

It was a weekend to remember or forget but more than likely remember, the highlight being a trip to the cinema and after totting up the bill it could easily be the most expensive night at the movies ever.

I have talked about the fragility of our current lifestyles before and this pre-Christmas weekend only serves to reinforce my view. It only takes the slightest of complications and the world as we know it stops. A dusting of snow in certain places can ruin a whole holiday period, a decent dump of the white stuff can stop a city or two. An unpronounceable volcano can interrupt the whole of Europe.

The Chaz’s of this world don’t care and why should they? Most people do however and I sometimes wonder what would happen if other things we take so much for granted suddenly stopped working – or more specifically the things we have only recently started taking for granted – computers, the internet, low cost airlines, Skype, Nespresso, Simon Cowell.

What for example would happen if the internet was taken out by an e-snow storm and was down for, say, a month due to a global shortage of e-deicer?

It’s a frightening prospect isn’t it and I find myself thinking how could I protect against this? The problem with this type of thinking is my thoughts start shifting along the lines of a mid-west, nuclear bomb shelter dwelling paranoid eejit with a gun and 6months worth of supplies at the ready.

So that’s it and as I see it we have 3 options:
1. Pray it doesn’t happen again or at least not when I am travelling, am online or watching x-factor.
2. Buy a gun, go live in the mountains and shoot anyone who comes within a mile of my property.
3. Become Chaz and don’t give a shit.

Guess I should start caking on the make up now then but one thing is for sure – I guarantee I will do a better job than Chaz.

The Queue – Part 1

cb_tree2London, St Pancras. 5 days before Christmas
Hunched, hands pressed deep into their pockets they shuffle along. Dragging their belongings behind them as they try to hide from the unrelenting, biting, cold. A wind whips up snow and ice and children cower next to their parents, eyes wide with a fear of being separated. Their tiny hands tightly grip the torn and ragged overcoats which cover their parent’s painfully thin bodies.

The queue moves with glacial speed and cars slow down to watch their progression amazed by the sight. A refugee trail as far as the eye can see.

Riot police quietly herd them in the right direction, the only direction. They have come prepared for a violent outburst, but it never comes. They are too weak to rebel, compliance is now the only option. All hope has been lost, every turn they took was blocked by a bureaucratic brick wall and they all end up in the same place, the queue. Across the country the scene is repeated, blanket TV coverage ensures we are all aware of what is happening in our country. Politicians condemn everyone except themselves, the guilty make excuses and run from roaming reporters.

London, somewhere near Heathrow

“What happened, why can’t you resolve this?” a devil horned reporter thrusts the snow covered microphone into the face of a scared and panicking young media-relations manager

“We were surprised by the ferocity of it, it caught us unawares” he mumbles back.

“With your pants down?” the cloven hoofed one replies.

“Well I wouldn’t put it exactly like that, but we were surprised, yes”

“You don’t care about your customers”

“Well…”

“You didn’t invest in infrastructure”

“Well, that’s not entirely…..”

“It’s true!” he cuts in forcefully “You are making money hand over fist, millions, no billions, but you invest nothing!” pushing his tripod into his chest.

“Well, no, not really, last year the profits of…..” The demon cuts him off again, switching tack

“What do you have to say to all the people out there watching this going on?”

“ummm”

“What do you have to say, WHAT DO YOU HAVE TO SAY?” goatee-beard is now standing with a foot on the throat of the ill prepared young man.

He looks defeated and with a hopeful tone he replies “Sorry?”

A pause and then he continues “But it was, it was, well, umm, the wrong sort of snow you see” His jugular is now exposed in anticipation of the killer blow.

Pausing, Satan glances at the camera. Aware the whole country is watching he savours the moment. He smiles knowingly and his eyes glow a deep dark, blood red. You can almost hear the cries of Kill him! Kill him! from behind the camera which silently blinks red.

“I presume by that you mean the cold kind of snow?”

The queue shuffles onwards, never stopping, never reducing and the mercury drops another notch.

Beam me up please

When you drive a car you can pretend you are James Bond.beam me up

If you take the train you can pretend you are James Bond and enjoy a martini, if you take your bike you’re not James but at least you are healthy, if you take the bus, well lets ignore that option for now.

I am sure there was a time when flying was an 007 experience as well, a time when it was exclusive and expensive. You could breeze through the terminal, no security, terrorists couldn’t afford to fly back then.

You would sit waiting for the flight to be called and have someone serve you things.

On board the experience would continue, a pretty young deferential stewardess would serve you a gin & tonic, hot food and after your meal you would walk to the bar, light up a cigarette and discuss the state of the empire with your fellow travelers.

Today the flying option is shit.

Yes it is very convenient, it can be very cheap and is probably the most efficient method to get from A-B but the experience from entering the terminal to exiting the other side is one which I would happily consign to the past, a Spanish inquisition or an hour with Jack Bauer.

If someone invents instantaneous travel I will be very happy. I will vote for him, I will happily pay her double, no triple, the current cost of the journey. I will make sure this person is knighted and will probably be found sporting a tattoo of his/her name on a very personal part of my body.

To say I would be happy would be an understatement.

Anyone who has seen the film The Fly will probably laugh and then in dark tones point out the risks of becoming part man/fly/pizza/whatever is sitting in my pod before I transport.

Humour me for a moment though and consider these two alternative scenarios:

The alarm sounds and you surface, softly, to feel the cool morning breeze on your toned muscled body. As you sit up and stretch, your wife stretches out a slender arm and strokes your back, her body is covered partially by the sheets. You stand up and she sits up revealing herself to you, smiling she sleepily whispers that she loves you then descends back to her sleep.

You shave quickly and easily, Gillette style and finish your morning routine quietly. A sharp shirt, suit and shoes and you are ready to go.

Before you do through you stop off at the kids room, you kiss your daughter and pull the blanket back over your son, smiling as you leave the room.

Downstairs you make and drink your espresso quickly as your meeting is starting in 10mins.
Ready to leave you pick up your briefcase and step into a cupboard next to the front door and exit the other side…in the Paris office.

Today’s reality involves a 4am alarm call coupled with some seriously foul language from your wife. The razor hurts and cuts and the coffee machine is too noisy to use at such an ungodly hour.
The first train chugs its way slowly to the airport, they use the old rolling stock for this journey. The airport is busy and hot, security slow and intrusive – by the time you have reached the gate your perfectly pressed shirt is grimy and bunched up.

Even if you take off on time you are guaranteed a delay on arrival and after 20mins circling somewhere on the outskirts of Paris you land at Charles de Gaul airport where the real fun begins.

Somewhere between 1 and 2 hours after landing you walk into the office, dirty, tired, pissed off and wondering why the fuck we thought it was a good idea to liberate this country 65 years ago.

Which one would you prefer?

Now understand the second scenario is repeated thousands of times every single day – do you still consider me crazy?

Even when we overcome the fly issue there are still some minor laws of physics to overcome but surely if we can put a man on the moon……

I propose a solution:
Air travel is the biggest contributor to climate change…..probably. Divert all of the funds pouring into research for climate change into research towards instantaneous travel. With such focus from the worlds sharpest minds I have no doubt I will be zipping around Captain Kirk style in no time at all.

Not only will we remove a major contributor to pollution, allow millions of people to have a longer lie in and shave better but we will also put CDG out of business.

A definite win, win, win, win solution in my book.

Tea and Tequila

4.30am: First order of the day is to drag my weary arse out of bed. No mean feat when you consider my eyes have only been shut for about 4 hours. Quickly and quietly I perform the normal bathroom activities – minimum fuss, minimum noise. The smell and sounds of a family sleeping pervade every nook and cranny of the house and is the most attractive thing in the world. Like an addict faced with a freshly filled needle, every pore of my body tells me to fuck the flight and take another 3hour hit of uncut bed and sleep.

5.31am: First scheduled train to airport – cold and busy. I really don’t want to deal with the world just now. Hungry and sleep deprived I doze off, face pressed against the metallic tasting glass.

6.15am: The Airport itself is negotiated quickly and easily – every shortcut used and noticing no one performing checks at the business/first class line I quietly slip in behind the well heeled passengers skillfully avoiding the stupid people. Strangely at this time of the day the world is filled with stupid annoying people, with one exception.

6.35am: We board the plane in the darkness, the plane is still cold. Annoyingly cheery Christmas music is piped throughout the cabin. Chocolate is offered and promptly refused – this early in the day chocolate is up there with a shot of tequila on my must have wish list.

6.45am: We are told there is a delay of 30mins. The fault? Someone else. It always is, we always manage to board, perform whatever safety stuff the guys up front do and are never late, always ready to go, and importantly on time. The fault this time is mother nature at London Heathrow. More chocolates offered and refused. I ask for a blanket and if I can curl up on the floor.

The pilot has a reassuringly British, clipped, dam-buster accent – at least that’s one worry put to rest.

Eventually we leave Zurich – Guy Gibson upfront goes to great lengths to find every lumpy piece of sky there is. At times we are swooping down and clipping hedges, other times soaring high bumping along the ragged thin air at the edge of space. I curse him and gratefully accept the tea and croissant offered. At last, something resembling civilised, even if the tea is served with cream.

8.30am: We arrive in the vicinity of LHR – Guy announces another arrival delay – “we will need to sit in a holding pattern for”……everyone waits expectantly like X-Factor contestants, loud heartbeat music is piped through the cabin……”35 – 45mins”. Aaargh! We are not in the next round and have to sit here, somewhere above Biggin Hill watching the infinitely unfunny “just for laughs” playing on loop.

Eventually a single bing! announces our decent into the mist which blankets Southern England. And for once the 10 minutes to landing claim is accurate.

9.15am: We exit into a threadbare Terminal 1. London is grey, Heathrow is grey, my hair is grey. Just one more flight to go and the days travelling is done.

pm: Tonight I am going to have a curry, a man curry, a curry which is so manly it could grow a beard and challenge me to an arm wrestle. It will be washed down with a man’s beer and then I plan to descend into a dreamless, coma like sleep.