Here I am. Back home again. This is the last installment in the (until recently ongoing) saga of my latest trip. It is mostly about Laos (9/10 – a jewel, to steal a phrase from a friend), Thailand (8/10 – world-class beach-sitting), Singapore (8/10 – simplicity and old friends), and Auckland. From France (kinda), through an ex part of England to New Zealand. From unhustle and unbustle, through high-tech-air-conditioned-never-buy-cheaper, to home-cooked, pure-bred, down country perfection.
The short story, for those of you who did not have this email on your list of things to do today, is as follows:
* I exited China almost on foot (pretty close to walking pace, and just about as cheap) for the joys and wonders of Laos. These include (in no particular order) the friendly Laotians who welcomed me in, tiny villages where pens are still pretty neat, rooting for the orange boat with a couple of friendly dutchmen, an exhilarating (if dangerous, damp and masochistic) speedboat on the Mekong, excellent coffee at minimal prices, wondering what I would say to the rebels if I were be held up along stretches of dangerous road, and the feeling that you have left the real world behind.
* I raced (comparatively speaking) across Thailand, pausing just long enough in Bangkok to renew my acquaintance with Khao San Road and to score a ticket on the hottest bus in the world. Destination south and the overnight (sleepy Hayden) boat to a beach (where even sleepier Hayden caught up with an excellent Israeli and slept off the accumulated disorders of several months en the route).
* Then Singapore lulled me into a sense of security (possibly false, but do I care), and I got excited about being close to home. Things that I have done many times before (zoos, taxis, shops, shoes, frisbee, food, beaches) seemed all the sweeter and more novel for the unusual places that I had been in the meantime. I bought stuff. I caught the MRT. I sat out in the heat and drank expensive beer.
* And finally to home. To a reunion with a beautiful girl. To surprise at how little things have changed. To reorganise. To throw things up in the air. To throw things out. To throw some things in a bag and move. To Auckland even. To a new place to live. To a significant other. To a job search, a new domestic balance, to all the joys that domesticity allows. Craziness. At least by contrast.
Something else exciting happened when I reached Thailand. Well, actually, something exciting did not happen. No one asked me for a visa. The first country since Georgia, so many months before, where I needed no special permission to enter. No particular document or stamp. No processing fee. No queue. No mysterious rules and time limits. That little sentence in my passport imploring foreign governments to let me pass freely and help me out if I need it starts to look a little less tarnished. Definitely closer to home.
For sure Azerbaijan has the most permissive visa regime of any I encountered. Don’t worry about the form. Just tell the big besuited man outside the consulate what you want, hand over the cash and come back later in the day. Kyrgyzstan wins prizes for helpfulness (wait five minutes, pay $80 – you do have to fill in the form though), and for best border service (border guards ask if you actually need a visa at all, and they don’t stamp you in or out). Plaudits also to the Georgian consul in Turkey who was so keen to get rid of me he bent all the rules. No, no. No invitation is needed. No no, just sign the form. Forget the rest, it is all crap anyway.
Russia is one of the most difficult (secure an official invitation by email, print it out, take it to the embassy, stand in an enormous queue, get a form, fill it in, get let inside the embassy just before closing, get told they accept only roubles, run down the road to a money changer, run back, get let inside again, pay up, settle up, come back tomorrow, stand in an enormous queue). And Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are tricky too (mostly because the consulates are hard to find and open for only three hours in the morning and one more late in the afternoon).
The helpful border people in Turkey called us a taxi to get us across (after apologising that it was illegal to walk). The unhelpful Mongolian consul in Irkutsk had to be convinced that I would not starve and that I would be safely accommodated before I could even be allowed an application form. The excellent Chinese embassy staff follow rigid rules (be sure and fill out all the boxes) but get it done quickly. The Laotians tell you it takes at least three days and then process it in five minutes when you come to pick it up.
I have been home quite a while now. The calendar measures it in months. My instinctive reaction is disbelief. But it does seem a long while ago since I was anywhere but here. The present so quickly becomes history. Laos, Thailand, even Singapore seem far far away again. Something that might have happened to someone else sometime. And finishing up a diary, an enjoyable diversion that takes less than an hour, is one of those things that is so easily put down to do tomorrow, or the next day, or the day after. Sometime anyhow, not now.
And so yes. New places (Ponsonby), new challenges (jobs and credit and assets and living with someone neat and sewing circles – okay, so not sewing circles). People ask me when I am going next. As if I am best understood as the person who goes away rather than the person who stays around. I am not sure I am cured of the travelling bug yet (although I do seem to be in some kind of remission). But perhaps something a little less extensive (shorter periods, fewer places) or a new format (work and travel in the same place, even), maybe even go with somebody else (I even have someone in mind). We shall see.
In any case, if your travels should take you near to where I am, drop me a line. We can do lunch.
Stay safe and I guess a merry christmas is in order as well, wherever your travels may have taken you,