Saturday, 26 May 2012

A week after I was robbed, Geneva, Saturday

It is exactly a week since my bag was stolen, literally from under my feet at Geneva Cornavin station. You might have expected that passing time would have made me more resigned to the situation, but no.

Every day that passes I discover something else that is essential to my life is missing, whether it be something cheap and easily replaceable like lip balm or a torch, to something more expensive and difficult to replace like prescription sunglasses or my camera. The latter I have already replaced, together with my iPad and iPod. But one of my stolen digital cameras had a viewfinder, something I find essential when, as has been the case this week, the sun has been shining which makes the image on an LCD screen almost impossible to view.
Until this morning, I was making progress with my passport renewal. But eagle-eyed friend Michael spotted that I could only use the form that his wife had brought from London if I was actually in the UK. So I will have to cut short my long-planned rail trip to Europe and get back to Bern to apply for an emergency one. More needless expense and a total pain.
No news at all from the Geneva lost property department, who had given me some hope that the passport was quite likely to be recovered.
Of course all sorts of other matters have come to light. Skype warned me that it was running out of credit because one of the lost cards was used to fund it; I couldn't make a purchase on Amazon for the same reason. The fact that my bag was taken probably just for cash makes me so mad; I would almost have happily just handed money over, had they asked, just to avoid the inconvenience of it all.
To say that the incident has marred my visit and my view of Geneva is an understatement. Everyone I have spoken to has been sympathetic, understanding and caring. But, almost immediately, they tell me of friends they know who have also been robbed in Geneva. Everywhere you look here, there are posters warning of the scam of the coin under the cups trick; almost as frequently you see people of Eastern European appearance ripping people off with it.
I have asked Geneva Police to tell me what is being done, but don't hold your breath for much information. Tourism is big business in this city and the last thing they want to do is make visitors think that the situation here is much worse than any other place. But it is. Geneva is not London or New York. It is a small town, which happens to have some pretty important institutions based here. Ask any staff member of the International Red Cross or the United Nations and they will tell you that they, or a friend, have been robbed.
But let's not dwell on crime. Let's look at what Geneva has to offer.
Firstly, like all of Switzerland, it is scarily expensive and you really have to budget carefully if you are not to have a serious hole in your pocket. A small basket in the supermarket can easily cost two or three hundred Swiss Francs, probably over half as much again as you will be used to spending at home. Eating out is eye-wateringly costly, with even a basic menu costing forty CHF. The canny Genevois, of course, head over the border to France when they can, buy their groceries, have their meals and buy their booze.
One thing that Geneva certainly has to offer is a really efficient public transport system. If you are staying in a hotel, they are likely to give you a ticket for the duration of your stay. That not only covers buses, local trains, trolleybuses and trams, but also the little red and yellow mouette ferries that criss cross Lac Leman.

The Geneva Card, available for 1, 2 or 3 days, gives you access to all sorts of things from trips by boat around the Lake to museums and even the cable car up Mont Saleve.

I combined both cards to take a trip on the number 8 bus to the end of the line, the Veyrier Douane, or customs post, followed by a short walk to take the steep ascent on the cable car.
You wouldn't even know you had crossed the border, a bit of a relief for those of us who are not in possession of a travel document!

At the top, stunning views over Geneva and Lac Leman and the chance to watch as people attach themselves to colourful bits of nylon cord and material and throw themselves off the 1000 metre high cliff.
But, somehow, I find myself drawn again and again to the Lake and all it has to offer. From 'Les Bains de Paquis' where the locals enjoy their croissants or fondues while watching or participating in a bathe in the rather chilly lake - to a trip on one of the beautifully restored 100-year-old paddle steamers like Savoie or Simplon.

I took one such trip to the French medieval village of Yvoire, where an absolutely splendid lunch was taken on the terrace at the Auberge du Bacouni, before taking the paddle steamer back to Geneva. In fact a very nice lady at the CGN ferry company suggested I also take in Nyon, but the lunch and the view was so special, that I rather lingered over my barracuda souffle and my plat de fromages. A real treat – and a LOT cheaper than eating in Geneva.
If you have a Swiss Flexi Pass, not only does it cover your rail journeys, but also gives you boat trips, funicular railways, cable cars and buses. On my trip on Savoie, the First Class saloon was almost empty, but booked to be completely full for dinner. In any case, I spent a lot of my time just marvelling at the engineering of the century old steam pistons driving the massive paddle wheels.

My friend Michael took me to visit Carouges, where folk will say they are from, rather than from Geneva itself, just across the river. I can only compare it to a London mews, twee little properties and even more twee little shops. As we supped coffee, a man loaded top of the range champagne into the back of his illegally parked 4 x 4. It's that sort of place.

But the lure of the Lake is always powerful, watching the iconic jet d'eau pump water hundreds of metres into the sky.

Nearby at 'Le Grange', taking lunch at the café run by 'The Swiss League for women abstainers' is just one way of realising that most folk in Geneva are great. It's just a few incomers who are spoiling it for the majority.
But somehow, watching the world on the lake go by, such issues seem so very far away.
On Monday I set off on my Rail Trip, slightly anxious about my lack of passport. But I have my pass and I have my booking to Paris, so another adventure beckons.

Best of my photos from the whole trip are at:  

The very best of 'Around the World - Backwards'

Monday, 21 May 2012

Passport palaver

It's been a day of complete frustration vis a vis trying to replace my passport. It's an urgent matter, as I am due to fly back to the UK from Geneva tomorrow. 

After ascertaining that nothing has been handed in to the Geneva Police lost and found, I set off by train for a two-hour journey to seek assistance from the consular section of the British Embassy in the Swiss capital, Berne.
Ironically, as I head to Gare Cornavin in Geneva to start the trip, the bus drops me almost at the exact spot where my bag was stolen on Saturday.

As I head north on my Swiss Railways double-decker train, my friend Michael has a frustrating conversation with the UK passport call centre in Birmingham. After a twenty minute delay, he makes progress, only to have the system crash. 'Call back later' is the customer unfriendly advice.
But he has ascertained that there is no way I can get a replacement passport in time for my next trip which is due to start next Tuesday.

At the British Embassy in Berne, I am not expected, but am allowed through the sophisticated security screening into the hallowed portal. Michael's best endeavours via the call centre have not resulted in me having an actual appointment. But I am the only person waiting and one of the consular staff agrees to see me. I discuss my options with her. An emergency passport can be issued, but I cannot then apply for another to get me out of the UK. Questions would, they say, have to be asked. So we resolve that my best bet is to stay in Europe while a full passport application can be processed.
So, Michael's wife Sally will pick up the application form in London on Thursday. I have the same photographs as appeared in my lost passport, so will send the completed application and the payment and countersigned photos back to my friends at home, who will attach my birth certificate and hand the package in to the post office for a seven day service. In theory, my new passport will then arrive in plenty of time to be with me in Switzerland for my journey home. Ironically, my stolen passport was one of the very first biometric passports to be issued in Madrid and I even have a photo of the then British Ambassador to Spain and the Consul General presenting me with it. Even more sadly, it is almost full, with a wonderful collection of irreplaceable visas and stamps.
Normally, I wouldn't even have had my passport with me, but my Swiss Flexi Pass required me to have it as identification. I am slightly concerned that I won't have it for my three-week InterRail journey. But I have the police report and a copy, so hopefully that will suffice.
But methinks there may be one or two more challenges ahead.
Russ, one of my chums, says I have been amazingly stoical over the matter. Outwardly, maybe so. But internally I am upset, frustrated and angry. The whole thing has been very distressing and had it not been for the understanding and support from both friends and complete strangers, I am not sure how I would have coped. Even Jamie, the South African girl at Swiss Airlines, told me to 'hang in there' when I called to explain why I wouldn't be flying out tomorrow. A Tunisian man who runs a bar in Geneva gave me half of his flaky pastry spinach and cheese pie after hearing my story. And Georges from the Geneva Police lost property department has been an absolute star. And of course my Facebook account has been filled with many messages of support.
So thanks to everyone who has helped me out. Your generosity and compassion has been overwhelming.

Berne, by the way, is lovely. I only spent an hour or so in the city, but it really does look worth a proper visit. The Swiss Parliament building dominates the skyline above the river, while there is an absolutely charming series of streets. And trams too!

Photos at:
The very best of 'Around the World - Backwards'

Sunday, 20 May 2012

Singapore to Switzerland. And being robbed.

Changi has to be one of the best organised Airports in the world. Check in is very well organised, there are always plenty of baggage trolleys available, the lounges are great, immigration is quick and efficient and there is plenty of space in which to shop and relax. 

Even the lounge for the A380 is great. I expect boarding this giant of the skies to be a pain, but the air bridges are so well organised that I find myself delivered to the upper deck business class area through a dedicated walkway almost without realising I have boarded the aircraft.
I've come on board early to have look around, but I'm disappointed that the wide stairs to the downstairs suites area is closed off and will remain so throughout the flight. I ask nicely to be allowed to look before other passengers board, but the senior male cabin crew member is adamant that the other parts of the aircraft are off limits.

I am surprised that there is no leaflet about how the seat operates. There are so many buttons and switches that, even as an experienced traveller, I have to seek assistance. Not once, but several times.
As always, Singapore Airlines service is first class, the food is excellent and the staff are friendly, efficient and willing. I am not hugely impressed with the sleeping arrangements. While it's a fully flat bed, you lie diagonally across your space, with a less than robust flap connecting the final section to the ottoman. On several occasions, I have to pull it back up, my feet having disappeared into the void below.

But I sleep and breakfast well and almost before I know it am in Zurich.

After a shower, I enjoy the best croissants ever in the business class lounge before catching my connecting flight to Geneva.

In the baggage hall, I collect my free train/bus ticket into the centre (what a brilliant idea!) and am met by my old Navy chum, Michael Goldthorpe who points out the thin red line that has replaced a barrier. The disciplined Swiss stand obediently behind the illuminated line waiting for arriving passengers. Another brilliant idea!
Michael and I take a train to the centre, connecting almost immediately to a bus which stops almost outside their front door. The Swiss really do have public transport sorted.

Michael's wife Sally is in Singapore, so we have a couple of days together looking around the local area, popping across the border into France, doing shopping, venturing up Mont Saleve for a superb view over Geneva and visiting the town of Annecy for lunch. It's a local bank holiday, the place is packed and it takes a while before we find a place to park.

But it's worth the wait, Annecy is charming and we enjoy a splendid lunch which includes the tasty local Savoyard dish, Tartiflette, made from cheese, potatoes, lardons and onions.
I use my Swiss Travel Flexipass to go to Lugano, some five and a half hours distant. The train announcements start off in French, move to German as we approach Zurich and change to Italian as we head south. Strange, this multilingual Switzerland. The section through the Gottard pass has to be one of the most wonderfully scenic rail journeys in the world.

Lake Lugano is a delight. My pass even allows me to travel on the private metre-gauge splendidly maintained FLP railway to the border town of Ponte Tresa. There, I walk into Italy, have dinner and buy a bottle of Sicilian wine. As you do. I am thrilled with the photographs I have taken, including some splendid panoramas of Lake Lugano with my new camera.
My flexi pass allows me to travel on the funicular railway from Lugano Railway station to the town centre, where I meet my Serbian friend Alexsandar, last met on a plane in Washington. He's busy with exams, so we only have time for a hugely expensive coffee and orange juice in the main square before I set off on an hour-long tour of the delightful lake. My flexipass is valid for this trip too!

I enjoy the five and a half hour trip back to Geneva, travelling in the private business class section of the extremely comfortable Pendolino tilting train, ideally suited to the endless curves of Swiss railways.
While waiting for the number 8 bus at Geneva Station, a man asks me to help him operate the ticket machine. In a flash my man-bag is gone. Ipad, iPod, two cameras, passport, Swiss FlexiPass, wallet and all the detritus of a traveller. Plus the keys to Michael and Sally's apartment. They are in the UK for the night at a dinner. Major crisis. I am in a daze as a kindly woman lets me try to call and text Sally. Back at the apartment, a kindly neighbour lends me some cash and takes me to the police station. There, I go through the palaver of making a statement, hardly reassured by the friendly and helpful female cops telling me that they see several people a day for this sort of thing. The whole thing conducted in French of course. They say that it's possible that my bag will be found, minus anything valuable, but probably still with passport and credit cards intact. But the lost property office doesn't open till Monday morning.
Back at the apartment block, another kindly neighbour not only sits up till 0130am with me while I cancel my lost cards, make contact with the UK passport authorities and so on. We continually try and contact my hosts, but when it becomes clear I am not going to get into the apartment tonight, kindly offers me a bed for the night. I have my overnight bag from my trip, but no clean clothes for the morning.
The following day, I finally make contact with my hosts in the early afternoon and their Bolivian housekeeper very kindly breaks off a lunch in France to come and let me in to the house.
But I discover at the station that my Swiss flexipass can't be replaced and while the Swiss authorities will be happy to accept other photo id in lieu of my missing passport allowing me to travel back to the UK on Tuesday, the British authorities won't. So my final day of 'Around the World in 60 days – Backwards' will be spent travelling to the British Embassy in Berne to get an emergency passport.
It's not the first time I have been robbed while travelling and I daresay it will not be the last. But I feel absolutely desolate and empty. I am devastated by the loss of my carefully crafted photographs taken on my week-old camera. The rest of the things can be replaced, but not them.
I have replayed the moment of the loss again and again. If only I hadn't been distracted to help. If only I had done my normal thing and had the bag around my neck. If only I had been aware that laid-back, classy Geneva has a dreadful reputation for this happening.
If only.

Photos at: 
The very best of 'Around the World - Backwards'

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Singapore, Sarawak and heading to Switzerland Plus a sodding pottery factory

Callum, my old chum from primary school in Scotland, has kindly invited me to stay with him at his very different Singapore Residence.

It is an apartment in the Wessex Estate, one of the few post-war housing complexes still in existence in Singapore. Built to house non-commissioned officers and their families during the Malayan emergency, the 26 three-storey blocks are each named after British victories – Khartoum, Quebec and, in Callum's case, Barrosa.
The apartments are set in spacious grounds and there's a real feel of old-style colonial living. Even more so is the Col Bar, originally built in 1953, but moved to its present site in 2003 when a major road was planned right through the middle of the building. The Colonial Bar, to give it the full title, is as unlike modern Singapore as is possible to get, so is popular for that very reason. But if you want to eat, get your order in by 8.30pm or the chef will have gone home!

In the morning, I join the commuters on Singapore's smashing Rapid Transit, the SMRT, to head to Changi Airport. The trip, which takes 50 minutes. Costs just $2.20.
Singapore doesn't seem to ever have the horrendous immigration queues of the USA and the UK. Both going in and out takes no time at all. Changi Airport is great, with trolleys everywhere and free wifi - as long as you ask for the password at the information desk.

I'm impressed with Air Asia. My eighty minute flight on a spotlessly clean Airbus has cost me just £48 return, the vast majority of that being fuel or security surcharges and taxes. The staff are really friendly, boarding is professionally handled and, for a 'no frills' carrier, they do it very well indeed.

Just before touch-down at Kuching, the plane passes over the winding Sarawak River. Everyone, even Malaysian Nationals, has to complete an immigration form for Sarawak, on Borneo Island,
but, with no bag to collect, the paperwork is completed within moments.
Fauzi and Amanda have turned up in the Four Points by Sheraton limo, which is a really nice touch.
The hotel is only a few minutes drive away. I have rented a junior suite, which turns out to be one of the biggest rooms I have ever had in my life. The price, about £40 per night, is about half what I paid for my Bed and Breakfast room in Melbourne!

But there's no time to linger because Hadi, my driver and guide, is already waiting for me in reception to show me down town Kuching.
It's an interesting mix of tumbledown and ultra-modern. But whoever planned the itinerary, sending us into town at the end of Friday Prayers clearly hadn't thought it through. Nightmare traffic jams!

We see the impressive town hall, Chinatown, where I by a kilo of sweet little bananas for about 50 pence and visit the colourful and lively bazaar. Long overdue for a haircut, Hadi takes me to a barbershop he knows, where I have an excellent cut for just £2. Already, it is clear that Sarawak is not going to be an expensive visit.
I ask Hadi if he's Malaysian but he is firm that he is a Sarawakian first and formost. Sarawak is actually the largest state in Malaysia and home to 2.2 million folk, a quarter of whom live in Kuching. Borneo island, the third largest in the world, includes Brunei and, in the south, it's part of Indonesia.
After a swim in the hotel's pretty unimpressively designed pool, I walk across the road where I enjoy an excellent meal at the Pandan Thai Delight Restaurant for just over £10. Green lamb curry, spring rolls, crab cake, rice and a couple of beers. What a bargain.
In the morning, much as I detest buffet breakfasts, I actually enjoy the wide range of local and western fare on offer in a pleasantly quiet restaurant. The high-spot for me is Beef Rendang, a very spicy beef stew. Great on buttered toast! But I could have had anything from nasi goreng to scrambled egg.

I hand in a kilo of washing to the laundry across the street, who charge me 4 Malaysian Ringgit, less than £1. It will be ready by teatime. If I had had the items laundered individually in the hotel, I would have paid twenty times that.

Since Melbourne, I have been in agony with a trapped nerve in my neck, which is causing me pain all down my left arm, so I visit the pharmacy. Priscilla Chuo Poh Poh, who learnt her trade at Strathclyde University in my hometown of Glasgow, is not yet in, so I talk to her on the phone and she dispenses accordingly. I pick up what I think is one of her business cards, only to find out later that it is for a doctor Chen Chung Ming, who specialises in Colorectal and Laparascopic treatments, something he learned to do in Edinburgh. I shall bear him in mind.
Mr. Hadi takes me to the Semenggoh animal sanctuary who decide to charge me the entrance fee, despite me being an official Sarawak Tourist Board sponsored visitor. But apparently we don't have 'the correct letter'. Hey ho.

But it's feeding time for the Orang Utans and we watch in wonder as six of the hairy red animals swing through the jungle canopy. On departure there's a real bonus when Hadi spots a mother and her baby pottering along the side of the path, completely unconcerned about us.
It's hard to describe how hot and humid it is, but I am glad I have brought a wet flannel and lots of water. Even so, I buy three cold drinks in the Serikin Market, very close to the border with Indonesia. There's a lot of basket ware, rush matting and really good quality fruit and vegetables on display, but it is really too hot to linger. Sensible locals use brollies as parasols.

Then we have to visit the bloody pottery factory. God! I have lost count of how many trips I have been on that insist on including the sodding pottery factory in the itinerary. There must be a tradition of potters paying tourist boards backhanders or something. It's always the same old rubbish; rarely anything of any real quality. And this was no exception. But there's a bit of fun when I spot one of the assistants fast asleep in an armchair, which amuses the other staff when I take his picture.

In the late afternoon, I have a late lunch at the Taipei 101 restaurant, where lemon chicken, special fried rice and a couple of Tiger beers is less than £5. In my room, Football Focus is on BBC World. Imagine! I am in Borneo watching Premiership action, hours before the programme is aired in the UK.

The Sarawak Cultural Village sounds totally not my sort of thing, a real tourist trap. But we have pitched up early and it's actually very well done, with some really interesting traditional homes to see and folk in their tribal costumes going about their daily business. They are all really friendly and happy to chat. One man is doing some colourful batik prints while a lady is making tasty biscuits over a charcoal fire from coconut milk and flour.
Hadi spots a lovely bright green chameleon in the foliage, who waits patiently for me to set up my tripod before scuttling off after I have taken the snap.

I am told that Singapore would take a dim view if I purchased a blowpipe, so I buy a few bags of pepper instead. I don't think I have ever seen it growing on trees like it does here.
We visit a couple of quiet little fishing villages, where the locals all wave and say hello and boys on bikes show off their wheelies.

At Buntal Bazaar, a light lunch is taken for less than £3.
Final port of call is to the Orchid Garden in Kuching where I learnt that 10% of the world's orchids come from Sarawak. There are apparently 75,000 of them in the 35 acres of the garden, but there are only a few in flower at this time of year.

I have been hoping for a swim, but just as I am about to go down, the skies darken, the heavens open and a tropical monsoon ensues. It's pretty scary being high up in a hotel watching the lightning sear across the leaden skies.
In the morning I make another attempt to see Priscilla the Pharmacist, but she's clearly not an early riser. Once again I speak to her on the phone about my ailments. I think it's lovely that the girl in the shop refers to her as madam. It wouldn't happen in Glasgow, Priscilla!
Air Asia returns me to Singapore, where I clear immigration within moments.
I have been invited to spend a couple of nights at the eco-friendly Siloso Beach Resort on Sentosa Island.
Karl and Zac take me on a fascinating hour-long tour , available to all guests, which really does demonstrate the resort's credentials.

Wherever possible, trees were kept in place during the building of the complex. So much so, that trees actually grow in the middle of some of the 12 villas. The main accommodation block is actually split in two to allow large trees to be kept in place.
They grow their own fruit and vegetables, fertilised with compost produced from waste product in their own wormery.
The huge 95 metre long swimming pool uses ionized salt instead of chlorine to kill any bugs therein and the water comes from an underground spring, which is also used in the gardens. There are fourteen ponds to encourage wildlife, a huge rooftop garden which acts as insulation, thus saving huge amounts of energy.
The Siloso Beach resort's eco-friendly policy goes far beyond anything I have ever seen before, ranging from the way they source their food (locally wherever possible), no wasteful plastic bottles of soap and conditioner in the rooms to the housekeeping staff recycling the contents of guests bins.
It's all very impressive.

But actually what is nicest (and probably the thing that most guests notice) is the way that the complex just seems to fit in with the natural environment It really does give you the impression of living in the middle of the jungle.
I enjoy a quick dip in the enormous pool before a quick bite of lunch with Rae and Ching, the PR team at the next door Shangri-La Rasa Sentosa resort.

Now I have to re-pack my bags for the 12 and a half hour flight to Geneva and my first experience of flying in an Airbus A380.
Something I am looking forward to, almost as much as if it was to be my first flight ever.
Well, if you have the travel bug, it really doesn't matter what age you are, the thrill is just the same. If I didn't get the buzz out of travelling as much as I do, I'd stay at home digging the garden.