Thursday, March 29, 2012

To the Bat Cave, Robin!

After a couple of weeks of city life, my body was aching for fresh country air and space to stretch out and soak up the sun. My destination was obvious: Mount Fuji.

I challenge you to find anyone in the world who isn't familiar with this giant dormant volcano... its peak is the highest in Japan but what really brings the flocks is its perfect symmetrical cone shape and its isolation from other mountains. It looks the way a mountain should look, the way that you would draw a picture of one in preschool.

Unfortunately at this time of the year it can't be climbed - the snow is too thick and the temperature too low for it to be safe even for seasoned climbers - so I instead booked into a youth hostel on Kawaguchi Lake, one of the five main lakes around the foot of the iconic structure.

Climbing something

Not to entirely shirk mountain climbing, I headed on arrival to Mount Tenjo, a tree-covered peak directly in front of the lake and only a short walk from my hostel. The tourist board only had it listed as 'a cable car' so that's what I went for... it was when I approached the counter to pay for my ticket that I realised there was a 'one way' option. And that must mean it's possible to climb.

I bought the one-way ticket. I'd love to tell you that I bought it for the return journey but I'm afraid I'm just a big fat cheat. I rode the car almost all the way to the top and then made a casual walk back down again, admiring the views of the lake and mountain with every step. It turned out actually to be a very well-marked route, well maintained and easy to negotiate... but there's no time for regrets.

Mt Fuji as seen (or not) from the crest of Mt Tenjo

A Sore Bum

The next day I hired a clunky old mountain bike with a mission in mind: I would score a perfect photograph of Mount Fuji and I would reach The Bat Cave. After all, who wouldn't want to take the opportunity to meet the infamous Mr Wayne and witness his technological marvels?

I selected an 18-mile route that would allow me to circle the lake entirely and to visit the next lake along (Saiko). Whilst 18 miles doesn't seem far, it had me worried halfway round the first leg when I found myself climbing a steep road on an unsuitable vehicle and almost, almost considered turning back.

"Holy Buttock Sores, Batman! We're almost there!"
Finally, the Bat Cave appeared round a corner. I locked up my bike, bustled into the kiosk and bought my ticket from an automated machine. A staff member handed me a hard hat with a brief demonstration on how to wear it and sent me on my way.

So... I've been to caves before. I've had tour guides or I've had information stations where you press a button to hear / read about the cave's formation. One thing has always been consistent in these cave visits: a comfortable, safe and secure walkway from which to view stuff.

This was different. I could see from the outset that it was different and it just got differenter and differenter, as Alice might say. There were a number of different routes marked out through the cave. The first was 'Basic Course'. Hah! I scoff at 'basic course'. 'Basic course' suggests that there are much more interesting routes available - those are the ones I want.

If only I'd known what the alternative was...

It didn't take long to get scary. I started to get concerned when I hit my hard hat on a sign saying 'mind your head' and then frowned when I looked at another 'mind your head' sign at roughly chest-height. Hanging from the ceiling. Bending double to scrape under it, things only became more claustrophobic... there was no turning back, it was time to get down on your hands and knees in the wet, dirty lava floor and start crawling, sometimes with a clearance of no more than three feet and only the scarcest lighting.

Photos were a bit of a problem, I'm afraid, so please just try to invoke images of Bilbo Baggins crawling through dark and uncharted tunnels on his quest to return his precious ring.

Anyway, I made it out in the end and suddenly realised I'd seen no bats. Zero bats. Not of the Bruce Wayne variety and not of the flying rodent variety. Most disappointing.

Update on the VW

I know some of you are itching to know what's going on here... well my saviour arrived yesterday in the form of a fellow traveller from France, who's very hands-on with his own VW T25 and professes to have rather good technical knowledge of the T2s to boot. I purchased some Skype credit, we Googled the garage and he spoke to them at quite some length, getting all the details that seem to be missed when I call the RAC.

So it turns out that the electrical fault that caused my breakdown in fact had a massive impact on the wiring of the whole bus. We suspected that the wiring was old anyway, so the garage have I'm sure done the right thing by completely rewiring it. Their tests now show that everything's in perfect working order except the fuel gauge, which was fried in the incident so, with the help of my forum friends from The Late Bay, I have found a replacement and will be sending it straight over to them. They're confident that they can fit it almost immediately once it arrives, and I'll be back on the road in time for Groezrock.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Those Elusive Monkeys

Since arriving in Kyoto, all anyone seems to be going on about is monkeys. Apparently there's an area in the bamboo forest that's become a bit of a hot spot - wild monkeys live there and tourists turn up to feed them so they can have a good view. One American girl in my hostel said she'd enjoyed it so much that it was her main reason for returning to Japan.

Intrigued, a Canadian girl named Krista and I decided to make a day trip out there.

Getting Distracted

Whilst the Buddhist temples in Japan are undoubtedly gorgeous, they're also abundant. You can't walk through Kyoto without tripping over one, and the tourist maps point out around five per square mile. However one in particular does stand out: the Golden Pavilion in the North West of the city. It's a large temple with stunning gardens, wildlife and shrines but the highlight is a building set on a small peninsula that's coated in gold leaf, making it shine in the sunlight.

After climbing with great relief off our overcrowded city busy, we followed the crowds to the gate of this temple and paid the 400\ each to go in. We walked, chatted, took photos and sampled some extraordinary sweet green tea with gold flecks in it, which was I'm afraid being sold at an extraordinary price and was therefore left behind.

The Golden Pavillion (yes it's real gold)
So, while that was lovely an' all, we weren't much closer to finding the monkeys. And it was starting to rain. Krista attempted to unfold the various maps and guide books while I held our umbrellas up but we soon decided to dive into a nearby Cafe for hot teas and orientation..

Back on the hunt

All evidence suggested that there was a station nearby that would allow us to board a street car to the Bamboo Forest. Once the rain had eased off and the sun had returned, we marched confidently South in the expectation of reaching it.

Unfortunately, as so frequently happens, the direction we were marching in didn't seem to lead anywhere useful. Indeed we found ourselves leaving the main trail and walking through smaller and more residential streets with no indication of where a station might be found. Worse, the rain had returned - we were now fighting with our umbrellas and stomping through puddles with frozen hands and dampened spirits.

Whilst we didn't want our journey to be wasted, there was suddenly a great need to be somewhere warm and dry again. So we gave up and headed back to the bus stop where a crowd was already lined up for the next bus home.

A last minute change

The bus arrived and the queue began to move. At the same time, the sun once again made an appearance. Krista stepped out of the queue and peered at the approaching blue sky. "Should we stay?", she asked. "It's your call," I replied. So we ducked out of the bus shelter and, umbrellas back in their sheaths, resumed our journey Westward.

This time we kept to the main roads, ensuring that the North mountains were always on our right. We walked for quite some time before the grey clouds started to gather - this time we stepped into a convenient convenience store before the rain could start. As we took out our maps again, the shop suddenly became very busy so we browsed for a while and bought drinks.

I used the trusty Kindle to search for a Google Maps route to the nearest station, which was apparently less than 10 minutes' walk away. The rain passed quickly this time but we had somehow gotten slightly disorientated... the mountains weren't really visible now that we were in an urban area surrounded by tall buildings, so we initially overruled Google and walked in the direction that 'felt right'. But we were wrong and had to backtrack in the end.

A delightful surprise

Walking down a small road towards the station, we were impressed with the general character of the street which was low on traffic but full of people. As the road opened into a square we found a huge flea market selling second-hand goods and unusual snack foods. Krista set to work trying out anything that looked tasty while I rifled through some used Kimonos. I found one that I loved and which was actually long enough for my statuesque (in Japan!) physique and folded it into my backpack with a big grin on my face.

Flea Market on a Sunday in front of a temple
We browsed stalls selling Godzilla toys, theatrical masks, knives, silk scarves and all manner of nick-nack, and also found ourselves in the front of yet another temple sporting pink cherry blossoms. Once we'd been halfway round the market, we looked at our watches and realised there was less than one hour remaining before the monkey access would be closed for the day, if indeed it was still open given the sporadic rain. So we agreed not to bother - this market was more than good enough reason to travel to the area and we still had more to see.

Easier on the way back

As the stall holders started to pack their things, we walked on to the main road and straight into a bus stop serving buses back to central Kyoto. We boarded it, pressed ourselves up against strangers for the duration of the hour-long journey, and then walked back to our respective hostels satisfied with our lot.

The monkeys will have to be seen another day.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Life in a Japanese Family

This trip to Japan was really quite unplanned. I always wanted to visit so I perused some plane ticket prices and just sort of went. So a lot of it's been happening on the fly. Hey, sometimes that's the best way!

I didn't want to spend all my time in Tokyo so I stuck a pin in a map and caught the budget bus to Ogaki in the Gifu prefecture, close to Nagoya which is the fourth largest city in Japan.

Thanks to, a friendly young man names Hiroki met me at the station and took me to his family home as a guest. Hiroki himself had experience of studying in the UK so we could communicate easily but he told me that his parents were nervous because they didn't speak English and of course my Japanese is still restricted to "hello", "yes" and "beer please".

Arriving at the House

I arrived and said "good evening" to the parents, who welcomed me in and offered me the guest slippers. The Japanese traditionally never wear shoes in the house - the entrance is recessed with a shoe cupboard to one side, so you can store your shoes and pop on some house slippers. You are expected to wear socks with your slippers and to take them off before walking on any mats in the bedroom. There's also a separate pair of 'bathroom slippers', usually made from a washable vinyl or similar, to change into when you use the toilet.
I was served a cup of tea and a range of snacks and we chatted (via Hiroki!). I was offered a Japanese bath, which is like a one-man hot tub that you take to relax after showering, but I was just happy to wash my hair in the shower and climb into bed. The mother brought me a glass of ice water for the night.

It was a bit weird for me, being treated as a priority and being given such special treatment by people I'd never met before. But I understand that it's all part of Japanese culture - they very rarely entertain at home so it's a great honour to be invited in. Rather than saying "make yourself at home", the hosts rush around doing everything for you so that you can relax. So I tried my best to roll with it and show my gratitude.
I was also introduced to three King Charles spaniels wearing tracksuits:

This one kept staring at me

Day One

We were up and about by 8am and the mother made us breakfast, serving me first. I had rice, tofu, vegetable stew and plain yoghurt, and then Hiroki gave me a lift to Nagoya where he was working that day.
I picked up an all-day sightseeing bus ticket to check out the usual destinations - Nagoya Castle, which dates from 1610 but was almost entirely destroyed in the 2nd world war and then rebuilt as a museum; the science museum, which houses the world's largest planetarium and therefore charges a fortune on the door; and the electricity museum which was free and turned out to be fantastic fun!

Now, Hiroki wasn't going back home that night, so I caught a train to his town and he arranged for his parents to collect me. The mother met me at 10pm, her usual sweet and friendly self, and we tried to make snippets of conversation in the car. When we got in, I headed straight for the shower and bed.

Day Two

I was seriously nervous about socialising with the parents so I laid in until 9am when I started to hear noises in the kitchen. I was served breakfast again - scrambled egg, green beans, side salad, bread and plain yoghurt. I later discovered that this is known as 'a Western style breakfast'.
I packed my things and gave them a small gift, using rehearesed Japanese to try and express my appreciation of their astonishing hospitality, and walked to the bus stop. I'd had an amazing insight into family life and met the most wonderfully generous people... but it was time to regain my independence.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The one gadget every traveller should have

OK, there are a fair few things that are important when you're travelling alone. A map, for example, could be handy... something to cook with... but please bear with me when I tell you that my favourite gadget by far is my Amazon Kindle Keyboard 3G.

It's only once you get out here, away from your home country and into the middle of nowhere, that you realise just how isolated you can be. Mobile telephones are fine for emergencies but you can't afford to pay for phonecalls every day and the data roaming charges are outrageous. No, the phone is confined to incoming calls only - no email, no Facebook, no blogging.

And the laptop is of course fantastic! As long as you have electricity and WiFi. No WiFi hotspot? Then it's just a fancy notepad. No electricity? A mug rest. The same with any LCD screen tablet.

But the Kindle 3G is there, it works and I love it.

Books are obviously a great thing to have - I love to read (in fact I need to be careful not to do too much of it), and it's stating the obvious to say that an eReader is a good way of transporting all the books you'll ever need in one small device. So consider that point made.

It's the 3G, however, that really brings this baby into its own. No contracts, no data roaming charges, no cost whatsoever to access the internet. From anywhere. Anywhere. I picked mine up on a business trip to the US for $89 (that's about £57) and that's all that it has ever cost me. Whether I'm in the UK, Europe or friggin' Japan, I can log onto my Gmail, I can log onto Facebook and I can publish blog posts for the enjoyment of you find people.

Don't get me wrong, it's not easy! It's clunky, slow, cumbersome... the typing can be tricky, the pages unreliable to load and the general browsing experience pretty poor. But it works! When you're all alone with no access to the information highway, it's always there. And having an eInk screen, it lasts too. You can use it constantly for hours on end and of course you'll eventually run the battery down, but it'll last ten times longer than any smart phone or internet tablet. And, unlike the laptop, it'll charge from a 12v socket in no time.

I was chatting to a Japanese guy tdoday. He has THREE mobile phone contracts just to cover all the regions of Japan. And it's hardly due to ignorance either - he's a mobile phone salesman! Of course he told me all this while I sat casually typing into Blogger with no contract at all.

So that's it, posted and done! Whether you're a big book reader or not, get one of these. Charge it once a month, switch the wireless off (to save battery) and keep it in your pocket for emergencies. Whatever other gadgets you have, however sure you are, don't go without this one backup.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Home from Home

I've had the wonderful fortune this weekend (despite a slightly dismal prediction at Asakusa Temple) to meet up with a man called Seigi, a fellow member of and for the last two days my personal tour guide.


First things first, my shelf. This wee wooden shelf is the only space I have for myself and my things, so some organising had to be done. I disovered hooks screwed into the open edge underneath the next shelf up, so I started by hooking a blanket up for privacy. Then I assigned the hooks - the one nearest my head held my handbag and the one nearest my feet was paired with a carrier bag to form a bin. My suitcase was opened and kept upright at the end of the bed, with its inner pockets used to store toiletries. Job done.

It actually turns out that my new cabin is slightly larger than the shelf.above the engine bay of my VW bus. That realisation was rather comforting.

A night on the town

I met Seigi at Shinjuku station, central Tokyo, and barely left! I was amused at first that he couldn't find me, "I'm the only white girl here!" but soon learned that Shinjuku station is roughly the size of Scotland.

We went for a meal of soba noodles at a small restaurant (inside the station) and then browsed a 100yen (basically £1) shop, where I amused myself looking at all the gadgets and foodstuffs that one only ever sees in these types of outlet.

We walked through major roads packed with people and rode escalators up and down but still seemed to be right next to the station.

Finally of course it was time for karaoke! Now, karaoke I'm familiar with. This is the art of getting plastered and rolling into a bar to scream the lyrics of 'Don't Stop Believing' into a microphone, often in groups, while fellow drinkers groan or cheer depending on their own state of inebriation.

Checking in for Karaoke
 Japanese karaoke was not like this. The two of us were invited to occupy a small private booth with seats, a table and a pair of remote controls. We could each take it in turns to search for songs on the remote control while the other made best efforts to perform on their hygenically wrapped microphone.

It was a lot more fun than it sounds! Seigi professed not to know any English language music but he was soon off on Stevie Wonder and Maroon 5. We ordered Asahi beers and Seiji played the waiter at 'Scissors, Paper, Stone' to win a discount on the bill.

Finally our allotted time was spent and it was time to get the train home, something I had finally got the hang of.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Journey to the Orient

I promised to catch you up on Japan so here you are.

The Journey

It began with a short and uneventful Ryanair flight to London, bargain-tastic at £30 all-in. I arrived on time expecting to see my sister in the pickup zone but we had hit a snag. You see, I was at Stansted Airport while she was at Luton.

It turns out that my dear sweet sibling had spent all day preparing for this. She had bought me a favourite box of chocolates (not that any box of chocolates is ever rejected), made up a chauffeur-style sign with my name on it and left over an hour early to ensure a perfect pickup. She just forgot to check where she was to pick me up from. In her own words, what a dick.

So we had a cosy night at her place with good old British fish and chips and drove up to Heathrow the next morning.

On boarding the aircraft, I discovered that for the first time ever I'd been upgraded! I had a large seat with extra legroom, a top notch entertainment system and a menu for complimentary food. Unfortunately though, unlike the seat I'd reserved, it was in the aisle so I was completely unable to get to sleep. I came close once but only by sort of flopping sideways so the cabin crew couldn't get past with their trolleys.

I arrived at Tokyo Narita Airport at 9:30 having been up for 18 hours and having to wait another 4 hours before I could check into the hotel. Three guesses what I did after that.

Taking the Tube

So the next morning I was to venture into Tokyo and find my backpackers' hostel. I had to take three connecting trains and I was terrified.

I started by going to the train station. I stared blankly for ten minutes at a ticket machine that was asking me how much I wanted to pay. This was a new concept to me. How much did I want to pay? I scrutinised my print-out (in Japanese) and realised that each leg of the journey had a price associated with it, so I selected the corresponding amount on the screen and paid for a small cardboard slip.

You'd think that would be the hard part over, right? Hmm.

I looked to my right and saw some machines that people were occasionally passing through using touch technology that I assumed to be similar to Oyster cards. I looked to my left and saw escalators leading down. I analysed the signs for both directions but could find no mention of the train line I wanted or the destination I was heading for.

Eventually I approached a woman in a facemask selling 'commuter tickets'. I showed her my printed itinerary asking "please, where to go?". She responded "here, you are in the right place". Hmm. "Yes, here, but where?". I pointed dramatically to the right: "here?" And then to the left "or here?". She asked if I wanted the airport, I replied "no" and she smiled saying "go to platform 8" with a pointed glance to my right.

So after 20 minutes I'd managed to buy a ticket and find a platform number. What other challenges could there possibly be?

Now, these machines on the right looked similar to the ticket barriers we're so accustomed to in the UK. Except that there was no actual barrier. I was cautious - did this mean you could just walk through? I watched the locals at work. But they all seemed to have these Oyster cards - what did you do with tickets? I was about to take the risk when finally I saw someone insert that tiny cardboard slip into a slot at the front and then retrieve it from the back so I followed suit.

I found Platform 8 and found that it was for trains to the airport. Thankfully, however, now that I was through the barrier I could see more instructive signs and easily found the correct platform. Five minutes later I was seated on a warm and comfortable train (with no phones allowed - this seems to be rather frowned upon on trains).

Eating and Grooming

Once arrived at my destination, having suffered remarkably few panics, I looked for somewhere to stop and have lunch. A place next to the Hostel looked promising - it was called 'Garden' and had the words 'Cafe' and 'Menu' outside, so I ventured in.

The room was small, with three individual tables and no customers. A staff member greeted me at the door questioningly so I said a polite hello and mimed eating. She excused herself for a moment so I looked around and was a little surprised to find this on one of the tables:

I was surprised again when I looked around and saw a window behind which an alsatian was being shaved.
I eventually worked out that I'd walked into a dog grooming salon. But they made me a decent vegetable stir-fry with rice anyway.

Living on a Shelf

Now the hostel may not be to everyone's taste but I think it's genius. It's the cheapest in Tokyo at only £11 a night with free WiFi, and they have achieved this by squeezing beds into inconceivably tiny spaces. There are ten wooden shelves built into my bedroom, each one fitted with a mattress and a backpacker. It's just like being back in the van :-)

The view from my shelf in the dormitory

There is one bath, by appointment only. The universal language here is English and it operates on a trust system so there are no keys or locks, just like-minded people. And of course it's shoes off at the door!
I think I'm going to like it.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Lost in Translation

I'm in Tokyo and it's glorious. I'll tell you all about it when I'm in a better mood.

Unfortunately I've gotten myself all wound up with frustration at this garage in France. The latest news is 'there's a problem with the fuel gauge -they cam disconnect it but it needs replacing. Perhaps I could get a garage in the UK to do something.'

Given that I paid a garage in the UK to do exactly that the day before I left, this is all getting a bit much. So I've written a long email asking for all the information that is clearly failing to make it through the translation from french.


By the way there' no WiFi here at the moment so I've published this free on my Kindle 3G. From Japan. Good, eh?

Monday, March 12, 2012

Corruption and le Cité

Well the weekend was as comfortable and as lovely as promised. The additional family members arrived and we caught up, ate home-made tiramisu and drank the local wine.

Le Cité

On Sunday we took a trip to the Medieval City of Cacassonne to soak up the exuberant sunshine and see some sights.
My Father, Mother, Grandmother and Mikey admiring buildings
There's little to tell - we climbed up some ramparts, took photos and ate baguettes filled with goat's cheese and honey, a combination I heartily recommend.

Camping Car News

Today we said goodbye to my grandmother and her partner as they made their way back home further East and waited in for news from the RAC. I'm afraid the news turned out to be not just frustrating but dull... the mechanics have "found another problem" and have to wait for the electrician to return on Thursday to tell them what it is and, hopefully, fix it.

So I won't be seeing the poor old campervan before I fly to Japan after all... he'll stay in his spot in mid France filled with my socks and T-shirts until some time in April. And I may have to buy some cheap clothes to wear while I'm away, if I am to have any hope of making friends with new people.


Today became moderately more exciting when my laptop was suddenly infested with Ransomware. If you're not familiar with this nasty piece of work, it's a screen that replaces your normal desktop on Windows and declares "You've been caught viewing child pornography! Send us 100 EUROs now!":

We eventually killed it using some free software called Malwarebytes and I've become an ultra computer geek carefully checking my updates and anti-viruses. So that's done.

My next post may well come to you from Tokyo on Thursday. Even though I'm landing on Friday. Time travel, woo-hoo-hoo!

Friday, March 9, 2012

Leaving it to the Last Second

Like all the most entertaining superheros and bomb disposal experts, the Citroen garage in France are running their repairs right to the wire!

Here's the situation:
  • I am currently in Carcassonne, in the South West of France.
  • My campervan is in Limoges, pretty much dead centre of France.
  • On Wednesday, I am catching a flight from Carcassonne to Japan for a month.
The campervan is being repaired and may be ready some time on Monday. If that happens, I need to get a train all the way back up there (roughly 7 hours), collect the bus and drive all the way back down to Carcassonne (roughly 6 hours) before my flight to Japan.

If this timescale fails, we're looking at a month of storage charges at the garage while my poor old bus gathers dust in a corner, and I end up in Japan with only two pairs of socks.

So it's a weekend of relaxing - I'm still staying with my parents and my grandmother and partner are coming to join us, which I'm very much looking forward to. Leave the stress 'til Monday!

See you then...

The Top Five Regrets of the Dying

I'm writing to you from Carcassonne in the South of France, where I've been reunited with my parents and am being thoroughly spoiled. It was a very uneventful journey down here - the trains were comfortable and on time - so I won't bore you with the details of it. I'm still waiting to hear when my campervan will be repaired and how I can choose to get it down here with me.

In the meantime, I recently read this article in the Guardian provided by an Australian nurse who'd worked in palliative care and recorded the final epiphanies of people in their last stages of life. It's an interesting read.

It struck me immediately how strongly these resonate with everything I'm trying to avoid now and, if anything, it makes me wish I'd started this adventure sooner in life. That big old world out there has a habit of suppressing and controlling people - even when they have the political freedom to choose their own lifestyle - by creating a comfortable, reliable and safe routine to follow. We are so civilised and organised in the UK and the Western world that we don't even see the option to break free. How many people have told me "I'm so jealous" when I tell them about this trip? Jealous of what exactly? Making a different choice? Surely if you want to do something like this, you simply set off and do it. The campervan is pretty irrelevant - hitch a ride or sleep on the night bus, or just take a tent and hike your way somewhere. And if you choose not to do that, you're clearly happier at home and have nothing to be jealous of.

Anyway, number 4 in the article stood out a bit. I do have such wonderful friends - they pop up all the time, everywhere I go. And I just hope that they all know, whether I'm in touch or not, that I love and appreciate them. Whether we meet again or not, those special bonds are with us to the end!

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

A Glimpse into the Future

So yesteray I finally made it to Futuroscope, the theme park that promises to dazzle and amaze with its forward-thinking technological showcasing.

As we traverse the roundabout leading up to to the Parc, an overhead banner announces "La Porte du Futur" (the door to the future). And you see its seemingly gravity-defying architecture stalking up from the horizon like something from a Terry Gilliam film. We arrived at the main entrance to find no queues and I was in.

The leaning castle of Oz (actually a KINEMAX cinema)

My introduction to the future began by head-butting a T-Rex.

This was a cinema gone nuts - a silver 9,700 square foot hemispherical dome as the screen and two of the world's most powerful projectors combined with liquid crystal glasses to create a ridiculously immersive 3D experience. In a 'normal' 3D cinema you find yourself looking for the effect, asking yourself  'is this bit 3D? Oh yeah, so it is'. In the dome, the images really do fill every space between the screen and your eyeballs - things don't just pop out of the screen, they're all around you. The film included fantastic recreations of dinosaurs except that these beasts were actually there, in front of you, next to you, attempting to snap at your nose (luckily in this viewing we all escaped with our noses intact). I'm only sad that there's no photograph or image that I could possibly paste here to help demonstrate that sensation.

Moving on... I remembered as a child getting very excited about 'the wedge of cheese with a ball in it' so I dashed straight over there to see what I could see. It was closed. So that's that.

That elusive wedge of cheese

They had 'dynamic' and '4D' cinemas whereby you were strapped into a rollercoaster seat and hurled about in time to the film in front... the closest I've ever felt to being in Red Dwarf's Total Immersion Game. And an Augmented Reality ride allowed you to approach a seeminly empty backdrop, then peer through pair of goggles to see and interact with wild animals.

In another venue there were two full-sized cinema screens, on above the other, with the auditorium built between them. When the film began, the floor beneath your seat became a transparent window. I'm pretty sure the film they were playing hasn't changed in 19 years but it's still fun to feel like you're floating over the sea.

My feet, resting on a window to a second cinema screen
The future is filled with dinosaurs, sea monsters, outer space and films set in the 1930's. Apparently. Or they could just add some cowboys and Indians and rename it 'Cool-Stuff-o-Scope'.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Attendre, Attendre, Attendre

Waiting for the bus

So, having spent so long sheltering at a bus stop in Saint-Savin yesterday, today I marched confidently to one in Poitiers with a fist full of Euro cents ready to catch the Ligne 1 to Futuroscope. I had checked the bus routes carefully, found the appropriate bus stop on Google Streetview and confirmed the exact timetable on the operator's website. To allay any concerns I might have still had, the bus shelter was packed with locals also expectantly waiting for the 9:07.

So by 9:32, we were starting to get a bit tetchy. A breathless woman bustled past spouting some very quick French that prompted my peers to dig out their mobile phones. Some began to slowly drift off, some jumped on the Ligne 2B that came soon after. I decided to sit it out.

A young girl approached the bus stop and sat next to me. We did the only thing you can do in this situation in polite society: avoided all eye contact with one another and stared intently at our phones (even though mine is pretty much defunct outside of WiFi hotspots).

After 10 minutes or so the girl asked me whether I was waiting for the Ligne 1 and I answered that yes I was, and that I had been for over an hour, and that I suspected there was a problem. The girl then got onto the bus operator's website via her smart phone and found some news:

Apparently there had been an 'accident' the night before, which meant all Ligne 1 buses were cancelled for the whole day. I later found out that the 'accident' had been a bus driver's suicide. Which is undoubtedly tragic and deserves some human respect. I'd still like to see anyone cancel an entire bus route in London and get away with it.

Another town, another bus stop

Anyway, since that's the only bus to go to Futuroscope, I was forced to spend another 20 Euros of unplanned budget on a taxi. But I got there in the end and I'll tell you all about it on another post.

Waiting for Repairs

Of course the only reason I'm here in the first place is that my poor old campervan is still sitting in a Citroen garage near Limoges. In yesterday's episode we learned that the garage were ordering a replacement ignition switch.

Well today we learned that by 'ordering' they in fact meant 'requesting from a supplier'. The supplier does not stock VW campervan ignition switches as standard, so after the request is made they have to wait for it to become available. Then, 48 hours after it becomes available, the Citroen mechanics have it in their grubby little paws and may or may not proceed to instal it. I asked whether I could assist in the search for a part, having a good number of contacts in the VW world, but was told that I wouldn't be allowed to supply a part unless Citroen failed. Which seems a bit bonkers to me - what if I actually had the spare part with me, would they still not be allowed to use it?

Anyway, the theme is clear: there's a fair wait yet.

Thankfully, now that we know there's waiting ahead, the RAC have agreed to put me on a train to the South of France so I can at least get there in time to catch my flight back to the UK (and on to Japan). I don't have a lot of 'stuff' with me, having only packed a weekend bag out of the campervan, but that's a problem easily resolved when you're staying with family!

So tonight is all about waiting for tomorrow, then tomorrow will be all about boarding trains and waiting for them to arrive. Good job I've got an iPod... now let's just wait for it to sync...

Monday, March 5, 2012

A Hobo Abroad

The thing about being homeless is no-one wants to talk to you. They stare a bit and they acknowledge you in their facial expressions, but those wrinkled brows are less a sign of concern for your welfare, more of disgust at having a smelly old bag lady in their town.
"Push off, this is my bus stop, I was 'ere first. G'ron."
So this was the day I had to check out of my hotel in Saint-Savin and wait. And wait. And wait.

I had my suitcase full of dirty clothes, my handbag full of receipts and, thankfully, a warm winter coat.

So I started on a stone bench in the car park. Then it got cold so I moved to a wooden bench a little further out where there was more sun. Then it got windy so I did a bit of dancing on the spot and walking round and round my suitcase. Then it rained a bit so I dragged my bags up the hill to the Intermarche. Which was closed but at least had a porch to shelter under.

At 3pm the Intermarche opened so I bought some food and took it back down the hill to the wooden bench. A street cleaner came past. Then it really started raining so I transfered to a bus shelter.

(If you're having fun reading this, just imagine living the thrills!)

Finally the telephone rang and I was told that my campervan needs a new ignition switch. "Well I've known that since Friday", I replied, "aren't we waiting for it to arrive?". No, apparently we were waiting to be 100% sure before making suchg a serious financial investment (a whole 15 Euros, dontcha know), so the garage was ordering it today.

The RAC man then said he was going to book me back into the hotel I'd been hanging around outside of all day. I wasn't keen. So now they've sent me up to a new hotel in Poitiers which has a bed and heating and WiFi and above all close proximity to Futuroscope! Something to do, woohoo!

I will not be a hobo again. Well at least not 'til Wednesday.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

A Free Weekend in Mid France

Well, following on from the campervan's meltdown, I've been staying in a sweet little hotel in the tiny town of Saint-Savin. It was chosen by my insurance company, presumably a decision made by cost, so this weekend has really been about making the most of my time here.

L'Hotel de France

It's lovely but I'm so, so uncomfortable here! I'm the only guest out of 30-odd rooms, since holiday season has not yet begun and there are no special events happening in the area. So it's kind of like having my own private staff without paying them. And that's just embarassing. I have to go down for breakfast at a previously-agreed time, sneak up and down the stairs for fear of bumping into one of them, and hide in my room with the 'do not disturb' sign on my door to keep them from cleaning what is already a perfectly clean room. I'm sitting here now listening to someone clomping up and down stairs with a hoover, my bum cheeks tense with anticipation!

Yes I do realise how bizarre it sounds to feel uncomfortable in the face of luxury, but what can I say? I really am a girl who's happiest in the back of a van. I don't even need a full-sized bed in the back of the van, I'm quite snug curled up on top of the engine bay. I can eat dry biscuits and occasionally cook myself up some noodles and sauce, and I can wash myself with a microfibre flannel in the sink. That's not just 'coping', that's what I want to do!

Ah well, it's not all bad. The shower is stunningly good and I have taken full advantage of the hotel WiFi, reloading the iPod and catching up on my blogs. Perhaps these 'breaks' are necessary.


It's everything you'd expect from a small French town. It has a patisserie, a pharmacy, a restaurant / bar and a post office. It has a train line but no station, and a bus stop which is utilised by three buses a day (except Sundays bien sur). The Intermarche is a 500m walk up the road and then you're into open countryside.

However it does also feature a quite extraordinary Abbaye which I explored:

It's in the process of being restored back to its medeival glory, including huge murals painted al fresco on the walls and ceilings.


I'm only 40-odd miles from Futuroscope, which I visited with my family as a child and of which I have very fond memories. My Grandfather lived in mid France at the time, so my sister and I were taken to this theme park with very little idea of what it was about. In fact we loved it, but my appreciation has grown more and more as I've looked back on those memories with an adult's perspective. We really did experience cinematic technologies that no-one else had access to. So many times in more recent years I've heard in the media of a 'new technology' that I had in fact already seen showcased in Futuroscope, whether it's a particular type of advanced 3D imaging or extra sensory experience (puffs of air and a moving / jolting cinema seat).

So why haven't I gone back this weekend? Well, it may be only 40 miles away but sadly that's about 3 hours in one direction and 15 hours back to the hotel again by public transport. It would be almost as quick on average to walk there. So at least my memories will be preserved and I'll have no illusions shattered. Not to mention a few pennies saved...

Time to go?

Well today I leave the hotel to again visit my campervan in its hospital - fingers crossed the news will be good and I can get back on my merry way. Watch this space!

Starting the Journey, Failing to Start the Engine

Well already this map of where I plan to go is out of date!

I finally left home on Tuesday afternoon, with a very rushed packing up of essentials and a drive down to Bournemouth to briefly meet with my good friends and their new baby. They kindly put me up on their sofa and I traded ten minutes of babysitting for a deliciously hot shower before driving up the M3 into London.

Problems before we've even started

The VW Specialists in Ladbroke Grove took a look at my fuel gauge, which had been acting very oddly. It wasn't broken exactly but it no longer reflected accurately what was in the tank (something I discovered the painful way, by running out of petrol on the M4). It had also started 'dancing' whenever a blinking light such as an indicator was deployed. Anyway, they sent me off for the day while they investigated so I used a Groupon deal to get my hair done for cheap in West London.

Run out of fuel on the M4 one chilly evening (that's my sister under the duvet)

By 5:15pm I still hadn't heard any news so I called the garage. They told me that they'd ordered a replacement sender unit, to which I replied that I didn't think we really had time for that and that I'd rather just live with the problem than be stuck in the UK any longer. I caught the tube, a journey of 20 minutes, and found a different story on arrival: they had already replaced the sender unit at a cost of over £100. I jogged to a cashpoint and paid them, keen to move on.

Barely 10 minutes into central London traffic, a man in a van next to me opened his window and called across "Hey love, your tail light's out!". I sighed and shared, "I'm on my way back from the garage", which caused a few laughs and jibes about the reliability of a poor old campervan.

An unplanned stop

Rather than venture through the Eurotunnel and into a foreign country in the pitch dark with only one tail light, I drove out of London and spent the night in a MacDonald's service stop along the A20.

Next morning, I popped into a local Kwik Fit who confirmed what I suspected, that the bulb was fine. They recommended an auto electrician some 20 minutes away who turned out to be very helpful indeed (he was in fact a former T25 owner with plenty of experience of wiring them up). He changed two bust fuses and gave me a spare set for the future, sending me happily on my way.

So finally, at 15:20 on Wednesday afternoon, I boarded the train at Folkestone and went through the Eurotunnel. My carriage was empty save for one other vehicle containing a couple in the process of emigrating to Spain. I invited them to join me in the back of the camper for a gossip (we had to forgo the tea - there's no gas cooking allowed).

Arriving in a new country

From Calais, France, I drove for five hours to an Aire de Service near Le Mans and pulled out the bed for another sleep. Bright and early I used the Service facilities and got back on the road, heading for my parents' house in the South West.

Aire de Service - a popular place to stop for the night and meet fellow campers
Trundling along on Thursday morning listening to Radio 4 podcasts, I again became concerned about the fuel gauge. It was difficult to be sure of its accuracy but I was aware of it behaving like a financial investment, i.e. moving unpredictably down as well as up, and of it'dancing' more vigorously than ever when I indicated to overtake lorries. I made a note to have strong words with the London garage once I reached my destination.

Another unplanned stop

Between Poitiers and Limoges is the N147, a major single carriage road with roundabouts every 5 miles or so and changes of speed limit as it passes through towns. It was whilst climbing a hill on this road that things started to go quite seriously wrong. I was strolling along doing about 40mph in 4th gear when the engine began to splutter. I assumed the hill was too much for it and dropped down to 3rd gear but the struggle worsened - the camper was coughing and losing momentum so I popped the hazards on and pulled off the road onto a gravelly verge along the right hand side.

The engine had of course stalled so I applied the handbrake, switched everything off and then tried the ignition. Nothing. Not a sound, not a hiccup, not even a dash light. Uh-oh.

I called the RAC, donned my high-viz jacket, set out my warning triangle and put my feet up in the back of the bus with a good book. The recovery chap arrived an hour later and chose to communicate solely through facial expressions and hand gestures. I don't think he was actually mute but perhaps just a bit shy. He loaded the 'camping car' onto his truck and commuted us both to his garage in the next town.

After unloading, the chap had another go at the ignition. This time it started! I was flummoxed. Could there be nothing wrong after all? How terribly embarassing. Aah, until he took the key back out of the ignition and the horn went off "PAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARP!". He silenced it by replacing the key in the ignition and then tried again with the same result. This is not, we agreed through further exchange of facial expressions, a standard feature of the VW Camping Car.

We filled out some paperwork and I stood in reception (there were no chairs) for a little over an hour, half listening to the garage workers doing impressions of my camper's horn to each other, before wandering down the road to a hypermarche for coffee. On returning I learned that my ignition switch was faulty and that a number of wires had melted behind the dashboard. Could it be that is was the real cause of the fuel gauge's eccentricites?

Hmm. More notes for even stronger words.

Anyway the upshot is that they can't fix it right away - they needed to order a replacement ignition switch (15 Euros) and bring in a specialist to repair the wiring. So the RAC have sent me to a hotel back near Poitiers for the weekend. We'll try again Monday...

Where I've travelled to so far - click for details and updates

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Saying Goodbye

I had such a romantic notion of the 'farewell tour' before actually leaving this country. In my head it would be as perfect as waving a silk handkerchief through the open window of a steam train, or from the top deck of a great cruise liner.

My plan was to host three parties, one in each location where I have a high density of friends, so that I would have a final chance to drink with everyone I know and love. Being rather keen on events planning, these would of course be immaculately organised and perfectly run.


1. London

Well this was always going to be difficult. I wanted to have a party to include my beloved colleagues at One to One and also my fantastic housemates at the Old College in Paddington. But of course with so many of my colleagues going through redundancy, and with all my housemates going through eviction, there was little appetite for celebration.

My colleagues did organise a joint leaving party for us all but I'm sorry to say I was so exhausted with packing, moving and planning that I barely stayed for two drinks. I instead went into the office on my last day, the 9th February, to say goodbye to everyone in person. Ben made the most beautiful carrot cake I've ever tasted in my life and Winston broke into the wine cupboard, and I choked back the tears as I realised that this would likely be my last time ever sitting in that office and talking to the fantastic array of people there.

And I made them pose for this photograph:

L-R Andrew, Carmen, Mimi, Paul, Erdeniz, Sagi, Gurvinder, Winston, Zahra, Angustias, Ben, Aleksandra and Bernadett
  2. Cardiff

I telephoned the caterers in a panic with just 10 days' notice, only to learn that I'd already booked them and forgotten. I also ordered 80 designed invitations from Vistaprint and left 75 of them in my handbag. There was not one part of this event that I had properly organised.

Luckily there was still a great turnout - the amazing friends I've made at Telstars Theatre Group, some of the best rebels from my old office at and of course my lovely neighbour James. We had a chilly outdoor marquee at the Gwdihw, with hot Indian food provided by the Vegetarian Food Studio in Grangetown. As the party was winding down, I borrowed a plastic recycling sack from the bar staff and poured all the left over bajis, samosas and atom bombs into it. We went on to a bar on Womamby Street where dancing, drinking and offering strangers Indian food from a bin bag took place. 

Some sober and stable friends, photographed by a sober and stable Emily

Finally, James and I took a taxi back to my house where one of my lodgers was still up and about, as well as Tufter the cat, so the three of us carried on the party until such time as all naughty children should be in bed. The bin bag of Indian food went in the freezer.

3. Salisbury

A week later we ploughed into The Pheasant, a pub that I called home for several years in my youth (literally - I lived with the bar manager in the adjoining cottage). This was in many ways the easiest to organise - I had still failed to send all my beautifully printed invitations, but I had managed to get food orders for everyone.

We had a three-course meal for 16 people in our own private room, with flowing wine and conversation and a heartfelt poem written and performed by my sister. The pub's boiler was condemned during our visit, so we were again condemned to be chilly, but another glass of wine can always solve that problem. Some friends had to leave early to big hugs and kisses, but most of us went on to a number of pubs in the area. Apparently. It was a night full of nostalgia all the way back to my school days, but sadly not a night I can remember.

4. The Cat

Four days after the Salisbury party, Tufter disappeared. He followed one of my housemates down the road in the morning and then never came home for breakfast. I spent the week that followed searching for him day and night, posting leaflets through neighbours' doors, publishing his photograph on 'lost cat' websites and talking to local vets and council departments. He has been spotted since the disappearance, locally too, but hasn't been hanging around his usual haunts and certainly hasn't popped back through his cat flap. I hoped with all my heart that I would find out what happened to him before I left, just to be sure that he'd be okay, but sadly there's no news to this day.

Now I just imagine and hope that an old lady has taken him in, and that she'll feed him roast beef and salmon trimmings and that he'll spend his last years purring in front of the fire somewhere comfortable. It's all I could ever ask for him. So, in memory of our long happy years together, here's a picture taken just a week before he went on travels of his own:

Tufter, age 16: he beat me to it