Thursday, April 26, 2012


By now I should be writing to you from Eastern France. But I'm not. Here's why:

Waiting for a delivery

As mentioned in my last post, the fuel gauge I'd been chasing for 5 weeks was finally due to arrive yesterday. We had agreed by telephone to pay the cost of an 'Express' courier service that would guarantee its arrival before midday, therefore delaying my departure by no more than a few hours.

However by 1pm there was still no sign of it so I logged on to view the tracking information and see what was going on. Well, everything there looked normal except that it was apparently sent by 'Express Saver' which was only guaranteed to arrive by the end of the day.

I marvelled somewhat at the journey this thing had been taking to get here. Originally sourced in Germany, it had been obtained by a France-based company called VW Heritage who had sent it to their French-speaking agent in the UK office because it was for a 'UK customer' in France. She had then given it to a courier who had flown it from London Stansted Airport to a sorting office back in Germany, in fact very close to the Belgian border where I will be staying this weekend. From there it had, overnight, flown to Montpellier in the South of France and loaded onto a van for delivery. (I would be passing through Montpellier on my journey to Belgium.) So none of this tracking information made me any happier about the delay we were experiencing.

The spare part had done more miles than the campervan
Finally at 2pm I gave up... I had about 8 hours of driving ahead of me and couldn't wait any longer. So, after agreeing with the supplier that they would refund my postage costs, I packed up the van, filled the petrol tank and said a tearful goodbye to my parents and friends.

I knew the bus was low on oil so I stopped at the first big garage shop on my route, about 25 minutes away from the departure point. Unfortunately the shop only stocked one grade of oil which wasn't right for me so I sloped back to the campervan to find my phone ringing. "It's me", said my Mum, "your package has just arrived". Dad kindly offered to drive out and meet me with it, since his car is much faster and it would help to reduce the extension of my journey.

Noticing a problem

As Dad got out of the car, he pointed at the back of my bus and asked, "Did you spill that when you were filling it up?". I followed his finger, confused, and realised there was a fresh pool of oil under my engine bay. Since I hadn't yet bought any oil, this was certainly not down to any spillages. In fact on looking further back there was a clear drip, drip, drip every yard tracing my route into the carpark. Oh.

There were no two ways about it - I could not drive to Belgium like this.

We bought a can of oil (any grade will do at this point) and sloshed it in, forming a convoy back home. My Dad called a bilingual friend of his who happens to be rather an expert in VW mechanics and the friend suggested that the oil seals could be leaking as a result of my engine performing at a higher pressure than it would have done when they had been fitted. He recommended a mechanic nearby and offered to come with us the next day to help explain everything in French.

Noticing another problem

Dad had given me the package that had delayed me so long so I started opening it, saying "let's just check this is actually a fuel gauge", to which we both chuckled. I opened the box, the paper filling, the inner box and the bag... and found this:

Not a fuel gauge
This is a rear suspension brush. It's for my campervan, I'll grant you that, but it's certainly not a fuel gauge.

I actually roared with laughter and tried to call my agent at VW Heritage, eager to share this news and feed on her resultant dismay, but was told that she was on her way to France. Perhaps by a similar 'Express Saver' service..? So now I wait to hear back from her colleague.

Plan B

In the meantime, I still have a festival to attend and friends to meet - nothing will keep me from that. Rather than driving, I will be flying Ryanair to Belgium on Friday for some traditional tent-in-mud camping, then making my way to Amsterdam with hiking boots and rucksack. The campsite I had booked there also has cabins - they're slightly more expensive but, since I've prepaid and can't get a full refund at this late date, I may as well enjoy the luxury.

On returning to the South, my repaired bus and I can go wherever we like. We can drive South into Spain, East into Provence and Italy, or across into Switzerland and Austria. Europe will be ours. (In a fun, light-hearted, touristy way. Not in a Hitler way.)

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Will they arrive in time?

Today I leave the South of France to start my journey North.

In the last couple of weeks since getting here I have been on eBay and other websites ordering last-minute essentials, taking advantage of the fact that I had a fixed address to have them delivered to. These were namely:

- The new fuel gauge (of course)
- Second-hand hiking boots
- Foldable wellington boots
- Haynes manual for the campervan
- Travel SIM card
- Basic mobile phone to put the SIM card in

I did well at finding good prices and using gift vouchers to pay for the above - the only question was, would it all arrive in time for my departure?

Boots for £8.07 from eBay Germany
Well, as it happens, as of yesterday afternoon almost everything was here. We had four different couriers knocking at the window to give us parcels and packages... the only thing we still desperately needed was the bloomin' fuel gauge, now 5 weeks after ordering it from an agent.

The agent called. She told me that she now had the part in her hand. I asked where she was: "the UK" she replied. It seems that I had contacted a French company who had deferred me to their UK office, simply because that's where my bank account is registered... they had then proceeded to obtain the part from Germany and have it shipped at a snail's pace to England so that they could charge me a fortune in postage fees to get it back to France. And we were almost out of time.

It was supposed to take "11 days" to order online
However, she said that she had an express overnight service available. For an extra £7 on top of the already extortionate postal charge, I could have it delivered this morning guaranteed before midday. I agreed. And now we wait. There will be no opportunity to fit it, of course, but at least I can take it with me and perhaps meet a knowledgeable person who can help me wire it in.

Friends on a journey of their own

Back in London, when I was squatting in an old college there, I met two beautiful people who were staying in another room on my floor. Jenny was working in an office but was full of tales about travelling the world and working as crew on tall ships. Indeed I would count her as great inspiration for my own journey - she's such a lively and enthusiastic character that no-one could fail to be attracted to her description of the backpacker lifestyle. And Gauthier was working as a postman after his dream position in Ireland had collapsed. You see, he wanted to be a violin maker. He had travelled to Ireland to meet a man and become his apprentice but the man had sadly died before the training could begin.

Well, my parents came for a visit last Autumn and met these guys whilst cooking in the shared kitchen. My parents told them about an old violin maker who lives just down the road in their French village. Gauthier's eyes lit up on hearing this and soon it was arranged: he and Jenny would come to the South of France.

Unusually for an emigration, these two crazed adventurers decided to come by bicycle from London Luton, through Portsmouth and down the entire French countryside to the Mediterranean. They were very much out of contact during this time but we would occasionally hear a quick update online about how far they had travelled and what they had seen. And what a way to see things!

On Sunday we saw an update that they were in Toulouse, a city some 150 km from here. I sent a quick message to say 'hello' and to tell them I'd be leaving on Wednesday. I was thoroughly convinced that they would arrive after I left. But yesterday evening at about 8pm, just before the last of the sunlight could dip behind the mountains, two smiling faces appeared at the front window. They were here! We drank wine and ate pasta and shared stories all night long.
I really think that my adventure pales in comparison to theirs. They have already achieved so much! With their bicycles piled high and their spirits even higher, they look forward to starting a brand new lifestyle.

Off I go

As soon as the fuel gauge arrives, I'm off. I'll travel East and then North today and settle in a free service station for the night, then make the long push to Belgium tomorrow where I'll be meeting a Welsh friend who's flying in for the weekend. I have a new audio book to listen to and the campervan is tidied and (almost) packed.

I'm excited to be back on the road, of course, but I'll be sad to leave the home comforts my parents have provided. Is there anything more refreshing than staying with family? Where you know exactly how things are done and how to communicate, where you're 'at home' but with none of the responsibilities.

I do have a little something to take with me... I bought a small set of glass paints from a local craft shop:

Yoghurt pots with a little extra detail

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Reunited at last

On Monday I emailed my contact to find out where my new fuel gauge has gotten to and she promptly replied that "it is still with the main supplier and we're hoping for delivery next week". Given that I'd been waiting three weeks already, I wasn't keen to sit back and see how much longer my journey would be delayed.

So I made a quick call to the RAC and asked to collect my campervan as it was. They agreed and put me on a train the very next day.

I arrived at the garage and reluctantly handed over a hard-earned £800 in exchange for the keys. I was promised that the bus was now in full working order besides the fuel gauge so drove it away. Their declaration appeared to be honest, although I couldn't help but get grumpy over the little details that hadn't been attended to - it was dirty, there were wires hanging out of the bottom of the dashboard and the stereo trim had been separated from the stereo and left in the footwell. I tried to set this grumpiness aside as I settled in for the night in a free camping spot by a river in a small village off the A20.

On Wednesday I resumed my journey, filling up the petrol regularly of course, and made my way back down South. The Sat Nav was in a sightseeing mood so we tore up and down narrow mountain roads with hairpin bends, even reaching enough altitude to see snow, before arriving back at base in Herault.

This gives me only a few more days to indulge in luxury before we're off again...

Where next?

Well next weekend I have tickets to a rock festival in Belgium and the weekend after that I'm due to meet my old colleagues and friends from London in Amsterdam. Updates to follow!

Monday, April 16, 2012

Doing Practical Things

I've been nagged for not writing a while! Apologies. To bring you up to date: I returned back to my home in Wales from Japan, spent 4 days tidying and organising and digging out important paperwork and then attended my friends' wedding before flying back to the South of France. I'm now back down here with my parents waiting for the final OK on the campervan.

Anyway, here's something I've been thinking about over the last couple of weeks...

My job was rubbish

This was a suspicion that has now been confirmed. Oh, don't get me wrong - I had fantastic colleagues, comfortable working conditions and fair pay. No complaints there. But what was I actually doing? Finding ways to make money advising other people on how to make more money. I travelled to locations around the world (seeing nothing more than airports and offices), talked a lot and wrote reports. And then the clients paid me. But what does that really mean in real life? A carpenter can turn trees into usable objects, potentially lasting hundreds of years. A farmer can use land and seed to provide food for himself and others. A midwife can ensure new generations of humanity. What was the point of me?

After the apocalypse...

I find this pops into my head quite often... if a virus wiped out 99% of the population and we were among the survivors, how would we live? Back to basics, having to sustain ourselves rather than relying on modern infrastructures, building new and smaller communities, how would we manage? You could no longer buy cleaning materials, spend your nights on the XBox or even switch a light on when it gets dark. Would we know what to do?

Inspirational TV show from the 1970s
OK, so this is a very hypothetical situation and not one I'm expecting to confront in my lifetime, but it does help to instill some of these principles. And it encourages me at least to try and be more practical and less wasteful.

Things I've been doing

This last week in the South of France has been rather helpful in learning to become productive.

1. Planting fruit trees. On my first day here, my mother took me down to her allotment and we planted a pear tree and an apple tree, with the hope that they would bear fruit next year if not this. A couple of days later we found a peach stone that had started to grow roots and planted that too. Fingers crossed they all settle into their new homes.

2. Fixing my laptop. Before I went to Japan, my cheap Dell Inspiron (originally £225 but now two years old) developed a fatal fault - the power connector had snapped off. A repair would have cost around £150 plus postage there and back, most likely totalling more than the cost of a brand new one. It was therefore destined for the bin. But if it was going in the bin anyway, was there any risk in attempting the fix ourselves?

My father did the appropriate investigations and found a detailed YouTube instruction video explaining how to take the laptop apart and locate the broken part. He also found a new replacement part on eBay for £25 inc postage and ordered it. We laid out heavy wooden board in the kitchen and got to work with a set of precision screwdrivers...

The halfway stage
We put all the parts back together, surprised to find none left over, turned the final screw and then plugged it into the mains. With baited breath we depressed the power button and waited... a light! There was a light! A big white 'on' light! And then the screen burst into life. Not only was the laptop repaired, it was running more smoothly than it ever had, thanks to some tightening up of certain cable ribbons deep inside. I look forward to using it for many more years to come.

3. Fixing my trousers. These have caused me rather a lot of embarrassment lately... they're a pair of combat trousers that I bought from an army surplus shop some ten years ago. They've proved themselves almost ideal for hiking, camping, working... but the fly has never been quite right.

In Japan I noticed that the zip seemed to be constantly falling down of its own accord, which led to dilemmas when out and about: does one walk brazenly past a group of people in the hope that they won't notice, or does one quickly turn and pull it up, correcting the issue but also immediately drawing attention to it?

This problem suddenly became much, much worse when the fly button also popped off. Luckily this was in my hostel so I picked up a sewing kit and stitched it back on. The next day was when I hired a bicycle and set off into the countryside the button snapped off completely. This left me wheeling my way down a country road past a coachload of schoolchildren with my trousers wide open. Nice.

My temporary fix
So yesterday my mother helped me to find a solution. She dug out an old pair of my father's combat trousers that had completely worn through and instructed me to strip them for parts. I unpicked the zip, cut off the button and we transferred both to my combats, restoring them to perfect usable condition. And we're still not throwing Dad's old trousers away - Mum is confident that she'll find a use for the torn old fabric, whether it's for patchworking or even just as rags.

I could continue the list but it would start to get boring. There will be many among you saying "so what?" because you have these practices integrated into your lives already. There will also be some astounded that we would consider them worthwhile doing. One thing is certain - this is a lifestyle accessible only to those with free time. Working 50 hours a week, commuting 200 miles, flying to the US every month -these things are not conducive to any kind of efficient or self-sustaining routine. But once you have the time there can be nothing more satisfying than breathing life back into old things and turning worthless articles into valuable ones. I look forward to doing a lot more of it.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Tokyo Encapsulated

There's one facility unique to Japan that I've wanted to experience ever since seeing a television news item as a teenager: Capsule Hotels.

The capsule hotel concept was created as a solution for businessmen who were working late in the office or, ahem, 'working late' in the city bars, and had missed their last train home. The theory was that they could check in to a facility whereby they had a safe and warm place to sleep, the ability to clean their clothes and wash themselves, and could head back out to work bright-eyed and bushy-tailed the next morning.

As a result, many are only available to men. I had to go out of my way to find one with a women's floor in Asakusa.

My Experience

This was a lesson in efficiency. Rather than the small, separate bathrooms provided in a conventional hotel, one female bathroom on the 4th floor (accessed by a door code) housed 8 showering stations and one huge hot bath, all available for use as late as 3am. Nudity was compulsary in the bath, as is standard in Japanese 'onsen'.

My sleeping capsule was on the 6th floor and was one of many along the bottom row - I lost count of just how many were in this 'room' but mine was number 32. There were short wall ladders to enable customers to reach the higher row.

Each of the hatches is another sleeping capsule

On opening the hatch, I found that my capsule was roughly the length and width of a standard single bed, with enough height to sit up headache-free. Neatly piled at one end were two towels, a dressing gown, a pillow and a thin duvet. A bed roll was already laid out for sleeping on. There was also a small coin-operated TV, an electric socket and a narrow locker for which I wore a key on my wrist (there is no lock on the capsule's hatch).

My private space
Outside in the corridor were coin-operated laundry machines and vending machines for drinks/snacks and toiletries. Even the rooms themselves were paid for my vending machine - press 'male' or 'female', pay the ¥2,200 (about £19) and receive a ticket for checking in.

There were no windows visible from any part of the hotel that I visited. Despite rows of vents on the walls, the sleeping area was painfully hot so I spent much of the night kicking off the covers and rolling around looking for a non-existant cool spot.

So really there was nothing lacking except soul. It's roughly the same price as a youth hostel but with none of the opportunities for meeting people or making yourself at home. In short, use these as they were intended: as an emergency place to sleep.

Locked Up

This was the night that three Welsh sorts and a Japanese guy voluntarily committed themselves to a small, dark cell beneath the streets of Shibuya, central Tokyo.

As we approached the entrance to this bar/restaurant, we found ourselves confronted with a downward staircase and a 'Warning' sign in Japanese. We passed skeletons, rattling bins of toxic waste and a rather unhappy man in an electric chair.

Ten minutes later, deafened by screams and blinded by strobe lighting, we pushed through a black curtain to find a kinky maitre d' wielding handcuffs. She asked which of us had been naughtiest and we made no hesitation in volunteering Richard, who was then chained up and led to a stone cell with barred windows and a cage door. We followed and the door was shut behind us.

In our cell were floor cushions, a low table and a service bell. I ordered a beaker with a syringe of blood, Rich ordered an experiment in dry ice with severed fingers, Yuta had the skull with fried egg eyes and bacon tongue and we shared a rack of variously coloured test tubes whilst taking in the ambient lighting and death metal soundtrack.

Suddenly that ambient lighting was gone. There was a loud crashing sound and a siren, and then we were subjected to UV and strobe lights while maniacal laughter filled the air accompanied by top volume music... characters in costumes and masks began to roam the hallways and attempted to break into our cell.

Well, frankly what more could you ask for? The food was cheap, the drinks expensive (and it was compulsary to order at least one per person). Some alcohol would have been nice (careful tasting of the various test tubes and blood syringes could only confirm the presence of sugar and water - we couldn't be sure that any fermentation of these ingredients had taken place). Rather than order more, we finished up and left. Which was surprisingly easy to do.