Sunday, 4 September 2011

Day 1: Off And Away

It's over. A quick look out of my window tells me - the summer's over. Time to travel.

It has been a lovely summer, if not exactly in terms of weather then at least in terms of enjoyment. After having left work at the start of June, it was the first opportunity for me in years to plan ahead, and to catch up with various friends scattered around the country that I hadn't seen in ages. Friendships are like washing machines, and need to be given a decent spin every now and again otherwise they fall into disrepair and your clothes start to smell. An empty washing machine sits in silence, but a working washing machine rocks the entire kitchen, And so just as I would put washing powder into the hatch of the machine, likewise I have put beers and wine down the throats of my friends. Terrible analogy, isn't it?

Although there has been a social core to the summer, there has been a little bit of planning for the travels too. Travelling should of course allow itself to be overwhelmed by spontaneity, but the nature of my Wonder-hunting requires some preparation. That has been what the last few years have been about - reading and research on each chosen location, and this summer has consolidated the Asian section, so that I know where exactly each place is and, in some of the more obscure cases, how to get there. Visa requirements for countries have been checked, guidebooks have been um... illegally downloaded en masse (I'm really, really sorry Lonely Planet), and essential travel items purchased (torch, compass, travel towel, and concealable handgun).

A couple of flights have been booked in advance. The first is the main one, a one-way ticket to Sydney, and then a couple of weeks later a flight to Singapore follows. In order to experience a candidate Wonder in its functioning glory, I've bought tickets for a piano recital in the Sydney Opera House, and likewise a night in Singapore's Marina Bay Sands hotel has also been booked. As happy chance would have it, our timing of Singapore coincides with its Grand Prix, the circuit's only night-time one, and so tickets have been booked for that as well. I intend to wear overalls and a big race helmet, so should be able to wander about the pits at my leisure.

Various arrangements have been made with various friends to meet up with them during the travels. The first of that is Sydney, where I will be greeted by Handsome Matt, and will also get to meet his girlfriend and their brand new baby. Generously, they have allowed me to stay in their spare room, although I now suspect this may be a ploy to get me to babysit while they go down the beach for a barbie and a few tinnies. That's fine, I'll just do what I usually do with newborn babies when they cry, and put it in the cupboard. Matt moves to Melbourne midway through my visit, and so we're to do a Sydney to Melbourne roadtrip.

India should also be fun. My girlfriend intends to join me in Delhi, and presuming she isn't immediately incapacitated with some kind of brutal stomach fever, we intend to move onto Agra and the Taj Mahal, before then going to Goa, where she has a friend who is getting married. A little further south, in Kerala, three of my ex-colleagues live, as well as a friend from Aberdeen. A motley crew of folk have claimed they will join us in Kerala too, which if to transpire might not entirely good for my health, not to mention the health of Kerala itself.

The possibility is there for seeing friends in Thailand, the Philippines and China, but South Korea will be the next big social gathering, as Burness and I have a handful of friends there, plus I still have Korean friends from when I lived there years ago.

And just so not to feel left out, a one-week tour in North Korea has now been formally booked, where I will be joining in with Kim Jong-Il for his 70th birthday celebrations.

That's all planned, but really most of what's ahead isn't, and neither could it or should it be. Sure, I'm going to see a bunch of big buildings, drink some cheap beer, and argue about some taxi fares, but the joy will be in the unexpected, and in the sense of freedom of waking up in the morning and not knowing what town or city I'm going to end up in. And I suppose what I should say now is that, in the end, that's what it's really about. It's not about the monuments, these large man-made structures that impress with their ambition, but that ultimately are just piles of brick or steel, just over-sized things. No, it's actually about the meeting of real people, experiencing snapshots of different lives and culture, and about the sense that we live in a huge and varied world and that it is an immense privilege to have the opportunity to explore it and learn about it. But you know what? For me it really is about seeing the big buildings. Screw the people, the alternative lives, the fascinating culture differences and the open-eyed wonder at being allowed to roam free in our lush world, I just want to see some really massive buildings.

So, for now, goodbye Scotland. I'm now on a train to London, and then follows a somewhat long flight to Sydney, with a brief stop in Singapore. It begins.

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