Another year of travel highs and lows has gone by, so it’s time for a review of poppy-filled, sports-dominated, battle-scarred 2014. The stories below stood out for me as the most realistic insights into much-discussed destinations and travel habits.
Trouble in Paradise
Thailand suffered from the effects of harsh military rule and the aftershock of a tragic double murder, claiming the lives of two British holidaymakers. The country’s Tourism Authority is now trying to put a positive spin on martial law, claiming it offers greater safety for visitors, but the increased presence of the police and the army isn’t appealing to everyone. During the darkest times for Thailand, Russian tourists helped to boost the economy, but the falling value of the rouble has seen fewer Russian arrivals. Fortunately, high-spending Chinese visitors have helped Thailand get back on its feet again. This is all the more important as it’s now been 10 years since the devastating Boxing Day tsunami claimed 8,000 lives and affected 12,000 homes.
There are many conventional ways to spend a Sunday afternoon, but staring at a naked man with a group of strangers beside you probably isn’t one of them. Neither is it very conventional to then sit and discuss with said strangers the eight critical moments in your life when you really became aware of your body, but that happened too. Don’t worry, I haven’t joined a cult – I was one of the participants at Philip Cowell’s workshop on life writing (with the addition of a nude model), held as part of the Southbank Centre’s Festival of Love.
There’s something about watching photogenic fashion tribes that conjures up a David Attenborough or Bruce Parry voice-over inside my head. Something that says I’m in the presence of a species fundamentally different to my own, no matter how much I might want to understand them or imitate them. Ultimately there’s a little bit of fear in not knowing what their next move might be, or whether they’re about to bare their claws. Welcome to London Fashion Week, where the beautiful and the strange gather.
There are some travel experiences just begging to be dropped into conversation, like the times when you bump into famous people staying on your remote island (oh wait, that’s never happened, except on an episode of Poirot). Or how about the times when you get into hilarious situations involving animals on safari? (That has yet to happen to Poirot, correct me if I’m wrong, and it hasn’t happened to me either). Ok, so my anecdote isn’t going to cover any of those topics, but it’s hopefully good enough for someone to buy me a drink down the pub.
After my recent look at the centenary of WWI, I felt the need to carry on the theme when I found out about a statue in London that I’d walked past hundreds of times recently without ever realising its true significance. The monument to British nurse Edith Cavell has stood opposite the National Portrait Gallery for years (it’s right outside Pret, to be precise, in St. Martin’s Place) since 1920, but I’d honestly never noticed it before.
Yet my mum came back from a London adventure the other week, having seen a remembrance ceremony taking place on the anniversary of Cavell’s death, and she got me thinking. Were both a bit embarrassed to admit that we’d never even realised this statue existed, let alone stopped to look at who was being commemorated, in all the times we’d hurried past to get to the NPG, Leicester Square or Trafalgar Square. How had we managed to walk by time and time again?
Funnily enough, I arrived at the College of Psychic Studies, on the first day of the Open House London initiative (a.k.a. legitimate house and public building snooping), through a set of unforeseen circumstances. Well, unforeseen to the staff at Open House London, who failed to anticipate the crowds of 18,000 people wanting to roam the gutteral insides of Battersea Power Station before it’s refurbished. Not like that would be a big deal to the general public or require any kind of sensible ticketing system whatsoever… anyway, I digress in my bitterness.
For the morbidly curious (that’d be me), the words ‘death’ and ‘tour’ in the same sentence are like music to the ears; throw in the word ‘debauchery’ and I’m easy like Sunday morning. So, when the kind people at Insider London offered me the chance to experience one of their quirky tours, this option immediately jumped out from the list.
As it happened, I couldn’t have made a better choice, because Death and Debauchery is the ultimate experience for anyone with an anatomical fixation, an interest in social history or a desire to know about the grimier side of life in one of the world’s most famous cities.
The other night I fulfilled one of my long-term travel goals: to take a Ripper tour around Whitechapel and see where the shocking murders of 1888 took place. I’m not a fan of horror in the entertaining sense (stick me in front of a slasher film and I will develop psychosomatic symptoms of distress within a few minutes), but the case of Jack the Ripper is terrifyingly real and gives an insight into the harshness of East End London life.
Maybe it’s because he was never caught, and because there are so many theories surrounding his true identity, I’m left with plenty to mull over, and a tour seemed like the ideal opportunity to match the history with the streets themselves.
I was introduced to this quirky cafe by my cousin, who lives in Dalston and has a sixth sense for undiscovered gems when it comes to culture and eating out (she also introduced me to an amazing Turkish food chain called Tas, with baklava to die for). We headed over to the brilliantly-named Tina, We Salute You, for a seriously good coffee and some breakfast, and weren’t disappointed.
Even if the menu wasn’t worth talking about, you can hardly miss the unusual decor – I’ve never seen so many noses in my life, let alone mounted on a wall – as the cafe hosts art exhibitions which change every eight weeks. This means you never know what you’re going to find on the walls, which makes a change from the enforced kookiness of the artwork in Starbucks or Costa.