I’ve just been into the West End of London, to various shops. Travelled by bus, masked of course, unlike many.
I’ve still not been back on the Tube since about January 2020, though I have been on short train journeys a couple of times.
Just checking in with the outside world.
I’m pleased to have finished the first book of the year — and the first of my Christmas books — already. It’s a book about travel, and the human body, and some people and things that happen to them. Is it a novel? It consists of a series of short sections, and a few longer ones. I can’t really call them chapters: some are no more than a paragraph, even a sentence. It does have characters, though: notably the narrator, who is the voice of most of the shorter sections. She appears to be someone who spends most of her life travelling around the world without necessarily any destination or purpose in mind.
That doesn’t make it sound as compelling as it is. There are connections between at least some of the stories, which make me think there must be more connections that I missed. A lot of it regards the preservation of dead bodies, from early embalming techniques to the “Body Worlds” plastination of Gunther von Hagens.
In the end it doesn’t quite form a unified whole, so in that sense I’m not sure we can really call it a novel. But it’s strangely compelling, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
We’re not long back from a family holiday to Chile. I plan to write several posts about it. I’m going to take a thematic approach, rather than a purely chronological or location-based one. Though some will be that kind, too. There will be pictures, but not so much in this post, as it’s about planes, airports, etc.
First, then, the whole business of travelling to another continent, and to the southern hemisphere of our amazing planet.
We flew on Latin American Airlines, or LATAM. They were pretty good. I have no complaints. Maybe not as good as British Airways to New York a few years ago, but certainly much better than the budget airlines. The only thing was that we couldn’t get a direct flight. There just don’t seem to be any to Santiago. Though a taxi driver told us towards the end of our stay that BA have one direct flight a week. If so, then either we didn’t find it, it was on an inconvenient day, or it was really expensive. Or any combination of those.
So we had a multipart flight out: first to São Paulo, then on to Santiago via Rosario. That was just a stop at another airport, without leaving the plane. Though some confusion in the booking system meant that we had different seats for the second part. We were not alone: it was all a bit chaotic, as new people boarded and wanted to sit in already-occupied seats, as people who were staying on didn’t realise they had to move. Still, it got sorted out.
Also I didn’t realise till later that Rosario is actually in Argentina. It doesn’t count as visiting a country if you stay airside, but still, interesting to have touched down in two more countries than we planned to.
Above all, it’s a long journey. Around 6000 miles, and about 22 hours, if memory serves.
We didn’t suffer too much from jet lag going out. Except… almost every day for the entire three weeks I woke up around 4 in the morning. Usually got back to sleep OK. Our clock-time confusion was confounded after about a week when the clocks in Chile went forward by an hour. It’s the tail end of winter there, so it’s the start of summer time. But it’s earlier than when clocks in Europe change, relatively. Also it was only Chile: in Bolivia and Brazil the time was unchanged.
Taxis Home and Abroad
While I’m on travel I’ll just touch on taxis. Chilean taxi drivers, in common with those all over Europe, get out of their car and help you load your bags into the boot. This happens everywhere; except Britain. Or at least, except London. When we were getting a cab when we were coming home I was struck by the fact that all these people were struggling into the stupidly-designed-for-luggage black cabs with no help from the driver.
And then I was ashamed when it was our turn, and the driver did get out and help us. But it’s uncommon.
Chile is distinctive on the map for its length. It runs almost the entire length of the continent. So there are some long distances to travel if you want to see much of it. As it is, I couldn’t say that we saw much of it, but we did see some very distinctive areas. Notably the Atacama Desert and the Lakes region.
They’re quite far apart, though, so we took some internal flights. All by LATAM (we should have signed up for their frequent-flyer programme), and all fine. Security at the airports was generally less intrusive than it is here. We didn’t have to take iPads out of carry-ons, and I once went through security with my metal water bottle full! Radical.
Long(ish) Distance Buses
The only other trip we took was from Santiago to Valparaíso, which was by bus (coach). A couple of hours. Very comfortable, if you could avoid hitting your head on the badly-designed overhead screens.
Santiago Metro and Valparaíso Light Rail
Santiago has a decent Metro system. You get a contactless card like London’s Oyster cards, called Bip!. Which is a great name, in my humble opinion. It also has the advantage over Oyster that you can make multiple journeys simultaneously with one card. So for a family of four, for example, you just put enough money on the card for everyone, and tap in four times.
I don’t really know why Oyster doesn’t support this. My only guess would be that they thought it would cause too many complaints with people accidentally being charged twice.
Coming back took even longer: 23 hours in airports and planes, but 27, 28, if you count getting to and from the airports.
The weird thing here was that we flew from Santiago to Rio de Janeiro; then, after a four or five hour stopover, to São Paulo. An hour and a half there, and finally on to Heathrow. I don’t understand why it was like that, but as I recall it was the only available option when we booked the flights.
The annoying part was that — seemingly because the Rio – São Paulo bit was a domestic flight — we had to collect our luggage in Rio, and then check it back in. We went landside, got Brazilian entry stamps in our passports, all that.
We took off for Heathrow at 22:10, which made it 02:10 in the UK. So I wanted to get to sleep, but first I wanted to eat. On these long flights, though, they don’t rush to serve food like they do on a short European flight. So it was, I think, around 4 am before I could close my eyes.
Adjusting back home wasn’t too bad, though. People always say it’s worse coming east, but, apart from sleeping late on Bank Holiday Monday, I didn’t have too much trouble.
We spent a few days in Cologne over Easter. I took lots of photographs. Here are two that have had some tweaking in Lightroom. I'm especially pleased with the second one. The effect is almost like an impressionist painting to my eye.
To Glasgow, then, and a weekend visit to my Mum. The kids and I caught the train to Stansted on Friday afternoon, to find the security theatre in full force. Although we made EasyJet's last checkin time with a good ten minutes to spare, I really thought we would miss our flight when we joined the back of one of two or three giant, slow-moving queues. Especially so when, after a few minutes, we realised that we were in fact at the back of a queue for another checkin desk. We weren't alone in this error, though: the queues mingled, and quite a few others had made the same mistake.
But in the end it wasn’t that bad. The queue began moving fairly quickly – or smoothly, at least – and while it was frustrating, it was bearable, as long as you didn’t let yourself get frustrated. The passport/boarding-pass-control desk looked a right mess, though, covered as it was by abandoned bottles, cosmetics containers and what have you.
To be honest, I’m not actually sure why the queues were so long. The only things that have changed in security terms compared with a few months ago are the prohibited items in hand baggage, and the enforcement of the “only one item” rule (I’m sure this has been the rule for decades, but it just wasn’t strictly enforced). Both of those issues should be dealt with at checkin, so when you get to the security gates you should be ready. Every bag and coat is x-rayed, as before: but there should be fewer bags; everyone goes through a metal detector, just as they always did. There was a “please take off your shoes” section after the metal detectors, but as we paused at it, one security guy called, “Not everybody, not everybody,” and waved us on. I suppose people were randomly chosen, and incidentally, everyone I saw taking their shoes off was white. This may, of course, just mean that people who look like terrorists (whatever that may mean) are not travelling, from fear of being hassled.
I conclude that the only reason for the giant queues must be stupidity: there must be people who, even though they are asked about prohibited items at checkin, and even though this stuff has been in the news for weeks, still have drinks in their hand luggage, and then have to stop to abandon them at security. Or who try to take more than one item on, even though they’ve been told not to. And yet, I didn’t see much of that happening. I really don’t understand why the queues got so big. There were plenty of security staff on duty, too.
Coming back, things were much less fraught at Glasgow Airport, as they generally are at smaller airports, in my experience.
Throughout, I have to say, all the security staff we encountered were cheerful, polite, and helpful, while doing a largely thankless, probably quite dull, job, filled with seemingly-arbitrary rule changes handed down from above. I can’t really fault them, no matter how daft some of the things they have to enforce may be.
A last thought: we are being conditioned to accept travelling with photo ID, even within the country. It was strange to see everyone queuing up to get onto a flight to Scotland, with their passports ready. Now I’d be quite happy to see EU passports issued by the Republic of Scotland (as long as it was a republic), but for now, it was still a journey within the UK.
And the strange thing is, it seems to be the airlines that are driving this, not the authorities. I have had to show photo ID on RyanAir and EasyJet, but a few months ago – this year, certainly – I flew to Scotland with BMI Baby, and not only did they not ask for ID, but I didn’t even have to see a human to check in: hand baggage, a credit card, and a self-checkin machine, and there I was. That was before all the recent fuss, true, but RyanAir (and possibly EasyJet) have been asking for ID for years. Are they secretly being used by the government to get us used to carrying ID cards? And if so, why is it only some airlines?
Or am I being unreasonably paranoid? ‘Cos I only want to be reasonably paranoid, you know.
First, at the entrance I usually roll in by (the wide one next to the Costa Coffee shop), they have added two bollards. Quite widely spaced, so no immediate problem for cyclists or pedestrians: except that anything unnecessary in the way is a distraction and just adds to the complexity of a journey. And what purpose do they serve? All they can possibly be for is to stop cars and vans driving in that way. And while that is something that has been technically possible until now, I wasn’t at all aware that we had a problem with it.
Indeed, apart from floor-cleaning machines and those little luggage carts, the only motorised vehicle I’ve ever seen inside Waterloo is an ambulance. I do hope they haven’t stopped those from getting in.
Perhaps more significantly, they have added some sort of tall rack containing, I think, paper timetables or other leaflets. But they’ve put it in the middle of the floor near the the departures screens. So not only is it in the way, but from certain positions it obscures the view of the screens.
Screens which have been hard enough to see since they were introduced, replacing the old big boards. The screens’ main fault is that they are in the wrong places: over some of the shops which form islands in the concourse, instead of over the entrances to the platforms. As well as that, the text on them is smaller than the old boards, so you have to stand closer to make them out. This last will have the effect of amplifying the blockage caused by the rack (this can be proved by a simple piece of geometry, which I won’t go into).
At least the rack looks as if it should be easy to remove; but bah, grumble, etc.
I take a couple of weeks off (a week at home with the kids, a week in Dorset: very nice, thanks, since you ask) and when I first get back to posting, I find I’m channelling the excellent Disgruntled Commuter. This morning’s journey into work was a vision of madness and chaos straight out of Dante’s Inferno.
I exaggerate, of course. The Waterloo and City Line is a key link in my standard route to work, when I go purely by public transport. Hackney to Wimbledon is not the simplest route between two parts of London, but it doesn’t have to be insane. That line, though, is currently closed. Until September. If we assume it won’t reopen until the end of that month at the earliest, that means it will be closed for half the year. I understand that things wear out and break down and have to be maintained: but it only goes between two stations. There’s not that much to it. How long can things take?
So for two days this week I cycled to Waterloo (I work at home on Wednesdays) which is the best way to get in anyway, for all the usual reasons why cycling is best1. But lately I’ve fallen out of the habit. To break myself back in gently (in other words, to give myself a rest from it today, or out of sheer laziness), I decided to chance public transport today.
I’m a great fan of public transport generally, of course: but there are times and services that… don’t show it in its best light, let’s say. The North London Line is one that has a bad reputation at best: indeed, the aforementioned Disgruntled one has written about it in the past. Yet gettting that line to Highbury and Islington and then the Victoria Line to Vauxhall for the last leg to Wimbledon seemed the best alternative route for me.
You’ll have guessed, since I’m writing this, that it was not.
The North London Line is characterised by infrequent, jam-packed services, and it deserves the characterisation. Don’t get the idea that this was a surprise to me: I knew perfectly well what it would be like. What do you think was the biggest prod to get me back onto my bike?
So that wasn’t really the problem (though the difficulty of seeing the station name signs when you’re jammed in standing up makes it extra hard for the infrequent user to be sure they are at the correct station). No, the problem was my old friend2 the Victoria Line.
It was, in short, fucked.
So I got on that curious bit of non-Underground underground line that also runs out of Highbury and Islington (and that I can’t remember the name of), and got a train to Moorgate. Thence by Northern Line to London Bridge and Jubilee to Waterloo. I left home at about 8:15 (significantly later than I originally intended to, admittedly) and the train from Waterloo pullled into Wimbledon at 9:35. Bah!
1. Exercise, knowing fairly exactly when you’re going to get there, and not being at the mercy of the transport network chief among them.
2. Before I lived in Hackney I lived in Walthamstow. You get on at the start of the line (and thus are almost guaranteed a seat) plonk yourself down, open your book, and don’t look up until Vauxhall.