A mate of mine, on a short-term contract in Zagreb, visited us in the village last weekend.  I’d checked the trains and the direct one from Zagreb to Budapest passes through the next village. It should have been easy. It wasn’t. There was weekend trackwork and in the bus-train interchanges, something happened. They either got on the wrong train or didn’t realise the direct train wasn’t direct any more. Whatever.

I got a phone call to say they were in Izlaz, Croatia, when they should have been in Nagykanizsa, Hungary. The only way over the border by train was to go the whole way back to Zagreb and start again. Madness. So, we got in the car and drove to pick them up. They said they’d get the train to Virovitica or Kloštar Podravski so we checked the border crossings and decided to cross at Gola.

The drive was new to us and new territory is always good. We passed through Berzence, which has to be the Christmas tree capital of Hungary. Fields of them stood waiting to be chopped down and delivered to the cities and towns of Hungary in time for the big day. I wondered briefly how that had started. Had one chap tried his luck and when it caught on, everyone else baled in? The village dates back to the 1300s and if we do go back to get a tree, we’ll no doubt check out the Baroque Festetics House, which has to be related to the palace in Keszthely. There’s also a Roman Catholic Baroque church dating back to the 1700s, an eighteenth-century inn, and the ruins of Berzence castle. But we were on a mission.

When we got the border, there was one car ahead of us. We waited a couple of minutes to be called forward and then surrendered our passport cards and car registration papers. And then we sat. And sat. And sat. I noticed the fence – the famous fence along the 348 km (216 mi)  border between Hungary and Croatia that has divided the two countries since 17 October 2015. I’d not seen it before. And I was surprised at my reaction.

I’ve touted Hungary as a great place to live because of the easy access to the rest of Europe. In my mind’s eye, I had visions of a United States of Europe where you can nip from Hungary to Slovenia as easily as you can move from California to Arizona. My mental map didn’t have walls or fences. Okay, so there were checkpoints crossing over into Serbia and Ukraine, but that was only to be expected as neither one is in the EU, but Croatia? The Schengen schilling was slow to drop. Of course. Croatia is in the EU but not in the Schengen zone. Hence the delay.

We sat some more and finally yer man came out. The name on the car registration matched the name on the passport card and the photo on the passport card was of me. And I had already said that I owned the car. He asked me where I lived. I gave him the Budapest address that was on the car registration. But that wasn’t enough. I had to prove that I lived there. I dug in my wallet for my address. He checked it carefully. I got a distinct feeling that he wanted to create another obstacle but couldn’t come up with one. WTF! Since when has Croatia had a problem with Ireland? Has there been a spate of middle-aged Irish women nicking 15-year-old Hungarian cars and smuggling them across the border? Eventually, he gave me back my stuff and walked off. The barrier lifted and I drove through. In the rearview mirror, I noticed the couple behind me. He asked for their ID, had a quick chat, and then waved them through. They were in a Honda.

I couldn’t decide what I was feeling. Was it relief at being allowed out, or relief at being allowed in? At this stage, my mate, trying to be helpful, had gotten another train a few miles closer to the border – but to another border crossing. We finally connected in Kopřivnice, home to the Tatra truck company. Back in the days of Communism, the company payroll was 16 000 strong, about 1000 of which were Vietnamese. Today it’s about 3700. Once owned by a consortium which included Ronald Adams, the American who made his fortune selling graduation rings [FT has an interesting article on the takeover], it’s now owned by a Czech armourer [the things I learn when I blog!].

Anyway, we decided to go back into Hungary through Letenye, hoping that this busy crossing would be deserted on a Saturday afternoon. And it was. The Croatians barely glanced at our papers, delighted no doubt to see us leave. And the Hungarians didn’t seem that annoyed about letting us back in. Maybe three in a car is the magic number.

The experience set me wondering about borders and visas and how they affect my travel, however subconsciously. I would love to go to Russia but as the visa would cost more than the flight, I’m dithering. I’m very fond of India but again, as the visa can add significantly to the cost, I prefer to go there on someone else’s dime and tag on some personal days afterwards. Qatar recently added some 80 countries to its visa-free program but that in and of itself wouldn’t entice me back. Turkey’s convoluted system did my head in and would make me think twice about visiting Istanbul again. And while I, as an EU citizen, have the freedom to travel within its borders, Brexit might change all that for my UK friends, and apparently cost them more – a €7 charge to visit EU countries.  I wonder if I’ll be able to cross the Irish border and go to Belfast without having to show my passport? Amazing, really, to think that I never really appreciated freedom of movement until I began to see it dwindle.

[Note: Fence pictured is the one dividing Serbia and Hungary – I figured I’d had enough attention in Croatia – and they look the same.]

Doha camel

After our epic four-week trip through Thailand, we stopped off in Doha on the way home. We’d been invited to a birthday bash and never one to say no to a good party, it was a no-brainer. I’d been to Dubai a couple of lifetimes ago for a World Bank meeting and hadn’t been back to the Gulf since. I’d a fair idea what to expect – or I thought I did – but I’d forgotten more than I’d remembered.

Doha by night

Doha by night, Dhow harbour

Museum of Islamic Art Doha

Museum of Islamic Art Doha

Doha by night is spectacular. The view of the city from the Museum of Islamic Art is amazing. I was reminded of a night in New Jersey, way back when, looking across at the Manhattan Skyline. Nothing has come close until now. When H&N said they were taking us to the museum, I cringed a little. I’m not one for clay pots and bronze bowls or ornate gold jewellery. I more partial to my sculptures, my mosaics, and my paintings. And I was coming down off a prolonged spate of sensory overload. I didn’t think I had it in me to deliver the requisite mews of appreciation with any great conviction. But I surprised myself. It’s definitely worth visiting. Regardless of its exhibits, the building itself is nothing short of gobsmackingly simple. It has a definitely shush feel to it, big enough to be a cathedral but plain enough to leave religion outside. The architect, I. M. Pei (said to be the greatest living member of the modernist generation of architects), had hung up his liner pens and tracing paper and long-since retired. And, at the ripe age of 91, why wouldn’t he? But he came out of retirement to design this building. His name rang a bell. It took me a while to put him together with the glass-and-steel pyramid that I’d seen a couple of years back at the Louvre in Paris, another of his creations. Rumour has it that he spent six months travelling through the Muslim world to get a feel for this project. With an eye to the future and the lack of restraint and good judgement shown by many a city planner, Pei decided he wanted his the museum to sit on an island. So one was built. In Doha Bay. Off an artificial peninsula. At one end of the 7 km Doha Corniche. It’s open till 7 pm every evening and admission is free. You can’t leave Doha without visiting.

Doha

Doha

I was struck by the newness of everything. The Sheraton was the first hotel chain to build in the city, but now, everyone is there. With 88% of the 2.6 million inhabitants expats, the curious mix of cultures is evident in the architecture. And what you see by day (am thinking in particular of the Emir Palace) looks completely different lit up at night. The city’s electric bill must be huge. Be careful though, some areas are no-photo zones, so watch out for the signs. And the cameras. Nearly every streetlight has a camera attached to it. I don’t think I’ve ever been as conscious of being watched. And I doubt it’s something I could get used to. That said, there’s no crime to speak of in the city. It’s safer than safe to walk around. And why wouldn’t it be with your every move being recorded for posterity?

Having had the Muslim/alcohol experience in southern Thailand, I wasn’t expecting liquor shops on every corner, but I was completely flabbergasted when I found out that there is only one in the whole city! And to buy booze, you have to apply for a permit.  And your monthly alcohol spend will be capped at a percentage of your salary. Then you drive out to what was once the desert and is now a suburb in the desert and join the long line of customers waiting to be served. It was like Brown Thomas’s during the Christmas sales. Now, on the one hand, I can see how this would be good for me. I’d become a far more conscious imbiber of spirits. No more opening another bottle just because the weakness in me was strong. No more gulping it back as if it were going out of fashion. No more ‘one for the ditch after one for the road’. I’d be measuring my measures. In all likelihood, one of two things would happen. I’d lose the grá I have for vino or I’d become obsessed with where the next glass of plonk was coming from.

When we were kids, on long drives to see my grandparents, we’d count number plates, trying to check off each county in Ireland. I found myself doing something similar in Doha once I heard that the fewer digits on your plate, the more it’s worth. Another outward manifestation of wealth. I spotted one 3-digit plate on a big, posh, land-cruisery jeep, driven by two young princely looking lads; one four-digit plate; and a few five digits – but most were six-digit. And even then, pairs and triplets and sequences of numbers can attract big money. It’s not unheard of to see a  plate you fancy, then follow that person till they stop, and offer to buy their plate. In Doha, you can sell your plates and vehicle separately and some cars are bought for the plate alone. Mad.

Souq Waqif Doha

Photo: Heather Jacobs

We spent an evening at the Souq Waqif but didn’t do it justice. Jet lag has set in and we were seriously flagging. We ate – everything ordered for us, which took the pain out of making a decision (I just love their passion for food) – and we shopped. But having read up on it since, I want to go back, in the whole of my health, with energy and time to see it all. It’s the country’s oldest market and definitely one to be explored. The people watching alone is seriously rated. There’s so much going on, so much to see, you could sit with a coffee for hours and just watch the world go by. A tip worth noting though – go early in the week to avoid the crowds that descend from Thursday to Saturday.

We spent a morning in the desert, driving up and down sand dunes in a Land Cruiser. There were Land Cruisers everywhere, the cheapest of which will set you back a minimum of €50,000. The camels were on hand to give the tourists something to do as their drivers/guides let the air out of the tires to get ready for the dunes. And then it was into the desert to be bounced around and scared witless as your car rocked over a very steep slope and then went downhill, nose first. I wanted to drive. I so wanted to drive. In fact, driving in the desert (in someone else’s heavily insured rig) is now on my bucket list. I’d been on a desert safari in Dubai and remember the sand being quite uniform in colour. But in Doha, perhaps because of the unseasonably heavy rains/floods they’d just had, it was exquisite. So many different shades of greys and browns. It reminded me a lot of Michael Pettet’s digital art.

Doha

Doha Desert Safari

Doha Desert Safari

Doha Desert Safari

It was a little weird, looking across the water at Saudi Arabia, having just learned of the ongoing diplomatic standoff between the two countries. Where have I been? And then reading of Saudi’s plans to cut the country off – literally – by digging a 60km channel along the border. And then reading more about how close Qatar came to being invaded last year. Two hours, by all accounts, and the Saudi army could have been in Doha. That was close. It would seem that Qatar is bucking the trend.

From the onset of the crisis, the Saudi-led bloc cut diplomatic ties and hit Qatar with embargoes, including air land and maritime restrictions. They also deployed bot-fuelled hashtags and social media attacks. It was clear that the Saudis and their allies were not only targeting Qatar’s leadership, but also its institutions, citizens and residents. The Saudi-led bloc confronted Qatar with 13 demands, mostly focused on curtailing the Qatari approach to foreign policy, counter-terrorism and media freedom.

The image of the much-loved Emir is everywhere. And love him they do. The international jury is still out though. According to Human Rights Watch

Qatar’s penal code punishes “sodomy” with one to three years in prison. Muslims convicted of zina (sex outside of marriage) can be sentenced to flogging (if unmarried) or the death penalty (if married). Non-Muslims can be sentenced to imprisonment.

For the most part, those I met there seem to enjoy their lives. They like the money they make and the lifestyle it affords them. And there is something quite appealing about buffet dinners, long lunches, and fabulous shopping malls. The people and the diversity they represent is refreshing. Theirs is a very international set, with, I think, 12 nationalities at the house party we attended. You wouldn’t be long getting first-hand accounts from most of the world – the best form of social media. Everyone is so hospitable, so friendly, so generous. Customer service is incredible. But I couldn’t live there. My latent streak of paranoia would get fat of a diet of societal norms that wouldn’t sit well me with. You’d acclimatise, they said. You’d get used to it. But the question is, would I want to?

Interesting articles

10 things to do in Souq Waqif, according to CNN Travel.

More on I. M. Pei

Drinking (or not) in Doha

Human Rights Watch World Report Qatar 2018

More photos available on the Any Excuse to Travel Facebook Page – check us out.

 

After four weeks of travelling in Thailand, I’m in a much better position to comment than I was when I wrote of my Thai expectations.  I was looking forward to the newness, the un-Europeanness, the un-Americanness. I was looking for something different. And yes, I found it. But in that newness, there was also a sameness. Anyway, I thought I might save you some angst and share with you my travel tips for Thailand. Read more

I asked for quiet. For peace. For empty beaches and fresh nice food. I asked for local cooking, small bars, and good coffee. I asked for sunsets and sunrises and a door that opened to the sea. They said the quiet was impossible. Not in Thailand. Never in Thailand. Everywhere has people. Everywhere is crowded. Everywhere is popular. I was hrummphed on a number of travel forums when I asked for suggestions. But himself found it. Koh Yao Noi. Read more

Travelling by train in Thailand

I’ve learned a lot about travelling by train in Thailand. After leaving it so late to book train tickets to Surat Thani and facing an overnight trip in third class, I wasn’t leaving anything to chance. We’d heard that the last bus to Ban Pong was around 4 pm so, to be sure to be sure, we caught one around 1 pm. That got us to the station in Ban Pong, the city of nice people, some five hours before our train was scheduled to depart. We didn’t see one other tourist. And without tourists, there’s little call for a left-luggage facility. I wasn’t in any mood to explore. I was dreading the 10-hour trip ahead of us and was slowly working myself up to high doh on the anxiety scale. When himself went to wander, I waited nervously, imagining what I’d do if he didn’t come back. This wasn’t me. This isn’t me. What was going on? Read more

Bumper Cars

Our second night in Kanchanaburi. I’d busted my foot jumping from a height to catch sight of the train looming down the death railway, so I decided to stay put. Himself was itching to get out – probably away from me, if the truth be told – so he went wandering. He did what he usually does and followed the music. This is what he found. Read more

Death Railway Kanchanaburi

Although nearly three weeks in Thailand, I’m still shackled by Western expectations. The first thing we did when we arrived in Kanchanaburi on Wednesday was head to the train station to book tickets to Surat Thani for Friday morning.

Two tickets to Surat Thani, please. Second class. Aircon. With seat reservations. On the 9.35. On Friday, says I, not for a minute thinking that he’d do anything but smile politely and hand them over. Instead, he laughed.

Friday? All trains full, he said. Saturday, too. And Sunday. Read more

Chiang Rai White Temple Hands

Our bus trip from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai passed without incident …. until I spotted my mate through the window at the terminus, jumped off, and left my camera behind me. So excited at the thoughts of seeing him after a gap of 17 years, I lost the run of myself. We were on the road home before I noticed. What was to be a peaceful, trouble-free week hadn’t started off too well. But the girl on the ticket desk was very helpful. She made a few calls, and told me to come back in a hour. When I did, I’d be reunited with my camera. I’d been pretty ticked off when himself had left his phone on the steps of Wat Arun and hadn’t noticed till we’d crossed the river and disembarked the ferry. Thanks to a chap we’d bought a painting from and the auspices of a good monk, he got it back. But now it was my turn. On the double. Read more

Wat Phra Kaeo Chiang Rai Buddha Day

I’ve missed mass for two Sundays in a row. I’m excused though, as I’m travelling. Anyway, the only Catholic church I’ve seen was from a boat. But Tuesday was a Buddha day in Thailand. They don’t do Sundays, as we Roman Catholics do. Thailand practises Theravada Buddhism in accordance with the four lunar phases: the new moon, the full moon, and the two quarter moons. On these days, the faithful get together at the temple, bring their offerings, and pray. And in Chiang Rai, my friends invited me to go with them to Wat Phra Kaew. I didn’t need to be asked twice.  Read more

Phu Chi Fa

Had we done it right, we’d have gotten to P̣hū chī̂f̂ā (Phu Chi Fa) in time to see the sunrise. From what I’ve read, we’d have been in the company of hundreds of Thais and a handful of Western tourists who’d made the journey north of Chiang Rai to this rather special, spectacular place. [A little like the hordes that descend on La Boca, Cuba, to see the sunset.] Phu Chi Fa, which translates as pointing to the sky, is a mountain area and national forest park in Thailand in the northeastern end of the Phi Pan Nam Range, 12 km to the southwest of Doi Pha Tang at the eastern edge of Thoeng District in Chiang Rai Province. The drive from Chiang Rai through the farmland and the rice fields and the villages is the stuff that novels are made of. Read more