Sunday, December 04, 2005

Stopover Forays into Great Cities.

Would you like to travel cheaply? I have come up with one way to visit famous cities at a fraction of the cost. Whenever I go somewhere, I buy cheaper tickets with stopovers in famous parts of the world. When I was working in Saudi Arabia, the flight from there to the US was never direct. There would always be a stopover either in Frankfurt or Amsterdam or London. And every time I went to visit my girlfriend in the Philippines, there would be a stopover in Singapore. If you are lucky, you can get a stopover that is six hours long or longer and then you can go and visit the country that you are stopping over in.

I always wanted to visit London, see Big Ben, walk on one of those bridges over the Thames and have my picture taken in front of the Westminster Abbey. So, on my way to Saudi out of the US, there was a six-hour stopover in London. “Let's go see Big Ben”, I said to myself and bolted out of the airport. I asked a lady at the information booth as to where I could take the underground and she pointed me in the right direction. I got on the tube, and it took me to some hub station somewhere on the outskirts of the city. Then, I changed to another line and it took me straight to Westminster Station. I walked out of it and there was Big Ben right in front of me. My breathing stopped. It was just as beautiful as what I imagined it to be. Run, run, run! The sun was setting. I asked some tourists to take my picture in front of it. The picture was taken. I then took more pictures- the Abbey, the Thames, the people walking around. I walked along a few streets, wondered into a pub, had a beer and eavesdropped on Brits having a conversation about business.

I ran out of the pub, went to a restaurant and ordered some British dishes- It was a kidney pie or a shepherd pie or one of those things. I gobbled down the meal, looked at my watch and ran out again to try and experience more of the city. It was getting dark. No more pictures were possible. Hey, no problem. I kept looking at the people, trying to absorb some of the moods of the city which the people were displaying on their faces. They all seemed somewhat solemn in the way they carried themselves, and addressed each other as they walked. I wondered around again and then rushed back to the tube. Time was running out. I had to be at the airport two hours before the departure time so that I would have enough time to go through security. Again, I rode the underground, with my guitar and heavy bags by my side. Again, I changed trains and finally arrived at the airport. I had been to London, seen Big Ben and the Abbey, eaten British food and drunk British beer. All for free ( kind of).

Once I was flying from Kenya to the US and there was a six-hour stopover in Amsterdam. Again, I ran like crazy through the immigration, got on the train, and arrived at the center of the city at 6:00 am. It was still dark. I started roaming around the central area while the dawn was just beginning to break. I was able to take some pictures but they came out dark (of course). Still the gothic buildings could be seen and the tramcars, and the stores were clearly visible. I walked along the canals and watched seagulls fly around. Then, as restaurants opened up, I went in and ordered some Dutch food. Having eaten the food, I walked out again and asked a Dutch man who was roaming around to take a picture of me. And there I was, in the middle of the Netherlands, with a few more hours to enjoy the city. I walked around again looking into store windows. Walked into a coffee shop that had a marijuana leaf displayed in the window. There was a whole bunch of people sitting there with silly smiles on their faces. These were high on pot. I saw tourists with Middle Eastern faces walk into the shop and the clerk who opened up a big box with all sorts of marijuana in it. I could not believe my eyes. It seemed like something out of the twilight zone. My natural reaction was: "The cops will be here any minute now". I told the clerk about how I still had the American reaction to pot, i.e., it was something illegal. He said that while it was legal in Holland all right , it was heavily regulated and there were many rules as to how stores were supposed to sell it. So, it was still not completely free according to him. Still, I was fascinated. It was free enough for me. Since I was going to Saudi Arabia, I did not want to chance it and just sat down and watched other people get high.

Time was running out and I hailed a gray Mercedes taxi to go back to the airport. It was driven by a Dutch citizen of Surinamian extraction. He immediately asked me if I wanted to see the Red Light district. Sure, why not? I might as well. So, he took me to the narrow collection of mediaeval streets in which I saw some ladies sit in windows on some things that looked like bar stools. Since it was still early in the morning, many of the stools were unoccupied, but there were some Latin American-looking ladies that were smiling at me and beaconing me to come in. The price for one shot, he said, was EU 50. Some $60 US. Again, since I had to be at the airport some two hours before the flight would leave, plus I did not want to cheat on my girlfriend and chance a disease, I politely declined all offers.

I gave the driver $100 and he told me that it was his first time to see $100 American dollars. Anyway, he took me back to the airport and gave me some $30 in change. Expensive as hell, but who cares. I still visited Amsterdam for less than $100. Not a bad deal. Also, as the sun rose, I was able to take more pictures and almost used up a whole roll of film. The mini- visit was a success. I have visited Holland, seen the famous marijuana coffee shops and the Red Light district, observed the canals and eaten Dutch food.

On another occasion, I was flying from Argentina to the Philippines- a very long voyage that took me across two oceans and three continents. It was July, so it was also quite cold in the Southern Hemisphere. No matter. The airplane was to stop over in Johannesburg, South Africa. I was always fascinated by South Africa. The Anglo-Boer war, Nelson Mandela and the movie” Cry Freedom", the way the country had been in the news almost every day during the times of Apartheid, always made me want to visit it just to see what was going on there. Anyway, once we got to the airport in Joburg, I found out that I only had five hours.

"Run like hell", I said to myself. I went through the immigration and watched with curiosity as an African lady put a "Temporary Residence Permit" sticker into my passport. “It was going to be the most temporary permit she had ever given“- I said to myself. I ran faster to change my dollars into Rands. I could not believe that I was now inside of South Africa, a country I had read so much about when I was in still in elementary school. A tall black guy was hanging out near the exit. I told him: "Take me to see Johannesburg. We have about one hour and a half". He said:" Five hundred rand". It was somewhere around $80- not bad. We got into his car and came out of the airport parking lot. I was watching in disbelief as the boards said "Johannesburg". I saw the skyscrapers in the distance. This time my camera was digital and I proceeded to film the whole thing. The car was taking me into the center of the city built on gold. The very thought that I was going into the city of" two Johannes" took my breath away. Was it me in the country of Nelson Mandela? Yup. It was me. The driver took me to Soweto. I could not believe it. I was standing in front of Nelson Mandela's Museum and looking around at the township of Soweto. Next, the driver took me through the center of the city. It was just like any American city- Detroit or Cincinnati, the same architecture, except that the traffic was on the left side of the road and the people were blacks did not look like the American blacks. There were many people in tribal clothes- in short, these were real Africans.

I saw only two or three white faces in Joburg. It was now a completely African city. However, I saw some European -looking people at the local 7eleven. They looked somewhat like Van Gogh characters and they spoke something that sounded like German. I surmised that these were the famous Boers, Africa's white tribe.

I asked the driver to take me somewhere where I could buy real African food. He drove me through the city and through the suburbs and we could not find it. There was MacDonalds and KFC and Shakey’s but nothing African . I walked into the local convenience store and asked a lady to show me if there was an African drink somewhere. She gave me a weird look and pointed to a can with label of a lychee-like fruit on it. I bought some and then we went back to the airport. I had my picture taken in Joburg, Soweto and also, filmed the whole trip there and back to the airport. I was finally able to buy some African food when back inside the airport building- it was, very prosaically, chicken with rice.

The whole tour of South Africa was roughly two hours and cost me again under US$100. Not a bad deal. I can now say that I have been to South Africa because I have, haven't I? I even have the residency permit to prove it. I lived there exactly 120 minutes.

The stopover forays into foreign countries may not be very comfortable or comprehensive but they sure are cheap and, if we learn to pack a lot of activities into the crazily limited time we have there, they sure are worth the hundred bucks.

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