So this is the final entry of my ‘Filling the Gaps’ saga, and a rather sad occasion it is, to be sure. But before I attempt to put down some final thoughts, I had better finish with the account of the final leg of the journey.
-which began in Bari – the port on the south-eastern coast of Italy. I was fortunate in that Bari was/is quite a significant sea-port and as such it was connected to Rome by a direct rail link. Not only a direct link, but it was serviced by one of their their high speed trains.
I had been able to book a seat via the Internet and I had been lavish – booking a 1st class seat (according to the blurb – ‘with lounge and dining car’) The price was reasonable and since this was to be the start of a long journey, I elected to go for comfort.
I should have saved the money! There really was no discernable difference between 1st and 2nd class. There was no lounge, no dining car and not even a coffee to be had, free or otherwise! I thought that was a pretty poor show for a 4 hour journey on a prestige line. I had elected not to have breakfast in the early hours of the morning – thinking I might have a leisurely coffee and croissant on the train. But it was not to be.
Anyway, the train departed at 7.0am. Rob and some of the kids accompanied me out to the station, where we bade a sad farewell. Me, to start the long journey home: they, to buzz off down the coast and find a nice sunny beach!
The train was comfortable and once clear of the suburbs it started to rocket along.
The line had to get across from the east to the west coast and so passed through the mountains by dint of bridges, tunnels and winding twisting lines. Taking the fairly tight bends at speed was quite exciting: the tracks were banked quite steeply to help the train stay on the rails and so the sensation of winding and twisting through the valleys was not unlike a gentle roller-coaster ride. That train really moved – and exactly 4 hours after we left Bari, we pulled in through the graffiti-blotched Rome Central railway station.
Still no time for breakfast as I had to get a ticket for the ‘Leonardo Express’ (a rather grand title for a fairly ordinary train) – the train with a direct line to the airport. By the time I had bought a ticket and walked the 1/2 km to the distant platform, the train was just pulling in, so on I hopped. A 1/2 hour later the train pulled in to the airport – in good time for me to do my checking in.
Rome airport seemed followed the same pattern as most facilities in Italy – a nice design, well-executed but then left to gradually fall apart through lack of maintenance. Holes in the floor coverings, a horizontal escalator ‘out of service’, a climbing escalator ‘out of service’ and the usual confusing signposting which guided you in a general direction and then fizzled out, leaving the bewildered passenger in no-man’s land. Eventually after going up stairs, along a corridor and then back down stairs, I discovered another shuttle train to take me out to my departure lounge. It was just as well I had time up my sleeve for it took close on 20 mins. to find the way to my departure lounge.
There I found time to grab a bite to eat – it was well into lunchtime, so that had to be brunch. (I had a couple of hours to wait now, until departure time)
And so to board the Emirates Boeing 777 for the first leg to Dubai. The flight attendants looked impossibly formal (like a collection of shop-window mannequins) with their snazzy hats and semi-veil-like scarves draped artistically from hat to neck. Make-up and uniforms were uniformly immaculate, and I wondered how they felt, preserving this image for hours on end? It must have been hard. But the service was friendly and efficient and the food was better than most airline offerings. The seats must have been marginally wider, too, because I did not have to have an elbow fight with my neighbour. So the flight was as comfortable as one could hope for.
The flight to Dubai took 11 1/2 hours – smooth as silk. The in-flight information screen told me that we were travelling 41,000ft above the sea, at a ground speed of 1050kmph. Incredible – and an almost indecent haste after the previous months of trundling along in the motor homes!
Dubai airport was as you would expect, vast, immaculate and expensive!
It teemed with people constantly, yet never gave the impression of being crowded. I had an 11 hour stop-over,and so I had plenty of time to observe the ebb and flow of passengers. In recognition that many passengers would spend a long time in transit at this airport, there were recliner-type seats available. I kept my eye open for a ‘vacancy’ but not once in my 11 hour stay did I spy an empty one!
But the airport did provide a very handy facility: scattered here and there along the vast concourse, were ‘re-charging stations’. These were futuristically-designed cabinets equipped with two banks of universal electrical socket outlets. One side was for cell-phone re-charging and the other was for lap-top computers. Not only that, but having hooked into the power one could connect up to a free wi-fi network. So this I did, checking and sending a few emails to let folk know of my progress. Foolishly, I reasoned that I had hours to spend at the terminal so I could return later and get my blog up-to-date.
Well return I did, but just as my computer was booting up, pandemonium broke out in the terminal. For some 20 mins or so there had been an annoying bell ringing somewhere in the background and I like everyone else, had ignored it – assuming it to be an equipment mal-function somewhere. But as the computer was warming up, a calm voice floated out of the speaker system saying:’a fire has been detected in the airport building. Would all passengers please vacate the premises in quiet and orderly fashion’. I looked around: nobody seemed to be paying much heed to the announcement. Nevertheless, being a cautious sort of a bloke, I disconnected the lappy and started packing things up. The announcement was repeated – several times. A few people were looking uncertain and a little puzzled, but the majority of the thousands of folk in the building were carrying on as usual. The bells were still ringing, the announcement kept repeating, but still nobody stopped doing what they were doing: people sat sipping drinks in coffee shops, bottles of grog were being purchased along with the inevitable giant-sized Toblerone chocolate blocks and folk in general were walking about as if nothing unusual was happening. Now I am thinking: are all these people stupid or do they know something I don’t know? I looked around for some sort of official to see if they could tell me what was going on, but none were to be found. Reasoning that if this was a real fire there would surely be people in uniforms dashing around telling us what to, I hung on – ready to dash if need be. Then suddenly the most fearful racket broke out – a deafening roar which made me instinctively look up at the roof – I was sure a jumbo was about to crash through. The noise was absolutely deafening. It was impossible to hear even a shouted word. Still people were unmoved, although they did start to drift away – trying to escape the noise. The racket continued and I discovered that it came from a series of large extractor fans set high in the roof. I presumed that they had switched on automatically as part of the fire-alarm system. After 30 mins the fans were still screaming away, the bells were still ringing and the announcement droned on. And people were still ignoring the whole business.
Waiting to see what might develop, I went to order a cup of coffee; screamed my order to the shop-keeper and finally just pointed to his board – there was no way of shouting above the racket.
Then I returned to the charging station thinking I would get on to my blog. Well I got plugged in alright, but the wi-fi connection had disappeared. I tried in vain to get a connection and fellow-surfers around me were also muttering dark thoughts as they too struggled for a connection. In the end we all gave up. Who knows what the explanation was? And eventually the fans went off, the bells stopped ringing and the announcer went to bed. No explanation or apology was forthcoming so I presume our Arab friends shrugged their shoulders and had another black coffee. Business as usual. I resisted the urge to buy a raffle ticket for a couple of cars – the cost of shipping them to NZ would have been out of the question!
-and anyway, what would I do with a Maserati or a Bently?
And so on to the next leg, from Dubai to Melbourne. A very long haul in an Airbus. And another very comfortable flight. I rarely avail myself of the delights of an airlines in-flight entertainment programme, preferring a good book or a few cross-word puzzles. But this was a long flight and so I actually watched a few films – 4 in fact! Two recent films I would recommend as well worth watching. The first, “5minutes of heaven” was an interesting study in Forgiveness and reconciliation, with the Irish IRA conflict as the background. Tense and thoughtful – and very believable. The second was in much lighter vein’ “ the Proposal”. Sandra Bullock in an hilarious comedy which will lift your spirits. The other two I watched were a couple of old classics: ‘Dial M for Murder’ and ‘Laura’. Films which I had enjoyed as a teenager many years ago. And I still enjoyed them.
And so to a 2 hour stopover in Melbourne. Unbelievably I was again singled out for an intensive search by the security people. We were in transit and I did not expect to have to go through Security again but no, we had all our hand baggage etc x-rayed again. In addition to which, as I say, I was asked to step to one side and have a detailed inspection of the bag contents not to mention myself. The inspectors assured me that this was just a random selection, but this is the third time in recent months that I have been singled out for special attention. Have I got a black mark against my name, in that big black book in Cyber-space, or do I just look like a drug-smuggler?
The final leg to Auckland was again a smooth flight and quite enjoyable although I was getting into a somewhat ‘zombied’ state after being without sleep for nearly 40 hours. The final delay came when we had to again put all our baggage through the x-ray security check, before we were allowed to enter NZ. Having been found free of bombs, guns, explosives or drugs, I was free to breath the fresh cold air of an Auckland Spring day.
As arranged, my faithful, reliable and thoroughly likeable son-in-law was waiting for me, to whisk me home for a welcome cuppa. Incredibly, New Zealand seemed to have remained completely unaffected by my prolonged absence from its shores – and life was proceeding along in its set course, seemingly oblivious of my triumphant return!
So here I am, settling back into my little brick house, and slowly (and rather reluctantly) getting into some sort of routine.
The last page. How do you finish off this sort of record? People have asked me: ‘what was the most unforgettable place?’ or ‘which country did you enjoy most?’ or ‘which food did you like best?’ Well, I had to write essays at school on those sort of subjects – and I used to hate it! So I am not going to start now. Suffice to say that although I have filled some of the gaps in my experience data bank – there is an awful lot still missing. Will I raise the energy to take another look at countries as yet unseen? Ask me in a couple of years time…….
And to those of you that took the time to read the occasional page – thank you.