While lockdown continues, while Covid-19 is still spreading, and in this time where we cannot go away anywhere, travel (if you’re not an essential worker) means walking those same streets that surround your house; those same streets you’ve probably already walked many times already. I’m taking some time month to reflect on trips of the past, and to look forward with thoughts about where I would go sometime in the future where we can travel again.
Bombay (Mumbai), India: I’m putting Mumbai under B because it was Bombay when I went there many years ago. I travelled to India on a graduate exchange programme. To step from my largely white, largely monocultural home city into the chaos and noise of Bombay was a bit of a shock. A shock that started on arrival when I was met at the airport at 4am to travel to the guesthouse where I would stay for my time in the country. It was in the taxi that I noticed the strange shape of the traffic island on the road to the city – because it was covered in sleeping people. To enter the guesthouse, I had to step over the bodies of men who were sleeping on the floor in the foyer. (In the morning they rolled up their sleeping mats, put their belongings into the little lockable boxes that they kept on a shelf there, and headed off to work.) Opposite the bus stop where I caught my bus to work there were families living in houses made of carboard boxes. The obvious poverty was a shock, coming from a country where poverty not only looks different, but is not in your face everywhere you go.
My bus to work was a challenge. I stood with a crowd of other commuters waiting for the buses to turn the corner. For locals, they could easily recognise the numbers on the front of the bus (Hindi numbers do not look like the numbers I know) and get themselves into a good position from which they could jam onto they bus. While me, the foreigner, had to wait for the bus to pull up in front of me, so I could see the numbers I know on the side and work out whether this was the bus I needed or not. Of course by that stage, there were 20, 30 or more people already trying to get onto the bus and I was behind them. Some mornings it took me a long time to get on a bus to get to work.
At least for the journey home I was getting on at the terminus.
I remember waiting for the buses to leave, but I remember it more as a feeling – the hard vinyl seats of the bus, the smell of roasting peanuts and peanut vendors with their twists of nuts in old newspaper, the end-of-day feeling of fading heat, dusty afternoon sunshine, and once the bus was on its way, the smell of brown fumes from the traffic, glimpses of people playing cricket on the dusty maidan.
Birmingham UK: For many years we had avoided going to Birmingham. It’s not a city held in high regard generally, it’s not somewhere that people actively seek out. But one day we realised there was a long weekend coming up and we hadn’t planned anything. When we found there were very cheap tickets available for Birmingham we decided to look into it. And once we started researching, we found there were many things of interest in Birmingham. More things to do in fact, than we could get around to in one long weekend.
To start with, we needed somewhere central to stay, and Air BNB turned up a treat, with an overnight stay on a canal boat just a short walk from the centre of town. Now, a stay on a canal boat may sound lovely, and it was very cute, and we did feel connected to Birmingham’s industrial past, very much linked to the canals, but a small note of caution for anyone overtaken with romantic thoughts of staying on a boat. Our bed was at water level, Nice, but all night you have the noise of water slapping against the boat right by your head. And in the morning when the ducks and geese have a verbal slanging match out on the water, it’s also right by your head and can be a rude awakening.
So accommodation sorted, what is there to do in Birmingham? First stop should probably be the library. A crazy modern construction, it’s just as interesting on the inside as it is on the outside. And while you may be there to admire the architecture and the view, you’re mixing with local people who are in there to borrow books.
Next stop – the Jewellery Quarter. You can shop if you want, but that’s not why we were there. (If you do want to shop, there are plenty places to stock up on bling.) We visited the Museum of the Jewellery Quarter to learn about how this industry was a driver of the city’s economy before it dwindled against overseas competition. This Museum was one of several we visited where the business closed down almost overnight, leaving the building and its artifacts intact and preserved from the 1960s/1970s, so you really got a feel for how work used to look in those days. We also visited the Newman Brothers Coffin Furniture Factory, another business that sounds grim but was interesting, to see how things had been left, right down to the tea rota pinned to the wall, outlining everyone’s preferred beverage and how they took it. Here we also got to attend a site-specific performance from graduating students from the university, who used documents and information available to bring to life the working life of the factory.
In addition to the cultural highlights given above, there are also a number of CAMRA-recommended pubs, where you can sample fine local ales. Birmingham is also famous for its curry mile, so on our second night we walked out of town to this street which has a fine selection of restaurants. We ate at a place called Dawat, and the food was fine indeed. We also went to see a show, Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance, performed by a local theatre group.
My tip for you would be that next time someone says Birmingham is not worth visiting, you should correct them. And if you have the chance, you should visit it yourself with an open mind. You might be surprised.
Somewhere I would like to visit:
Botswana: As a long standing fan of the Alexander McCall Smith series, the No.1 Ladies Detective Agency series, of course I have fond feelings for Botswana, if it’s possible to feel fondness for a country you’ve never visited. I know, I know, I won’t actually get to have fat cakes with Mma Ramotswe or get to sample Mma Potokwani’s fruit cake or talk shoes with Grace. In fact if I go to Botswana it will be to see the animals in the national parks and not the capital. The Okavango Delta, the Kalahari, Chobe National Park – all of these will be higher on my list than Gabarone. Although… There is a Mma Ramotswe tour of Gabarone available. Hmm… This will be one of the things I will have to think about one day when I am able to go there.