Monday, May 30, 2011

Heading Home

25 May
Heathrow Terminal 5
After a couple of pleasant days in London with relatives, we are waiting for our flight at Heathrow.
Yesterday we had a leisurely day in the City, catching up with more family over a long lunch at a Covent Garden Pub. Later we took in a matinee performance of the Christie classic “The Mousetrap”, now in its 59th year. We attended the 24,372nd performance. This is a must-do experience in London.
It is Wednesday here, but we won't be home until mid-morning Friday, Brisbane time. Even though we cancelled our plans for a week in Japan after the Tsunami, we are still flying home via Tokyo with a daytime stopover in a Narita hotel to catch some sleep.
26 May
ANA Crowne Plazza, Narita
Narita airport was like a ghost town when we arrived at about 9:30am. There were no queues at immigration and, in the Arrivals Hall, the cleaning staff outnumbered the passengers. Our Boeing 777 flight from London had only 91 passengers. We quickly swapped our seats, claiming whole vacant rows to ourselves. We weren't sure whether this was all due to the tsunami/radiation or if it was just a quiet part of the day. It's a bit of a shame we had to cancel our ten days in Japan. From the short exposure we've had getting to our hotel in Narita, it looks very interesting. Next time.
UK and Ireland in Review
We aren't sure what has changed in the UK. Our first visit here was in 1976. Can that really be almost 35 years ago? Then, we were very young and inexperienced travellers. At that time, the UK was a glum and unwelcoming place to us. How much of that was us and how much was the, to us, foreign country, its people and the wintry weather, we aren't too sure.
After all those years, and well more than two years accumulated travelling all over the world, including three previous visits to the UK, we are probably a lot more tolerant of the normal hassles associated with travel and more experienced in the basics of getting about in a foreign country. Having said that, is the UK really a foreign country? Probably far less so than 35 years ago.
So what has changed?
Dramatic as it might sound, The British Empire is far less a force in the world than it was even 35 years ago. In that time, the EU has become a reality for the British. Despite their resistance, they are part of the EU, except in one important aspect. They never joined the Euro Club, maintaining their own currency. Their 'part-in, part-out' approach says a lot about the general attitude here to Europe.
To the average UK citizen, Europe is still a very foreign place. As Australians travelling here, this is only good news. Our accents are immediately recognised, almost everybody has been to Australia or has relatives living there. This isn't just our jingoism, it's part of explaining why we feel very much at home in the UK now.
Still not sure whether it's them or us who have changed, but the rudeness we have experienced in the past is totally absent. Our experience has been quite the opposite on this trip. On the roads in particular, the British are courteous beyond belief. In heavy traffic, drivers will stop to let other vehicles join the flow. On motorways, cars and trucks will always let a merging vehicle in rather than speeding up to close a gap, as is common practice in Australia.
Maybe the world is just becoming a much smaller place.
Tensions between the north and south in Ireland have all but disappeared. Even relationships with the British have improved to the point that the Queen made an historic visit to the Irish Republic and was warmly welcomed. A decade ago, such a visit would have been unthinkable.
Times are tough in Ireland at the moment. The country is close to bankrupt due to the collapse of the housing market. Thousands of new homes have been constructed during the 'good years' that followed Ireland's entry into the EU and the adoption of the Euro. Real Estate speculation became a national obsession, with hundreds of thousands of families taking out mortgages to build new houses and even second properties as investments. The countryside is littered with unoccupied housing estates. When the Global Financial Crisis hit in 2008, mortgage defaults increased and the banking system collapsed.
In a way, history is repeating itself in Ireland, as those that can leave are doing so in droves. Young, well-educated, well-trained Irish workers are doing just as their forebears in times of crisis in the past did, 'jumping ship' for the New World. Australia and Canada seem to be the most popular destinations as our economies offer fairly abundant employment opportunities driven by the commodities boom.
One last comment about our whole trip.
The contrasts between the UK, Ireland, South Africa and home (Australia) are interesting to explore. The UK and Australia are further removed from South Africa than most people realise. While all three use the term 'two speed' to refer to their economies, it is in South Africa that this gap is greatest. In the UK and Australia it is about who has more and who has less. In South Africa it is; who has all and who has virtually nothing.
On returning home after a trip like this we are often asked, 'what was the best part'. Usually, our answer is 'all of it!'. This time however, South Africa stands out for us. Our trip there was our first, so naturally it was all new to us. But it was much more than just that. The scenery is varied and simply stunning. The culture is complex and intriguing. It is a country with enormous problems and challenges, but it has come a long way since the dark days of Apartheid and it is beginning to emerge as a real power on the African continent.
So. Where next? Alaska and Canada? South America? More of South East Asia? China? Russia????

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