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Mark Nightingale

Mark Nightingale  

We crossed paths with Mark Nightingale from England, in B.C. on day 9 of our trip, near the end of his east-west trip. He walked across Canada in three summers, continuing each year from where he had left off. He walked 7,591 kilometres in 198 walking days. The owner of the Heather Mountain Lodge said he was surprised that Mark was carrying so much weight including a huge radio, since small radios do exist. He mentioned that Mark left his tuque to add to their collection on display in the Tuque Room.

Mark has been travelling across all seven continents since April 1999 as a "Mid Life Retirement." As his descriptions of his travels are well written (especially for a guy who left school at age 15) and I think people may enjoy reading them, I am posting a few of them here with Mark's permission. I find his capitalization of "Me" interesting, and it makes sense, since we capitalize "I" and everyone else's name, like Dick and Jane and Spot.

Travel stories of Mark Nightingale

The Sixth Channel (Nov. 15, 2004)

The Pope Mobile (Sept. 29, 2005)
Open Drains, Trains and Auto Rickshaws (Feb. 26, 2006)

The Sixth Channel (Nov. 15, 2004)

Dear All,

The sweat was pouring from my head like a mini-waterfall. With the temperature in the high 80s (about 35C) and almost 100% humidity, I shoveled wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow full of sand and deposited it at the back of the house. I couldn't believe that just three weeks before, I had stood freezing cold at the Arctic Circle. Even harder to believe was the fact that I was still in the same country. Just three weeks before, I was wearing almost every item of clothing that I have, to fight off the bitter cold Alaskan autumn. Now I was wearing as little as I possibly could, and that still felt like too much.

I found myself in Pensacola Beach, Florida, at the home of Peggy, the mother of my friend, Jay. Looking at the mess that her humble abode was in, it was hard to appreciate that she was one of the lucky ones. Five weeks earlier, the beautiful, idyllic Island on which Peggy and her sister, Jane, have chosen to retire was completely evacuated. Hours after the Island was cleared, it was struck by the fiercest hurricane in living memory. All hurricanes are named as soon as they start to materialise. This one was named 'Ivan'. Although it may not have been politically correct, I'm sure that some people in these parts would have liked to have called this one 'Osama' or 'Saddam'.

The term 'war zone' is too often used in lame circumstances. The way my Mum complained about the state of my bedroom as a teenager comes to mind. However, this really did look as though some kind of battle had taken place. The Island is little more than a large sandbank off the coast of North West Florida, connected to the mainland by a single bridge. Before going to the Island, I bought myself a postcard to see what it once looked like. Imagine a busy seaside resort, full of beautiful properties. 'Dream homes' would be a perfect way to describe them. Golden, yet almost white sandy beaches with crystal clear water. Quaint restaurants and cafés, boutiques and shops. Home to around 40,000 people. I'm sure many have previously described their life on the Island as being something close to 'Paradise'.

Then along came 'Ivan' and in one night, the livelihoods of many were washed away. Five weeks on, Jay and I found our first sighting quite overwhelming. Driving along the main street that runs the length of the Island was frightening. The debris was piled everywhere. Some houses were completely washed away. Others stand as though they were almost untouched, until you look inside and see sand, four feet high, covering what was once a living room or a kitchen.

The entire population of the Island were unable to return to their homes for almost a month. This was due to the fact that the Island was unsafe. Electricity pylons were scattered across roads and gardens. Broken sewage pipes had added to the carnage, and presented an additional health risk. Anything that may have been salvageable immediately after the hurricane had been badly affected by mould by the time we got there.

Jay and I are no experts at fixing houses, so our main task was to clear up as best as possible. For several days we just removed sand, carpets, furniture, soiled clothing, books and debris from the house and the surrounding area. By the time we left, the house was almost empty. Just a few items of furniture had been salvaged. About 30 boxes housed books and ornaments that had not been damaged in the storm. It could take months before the roof and ceiling get fixed, as you can imagine, roofers, carpenters, plumbers and electricians are in great demand. Then, the house will need to be completely redecorated, so it could be quite a while before the house can be inhabited again.

A few weeks earlier, I belatedly and somewhat reluctantly left friends behind in Calgary and Vancouver and started my journey to Alaska. It was almost the end of August, and I was surprised that some people thought I was crazy to be going North at this time of year. My first inkling that I had not heeded advice was soon to come. As I headed Northbound on the ferry through the Inside Passage towards Alaska, it was plainly obvious that few others had the same idea. The ferry was virtually empty of people. In fact, the crew members outnumbered passengers by two to one. When I had mentioned to people in Vancouver that I was heading North, the overwhelming response was, "Why?"

By the time the ferry reached its final destination of Skagway, only seven people alighted. The ferry journey had nonetheless been quite exciting. Several times we had whales and dolphins for company, swimming in our wake, tossing and turning above the waves with ease, providing the few of us passengers with much better entertainment than the dodgy movie playing in the TV lounge. The scenery is at times breathtaking, and at other times far from just ordinary. It was obvious why about 750,000 people take luxury cruises through the Inside Passage every summer.

The week that my ferry arrived in Skagway was also the same week that the last of this year's cruise ships would arrive. Of 85 shops and restaurants on the Main Street of Skagway, only three would remain open after the second week of September. The rest would close until the middle of June next year. Much the same could be said about the rest of the North of North America.

I first visited the Yukon Territory and the town of Whitehorse. Much of the town was preparing for winter already, and in many cases that meant a journey to Florida or Mexico. How about this for a statistic: the Yukon is twice the size of Great Britain, and its population is about 30,000. That's barely the size of a crowd at football match. A vast expanse of wilderness, of trees and lakes, and not a lot else. A few weeks before, the roads were full of vacationing people in their large mobile homes, and campgrounds were more like tent cities. But now the roads were empty, campgrounds are closed, and the eight-hour bus ride to Dawson City with just one other passenger was almost traffic-free all the way in both directions.

My goal was to see the Northern Lights. I had read of the fantastic light shows of the Aurora Borealis. I had even been treated to a few small sightings whilst walking across the Prairies last year, but I wanted to see them in the extreme North, in all their glory. For almost two weeks I had been hoping, but was continuously thwarted by clouds. On the ferry, in Skagway, and again in Whitehorse, I would wrap up and take a late night walk in the hope of a glimpse, but all to no avail. As I booked into my motel in Dawson City, the night sky was clear, and the owner told me that for sure tonight I would almost certainly see the Northern Lights. The only problem was that they could come at any time, and maybe for just a few minutes. I had to make a plan.

My favourite type of accommodation is a motel. Almost without exception, you get a big bed, a bath and a TV with a remote control. I can't tell you how many times I have locked myself away for a day in a motel, resting from the outside world on one of my walks. Actually, the sad thing is that I probably could tell you the number of times, but that is not relevant here. For once, the ridiculous frequency of television commercial breaks would be a help. Whichever show I was watching, I would take a walk outside during the break to see if the real show had begun. I only had five channels to choose from. The sixth channel was totally black, except for a blur of white light in the corner. I just presumed that this channel was off air.

And so the farce began. The commercials would come on, I would rush outside, see nothing but pitch black, get cold very quickly, rush back inside, and try to get warm before the next commercial break, when I would rush out and see nothing and get cold again. This went on until eventually tiredness got the better of me and I dropped off to sleep. Sometime later I woke, and too exhausted to get up, I fumbled for the remote to turn off the TV. Instead of the off button, I accidentally hit the channel button, and found myself staring at the weird channel that was mostly black with the white blur in the corner. Now, there were some weird green streaks going across the screen. I found the off button, hit it and was fast asleep in seconds.

The next day I met the only other passenger from the bus at the only local café. He asked me if I had seen the Northern Lights, and I told him that I had checked every 15 minutes until after 1:00 in the morning. "You just missed them, then," he told me. Then he asked why I was running outside every 15 minutes, when all I had to do was watch the local 'Northern Lights watch' station.

I then realised that I had seen the Northern Lights 'Live' from the comfort of my own motel room, and not only turned them off, but turned over and went to sleep. The weird channel was actually just a camera perched at the top of a local mountain, and the white blur was the town lights, blurred because the camera was misted over -- and those green streaks, that would have been the Northern Lights -- and me, I slept through them. Up to the night I flew out from Anchorage, I religiously checked but to no avail. Then as my flight took off and headed South, I checked out of my window, and I could see this amazing green glow on the horizon. After almost a month of searching, the lights came out to say goodbye, or perhaps to give me a proverbial single finger.

Finally, I just wanted to share a little message that I received a couple of weeks ago. It was from a young Australian man named Ian, who I met earlier this year. He wrote and told me that he had been influenced by my walking exploits, so much so, that he and a friend had decided to walk across a country too. I am pleased and proud to announce that they both made it safely across the 28 kms of Liechtenstein.

My journey had taken an unexpected detour to Florida, but I now find myself back on track and heading South for the winter. I am in Western Samoa, staying in a little beach hut (Fale) on a most beautiful beach, recovering from all that hard work shifting sand and furniture. I don't think I will be building too many sandcastles. Just two more weeks, and I will be in my favourite country, New Zealand.

Love, Mark

Mark's 2004 photos:
Canada | USA | Florida | Inside Passage | Yukon & Alaska | Western Samoa

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The Pope Mobile (Sept. 29, 2005)

I knew that the 14-hour bus journey I was just about to embark on would be a potentially dangerous one, the moment I set my eyes upon the decrepit, dusty bashed-up excuse for a bus. The chassis and the undercarriage were out of line, giving the impression that when the bus moved forward, the chassis was going towards the oncoming traffic, a notion that was confirmed during the journey, as many vehicles coming towards us had to veer off the road to avoid a collision that actually was never going to happen. The tires did nothing to inspire confidence, as they were almost all virtually bald. What grip they may have had would have been impeded by the clumps of wire that protruded from the otherwise smooth rubber. Then I saw the driver who looked as though he may have already been driving all night. He probably had, or perhaps he was the guy that I saw being carried out completely inebriated and unconscious from the bar of my hotel the previous evening!

On closer inspection, an exercise I immediately regretted, I saw loose doors and windows. Rusty and torn pieces of metal hanging from equally rusty and torn hinges. Broken tail lights and no entrance door where the entrance door should be. My saving grace was the image that greeted Me at the back of the bus. The entire back end of the bus was covered in a much larger than life, very well-painted portrait of the late Pope, his hands held together across the centre of his chest in prayer. He had that gentle, calming look about him that said I shouldn't worry. So, feeling a little less worried, I boarded the bus and sat in my assigned seat. Number 13! I'm not superstitious, but when I established that seat 14 was not being used, I moved there. Only because it was a window seat, of course.

The plastic-covered seats were quite small, let's say figure-hugging, and maybe for a half-hour journey would have been fine. But with a journey of more than half a day ahead of Me, it would only be a matter of time before my buttocks and back would be covered in an uncomfortable sweat. My first decision was to decide whether I would feel safer wearing or not wearing my seat belt. I decided that wearing my seatbelt would be the best option. I pulled the belt across my lap, only to discover that the buckle was missing. I quickly re-assessed my options and decided that not wearing a seatbelt was the better and, let's face it, only option. At least there was a curtain, so I could not only block out the sun, but also shut out the view of vehicles, just inches away, that we would be passing at excessive speed. I pulled the grubby soiled piece of material, and it promptly fell off in my hand.

It was already stifling inside the bus, so I tried to open the window. It was stiff, but I eventually managed to pry it open a few inches. A cool breeze momentarily cooled Me, and I eased back into my chair, closing my eyes for a few seconds. I almost instantly started to doze, but was immediately shaken awake with a loud "Psssttt" and a "Hey Mister". I opened my eyes, and just a few inches from my face was a piece of freshly barbecued and very burnt corn on the cob, impaled on a long stick that extended through the open window and down to a young boy on the street. He did his best to sell me the corn, but out of luck, moved to the next open window and tried his luck there.

An open window of a bus is the best and probably only chance of a sale for most of the street traders that ply their trade at bus stations, so a long procession of goods were paraded for Me to look at. This, I guess, is the African version of 'window shopping'. I could have bought sunglasses, newspapers, wristwatches, hairbrushes or tool kits. I could have spent the entire journey munching on eggs, bananas, biscuits, cashew nuts, mangoes and smoked fish. I might have wanted to buy a completely new wardrobe of bootleg Real Madrid and Brazil football shirts, white dress shirts and even a bow tie! Sandals made from old tires were on offer, and live chickens, too. I resisted all temptation, and eventually the bus, laden with people, chickens, an assortment of produce from rice to charcoal, left only five minutes after its scheduled departure time.

For me, Tanzania is one of Africa's most intriguing countries, still not totally recovered from a Socialist regime that spanned most of the 1970s and 80s. It is slowly coming out of the dark ages and making progress. I first visited Tanzania back in 1988, at the back end of Socialism. Dar es Salaam, the country's main city, was in the midst of the effects of what the Socialism had achieved, or more likely, not achieved. Shops were sparsely stocked. When a commodity such as sugar or salt was in stock, lines of people would extend the length of the street and beyond, and each customer would be rationed to one packet each. Restaurants would proudly present a full and impressive menu, only to tell you when ordering that everything is "finished" and that the only thing available was chicken and rice.

After the reign of Julius Kambarage Nyerere, the leader who had led Tanzania into socialism, was at an end and a more democratic way of life took over, understandably because of lack of confidence and perhaps a fair deal of suspicion, it took several years for the Tanzanian people to feel confident to take the plunge and move forward in business. One area that surely expanded quickly was transport. During the Socialist regime, most of the rural population had been ousted from their homes and moved closer to the main roads. Now, free to move around but too poor to own their own vehicles, traveling by bus was easily the best, and frankly, their only option. Even today, most of the more than 35 million inhabitants of Tanzania will use buses as their main method of transport.

And so it is, that it seems that every other vehicle on the road is a coach-like bus or a Daladala, which is a small minibus that tends to cover the shorter local routes in or between towns. Many of them may well have been new when the Socialist regime gave way, but now they mostly look tired, battered and worn out, well past their 'sell by' date, much like the one I was now traveling on.

Just as we set off, I was very impressed that the on-board staff member came around with a small plastic bag for rubbish. What a great initiative, I thought. Not only that, but most people on the bus proceeded to fill the bag with their rubbish over the course of the journey. Considering the amount of rubbish one sees on the side of the road all over the world, including Tanzania, I was quite touched that this bus company was making an effort. That was, until the lady sitting beside Me reached across and threw her neatly-tied bag of rubbish out of the window that I had opened and couldn't now close, despite what felt like a force ten gale hitting me on two fronts, the window and the flow from the missing entrance door. I saw a few more neatly-tied plastic bags of rubbish fly out of the window, but my spirits lifted when towards the end of the journey, the on-board staff member came along the aisle and collected quite a few neatly-tied plastic bags, and put them into a large black plastic rubbish bag, which he then tied neatly. I was once again impressed with the initiative, but only temporarily. A few moments later I saw movement by the missing entrance door, and then a large neatly-tied black rubbish bag flew past my window!

The journey was actually not that bad, really. Yes, there were moments when I felt as though I was on a roller-coaster. Yes, there were times I questioned the driver's sanity, and my own sanity for taking the bus! We swerved to miss other vehicles, chickens and cows, and people on bicycles. The driver seemed to constantly have his hand on the horn, tooting other vehicles, chickens and cows, and people on bicycles, barely slowing to take tight corners, and never slowing for other vehicles, chickens and cows, and people on bicycles. The important thing is that we made it safely, in one piece, and apart from a few aches and pains and feeling a little sad about the dispatching of the rubbish, in good spirits and dreaming of the return journey and ... I wonder how much it will cost to fly?

I know it's been a long time since I last wrote, and I apologise for that, but I have been far from idle. If I get time, I will put together a few backdated stories from the missing months. I was in New Zealand and Australia for several months. I stopped in Christchurch for a few months, where I drank lots of coffee, watched lots of movies, and trained for and ran my first Marathon. More recently, after a very quick visit to England to see my Mum and Dad, I have spent a few months back at the farm in Tanzania. I will be returning to the farm next week, a journey that will include another long and interesting bus journey.

I'm now well into the seventh and final year of my seven year, one week and five days journey. However, I have already started to make plans for another long walk, a bit of a turnaround, as when I finished walking across Canada, I said that I would never do another long walk. Starting on the 1st of June 2007, I'm going to walk from the Arctic Ocean to the Mediterranean/Atlantic (Nordkapp in the North of Norway to Gibraltar). I can't do it next year, because it would clash with the World Cup! Not sure if I will keep going for another seven years, but then again, I do rather enjoy this lifestyle. I hope you are all well, and I will try to write a bit more often from now on.

Best wishes, Mark

Mark's 2005 photos:
African Safari | Kilimanjaro | New Zealand

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Open Drains, Trains and Auto Rickshaws (Feb. 26, 2006)

Dear All,

My flight arrived at 3:00 in the morning, and I took a taxi that was surely built for smaller people than I am, to my hotel. The streets were poorly lit, and the taxi's headlights were barely strong enough to pick out the road ahead. I was squashed into the seat next to my driver, who drove at breakneck speed through streets that were riddled with potholes, and despite the time of day or night as it still was, were busy with all types of vehicles and animals. My head was touching the roof of the car, my view restricted by both the lack of light and a smelly perfumed, somewhat deformed soft toy, a dog I think it may have once been, that was attached to the rim of the windscreen directly in my line of sight.

The passenger door rattled and seemed as though it would fall off anytime very soon, and its window was covered in a dark film, clearly designed to shield the passenger from the intense sun that wouldn't be rising for another three hours. There was no handle to wind down the window, and my search for a seatbelt was pointless. I doubt that there ever was one.

With a restricted view of the road ahead, I strained my eyes for any signs that might tell Me where I was heading. I saw much rubbish on the side of the road, many people too, sleeping in the streets, in doorways and on walls and inside taxis and rickshaws. I arrived at my hotel, situated down what appeared to be a quiet side street, checked in, and after a quick shower, collapsed into my bed.

When I was kid, one of my favourite shows on television was a cartoon called Mr Benn. Not to be confused with Mr. Bean, this cartoon was about a man who liked to go to a costume shop and try on different costumes, like a Knight, a Chef, a Deep Sea Diver or a King. The mysterious shopkeeper would always tell Mr Benn about the extra door at the back of the changing room. Mr Benn would always go through this special door, where he would immediately be launched into an adventure that was linked with the costume that Mr Benn had chosen that week. His experience was always a world away from his normal daily life. He would always have an amazing adventure, and just before things started to get out of hand, the mysterious shopkeeper would materialise from seemingly nowhere and show him the door that would take him back to the changing room.

I walked out of the hotel and felt just like Mr Benn. The previously quiet streets were teeming with people, vehicles and animals. Within a few steps, I felt like I had walked into a world that I have never encountered. The sights, smells and sounds momentarily overwhelmed Me. I couldn't quite believe that I was in the suburbs of Mumbai, fashion and film capital of India. It was the spectacle before Me that was hard to take in. Thousands of people moving in every direction. Buses, trucks, bicycles and rickshaws, both man-powered and gas powered. Cars, motorbikes, taxis and pushcarts with vegetables and many other goods for sale and transporting. Donkeys, dogs, camels and rubbish. Piles of rubbish and the smell of rubbish, mixed with the odours of spices and perfumes and the unmistakable smell of stale human waste.

That walk to a restaurant, where I planned to have breakfast, was my first real introduction to India. It was both exhilarating and daunting, nauseating and exciting. As I walked into the air-conditioned back room of the restaurant, it was like I had taken the advice of Mr Benn's shopkeeper and returned to the changing room after my short adventure.

Seven weeks on, a walk through any Indian street is still very much an adventure. Every corner turned throws up a new image of something crazy, something not quite believable. I guess that India is one of those places that you either love or hate, and I doubt that it's very easy to be somewhere in the middle. On my first full day in Mumbai, I took a local train to a station five stops on from the one close to my hotel, and walked back to my hotel. I think it was on that 10-mile hike through the Northern suburbs of the city formerly known as Bombay that I realised I was going to love it here.

It is quite literally a case of affluence meets effluence. A street that has open sewers and slum houses built from nothing more than plastic and cardboard can equally have a department store right next door, selling all the latest fashions, perfumes, furniture and up-to-date electrical equipment. So often, I walked past houses that were held together with nothing more than bits of string or wire. The streets themselves were dirty, covered with rubbish and filth that won't be washed away until the next monsoon season, although the worry must always be as to where it will wash away to. Curiously though, the odd glimpse inside one of the makeshift homes revealed a cleanliness and tidiness that my Mum would have been proud of. People were going about their daily business, preparing food, bathing and sweeping. Children played, and the smiles of so many people would melt the heart of any romantic.

Although travelling by foot revealed so much, it is not the fastest way to get around, and with huge distances to be covered in any town whilst exploring, I adopted the auto rickshaw as my preferred method of travel. This three-wheeled black and yellow vehicle that resembles an overgrown fairground bumper car not only looks a little like a bee. It kind of sounds like one, and thousands and thousands of them buzz around towns, weaving their way through impossible traffic jams. I'm certain that to become an auto rickshaw driver, you have to be at least a little bit mad. In fact, after seeing one involved in an accident, I think to be a passenger in one, you have to be a little bit mad.

A bus just clipped the side of an auto rickshaw that was coming towards me, and it flipped like the flick of a coin. Fortunately, no one was badly hurt, but it's hardly surprising that the death toll on Indian roads exceeds 85,000 each year. The roads are thick with traffic. In the towns especially, there seems to be no fixed rule for overtaking, giving way or signaling. Every driver seems to have his own agenda.

The use of the horn must be the first thing that a driver learns, as horns are used excessively for no apparent reason. In one 12-minute journey in Hyderabad, my driver used the horn 106 times. Multiply that by a few thousand drivers, all with one hand on the steering wheel and the other on the horn, and you would think that the tempers would be flying. And yet, I have not seen one instant of road rage. I've seen plenty of incidents that elsewhere in the world would have got the tempers boiling, but here I have never seen anyone even curse another driver, apart from Me perhaps!

A journey on a local train is a journey not easily forgotten. I let three pass before I felt confident enough to attempt boarding. The thing is that there is very little time allowed at each station for boarding and alighting. As a result, as hundreds of people attempt to get off the train, hundreds more attempt to get on. This creates a bottleneck in the doorway, and it can take several minutes and several more stations before you reach a section of the coach where you feel relatively safe. The doors don't close. People hang from the doorways. They sit between coaches on the buffers, and some even sit on the roof. Despite all of this, again I saw no evidence of anger or rage towards fellow passengers. This was the ultimate of an invasion of one's personal space, and I did feel considerably uncomfortable. Apart from the concern that we may all suffocate, the thought of a mass of heaving bodies being thrown through the open door concerned me. Being pick-pocketed, I felt, was the least of my worries.

For the longer distances, Indian Trains has it completely sorted. A legacy built under the rule of the British Empire, the Indian Railway system is a lifeline for much of the country. It's impressive, to say the least. Indian Trains is the largest employer in the world, with 1.65 million employees! That's a drop in the ocean, when you consider that the population of India exceeds 1.1 billion. I travelled second class, air conditioned on several trains throughout the country. It's a very comfortable way to travel, and certainly for Westerners and Middle Class Indians, very good value for money.

Of course, like everything else in this country, the start of a train journey is the start of an adventure, from booking your ticket to finding your seat to ordering dinner. Every ticket office I visited was a disorganised mess of bodies, scrambling for a place in one of dozens of lines. The first line you join is to get an application form. I'm not sure why they need to know the age of every passenger, but that is one of many questions asked on the application form. Failure to fill in the application form correctly will result in a humiliating telling off from the booking clerk, and worst of all, banishment to the back of the line to fill in your form again. Then you have to find a line that sells the right ticket to your destination. This can take anything from just a few minutes to a couple of hours.

With ticket in hand, the scramble for the train is fairly easy, as long as you take someone who knows what they are doing with you. The porters seem to know exactly where your coach will stop on the platform and then you take your seat, and for the price of just a few Rupees, it's well worth employing one of them. Before you have even had a chance to unpack your reading material and book of Sudoku puzzles, a man comes through taking orders for dinner, breakfast and lunch. Another fetches blankets, fresh sheets and pillows. Everyone ties their luggage down with chains and padlocks, and two notices on board make you just a little wary. The first says that in the event of a crime taking place, you don't need to wait until the next station to report it to the police, as the guard has crime report forms on board. The second says that you should not accept any food or drink from strangers, as they may contain drugs that will make you sleep and leave you vulnerable to being robbed or molested. With all this in mind, an attempt at sleeping can be a little tough, especially as people are getting on and off through the night.

I absolutely love the staff on the train. They seem dedicated beyond the call of duty, probably because they have a few money-making schemes going on. The tea man is my favourite. I can never resist the call as he waltzes down the aisle calling "Chai, chai, coffee, chai". The sweet milky Indian tea is the perfect antidote for a long train journey. A few minutes later, another man will come through calling what sounds like "Cheapskate". I wondered if he was referring to all those who hadn't given the man with the tea a tip, but then realised that he was actually offering chips and cake for sale. And so it goes on: the omelet man, the vegetable cutlets man, the drinks man, and the snacks man, and then at every station, a procession of salesmen get on and try to sell their wares quickly before the train pulls away.

I joined a tour for three and a half weeks. I got a late booking, and it was the best decision I could have made. When I bought my India guidebook, I realised that although I had a couple of months to explore the country, I had little chance of seeing a lot without a little help from a tour company. When I travel alone, I go far too slowly. I've been known to stay in towns for three days just because I like a café or a restaurant. I stayed in one poky town in Canada for four days just to catch the opening day of a movie! The tour took me and some very nice co-passengers through Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh and we wondered at some of India's finest tourist sites. The Taj Mahal just blew me away. Built by the Shah Jahan in memory of his favourite wife who died giving birth to their 14th child, this monument is quite simply one of the most beautiful buildings I have ever seen. It took 22 years and 20,000 men to build it. Amazing to think that most people just splash out on a marble headstone, and this bloke completely lost the plot.

I have to admit that prior to coming to India, apart from a few very well-known places like the Taj Mahal, I knew very little about the country. That's why being on a tour made my visit even more special, as I ended up in places that weren't even in my guidebook. We stayed the night in a couple of forts and another couple in Havelis that are like palaces. Highlights included the holy Hindu town of Pushkar, where there is a lake that is ringed by 500 temples and 52 Ghats, which are steps that lead to water and are very important bathing areas for Hindus. Pushkar has over the years become a Hippy haven, and the place is crawling with long-haired hippies who seem to have been there for an eternity. Not a bad place to lay down one's backpack. Udaipur has another lake called Pichola, this one made famous by being used in a James Bond movie, Octopussy. Varanasi is the town on the Ganges where many Hindus are cremated. We took a boat trip and witnessed several cremations taking place just yards away from people bathing and doing their washing. Quite bizarre! We saw a tiger, one of the most majestic sights I have ever seen.

I wish I had time to bore you with all the stories of forts and moguls, of maharajas and temples, but since I arrived in India, I have been relentlessly trying to eat two curries a day, and I am starting to feel like a little Hungry Krishna. So, it's time for Me to sign off for now.

Love, Mark

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