Pedalling for Scotland – well for Malawi actually

My very short trip last weekend might merit a blog post, since it was 45 miles by bicycle. I was part of a group who raised funds for girls’ education in Malawi. The ride itself was fine because I had used the project as an excuse to get fit and to abandon all other responsibilities in favour of cycling. It was great to have that motivation and the imperative to leave my desk and take to the roads and cycle paths.

Nearly 8,000 people took part in the event, some cycling 93 miles, some 10 miles and most of us doing 45 miles. Some people had not obviously trained much, nor were in the best shape but it was an ‘all shapes and sizes’ kind of event. Once the sleek, speedy, lycra-clad chaps (mostly men) had woven their way through the crowd and headed off to beat their own internal targets, the mere mortals pedalled on in a sociable way. There were rest/feeding stations on the way. The first ones were busy but there was more space and shorter loo queues as we got nearer Edinburgh.

Sadly someone had put tacks on the road in places so as to sabotage this happy event, resulting in lots of punctures and delays. How horrible is that? Luckily our group didn’t have any problem other than the rain and a bit of ‘maybe I should have trained more’.

A couple of years ago I would never have contemplated attempting that distance but, in the end, it didn’t feel very far at all. The only injury I sustained was hurting my back when moving rucksacks to make space for the bike in the hostel the night before. Silly. As well as the fun and the sense of achievement, we raised over £4,000.00 for our two charities – for girls’ at secondary school and young women at university in Malawi. I am heading off to Malawi shortly so watch this space for some stories.

 

 

 

 

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Cambridge – ‘Bicycle capital of the UK’

Bike facilities at YHA Cambridge

I knew there were lots of bikes and cyclists in Cambridge but nothing prepares you for the reality of it. Even in the Artic conditions of this weekend, the streets are full of bicycles. Bikes are used to carry children (often more than one), shopping, dogs and anything else that needs to be transported. YHA hostels always have bike ‘sheds’ but the Cambridge one has a range of bike lockers AND a maintenance point – so I didn’t need to bring my pump or multi-tool kit.

Alternative antlers in the Old Bicycle Shop restaurant

There are so many bikes that the riders don’t need to be afraid of the motorised traffic. Bicycles were here first, after all.  However, some of the manoeuvres are startling – cyclists in dark clothing just dart across the traffic wherever they like. It’s even more hair-raising (if you weren’t wearing a hat to stay warm) in the dark where bicycle lights are clearly considered a waste of energy. Make a stand against climate change – ride your bike without lights. Eeek!

I was sad not to have adventures on my bike here. It is really too cold for recreational cycling – at least for this softie! But the city is beautiful and
the history so interesting. Bikes are not at all a modern invention, relatively, and so it should not seem so incongruous to see this bowler-hatted College porter behind all the bikes at this College gate. There is an ‘illumination’ festival on just now during which complex lighting shows are played on many of the old buildings in the city – gorgeous.

Note to self: come back with a bike in warmer weather!

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Travelling by cago in Karonga

Getting to a meeting in style, cago-style
Getting to a meeting in style, cago-style

Having had the good luck of a lift from Mzuzu in a fancy vehicle, I am in Karonga, in the far north of Malawi. It is hot here and will get hotter as the summer goes on. It’s not a big city and my comfortable hotel, the Kapata Lodge, is close to where I need to be for my Mamie Martin Fund work here. However it is too hot to walk very far at any time after 8 am. The solution – ‘cago’ – is at hand.

Cute little passenger
Cute little passenger

Karonga is close to the Tanzanian border and has a history of import-export with considerable smuggling activity. Bicycles were used for carrying cargo in these business activities. Now the cargo travels by motorised vehicles but someone started this new business of bicycle taxi and they are known as ‘cago’, from ‘cargo’; you hail one by calling ‘cago’. As a msungu I don’t need to hail one at all, they will usually ask if I need their services. The city is full of bikes and these cagos are bigger than personal ones and the carrier is often decorated. They are comfortable and fast. Safe is not something to think too much about but all that would happen with a tumble is that I would get a bit dustier and give even more entertainment to the locals. The young men who ride them are generally thin and wear poor clothing. With a standard fare of 100MKW (about 10 pence in the UK), I can’t imagine them getting very rich anytime soon. I pay them more than that, especially when I ask them to pose for photos. I made this young man’s day when I added a ‘modelling’ fee to the fare and paid him the equivalent of a whole pound.

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Travelling within Malawi – a bit challenging

Travelling light (not)
Travelling light (not)

The public transport between Malawian cities seems woefully inadequate in terms of the numbers who need to travel and the bus capacity available. Having gone from Lilongwe to Mzuzu on the ‘local’ bus on my last trip, I decided to go upmarket this time. I bought a ticket on the ‘Executive’ bus in advance but knew that this did not guarantee me a seat. Sadly this bus comes from Blantyre so some seats will already be taken and it is not possible to arrive hours earlier and occupy a seat.

Bus scrum
Bus scrum

I am travelling with three suitcases because of all the resources I am bringing to partners in the North. This means that I had to see two of those stowed before trying to get on. Their contents are too precious to our schools to lose or get left behind. By the time this was done, a rugby-type scrum was in full progress. There was no system for differentiating between those with tickets and those buying them there or later, on the bus. The bigger and stronger you were, the faster you got on the bus. I was championed by a man with a baby who saw that I had a ticket and that I didn’t have a hope of winning the scrum. Even that did not get me on board in time to get a seat. I sat down on the floor where I remained for two hours, till some people got off in Kusungu. To say that it was hot and dirty … I knew there was no toilet for hours so drank my water very sparingly. Once I had a seat, and it was beside a slim person, things improved hugely.

Dining in the dark
Dining in the dark

Easy taxi ride to my hotel (not so easy for the taxi driver who had to move my cases around), a hot shower (again!) and over to the hotel restaurant for dinner. It was in darkness but the city had power. ‘Yes we are open, sorry about the light’ was the response to my enquiry. No explanation as to why the lights didn’t work. Deciding not to push my luck, I just asked what food there was, as menus are often aspirational around here. Chicken and rice. I might as well get used to it. Beer was on the menu but they didn’t actually have any. They would send out for it, which they did, gaining my eternal gratitude. Beer wasn’t the best idea after such a dehydrating day …

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Hand luggage solutions – on the way to Malawi

at-golden-temple
Any hand luggage madam?
kilimanjaro-sunrise
Mt Kilimanjaro at sunrise

Transiting through Nairobi on the way to Malawi was picturesque. Not only did I spot these amazing women heading for their departure gate but I also got a gorgeous view of Mount Kilimanjaro. Wow! Another peak south of it was also pretty impressive. I don’t have the internet connection here to check that name.

usb_points_airplan
Who knew?

I don’t fly much (honestly) so was surprised at the usb points in each of the Kenyan Airways planes I was on this trip. Is this common now? Handy for charging, which is the point I suppose – pardon the pun.

 

 

welcome-to-malawi
Only if you have mental telepathy

Then the arrival in Malawi. *sigh*. Lovely little airport – ‘Welcome to the warm heart of Africa’. Yes, it is that in every way but … I had checked their website (Ministry of Immigration) and it was clear that Irish nationals did not need an entry visa. Ah, well, they explained when I got to the desk, that changed last December. ‘Is the website wrong? Sorry sorry. But all the other Irish people know that they need a visa.’ Given that I could easily imagine a similar protestation being made in Ireland (‘but all the other Malawians know …’) I could not maintain my crossness too much. It did mean another lengthy queue and refraining from being rude in response to every ‘and how are you today?’ greeting. I was glad of a hot (yes, hot) shower and rest in the wonderful Kiboko Hotel very soon thereafter.

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Birmingham surprises

Iron:Man 1993

Coming back through Birmingham city centre after a conference, I spent some time looking for football memorabilia (yes, really!). I had no luck with that but took a wander and found this giant Gormley ‘Iron:Man‘. I said ‘hello’ to it and brought it greetings from the Gormley people who used to live in the Water of Leith in Edinburgh – we hope to see their return soon. Like all of Antony Gormley’s art, the setting is a stunning part of the piece. Against a backdrop of the classical buildings here in Birmingham, it is amazing.

Birmingham New Street Station

Heading back down to the station, the sight of the station facade was so startling that I stopped dead to ponder it. A passing chap asked if I was all right and seemed unimpressed with the amazing reflections – he is a local and considered it all a bit of a mess. At first it looked like an enormous landform, but it is just the new facing of the station which reflects the city about it. Stunning!

Happy with that unexpected injection of culture, my Brompton and I headed through the fabulous new station, stocked up with provisions for the journey and got on the train home to Edinburgh. I had the usual hassle from train staff about using my own cup but they backed down when I insisted, truthfully, that I had been in touch with their management online about the issue. Grrr

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New depths of inaccessibility

My last post was one of outrage and disbelief at an accessible toilet being down a flight of steps. I hadn’t realised that this seems quite common. Covent Garden, no less, has an accessible toilet on the lower level but no access to that area other than flights of stairs. So that whole part of Covent Garden is off limits to disabled people. It would beggar belief except that I am getting used to it.

For show only

A final complaint about inaccessibility in England (these incidents simply don’t happen in Scotland) is about our hotel – the Copthorne Tara Kensington. The service and facilities are generally lamentable on this visit and that was capped today by the explanation for the call button to the adjoining room not working – ‘we disconnected all those rooms because the call systems were a nuisance to other guests’. So, the technology of switching off those systems when the rooms were not occupied by a single party is beyond one of the large London hotels. No – it’s just that the needs of disabled customers don’t matter.

Edited to add: Harrods is a lovely exception – very accessible shop and helpful courteous staff.

Back to Scotland with us …

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‘Accessible’ toilet down a flight of stairs and raining mulberries

Very accessible – not!

Even I couldn’t make it up:

‘Do you have a disabled toilet?’ ‘Yes, let me show you.’ I was pointed to the stairs. We went down and there was the accessible toilet. Surely there was another entrance? No.

‘How can a wheelchair user get down here?’, I asked. ‘I never thought of that’ was the honest response.

The mulberries – rubbish pic, sorry
Just down here, Madam

This surreal conversation took place at ‘The Lodge’, an otherwise delightful cafe at Hyde Park Corner, in London. Most of the seating is under a mulberry tree which rained mulberries on us from time to time. Note: if wearing your best clothes, be careful where you sit. Also don’t expect to access the ‘facilities’ unless you can manage a flight of stairs.

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Digital age child and postage stamp

Fascinating incident when I wanted to post a postcard – you know the paper stuff with a picture on one side and the address and a message on the other.

My young Swedish friend (he is 9) was going to the shop which is also a post office. I gave him the postcard, which he also signed and which was addressed to New Zealand. I asked him to show the postcard to the cashier, to buy a stamp and to post the card. He did all of those things. I didn’t ask him to put the stamp on the card. How did he know what, if any, connection there might be between a postcard and a stamp and a letter box? He was quite amazed that I had expected him to put the stamp on the card.

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Sweden’s contradictions

Arriving in Sweden across the Oresund Bridge is always a thrill, of course, but to then see a train called ‘Kurt Wallender’ was icing on the cake of coming to visit this lovely country and my long-standing friends. 
Anything and everything gets carried on the train! You could hardly move for bikes but people here consider them to be a valued form of transport, not a public nuisance. 

It’s lovely to be back here and I am reminded of the fondness of these people for cabins in the forest without running water or electricity – they have had ultra-modern homes for a very long time. That’s their idea of relaxation. Ah well – everyone to their own.
Yes, cows
A contradiction that was new to me is the continued existence here of circuses with animals. How can the use of animals in this way be popular in a country famous for its social justice approach to life? There were some impressive acrobatic and strength displays but they were interspersed with parading cows (yes, cows), sheep, goats, lamas, dogs, camels and doves. Yes, the doves paraded too. The animals and birds would not always perform to order but they still got their treat at the end. 
I suppose that this is no different to using animals for food and other products but it felt very odd in this so-advanced society. 
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