It would be nice to tell you that, after five countries in just over three weeks and a fairly demanding schedule, I took a little time out to sort out my impressions. It didn't quite work out like that.
During the holiday planning stage, after I'd already acquired some preserved railway commitments, the travel dates were put back. Instad of the short respite I'd planned between returning from my trip and working on preserved railways, having arrived home a little before 9 p.m. on Saturday, I was faced with getting up at 4 a.m. on the Sunday, to do a morning driving turn at Peak Rail. This worked out alright, but I then had to get up at 5 a.m. on the following day to do a driving turn on the 'Planet' replica at the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester. Tuesday was just a day in the office but a client had, at a rather late stage, finally confirmed a training course we'd provisionally agreed to run in London on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. For various reasons, I decided to commute to London each day so that meant getting up at 3.30 a.m. for three days on the trot.
I survived that but I didn't do much during the following weekend, when we were blessed with about three inches of snow which made me think that my return to England had perhaps been premature! Now, I am starting to think through my conclusions after my fairly epic journey. It amazes me that such a journey is possible at all and that the arrangements made by my agents, Wexas, in general worked so well. It makes Jules Verne's fictional trip around the world look positively pedestrian.
Union of Myanmar
Before the fact, I had doubts about my visit on two counts: Would I be safe? Was I providing support to an unacceptable regime? It was a well-organised, high quality tour so the time when I would be alone was limited but I went off on my own when I could. At all times, I felt safer than at home. I discussed the issue of providing support for the regime with people in the territory whom I respected. Whilst there is major corruption, I was told that the tourist industry is too diffuse for government control and that the majority of the tourist dollar actually gets to ordinary people and does some good. There's certainly poverty in Myanmar - I was impressed with the charitable initiatives that the 'Road to Mandalay' ship is involved in covering education and medicine. I came away feeling hopeful. Although life is tough for many people, there is a real sense of spiritual belief (Buddhism is very strong) and there is a cheerfulness I didn't expect. Kipling wrote "Burma is different from anywhere you have ever seen" and in his poem 'Road to Mandalay' he describes how the country draws you back. He was right - I intend to return to Myanmar.
Las Vegas, Nevada
I didn't expect to like Las Vegas and, for once, I was right. At least, I've been to see for myself. A city which bills itself as "Sin City", with the sub-title "Everything to Excess" is hardly likely to commend itself to me. The city might have been merely 'naughty' but I had a sense of a darker undercurrent. The city also delights in its rather inelegantly expressed promise - "What happens in Las Vegas, stays in Las Vegas", which seems to invite the suspension of normal standards of behaviour. On every street corner, men push 'flyers' with telephone numbers to ring for a bewildering range of sexual services. At each intersection, there are long rows of bins with free newspapers with titles such as 'Barely Legal Asians, Blondes and Personals' and 'Young Blondes to Your Room'. The disclaimer that "All models are at least 18 years old and where applicable comply with 18 U.S.C. 2257" did not console me. Listening to the conversations of regular visitors on the bus, it was clear that most people don't share my distaste. Indeed, one of my friends in England thinks that Las Vegas is his favourite place on earth. Just in case I was over-reacting, I purchased a book about the city by Sally Denton and Roger Morris called 'The Money and the Power' (ISBN 0-375-70126-5) which had received good reviews. This book is harsher than even I could imagine in indicting the city. However, I got to see the Grand Canyon and the Hoover Dam and met some very nice people at the State Railway Museum, Boulder City.
Chichen Itza, Mexico
I'd enjoyed my previous visit to Mexico and I enjoyed this trip, staying at the 'Mayaland' resort next to the ruins of the Mayan city of Chichen Itza, but I was surprised at how different the Yucatan is from the area North of Mexico city I'd visited before. But, be warned, Chichen Itza gets very busy with tourists during the day.
Another surprise. Having visited a few Communist states, I didn't expect to enjoy Cuba, but I loved it. I enjoyed wandering around Old Havana and Old Trinidad on my own and felt perfectly safe. Parts of the country are very dilapidated and many people are poor but education and medical facilities appear to work. One person I talked to suggested that adopting communism was a ruse at the time to get support from the Soviet Union. Certainly, there's not much sign of people embracing communist ideals although I believe that the informer system typical of communist states is still in place and that 'bad things' do happen. The people do seem genuinely proud of their struggle for freedom, but if I'd suffered under the Spanish for generations, only to have those colonists replaced by the 'Americanos', I think I might be proud of finally gaining independence. The freedom of religious worship appears genuine, but the hold of the church does not seem very strong. But music (if not live, then from a 'Ghetto-Blaster') and dance is everywhere, day and night. The trip I made one evening on the local train from Trinidad has left me with powerful memories of the life of people in that part of the country.
The Canal was the appeal for me - I'd always wanted to see it and it did not disappoint. I'm currently working through an excellent and detailed history of the Canal by David McCullough, 'The Path Between the Seas' (ISBN 0-671-24409-4). But the earlier, colonial history of the country is so much more complex and interesting than I had realised. Once again, the Spanish held the country for strategic reasons for generations and one third of the world's gold passed through Panama. The transcontinental railway opened as early as 1855 (a 5-foot gauge affair) and transformed the passage from the Pacific to the Atlantic. It was clear that a canal would follow but the French attempt failed and it was the Americans who triumphed in 1914, with their own strategic objectives in mind, of course. The Americans retained the Canal and the 'Canal Zone' until the riots of the 1960s, after which the Canal was transferred to Panama. Panama is now a bewildering mix of different influences, ancient and modern.
Many of my friends find my rather intensive trips a bit odd, but I find them stimulating and educational and I intend to continue as long as I am able. If you want some 'serious reading', selecting 'RTW5' (Round The World Five) in the "Labels" list at the top right of the Blog will display all the posts describing this trip.