What A Punt: Cambridge on a hangover

Before Giles had set off on his own holiday, he sent out a couple of text messages to some of friends, briefly telling them who I was, what I was doing in London and why I was staying in his house, and giving them my phone number so that they could get in touch with me and hopefully hang out and show me around. John was the first of the friends to get in touch with me, and we arranged to meet up for brunch one morning at Hackney Village, the small main street of the borough that was lined with a whole bunch of shops and cafes, and was also conveniently located around the corner from where Giles lived. John was incredibly friendly, and we instantly got on well as we talked about everything from travelling the world, to the finer details of life in London – and the extensive geography of the city that I was still trying to wrap my head around – as well as stories of my most recent travels and how I had come to meet Giles in Berlin. John himself had done quite a bit of travelling, though it took a little while before I noticed the hint of South African accent in his voice. “England is home now,” he assured me, but he’d also visited some interesting places that were definitely on my travel wish list, as well as having a few crazy stories his life in Africa.

Towards the end of our brunch, John’s phone rang. “Oh, I’m really sorry, I just have to quickly take this.” He answered the phone and spoke for a few minutes before hanging up. “So, I promise there’s a good reason I had to take that call,” John told me. “That was my friend Richard. We’ve got some plans for a late boozy lunch with some other friends of Giles’, so I just confirming a few last things with Richard. But also, you’re more than welcome to join us. We’re going to Richard’s place, which is just down near my place.” John lived south of the River Thames, in Greenwich. “We can go back to Giles’ if you need to grab anything, and then I’ll drive us down there.” I had made no other plans for the day, and a lazy wine lunch sounded like the perfect way to end a Sunday afternoon, so after we finished up with brunch we were off and away to Greenwich. After a quick supply stop at Sainsbury’s, John and I arrived at Richard’s flat. Two more of their friends, a couple named Adam and Dan, arrived shortly afterwards, and I soon found myself in a similar group dynamic that I had when I was Joris and Thijs’ friends in Amsterdam – getting an inside view of the life of the locals – except there wasn’t a mix of languages being thrown around, so I could keep up with all of the conversation. They were all lovely guys, and Richard and John were moving back and forth between the kitchen getting the food ready. ‘Lunch’ was eventually served somewhere between five and six o’clock, but we’d all been drinking so much wine I don’t think that anyone was all that bothered.

“We’ll have to make another trip to Spain soon, John,” Richard said as he opened another bottle of red. “I’ve nearly cleaned out the cellar,” he said with a chuckle. They proceeded to tell me about how they make semi-regular pilgrimages to France and Spain, stocking up the boot of John’s car with as much wine as they could physically (and legally) carry back to England, because it was actually better value for money in the long run. I could definitely believe that, and I was insanely jealous. The fact that they could so easily drive to another country like that just absolutely blew my mind. If you drove that distance in pretty much any direction in Australia, chances are you’d probably just end up in the middle of nowhere. Granted, there could quite possibly be a vineyard in that middle of nowhere in Australia, but you didn’t exactly need to stamp your passport to get there.

It was such a fun night. A wine lunch became a wine dinner, followed by a wine dessert which eventually just turned into wine with more wine – and a few shots of some sort of spirit, if memory serves me correct (although there’s a high possibility that it doesn’t). The next day, Richard would count the bottles and inform us that we consumed 10 bottles between four people – Adam wasn’t a fan of wine and so had been drinking beer. We played music, we danced, we sat on the balcony watching dusk settle over London, and we drank a lot much wine. Despite having been to a handful of pride parties over the last few months, it was quite easily the most I had drank in a very long time. I had absolutely no recollection of the end of the night, which usually never happens to me, but I can only assume I continued to have as much fun as I was having before my memory began to fail on me.

***

Waking up in a strange place is always terrifying. Waking up in a strange place in a foreign country is even worse. I awoke with a start and sat up, looking around and thinking hard for a good minute or two before I realised where I was – I had passed out on Richard’s couch. I guessed that I’d been in no state to catch the tube home the night before, and absolutely nobody had been in any fit state to drive me home. The result was this, and I was greeted by a Richard who looked just as confused and hungover as me.
“What… I… what?” Fully formed sentences were a struggle for everyone at that point, and the sight of all those wine bottles in the kitchen was simultaneously horrifying and impressive.
“I’m definitely ‘working from home’ today,” Richard said sarcastically, holding his head in his hands. We’d later find out both John and Dan had both made the exact same call, for obviously the exact same reason.

I was expecting I’d just have to find my way to the Underground station and catch the tube home, but Richard began asking me what I’d seen so far in London. When I said that I hadn’t really seen much so far, I think he got a little patriotic. “I feel like I should be showing you around or something. I’ve got a car – is there anywhere you want to go?” We Googled the top 20 attractions to see around Britain, and after ruling out ones that weren’t that interesting or too far away, Richard agreed to drive me to see Cambridge. The town of university fame was only about an hour drive away, and by late morning Richard was feeling sober enough to drive, so off we went.

The River Cam.

The River Cam.

The Cam winds through Cambridge in between the various colleges.

The Cam winds through Cambridge in between the various colleges.

The main calling card for Cambridge is the university and colleges, so the small surrounding town is heavily focused on the student population and student life. “Where would you go out? I’d go crazy living here,” I said, only half joking.
“I think they just throw a lot of their own crazy parties”, Richard said. “Either that or they’re all too busy studying.” Cambridge was, I’d been led to believe, a pretty prestigious school.
But if you’re not a student living and studying there, there are really only two things to do or see in Cambridge – the colleges and the punts on the river. The terminology of ‘punt’ confused me at first – the word has a range of meanings depending on the culture you’re in – but I soon learnt that it was the name given to the kind of boats that travelled up and down the River Cam, the main waterway that ran through Cambridge. Richard and I followed the signs until we found the docks where the boats were waiting for us. For an extra fee you could hire someone to steer your punt for you, but despite the hangover I was feeling particularly hands on that day, and decided that we should have a go at directing the boat ourselves. Despite the potential for that to go very, very wrong, Richard agreed to it.

Such maturity.

Such maturity.

Our punts name was Bronze.

Our punts name was Bronze.

It was a shaky start, and steering the punt isn’t exactly light work. You have to stand on the flat platform on the rear end of the boat and use the long wooden pole to push against the bottom of the river to propel yourself in the right direction. Then, as the boat is gliding through the water, you have to direct the boat by moving the pole to cause resistance in the water. It might sound fairly simple – the physics behind it certainly isn’t rocket science – but after a few minutes it does become a bit of a workout, especially if you’re hungover. And it can also be a bit of a challenge to get the boat to go in exactly the right direction, or to judge how much power you need to put behind each push. Despite that, we weren’t the worst ones on the river that day. We had a couple of run-ins with a few tourist families who really shouldn’t have been driving themselves, although Richard did almost lose the pole when we went to go underneath a bridge without sinking the pole down into the water – the pole is a few metres long, and it crashed into the bottom of the bridge when we tried to go under. But other than that it was mostly fine, though the one really handy thing about the hired punt drivers is that they also served as tour guides, telling their passengers lots of random and interesting facts about the history of Cambridge. Richard and I were guilty of tailing some of the boats around us in an attempt to overhear some of the stories being told.

Captain Dick.

Captain Dick.

Being a passenger on the punt (right before Richard nearly lost our pole at that bridge).

Being a passenger on the punt (right before Richard nearly lost our pole at that bridge).

Myself having a go at steering the punt.

Myself having a go at steering the punt.

After punting we went to visit one of the colleges. There wasn’t much point going to all of them, since we figured there couldn’t be that much difference between them – at least in the areas visitors were granted access to – but we asked one of the guys down by the punting dock which one he would recommend, and he told us to go see Trinity College. Back home, I’d often heard my own university, the University of Sydney, being described as an ‘Oxbridge’ model – a combination of Oxford and Cambridge, two of the older, more prestigious universities in England. Walking through Trinity College did remind me a lot of the Quadrangle back home in Sydney, except this place somehow felt much more authentic. We wandered through the courtyard, paid a visit to the chapel, and admired the detailed architecture. Despite the trip down the river on the punt being fun, it was somewhat of a workout (when you weren’t being a passenger, that is,) so this was probably a more suitable hungover afternoon activity.

The front view of Kings College.

The front view of Kings College, another of the colleges we passed by on our stroll through Cambridge.

The college from inside the courtyard.

Trinity College from inside the courtyard.

Inside the college chapel.

Inside the college chapel.

Hungover strolls though the Kings College courtyard.

Hungover strolls though the Trinity College courtyard.

As it got later in the afternoon, we realised we’d seen most of the highlights Cambridge had to offer. We’d taken a punt down the river, we’d walked through the prestigious colleges, and wandered down the classical old English style streets. I was starting to get tired, so we decided to call it a day. Richard drove us back to London, and I definitely fell asleep for at least half of the trip. Richard dropped me home at Giles’ place, and we said goodbye knowing that we would most likely see each other again during my time in London. It had been a fun and slightly crazy 24 hours with John and Richard and their friends, but now it was time to curl up on the couch with fish and chips, British TV and definitely no wine, and wait until I finally felt human again.

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Leave It To The Locals

After traveling for over a month, I was beginning to feel pretty confident with my abilities in navigating new cities with a simple map and the unearthed Boy Scout skills from my childhood. The day before I had been driven from place to place in a motorbike tuk tuk, feeling relatively posh with my own little carriage to be chauffeured around in. During the evening of my second night in Phnom Penh, I had a brief encounter with another guy staying in my dorm, who had told me that he and a few other people had rented their own motorbikes and driven themselves around the city. Back in Ho Chi Minh City when my Couchsurfing host had offered me the controls of the vehicle, I had, rather sensibly, declined the offer. However, I’d seen quite a few people at my hostel in Saigon rent and even buy motorbikes, using it as a cheaper form of travel as well as a way to see more of the countryside. I had told them they were crazy, but one of the Americans had assured me that the traffic out there was nowhere near as crazy as in the city itself.

It never really crossed my mind again until it was mentioned to me in Phnom Penh. I’d seen the roads and the traffic, and it didn’t seem quite as busy as the hustle and bustle of Bangkok or Saigon. I told myself that I should be making the most of the unique experiences on offer here, and so far I’d been all about pushing my boundaries and challenging myself. With that in mind, I set off down the road to rent myself a motorbike, oblivious to the fact that my stay in Phnom Penh was about to get even more harrowing than a trip to the Killing Fields.

***

In retrospect, it was a terrible decision. As my mother reminded me when I emailed her after the fact, “You can barely ride a push bike, Bob!” Yet I was taken over by some kind of invincibility complex that most young adult males get after a six pack of beers (though it should be noted that I made this brilliant decision completely sober). The fact I’d never really ridden a motorbike didn’t occur to me as a potential problem – how hard could it be? It was only when they showed me the bike and demonstrated how to change the gears did the sheer unfamiliarity of this vehicle truly hit home. My blank, uncomprehending expression must have given me away, because one of the men suddenly shouted, “Ahh! Automatic! You need automatic?”. Honestly, I’d had no idea there were automatic and manual motorbikes until that very moment, but I figured I was going to have a hell of an easier time on an automatic one, so I agreed enthusiastically and waited for him to bring around another bike. After a brief overview of the controls, they handed me a helmet and the keys, and away I went.

I puttered along through the small streets, using the same cautious method that I employed for crossing the roads as a pedestrian, before turning onto a main road and zooming along with the rest of the traffic. It was a similar thrill to riding on the back of a motorcycle taxi, except this time there was a certain element of fear, given that I was the one who was actually driving. But I was doing pretty well so far. I was heading towards Phnom Wat, a large temple located in the north of the city, surrounded by lots of traffic. I managed to park the bike next to Phnom Wat, which was situated in the middle of a huge roundabout. I wandered over to the temple and had a brief look inside. It is still a very active place of worship, so I didn’t stay too long so as not to disturb the prayers inside. Besides, I was keen to get back on the motorbike and do some more exploring.

The temple of Phnom Wat, my first and only stop of the day.

The temple of Phnom Wat, my first and only stop of the day.

***

And shortly after that is when it all went wrong. My destination was to be the Russian Markets, which are supposed to be a unique and interesting corner of the city. I’d checked my map and memorised a rough route through the main roads, but I’d only been driving for a few minutes before I came up to the next roundabout. I needed to turn left, but as I followed the roads, I realised I was veering right, and there didn’t appear to be any way to change my course. Was I not as far as I thought I was? Was I taking a wrong turn? Could I still turn left from where the road was taking me? All these perplexing questions bombarded me at once, and the fact that they drive on the right side of the road rather than the left didn’t help my heightening confusion – although the very limited road rules at all hadn’t laid the best foundation for building confidence. In the end, I hesitated for just a moment, but that was all it took. I came tumbling off the motorbike and skidding across the road.

It all seemed so slow and surreal at first. I thought for sure that I was dead. I’d heard the horror stories, the idiot tourists who thought they knew what they were doing when they set out onto the roads and ended up becoming another statistic. I could hear my mothers “I told you so” screeching through the back of my mind. But as soon as I was down, I was jumping up again and scrambling off the road. The way I’d fell meant I’d skidded out of the roundabout towards the edge of the road, rather than deeper into the oncoming traffic. Anyone behind me just swerved around me and continued on their way, as though nothing had happened, or as though that kind of thing happened every day – though for all I knew, such accidents were a common occurrence.

A few of the motorbike taxi drivers on the edge of the road rushed over to my aid, pulling the bike up and helping me wheel it to the edge of the road. I checked my arms and legs to find myself, remarkably, almost unscathed. The only exception was a shallow, bloody graze on my right knee, though I was so full of adrenaline at the time that I barely noticed. I cleaned myself up as best I could, and the local men checked to make sure the bike wasn’t damaged. Thankfully, other than a few mild scratches on the paint, which could have very well been there before I took my little tumble, it was fine. I thanked the men for their help, though they didn’t understand English, so they simply watched me curiously, probably trying to figure out the exact same thing as me – what the hell was I going to do now?

There was nothing else I could do. In my shaken and unsettled state, I mounted the bike and took a few deep breaths. I assessed the roads and where I was going, and then revved the engine and took off again into the traffic. With my confidence shattered from the fall, it was one of the most terrifying decisions of my life, but I didn’t really have any other option. I could have called the rental company, but I didn’t want to risk having to pay for any damages if I confessed to crashing the bike. I couldn’t ask anyone for a lift, since I was the one who had the vehicle. Though it screamed of the illogical and was beyond all common sense, I managed to get back on my bike and continue driving around the city.

***

It was horrific. With the exception of the crash itself, I had never felt so scared as I did navigating the streets of Phnom Penh by motorbike. For some ridiculous reason that I still can’t explain, I decided to travel further from where I was staying, perhaps in the hopes I would regain confidence and learn from my mistake. I didn’t. Every turn, corner or crossing filled me with terror. I had several extremely close calls with both other motorbikes and cars. In the haze of my terror I think I actually even made it to the Russian Markets but by that point, shopping for whatever trinkets they sold there was the last thing in my mind. It was on the return trip that I became not only frightened, but lost. I remember stopping at a petrol station, staring out into the peak hour afternoon traffic, and wondering how the hell I was going to make it back to my hostel alive.

Thankfully, the gash on me knee was the only real injury I sustained during the ordeal.

Thankfully, the gash on me knee was the only real injury I sustained during the ordeal.

After a lot of slow puttering down busy streets and long waits at corners to make sure there was absolutely no chance of being caught by other traffic, I finally made it back to the hostel. I’d been following the setting sun to make sure I was going in the right direction, and using what little I did remember of the streets from my drive through the city yesterday. It had been another long and exhausting day, and as soon as I parked the bike I showered, tended to my wound, and put my leg up by the pool whilst nursing several scotch and Cokes to calm my nerves. Needless to say, I had learnt my lesson. The traffic might not seem dangerous when experienced locals weave their way in and out of cracks and crevices of the gridlock, but it’s still a death trap for anyone who doesn’t know what they’re doing.

I promised my mother I would stay away from motorbikes altogether, but that’s literally impossible in most parts of Cambodia, so from now on I’ll just leave the driving to the locals.