Shaken, not stirred – my last week in Japan


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At just after 2 a.m. on 14th March last month I was awoken from a deep sleep in my hotel room. Things didn’t seem right and I felt the bed oscillating ever so slightly. My eyes moved towards the window and after a few seconds I realised that actually the whole room was awobble. I went to the window and peered out to see if anything untoward was happening on the street below and after seeing no panic on the faces of the few still out at that time, I returned to bed and put my head back on the pillow. It then occurred to me that I was in Kobe!

A section of devastation kept from the 1995 Kobe earthquake

A section of devastation kept from the 1995 Kobe earthquake

I’d first heard of the Japanese city of Kobe back in 1995 when it made international headlines after a devastating earthquake. I’ll always remember the images of a collapsed elevated freeway and buildings in flames and it was probably the first time I realised how destructive earthquakes could be. Located on the Pacific ‘Ring of Fire’, Japan has always been at the mercy of the planet’s underground rumblings. The most destructive in recent memory was the Tohoku earthquake which struck off the eastern coast of Japan’s largest island Honshu in 2011. At a magnitude of 9.0 on the Richter scale it was the largest ever recorded in the country. The resulting tsunami reached heights of 40 metres and caused untold devastation to the nation. We’ve all seen the television images of boats ending up on rooftops and the destruction of the Fukushima nuclear power plant and even today the repercussions are being felt.

I’m thankful to say that although the ‘oscillation’ I felt last month was indeed an earthquake tremor this one had a magnitude of only 6.3 and the epicentre was some 300 km away, causing only minor building damage in some areas. I was speaking the next day to someone who said that it was one of only two quakes she’d felt in the past two years in Kobe so I feel sort of lucky to have experienced the strange sensation. Still, it’s a part of life in this area of the world for which preparation is so key and which may be completely alien to someone (like me) from a place where problem earthquakes never happen (the UK’s largest was a mere 6.1 magnitude quake back in 1931).

The modern harbour area of Kobe

The modern harbour area of Kobe

Down by the port in Kobe they have left a small area untouched since the 1995 earthquake as a memorial. The port area suffered most dramatically and the city lost much of its important sea trade as a result. Today Kobe has recovered and is one of Japan’s busiest container ports. It’s also often noted as the most cosmopolitan of Japan’s major cities and the Kitano area with its early European style buildings is a major attraction for locals in the region. I commented recently that they stand on the left hand side on escalators in Japan but, oddly, in Kobe they stand on the right. Maybe this is a nod to their cosmopolitanism? One thing’s for sure in the city is that if you like shopping and hate the rain then you’re in luck. During my trip in Japan it was clear to see that ‘underground’ emporia are common but in Kobe you can seemingly walk for miles through the underground shopping malls and labyrinthine passageways.

The Akashi Kaikyo Bridge

The Akashi Kaikyo Bridge

Japan played a major role in the Second World War and many of the cities were reduced to rubble but the city of Kyoto was spared the heavy bombing of other places because of its cultural and historical importance. So, with a couple of days free, I headed to the city and the nearby town of Nara where I spent a splendid couple of days soaking up a bit of history and leaving the skyscrapers and McDonalds behind. Although I did pop in to one branch of said restaurant chain there as I was intrigued by the façade: in Kyoto all McDonald’s are coloured brown instead of red, apparently to preserve the cultural ambience. I’m not quite sure it works though!

A city which certainly wasn’t spared during the war was Hiroshima, which was the victim of the first of only two atomic bombs ever dropped in anger. I stopped off in the city for a day before heading south to my final ‘data collection city’, Fukuoka. On the way from Kobe I paid a fleeting visit to the stunning structure that is the Akashi Kaikyo Bridge, which has the largest span of any suspension bridge in the world! Hours later I was in Hiroshima, a city I found surprisingly modern – until I twigged that 99% of the buildings in the centre were built after the war, of course. The obvious focus of any visit to the city is the Peace Memorial Museum and the nearby eerie Atomic Bomb Dome. It is thought that up to 80,000 people were killed instantly on August 6th 1945 when the US plane Enola Gay dropped an atomic bomb on the city. The ravages of radiation and fire ensued, as did Japan’s surrender and the end of the Second World War. Definitely a contemplative day.

Hiroshima before and after the bomb

Hiroshima before and after the bomb

From Hiroshima I caught my last bullet train ride south to the city of Fukuoka. Pronounced “foo-quo-ka” (make sure you get this right!), the place means ‘Happy Hill’ and is the largest city on Japan’s third largest island of Kyushu. After a few weeks in Japan seeing a fair few eye-opening things as well as spending much time in city centres I found Fukuoka to be a tad dull. It has no stand out draws which would necessarily appeal to expatriates but, being one of the southernmost Japanese cities, the climate is more tempting. Still, as with elsewhere in the country almost all public signs are in both Japanese and English, and even as I headed towards the airport I was thinking how much more difficult the trip would have been if I didn’t speak or read English. An interesting recent article by The Economist suggests that this widespread use of the language isn’t about to change anytime soon.

With my Japan trip behind me now I’ll be giving my fellow International Data Researcher colleagues a chance to shed some light on their recent globetrotting trips so come back soon for some more ‘wandering’ tales!

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Tech, trains and automobiles


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It’s been a while since my last post and although I am now back in the UK my Japanese journey continued south from Tokyo to the city of Yokohama. The city is less than 25 miles from Shinjuku, where my base was in Tokyo, but is a separate city. It is considered part of the combined Tokyo metropolitan area I mentioned previously but is a distinct city in itself, in fact the second largest in Japan by population. It started out as a small fishing village but 150 years ago the Port of Yokohama was opened and it quickly became a crucial import and export point of Japan and was soon the country’s leading base for foreign trade. Steady growth continued throughout the latter part of the 19th century and first half of the 20th century. The city hit a low point, however, during the Second World War and was heavily bombed reducing much of it to rubble.

As with the rest of Japan, the city had a rebirth after the war and was a key part of the country’s post-war economic boom. After the war Japan joined the Western bloc, aligning itself with the USA and Western Europe as opposed to the Eastern bloc of the Soviet Union. During the Cold War years Japan experienced rapid economic growth, particularly during the 1960s and the early 1970s. Growth continued through the 1980s until an economic asset bubble which reached its peak in 1991. The next twenty years, often dubbed the two lost decades, saw the Japanese economy stagnate and long periods of deflation. Even with this, Japan’s position as a global powerhouse today is still somewhat of a miracle considering how gloomy the situation looked in the middle of the 20th century.

The largest clock in the world and Yokohama's Intercontinental hotel

The largest clock in the world and Yokohama’s Intercontinental hotel

Japan is the third largest global economy behind the USA and China, and was only overtaken by the latter in 2010. Despite this ‘demotion’, the country still leads the way in the global electronics industry which, in this hi-tech world of the 21st century, is surely a positive for the future. As well as setting global standards for the research and development of advanced technologies Japan is still a major automobile manufacturer and Yokohama is home to one of these, the car giant Nissan. Yokohama is also looking to lead the way in the areas of IT and biotechnology. It boasts one of Japan’s highest education levels and it is with this pool of talent that the city’s biotechnology cluster around Tokyo Bay is hoping to expand. Certainly looking down on the port from the dizzy heights of Yokohama’s Landmark Tower there is a hive of activity going on, as well as the world’s largest clock! Well, so they claim. There is a giant Ferris wheel near the waterfront which doubles as a ‘clock’ but I’m not really sure I’d go as far as calling it a timepiece.

Mount Fuji - the highest volcano in Japan

Mount Fuji – the highest volcano in Japan

Moving on from Yokohama I spent a couple of days subjecting myself to more snow and cold around the foothills of Japan’s famous Mount Fuji, an impossibly symmetrical and picturesque volcano known the world over. From there I headed back to Yokohama to jump on another world famous Japanese attribute, the Shinkansen – or ‘bullet train’ as it is more affectionately known. The superfast trains were introduced during the post-war boom years of the 1960s and led the way in terms of speedy, safe and efficient train travel which much of the world has imitated since. The trains have undoubtedly had a huge positive impact on many aspects of life in Japan, from business and economy to culture and the environment. It is estimated that over 400 million hours are saved every year by using the Shinkansen as opposed to the regular railway lines. The distance between Tokyo and Osaka (at the heart of Japan’s second largest metropolis) is over 500 km but the trains can make the journey in under two and a half hours meaning day trips and even commutes are possible. Furthermore the bullet trains have carried over 10 billion passengers in their 50 year history without a single fatality due to collision or derailment. Rather impressive I think!

Nagoya skyscrapers

Nagoya skyscrapers

Of course the train arrived on time to the second in Nagoya, my next stop, and as the doors opened exactly where they were supposed to, there were two neat queues of people awaiting for us disembarkers to, ummm, disembark. My first stop, laden with suitcase and rucksack, was the tourist office located within the train station as I wanted to get some decent maps of the downtown area. Much to my surprise I spent a good half an hour outside the tourist office chatting to a delightfully smiley old Japanese man! It’s not unusual for me to be stopped by locals anywhere in the world but this chap was genuinely interested in just ‘chatting’ and didn’t want anything from me. His English was reasonably detectable and his opening gambit after discovering I was from London was to tell me how much of a great time he had at the Olympics there two years ago. Amongst many topics of discussion we manage to cram in were communism, Mo Farah, the Japanese royal family and freedom! Most bizarrely, however, was a scrunched up piece of paper he took out of his pocket with various sentences in English scrawled on them. In essence he wanted me to confirm the different meanings of the words stupor, lethargy and absentmindedness. Yes, this sounds a tad strange and it was, but he was so eager I did my best in explaining the differences using the sentences he had written! This went on for a good 20 minutes and by the time I pulled myself away I felt like I was in a stupor!

Nagoya Castle

Nagoya Castle

Nagoya itself is missed off many tourist itineraries of Japan as it is light on both cultural history and modern buzz, but it is the fourth most populous city in Japan. Often referred to as the ‘Detroit’ of Japan, Nagoya is the country’s main hub of all things automobile related. Whilst Nissan have their headquarters in Yokohama, the mighty Toyota have theirs in Nagoya. Toyota is the world’s largest automobile manufacturer and its base town (just outside of Nagoya) was actually renamed from Koromo to Toyota in 1959 due to the car company.

My time in Nagoya was brief and I will be reporting with my final blog from Japan soon. In the meantime I hope you enjoy the photos I’ve included from a couple of side trips I took whilst in Tokyo to help break the monotony of pictures of urban Japan. The extra photos are from the small town and UNESCO World Heritage site of Nikko, the Ushiku Buddha statue (one of the tallest in the world) and Mount Fiji.

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Tokyo – the largest city on the planet!


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If you’ve used the Underground system in London you’ll know that it is frowned upon not to stand to one side on the escalator. This is something that first time visitors are often unaware of and I have to say I am easily irked by those oblivious to the Underground escalator etiquette – but then I’m just a head-down-no-time-for-anyone escalator-walking Londoner! Here in Japan I’m delighted to report that they have the same system, except they stand on the left whereas we stand on the right. This at first led me to be the ‘irker’ on the escalator but, of course, the Japanese are so polite that nobody would dare say a word.

Fresh catch of the day

Fresh catch of the day

By the time I reached my hotel in Tokyo, about an hour and a half by plane from Sapporo, I had the whole Japanese subway ‘thing’ sorted. This is no mean feat, especially with the sheer number of lines which criss-cross their way underground and overground through the largest city on Earth. I’ve been to a fair few big cities in my time, indeed London itself is not insubstantial, but the Japanese capital really is HUGE! There are various definitions for what constitutes a ‘city’ and although the city proper (i.e. the administrative boundaries), is not the largest, the combined metropolitan area is by far the largest in the world with a population exceeding 35 million people – just take a look at the satellite view on Google Maps. That’s over half the population of the United Kingdom and almost the same as the whole of Canada! As well as this, Shinjuku Station (the closest to my hotel) is the busiest in the world with over 3.5 million passengers a day. It has over 36 platforms and more than 200 exits! In fact Tokyo is one of those places which has the highest, biggest, busiest, longest, you name it -est, of many things. It is also home to over ten percent of the Fortune Global 500 companies, the most of any city in the world. The city is a major global financial centre and has been described as one of the three command centres of the global economy, along with New York and London.

National Azabu grocery store in Tokyo

National Azabu grocery store in Tokyo

On a smaller scale, the konbini, or minimart, is very much a part of the urban makeup in Japan and I seem to have developed a daily ritual of buying a chocolate croissant from one of these every morning, be it a 7 Eleven, Lawson, Family Mart, Circle K or Sunkus. If you’ve been to or live in Japan you’ll know what I mean! Anyway I’ve started to get used to the idea that I will never understand the Japanese language because this daily ritual of buying a croissant involves a LOT of talking but with no words from me. It’s quite comical really. I have no idea what they are saying or why the transaction of a simple bread product has to entail so many words but I just do as they do and bow my head slightly with a smile, and often a light smirk as I realise the ridiculousness of it all! What doesn’t help matters is that the word ‘hai’ means ‘yes’ in Japanese and I always instinctively say “Hi” to someone whenever I meet them, even here, so there’s often much confusion all round.

I had no such problems when I visited both National Azabu and Nissin however. These two shops are THE places in town to get all those imported Western foods that many expats here might crave. The Nissin store is so well known among the expat population in Tokyo that even Arnold Schwarzenegger was given a guided tour of the shop once when he was in the city. They have proudly hung photos of the occasion on the walls. Even though you can get products like Cadbury’s chocolate and Barilla pasta there are still aisles and aisles of local products which I have to confess I have no idea about. I mentioned this in my previous post and there are pictures of some of these items in the slideshow above. I’d love to find out what they are, so please let me know!

View from the Park Hyatt hotel in Tokyo

View from the Park Hyatt hotel in Tokyo

One aspect of daily life which a stranger like myself can’t help but notice is that so many people walk around wearing surgical masks here in Japan. My first thought was that maybe the locals are a bit paranoid about picking up a virus or such like but I looked into it and it seems quite the opposite. Most people actually wear them to prevent themselves giving anything to other people. Once again, that Japanese politeness is evident all around.

Now, I love a tall building (see my previous post on skyscrapers) and I love an observation deck so whilst in Tokyo I couldn’t resist going up 451 metres to the viewing platform of the Tokyo Skytree. I’m sure the view is amazing but to get to the top to be able to see nothing was rather disappointing – or maybe I should have chosen a day when the cloud level wasn’t so low! Still, at least I managed to get a decent view of the metropolis at night from atop the Park Hyatt Hotel where, for a few minutes, I transported myself into the movie Lost In Translation, since this was where much of the film was set.

I’m sure the world will be hearing a lot more about Tokyo over the coming years as the city is set to host the 2020 Summer Olympics. And based on what I’ve seen I’m sure they will be a roaring success.

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Thawing out in Sapporo


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When I meet new people and tell them what I do for a living they inevitably end up asking me what my favourite country is that I’ve visited. My stock reply is usually Cambodia but I think this is more because it was the first non-western country I visited and so the culture shock and weather really stood out from that visit. Oh, and Angkor Wat really is amazing too! A common second question asked about my travels is “Where do you most want to visit that you haven’t yet?” My stock reply for this question used to be Japan – until last week!

Oh dear!

Oh dear!

With all my travels (some 146 countries now) I think I’ve encountered most of the world’s major cultures. From Eastern and Mediterranean Europe to the USA and South America. From the Arab worlds of the Middle East and North Africa, and the poverty of sub-Saharan Africa to Australia. And from Russia and the former Soviet Republics to bustling South East Asia. But I’d always thought of Japan as the one major culture and society that I’d not experienced. So it was with much anticipation and excitement that I touched down on the icy runway of Sapporo, situated on the northern island of Hokkaido, and Japan’s fourth largest city by population.

My first act upon arriving was to navigate my way to the train station that would take me in to the city centre. This was a doddle, with most signs in both Japanese and English. Secondly I had to get from the train station to my hotel via the Metro system. Again, this was a doddle as the ticket machines even speak to you in perfect English. As well as being punctual to the nanosecond, the Metro is also quite cheap  (something I’m not used to back in London – the most expensive subway system in the world). Everything going fine so far then and no ‘issues’ with the language barrier yet.

Frozen river in Sapporo

Frozen river in Sapporo

When I exited the Metro it came as quite a shock to see that the reports I’d heard about snow storms gripping Japan were evidently very true. London has been fairly mild this winter (if a little rainy!) and I’d recently spent three weeks in South Africa so the smack of cold air against my face came as a surprise. With gloves and hat packed away in my suitcase I had no alternative but to plough on (literally) through the snow to the hotel. And there was a LOT of snow – evident by the vast amounts of white on display in my photo slideshow above. The snow piles were as high as me in some places but the sun was shining and the thaw had begun. This meant that it wasn’t actually snow I was walking on but that horrible slushy stuff which makes everything wet and gunky. And then the inevitable happened and I slipped, then wobbled, then crashed to the ground like a sack of potatoes. A little old lady sort of stopped and looked at me with her arms in the air as if to say ‘I feel sorry for you and I’d help you if I could but I’m a little old lady and would only fall over myself if I tried to help’. Anyway, my plight was taken seriously by others and several local folk came to my aid. Not that I really needed any of course, they were just being so terribly polite – something this country does oh so well.

I got to the hotel at about 9am only to be told that check-in starts at 2pm. Usually this is not a problem and in most countries they don’t question it if you arrive early, but here everything runs like clockwork and rules are rules. So what was I to do for five hours with no sleep and jet-lag seeping in? Well, I ventured straight out to the supermarket of course.

Hairy crabs are a Sapporo speciality

Hairy crabs are a Sapporo speciality

I’ve been getting used to the supermarkets here in Japan for over a week now. They’re not really that different to those we have back in England, it’s just that many of the products are so very different from what I’m used to. Sure, in some countries there are local specialities and availability of certain goods varies from place to place but in all of the 125 or so countries I’ve collected data I’ve never walked down so many aisles not having a clue what I’m walking past. I’m not a big fan of Japanese food or sushi and the like but there are so many ‘unusual’ products available which you just don’t get elsewhere in the world. I can’t even begin to describe some of them as they are pretty much indescribable – especially given the fact that all labelling is (not unsurprisingly!) in Japanese writing. In fact, I’ll try and take some photos on my next supermarket visit tomorrow and post them in my next blog so you can see what I mean! Sapporo is famed for its giant hairy crabs and there were plenty of these creatures in the supermarkets too.

Two hundred years ago Sapporo was little more than a fishing village in the isolated north of the country and as such is different from most other Japanese cities, with a more organised approach to town planning and a lack of historical sights. Today there is just shy of two million people in the city - the first in Asia to host the Winter Olympics, back in 1972. Skiing is big business here, with heavy snowfall for six months of the year in the surrounding mountains of Hokkaido. It’s also home to the Sapporo beer company, which I can attest is a fine beer!

I’ve since left the thawing in Sapporo and have been using my travel experience to survive the challenges of life in the largest city on the planet. More soon – along with photos of foods that nobody except the Japanese seem to eat!

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The best hotel view ever! Plus a visit to Africa’s least corrupt nation


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I suppose it’s a compliment to be asked if you’re a member of the pop group Westlife but I certainly didn’t see that one coming when I checked in to my hotel in Mbabane, the capital of Swaziland. The lady’s reason for asking was because my name is Mark and there is/was someone in Westlife also called Mark. I can only assume from her question that Marks are very few and far between in this part of the world!

I've had worse views from my hotel room!

I’ve had worse views from my hotel room!

Anyway, after letting the lady down with the truth I checked into my room at the Mountain Inn and opened the curtains. I wouldn’t normally mention something as mundane as this but I have to say the view was the best I’ve had from a hotel room – and I’ve probably stayed in over 500 different hotels in my time. Mbabane is high up in the hills and the Mountain Inn looks down on the Ezulwini Valley – a lush hinterland, home to nature reserves, wildlife sanctuaries and wilderness areas, and the odd the supermarket or two! I arrived at the only airport in the country (possibly the tiniest I’ve ever seen), at the ‘lower’ end of the Ezulwini Valley and hired a car, driving up through the valley on a surprisingly very well tarmacked highway. At points I felt I could have been driving in the Surrey hills in England back home (they drive on the same side of the road too), and not 9000 km away in Southern Africa.

With a population of just over 100,000, Mbabane is even smaller than Maseru in Lesotho, from where I flew. I’ve always lumped Swaziland and Lesotho in the same boat because if you look at a map of Southern Africa you can see that both are similarly sized, small, circular(ish) countries surrounded by South Africa, although Swaziland does also share a 105 km long border with Mozambique. In fact, I would say they are also similar in terms of life for expats, with the same choice of South African chain shops and similar levels of development and security. Swaziland, however, has the Ezulwini Valley and within the valley are all sorts of draws for foreigners living there – not least the expansive greenery and opulence of the Royal Swazi Spa Hotel and Country Club with an 18 hole golf course and stupendous views.

Grasshopper close-up

Grasshopper close-up

So it was with some surprise that I learned of the health issues affecting much of the Swazi population. According to a 2013 report by the Central Intelligence Agency, Swaziland is ranked 220 out of 223 countries in the world in terms of life expectancy – averaging just 50 years. The overwhelming health issue is the prevalence of HIV and AIDS infections. Swaziland has the highest adult prevalence rate of HIV/AIDS of any country in the world at a staggering 26%! This is not an anomaly of the region: the neighbouring countries of Lesotho, Botswana and South Africa all follow in the list with rates above 15%. This map illustrates the dire situation facing Africa.

I moved on from Swaziland to another of these countries – Botswana. It’s a sparsely populated country made up of 70% desert but underneath the ground there is, quite literally, a wealth of mineral resources. It is these resources which have been the linchpin of the economy since independence in 1966, helping the country to its current enviable position within Africa. From 1966 to 1999 Botswana had the highest average economic growth rate of any country in the world, averaging around 9% a year. It is the third largest producer of diamonds in the world (behind the behemoths of Canada and Russia) and is the leading producer of diamonds by value.  In 2013 the Orapa diamond mine (the largest in the world) produced over USD 1.6 billion of the precious gems. Not bad for a country with a population of only two million.

Termite hills in Gaborone

Termite hills in Gaborone

I’ve written before about the stain of corruption which pervades many facets of everyday life all over Africa but, according to Transparency International, Botswana is the least corrupt nation in the continent. It ranks 30th out of 175 and is ahead of the likes of Portugal, Spain, Italy and South Korea. It is this lack of corruption, combined with its mineral wealth, which has helped create a rare success story in Africa.

The capital, Gaborone, is a safe and functional city, serving as the political and commercial centre of the country. It’s a fairly quiet place and not particularly exciting but, in terms of living there, it’s safe and stress-free. In fact, the most exciting thing I noticed during my two days were the massive ant hills dotted along at the sides of the road!

To round off my blog posts from Southern Africa let me leave you with a couple more not necessarily related yet interesting facts:

  • The River Thames in England is 346 km long and has 214 bridges crossing it. The Amazon River in South America is 6437 km long but doesn’t have a single bridge spanning it.
  • Botswana and Zambia share the shortest land border in the world – a mere 150 metres!

I’m off to a very different place soon so please come back for my next report from the far east of Asia – Japan.

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Who put the S in BRICS?


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My flight from the Atlantic city of Cape Town to the Indian Ocean coast took all of two hours and at the end of my taxi ride from the airport I found myself at my hotel, right next to the largest shopping mall in the whole of the Southern Hemisphere. But can you guess where it is?  Well, with the likes of Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Sydney and Jakarta in this ‘half’ of the world it may come as a surprise to find that the largest mall is actually in South Africa’s third largest city – Durban. The Gateway Theatre of Shopping is indeed huge, but it’s not the largest in Africa – that is in Casablanca.

As well as being a magnet for tourists with its tropical climate the city also boasts the busiest port in Africa and as such is a vital cog in the economy of South Africa. I didn’t really get a chance to see much else of Durban since the huge mall, situated in the plush northern district of Umhlanga Ridge, had everything I needed for my research. Certainly the mall and its immediate environs feel like a mini self-contained city all of its own!

Durban's Gateway Mall - the largest in the Southern Hemisphere

Durban’s Gateway Mall – the largest in the Southern Hemisphere

I say that Durban is a vital part of South Africa’s economy. In 2010 this emerging market nation joined the BRIC association of countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China) giving rise to the new acronym of BRICS. Although the smallest in size, population and nominal GDP of these five global emerging markets, the very fact that South Africa was invited by the other members to join the group gives an indication of its standing in the global market. So it should given South Africa has extensive influence over Africa and the success of the country is key to the development of the continent as a whole. Recently, however, the South African currency (the rand) has taken a nosedive against other major currencies due to the volatility of emerging markets. In the past 12 months the rand has depreciated some 37% against the British Pound and 30% against the euro. This may be great news for visiting tourists but the South African central bank has had to raise interest rates for the first time in six years to ease the exchange rate pressures. However, the weak rand has helped break wine export records - volumes are up 26%.

With my time in South Africa now over, I flew from the coast up into the hills of Lesotho, one of only two enclave nations in the world. By enclave I mean that it is wholly surrounded by one other nation, in this case South Africa (the other is San Marino, surrounded by Italy. Some people may also include Vatican City, also surrounded by Italy). Lesotho is a small country, about the same size as Belgium, and has been an entity in its own right since 1822. It wasn’t until 1966, however, that it gained complete independence – from the United Kingdom.

Steep road in Maseru

Steep road in Maseru

It was my first visit to the country and I was pleasantly surprised by the tiny capital of Maseru. A long and meandering road took me from the airport to the city (more a small town than a city), through small villages with roughly constructed hut-like homes and children running around without a care in the world as their mothers sold fruits at the roadside. Approaching the outskirts of town the homes began to take on features such as tiled roofs and bricks and by the time I got to the characterful Maseru institution of the Lancer’s Inn there were even some modern multi storey office buildings looming in the vicinity.

In all directions views abound of the rolling hills and rocky volcanic outcrops. Immediately to the west of the capital is the Caledon River which forms part of the border between Lesotho and its larger neighbour. I found myself crossing over the border a couple of times during my stay as many expats who work in Maseru actually live over the border in a town called Ladybrand in South Africa. Some expats prefer the supposed more ‘Westernised’ nature of Ladybrand although on the surface of things I didn’t really feel there to be much of a difference. Certainly Maseru, with a wealth of goods available in its many supermarkets, including several South African chains, has more shopping choices. These South African supermarkets make the most of the short supply chains going into its surrounding nations, and the development of local suppliers helps to keep costs down. In fact, Maseru was ranked as the cheapest location for expatriates in the world in ECA’s latest Cost of Living survey.

Green apples!

Green apples!

Cost of Living in Southern Africa doesn’t look like it will be shooting up any time soon. The dominance of the likes of Shoprite, Pick N Pay, Spar and Woolworths in the markets of the region may have new rivals since the American retail giant Walmart has ambitions to succeed in the African market, as does the French chain Carrefour.

As promised, I’ll end with a couple of random, but surprising, facts from around the world.

  • There are only two escalators in the US state of Wyoming – an area larger than the United Kingdom!
  • It is estimated that at any given time about half the world’s population are wearing jeans!

Who’d have thought it?!

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Raining meteorites in Namibia


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I mentioned in my previous post how different South Africa is to the rest of the continent but I must amend this and say that ‘Southern Africa’ is unlike the rest of the continent. South Africa’s neighbours Namibia and Botswana are similarly fairly modern and lack the strife which many African nations suffer from. My recent stay in Namibia’s capital, Windhoek (pronounced Vind-hook), was a pleasant one and to me it seemed very much like a sleepier version of South Africa. The country is fairly new and only gained independence in 1990 from the then Apartheid-led South Africa. Apartheid was also a stain on the population of Namibia but, like its large neighbour, has moved on from those days.

Windhoek's famous Christuskirche

Windhoek’s famous Christuskirche

During the days of colonialism the British, French, Belgians, Portuguese and Spanish all had a say in many parts of the continent but German influences are few and far between. This makes Windhoek a bit of an anomaly in this regard as the German mark is apparent all over town, from the German street names and supermarkets to some rather out of place architecture from the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century. The land of Namibia was actually called German South-West Africa from 1884 until 1915, after which South Africa administered the territory. Namibia is also a very popular retirement place for Germans from Europe who want to swap freezing winters for hot sunny days in the Southern Hemisphere. It’s a sparsely populated country just north of South Africa on the Atlantic coast and much of the territory is desert. It also hardly ever rains.

So it was much to my surprise that I found myself on my first evening in Windhoek leaving a supermarket to be confronted with torrential rain and flooding of biblical proportions. It was sunny and cloudless when I’d entered the shop and so, sans umbrella, I had to wait it out until it subsided. The city is a fairly small affair with a population just shy of 350,000 and although there is little of great interest in town it strikes me as a pleasant place to be on assignment, unless you’re a fan of the bright lights and all night partying. One interesting draw are the Gibeon Meteorites. Some 600 million years ago one of the world’s largest every meteor storms rained down rocks as heavy as half a ton on the Namibian landscape. 33 of these rocks, thought to be the largest collection in the world, can be seen on display in the pedestrianized Post Street Mall in central Windhoek.

Although there is a German influence in town, English is still very much the lingua franca and the only official language, even though it is the native language of less than 1% of the population. Although not on the same scale as South African malls there are a couple in Windhoek which cater to the needs of everyone. There is also presence from the major South African supermarket chains of Checkers, Spar, Pick N Pay and Shoprite meaning that everything you’ll ever want to cook for dinner is available, and not too costly either.

Some of them weigh over 300 kg!

Some of them weigh over 300 kg!

After Namibia I flew down south and back in to South Africa arriving at Cape Town International Airport. Cape Town has to be one of the most stunningly set urban areas in the world. Its position between the foot of the unbelievably flat-topped Table Mountain and the lapping waves of the Atlantic Ocean combine for a dramatic vista and a look around from pretty much any location in the city is sure to draw a sense of wonder to any visitor,  and in the summer sun it really is a gorgeous place to be. Indeed, the New York Times has named the city as the world’s top place to visit in 2014.

Officially Cape Town is the legislative capital of South Africa and, with a population of almost 4 million is the second largest city. It is situated at the start of South Africa’s world-famed wine route and there are several leafy suburbs where expats reside, usually in highly secured properties, just as I witnessed in Joburg.  Much of the city’s really violent crime occurs to the southeast of the centre in the Cape Flats - an area rarely visited by business travellers. And although I felt ok on my trip wandering through the city centre, during daylight, any visitor to South Africa  in general, should be vigilant, particularly to the threat of mugging, pickpocketing and bag-snatching.

The Victoria and Alfred Waterfront shopping centre in Cape Town

The Victoria and Alfred Waterfront shopping centre in Cape Town

I got chatting to a few locals about the city and learned that the mayor, Patricia de Lille, was voted the best mayor in the world last year by City Mayors and was Nelson Mandela’s favourite opposition politician. Politics can be a divisive subject matter and it’s always interesting to hear the opinions of those who live under different governments around the world. The general consensus from those I spoke to seems to be that the way Cape Town is governed is the envy of South Africa and is considered a role model for other states in the nation to follow. Although the economy of Africa has been growing steadily in recent years the widespread problem of corruption in the continent will always be a huge hindrance to further growth but, apparently, Cape Town is corruption free! The negative reactions of passers-by when President Zuma whizzed passed me in Pretoria demonstrated how strong some feelings are about the way their country is run. South Africa has a general election coming up on May 7th and I hope that everything runs smoothly. I’m sure that’s what ‘Madiba’ would have wished for.

I said in my last post that I’d throw some more random facts your way so here are some more about South Africa:

  • South Africa generates two thirds of Africa’s electricity and has the cheapest electricity in the world.
  • Even though it accounts for only four percent of the land area and five percent of the population of Africa the country has over 80% of the continent’s railway infrastructure, some 19,000 miles.
  • The nation is the world’s leader in mining and minerals. It has over 40% of global gold deposits and the world’s deepest mine at 3.5 kilometres below the surface.

Feel free to share any more you may have!

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Life in the Rainbow Nation


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On December 5th last year Nelson Mandela passed away at the grand old age of 95. During my early years in the 1980s his name was one of only a handful of ‘world famous’ people I remember being aware of, along with the likes of the Pope, the Queen, Margaret Thatcher, Michael Jackson and Shakin’ Stevens. Time has taught me that this last one (a Welsh rock and roll singer) was a bit of a flash in the pan and actually it was only my Dad who liked him. Mandela, however, truly was a global icon and I remember hearing of him and the Apartheid struggle from the age of eight or so. Fast forward to 2014 and South Africa is a very different place to what it was in the eighties. Upon Mandela’s release from prison in 1994 the nation of South Africa embarked on a new path and the country today really is very different to all other African nations that I’ve visited (some 39!).

He's a popular guy around here

He’s a popular guy around here

Landing at Johannesburg’s O.R. Tambo airport (the busiest on the continent), getting through immigration and customs, and then hopping into a taxi to my hotel in Pretoria, not once was I given the impression that I was in Africa. Well, not the Africa that I’m used to – largely the Western and Central parts. All modern highways, shiny petrol stations and even taxis with a meter – this has to be a first for me on the continent. In 2010 the FIFA World Cup was hosted here and the money spent on infrastructure and security has helped steer the nation along in a positive direction. Of course, the country is not without its problems and there are still many social issues which are far from being solved.  Certainly, the post-Mandela political scene is also not without its problems.

I began in the nation’s capital, Pretoria, or strictly speaking, one of its three capitals. The designation of South Africa’s capital(s) is somewhat ambiguous but all the South Africans I have spoken to maintain that Pretoria is the only capital. Officially, however, Pretoria is the executive capital, Cape Town is the legislative capital and Bloemfontein is the judicial capital. Pretoria is only 50 km or so north of Johannesburg and has a better reputation that its larger neighbour in terms of crime. Walking through leafy (and relatively safe) suburbs of Hatfield and Brooklyn I felt fine but all around there were residential properties with wall to wall security – quite literally. All of the homes I saw had high walls and atop these was either razor wire or an electric fence. Most houses are also alarmed and have armed response units on call, as well as CCTV cameras hiding in the eaves.

Danger...high voltage!

Danger…high voltage!

Whilst I was in the area admiring the razor wire (as you do) there was a kerfuffle (I love that word!) up ahead and the traffic in all directions had been stopped. I thought at first it could be a big traffic accident or even a bank robbery, with all the sirens blaring and police motorbikes everywhere. Nothing seemed to be happening, though, and a few minutes later a lengthy motorcade zoomed past. I asked the edgy locals who it was and was told, along with some choice expletives, that it was President Zuma himself.

Nowhere else in Africa is as westernised as South Africa and the shopping malls they have are testament to this, with everything you can find in Europe or the States and often far cheaper. Moving on to Johannesburg (or Joburg as everyone calls it here), I stayed near the huge Sandton City Mall, a far cry from the cities of Sub-Saharan Africa. For all intents and purposes the Johannesburg suburb of Sandton has become the ‘new’ Joburg. During the days of Apartheid and even today the areas around downtown Joburg were and are very dangerous. As the city is one of the powerhouses of the continent, life had to continue in an atmosphere where foreign investment and business could exist in a secure environment and the economy could be allowed to grow. So the finance industry and commerce moved north 10 km from the urban decay of downtown to an area which today has expanded to include several affluent neighbourhoods, including Sandton, Bryanston and Sunninghill. It’s in these areas that most expats reside. They all have 24 hour security patrols on the streets and the measures taken to ensure people’s safety are not taken lightly. This has resulted in a vibrant and cosmopolitan area where businesspeople and shoppers alike can focus more on brokering deals and snapping up bargains than on worrying about being the victim of a carjacking.

South Africa - The Rainbow Nation

South Africa – The Rainbow Nation

After leaving Joburg I headed to Windhoek, the capital of Namibia – but more of that in my next post. Before I go though, I read a recent statistic which intrigued me. Apparently Johannesburg is the largest city in the world which is not built on a river, sea or ocean! So it came as some surprise that I then found out that South Africa has the world’s 3rd safest supply of drinkable tap water. Drinking tap water has always been an instant no-no for me in Africa but here in South Africa it’s fine. I have many more interesting and random facts ready to unleash so be sure to check in again soon.

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Guest blog: Don’t call me Princess Solomon! (The ups and downs of the solo female traveller)


Our data collection trips for 2014 don’t start for a couple of weeks but I’ll be reporting on my visits to locations in Africa and Japan after that. In the meantime my colleague, Rachel, reflects on how some of her travel experiences, as a single female,  have differed from my own. All the best, Mark.

While in Indonesia recently, wanderingmark noted that he was not stared at as he had been during his visit in 2007. Although I’ll never be a white, Englishman in Surabaya, I have been a white, Englishwoman in a car mechanic’s shop in deepest, darkest Congo and I know well the alien feeling he described. The more I travel, the more I understand Treasure Island author, Robert Louis Stevenson, when he said “There are no foreign lands. It is the traveller only who is foreign”. However, as a solo female traveller, I am even more ‘foreign’ than Mark in some cultures, where a business woman, especially one on her own, is a truly foreign concept.  It has been particularly eye-opening to visit two countries in recent months, both also previous subjects of wanderingmark, where I think my gender caused my experience to be a little different from his.

The first of these, The Gambia, I visited in June. Having been to the Congo, Cameroon and Angola, I am well used to catcalls from locals, curious about the presence of an unknown Western girl. While it can be unnerving, it is rarely threatening. Reading Mark’s post on the Gambia and knowing it as a common tourist destination I thought that I would pass unnoticed there. What I hadn’t expected was the impact of “romance tourism”. The Gambia is a prime hotspot for Western women, often of a certain age, to find “romance” then shower their local boyfriends generously with gifts or money.

Gambian street scene

Gambian street scene

Consequently, many of the local men see a lone female as a potential source of income and I was constantly being approached by men eager to make a new “special friend”. From men calling out “Boss-lady” and, bizarrely, “Princess Solomon”, to more sophisticated attempts to engage me in conversation, not a moment went by when I wasn’t deflecting unwelcome, persistent attention, even from the security guard in the supermarket and the receptionist at the hotel! It was exhausting, especially trying to extricate myself from the situation without causing offence. Although the attention was never threatening, it did make me feel uncomfortable and was incredibly time-consuming. This was a side to the country Mark didn’t have to endure, and one I doubt I would have had to if I’d been there with a male friend or family.

The other location, India, (read some of Mark’s experiences here: http://ecaintlblog.wordpress.com/2012/02/19/aggro-in-agra/) is maybe more predictable, since the way in which some women are treated there is a subject of global debate. When I was there in September it was worldwide news that the death sentence had just been passed on four men who gang-raped and murdered a student the previous December. There’s no denying that the issues affecting women in India today is a vast, sensitive and complicated topic, which I’m ill-qualified to comment on. However, there were certain practical aspects to being a foreign woman in India that I wanted to share.

Delhi Metro Ladies only sign, women travellers in India

The Metro sign in Delhi

The most immediate difference from where I’m from in Europe is that gender segregation is deep-rooted in the culture. Enter any New Delhi metro station and you are greeted by the sign “women only”. Groping and sexual harassment on the metro is a massive problem and even as a foreigner, I felt far more at ease travelling in the ladies carriage (normally the first carriage) where it is a punishable offence for a man to travel.  At malls, hotels, airports or even the Taj Mahal there are separate security lines for the ladies too. This can be a great advantage at busy periods, as I found out.  That the lines are so much shorter for women is indicative of there being far fewer women travelling around than men.

Frisking booth, India, women travellers in India

Ladies only Frisking Booth

In the ITC Rajputana hotel in Jaipur I was both amused and touched to be placed in the ‘EVA wing’; a corridor of rooms solely occupied by ‘single lady travellers’ and protected by a locked door with swipe-card access. It was fitted out with all sorts of extra toiletries and pink bathrobes but the emphasis was on being somewhere quiet, hidden away and safe so women felt more comfortable. It’s somewhat sobering, though, to think that a separate women-only wing is necessary to make a ‘single lady traveller’ feel safe in a hotel.

Something I also had to be more careful about in India than Mark was clothing. All female visitors to India should be aware of advice to dress modestly. Keeping shoulders covered, necklines high and hemlines low is definitely worth following. Most women wear the traditional sari or Salwar Kameez, including expatriates. Western dress is normally trousers (often jeans) and a smart blouse or top rather than dresses or skirts. My ‘data collection outfit’ is by no means indecent but I still found myself covering up with an extra jumper or scarf, despite the monsoon heat. Even then a young boy in Kolkata looked me up and down before glibly stating “nice boobs.”

Pricing alcohol in India presented some issues for me. India has very strict regulations for alcohol: many people are teetotal and in some states alcohol sale is only permitted in “wine-shops”. The unwritten social laws regarding women and alcohol are even stricter.

Wine-shop-Visakhapatnam

Wine shop in Visakhapatnam

Women drinking alcohol are arguably becoming more acceptable in bars and restaurants in cities, but in 30 wine-shops across the country, I never saw another woman. An auto rickshaw driver in Jaipur even refused to take me, telling me it was a “bad place for a lady”. I have to say I agreed – the entire shop fell silent and stared at me when I walked in.

In Chennai, I unwittingly put an Indian friend in an awkward position: choosing between accompanying me into a wine shop (where, she said, no Indian woman would ever go) or sitting in the auto rickshaw, alone with the driver (again something an Indian woman shouldn’t do). In the end, the issue was neatly resolved by asking the driver to go and stand under a tree!

In the UK, gender, by law, shouldn’t affect how you are treated and this is true for many places. However, the world is a diverse place and sometimes I, like many expats, travel to places where my gender does have an impact, both culturally and legally. While I would never be sent anywhere my gender puts me in danger there are some places, as above, where I need to take more care with my dress and behaviour than my male colleagues do. Knowledge is key. Before I go to any country I always look at our country profiles, which are great for describing any local particularities, including any gender specific advice. Nevertheless, there will almost, always still be a few surprises once you get there, no matter how much research you do,

Rachel is part of ECA International’s International Data Research team. She travels the world regularly, capturing price data for goods and services to assist with cost of living comparisons around the world.

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Christmas quiz!


Christmas quiz!

Season’s Greetings all. Click throught this image to take part in our quiz – based around travels on this blog! Good luck and enjoy..

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