A Different Way To Travel- Chapter 2
Jan Banerjee  and  Amitabha Banerjee 11 March 2023
Choosing a Country
In the earlier chapter, I had listed our rules for choosing a country. But, there are exceptions to every rule. Japan is a prime example. In Japan, hardly anyone speaks English, and every signboard is written in Japanese. However, there is always a little explanation in English lurking in a corner of a notice, or at the end of a lengthy recorded message on a train. As a result, we were able to decipher a large and complicated train route map in Kobe station and buy our tickets from a machine, all by ourselves.
Besides, the Japanese are very helpful and polite people. In crowded Tokyo station (five levels, 56 exits), we asked a passer-by for directions. He gestured ‘wait’, asked people in the passing crowd if someone spoke English, and brought an English-speaker to us to explain where we should go. Of course, this was followed by a lot of bowing, on both sides.
We spent one night in a rural Japanese “ryokan” (a traditional Japanese hotel with a hot spring) where no English was spoken and everything was totally Japanese. We managed very well indeed!
And Japan is not the only example. In a remote Italian village, a grocer produced an English-Italian pocket dictionary to help us find khatta dahi, which our girls love.
Getting Visas
Yes, a total pain in the neck if you are going to a country that does not give you a ‘visa on arrival’. The worst is the UK. We have been there so many times, but every time we had to fill out a 14-page form, pay a big fee, appear for an interview, give biometrics, and hand over our passports—the whole nine yards. Apparently, the UK government doesn’t refer to any previous applications when granting a visa. 
The very first time I applied for a UK visa, a UK consulate officer (my interviewer) asked me, “Why do you want to go to the UK?” 
“I don’t want to go to the UK,” was my reply.
Nonplussed, he asked, “Then why are you here?”
“Because my boss has ordered me to inspect our London branch, so I have to go.”
He leafed through my passport and asked, “You have been to so many countries. Why not the UK?”
“Because you make it so difficult,” I said. “There are easier places to visit.”
Almost every country will ask you for extensive details – travel history, money available, etc – which are aimed at assessing whether you are likely to overstay or seek immigration. They are particularly interested in knowing if you have some close relatives living in the country. This is understandable.
Japan goes to the extent of asking for a detailed itinerary stating which specific place(s) you will be visiting during your trip each day, where you will stay and all of that, which can be hard to provide, especially if you plan to just roam around.
Easily the best is Australia – online application, no interview, no passport submission, e-visa approved in three days. Other countries fall somewhere in between these extremes.
And, of course, there is the 'impossible' – the usual suspect – Pakistan.
I had asked one of my reportees, an Indian, to go to Pakistan for an audit. After a lengthy interview at the embassy in Dubai, and a thorough security check, he was denied a visa because his father was a retired major-general in the Indian army. There were some red faces when he pointed out that, after retirement, his father had travelled, unescorted, all the way across Pakistan on his way to London from Delhi on a Bajaj scooter.
Yes, he did get the visa!
But who wants to go to Pakistan, anyway.
Choosing Flights
The main issue is – unless you are going to Southeast Asia, you have to fly fairly long distances. This gives rise to a choice – travel long-haul, or break up your journey? When we were younger, we used to travel for up to 15 hours at a stretch, sitting in a cramped economy-class seat. If you can do this – great. You will minimise both expense and time spent.
But if you can’t deal with this, as we can’t anymore, you either have to fly business class (expensive, but comfortable) or break up your journey into several legs, each not exceeding six-seven hours, ideally four hours.
Multi-hop flying takes more time and may require additional visas (unless you opt for a hotel within the airport premises, as in Singapore, UAE, etc) but it is definitely way cheaper than flying business class.
When we fly westwards from Kolkata, we always fly Emirates to Dubai and stay for a night. Emirates’ ‘Dubai Connect’ service provides free accommodation, airport transfer and visa if there is a sufficient gap between your flights. Singapore has a similar scheme, useful when travelling east. Perhaps other major international hubs offer this too – you’ll need to ask.
The Logic underlying Driving

No, driving is not a must but in many countries, it is the most convenient option, especially if you want to roam around in the interior as we do. Once again, Japan is an exception, and a great one, too. We spent nearly one month in Japan and travelled from the far north to the far south (Japan is a long, rather narrow country), all of it by train, which is by far the best option for touring Japan. If you are a foreigner, you can buy a 7/14/21 day Japan Rail pass which gives you unlimited travel on many trains and ferries, including most of the famous Shinkansen (bullet) trains. Note—you have to buy your pass 14 days before you arrive in Japan.
We had a terrific time riding on bullet trains. A few quirks that I must tell you:
- If you go to an enquiry desk at a train station and ask if there is a train at, say, 4.00pm, the answer will be 'no', even if there is a train at 3.55 or 4.03. (Precision and accuracy are hallmarks of the Japanese). It’s best to get a timetable (yes, in English) and find a suitable train.
- The bullet trains have some ‘reserved’ coaches which cost quite a bit more and, hence, most people avoid them. But they are free for rail pass-holders! All you have to do is to reach the station 15 minutes early and make a reservation at the ticket counter. The entire reserved coach will be almost empty, though the others will be crowded.
- The ticket inspector bows when he enters the coach, when he returns your ticket after checking, and when he leaves the coach. 
- Delicious food in ‘bento’ boxes is offered in the coaches, with deep bows, of course.
(To be continued….)
(Jan and Amitabha Banerjee are retired bankers living in Kolkata. They travel the world in their golden years and write about their journeys in their personal travel blog.)
vilas k
6 days ago
correction: don\'t know how those? appeared
I was ????????????
vilas k
6 days ago
Good on you. love your writing ????????
1 week ago
Very intetesting !!
A Different Way To Travel - Chapter 1
Jan Banerjee  and  Amitabha Banerjee, 25 February 2023
We are starting a new series based on Mr Banerjee and his wife Jan’s passion for travelling. For them, travel does not mean ticking off attraction lists or chilling in a five-star hotel. Most of their stories are...
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