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Last week, after less than a week of waiting, I got my visa issuance number from my recruiter. The next step was to submit my application to the Korean embassy in London. I decided that I would go down to hand it in in person. This would allow the staff to see it first and let me know if there was any problem (for instance, I wasn’t sure whether I should also hand over my old passport with my previous visas in it) – and I would be able to see friends while I was there. I considered staying down in London so I could pick my passport up when it was ready, but it seemed likely that it would take the full five working days or longer to process (a British friend from Korea advised me that that was likely – he’d received his only shortly before he was due to leave the country) and London is expensive.

On Tuesday night, I stayed up to watch the BBC coverage of the US presidential election (elections to Congress weren’t covered in much detail). Americans got it right again – making up for electing George W Bush twice. Given that various Tea Party Republicans were voted out and liberal policies approved in referenda, I wonder whether Mitt Romney might have done a lot better if he’d been allowed to present himself as the moderate he supposedly really is. I eventually went to bed at 7am, meeting my sister and her kids on the way as they got up. I was able to rise again at the not unreasonable hour of midday.

The following night, I was in bed at about midnight and up again at five o’clock in order to get a 6:35 train to Manchester and an 8 o’clock coach to London (the outbound trip cost just £9 with National Express and the return £12.50 – which somehow managed to add up to £29.50 along with insurance, booking fee and so on).

The Korean embassy is on Buckingham Gate, just off Victoria and a short walk from Victoria Coach Station. The coach arrived at 13:20, so I got lunch from the Subway at the shopping mall adjacent to the railway station and arrived at the embassy just after 2pm, when they re-opened after lunch. The woman on duty at one of the windows inside told me assertively that the visa section was closed. I suggested to her that I could just hand my documents in, but that was unacceptable. As soon as I had this conversation, I realised that I’d been in exactly this situation some years ago, probably in 2008.

It wasn’t a problem though – except that my passport would be returned to me that little bit later and it would make planning my flight out that little bit trickier – I had time before my return coach in the morning to come back. I turned my thoughts to getting to my hostel down in the Isle of Dogs – the south-pointing peninsula bounded by a big loop of the Thames that is the location of Canary Wharf; it’s geographical feature that’s been familiar for many years because of the title sequence of EastEnders. I realised I’d forgotten to bring either of my Oyster cards with me, so, reasoning that I had plenty of time, I decided to walk.

I thought it might take a couple of hours – it took three. I got there a little after five o’clock, having walked along the north bank of the Thames for various parts of the way (and taken a few pictures of the attractively cloudy sky), and was starting to worry about meeting my friends on time (although we hadn’t actually set a time).

The Great Eastern Bestplace Inn turned out to be quite a pleasant place – very pubby downstairs, clean and whitewashed upstairs. Better still, my bed was £11.99 – half price. The shower, on the other hand was terrible: weak and uncertain in temperature.

I got the DLR and Tube back up to our rendezvous point in the general vicinity of Leicester Square. Drew met me as I was reading and drinking tea at McDonalds. We headed out shortly towards the big Odeon cinema, which has been our meeting place on more than one occasion – then headed back because Colin had gone to McDonalds looking for us.

Colin always has the information on where to eat, so we allowed him to guide us to an Indian restaurant. My Goa murg and mushroom rice was very tasty, but – shockingly – I couldn’t finish because I was getting a bit full. The meal came to around £55 for the three of us. Afterwards, we went to a Costa for coffee and more chit-chat. I introduced Drew and Colin to the pleasures of the Korean flower cards game, Go-Stop – or a simplified version thereof.

Then it was time to say goodbye for another lengthy period and we headed to our respective homes.

In the morning, I checked out of the hostel after a complementary breakfast of cornflakes, bread and jam and tea. Well – I left, anyway. There were no keys, only door codes, and I’d already paid, so there was no actual checking out to do. There was no one on the reception desk, so I couldn’t even tell them, ‘I’m checking out now.’

I returned to the embassy shortly before 10 o’clock. I went to the passport window, where there was a young woman on duty (not the same woman as the day before) and, before the word ‘Hello’ had barely passed my lips, she snapped, ‘Visa window open at ten o’clock. Take a ticket and wait over there.’

There was one other person ahead of me – a courier, judging by his high-visibility jacket. Once the visa window opened and this guy had finished he handed me the next number ticket (he must have taken two by mistake) and I handed my stuff over to the young Korean chap manning the counter. When I asked, he indicated I didn’t need to submit my old passport. There was a moment of humour when he passed me my yellow plectrum that had got stuck inside my passport when it had been in my pocket. He looked over my documents, I paid £80, got a receipt and that was that. I didn’t actually ask again (I’d already spoken to someone on the phone two or three days earlier) how long it would take, but a notice on the window made it clear I should expect it to be five working days (to which I added another day for it to be posted).

Afterwards, I made my way to a nearby Starbucks, got a coffee and on the internet, realised at nearly eleven that I had a coach to catch in half an hour, so off I went.

I outlined my progress to my recruiter in an e-mail, but as it was pretty much already the weekend, I didn’t hear anything back and haven’t so far. The worst thing that’ll happen is that they’ll book me a flight and I’ll be forced to miss it because I don’t have my passport, then I’ll arrive in Korea later and the school will have to get someone to cover any class time I miss.

We’ll see what happens next weekend.

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Having explored much of many of the sights of the historic city centre, I needed to take a day trip or two to see some important locations near Kraków. There were two main ones: the Wieliczka Salt Mine, which I ended up not going to, and Auschwitz Concentration Camp. I booked a tour with my hostel and waited to be picked up the following morning.

I saw a minibus drive by outside as I was walking down the stairs and worried that I’d missed it; twenty minutes or so later, I got picked up by a people carrier. I was the last one on. A young American guy in the passenger seat was talking to a couple of middle-aged Danish chaps on the middle seats next to me; there were two or three people in the back row.

The drive out took about an hour. Once we got there, we had some time to use the bathrooms and get some refreshments. As is often the case, no backpacks were allowed, so I left my water in the car. Eventually, everyone was gathered together into a large group consisting of people ferried in in various vehicles belonging to the same tour company. (So I may, indeed, have missed an earlier ride.)

Auschwitz and Birkenau are the German names for a pair of Polish towns, Oświęcim and Brzezinka. Our tour was given by a Polish woman; she had a microphone and everyone was given earphones so we could still hear the tour even if we weren’t close to her. She did a good job; she wasn’t overly charismatic, but she was pleasant to listen to. Her English was near-perfect, but she pronounced ‘prisoners’ like ‘prisoneers’.

Auschwitz was originally a Polish army base, so the barracks were built of brick and they have survived intact and in number where the wooden cabins of Sachsenhausen, for instance, have largely gone. The weather was bright and hot and there were lots of trees clothed in green foliage around the buildings. It had the incongruous seeming of an aspiring middle class housing estate.

We toured through various of the barracks buildings, seeing examples of paperwork, photographs, restored prisoner accommodation and so on. Gruesomely fascinating were the collections of items taken from incoming prisoners – suitcases, shoes, brushes, enamel bowls etc. The pile of children’s shoes and the huge mounds of hair shorn from inmates were especially moving. We went into the crematorium, looked up at the holes in the roof where tins of Cyclone B were poured in to gas the prisoners, and at the cremation equipment itself.

After a short break to look in the giftshops and whatnot, we were taken to Birkenau, a short distance away. Having been built of wood, there wasn’t as much left to see here. There was, of course, the iconic tower building, railway tracks, a train carriage and a row of barracks; the whole area was still surrounded by a forbidding barbed-wire fence punctuated with guard towers. A large group of Israeli students was there when we visited, walking up the rail tracks carrying flags.

The whole place had been built on marshy ground, so disease had been rife. Apparently, working in the barracks cleaning the toilet trough, up to your knees in shit and piss, was one of the better jobs because you weren’t supervised as closely by the guards.

The tour was a little briefer than the leaflets had led me to believe, but it was certainly worth doing. I don’t know how easy or expensive it would have been to have gone on public transport, but I’m pretty sure you could only enter as part of a tour group.

Habiba and I had watched Triumph of the Spirit not long before. While the plot was somewhat lacking in energy – it was based on a true story – the details of life in Auschwitz seemed grimly realistic. Visiting the camp, I saw the same cramped bunks that were crammed full of prisoners, the same yards where people were executed as were depicted in the film.

On the way back, I chatted with the young American – he was quite interested in my experiences in India. I didn’t do much in my remaining time in Kraków – walked around more, took more pictures – especially of the Barbican in the ring of park that surrounded the ring of buildings that surrounded the main square. On my last night, I realised I hadn’t taken a picture of the little toy turtle my sister had given me, so I spent quite some trying to find a spot with enough light and enough shelter from the rain to make a decent photo; I eventually managed this sitting at a table in front of one of the many restaurants waiting for my order. It turned out to be agood opportunity to take some night shots of the illuminated sights (before it started raining, anyway).

I had to move back to a four-bed room for my last night and spoke to a Canadian fellow sharing the room. It turned out he was getting the same EasyJet flight to Gatwick the next day. We got the bus to the airport together and talked of this and that.

My trip home was quite well planned, I think. I would arrive at about one o’clock, get a coach up to Manchester a couple of hours later and arrive there just in time to get the last train to my sister’s village. I had a relaxing lunch at Costa at the airport and the coach left on time.

I hadn’t realised that the Olympic torch would be being run through London at the time, and, with a change at Victoria Coach Station, this would have a serious impact on my journey. The coach to Manchester arrived at Victoria half an hour or so later than it was due to leave. Then there was bad traffic in the capital. The driver called out to other drivers, ‘What’s the best way to the A4?’ on a couple of occasions. Once we were on the road, he took a detour to avoid an accident on the motorway.

So I was an hour or more late arriving in Manchester – too late for the train. I stayed in the coach station all night – leaving only to go to McDonalds for some food (or should that be ‘food’?). Coaches arrived and left several times during the night. The attendant on duty went round waking up people who put their head down to get some shut-eye. I plugged my laptop in to try to get on the internet or do some writing, but the power outlet was key-operated and my computer was low on juice. (This reminded me of a thought I’d had lately that, in the future, coffee shops would probably introduce coin-operated electrical sockets to make more money.)

I bought a ticket for the 6:50 train to Whaley Bridge – £8 or so – early the next morning. No inspector came through the train, though, so I needn’t have bothered. My sister welcomed me at the station with a hug and we walked back to hers. It was the first day of the Olympics and the last day of five months of travel that had started in Korea with Habiba and ended back home in Britain alone.

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