No heart attack problem!

Part of the tunnel complex at Củ Chi, this tun...

Part of the tunnel complex at Củ Chi, this tunnel has been made wider and taller to accommodate tourists. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We were all exhausted. The man next door to me held my arm as he sat down. Then he lay down. In some fairly uncomfortable looking undergrowth. His breathing was slow, laboured.

All of a sudden, I heard screaming from behind me. I moved back out of the way as two women from our party rushed over and ripped the man’s shirt open. They started cardiac massage and mouth to mouth resuscitation. They seemed to know what they were doing.

We were in Vietnam visiting the Cu-Chi tunnels. A couple of years before we were born, a battle raged here between the United States and the Viet Cong guerilla army. The Viet Cong lived and fought from the tunnels. They covered a massive area. I don’t remember how many Viet Cong the tour guide told us, but I remember thinking that something like the population of my home town lived down there in the darkness.

The Americans tried many different ways of destroying the tunnels. They tried dropping bombs. They assaulted the tunnels on foot. They tried gas and boiling water. They even trained some small guys (called tunnel rats) to infiltrate the tunnels armed with little more than a pistol, a knife, some string and a torch. I can’t imagine the horrors they experienced. Despite all the efforts of the good old US of A, the tunnels persisted and were a major factor of the outcome of the conflict.

The Viet Cong were tiny and their tunnels commensurately so. They were far too small for us tourists. A small section of tunnel specially widened was available for us to crawl through. I was keen to experience what it was like down there. Julie was less convinced, especially when the tour guide said over and over in his Vietnamese accent “No-one with heart attack problem down tunnel”.

“You’re not going down there are you?”


“Oh my God – that means I have to go with you!”

I don’t have a “heart attack problem” but I do take tablets for blood pressure. I looked at some of the people getting ready to descend into the tunnel. If they can do it – I can do it. We climbed down a ladder into a small chamber before climbing down further into the tunnel. For some reason, I assumed the tunnel would be cool. It wasn’t. It was claustrophobic and hot. It was also dark. We had to crawl along in single file. I quickly realised that with a man in front of me and Julie behind, there was no quick way out. It was also very hard work.

The man in the bushes was not doing well. One of the women attending to him kept screaming for a doctor. The other kept screaming for oxygen. The tour guide apologetically said “This is third world country – no oxygen”. A Vietnamese man with a stethoscope appeared briefly but I suspect I knew more about medicine than he did.

Unfortunately, that was the last holiday for that man – he didn’t make it. I’m sure if he was at a tourist attraction somewhere in the Western world, he might have fared better.


How does London work?

London, London Transport Museum, Covent Garden

London, London Transport Museum, Covent Garden (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For those of us who travel around London, it’s easy to take the transport system for granted. Although the city above is a labyrinth of winding streets that seems to make no sense whatsoever, the London Underground is an easy to understand schematic which gets you to exactly where you want to go without fuss.

We managed to get down to London for the day during the Christmas holidays. Carefully avoiding the shopping areas which were jam-packed with consumer induced zombieism, we made our way to Covent Garden for a drink. We needed something to do next and the London Transport Museum had the virtue of sharing the same location, so in we went.

Unlike the cities of the United States, London wasn’t laid out in a nice grid network and unlike cities like Paris, there was no grand plan for London. There was no central body in charge of planning for much of the development of the capital. The City grew like a living creature to accommodate the needs of the rapidly growing population. Predictably, this led to absolute traffic chaos.

There were many suggestions for solving the traffic problems including double-decked streets and charging people for using the streets. These ideas were dismissed as preposterous at the time and yet we have flyovers and congestion charging today. Eventually, the city looked underground for the solution and the tube network was born.

Initially, tunnels were constructed using the “cut and cover” method. Basically, digging a massive trench and then plastering over it to make good. If this sounds disruptive, it was absolutely devastating in the reality of densely packed London. There is a very good model in the museum to give you an idea of exactly how much devastation was involved. Because of the way that London had evolved, there were no plans of what lay below and accidents were common.

Diagram of Brunel's tunnelling shield and Tham...

Diagram of Brunel’s tunnelling shield and Thames Tunnel construction (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There simply had to be a better way, and there was, thanks to a British invention, the tunnelling shield. Effectively a giant cookie cutter that gets pushed forward on rams as the men inside dig out the clay. It doesn’t sound that clever today, but this was in the days of Queen Victoria and it had never been done before. Pretty much every tunnel since has been dug in exactly the same way.

The real genius in London’s transit network came not from their construction, groundbreaking (sorry) though it was, but from a map. Traditional cartographer’s struggled to capture the simplicity of the network, wedded as they were to geographical accuracy.

A man by the name of MacDonald Gill came up with the idea of spacing all the stations out evenly and using straight lines to link stations. Unshackled from the bounds of geography, the new map could show the entire network in a simple and easy to understand form. Another invention that was so successful, every transit map produced since owes something to the original simple design.