Category Archives: Travel Writing

I’ve just added this ‘Travel Writing’ page, because I’ve recently started to have a stab at writing short accounts of episodes and experiences I’ve had whilst travelling… I’m going to put them all on here, as and when I write them, as a bit of a tester. Episode-orders might be a bit odd, as might subject-matter, but oh well; we’ll see what happens!

Russian Around

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Wanderlust is a treacherous thing. It causes some to burn all their savings booking an impulsive flight to an undiscovered place, and others to drunkenly stumble to their computer at 3am to book last minute tickets to the Far East; some it makes bitter and jealous, others it makes impossibly spontaneous.

The common ground, however, is that it usually ends with travel and subsequent happiness. This time, the trip was to Russia.

One of my greatest friends and travelling partners, Sasha, had been living out in St Petersburg for over 6 months, so I thought it was just about time I went and stayed with her. It sounds a bit silly, and hugely spoilt, but Russia had never really been on my ‘must go’ list before the decision to go was made. Swept away by the cold and austere stereotype and news debates on Pussy Riot, there didn’t seem to be anything very appealing waiting for me there. Little did I know.

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Sash and Pushkin

We were mugged within our first few minutes of Russian life outside the airport… ‘Shall we head to the centre of the city the Russian way or the tourist way?’ our greeting committee – a fur hat clad Sasha – asked us. It was a loaded question; she was testing me to check if I’d changed. ‘The local way, of course’, I replied, as if on cue.

So down into the Russian metro we headed. I’d been told a little of the history about the metro by a friend, but I had hardly expected it to be so beautiful. It was filled with chandeliers and mosaics, golds and reds, as though it were an underground, undercover palace. This treasure was of course the result of Soviet looters and their fight for equality during the Russian revolution, passionately murdering, stealing and cutting the aristocracy back down to size.

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Tickets were purchased, metro was boarded (neither of which would have been possible without our on-site translator) and moments later we were bumbling along in a train beside a lot of Russian commuters. But this wasn’t your average tube ride. To get on the metro, you had to run at the crowds of people and push your way in (a bit like getting onto platform 9 3/4). It was clearly believed that no train was ever full and to assume so would be completely defeatist. But not only that; to stay on the metro, you apparently had to continue your pushing and shoving, and take both to levels unseen in timid little England.

We fell out at our stop and – in a movie-esque way – Tom felt up his pockets and realised he’d been pick-pocketed. His hands had been resting over his pockets and yet, in the commotion of it all, some cunning Russian had grabbed what he’d wanted. The dramatic pushing was clearly some elaborate team pick-pocketing ploy. And it had worked.

So out into the depths of St Petersburg three English people walked, one with a slightly lighter pocket than before.

IMG_3313‘The Russian Smile’

Read the rest of this entry

Embracing the Extraordinary

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It’s safe to say that very few people enjoy bumpy, vomity bus journeys. Fewer still enjoy bus journeys in ancient buses with creaky engines, across dusty African plains, with chickens in the aisles and strangers sitting on your lap. By this point, however, we’d come to know and love them. They’d become a part of our daily life, and all fear-for-one’s-life had, by now, gone straight out the cracked and barely transparent window.

There were other mazungus (white people) on the bus with us. For some reason, you find yourself staring at tourists when you’re travelling; trying to work out why they’re there, and what their purpose is in Africa. You feel like a local, and you want to know what their intentions are towards your country. Father contemplating a marriage proposal on behalf of his daughter; that kind of thing.

local kids

Yet this time, the tourists were staring at us. The staring was in fact coming from one tourist in particular: the Bob Geldolf-meets-Sandy Cohen-meets-a-bush-backwards, grey-haired guy sitting in the row in front of us. Nationality? We were usually pretty good at these sorts of predictions (which tells you a lot about the games we play whilst travelling) but not this time. No idea in hell, except that he’d probably suit a toga.

That should have answered it for us. He was an Italian…

“Hhhellooooo,” he said in the voice of an over-excited holiday resort person, “where are you girls from?!”

“Ummm. England.” It was 4am – not really the time for a casual chat about background.

“I’m Sandro from Eeeeeetaly!”

“Oh, really?!”

“I draw – see, look at my pictures”. A sketch book was thrust into our hands, and we flicked through a gold mine of nude drawings. They weren’t bad either, but then again I suppose all Italians are related to Leonardo, in the same way that we’re all related to David Beckham, so that should explain it.

A few more words were shared, before we lay back and pretended to sleep. We could all chat later, surely. 4am just didn’t work for us, thanks.

That was when he decided to party it up Italian-style. Within seconds, the tube net which the oranges were being stashed in was called upon by crazy Sandro. He opened it, and put his head inside. He then peeled the net down over his face, and looked over at us.

There was no way there would be any sleeping on THIS bus ride.

“I’m an alien!” he began to shriek, whilst grinning through the net meshing. “Does anyone want to join me?! ”

We didn’t, but we did. Never say never.

So one of our trio stood and shunted up a seat, to put her head near to Sandro’s. He took the other end of his net tube, and pulled it down over her head. They were joined by a net tunnel.

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It actually sort-of looked like one of those ‘boyfriend catchers’ you use to trap a guy’s finger with. (Not that I’ve ever used one before).

“Romantico!” he said in his grainy voice, “mi piace…mi piace MOLTO”.

Our relationship with Sandro actually turned out to be a beautiful one. Somehow, the crazy first impression that he gave us made him a keeper, and we adopted him to join our travelling clan. More adventures obviously followed, including one involving bunkbeds, a Turkish man and a can of deodorant. But that’s another story for another blog post… Read the rest of this entry

The alternative washing machine

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End of Sri Lanka and India 2008 246

It was the mechanical sound of repeated brushing and forceful whipping that woke me. The brushing I’d become accustomed to by now – a couple of the children preparing the courtyard for the day ahead – but the whipping sound baffled me. I’d only been staying at the orphanage for a week.

I shuffled into my flip flops – so stained by the deep red, all-engulfing Southern Indian dust that they were now unrecognisable – and hurried down the stairs, three at a time.

Hidden away behind the sleeping huts, I discovered some of the children, whipping wet clothes against large, flat rocks. The boys ranged in age from about five to twelve, and were doing their weekly clothes wash.

Each boy stood beside a pile of his own washing, meticulously scrubbing every individual garment with a bar of soap. Next, each item was submerged in cold, soapy water, given a good beating against the ‘washing rock’, a rinse in clean water and another sequence of ‘draining’ whacks against the rock. It was now deemed eligible to be added to the pile of clean clothes. The ritual continued, until one of the boys approached me, whispering, ‘get clothes to wash, Auntie’.

I’d returned within a second, and then there I was: an English girl being taught to wash her clothes properly by a group of Indian boys.

It was harder than it originally looked; not only physically, but mentally. It felt like a game, yet these boys did this every week, taking pride in their appearance and refusing to look anything but immaculate.

There was a tiny giggle. Two beady eyes looked down at me from the wall above. The smallest boy in the orphanage had revealed his favourite hiding place; and I had whipped my wet shirt in completely the wrong way.

End of Sri Lanka and India 2008 249

Pick Me Up

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“Please girls?! Can I have money for journey?  Just half the fare, so I can pay petrol now, and then we go?”

His eyes were so pleading, and his need so logical.  We certainly didn’t want to breakdown half way.  “Ok, but be quick; we’ve got to get there before nightfall!”

We had bartered long and hard for this journey, and we were now waiting in the middle of a rustic Malawian village, crouched on our rucksacks in the back of this man’s pickup truck, preparing to embark upon our hour-long journey to the coast.  And it was getting dark.  What would our parents think?  They’d never know.  We’d learnt to trust people by now; we’d been backpacking around Africa for quite a while, and something told us we could trust this man.  We were of course wrong.

Time passed, but he didn’t appear.  It was at this point that we caught sight of his little figure winding its way into a make-shift pub: a wooden hut at the side of the village, serving the 40p beers that we’d come to know and love.  This didn’t look good.  20 minutes later, he returned to us, swerving.  The pickup hadn’t been filled with a drop of petrol, but he had used our money to pump himself full of his own brand of the stuff.

He stood before us, clutching two more bottles of beer, and a large spliff, smiling.  “We go!!” he said jovially, before hopping into the front of the truck beside his co-pilot, and revving the engine with force.  He was another local dependent on the legendary ‘Malawi Gold’: the name given to their purest and strongest form of weed.

If we’d been sensible, we would have jumped straight out of the truck and searched for a new chauffeur.  The problem was, it was dark, we had a tight time-frame, and we had no idea where we were.  So we didn’t fight it.

Words can hardly describe that journey across hills and rocky terrain.  We swerved from side to side, flying over unexpected bumps (our headlights were dying torches).  Within minutes, our tired knuckles had turned white from clutching the sides of the truck.

Our driver had ‘hot-boxed’ himself in the front of the truck.  Spliff in one hand, beer in the other, he was casually controlling the steering-wheel with his elbow, and had glued his foot to the accelerator.  In his mind, he had suddenly become a ‘racer boy’.

We banged angrily on the glass and – as we motored even faster – the co-pilot stuck his head out of the window to explain the situation to his passengers.  “The driver he eeees nervous,” he shouted, “he knows there are elephants in trees.  We must drive fast before they kill us”.

Our driver was in fact hallucinating.  There hadn’t been elephants in those trees for over fifty years.  So we crouched back down and prayed we would arrive safely, concluding that this was one travel story we wouldn’t describe in detail to our trusting parents.

The Ilala Ferry: Trade Secret of Malawi

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It was almost 10.30pm and the humongous ferry – docked in the port at Cape Maclear (Malawi) – was honking its horn for the final time.  It let off three blasts: this was the last call.  We quickly bartered down the price of a bag of chips, sold to us by a hunched-over man standing behind a dimly lit, rickety table, with a large bowl of piping-hot oil and piles of ready-peeled potatoes, and ran for it.

It felt like a scene from the Titanic.  There were hundreds and hundreds of locals lining the pier, carrying crates of dried fish, maize, furniture and fresh vegetables, and passing them up to the crew above.  Catching a ride on the Ilala Ferry was the fastest way for them to transport their produce down Lake Malawi, to sell it in other town markets.

Yet the crowd was not calm.  It was a wave of wildness, of panic, of competition.  The ferry would be pulling out of the port soon, and (despite having tickets) some of these people would not be able to fit onto it.  As soon as the captain wanted to leave, he would, and hundreds of desperate people would be stranded on the pier, unable to make a living this week.

There was pushing and shoving and general chaos in the ranks, so much so that one of the girls I was travelling with fell down, trapping her leg in a hole in the pier.  Suddenly, someone noticed she was a white person.  “Mazungu!” people started to cry, pointing, “Mazungu! Mazungu!” (meaning ‘white’), and everyone began to make way for us, pushing us forward and telling us to get onto the ferry quickly.  It didn’t feel right being treated with so much respect, but before we knew it we were inside the Ilala Ferry, looking out.

The ferry was divided into classes: the top deck (with a bar) was first class, middle was second, and the bottom floor, with all the dried fish and produce, was third class.  This ferry had in fact been exported to Malawi from the UK in the 1940s; it had been deemed ‘unfit for service’ by us, and yet here it was in Africa, making life easier for thousands every day.

The anchors were coming up, and the motor was revving.  People were throwing themselves onto the dangerously over-packed boat from all angles; others had put ropes down the side of the ferry to hoist friends on-board before it was too late.  The security guards were hitting the people they caught.

It was a slow journey down Lake Malawi, especially with all the stops we made to let people and produce on and off.  And yet it was the most incredible, cultural experience.  We spent two days and nights on that ferry, sleeping in the open air, befriending locals, swimming, and eating the local catch.  Various riots and strikes were supposed to be happening on land, but we were in our own world, in No-Man’s Land, travelling south.

Truth Comes With Tragedy

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It’s one of those nightmares you don’t imagine will ever happen to you: a bus crash in the middle of a country you don’t know, with people speaking a language you can’t understand.  And yet it happened.

We’d been warned about the dodgy nature of Bolivian buses.  ‘Choose very carefully’ everyone said, ‘don’t travel at night’, and ‘preferably never use a bus at all’.  The problem is, realistically, buses are the way to travel when you’re backpacking.  They’re cheap, for one, and they’re what the locals use to get around, which means they’re probably your best bet if you actually want to arrive at your destination.

Using public transport also helps you to totally immerse yourself in the culture of a new place: the aim of travelling.  I quickly learnt that the buses of Bolivia are frequently late, each seat is intended to be shared by at least three people, sitting on laps is acceptable, aisles are a place to sleep and stand (whilst the bus is still moving), seatbelts are rare, and you are welcome to stuff your incredibly vocal chickens into the overhead compartments.

On numerous occasions, however, we’d been warned of things going wrong on bus rides in South America: sleeping gas being pumped through the air vents (so bags could be stolen from unsuspecting victims), gunpoint muggings, and corrupt policemen on-board demanding to see travellers’ passports, before stealing them.  And then there were the stories of bus crashes.

I thought I was dreaming when it happened.  We’d ‘responsibly’ picked the most respected bus company, and were travelling a well-trodden route; and yet nothing in this world is guaranteed.  Chance had it that our driver was drunk, that he was on the wrong side of the road, that it was the middle of the night and snowing, and that he had to swerve off the road in order to avoid a head-on collision with a truck.

The bus veered off the road, flew, flipped and crashed down on its side, smashing all of the left-hand windows.  I won’t go into much more detail, only to say that people were killed, and that the friend I was travelling with cracked open her head and was knocked unconscious. The bus was filled with smoke, screaming and sobbing, and in order to escape, we had to smash our way out of the front windscreen.

The first people to reach us were the paparazzi, cameras blaring, and then the looters, who stole all the bags we’d left on board, whilst we were huddled outside, waiting for ambulances.  That shocked us.

But the thing that will never leave me is the love shown amongst the people outside that wrecked bus.  Relatives of dead victims donated shawls to warm my friend and to quell her blood-flow, people offered their services as translators, reassuring smiles were shared, and friendships like no-other were formed.  In the face of tragedy, the true heart of Bolivia had been exposed to us tourists.  We were no longer ‘different’.

Cling film is casually placed over the smashed front windscreen of a Bolivian bus we were travelling on (not ‘the’ bus).

One Night Stand-off

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“It’s very late, we’ve been police-checked by armed guards, and have only just got through border control.  This is our first night in Mozambique.  Please, friend, we need to find somewhere we can sleep”.  That was all we said to the smiley old man we found standing outside his house, in Tete.

And so we were escorted across the road, to a Mozambican brothel.

Spending a night in a brothel isn’t really something you expect to have to do when you’re a smelly adventuress with a humungous rucksack, travelling around Mozambique with two other girls.  In fact, it isn’t something I would ever expect to have to do.  But it’s now one of those things I can tick off my ‘exciting experiences’ list, and look back on with a laugh.

The brothel looked like a club from the outside.  Loud music, multi-coloured lights, and lots of scantily clad young women dining with a variety of elderly business men.  We should have guessed what it was, from its name: ‘Oparasio Mysterioso’.  But we were tired and English (stiff upper-lipped and overly trusting), so we just entered the brothel, thinking nothing of it.

I don’t think anything could have prepared us for the overly-modern world we found inside those gates.  We’d backpacked here straight from Malawi, where we’d been grabbing lifts in the back of pick-up trucks, chewing on sugarcane as a pastime, dancing in the streets with local children, and living an incredibly basic lifestyle.  And then, out of nowhere, we were hit by this.  It was sort of like coming across water in the desert; except that I’d quite like to come across water in the desert.  A brothel in Mozambique, slightly less-so.

We had no choice other than to spend the night there, so we approached the reception desk coyly.  “One room for the night please,” I asked.  “All of you, one room?”  “Yes please. Thank you.”  We really didn’t want to know what was going through his head at this point.  He smiled at us knowingly, his moustache flickering slightly, and then wandered across to the spider web of keys hanging behind him.  One key, Room 303, was selected.  He held it out to the naïve English girls standing before him, with a giggle.  We giggled back (making enemies here probably wouldn’t be a good idea) and followed his ‘man’ past the numerous armed guards, to our new room.  It was pretty seedy in there.  Eyes darting to and fro, we nodded at the man, ushered him out, and locked the door.  All we wanted was sleep, and early-morning evacuation.  We kicked off our shoes and lay back on the huge, disease-ridden bed, ready to write our diaries.

This was exactly what our parents had been implying we should avoid, when they’d given us our pre-travelling briefing: no tattoos, piercings, babies or husbands.  We smiled at each other; the round-robin email which we’d be writing as soon as we left this place would provoke an amazing parental response.