Tag Archives: Travel

Namaste, Nepal!

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Tadasana (mountain pose): Stand tall with the feet together or slightly apart, all four corners of them pressing into the earth, drawing up through the inner arches. Firm the thighs and lift the knee caps. Imagine a thread of light travelling all the way up the spine and out through the crown of the head. Lengthen the tailbone towards the floor. Draw the shoulder blades down and back. Lift the top of the sternum and widen the collarbones. Let the arms hang alongside the body. Have the chin parallel with the floor and soften the eyes. Press the palms of the hands together at the heart. Namaste.

Views from Nagarkot

Views from Nagarkot

Of the fourteen mountains in the world that are taller than 8,000 metres, eight of them are in Nepal.

For my first weekend there, my friends took me to Nagarkot in the Kathmandu Valley – famous for its Everest views. Sitting out on the terrace that connected our Tibetan-themed rooms, I cooed over the setting sun flaming over distant and smoky-coloured hills. But my friends just shook their heads. The haze was obscuring the mountains; this, I was assured, was nothing.

I caught my first glimpse of a Himalayan peak on the initial night of my Annapurna circuit trek with Pokhara-based Purna Yoga. I was tramping across the muddy central courtyard of Australian Camp, hoping against hope that my soggy trekking clothes had dried, when I was held up by a group of Americans and Canadians, chins aloft. I followed the line of their gaze but all I could see were clouds sitting prettily atop the hills.

‘See – one peak,’ came our guide and yoga instructor Mahesh’s voice from behind me.

I looked again. A pinkish white cloud seemed to hover above the dark mass of the hills. I blinked. No, not a cloud.

‘A peak,’ Mahesh confirmed, smiling at my expression.

First proper peak-sighting from Australian Camp

First proper peak-sighting from Australian Camp

Following that, every morning of the trek, we were awoken by Mahesh or our heroic porter Dinesh, bearing sweet, milky Nepali tea and swirling the playing stick gently around a singing bowl (my iPhone alarm will never be the same again) at around 6 a.m., in time for us to watch the rising sun shining pinkly on the side of Annapurna South, Machapuchare or – on the last morning, after

Staggering mountain range viewed from a rainy car window

Staggering mountain range viewed from a rainy car window

we’d trekked up Panchassee Hill – Dhaulagiri.

When my flight back from Pokhara to Kathmandu was cancelled, I ended up travelling back to the capital in a private car. We had stopped in a small town outside the lakeside tourist city for the driver to fuel up and, settling in for a long journey, I was engrossed in my book. Suddenly, something in my peripheral vision caught my attention. Looking up, I realised that the windows on the left side of the car were entirely filled – bigger and closer and more awe-inspiring than I could have ever imagined – by a Himalayan massif. It was as startling and as alien-looking as a spacecraft. I found myself yabbering incoherently – much to the consternation of my driver – tears in my eyes.

This is my yoga journey through Nepal. . .

Downward-facing dog in Nagarkot

Downward-facing dog in Nagarkot

Adho mukha svanasana (downward-facing dog pose): From uttanasana (forward fold), step both feet to the back of the mat. Have them together or parallel. Plant the palms into the mat, drawing energy up through the arms. Melt the shoulder blades into the back and have the ears between the biceps, the neck in line with the rest of the spine. Draw the tailbone long and stretch through the hamstrings, working the heels towards the floor.

Nepali soldiers, the Gurkhas are famed for their fearlessness and military prowess

Nepali soldiers, the Gurkhas are famed for their fearlessness and military prowess. Many have been involved in the post-earthquake rescue operation

Virabhadransana 1 (warrior 1 pose): Step your left foot towards the back of the mat, six to eight feet from the front foot. Have the right foot facing forwards, the left angled slightly inwards, the arch of the left in line with the heel of the right. Plant the outside edge of the back foot firmly into the mat and draw up through the legs. Inhale and, on the exhalation, bend the front knee, working towards getting the front thigh parallel with the floor. Ensure the front knee is no further forwards than the ankle. Root strongly down through the legs and then lift the arms upwards, clasping the hands. Turn the face towards the hands. Repeat on the other side.

The pipal or bodhi (old fig) tree is famed as being the type under which Siddhartha Gautama – the original Buddha – achieved enlightenment. They are often meeting or resting points for local communities in Nepal

The pipal or bodhi (old fig) tree is famed as being the type under which Siddhartha Gautama – the original Buddha – achieved enlightenment. They are often meeting or resting points for local communities in Nepal

Vrksasana (tree pose): Stand up straight, feet together. Fix the gaze on a point on the floor ahead. Rooting down through the left foot, slowly take the weight off the right, drawing it up the left leg to rest on the left ankle, shin or thigh. If balance allows, lift the hands above the head.

Half man, half bird, Garuda is the vehicle and devotee of Vishnu. This is his statue in Durbar Square in Patan

Half man, half bird, Garuda is the vehicle and devotee of Vishnu. This is his statue in the UNESCO World Heritage Site Durbar Square in Patan. The square suffered major damage in the quakes

Garudasana (eagle pose): Start in tadasana. Bend the knees slightly, lift the left foot up and, balancing on right foot, cross the left thigh over the right. Hook the top of the foot behind the lower right calf and balance on the right foot. Stretch the arms straight forward, parallel to the floor. Cross them in front of torso so that the right arm is above the left, then bend elbows. Hook the right elbow into the crook of the left, and raise the forearms perpendicular to the floor, the backs of the hands facing each other. Press the right hand to the right and the left hand to the left, so that the palms are now facing each other. The thumb of the right hand should pass in front of the little finger of the left. Now press the palms together, lift the elbows, and stretch the fingers toward the ceiling. Repeat the pose with the arms and legs reversed.

Machhapuchchhre – or the Fish Tail – in the Annapurna range. This peak is believed to be sacred to Shiva and is therefore out of bounds for climbers

Machhapuchchhre – or the Fish Tail – in the Annapurna range. This peak is believed to be sacred to Shiva and is therefore out of bounds for climbers

Ardha matsyendrasana (half lord of the fishes pose): Sit with legs straight out in front. Bend knees, put feet on the floor, then slide left foot under the right leg to the outside of the right hip. Lie the outside of the left leg on the floor. Step the right foot over the left leg and stand it on the floor outside the left hip. The right knee will point directly up at the ceiling. Exhale and twist towards the inside of the right thigh. Press the right hand against the floor just behind the right buttock, and set the left upper arm on the outside of the right thigh near the knee. Pull the front torso and inner right thigh snugly together. Press the inner right foot into the floor and lengthen the front torso. Lengthen the tailbone into the floor. Turn the head to the right. With every inhalation, lift a little more through the sternum, pushing the fingers against the floor. Twist a little more with every exhalation. Return to the starting position and repeat to the left.

As we trekked, hundreds of butterflies cascaded down the hillsides all around us; beautiful to look at though apparently a pest for the local farmers

As we trekked, hundreds of butterflies cascaded down the hillsides all around us; beautiful to look at though a pest for the local farmers

Bahdha konasana (cobbler’s pose): Sit upright and bring the feet together. Holding onto the feet, bring the hips towards them. Open the feet outwards like the pages of a book so that the outside edges touch but the soles face upwards. Draw up through the spine and inhale. On the exhalation, use the muscles of the thighs and buttocks to squeeze the knees closer to the floor like butterfly wings. Repeat.

The cow is the national animal of Nepal. As in other Hindu-majority countries, the slaughter of cows and bulls in Nepal is completely banned

The cow is the national animal of Nepal. As in other Hindu-majority countries, the slaughter of cows and bulls in Nepal is completely banned

Gomukhasana (cow face pose): Sit upright with the legs straight out in front, then bend the knees and put the feet on the floor. Slide the left foot under the right knee to the outside of the right hip. Then cross the right leg over the left, stacking the right knee on top of the left, and bring the right foot to the outside of the left hip. Try to bring the heels equidistant from the hips. Sit evenly on the sitting bones. Inhale and stretch the right arm straight out to the right, parallel to the floor. Rotate the arm inwardly; the thumb will turn first towards the floor, then point behind, the palm facing the ceiling. Exhaling, sweep the arm behind the torso and tuck the forearm into the hollow of the lower back, working the forearm up the back until it is parallel with the spine. The back of the hand should be working towards being between the shoulder blades. Inhale and stretch the left arm straight forward, pointing toward the opposite wall, parallel to the floor. Turn the palm up and, with another inhalation, stretch the arm straight up towards the ceiling, palm turned back. Bend the elbow and reach down for the right hand. If possible, hook the right and left fingers. Lift the left elbow towards the ceiling and, from the back armpit, descend the right elbow toward the floor. Repeat with the opposite arm and leg configuration.

Viparita karani was a perfect post-trek way to stretch out the legs every day

Viparita karani in our tea house accommodation was a perfect post-trek way to stretch out the legs every day

Viparita karani (legs against the wall): Start sitting curled up sideways on the floor against a wall, with the bottom as close to the wall as possible. Roll over to bring the base of the spine flush against the wall and extend the legs upwards. Stay here and breathe.

A 400-year-old manuscript depicting the chakras in the Patan Museum

A 400-year-old manuscript depicting the chakras in the Patan Museum

Chakrasana (wheel pose – also known as urdhva dhanurasana: upward-facing bow): Lie down on the back with hands by the sides. Bend the knees and bring the heels as close to the buttocks as possible, keeping them wider than hip width apart. Raise the hands and bring them back next to the ears. Place the palms on the floor with the fingers pointing towards the shoulders. Lift the body up with the support of the palms and the feet. Rotate the head slightly, so that the gaze is towards the floor. Stretch the thighs and shoulders.

Making new friends on a walk from Nagarkot

Making new friends on a walk from Nagarkot

Balasana (child’s pose): Kneel on the floor, big toes touching, and bottom on heels. Separate the knees about as wide as the hips. Lay the torso between the thighs. Lengthen the tailbone away from the back of the pelvis while lifting the base of the skull away from the back of the neck. Lay the hands on the floor alongside the torso, palms up.

Savasana (corpse pose): Lie flat on the back on the floor, feet mat width apart, rolling gently outwards, arms away from the body, palms facing up. Allow the eyes to gently close and the breath to deepen. Bring the awareness to the breath. Listen to the breath. Listen to the heartbeat. Relax and let go.

 

After my surprise mountain-glimpses from the car on the way back to Kathmandu, when the time came for me to fly home, I was somewhat prepared. I had been unable to check-in online, and the queues at Kathmandu airport were monstrous, so I had to settle for whatever seat was remaining. But luckily the kind Nepali man travelling to the Gulf who was allocated the window seat in my row wanted to sit next to his friend so swapped with me. I sat with my face as close to the window as I could get it, and for the first half hour of the flight, watched peak after peak poking through the clouds, looking so near I imagined I could touch them.

Parting glimpse of the Himalayas

Parting glimpse of the Himalayas

As the world knows, on 25th April this year (less than four weeks after I got back from my trip), Nepal was hit by the biggest earthquake it has experienced in 83 years – measuring 7.8 on the magnitude scale. This was followed by multiple severe aftershocks, including one that registered at 7.3 on the 12th May. The initial earthquake has killed upwards of 8,000 people, and injured many more – according to latest figures. The 12th May quake triggered landslides and has injured around 2,300 people. I’m very lucky that my friends and the people I met and visited there are all safe. But I think of the tiny villages we passed through on the trek, the smiling villagers, the farmers in their fields, the children in their smart school uniforms calling ‘Namaste!’– all their lives now changed forever. As as the outpouring of international aid has appeared to recognise, even beyond the immediate tragedy, the toll of these last few devastating weeks will continue to be felt for years to come. It is hard to know what best to do to help, where the money can be put to most use. Below are a few suggestions.

Purna Yoga:

This is the company who organised my trek. Families of their staff have been badly hit by the quakes. They have set up a fund to support these families and their local communities, and details of this, as well as how they have been spending the money, can be found on their Facebook page.

https://www.facebook.com/nepalyogatrek

GIZ:

The organisation for which my Nepal-based friends work. They have set up a fund that will directly support the rebuilding of their Nepali staff members’ houses that were destroyed. The details are:

Account name: Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH

Account number: 504 089 10

Bankleitzahl:    504 000 00

oder

IBAN: DE29 5040 0000 0050 4089 10

BIC:    MARKDEFFXXX

 Reference:

„Spende Erdbeben Nepal Nationale Mitarbeiter GIZ“

https://www.giz.de/en/html/about_giz.html

Himalayan Disaster Relief Volunteer Group

An impressive community initiative that has done much necessary work since the earthquake. Their coordination efforts have been so effective that some bigger relief agencies are now working through them also. Here is an article about the efforts: http://www.wired.com/2015/05/nepal-earthquake-aid/

You Caring:

The organisation coordinating this campaign are well thought of and have done impressive work so far.

http://www.youcaring.com/emergency-fundraiser/relief-for-nepal-earthquake-victims/343686#.VUX6m-Dse_J.twitter

DZI Foundation: 

An NGO in Nepal that is doing good work in the aftermath of the earthquakes. It is run by an American who has lived in Nepal for 16 years. They have a lot of experience.

https://dzi.org/

Next Generation Nepal:

http://www.nextgenerationnepal.org/Donate_Online

MSF:

http://www.msf.org/country/nepal

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Up Close and Personal

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Checking out of our Zagreb hostel, my best friend and I chatted with the owners about the next stage of the journey we had been planning for much of our twenty-year friendship. On hearing that we were travelling on the overnight train to Split, they exchanged a glance.

‘You do know there’s a Zagreb v Split football game today? The Split fans will be going home on the same train.’

Split football team

Split

We brushed this off, smiling. On our first journey of this rail tour of Europe, gas had been pumped into our compartment and our valuables stolen while we were insensible. By comparison, a few boisterous football fans would be a reassuringly familiar experience.

We had met an Irish girl and a Finnish boy in the hostel and we all found a compartment together in plenty of time. The moon was already high over lovely Zagreb as we got comfortable, my three travel companions sitting across from me, I by the window. I read a little, distracting myself with daydreams of the Adriatic islands we would soon explore.

Five minutes before the scheduled departure time, the Split fans arrived. Zagreb had won; it appeared we would be journeying south with the losers. Still, spirits didn’t seem in the least dampened; soon the platform and carriages were overwhelmed with red and white checked flags and strips, the air thick with shouts, song and the unmistakable odours of beer and sweat.

The door to our compartment was yanked open and the two seats next to me quickly filled. All thoughts of pine-littered beaches were driven swiftly from my mind by the smell of my new immediate neighbour. Two weeks into our shoestring-financed trip and never one to prioritise hygiene over comfort, I had enjoyed a few shower-free days myself. But his was a stench that spoke of dedicated consumption of beer and garlic-infused meat products, with a hint of lucky-and-therefore-unwashable football kit and socks.

I watched wonderingly as the compartment’s five other occupants settled down to sleep, seemingly unfazed – or perhaps knocked out – by the stink. Curling my legs under me and leaning as far from my neighbour as possible, I pulled a scarf over my nose and closed my eyes.

As I focused on the rhythms of the train rattling towards the coast, I became aware of shuffling and grumbling beside me, followed a sudden pressure along the side of my body. Looking up, I discovered that my neighbour was now using my bottom as a pillow, his cheek resting against mine, arms draped over my lower back.

My exclamations of outrage went unheeded. He continued to snore gently. Attempts to shift him were in vain; unconsciousness had rendered his skinny body a dead weight. I had to content myself with scrunching even smaller, allowing his head to crash towards the cracked faux-leather of the seat.

As he snorted awake, I tried again to make myself comfortable. But moments later, the sequence of events was repeated. By the fourth time, my indignant protestations were reduced to bleats of despair.

The train was passing through black countryside by now, the compartment dark. Through the gloom I detected the Finnish boy opposite signalling to me. He mimed giving the offender a shove and pulling down the armrest between us. Of course! Sleep-deprivation and the fumes had addled my brain. There was a simple solution.

Clearly, subtlety wasn’t an option. I took a deep breath and heaved my reeking neighbour with all my strength. As he careened towards the drooling man to his left, I slammed the armrest down, threw myself against the window and feigned obliviousness to his splutterings. My personal space regained, the smell now seemed a minor concern. At last I felt sleep approach.

When the squeak of the armrest woke me minutes later, I felt no surprise. Sighing, I budged up to accommodate the weight of my bedfellow’s head, as it settled once more against me.

Split, Croatia Port

Split, Croatia Port (Photo credit: MacExposure)

While the wheezes and mumbles of the other travellers filled the compartment, my eyes found the peaceful reflection of my oldest friend in the window. I watched her familiar face until the lights at last grew closer together, and then began to fade entirely when dawn touched the cream and ochre buildings of Split.

As the train slowed, my neighbour suddenly lurched to his feet and staggered from the compartment, without so much as a backward glance in acknowledgement of the intimate night we had shared.

English: Train from Zagreb in Split station.

Train from Zagreb in Split station. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Only now did my best friend – who had warned me at the start of the trip that she could never sleep on public transport – begin to stir.

‘It’s so cold in here! I barely slept at all!’

I smiled fondly at her, serene in the knowledge that the first coffee of the day was on her.

Al Green in the House – a guest post by John Clarke

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To make up for the long radio silence, I have a special treat for Rocinante readers today – a guest post by John Clarke, former writer and editor for The Times, now working at the Independent.

From the late 1990s onward, I managed to combine a production post at The Times with a dual career as a travel writer. I also managed to combine my two great loves, music and travel, with a series of trips, mainly to the States, but later elsewhere, too. I visited Cleveland for the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame; Chicago to find the blues; New Orleans for the annual jazz festival; Seattle to discover the roots of Jimi Hendrix (and visit Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s amazing Experience Music Project) and twice to Memphis, once to provide some background pieces for a series of concerts to be held at The Barbican and secondly to interview Wet Wet Wet singer Marti Pellow, who had wisely made the city his home. Further trips to Dubai for an unlikely rock festival and Finland for eye-opening accordion festival followed. My writing and travelling career ended, gloriously, with a visit to Jamaica that covered the Montego Bay Jazz and Blues festival, Bob Marley and, strange as it may seem, the songwriting career of Noël Coward.

I’d like, if I may, to take you back to my first visit to Memphis, perhaps my favourite American city. My driver and companion for the day (and most of the trip) was Tad Pierson, a graduate from the University of New Mexico, who drove me around in his 1955 Cadillac. But that, as they say, is another story. . .

Al Green

It was a Sunday morning, getting close to 11.30, and I was going to church, the Full Gospel Tabernacle Church, as it happened, at 787 Hale Road, Memphis. It wasn’t far, down Highway 51 South, past the graffiti-scrawled walls of Presley’s mansion at Graceland and then a right turn. It was a warm day and the car park outside the modern, white-painted church with its grey, sloping roof was filling up. Everyone had dressed up, too. Standards may have slipped elsewhere, but here it was Sunday best – pressed suits, ties, smart dresses, even the odd hat or two. We moved inside and sat a few benches from the front. If we were lucky, the church’s founder and pastor might be present. As it happened, we were. A side door opened and in he came with his assistant and two other church workers. The Reverend Al Green, the finest soul singer of his generation, and now church leader and pastoral father, was in the House.

He welcomed us warmly and then the choir began to sing. Imagine a gospel singer who had a strong enough voice to reach the back row of a concert hall with ease. Then take twelve of them, mainly women, and imagine the noise, the joyful thunder of praise and thanksgiving, they were able to create. It was an aural avalanche greeted by a congregation who weren’t prepared to sit there, meekly, and nod in approval. They joined in, they shouted, “Praise the Lord” and, “Great God almighty,” as the music swelled and rocked around them. One choir member, overcome with exultation and too large a dose of the Holy Spirit staggered back and had to be helped to her seat. The others carried on, seeking salvation in a wall of sound.

Then it was over and we were back in our wooden benches listening to the Rev Green. This was no tourist showcase. This was a proper, working church. Wearing his glasses, he read the notices, mentioned choir practice and Bible classes. Then there were prayers and readings, before he smiled and slowly took centre stage, except that this was no theatre. . .

He takes off his glasses. “Deep down in my heart I know that my God is real,” he says. Then he sings it. This is the voice that has sold millions of records worldwide, but there he is, three rows from you, giving a performance that is as heartfelt as any he’s given in the secular world. There’s a backup band to his left – guitar, drums, keyboards and his son on congas. They join in as the Rev Green reminisces about his rural upbringing. “We’re all so. . .”, he pauses, searching for a word, “instant today.” We all shout “hallelujah”. “We don’t know a real cake when we taste it.” More hallelujahs, some more singing and then the pastor spies a family of latecomers who have moved into the seats to the left of us. The mother is wearing a beige, Egyptian-style headdress. Her four daughters, including a set of identical twins, are all clad in dresses with large, zebra-like black and white stripes. “Look at Miller family,” he shouts. “Don’t they look good?” The last word is pronounced with such relish, it’s as if God’s favour has been specially granted to them. “Let’s have a big hand for the Miller family,” he says. We applaud them and praise the Lord.

He sings another line or two and then begin to preach in earnest, except that this is no solo effort. It’s a duologue between the preacher and his congregation. It’s the “call and response” ritual that moved from black churches into black music and went on to provide the soulful backbone of countless pieces of memorable music. “God came to me last night about 10.30,” he says (“God be praised”, “Tell it, father,” we hear). “He said: ‘I got the Word for you,’” (“Hallelujah”, “Great God Almighty”). “He told me to speak to you, and tell you that you can be saved” (“Thank the Lord”). The sermon continues. It’s like a piece of jazz improvisation, where a theme is suddenly taken up – “I’m fifty-eight and I’m God’s child, I’ve been in this business thirty-eight years” – before that topic is exhausted and we move on to pastures new. The words tumble out, inspirational, guiding and comforting.

Then at the climax, the very zenith of the sermon, he pauses. “Will the circle be unbroken,” he sings with a fervour and feel that I’ve never heard in any of his records. It’s a great American gospel song written in 1907 and recorded by everyone from the Staple Singers to the Dubliners, but I’ve never heard a version like this before. The choir and band join in, “By and by, by and by,” he continues in a God-given soulful croon. Then there’s a glorious upbeat and heart-lifting surge as he sings, “Is a better home awaiting, in the sky, in the sky.”

It’s Psalm 100 that tells us to “Make a joyful noise unto the Lord.” With the help of his choir, band and congregation, the Rev Al Green was fulfilling that command, faithfully and majestically.

It was a church service like no other I’ve ever been to. As we filtered out into the Memphis sunlight I managed to shake hands with the Rev Green. I smiled and could think of nothing to say but, “Thank you.” He smiled warmly back, “Be sure to come again.”

I haven’t yet. But one of these days.

http://www.algreenmusic.com/fullgospeltabernacle.html

Tea in Alexandria

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Standing on the side of the noisy corniche on our last night in Alexandria, we again consulted our guidebook, mouthing pronunciations as we prepared to flag a taxi. We were a little wary – any attempt so far to locate places outside of town had resulted in us wandering around suburban streets in the dark, hopelessly lost.

Alexandria harbour

“Put that away, I can tell you anywhere you need to go,” a young man with a shaved head and streaming nose instructed us.

We hesitated – most previous directions offered in Egypt had led straight to someone’s uncle’s café or perfume shop.

“No, no, no,” Amir assured us. “I don’t mind where you go, I just want you to have a good time in Alex. This is my city!”

We told him the name of the restaurant we were looking for. Brow creased, he discussed in Arabic with his burly friend, Hanif. They shrugged.

“Please, don’t you think it’s freezing?”

As we stood with breezes rolling in from the Mediterranean carrying the smells of grilling fish and sugary popcorn, the April evening was perhaps a little fresher than previous nights, but still very pleasant.

“I have been diving by the fort all day,” Amir continued. “May I invite you for some tea and we can talk more?”

They led the way back from the seafront, into the teeming market in Tahrir Square.

“You know what this means, tahrir?” Amir enquired as we stopped to watch a stall-owner spinning golden feteer dough.

“Liberation, isn’t it?” I offered.

“Yes! You are an Egyptian,” he grinned, elbowing my boyfriend.

Suddenly Amir and Hanif swung right and into the narrowest of alleyways. Instantly the sound of screaming car horns faded. On the other side we emerged into a covered courtyard in which men of all ages – mostly deaf, according to Amir – sat playing backgammon and drinking tea. The floor was covered with sand and sawdust. Hanif found us a table and bustled off to order mint teas.

Tank in Alexandria

“The revolution has been good for Egypt but bad for business,” Amir mused as he lit a cigarette. “Usually I teach diving in Sharm el Sheikh, but now I have to move somewhere else. It’s all low-budget holidays in Sharm. Tell me the truth, are you here because it is cheaper or because you wanted to see our revolution?”

“A bit of both,” we answered honestly.

Amir told us that he was married to a Swiss lady and had lived there for years, but that he was glad to be back. “People have more feeling here.” Hanif was about to move to America, “But he doesn’t speak any English!” We tried to involve Hanif in the conversation, but he just blushed and smiled, and shovelled more sugar into our tea until we protested, laughing.

“I think he will come back eventually,” Amir grinned. “And you will too. There is nowhere like Alex.”

Travel by the Book – a guest post by Sarah Sweeney

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I have a special treat for visitors to the roadside this week. My own wonderful Sarah Sweeney – who happens to be a top editor at a major travel publishing company – has contributed her own musings on travelling, writing, reading and editing (my favourite things). Enjoy!

Guidebooks

A visit to Vietnam, by way of Mallorca, Ireland and Chicago: par for the course in a week of my line of work. Unfortunately, these visits do not involve literally dodging motorcycles in Ho Chi Minh City, admiring the Mirós in Palma or eating my way around the Windy City – instead, I am travelling in my imagination from my desk. And I’m not a bored accountant – no, I’m a travel guide editor. A great job for someone who loves seeing the world, although it’s also useful that I simply enjoy the topic of travel, as, contrary to the assumptions of most, I only journey on work’s time through the pages of whatever I’m commissioning or editing.

Not that this is entirely a bad thing. I’m a big believer that great travel writing lifts off the page or the screen and transports the reader like a low-tech TARDIS. Furthermore, I reckon that the physical travel guide is worth its weight in the bag for more reasons than simply detailing transport routes, where to find the cheapest bed in the cheapest hostel or the latest list of ‘must-sees’. From the moment of purchase with intent to travel, the book you choose as a companion helps take you there mentally  – and later, as a dog-eared memento, takes you back.

Recently, thumbing through my guide to Eastern Europe, I was pleasantly surprised to find lots of messy annotations identifying and evaluating the places that blogmistress Emily and I had chosen to visit – the extent to which we were engaging with the book laid bare. This multi-country guide was the first that I ever bought, for the first trip on which I would be actively involved in planning routes and accommodation. The exotic place names – Moldova, Belarus, Albania (none of these, I’m afraid, were actually on our itinerary) – the sense of locating how all these countries (which then, just at the moment when the EU expanded, felt very unknown to me) fitted together, and venturing into a region behind the Iron Curtain for much of our parents’ lives, and the first part of ours. . . Leafing through the pages, it was like peering into another world. On the road, the thought of losing the book was even worse than losing the diary I was rigorously keeping (this did actually happen). My passport doesn’t bear more than one stamp from that trip thanks to the Schengen Agreement (a brief foray over the Croatian border into Bosnia providing that solitary mark), but my book bears enough contemporary scribbles to take me straight back to the beer hall we targeted because it served steaks, smoke-filled jazz clubs and hostels both fairytale and prison-like.

When my next opportunity for a multi-country trip came up the following year, I threw myself into the pleasures of absorbing information on Southeast Asia, a fairly unknown entity to me at that time. Hypochondriac that I am, I spent most of the time reading the ‘Health and Safety’ section wide-eyed, worrying about rabies and making a detailed shopping list of all the medicines and mosquito repellent items I could possibly need. (I spent £75 in Boots and my washbag took up one third of my entire backpack.) Three months into my trip, I found myself alone on the other side of the world – literally, on the east coast of Australia – as my travel companions’ plans diverged from mine. Free to do whatever my dwindling finances would allow, the book provided inspiration at crucial junctures as I took sole control over my plans. Twice in Australia I shipped boxes home, packed with the kilos that were weighing me down but no longer needed on the road. My prized guides wended their long way home and remain intact instant memory-joggers, long after the traveller bags and bracelets I bought have been consigned to the bottom of a drawer.

Eighteen months after this trip, I started at the publishing house where I still work. Stepping behind the wizard’s curtain, seeing the mechanics behind producing a book, it is impossible to be quite so reverential. And yet, when inspiration strikes, when the plane takes off or when I am charting waters unknown, the busman’s holiday syndrome disappears and I am still itching to read about all the places I can go, things I can do, food I must eat. Or indeed, even as I sit at my desk, where I can easily become distracted from the nuts and bolts elements of my job to being transported to a wooden gulet sailing from Turkey’s Mediterranean coast, a night market in Taipei selling weird and wonderful dishes, or toy train ascending hills into India’s northeast Himalayan region. In a practical sense, I have a travel wish list as long as my arm; in my mind, I travel all over the world every day. The wealth of travel inspiration out there online opens this up even further, and so often, I am right there on that cobbled street, up that mountain or on that sandy beach, taking it all in and planning my next move.

Guidebook action

Planning your next move

Sometimes it seems that with globalisation, the world is getting smaller – and sometimes, with the cost of travel, it feels like it’s actually getting bigger. But when you can be taken on a journey through words – whether instructive guides, inspirational tales or your own memory-jogging scribbles about adventures that you’ve had – anything and anywhere seems possible.

A Travel Horror Story (One from the archives)

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Time again for another tale from my earlier travels. For Halloween, I’ve chosen one of my personal travel horror stories. It’s another one from my interrailing trip around Europe – this time from our very first train journey of the holiday. 

Hello hello hello . . . or perhaps dzien dobry (which I can in no way pronounce) to you all.

Writing this in a rather bleary state in an internet café in Kraków (selected because Lonely Planet praised its stunning views, but it turns out to have darkened windows looking onto a grotty street.)

We’ve only been travelling since Monday, but as usual it feels like years already. We left Prague last night after two and a half beautiful days. It was the ideal start to our holiday; a stunning city, people chilled out to the point of complete indifference, the right balance of seeing stuff and just soaking up the atmosphere . . . perfect.

We quickly got into the swing of unidentifiable pastries from the bakery for breakfast, eaten in some sunny spot, wandering around for hours and passing the same place three times, outrageous guesses at pronunciation met with indulgent smiles and encountering some breathtaking view every time we rounded the corner. The incredible cheapness of everything puts you in a permanent good mood, as does the lack of harassment from people in general. On our first afternoon we did a lot of wandering, sandwiched between long patches of sitting, watching and chatting. Our dinner that first night was in a ridiculously cool restaurant in the cellar of the architecture museum – think vaulted ceilings and low hanging lights. The insane prices on the menu encouraged me to go for a similarly insane dinner choice – baked potatoes stuffed with ‘turkey-ham’ covered with plum sauce and garlic cream cheese and served with potato wedges. And surprisingly, it was completely delicious. Just the first indication of many we had that the Czechs are not afraid to mix their flavours. The Czech wine was also very good and dangerously inexpensive.

Prague Castle and part of Charles bridge by ni...

Prague Castle at night

On Tuesday, already feeling like well-established Praguians (?!), we set off on a whirlwind tour of the top Prague sites on our list. A morning in Prague Castle (stunning, if v unusual cathedral; exhausting climb up the tower to breathtaking views; basking outside, and dreaming of waltzing inside the palace; a stroll down Golden Lane where Kafka once lived). A picnic lunch (grand total [cost] of £1) of bread, goats cheese and paprika salami) and then a trek up to the old Jewish Quarter. We found this v trendy and expensive, but having paid into the synagogues got much more of a feeling for the tragedy of the place. In particular, the Pinkas Synagogue, whose walls bear the names of the 80, 000 Jews from Bohemia and Moravia killed in the Holocaust, was simple and yet devastating. After reading about the history of the Czech Jews we felt in serious need of some light relief and went in search of some local beer.

That evening was my favourite so far. In a previously unexplored part of town we had a very authentic-feeling Czech meal in a slightly grotty but character-filled restaurant. We then went to a brilliant jazz bar. The basement area was painted in blue, red and gold and a fantastic Czech band kept us entertained with their interpretation of Cuban music for over three hours.

Charles Bridge in Prague.

Charles Bridge

Afterwards, despite being shattered, we went for another wander on the Charles Bridge, which looked particularly spooky and beautiful in the moonlight.

Yesterday we began our day in a more leisurely manner, with the funniest river boat trip I’ve ever been on. Rather than going either up or down the Vltava as we had expected, the boat just went back and forth in front of the same part of the city for the whole hour!

We spent most of the rest of the day acquainting ourselves with parts of the city we hadn’t yet visited. In the evening we headed back to the hostel to pick up our bags, and then found our way to the main train station, feeling just a little nervous, partly due to the incomprehensible signs, but mainly due to the dire warnings in Lonely Planet about the gassings and robberies on trains into and out of Kraków, especially night ones and especially those arriving from Prague.

However, we found the platform and, after narrowly escaping sitting in the carriages that only went to the end of the Czech Republic, we were foolishly convinced that nothing more could go wrong. Nothing in the course of the night indicated otherwise. We both slept fitfully, but as far as we were concerned, our compartment was locked and we were v safe. We were disturbed a couple of time by people rattling at the doors, but after they went away we thought nothing more of it. That is until the morning (i.e. 5.30 a.m.) when we realised that Sarah’s phone had gone. It had been on the little table by her head but was now nowhere to be seen. I was convinced that no one could have come in without me noticing, as I hadn’t felt deeply asleep. But there was no explanation for where it had gone.

Coat of arms of Kraków

Kraków coat of arms

When we arrived at Kraków and went to change the rest of Sarah’s koruna, only to find they had disappeared, we knew something was a bit odd. All my sterling coppers (amounting to a grand total of 25p) had gone, as had my camera, Sarah’s sunglasses and my penknife. We quickly got onto the police with the help of a volunteer translator and realised we had been victims of the old sleeping-gas ’em then rob ’em trick. We spent all of our first morning looking first for our hostel, then for the police station – only to find that the only English speaker wasn’t in and we had to make another appointment to come back.

Needless to say, my opinion of Kraków has suffered somewhat as a result (especially when we got attacked by evil wasps while trying to eat our breakfast!)

However, we have since snoozed in the park, had a very little wander and sat outside a lovely sunny pub drinking beers. I’m v tired but feeling a little more positive.

OK, that’s more than enough waffle for one day. I hope this finds you all well wherever you are. I’ll write again, hopefully with no more disaster stories (chance’d be. . .).

London road-trips: The Walking Camper Van #3

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Last week’s shock heatwave notwithstanding, it looks like autumn is here in earnest, so it’s high time we took another road-trip to see how the city’s coping with the change in season.

You may want to add waterproof/warm layers to the usual checklist items.

Stop 1) York Way

We’ll start off along the same route as our first trip. It’s still unseasonably warm, but there’s definitely more of a nip in the air than there was last week and the evenings are drawing in. Crunching over cornflake-like leaves, we pass cosy-looking kitchens on Camden Park Road, the warm light and delicious smells emanating from them making Lambeth Bridge seem a long way away. Disembark here for the Amy Winehouse shrine in Camden Square (not really my thing, so I’ll keep the camper van going, if it’s all right with you).

The new developments on York Way are really shooting up (the signs promise ’20 new streets, 10 new squares’), closing part of the pavement and nearly obscuring our reassuring glimpse of the BT Tower. But look over there – the London Eye, even closer to our final destination!

London Eye from afar (it is there, honest!)

Passing over the canal, a flock of birds keeps up a raucous dusk chorus as the sun finally disappears. Time to put on the headlights!

Stop 2) King’s Cross

There actually seem to be more people milling about on the streets than usual, and something of a party atmosphere in the air. We’ll have to swerve here to avoid that group of young dancers practising their moves in the middle of the street, all clad in matching leggings and UGG boots.

We’ll avoid the crowds outside the station this time, instead looping over the ends of Pentonville and Gray’s Inn Roads.

Stop 3) Bloomsbury

We’ll scoot down the little alley alongside the Camden Centre to get onto Tonbridge, then Hastings, then Judd Streets, following the same route (more or less) as our first trip. Taking a left off Guilford Street and into Queen’s Square, we pass the legendary Great Ormond Street Hospital again.

Crossing the square, we’ll take Old Gloucester Street past the fantastically atmospheric October Gallery and onto Theobald’s Road.

Request stop – Covent Garden market

Covent Garden Market, London, UK, Christmas 2008

Covent Garden Market

We (well, I) have an errand to run in Covent Garden market, so from here we’ll take a right onto Great Queen Street, follow it all the way along and across Drury Lane (looking out for the Muffin Man, of course), past the statue of a ballerina in Broad Court, down Long Acre and into the bustling theatre district around the market. Alight here for shops, bars, cafés, clubs, street entertainers, stalls and restaurants.

Stop 4) Waterloo Bridge

Our errand accomplished, we’ll forge a path through the crowds milling outside restaurants and queuing to see The Lion King in the Lyceum, across the Strand and onto Waterloo Bridge. Disembark here for Somerset House and other riverside delights.

The view from Waterloo Bridge is possibly my favourite in London, even (or perhaps especially) in the dark. See? Hmm, well maybe my phone camera doesn’t really do it justice, but you get the idea.

From Waterloo Bridge, blurrily

It’s quite blustery here, but say what you like about pollution levels in London, it still feels like fresh air after a day cooped up in the office. As we near the south side of the bridge, look right to admire Pipilotti Rist’s knicker lanterns outside the Hayward Gallery and the remains of restaurant Dishoom’s recreation of Mumbai’s Chowpatty Beach. Alight here for the many attractions of the South Bank.

Stop 5) Waterloo station/Lower Marsh

Having travelled through the underpass, we’ll emerge by the main entrance to Waterloo station, feeling very, very grateful that we don’t have deal with South West Trains today (if you are alighting here to connect with an overland train, you have my deepest sympathies).

We’ll pass the multistorey bike rack and the taxi rank and marvel at the sign prohibiting the movement of barrows across the station’s booking hall floor.

Crossing over Station Approach Road, we’ll pass onto Lower Marsh. I love this local street – it has everything you could possibly need; Thai greasy spoons, a traditional English greasy spoon, a swanky deli, a Cuban bar/restaurant, funky ScooterCaffe (where you can sip super-strength coffees, beers or wine with Lambeth’s arty crowd) and the most wonderful vintage/retro shop, Radio Days.

Final Destination: Lambeth Palace

We’ll cross the main road and go under the railway bridge, listening to the screech of trains along the tracks. In daylight we could take a short cut through Archbishop’s Park, (in which I do believe just about every sport is represented in a tiny space) but since it’s dark we’ll have to content ourselves with listening to the sound boxes of William Blake’s poetry between Carlisle Lane and Hercules road.

Emerging at the top of Hercules Road, it’s only a short hop to the right (moving briskly past Finecrown Patisserie to avoid being tormented by the smells of fresh croissants) to Lambeth Palace.

Now this is moving beyond my remit as your driver (is it a bad time to mention I don’t have a licence and have never driven a non-virtual vehicle?)/tour guide, but I heartily recommend spicy roast vegetable risotto and hot ports when you get home, in keeping with the autumnal feel and as a reward for our long walk.

Thank you for travelling on the walking camper van. We would like to wish you a pleasant onward journey and look forward to seeing you again very soon

Panorama of the London skyline. Taken from the...

London skyline