Sarajevo gives thanks to the UN

“We needed two things: arms and food. So the UN gave us malaria tablets and condoms – well they had promised to ‘protect’ us! We felt very safe.

“The food they sent us was varied. Sometimes it was left-overs from the Vietnam war – cans of food twenty years out of date. Sometimes it was pork – in a city where half the population is Muslim. But most often it was this can of beef called icar. This was the most disgusting thing imaginable. When I ask my grandfather if he would ever eat icar again, he says:

If there is another siege, I would rather die than eat icar.

“One of the first things the UN did was to put an arms embago on both sides of the conflict. This was very fair: the Serbs had the former Yugoslav army, the fourth largest fighting force in Europe, fit for fifty years of war; and the Bosnian army did not yet exist – it was made up of ex-policemen and criminals, the few people who had weapons.

“So we had to smuggle weapons into the city, against the wishes of the UN. In this, we got a lot of help from Colombian drug cartels. They did more to help save Sarajevo than the UN. There is always talk that we should build a monument to acknowledge their aid.

“There is a monument to the UN. It is a sculpture and the plaque on the sculpture reads:

In grateful acknowledgement of the humanitarian aid provided by the United Nations. We will never forget.

And the sculpture? It is in the shape of a can of icar.”

Icar Bosnia
Yummy icar!

I travelled to Sarajevo in the summer of 2007. I heard these stories from the people there.

Bike to Bordeaux Route

In Spring 2009, I cycled 547 miles from Cholsey in Oxfordshire to my friend’s house in Bordeaux, France. I was raising money for an asylum charity in Oxford, Asylum Welcome.

View Bike to Bordeaux in a larger map

19th April: Cholsey-Portsmouth (92 miles)
19th-20th April: Portsmouth-St Malo (by ferry, not pedallo – kind of cheating I know…)
20th April: Getting Lost in St Malo (6 miles)
21st April: St Malo-Dinan (20 miles)
22nd April: Dinan-Trudeau (45 miles)
23rd April: Convalescence in Trudeau (0 miles)
24rd April: Trudeau-Painfaut (43 miles)
25th April: Painfaut-St Brevin Les Pins (53 miles)
26th April: St Brevin Les Pins-St Jean des Monts (53 miles)
27th April: St Jean des Monts-Les Sables d’Olonne (35 miles)
28th April: Les Sables d’Olonne-La Rochelle (62 miles)
29th April: La Rochelle-Saintes (52 miles)
30th April: Saintes-Bordeaux (86 miles)

Carmen in Seville

All I knew about my host was that she was called Carmen and was ‘looking forward to poisoning me’. At least that’s what my ‘Welcome To Seville’ introductory letter should have said. Perhaps I might have sensed the dark portents of staying with a Carmen in the city of Seville, but I was optimistic and knew absolutely nothing about opera.

So it was that, in the blistering sunlight of high noon, underneath a sky of the deepest, most photogenic blue, I found myself outside an anonymous looking apartment block. Once I circled it- like a matador about his fated prey. Twice I circled it again- as if I were a bailaor caught up in the flamenco of a furious pasión. Thrice and again around- increasingly like a hapless Englishman who couldn’t find the blasted door.

Having eventually located an entrance, I struggled up the stairs in the heat. Carmen kindly made herself known by banging something disturbingly metallic against the door; she was the one in pyjamas. I made my way inside and took a sharp intake of breath. Not from any shock or horror, I just don’t find stale air very comfortable on the lungs. Many florid hand gestures exchanged between us and I assumed I was welcomed to her cosy casa.

Taking refuge in my designated cell, I perused a notice on the back of the door. This was, essentially, a list of benevolent injunctions from my host, such as ‘No food in room’, ‘No TV in room’ and ‘No guests in room’. Added to the list were some, rather disparaging, additions made by previous guests, which Carmen had not been astute enough to delete.

A sharp knock startles me, and my host gurns at me from a round the frame:
‘Would you like some lunch?’ (translation of frantic hand-to-mouth signals).
‘Yes please, that would be lovely’ (international language of cheerful nodding).
She closes the door and the sound of pots and pans being clashed together breaks the quiet, still heat: magnífico! Two minutes elapse before another rap on the door – ah! – she’ll be asking if I want an aperitivo with some deliciously smoked jamón and queso before the speciality paella de la casa –
‘Lunch is ready’ she signs.

I take this opportunity to show-off my advanced Spanish: ‘Qué?!’
I enter the kitchen to see on my plate the culinary equivalent of a multi-lane motorway pile-up: a deep-fried sausage juggernaut has smashed into the twisted wreckage of a microwaved meatball and spilled its load of deep-fried potatoes all over the oil drenched tomato salad. The fact that the emergency services were not immediately called is something that astounds me to this day.
We ate in joint silence in front of the television: mine explained by a mixture of disbelief and nausea; hers by a fascination with the death of the pope. I was prepared for a culture shock, but this was a little hard to swallow.

I spent the afternoon prostrate on a park bench, wallowing in gastric distress: bloated and oozing oil and fat, desperately burping and scraping my tongue in some futile effort to cleanse my palate. When the park attendant began to tire of this display, I dragged myself back to the flat, just in time to witness Carmen deep-fry dinner for herself. Although from this evidence I couldn’t be certain that she lived on a diet of battered offal, as I tossed and turned in my bed that night, bowels a-shudder, I thought of the weeks ahead and decided that I wouldn’t be the sucker who found out.

I rose early and composed a fiendishly ambiguous note in my worst Spanish, which I propped, suggestively, against the poisonous deep fryer. Then, taking one last, ill-advised, lungful of Carmen’s air, I skulked out of the apartment.

I bounded down the stairs, sensing freedom so close, but – alas! – blocking the door to the street with razor-sharp teeth and menacing bark was a fierce dog, hackles raised. Ok, ok- he was the size of a rabbit with a bark that was more of an irritating yap, but the teeth looked sharp alright. I dithered uncertainly, then suddenly strode forward and threw the door wide open! Without so much as a backward glance the dog was away, head down, tail up, flying down the open road. Never before have I shared such a feeling of camaraderie with a canine.

As far as mortal operatic revenge goes, loosing the local dog probably seems a little anticlimactic, but I thought, on balance, that a swift dagger to the breast would have been a bit harsh on old Carmen. So I hitched up my bag and stepped out into the early morning sunlight, which was already tangoing playfully over the surface of the languid Guadalquivir.

Travel expenses: Spain & Morocco 2005

In the Spring of 2005, I travelled to Spain and Morocco to study Spanish and tour el-Andalus and the land of the Moors. These were my travel costs:

Flights (to and from Spain):

£84.48

Spanish travel costs:

£1055.06
39 days @ £27.05 / day
Travel primarily by coach: Sevilla, Cordoba, Granada, Madrid, Gibraltar

Spanish language school (including accommodation):

£356.50
14 days @ £25.46 / day

Morocco travel costs:

£177.91
14 days @ £12.71 / day
Travel primarily on bus and train: Tangiers, Rabat, Marrakech, Casablanca, Essaouira, Fes, Chefchaouen