Cycling to the Sahara: The Road to Ksar Ghilane

Matmata: another man with a 4×4 offers me a desert Safari.
‘No, thanks,’ I reply. ‘I’m cycling to Ksar Ghilane on my bicycle tomorrow.’
‘Oh,’ he says. ‘You know the best way is down this road. More direct than the main route.’
‘Really?’ I ask.
‘Yes, yes. Over the jebel, then – ‘ he makes a motion with his hand as if it’s all down hill from there.
I’m slightly nervous as the road he indicates is not marked on my drawn-from-space road map. So I ask: ‘Is it signed?’
‘Yes, yes. It is direct to a roundabout, turn right and arrive Bir Soltane – after that Ksar Ghilane.’

So, always happy to avoid a main road, I vow to follow his advice.

The next day, it takes me approximately ten minutes to recognise the truth of Tolkein’s aphorism that short cuts make long delays.

Less a road, more one extended pot hole.

The “road” that led over the jebel was, well, I think even a 4×4 would have had trouble to be honest. I certainly didn’t see any attempting it. To cross it on a fully-laded touring bicycle was nerve-shredding. As the front wheel stacked into deep road-scars, I’d wince as the back wheel crunched down with the full weight of my baggage. Every moment I expected to hear the crack of spokes snapping. Up hill was dragging slow, but the down hills were only more dangerous.

And – is it signed, my arse! Unless by “signs” he meant “old men on donkeys” of whom I encountered two, both appearing at critical moments. Once as I pondered turning back at the sight of miles and miles of up and down hills tracked only by treacherous washed-out roads, pot holes the size of meteor craters. And the other when I reached the “roundabout” of my guide’s description. Is it signed? No it is not signed. At all. It’s a T-junction with a choice of east or west. That’s it.

But at least the road surface after the junction is better. If I could reach the road surface, that is. Unfortunately it is covered in an inch of sand, so the bike can only manage about ten metres of swerves before I have to dig the tyres out of the dune. Still, I’d rather swerves than the potential death of the pot holes.

I tell a lie: there was ONE sign. But look at that sand!

This “road” to Ksar Ghilane is also guarded by ten dogs. Thankfully, they were only barkers, not chasers. I think they were gobsmacked to see a cyclist to be honest. Only one shepherd’s dog put in a half-hearted chase.

I didn’t get lost at any point on this “road”, but I think that is only because to be lost you must have had some idea of where you were in the first place. I didn’t see more than ten people all day – a few flocks of sheep and two camels – but not many people who could guide me.

Huh? Is this the Sahara or the Cotswolds?

When I saw a shepherd boy on a donkey, I dumped my bike at the side of the road and marched across the sand towards him. He climbed down off his donkey and started over to me. We met in the middle.
“You are alone?” he asked, after comfirming that this was indeed the road to Bir Soltane. “Very difficult,” he added, somewhat unnecessarily.

The “road” surface was mainly spine-crunching stones about the size of a baby’s head. Every bounce and crack a brief panic at the idea of getting a puncture – or worse, that my wheel spokes would snap at the strain. The surface and the care that I took with it meant that I couldn’t exactly enjoy the view. After the mountains, it would be fair to say that there wasn’t much view to enjoy anyway.

Stark. Featureless. Bumpy.

Every now and then I’d cross a waterless wadi, turned into a sea of gravel. I’d need to push across, of course.

After “cycling” through this god-blasted land for 26.08 miles at an average speed of just 8.1mph, I finally reached the main road to Ksar Ghilane, where the 4x4s roar.

Hurrah – only another 28 miles to go! Into a 14mph headwind.

I’ve never been so glad to see a proper road in my life.

Cycling to the Sahara: To MP3 or not to MP3?

Long-distance cycling will always, at some point, become an arduous task. Whether it’s Tunisia’s flat expanses of eye-watering desert or the hard shoulder of the A1, there will come moments when every turn of the pedals seems a pointless trial of will.

Long, straight, dull.

At these moments, it is tempting to push aside the present and to try to make time pass faster by plugging in your headphones and listening to something totally dislocated from now.

The juxtaposed sound of Bob Dylan crying about racial murder in Louisiana or spiral rhythms dropping from the decks of a DJ in Bristol can bring an odd comfort to cycling on a bleached-out main road in Tunisia, as trucks torment me with their dust-devil exhaust pipes, the sun soddens my shirt and the squeaky crank of my sand-choked chain drills into my brain.

But dislocating by MP3 is not all good. Music focuses the mind on the subject or the mood of the song. This is great if you are in trouble (I whole-heartedly believe that Nashville Skyline saved my life when I was cycling through northern France with a broken bike at 4am in the morning), but where would your thoughts take you if you were cycling in silence? What could you learn, what could you understand for yourself?

I haven’t used my MP3 player the last two days – not even on the 136km main road from Sfax to Gabes. I preferred fantasy and my own thoughts. At the risk of sounding like I’m going insane, I have conversations. Not just with myself, but with my friends. These are real conversations: they make me laugh. I wouldn’t possibly laugh out loud if I was just making up these conversations on my own. No, my friends are there with me, telling jokes.

In Tunisia, it also feels rude to have headphones on, certainly when going through towns and villages. Every person you pass on the road expects and offers a greeting. It is hard to greet someone when you’re listening to heavy metal and conversation is impossible.

I shall keep my MP3 player. If nothing else, it is good for blocking out the snoring coming from the hotel room next door. But I am certainly using it far less on the road. The birds are calling to me…

Cycling to the Sahara: Matmata Motobylette Man

Story goes: I cycled to Matmata, a small town dug into the ground on the way to the Sahara. In the seventies, George Lucas sprinkled tourist-gold over the town by filming Star Wars there. Henceforth the town was cursed to be a place of pilgrimmage for cultic cinema-goers wishing to see the spot where a fictional character wasn’t born.

Matmata le jour.

For me, it was a nice spot to stop after a big day of cycling the day before. So I sat on a wall overlooking a green-coated wadi, watching the sun fall between two palm trees as the mosque gave the dusk call to prayer.

A young man barks up on a motobylette behind me. A motobylette is essentially a bicycle with a motor gaffa-taped on the back. He greets me. I flinch, instinctively.

I flinch because it is customary in Matmata for locals to tout tourists for business. It is all part of the curse. This business involves invading the privacy of various put-upon residents for the purpose of ogling their homes / Star Wars sets, ostensibly on Luke Skywalker’s home planet of Tataouine. I hope this makes sense to some of you readers, because I had no idea what they were talking about.

The Millenium Falcon. Oh no, it’s a bicycle. And my foot.

The other business is desert touring. Everyone here seems to own a stable of camels, horses, 4x4s, quad bikes, motorbikes and numerous other conveyances to rent for the purpose of desert safari. These propositions are usually fairly swiftly dealt with.
“You want tour of desert?”
“No thanks, I’m going there alone.”
“Oh, you have 4×4?”
“No. I have a bicycle.”
“Ah, yes, okay – I put bicycle on car and into Sahara.”
“No, I’m cycling there myself.”
At which point the proposition usually founders.

Good cycling terrain.

Anyway, once the propositions are over, quite often these men just want to chat.

So the young man on the motobylette told me that he was from the Gdouma clan and that I was staying in the Gdouma clan area of Matmata. Apparently, the Gdouma clan are found only here in Matmata and in Senegal. And in Canada, but mainly in Matmata and Senegal.

Why? I ask. And so motobylette man tells me the story of the Gdouma clan.

A long time ago, a Gdouma man travelled to Matmata across the Sahara from Senegal. He fell in love with the beautiful Matmata women and stayed. He married and had children and his children had children and their children had children and so on. Over the years, the Gdouma skin grew whiter and whiter, until today they are indistinguishable from their neighbours. Now the motobylette man lives just 14km from where the first Gdouma man arrived all those years ago.

I ask him if he’ll ever go to Senegal, to visit his ancestors – he could take his motobylette. He objects, saying he’ll run out of gasoil – Tunisia is not a rich country, it has no gasoil. So sell the motobylette and take a camel, I say. He laughs. I’m not joking. He says he’d rather go to Canada, but the government won’t let him.

An old man rolls up at this point and sends motobylette man off to buy some bread. The old man sits down on the wall next to me.

A few minutes later, motobylette man returns. He failed to find bread for the old man. There’s only one baker in town and he only bakes enough bread for the inhabitants of Matmata, about 2000 people. If it runs out, it runs out. At the moment there are a lot of Tunisian tourists here because of the holidays and they’ve eaten all the townspeople’s bread! Part of the curse, again.

The old man gets up and goes off to the shop to buy flour so that his wife can make bread at home. You see, the man and the wife work together to make bread. The man buys the flour and the woman bakes, motobylette man tells me.

He’s never seen Matmata so green, not in 14 years. Normally there is very little rain, but right now there is a dusting of green over everything. Shrubs sprouting everywhere. Purple and yellow flowers rooting and blooming – from nowhere, it looks like. Later, someone tells me that twenty days ago it even snowed in Matmata. I don’t believe that, but the next morning, when I see the town hung with mist, I think perhaps it’s true.

Snow?

Motobylette man says there are few European tourists here at the moment, perhaps because of the economic crisis. And if there is crisis in Europe, he says, then in Tunisia there is death. And he laughs. He tells me that he is guide, but also not guide. I think he means he is an unlicensed guide. Most people here work with tourists in one way or another. You can see there is nothing else here, motobylette man says: no agriculture, nothing. We must do better, he says. Then he invites me for a coffee or a tea, but for me it’s dinner time.

As I go to my earthwork hotel, the old man walks past with his bag of flour.

Matmata la nuit.

Cycling to the Sahara: On Killer Guard Dogs and Courage

For those of you following closely my twitter feed (ahem), you will know that yesterday I took an unmarked country track from el-Jem to Sfax. This was a slightly risky move, I thought, because the track did not appear on my map and I had no idea where I was or – aside from a vague notion that south was good – where I was going. Continue reading Cycling to the Sahara: On Killer Guard Dogs and Courage

Cycling to the Sahara: The Vanishings of Kasr el-Jem

Was it an elaborate hoax, devised to ensnare gulled travellers? Or could it be a mirage in the minds of weary-sickened tourists? And yet The Internet insists it exists… The hoax runs deep.

I arrived in el jem very hot and sweaty (as expected). I cycled immediately to the only hotel in the town. According to my guide book, the only point in its favour was that it was easily found, being located directly next to the train station. This didn’t bode well for a comfortable stay (“surly” was the epithet the guide book chose), but at least a stay I would have.

I did indeed easily find the train station. But of the hotel there was no sign. Even after three tours of the curious architectural sculpture that adorns the square in front of the majestic train station, I still couldn’t find the damned surly hotel.

Not a hotel. Neither can it be called a sculpture. It’s just a piece of masonry.

So I asked a local, who was just falling off his moped. He nodded and shook his head and waved his hand around, seeming to indicate a complicated set of cycling instructions. “No, no,” I insist, “the hotel is near to the station!”

A friendly English speaker intervenes at this points and translates the terrible truth: the surly hotel has closed down. Its easy-to-find location was clearly not enough. “But happily,” he goes on to translate, “there is another hotel a little way out of town, just two or three kilometres.” Excellent news. “What’s it called?” I ask. “Ksar el-Jem, the Palace of El-Jem.” And the man gives me detailed instructions: head for the main road to Sousse (the one I had studiously avoided on my way in), past the gas station and it’s right there – two or three kilometres only.

And so I set off.

With bear cycling instinct, I find the road to Sousse first time. Borne on the same strong wind that I’d fought my way through to get here, I am highly gratified when I fly past a gas station after about 2 or 3 kilometers. But I see no hotel, palace or otherwise.

I stop and ask a group of people inspecting a broken down moped, a moto they call them. One of them claps me on the arm and points further down the road. “Hotel? Yes, yes. There is: two or three kilometres – on the left.” I thank him and press onward. As I fly past the crossed out el-Jem sign, I decide that the first man must have meant two or three kilometres out of town.

I cycle on and on, seeing nothing remotely like a hotel. In fact, they appear to be farm buildings, wheat silos and the odd mechanics. I must say it doesn’t look promising, as the dust scuds into my face from the barrelling rumble of construction lorries and the sun sinks its teeth into my neck.

Then I pass a huge billboard announcing: Hotel Club Kasr el-Jem, and showing off its keyhole swimming pool. Truth be praised! There’s no indication on the billboard of where the Kasr is, but I must be on the right track. And so I faithfully persist in pedalling.

I end up cycling four miles without seeing a hotel. I stop and ask a soldier who’s just climbed out of a coriander truck. He shakes my hand, happily, repeating after me: “El-Jem, el-Jem,” while pointing redundantly down the road back to the town. I guess he doesn’t understand I mean Kasr el-Jem, the hotel.

I shout over at some workmen who had been wolf whistling at me. One of them saunters over, smiling sheepishly. I ask him for Kasr el-Jem. He seems to understand me, but still points back down the road. “Two or three kilometres. Yes,” he says, firmly. Okay. This is possible, I have come a long way down this dusty road. So I start cycling back towards town. Perhaps the hotel was in the building where that billboard was. It looked like a wheat processing plant, but you never know…

So I stop at the billboard to ask some farm workers. “Buongiorno!” they shout back, confusedly. I ask them for the Kasr el-Jem hotel. “Yes, Kasr el-Jem – two or three kilometres,” they say, pointing in the direction of el-Jem. Hmm. I’m beginning to get a little pissed off with this hotel, so I vow to ask every single person I see.

I stop at a café, just inside el-Jem city limits. “Kasr el-Jem? Yes!” he says, promisingly. He stops smoking a dead chicken on a barbeque, leads me onto the road and points back the way I’ve just come. “500 meters,” he says. Well, I think, that’s so specific that it must be right! “With a door like this,” he adds, indicating a huge blue studded door ahead of us. 

With my tail up and a close eye on my odometer, I cycle back out of town again. I stop at the first building I see with a huge blue studded door and wheel my bike inside the compound. It doesn’t look promising, I have to say – motorbike and car parts litter the ground. Some are fixed up on the outer walls of the white pasted building. It could be décor?

So I shout over to a couple of men working on a car. One of them comes over. “Kasr el-Jem hotel?” I ask, in my best Arabic. He waves his hand back in the direction of town. “Two or three kilometres,” he says. I slap my cycle helmet in disbelief. “Impossible!” I refuse to accept his judgement and repeat myself in a kaleidoscope of every language I know: “Hotel Kasr el-Jem, nuzul Kasr el-Jem, l’hotel Kasr el-Jem!” But he is adamant, flapping his hands towards the town: “Yes, yes! Two or three kilometres!” I shake my head. He leads me to the road again and firmly shoves me in the direction of town. “Two or three kilometres!” I look at him hopelessly one last time. “On the left or on the right?” But he doesn’t understand: “No, straight on. Two or three kilometres.”

So I give up and have to cycle back past all the helpful people who tried to direct me to this damnedably mythical hotel.

Cycling to the Sahara: Farmyard Animals

Yesterday was supposed to be a short day. Starting early from Sousse, I should have arrived at my destination by about lunchtime with plenty of time to mosey around the Roman amphitheatre at El Jem.

The amphitheatre at El Jem. From below.

But given the nature of this trip so far, I shouldn’t have been surprised when I only arrived at my destination at 22.30, 70km from where I expected to be.

On the plus side, I did get a guided tour around a Tunisian farm, near Ghanada.

This is me and Ali. He insisted I take photographs of all his animals. So I did.

There were sheep. And peacocks.

And geese.

And a cow (mother). And a calf. Indulging in some light petting.

These chaps were fricking awesome. Hamdi picked me up of the side of the road and near dragged me in for a cup of tea. He introduced me to Ali (above, with his seven month old calf, his ‘marriage’) and Khaled, a young fella who worked for the Garde Nationale and drove a tractor.

They fed me yoghurt fresh from their cow (above), bread fresh from their oven and an enormous egg fresh from one of their geese (above) and we all watched the National Geographic channel together. Then we went on a tour with the camera around their thousand tree olive grove and inspected all the animals. Love this place!

Anyway, I apologise for the somewhat episodic nature of this post, but here is the news in brief:

Hammamet

Disasterous room. The shower instantly floods its feeble curtain, flows merrily into the bathroom, seeps under the door frame and out into the wider bedroom beyond. This seems to come as standard in Tunisian hotels, but this particular shower comes with a cold tap that you can’t turn off. It turns ON all right, but not off. So I had to switch off at the mains, which means that I can’t flush the toilet – unless I’m also having a shower.

Furthermore, the TV when switched on makes a whirring noise, gives off a sparking flash and then nothing. And only two lights work. Otherwise it’s great. Oh and there are no windows, except onto a closed-in courtyard. And the muezzin sounds at about 5.30am. And I wake up freezing cold at midnight. Otherwise…

Traffic

There is an immense amount of heavy goods traffic in Tunisia. I don’t understand it, but they seem to be building vast cities at every turn. However, I have found it is possible to enjoy choking in the dust of a truck or lorry – my favourite are the ones carrying huge bubls of fennel. The air is most delightfully fragrant in their wake. My least favourite has to be the ones stacked with crates of chickens. The stench of poultry excrement lingers most persistantly.

Cheering Crowds

I love cycling in Tunisia. People honk horns joyfully and give me the thumbs up or wave. One driver leapt out of his seat and started blowing kisses at me. Too many people stare sometimes, but there is a wonderful reflex in Tunisian people that, once greeted, they must reciprocate. So all I do is wave or salaam and they return with a smile.

The Saha-who?!

In Haouria, I first told a Tunisian of my evil plan to cycle to the Sahara. A waiter asked me where I was going on my tour. I told him around the Cap Bon. He nodded. Then I added: ‘I hope to cycle to the Sahara as well.’ ‘The Sahara?’ he queried. ‘Yes!’ I replied. He just slapped his forehead and brought me a free plate of French fries.

Next time, I promise to introduce some characters, including Yasser the drunk from Gabes, Wa’el the drunk from Lebanon and Mohammed the drug-dealer from Sousse. Lovely chaps, all.

Cycling to the Sahara: Two Coffee Cups

I arrived in Hammamet exactly the way I expect to arrive in every single town that I come to: sweaty, tired and slightly bewildered.

On arrival in any town, therefore, primary goal number one is to find a hotel, where I can stable my bicycle for the night and give myself a thorough wash down. Quite often, I’ll even pull up outside town to look at the guide book for my target hotel. It doesn’t look cool to be head-in-book in a strange new town (for the importance of looking cool, see yesterday’s shabaab story).

This is all preamble, to introduce you to primary goal number one: find a hotel. I shall now go onto demonstrate its tragic flaw, by means of the parable of the two coffee cups, a true story.

Arriving in Hammamet, sweaty, tired, slightly bewildered, I’m heading for the Dar al-Shabaab, the Maison des Jeunes, the Youth Hostel. Everything is going fine (except the bit where a shabaab gets down on his haunches to tinker with my brakes – I have no idea what that’s about). Quite according to form, I zip straight past the youth hostel and cycle on for about a mile (up hill, into headwind) before realising. But eventually I do find the place and – it’s full.

As I slink back to my bicycle and my uncool guide book, a young Tunisian woman of about eighteen approaches me and suggests I try the tourist information office: “They have a list of all the hotels and how much they cost,” she tells me. “Thanks very much,” I say, trying to look cool, “but I have a guide book.”

She shrugs and crosses the road to a café, her mother now in tow. I note the address of another cheap hotel and start to wheel my bike into the road. Then the young woman approaches me again: “Would you like to join me and my mother at the café for a drink?” I obviously look uncertain, because she feels compelled to add: “Just to talk a little.”

Now my immediate reaction is negative, standard social anxiety. I push against this snap-reaction: social anxiety is exactly the reason I should say yes – go where the danger is! But my brain wrestles back: No, primary goal number one, remember? So I say to the woman, in my blunt French: “I want to find a hotel.” She says “Okay” and returns to the café. I last see her sitting down at the table, looking over at me.

It doesn’t take me long to realise that I’m a chump and I really should have said yes and hang primary sodding goal number one. How many more times on this trip is a young Tunisian woman going to ask me to take a coffee with her and her mother? Never again, most likely. And it’s only three thirty; I could just as easily have found a hotel at four thirty. And what’s the worst that could have happened if I’d said yes? She and her mum might have ganged up and raped me? Seriously! Chump.

But anyway, I cycle on, find a hotel and take a shower. I’m wonderfully clean, but still a chump. So I hasten back to the café, thinking up words of schoolboy French to reintroduce myself. My excitement mounts as I draw closer, mind working up scenarios of hospitality and good humour.

But all in vain. By the time I get back to the café, only half an hour after leaving them, all that is left are two empty coffee cups.

I took a photo to remind myself: never leave two empty coffee cups, leave three.

Gone.

Cycling to the Sahara: Beards and the Shabaab

For the sake of my future security on this trip I think I need to grow a big manly beard. You know, the kind that big manly adventurers are wont to port.

This is not because I feel that I am deserving of the adventurer’s big manly beard, nor in fact do I mean to suggest that I am currently engaged on a big manly beardy adventure. Far from it: the sun is shining and the roads are flat. No, the reason I am desirous of a big manly adventure beard is because today I was the subject of sexual advances from a shabaab on a moped who thought I was a woman.

Undeterred despite being disabused of this fact – had he not seen my leg hair? – the desperate youth went on to suggest that man-on-man sex was better anyway. I politely declined this further invitation, whereupon he stole my walkman from my top pocket. Slightly distressed, I appealed to his better nature, whereupon he stole the bag from my front basket and drove off.

I feel that none of this would have happened had I been sporting a big manly beard. This impudent youth would never have dared rob a real beard – a beard that spoke of death-match wrestles with grizzly bears, a beard that hinted at dark days hacking through tarantula-infested jungles, a beard that sung songs of violent tempests and nightmarish sandstorms overcome by sheer force of will and beardy fortitude.

In this moment of desolation, as I watched my camera, books, passport and typewriter disappear down a hill, I cursed my razor and howled bloody vengeance on all fresh-faced highwaymen on mopeds.

Before I let this tale get too dramatic, I should point out that the shameful youth only drove a little way down the hill, before turning around and handing me back my bag and walkman. ‘I’m just playing with you,’ he said with a cackle. Playing or no, I think a beard would have helped avoid this unsettling occasion in the first place.

What helped me recover was the nice old man in a van who stopped up the road, turned around, checked that I was okay, then proceeded to tail me up the hill for a mile or so just to make sure.

So the truth is that Tunisians are still awesomely friendly. The problem comes when this awesome friendliness meets rambunctuous testosterone frustrations in the shabaab, who smile even as they torment you.

But what harm was done by this little escapade? None that I can see, only lessons. I learnt how vulnerable I really am on a bicycle. I learnt that perhaps I should tie down my bag to the basket. I learnt to appreciate how much I am relying on the unremmitting kindness, relentless patience and righteous morality of every person I meet, everywhere I go.

I also got a nice little story and isn’t that the purpose of life, to collect nice little stories?

Bir Mroua: A story in itself. Yes, that is a blue supermouse.

(Finally) Cycling to the Sahara!

I have a few early observations about cycling in Tunisia, which I shall set down here as amusement for those wise enough never to do such a thing and as warning for those stupid enough to try.

1. There are some red lights that Tunisian drivers obey. This came as something of a shock, I must confess. Obviously, as in any country, this doesn’t apply to taxi drivers.

2. The biggest risk for accidents comes from pedestrians. As the sacred cow in India, the Tunisian pedestrian is apt to wander into the road without warning, causing sharp braking all around. Other risks include taxis swerving kerbside to pick up passengers and the presence (in Tunis) of tram rails, neatly tyre-width sized for maximum danger.

3. There are other cyclists in Tunisia. But in this country, bicycles are mostly used for going the wrong way up one-way streets.

4. Despite this, I did notice that in Tunisia, one cycles on the right hand side of the road.

5. Tunisian sense of distance isn’t highly developed. I asked a local: “How far is the Olympic stadium?”
(The Olympic stadium at this point is at most 3km away – I checked on a map later.)
Answer: “10 kilometres.”
In fairness to the chap telling me this, he probably understood:

6. If you are cycling without a map and without a compass, expect to ride at least three times the distance to your destination, probably up hill, certainly into a head wind. This applies not just in Tunisia.

7. Thanks to the relatively meagre state of Tunisia, alcohol-wise, there is very little to fear from smashed bottles of Heineken on the side of the road. However, thanks to the relatively meagre state of Tunisia’s finances, there is plenty to fear in the form of pot-holes, unifinished road-works and mysteriously dumped piles of cement.

8. An important aspect of Tunisian driving etiquette is a sort of conversation undertaken by use of the car horn. Unfortunately, with just a bicycle bell, I’m only talking to myself.

9. A blonde, long-haired, white man on an apparently modern bicycle is an unusual sight in Tunisia. I’m not sure if they were admiring glances, looks and stares, but the general opinion was “w’allah!”

10. Other than these observations, cycling in Tunis is not unlike cycling in London. One needs ones wits and a healthy dose of good fortune to come back alive, but when one does, great celebrations are in order. Put celebrations on stand-by.

(Not) Cycling to the Sahara: Boats

Getting hit over the head by a palm tree is new for me on this trip. But one thing isn’t: public transport delays. You read my earlier piece about trains, right? Okay, well do me a favour and read it again, but this time wherever you see the word “train” or “trains”, insert the word “boat” or “boats”. You can do this using the search and replace function in Word or OpenOffice.

Doing this will save me the bother of writing a whole new post about the universe’s conspiracies to prevent me from getting to the Sahara. This time the universe decided to detonate a WWII bomb in the port of Marseille, which is frankly ridiculous, even by the universe’s standards. This delayed us for a slightly enervating five hours. As if that wasn’t enough, when we finally did make it (almost) to Tunis, an Italian cruiser had the temerity to be in port, delaying us for a further hour.

Waiting. Observe the bicycles in transit on the van. I mistakenly take this as a good sign.

We finally arrived in Tunis at about 3.30pm, a full 31 hours after I arrived at the port of Marseille on Saturday morning. Still, I managed 9 patisseries on Saturday alone (5 croissants and 4 pain au chocolat), saving one pain au choc for Sunday breakfast, squeezed down between bouts of extreme nausea. I’m not sure why, but as soon as I got up that morning, I might as well have been on the Nemesis at Alton Towers. I remedied things by going back to sleep.

Aside from the tragedy/farce of my public transport difficulties, the journey itself was pretty good. Particularly after I found the bar, where they were showing the Six Nations rugby. I don’t even like rugby, but it was fun hearing Frenchmen swear every time Italy fumbled the ball in their match against Wales.

Unfortunately, this oasis of entertainment on an otherwise make-your-own-fun kind of boat was not long-lived. At half-time in the following Ireland-Scotland game suddenly the TV flashed to black. We look at each other, the guys sitting around watching. Then: disco lights snap on, tangoing drunkenly over the wooden dancefloor in front of us. Surely not? It’s only five to seven – surely too early for a disco?

Nope. A man goes behind a desk and starts setting up what can only be a DJ booth. The men around me stay staring at the blank screen. Nothing happens. No one else is laughing. We sit, flat faced. We will be entertained now, for it is seven o’clock. We will be entertained.

A beat starts over the speakers. The DJ has glasses and a bald patch, wearing a terribly unfashionable Puma t-shirt. He pulls out some CDs and nervously tweaks the volume of the music. The disco lights, pink and green dazzle and tease a trio of white-haired grizzled Frenchmen with tiny espressos and firmly folded arms. Not impressed.

The waiter is the only one crossing the dancefloor. I wonder what people would make of it if I went up and danced? I suspect that I’m the only non-French or Tunisian here. I’ve seen a few other independent tourists with the French version of the same Lonely Planet guide I have. That’s encouraging. It’s not all Tunisians and televisions, although it seemed like it when we were loading up the boat. Everyone seemed to have a van or a car, creaking on its axles under piles of households wares of all kinds. Blankets, televisions, fridges, bicycles, grandmothers – the lot, all tied down with string.

The DJ stops the record and slaps another one on abruptly. Kind of low key grind, slow steady beat. A deep voice sings something soothing in English. The DJ keeps himself busy, too scared to look up, knowing he’s being observed in shock and horror by his audience. He feels the pressure, puts his arms hands down either side of his CDs and takes a heavy sigh.

It looked like it was going to be a good match too, 22-14 to Irish at half-time. But this is business time. The DJ claps on his headphones and twiddles.
‘I want you just the way you are…’ someone croons.

Goodbye Europe.

I decide to leave this entertainment and proceed to make my own fun, as instructed. I observe the following about my person:

I am from Cholsey, but…
I have lipsalve bought from Liverpool;
I have a book bought from Paris;
I have shoes bought from Hamburg;
I have a bottle of water bought from Koln;
I have a shirt bought from Bangkok;
I have a bicycle bought from London;
I have a plug converter bought from Cairo;
I have dates bought from Reading;
I have socks bought from Vernouillet;
I have croissants bought from Marseille;
…and I am in the Mediterranean.

Right. Not all fun you make yourself is strictly fun, is it?

Things did get progressively less dull with nightfall. I climbed up to the top deck, unrolled my sleeping bag and slept under the stars. It was fitful and a little cold at times, but at least it was peaceful.

A decent sight to fall asleep to.

In amongst the fun, there was a lot of sitting around and I had the opportunity to observe my ship-mates. Most of my companions were Tunisian men and it was quite fun watching them form conversational groupings here and there, including me sometimes whenever they needed some light entertainment.

There were women on board, but the two groups didn’t really mix. At one stage, I found myself eavesdropping on four military men talking about Syria, Iran and Israel up on deck. All I could think was: shame no women are here to talk some sense into them. Everywhere I look it’s the same: groups of men talking earnestly together. I like guy-talk as much as the next man, but I can’t imagine talking politics without ever getting a female perspective. What a dull (and dangerous) way to see the world.

Tunis. Eventually.

Anyway, we did eventually make it to Tunis (in your own time, Mr Italian cruiser) and the first thing a real Tunisian from Tunis said to me was (in French): “Nice set of wheels, guv.”

At least I think that’s what he said, because I was too busy sorting my pedals out after the port authorities had seen fit, not only to x-ray my baggage and metal detect myself, but also to x-ray my bicycle. I can tell you right now that bicycles are not supposed to go into x-ray machines and it was promptly chewed up and had to be surgically removed by a none-too-careful customs inspector. There was a cat prowling along the customs tables. I assume he was in charge.

Wheeling out of the arrivals lounge was fun, though. A rank of taxi drivers greeted me, seeing my blonde head bobbing across to them.
“Taxi…” they all shout, but the word fades in their throats as they see my bold stallion wheeling alongside me. Then: “Nice set of wheels, guv.”

(Not) Cycling to the Sahara: Marseille 2

The town of Marseille is dishonest. That’s how it seems to me. And I don’t mean that as you might think. I don’t mean it because a friend of mine got pick-pocketed twice within an hour of arriving here. That’s ridiculous. That could happen anywhere. It certainly didn’t happen to me. The tangle of streets around the Gare Saint Charles that seemed so dangerous to the Americans, Czechs and French in the hostel, to me seemed friendly, approachable.

The town is dishonest in another way – perhaps a better word would be inauthentic. It is dishonest, or inauthentic, because it is neither France nor the Maghreb. It cannot be France because it is home to too many migrants from the Maghreb, North Africa (70,000 in 2006 according to one source). And it cannot be the Maghreb because it is not their home, it is France.

La Porte d’Orient. A memorial to dead people who fought in the East.

Because of the current economic condition of France, there are too many young Maghrebi men on the streets, just waiting to go home. That’s not a very restful state of mind and helps to create Marseille’s frantic atmosphere. Many are resentful of their French hosts and the feeling is mutual. It is nearing election time and last week Sarkozy declared that there are too many foreigners in France.

While waiting for the ferry to take me to Tunisia, I spoke to a friendly Tunisian man (a tautology if ever there was one: they are all friendly). He told me that French attitudes towards resident foreigners are going down. Scared by the prospect of the forthcoming elections, Sarkozy is blaming France’s high unemployment and faltering economy on foreigners. Cheap and nasty political rhetoric.

But with Ben Ali gone in Tunisia, my friend can return to his country. He can take his business near the Swiss border, take his taxes and leave. Tunisia is the gateway to North Africa and is the beneficiary of a lot of investment after the revolution.
 “I can say ciao to Sarkozy,” my friend says, bitterly.

“Ciao Sarkozy.”

Others are not so lucky. Every evening while in Marseille I went to an Algerian kebab shop right next to the hostel. It was cheap, E2.50 for a merguez sandwich, and the proprietor was friendly, always smiling, always joking. But he was dishonest, of course. No, he never short-changed me, but he never knew when to speak Arabic and when to speak French. Overwhelmingly, to other guests, it was Arabic. But we were in France, so to me he spoke French. And his smile disappeared when he spoke of Algeria. His gap-tooth grin morphed into a snarl of fierce pride.
 ‘Do you know Algeria?’ he asked me.
 ‘No,’ I replied.
 ‘Why not? It is a beautiful country, better than Morocco, better than Tunisia.’ He looked angry. All I could do was smile and say that I hoped to go there soon.

Marseille is dishonest because, even as the exterior is given a fresh lick of paint for its parade as the European Capital of Culture in 2013, on the inside it is tearing itself apart. It is France’s major link to North Africa, with all of the history, violence and despair which that entails. So how can it dare to reinvent itself as a tourist destination? It is the crucible of too many Maghrebi dreams: of freedom from tyranny and of return. It is dishonest as a place where people both yearn to arrive and yearn to leave. It is better than oppression, dictatorships or civil war – and it is nothing. These contradictions pull strongly in two directions and you pull together or you pull apart, to make use of a cliche.

Marseille’s football team is perhaps a symptom of this malaise. With so many North Africans, Marseille is the most tribally of supported teams in France. North Africans are simply more passionate about football than Frenchmen. But the team is a shambles. They have lost four games in a row, sit eighth in the league and last night were defeated by AC Ajaccio, a newly promoted team from Corsica. The feeling in the bar where I watched the match was anticipated deflation. A group from Lille sitting on the next table along covered their mouths to hide their laughter as the winning goal was bundled in via a deflection, a suspicion of handball and a static goalkeeper. The ball scarcely crept over the line. The bar rumbled threateningly.

Then there was a power cut. The bar cheered. Welcome distraction.

Not the Stade Velodrome. These kids might be better than the current hapless bunch.

(Not) Cycling to the Sahara: Marseille

Marseille has been voted European Capital of Culture for 2013. Something to be proud of perhaps, but there are so many building works, road works, sewage works and promotional works going on that, by the time 2013 comes around, Marseille won’t be Marseille any more.

Toilet humour.

Everything, from the great squares, to the ports, to the monuments, to the pavements are blocked with workmen. It feels like a city in transition, but by the time it has transited it might find it’s lost itself on the way. I see superficial beautification, an emphasis on consumer chain shops and a whole bunch of unemployed men.

What would Euthymenes make of it all?
Who is Euthymenes?
A Greek explorer from Marseille, since you ask.

This is what the European Capital of Culture seems to bring to a city. It brought it to Liverpool in 2008 and now it is bringing it to Marseille. It seems to be a licence to throw money at a designated area of degradation, to turn it into something that it wasn’t before. The award of “European Capital of Culture” seems to me to be a euphemism, a way of disguising slum-clearance as something to be proud of.

I’m exaggerating there, I’m sure, but both Marseille and Liverpool are port towns facing disquieting futures. As far as the European Capital of Culture is concerned, this future must be tourism and shopping. That is all our secondary cities are good for now. In time, that is all Europe will be good for: a provincial destination for Chinese, Indian, Brazilian, Russian and Gulf tourists wanting a taste of exotic European history.

Marseille is probably better placed than Liverpool for that, given that it is a south-facing city. It will always have the sunshine and the sea air and that will always be popular, until such a time as climate change makes it redundant. On the other hand, Liverpool will always have The Beatles. Liverpool will always be the city where a time (the sixties), a technology (recorded music) and a sound (pop) coincided and froze. The Beatles were the first global pop band and, as any businessman knows, the most critical asset in market penetration and brand awareness is to be first. There will never be another Beatles, not until the end of this civilisation, and Liverpool will be cashing in their myths for a long while yet.

But the European Capital of Culture bestowed on Liverpool not just a new cash pride in their culture, it also bestowed a new city centre: Liverpool ONE. Liverpool ONE is a privately owned network of 169 shops and services straddling six streets in what was once the centre of the city. It opened in 2008, Liverpool’s year as the European Capital of Culture. Socio-economic development is now one of the criteria for awarding that honour. It is transparently not solely about culture. Since when was economics cultural?

There is nothing I’ve seen in Marseille to match the monstrosity of the Liverpool One shopping centre, with its faux public spaces, its private branded security guards, its private branded litter bins and benches. But the Rue de la Republique has become a string of international chains, and not all of them pearls. I saw many shops you could buy from, but not too many you could live with.

I should say that I’m directing my criticisms, as the European Capital of Culture directs its blessings, at the city centre. The banlieue, the suburbs, will still put cleaners, cooks and captains on life support, to supply services for the centre. And of course there are still scousers living in post European Capital of Culture Liverpool, just as there will still be maghrebi men living in Marseille, lounging on car bonnets down the Rue des Petites Maries, waiting for house paint jobs, talking on mobile phones, taking a coffee, smoking a cigarette.

But these people aren’t the people that the European Capital of Culture wants. The European Capital of Culture wants tourists, people who will spend money in idleness, all day, every day, to support the structures that support them. The European Capital of Culture wants – no, demands people like me.

The maghrebi men, just like the scousers, provide not always welcome local colour. One walks the quay, selling petits pains from a deep hessian sack. One plays the trumpet, his wife collecting pennies with bonjours. One manipulates a marionette to paint portraits. One cycles past screaming. Local colour.

Local colour, making local noise.

(Not) Cycling to the Sahara: Trains

Over the past few days, the universe has been telling me loud and clear: “You should be on a bicycle, not on a train.”

You see, I had the temerity to use trains to go and visit my friend in Hamburg. But the universe didn’t like this and so the universe made things very expensive. Then, when that didn’t halt my progress, the universe made things highly inconvenient. Then, when that didn’t stop my passage, the universe decided to get radical. The universe struck down the entirety of Northern France’s rail network. The universe brought on soldiers with machine guns. The universe threw bodies onto train lines.

But still I prevail.

Firstly, I have a strong recommendation for anyone wishing to travel in Europe using any mode of transport other than their own. Make a plan. Book in advance. Be boring, or else expect to pay for your spontaneity. It would seem that modern train fares encourage the sort of constrained thinking that also dogs aviation as a mode of transport: advanced planning and point-to-point travel. I can bear witness to this.

I only decided that I wanted to go direct to Hamburg from Paris last Wednesday. It was a spur of the moment sort of decision. I wanted to go that day because I wanted to see my friend and there’s only so much you can spend on patisseries in Paris. So I went to the train station: a train that day would cost me 200 euros. One way.

I left the train station and went to an internet café. I calculated forty-seven different ways of transporting myself and my bike from Paris to Hamburg and thence to Marseille by train (I had also decided that France on the whole was overpriced and underheated). The cheapest option, it transpired, was to buy an Interrail pass for 267 euros, not including mandatory train reservations, which cost extra.

So I returned to the Gare du Nord and engaged in proxy combat with a computer booking system through the exhausted mouse of an SNCF employee. I could not travel on an Interrail pass that day. There are limited places available, you see, for people with Interrail passes. Normally, my SNCF told me, you should book months in advance. She clicks her teeth at this, as if I have personally put her out with my spontaneity.

But to her credit, she locks horns once more with the binary code on the other side of the silicon and comes back with a new plan: I can go tomorrow, changing at Brussels and Cologne. She winces: it will take over ten hours. I don’t care. Ten hours? I can swallow that. She leads me carefully through the itinerary and also books me onto trains back from Hamburg and to Marseille. I am now locked in to travel at specific times to specific places. Reservation supplements bring the total cost to well over 300 euros. I swallow it. She hands me my tickets. It would appear that I’m now French. She takes back the tickets and reprints me back into an Englishman.

I leave the poor SNCF employee shaking with effort (she actually closes her window) and roll my bike over to the information office. I make a half-hearted attempt to find out about how to transport my bike on the TGV train to Marseille. The information dude thinks I just have to pay a supplement. So whatever. I leave my bike at a friend’s place in the deuxieme and enjoy a last Parisian supper.

The universe has successfully made things expensive and inconvenient. These I can swallow. I even take it in good part when I confuse Hamburg-Hauptbahnhof and Hamburg-Altona, forcing my friend to travel across town, at risk of prosecution for fare evasion, to meet me. Over ten hours on a train, but aside from incipient piles, no permanent damage done. The trip back will be better: eight and a half hours and only the one change in Cologne.

One happy train.

Or so I thought. The universe was not done with me.

I caught the train from Hamburg to Cologne at about half eleven. At about half three I arrived in Cologne. At about half four I caught the train from Cologne direct to Paris. At about seven we made a scheduled stop in Brussels. We were about ten minutes late. I quietly accepted this fact.

Then we stayed stopped in Brussels.

An announcement declared that we would be here for at least an hour, due to an electrical fault. They made it sound like a light bulb had blown. In fact, the whole of the Northern France rail network was power-less. An hour and a half later, we still hadn’t moved, although I had bought several packets of biscuits.

An announcement told us to consider postponing our travel plans. Nobody, they portentously announced, is travelling into France. An odd announcement, that. It didn’t actually say that trains were cancelled, just that we might like to consider postponing. So I joined an exquisitely long queue of people trying to get tickets changed, vaguely wondering what this would mean for my onward travel to Marseille the next morning.

I happily stood in the queue for about half an hour (as an Englishman, I know my place). A film crew was interviewing an excited gaggle of American girls in front of me. I was just getting to the part where I could almost see the doors of the ticket office, when a casual voice announced in French: “Mesdames et messieurs. Le train pour Paris Gare du Nord partira a vingt-et-un-heure-quinze du quai six.”

Quoi? I look at my phone. That’s now! I don’t wait to hear the message repeated in Dutch, German and English: I run for the platform. There are four trains-worth of passengers who want this train. The French-speakers are rather unfairly placed first in the stampede. Security guards try to stop us. The Thalys train people flap their hands to slow us down. We hit the escalator. A film crew (how had they got there?) was blocking it from surging up, so a few people try running up the down escalator. The security guards drag them off, so they start to walk up the down escalator, getting nowhere. A priest breathless behind me raises his hands to heaven – Merci Thalys!

The atmosphere on board is electric. The only electricity in Northern Europe, apparently. An announcement says that this is the Thalys service to Paris Gare du Nord and that we’ll be travelling on la route classique, which sounds lovely. He’ll tell us at Lille what time we’ll get to Paris.

We arrive in Lille at quarter past ten, but we’re last in the backed-up queue to France. The driver says we won’t move for forty-five minutes. Then we move and the driver says we’ll arrive in Paris at 00h45. This is shockingly late to stay at my friend’s flat. She’ll leave the key outside the door. Finally the announcement is that we’ll arrive at 01h30. Each new delay is greeted with something approaching glorious hysteria. I think everyone is just glad to be going somewhere, sometime.

When we arrive (and we do, finally, arrive), Thalys are handing out water and a box that contains magical coffee that gets hot when you shake it. I think they’re putting on taxis as well, but I’m glad to walk down Boulevard de Strasbourg to my friend’s place, ignoring the prostitutes sheltering in phone booths. I’m looking forward to a few hours couch kip before my next train south to Marseille – this time with my bike – at ten the next morning.

Or so I thought. The universe has one last desperate trick up its sleeve.

I get to the station the next morning and ask the information people about how to buy a ticket for my bike. They say go to the ticket office. I queue for the ticket office, arriving with about fifteen minutes to spare before my train departs. Perfect.

Then: they don’t take bikes unless they’re in bags. Bags? The woman looks at me angrily, like I’ve personally put her out with my poor planning. Tsk. I go to the train anyway. Maybe they’ll let me on after all. Maybe it’s not busy. Maybe I’ll get a kindly guard. Maybe.

No.

But I do get helped by a kindly passenger, who directs me to a local branch of Go Sport, where I can buy a body bag for my bike. This is when the universe decides to really go for it. I leave my bike chained up outside the station, against an innocent-looking wall. I go for a pee. I come back and see three soldiers in full battle fatigue, nervously gripping semi-automatic rifles. One of them is looking at my bike. A couple of firemen stand around, smoking. I see the soldiers and think – oh that’s funny, they’re near my bike. I stand around, not wanting to get too close to men with guns. The soldiers storm past me into the station. I creep up to my bike. A fireman asks me if it’s mine. I admit responsibility. The alert is called off. The soldiers let me go, mysteriously explaining that it is all part of the “terrorist plan”. I hurry away to a boulangerie.

Then I cycle to the Go Sport shop. It is raining by this point, another part of the universe’s plan. I will pay anything to get out of here. I need the south: it won’t be raining in the south. Anyway, how much can a bag really cost? 10 euro? 20 euro?

Well, 75 euros, apparently. More than the cost of a ticket if you plan in advance, as I strongly recommend. I baulk at this robbery and try to cook up an alternative plan involving a friend’s flatmate, a scooter and Montpellier. It comes to nothing and I have to buy the bag. It is 80 euros by the time I get it to the register. I swallow it. The assistant sweetly informs me that there are bags available for 100 and 200 euros. I took their last cheap bag. Lucky me. At least the ticket office at Gare de Lyon allow me to change my ticket for free.

The bag necessitated collapse of my bike into component parts: wheels, frame and handlebar, but into the bag it eventually went. I was all set, following rules and feeling sick about it. I buy a book to boost morale. The universe, despite bringing in the military, will not win. I shall get to Marseille.

Spot the bicycle.

But still the universe was not done with me. At this stage, though, even the universe knows when it is beaten. So all it could muster were fate’s snide remarks, irony and mild inconvenience. The train was half-empty and could have accommodated an elephant, let alone a bike – with or without the world’s most expensive bag (which, incidentally, already had a hole in it). At Aix-en-Provence we heard an announcement that a man was on the line (it was unclear if he knew he was there or not) and there would be a delay of around ten minutes. Ten minutes? Is that all you’ve got left, universe? Ha!

So in Marseille I did finally arrive. It was a stunning entrance, all sun and sandstone. I dragged my bags into the sunset and busily reassembled my bike. Wrongly. A kindly man in hip-hop shades pointed out that my fourchette was back to front as I replaced the handlebars. The universe is kindly. I then cycled down a hill, only to realise that the hostel I wanted to stay at was up the hill. I pushed my bike up the one-way hill and looked into the hostel: complet, full. I kept on walking past, winking at the universe. Then I stopped. I turned around. It won’t hurt to ask. They’ll be able to direct me to another hostel, I’m sure. I ask at the desk. They are not complet. In fact, when I arrive, I am the only person in my room.

It does fill up later with three others, including the mandatory snorer, a mild woman of middle age with the respiratory system of a Harley Davidson.

Universe: let’s call it a draw, yeah?

Worth taking on the universe for: Marseille.

(Not) Cycling to the Sahara: Hamburg

This is Hamburg.
Please note: This is not actually Hamburg.

I wasn’t supposed to be here, really. Not until the Sunday before I left England. I then wasn’t supposed to be here so early. Not until I had dallied in Paris too long to cycle to Bonn. Bonn, where I was supposed to collect a train to Hamburg. Instead, I dallied in Paris, ate croissants aux amandes, went to the theatre and drank vin rouge. It was all very Paris.

This is actually Hamburg.

And the suddenly it wasn’t very Paris, it was very Hamburg. By which I mean: ports, building sites, graffiti, squats, ships, cranes, burlesque life-drawing, wind-farms, compound nouns and absurd uses of the word ‘super’.

“Brunch”, c. 2 p.m.

Still, I was pleased to see that they do patisserie here and have duly invested heavily in baked goods. I was also pleased to see that they have shoe shops here and have duly invested in a pair. Of shoes, not shops. So Hamburg passed by in a glaze of eating (Pakistanisch, Portugiesisch, “Brunch”), walking (docks, Schulterblatt, Alstersee) and keeping my hair out of the wind. None of which is interesting to you, I’m sure.

So I won’t say any more about Hamburg, except to invite you to suggest purposes for their tower:

Flying saucer? Mind control tower? Enormous hypodermic needle? Whatever it is, there are plenty of them in Germany.

(Not) Cycling to the Sahara: Paris

I never meant to go to Paris. I never really meant to stay in any one place for more than a day or two and I certainly never meant to do a lot of walking.

So that’s why I spent four days in Paris, à pied.

My bicycle necessitated repairs, which was why I went to Pairs in the first place. The cycle shops in Vernouillet were closed on Mondays. So I caught a train to Paris-Saint-Lazare and cycled to a superior Parisien cycle shop. It was closed on Mondays.

With a Gallic shrug of the shoulders, I decided to have lunch.

What happened next is a little hard to explain, but it involves Shakespeare, a packet of karmic tissues and Cyrano de Bergerac. Anyway, it’s a story probably best told over a carafe of Bordeaux, to get the real atmosphere. I can’t pour wine over the internet (licensing laws, eh!), but one thing led to another, led to me spending three nights in Paris. Besides, all you want is my cinematoscopic photography in the city of light, isn’t it?

Well, this is what I saw on my sightseeing tour:

Notre Dame Cathedral

The Eiffel Tower

Beautiful.

What was not beautiful was the unfortunate beast who occupied the lower bunk bed from mine at the hostel. He appeared to be a Brazilian musician, but I never actually exchanged words with him (except curses under my breath) because I never encountered him awake. He seemed only capable of sleep during the day; during the night he preferred a symphony of coughing, choking, shaking, mumbling, sneezing, snoring, smacking lips, cracking fingers. Then finally his alarm goes off – evidentally not to wake himself up because he’d never been asleep. I felt sorry for him, really. Well, up to a point. I stayed there two nights, the third I spent on a couch in the deuxième – far more comfortable.

So that was Paris. What is beautiful is not the stone or the river or the people, but the company. Walking through cobbled streets alone only hurt my achilles. Sitting riverside alone in my ragged stinking clothes, surrounded by chic Parisiens, only brought on acute social anxiety. Staring up at marble and wrought iron only made me feel like all human endeavour is vanity. But when I offered my packet of karmic tissues to a sniffly girl in Shakespeare & Co. then Paris became Paris. But that is another story, like I said.

Cycling to the Sahara: London (ish) to Paris (ish)

No I haven’t got a drinking problem (ish), it’s just that I’m lazy and couldn’t be bothered to cycle all the way through London.

So I started my journey on a train, astonishing rail workers and elderly ladies alike by saying I was going to France. In truth, I was going to Caterham. Then I was going to France. Via Newhaven and a ferry.

Of course, the important thing to remember when doing a London-Paris cycle ride is that the pizza shop in Newhaven is awful.

CAUTION: Pizzabike

The above pizza hacked a destructive path through my intestines, stirring up all kinds of malodorous gusts for the rest of the day. That would be reason enough to catch a ferry from Portsmouth or Dover – but another reason is that the Newhaven-Dieppe ‘overnight’ ferry arrives bang in the dead of dark.

Due to some kind of arbitrary time-zone discrepancy between Britain and France, what I thought would be five hours of sleep turned out to be only four. So I effectively started cycling at three a.m., my time, after about two hours of ferry seat-sleep.

If you’ve never cycled through Seine-Maritime at 4 o’clock in the morning, then it looks a bit like this:

Seine-Martime at 4 a.m.

Ahh – only joking! It looks more like this:

The church at Arques-la-Bataille

But what I lost in sight-seeing, I gained in noise-hearing and smell-smelling. And thankfully there was almost zero traffic-trafficking – breathful, blissful solitude.

There is an excellent cycle path that goes almost all the way from Dieppe through Seine-Maritime – une avenue verte, a green avenue – but you can’t see green in the dark, so I didn’t pick it up until Neufchâtel-en-Bray. Flat, quiet, green and with conversational information boards on the life-cycle of drinking water and the compostition of the solar system, this is a premium cycle path.

The same cannot be said of the D915. This is a main road from Dieppe to Paris. Don’t use it unless you want to die.

So I took the D915 from Gournay-en-Bray to Sérifontaine, a chokey ride through 15km of car fumes. Up hill. 

At about this time I decided to get cold. Really cold. Although the sun had apparently risen by half seven, I’d yet to see any of it. The clouds were heavy and mist blew in my face. My immune system must have been annoyed at my lack of sleep, nutrition (pains aux raisins don’t count) and suitable clothing (sandals, really?) because it proceeded to evacuate litres of sneeze-goo from my nasal orifices.

On a side note: if you ever see a man on a bicycle sneezing, give him plenty of wobble room. The aftershock from one of my eruptions was enough to send me careering across the carriageway and, on the D915, that’s not a healthy move.

Luckily, I made it to Gisors. It has a castle. I managed to take a photo, which was pretty heroic of me, considering how much snot was oozing from my face.

Gisors castle. Through the pain.

Yes I know it’s a rubbish photo. Live with it.

Cycling along the minor roads of the Vexin region is rather pleasant. And my health seemed to pick up no end after the acquisition of a pain aux amandes in Seraincourt. It was still not sufficiently snotless to take any photographs of the beautiful church or château at Gadancourt. Are you grateful for that Gisors castle photo now?

So I managed to cross the Seine at about four p.m., after ten hours of cycling. I was expecting this to be a romantic, mythical moment, like Caesar crossing the Rubicon, but it turns out that the Seine is only romantic and mythical in Paris. In Les Mureaux it looks out over an industrial works and an indoor swimming pool.

But after a hundred miles of pedalling, you don’t give a toss about romantic and mythical arrivals. That’s why, to rendez-vous with my friend, I chose a local landmark: Lidl. She led me through the baffling twists of Parisian commuter belt sprawl to a real warm home, with a shower and a kitchen.

And that’s what I love about cycling: the feeling of hot water on skin and raclette in stomach.

9 Precious Ps of Long Distance Bike Rides (and other expeditions)

Patience

You can’t rush around Britain. Even if you rush one day, you’ve still got hundreds, thousands of miles still to go. There’s no point. If you try and rush, then you’ll just lose heart (and probably do yourself an injury). You’ve also got to keep your patience when things go wrong. When it rains, when your bike breaks in half, when you get lost. It doesn’t matter. Just calm down and ask someone to help you.

Perseverance & Persistence

There is nothing remarkable in a philatelist who has collected one stamp. Long distance bike rides are the same. There is nothing remarkable in one day’s ride, it is only by persisting through day after day after day of rain and pain that you’ll reach your goal.

Prosperity

I don’t mean you have to be super-rich to go on a long expedition. But you do need to have money. Taking three months off work to do something like this is already a big financial commitment. And you don’t want to be scared of spending money on a lot of food, between £10 and £20 per day, even if you go to supermarkets. If you’re not wild camping, then that’s another £20 to £40 per day on accommodation. You’ll also want to put aside a few hundred pounds for bike repairs and maintenance, just in case. You could easily find yourself £1000 out of pocket without even thinking about it.

Physical Fitness

This is an important one, but also a misleading one. Cycling gets you fit. But: cycling long distances every day will not feel good and you won’t feel fit, at least to begin with. You’ll probably feel rubbish. Personally, I’m five days in and I can hardly walk, my knees are in pain and my neck and back ache. Anticipate it and forget about it.

Planning & Preparation

Planning, the art of plotting out a route or coming up with a cycling concept, is hugely overrated. The chances are that all your plans will be thrown off the bike as soon as you get on it. Preparation, on the other hand, the art of ensuring that you have the right equipment to be able to handle these capricious changes of plan, is worth investing time and resources in.

Purpose & Pride

If you don’t have a strong purpose for doing your bike ride, then you might find it mentally tough to keep going. However, you’ll soon find that pride takes over. As long as you can’t think up an excuse to all those people back home you told about your expedition, then your pride will keep you purposelessly pedaling.

And so back to my purposeless pedaling!

p.s. I’m in Burnham Deepdale, in Norfolk. Done about 325 miles so far…

Cycling around Britain: #1 …ha ha ha!

It wasn’t a dark and stormy night. It didn’t have to be: I was lying in a field of nettles, my feet above my head and a slug in my face.

This, my friends, is the glamour of attempting to cycle around Britain (…ha ha ha!) without a tent or a proper map.

I say “…ha ha ha!” because really this doesn’t feel much like an attempt to cycle around Britain, more like a race to see which will break first: my body, my bike or my mind.

So where do we stand on that score?

1: The Bike

The first to break was my bike. The rack, on which one of my bags is strapped, snapped off. I heard a clunking noise from behind me and stopped. I looked around at my bag and stared. For a minute or two I couldn’t figure out what had happened. The bag and the rack were still attached to one another. That was good. But the bag was somehow further away than it should be. Slowly it dawned on me.

So I got out the trusty gorilla tape (stronger than duck tape) and Heath Robinsonned the rack to the bike. It’s behaved perfectly ever since.

2: The Body

Second to break has been my body. Both knees are destroyed, but in fascinatingly different ways. The right has reverted rather truculently to the old injury that I did cycling to Bordeaux two years ago. But the left, always inventive, has found a couple of tendons around the back and is attempting to saw them away from the muscle. This means that I can’t go faster than about 10mph (except, lethally, downhill) and I can’t go up hill at all.

I am lucky that cycling and walking use two completely different sets of muscles. So, while my knees scorn any attempt at cyclopic locomotion, they are sweet as pie when it comes to perambulation around town. It’s at that point that my quads kick up a fuss and I spent a happy ten minutes this morning staring at my calves while they twitched and spasmed quite joyfully. I was only sitting on a park bench.

3: The Mind

This is the most insidious and the most dangerous. Furthermore, the other two, bike and body, feed it with self-pitying cream cakes of depression and pointlessness.

Every little thing becomes a test of mental resolution. From struggling with the bungee ropes on the rack, to being unable to get the plastic wrapper from a lipsalve. From the prospect of the weather, to the sound of a mournful song on the radio in a cafe. From finding a bite to eat, to finding a place to sleep.

And what makes it worse is that, with a broken bike or a broken body, there is no dishonour in going home. With a broken mind, there is no excuse.

That’s when I remember Ed Stafford’s walk along the length of the Amazon. He hated it. Absolutely hated the whole damned thing. He got depressed, he got shot at, he got infected with strange parsasites. But did he go home? No.

See you in Lowestoft then!

p.s. I’m currently in Woodbridge. I’ve done 150 miles so far. Hurrah.

How to Hitch-hike

Terrified by the prospect of standing on the side of the road with your thumb out? Well, here are some tips on hitching.

If you’ve never hitched before, don’t panic. How hard can it be? You just stick your thumb out and smile!

The hitchwiki website has a treasure trove of tips for new-comers and old-timers alike: http://hitchwiki.org/en/Main_Page

For what it’s worth, here are my own All Star tips and tricks:

  • Take a large (A4 minimum) sketch pad for writing signs.
  • Take several thick black marker pens (other colours optional). And I mean several – don’t rely on only one. It will run out and you’ll be stuffed.
  • Take a small road map of the UK. Like this one. Don’t lose it, like I did.
  • Pack a mac. Preferably a bright red one with reflective tabs. Be seen!
  • By all means stand by the side of a road with your thumb out, but for real pro-hitching, try to get lifts between service stations. It might not be glamorous, but it does mean you can approach people personally, they can hear about your quest and see that you’re not a psycho. Service stations also have toilets, food and water.
  • Don’t be afraid of going in the wrong direction. If you find yourself in the doldrums, then just pick up a lift going anywhere and try from there. 
  • Don’t, under any circumstances, take your ipod or other anti-social entertainment device. For god’s sake, talk to your kind hosts!
  • Take snacks for the road. Nuts are good, so is chocolate. I wouldn’t take a hip-flask, though. Try, at least, to look respectable.
  • If you’re not confident, travel with a buddy you trust. Three really is a crowd for hitching. Lone drivers might be reluctant to pick up a crowd and three people are difficult to accommodate in lorries. 
  • Hitch in daylight. Night hitching is probably safe, but it’s much harder. No one can see you, there are less drivers on the road – and the ones that do and are, are knackered and just want to get home.

But if there’s one golden rule I’ve learnt over and over again, it is this:

Don’t, under any circumstances, ever give up.

Last weekend I hitched to the Lake District and back in 36 hours. One particularly dark moment served to illuminate this rule better than most. I was stuck in Skipton. No one was stopping for me, several young ruffians had shouted at me, sworn and given me the finger. I trudged miserably up the road, in the misting rain, for about three hours.

I’d given up. I wasn’t even sticking out my thumb.

Then a van pulled over to the side of the road ahead of me. He must be checking a map, I thought, and I trudged slowly onward. I was just walking past him, when I noticed his window was wound down. Then I saw him looking at me, but I’d still given up. He moved to speak to me. He’s probably lost, he probably wants to ask me directions, I think.

Then this happens:

“Were you the lad with a sign to Kendal earlier?”
“Er… Yeah?”
“What? Have you given up on that?”
“Er… No?”
And he jerked his thumb to the back of his van. “Hop in then.”

And he drove me all the way to Keswick: never, ever, under any circumstances, give up.

Wikipedia, Egypt and the mystery of the Stoke Poges Naked Bicycle Angel

Egypt? It’s near Stoke Poges, a delightful village near Burnham Beeches and a lovely little cycle from London.

It was well worth the pilgrimage too, not only for the beautiful woodland or for the wonderfully displaced North African country, but also for a certain stained glass window in Stoke Poges church. I learnt of this window from Wikipedia when I was researching a talk I gave last year on the history of the bicycle. Apparently, there was a window of an angel, stark naked, riding a bicycle.

So I pedalled to the church, wheeled my respectful way down the winding path through the cemetery, leant my bike up against the porch and, full of anticipation, pushed open the heavy wooden door.

Now, I was expecting to see a huge window with a glorious winged angel dazzling the congregation with his dangling member straddling a Raleigh six-speed. So it was with increasing frustration that I circled the small church two, three times, without seeing anything remotely resembling an angel of heaven on a bike.

Then I found this:

Bicycle window, Stoke Poges (Peter Reed, Flickr)

This is a small inset picture in a window installed to celebrate the lives lost in World War II. And it’s not so much an angel as a cherub, I’d say. Far from being glorious, it seems a little inappropriate. I’d like to know the thought process behind this one.

We want something nice to remember the 450,000 souls who died in the most horrific war in human history…

I know – a cherub on a hobby-horse blowing a trumpet!

Whatever the thinking behind it was, one thing is certain: Wikipedia is wrong.

What?

This is what Wikipedia originally told me about the window:

There are several early but unverifiable claims for the invention of bicycle-like machines. The earliest comes from an illustration found in a church window in Stoke Poges, installed in the 16th century, showing a naked angel on a bicycle-like device…*

Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but I thought the Second World War was a twentieth century event.

This is a valuable lesson I think.
1. Don’t believe everything you’re told. Sometimes they’re wrong. Sometimes you do know better.
2. Check the facts for yourself. Go there. Verify the angel.

It reminds me of the British in Palestine, 1917-1948. A lot of government policy was set in London by people who had never been to Palestine (which then comprised the current territory of Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories). Their policy formation was based on idealistic dreams, unrealistic ambitions and sectarian politics. They often ignored the advice of the people on the ground in Palestine.

The administrators, soldiers and civilians in Palestine itself, faced with the day-to-day troubles, were practical and realistic in their suggestions. But they were ignored by people who thought they knew better – but who knew nothing.

I think this is one of the most important lessons of travel. How can I talk about Iran when I’ve never been there? Any talk that blew out of my mouth would be nothing more than so much hot air. How can I talk about a church window in Stoke Poges when I’ve never been there?

The more I travel, the more wary I become of talking about places I haven’t been – or of listening to other people who haven’t been either, no matter what their professional qualifications are. You can find the inaccurate angel-window story repeated endlessly across the internet, mindlessly regurgitated by people who’ve never been to Stoke Poges.

So I urge you: verify the angel!


* There are a couple of things here. Apparently the glass of the window was recycled (ho ho!) and a part of it has been dated to 1643. Which is the 17th century of course. The internet seems to be in some dispute about whether it is the bicycle part which is from 1643 or not. Either way, Wikipedia is wrong.

The information comes from Stoke Poges Parish Council website. The image is probably not a bicycle either and could be a “one-wheeled contraption that was often associated with cherubims and seraphims in mediaeval iconography” according to Jim Langley’s website.

The Secret to a Proper Holiday

Over the years, I’ve been lucky enough to go on more than 60 holidays, both in the UK and abroad. In the course of all that to-ing and fro-ing I’ve been to 33 different countries. I’ve also taken 77 aeroplane flights.

Fancy flights and holidays graph. Click to enlarge.

But finally – after going through 77 passport controls, 77 customs halls, 77 departure lounges, 77 immigration queues, 77 more customs halls, 77 baggage carousels and 77 arrival halls – I’ve realised one thing: flights aren’t holidays.

You could be forgiving for thinking that they are.

In 2017, UK residents took 46.6 million holidays abroad, up ten-fold from 1971, and we flew for 39.7 million of them, over 85%. The proportion of holiday-makers who fly is rising. Conclusion: everyone wants to holiday abroad and, to get there, nearly everyone flies. But why?

But why does everyone fly to Abroad?

There are some obvious and not-so-obvious answers to that question.

1. It’s quicker to fly.

Obviously. But there are two aspects to the speed:
a. Not everyone has the time to take the leisurely travel option, even if they wanted to. We only get two weeks’ holiday a year and we want to spend as much of that on a beach as possible.
b. Travel is horrible, so the less time spent in transit the better, even if it’s as traumatic as flying.

2. It’s cheaper to fly.

It really is, incredibly. Even if you cycle the whole way and swim the Channel with your bike strapped to your 48″ chest – you’ll still spend way more on food during your Ironman expedition to Magaluf than you would have done on a Ryanair return.

One way to Bordeaux by bike cost me near enough £240 in calorific fuel. The Ryanair flight back was £60.

3. Because everyone flies to Abroad.

Huh? Everyone flies because everyone flies? Yeah. That’s right. I’m saying that we don’t even think about it. Imagination disengages at the point of picking up the Thompson brochure. We think about the destination, not about how to get there.

But…

But, but, but my friends!

1. Flying is only quicker if you are travelling long distances.

And travel is only miserable if you’re cooped up in Ryanair-sized cattle-pens and subjected to intrusive and very dull immigration procedures.

2. Flying is only cheaper if you are travelling long distances.

And, even then, only if you forget that my ten days’ cycling was so much more than transit – it was a wild-eyed sun-blaze of fun.

3. Flights aren’t holidays!

If there’s one thing I learnt while I was slogging over the hills of Normandy on my way to Bordeaux – or while I was standing around on the side of a road in Glasgow trying to get a lift to Ben Nevis – or while I was trudging through the snow, sixteen hours into an eighteen hour walk home for Christmas – it’s that flights aren’t holidays!

In fact, the less flighty the holiday, the better. Less flight means less stress, less queuing, less being treated like cattle – and, therefore, more fun, more unique – and more holiday!

And this should be a cause of optimism for everyone.

If we don’t have to fly to Abroad, then the world of holiday is blown wide open to us. It means that holiday isn’t a two-week stress-ball carbon-guilt flight – it could be a trip down to your local shops. Why can’t that be a holiday?

A holiday for everyday

This morning, for example, I went on a holiday right near my house.

I didn’t mean to go on holiday. I was just on a walk, a fairly standard constitutional walk around the local fields that I do all the time – and then, suddenly, I decided to go on holiday. I climbed through some hawthorn shrubs, over a wall and onto a disused railway. It was hot and sunny, so I took off my shirt and walked down the tracks, basking in the sun.

I was somewhere I’d never been before and tanning. How is that not a holiday?

Rejoice! Forget flying; holiday today!

But there’s more!

(The environmental bit tacked onto the end to make me look ethical.)

My flying CO2 footprint over the years. Click to enlarge.

If we needed any more encouragement to ditch recycled air, carry-on luggage limitations and ear-popping madness, then it’s surely got to be the thought of our carbon footprint. In the last 28 years, I’ve ejaculated 28 tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere, thanks to my use of aeroplane transportation. And I don’t mind admitting that it was mindless. I flew because I didn’t think twice. If I wanted to go to France, I bought a plane ticket.

That changed in 2009. I wanted to go to France, so I bought a plane ticket. But the flight was cancelled due to heavy snowfall and I couldn’t go. I still wanted to go, but suddenly flying didn’t seem worth it. I wanted more from my travel. So I cycled.

Seize the Weekend!

Welcome to your fourteenth weekend of the year.

What are you going to do with it?

What have you done with your weekends so far this year? Could you do better?

For a lot of people, weekends are sacrosanct. It’s our only chance to sleep late, our only chance to switch off, to meet up with friends for longer than a quick pint.

But it’s also the only chance we get to seize the day for ourselves. The weekend holds no obligations (if you’re lucky…) – no deadlines, no schedules, no timetables. Anything could happen today and tomorrow – anything.

You could find yourself halfway up a mountain by lunchtime.

You could be swimming in that loch in the sunshine.

You could start writing a novel.

You could buy a guitar and sing crazy songs about musical body parts.

You could help your neighbours with their shopping.

You could bake a cake for your nan.

But remember: after this one, you’ve only got another 39 left – and one of those is New Year’s Eve.

Make the most of them. Make the most of this weekend.

Is this the Secret to a Bigger Life?

Life is what we remember. Most of your life isn’t spent now; it’s spent then – in memories.

To get a bigger life, therefore, you might think we need bigger memories.

But our memories are selective. To use my favourite cycling metaphor, while you will inevitably spend most of your time going uphill – what you remember are the downhills. Our memories cut the boring stuff.

So we don’t need a bigger memory.

We need bigger time.

Time and Travel – or Time Travel?

Consider this: you spend weeks and weeks looking forward to your holiday. Time in the office seems to drag on forever. Finally you get on the plane and shoot off to a beach on Bermuda.

Lying here, with the sand between your toes, the office seems a million years away. Why is that? But your two weeks of cocktails and beaches fly by in the blinking of an eye – and suddenly you’re back in the office.

Now it’s Bermuda that seems a million years away. Did time get mixed up in the Bermuda Triangle?

A physicist might put it thus:

A displacement in space is equal to a displacement in time.*

Or, to put it another way, travel makes time bigger.

Continuity and Happening

Think back to what you were doing ten seconds ago – chances are it was the same thing you are doing now – can you remember how you were feeling then?

Doesn’t it feel weird to think about how you felt just a moment ago? I bet you weren’t really feeling much in particular, at least not until you thought about it.

That’s continuity for you.

The brain seems to have two modes: one for when things are happening and one for continuity. And the more we allow continuity to build up, the less we can pull out of it and remember. It all blends into one.

Our brains don’t bother to make a distinction between this moment reading a blog post and that moment ten seconds ago reading a blog post. In our memories it’s just going to go down as ‘read blog post’ – if that. More likely, it will just get subsumed under ‘just another day at the office’ and none of the specifics will be remembered at all.

For all your brain cares: that moment of your life simply didn’t happen.

Happening and Memory

Happenings, however, break up periods of continuity – and, in doing so, happenings also create a bigger life. Happenings mean that less of our lives get lost in the long tedium of continuity: happenings give us pegs from which to hang the memories of our lives.

For example, how many times have you placed a rogue memory with this kind of dialogue?

‘Oh, that was just before John broke his leg – yes, and not long after Fran won the three-legged race at school – hahaha!’

Travel is a kind of happening. The chronology below shows the effect of continuity and happening on life/memory:

  • Location A: continuity
  • Event 1A
  • Event 2A
  • Event 3A
    • Travel to location B: a new continuity
    • Event 1B
    • Event 2B
    • Event 3B
  • Travel to location A: resumption of continuity
  • Event 4A
  • Event 5A
  • Event 6A
      • Travel to location C: another new continuity
      • Event 1C
      • Event 2C
      • Event 3C
  • Travel to location A: resumption of continuity
  • Event 7A
  • Event 8A
  • Event 9A

Events in locations B and C are distinct and separate from the memories made in the other locations. They seem to stand out more due to the unique nature of the location in which the memories were made. It is harder to place event 5A in the logical progression of the year than 2B or 3C, for example. Although the time spent on the activities may be the same, event 5A appears smaller in life, in the memory, than event 2B.

This has serious implications for our lives. Allowing too much continuity to build up makes our lives smaller!

Breaking up this continuity is the secret to remembering more of your life and thus having, not a longer life (who really wants that, wrinkles and all?) – but a bigger life.

Happening + Bigger Time = Travel

Happenings are not always good (poor old John). They are not always desirable.

Travel, however, is a form of happening that is usually (more of less) in our control. It is also (in the form of a holiday at least) designed to make us happy. That seems to make it a particularly good sort of happening.

Furthermore, because travel creates bigger time, the power of memory associated with it is multiplied. Travel is a happening that leaves an impression on your memory disproportionate in size compared to normal life.

Think about this: despite the fact that you spent 230 days in the office last year, the moments you remember best from that year were those 14 days on a beach in Bermuda. It broke the continuity and created big time.

It made yours a bigger life.


*The incredible distances achievable by flight seem to totally fox our poor little brains. It seems literally unbelievable that we could have been at work in Croydon yesterday, when today we are sipping a Piña Colada on Elbow Beech.

You can test this out. How much travel is needed to blow the mind. Walk down the street and look back at the hundred or so metres you’ve travelled and ask yourself if you can remember what it was like to be you back then. What about a longer walk? I think the brain starts to break up its continuity when the distances become unobservable. A trip of twenty miles or more definitely has the ability to make the brain marvel – when you think about it.

Population density: Escape the statistic

I’ve come to Cholsey, in South Oxfordshire. Very nice. Normally I live in New Cross, which is in the London borough of Lewisham. Different, but also very nice.

The population density of Lewisham is 7,441 people per square kilometre. It is the 12th most dense place to live in England. “People going down to the ground, buildings going up to the sky,” as Bob Dylan once put it. Indeed.

If one A4 piece of paper was one square kilometre, this is Lewisham – crowded. Click for bigger image.

I walk about a kilometre to get to New Cross Gate train station. The thought that I could have up to 14,882 eyes on me during that journey is positively terrifying. No wonder we walk with our heads bowed down.

By comparison, South Oxfordshire has a population density of 190 people per square kilometre. It is the 249th most densely populated area in England, out of 326.

The same idea for South Oxfordshire. You can see the blobs are smilies now!

In the towns and villages of South Oxfordshire, it doesn’t feel sparsely populated, but the surrounding countryside is accessible and near empty. A country walk might have you crossing paths with one or two other people and a few cows. But that’s it.

Lewisham, on the other hand, is surrounded by Southwark (9,635 people/sq.km), Tower Hamlets (11,154), Greenwich (4,708) and Bromley (2,015). Not too many opportunities for escape. Even the Thames in London is busy with pleasure cruises, police launches and boat-folk.

It is perhaps fitting that the least densely populated place in England is called Eden, in Cumbria. Here, you can expect to share your square kilometre with just 23 other people.

Look at all that lovely white paper – smilies never had it so good!

“I wandered lonely as a cloud,” Cumbria’s most famous poet William Wordsworth once wrote, “when all at once I saw a crowd…” The crowd Bill saw, though, was not New Cross Gate during rush-hour, but “a host of dancing daffodils.”

If Sartre was right and “Hell is other people”, then Eden is paradise indeed. Escape the statistics and get more of this:

Cycling Home: London to Cholsey

Yesterday I cycled 39.5 miles from London to The Countryside in 4 hours 12 minutes, instead of taking the train.

What does that mean?

In economic terms: I saved the cost of the train fare, about £14, in exchange for about 3 hours of my life. And muscles that refuse to work quite the same the next day.

I didn’t use anything but the fuel of a nasty pizza and some chocolate raisins.

Cycling is slow enough to enjoy the view, quiet enough to hear the birds, hard enough to be a work-out, efficient enough to cover distances and fast enough, at times, to be exhilarating.

Other Things

The visceral power of a journey by bicycle is inestimable. Here are some other things.

I saw a badger, a cock and his hen, a hedgehog and several rabbits – all road-killed.

I flew like a wizard on vertiginous downs, and felt my thighs popping out my skin on the corresponding ups. But most of the time I plodded along at a steady 10 miles per hour.

I felt the sun on my neck. I crossed the river three times and cycled into the sunset.

I was overtaken a thousand times by cars, some passed me close, some gave me room, all choked me with their fumes. None of them understood me, I couldn’t understand them.

I went to Egypt.

I felt fine. I felt the joy of cycling on a smooth country road without a car or a care, sailing along, one hand on the tiller and one hand throwing chocolate in my mouth. I sang and cycled.

I wanted it to be over and I wanted it never to end.

View Larger Map

Another London: Stamford Hill and the West Bank

Yesterday, I went on a day-trip to Stamford Hill ↑, home to London’s largest community of orthodox Jews. I was an unashamed tourist: dawdling around in the sunshine, gawping at the sights, noshing my way through bagels – and, of course, taking tedious photographs to share with you today.

↑ I have no idea what this means, but it sure as hell tells me that I’m a tourist, that I’m an outsider looking in. I like this feeling. I like to be a tourist, it makes me see things.

↑ I do know what this means: this is called irony*! I really wanted to take a photo of an orthodox man who was hanging around near this sign.

This appositely named street is slap-bang in the orthodox heartland. Opposite is a bagel shop, a kosher meat shop and a kosher supermarket.

Followers of irony will also be pleased to hear that the West Bank is separated from the East Bank by a “weak bridge”. The residents of the West Bank are also fighting a losing battle to preserve the West Bank nature reserve.

I kid you not. ↓ (Although these workers are undertaking important conservation work, I’m sure.)

Another highlight of my little holiday was bagel-based. And… ↓

Yes. ↑ Aubergine and chilli peppers. Very pink. Quite tasty with the application of bagel, reminded me of a similar Turkish pepper sos I ate during my No Supermarket days in January.

On the Street

Nothing screams Jewish orthodoxy like a pram. The women also have head scarves or hats (sometimes with charming flowers affixed) and black coats and these odd heavy shoes stitched in leather.

The men wear double-breasted dress coats and stylish wide-brimmed hats, with matching hair-cuts – and glasses. All the men wear glasses, even the kids. Comes from too much reading. I also wonder if it’s a fashion, in the same self-defeating way that kids in my neighbourhood wear their trousers halfway down their arses.

Nothing scares me quite like a large group of people in uniform.

Orthodox men hurry past with mobile phones pressed to their ears – in silence – carrying transparent plastic cases tucked under their arms, which hold (I guess) a book of the Talmud or the Torah and – a pillow?

Three kids walk past, shaved heads and hats and long coats and glasses all – they can’t be much more than twelve years old. They run across the road, chasing the flash of the green man, slightly awkward, like little boys tucked up in oppressive school uniforms.

A tired looking young woman rolls past with her pram.

Another London

I love the fact that I can travel eight miles in my city and find another place entirely. Stamford Hill isn’t all about orthodox Jews, it’s a diverse, fascinating area – like the rest of London.

I walked with swans, alongside the reservoir, admiring the community gardens. I choked on the dust of yet more ‘living space’ construction (19 minutes to Bank) – and was surprised that notices posted were inviting applications for jobs on the building site from local residents. And I took a stroll through the library, browsing the extensive Torah collection, with DVDs and CDs for children.

Hurrah for Stamford Hill.


* Yes it is. Or isn’t. Discuss. It is: orthodox Jews in the one place they shouldn’t be: the “West Bank”. Or it isn’t: orthodox Jews in the one place they should be: the “West Bank”, AKA Judea and Samaria. See: Israel to expand settlements after family killing – The Guardian

Cairo: Selected Parks of Zamelek

Further north from Opera are the grounds of the Zamalek club, open only to members, the sly and the persistent. But my favourite garden in these parts is the Aquarium Garden Grotto. The grotto is a fantastical place, whose aquarium has long since dried up, leaving its friendly bridge to curve over nothing more than a tiled hole in the ground.

The centrepiece of the garden (in Arabic, a hadeeqa) is an artificial hill, which soars (if one uses one’s imagination) above the grime of the city. Better still, is the grotto that has been carved out of the plastic hill. But the main attraction for the lovers who gather here is the shade provided by tall palms, on the grass beneath which they can hold hands, talk and pick at lunch.

Not so peaceful is the corner devoted to the young of Zamalek. A collection of recreational furniture clamours for their attention and their squeals and screams carry far beyond the high fences.

For the Khedival sum of two Egyptian pounds, you can gain entry to a more tranquil hadeeqa a little further along the Corniche el-Nil. Here the palms trees block out Cairo’s hot and high-rise buildings, while fountains thrum out a cooling rhythm amid carefully-tended beds, where marble cobras rear up with impotent anger at the flowers.

That extra guinea buys me something else, too. Benches: nice, wooden benches, scattered around the gardens, as you would hope. The Aquarium Garden Grotto is all very whimsical, but its benches are arranged in a circular sort of formation, so that the two sexes can eyeball each another. It’s a little confrontational for my liking.

Another bonus of this hadeeqa is its coffee shop. Before I get a chance to sit down properly, an urgent waiter in a bow tie is upon me. After we share the necessarily florid greetings, he reveals his purpose:
“You sit down; you drink. Coffee, tea, orange…”
“Ah – no, thank you,” I say, politely.
“Yes – you drink. Coffee, tea, orange…”
“Ah – yes, very kind – but no, thank you.”
“Yes, yes. This – ” he (rather improbably) indicates the bench – “coffee shop. You drink.”
As far as I could see, this was a bench. “But I’ve already paid to come in here!”
“Yes for – ” and he mimes the act of walking with his index and middle fingers.
“No – that’s ridiculous!”
“Yes – you must drink!”

Besides the fact that I’m not thirsty, I am footsore and I don’t want to give up my comfortable bench. I look around, somewhat desperately, for some help breaking this rather awkward impasse. But no one is watching us. Everyone else in the garden seems to be in a couple, arm-in-arm on the benches, gazing into each other’s eyes… Oh – there’s the answer!

“But the other people,” I say, triumphantly, “they don’t have drinks!”
And it’s true: arm-in-arm, none have the threatened tea, coffee, orange (which, in any case, strikes me as a slightly distasteful combination).
“Yes they have!” he says, with unlikely optimism.
“No! Look – no one has a drink.”
Suddenly, the waiter smiles and gives me a high-five, walking away, laughing.

If you know how to stand your ground, Egypt is a fun place. Now, having won that round, I think I will just have a little walk around, after all.


I walked there in January 2009. I wonder what it would feel like now.

Haute Cuisine in Sarajevo

A restaurant in Sarajevo. My friend is interrogating a waiter about his establishment’s unhelpful menu.

“…and what’s in this – the Sultan Bey soup?”
“That’s lambs brains fried in offal fat.”
“And this one?”
“Sheep liver with beef.”
“Er, what about this one?”
“Chicken with two types of ham.”
“And this… Tahamoa?”
“No meat.”

My friend pauses to take this information on board. Then he resumes his attack.

“What exactly is in the ‘fishy fillet’?”
“Fish.”
“Thanks. I’ll have that.”

The waiter leaves.

You know, for a city that makes such a big thing about how disgusting the food was during the siege, they don’t seem to have celebrated a return to haute cuisine.


I was in Sarajevo in summer 2007. I loved it.

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.”

Yummy icar!

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

The Country Game: Official Rules

The Country Game is a highly contentious parlour game played by travellers all over the world. These are my rules, developed in association (and in great disagreement) with the Cholsey Country Club.

What is a “Country”?

NB: “Country” has no specific legal definition. Therefore we can call it what we want, to satisfy the needs of the game, which should reward travel, not politics. So:

A country is an entity which AT THE TIME OF VISITING satisfies any of these conditions:

  1. It is a member state of the UN.
  2. It is an observer member of the UN AND is EITHER a non-member state OR claims statehood.
  3. It is on the UN list of Non-Self-Governing Territories.
  4. It is recognised as a state by at least 10% of the full membership of the UN.
  5. It is an overseas possession of a country satisfying 1, 2, 3 or 4 above AND is outside the Exclusive Economic Zone (which extends 230 miles overseas) of that country.

At the time of writing, this means that there are:

  1. 192 members of the UN.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_Nations_member_states
  2. 4 observer members of the UN: Palestine, The Holy See (Vatican City), The Cook Islands and Niue.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_Nations_General_Assembly_observers
  3. 16 Non-Self-Governing Territories.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_Nations_list_of_Non-Self-Governing_Territories
  4. 2 further states recognised by at least 10% of the UN membership: Kosovo (38%) and Taiwan (12%).
  5. Many other places, including Puerto Rico (US), The Canary Islands (Spain), Réunion Island (France) and Greenland (Denmark).
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Exclusive_Economic_Zone

Notes:

  • This definition is deliberately broad because the world is a very big place. I want to break it up as small as possible. We’re all different, aren’t we?
  • For ease of implementation, I’m taking the EEZ of every country to be the maximum 230 miles, rather than going by the official extent, which is frequently less.
  • I’m also applying this 230 miles overland. Basically: if it’s within 230 miles of the possessing state, it doesn’t count as a separate country. I think that’s fair. If it’s that far away you must be travelling specifically to visit that place. You deserve a point.
  • It is important to note that the definition is made AT THE TIME OF VISITING. This means that if you visited Yugoslavia in 1972, you visited Yugoslavia. You did not visit Croatia.
  • That might seem silly, but it would be even sillier for your list to be changing every time there’s a war. It also means that you can have visited countries that no one else will ever be able to again – caché!

How to Score

Okay, so that’s just the definition of what counts as a country. Now we can start counting them.

A player scores one point (and one point only) for each country (according to the definitions above) they have visited in their lifetime IF:

  • They spent at least 24 hours in that country (see note below). 
  • They did something ‘of cultural interest’ during their stay.

And that’s it – simple!

Notes:

  • There is one exception to the 24-hour rule: The Holy See (Vatican City). This is the ONLY exception because it’s impossible to spend a night here. Score a point for any visit.
  • It doesn’t matter how many times you’ve visited a country, you will only EVER score one point for it.
  • ‘Cultural interest’ is defined with common sense. It is there to prevent sneaky travellers from counting a transit stay in an airport hotel. If you haven’t left the airport / train station / bus, it’s not interesting.
  • This is a stupid game. There are a lot of things wrong with it. I don’t care.

Walking Home for Christmas: Heathrow to Cholsey

Yesterday morning, at about half seven, I walked out of Heathrow Terminal 5 heading for Cholsey, a proud village in Oxfordshire and my ancestral home. It was rather snowy, as some of you may have noticed. The longest walk I’d ever done before yesterday was about 16 miles. Now I was going for 38 miles – and the mathematicians among you will realise: that’s more than double.

At 8:59 p.m. I arrived in Cholsey.

You can read the minute-by-minute Twitter updates during the journey and admire some pretty pictures of me eating pizza, but first I’d just like to tell you why I did it.

I’m interested in travel. I’ve done a lot of aeroplane travel in my life, quite a bit either into or out of Heathrow. I’ve travelled many times from Cholsey to Heathrow and back. I’ve travelled even more times from Cholsey to London and back. I’ve done the journey by car, by train and by bus. But never by foot.

Travel by car, by train or by bus is forgettable, almost unconscious. A train journey we pass by reading a book or by staring vacantly out of the window. I’ve been gripped by a need to understand what it means to travel. Now I understand what that journey, Heathrow to Cholsey, means.

It means 13.5 hours of walking, trudging, shuffling, limping, tramping, traipsing, marching. It means never stopping, it means not letting the mind break down when the body does. It means country lanes, paths, bridleways, A-roads and B-roads. It means left-turns, right-turns and wrong-turns. It means foxes, crows, rabbits and cranes. It means walking at dawn, at day, at dusk, at sunset and at night. It means hills, valleys, woods, fields, rivers, streams, towns, villages and hamlets. It means West.

This journey is about understanding. I hope that my journey will help other people make their own journey and find their own understanding, just as Alastair Humphreys’ journey last year inspired mine. Next year, why not walk home for Christmas?

How to travel anywhere without disappointment

The heart of all disappointment is expectation. The same is true of travel. It is particularly acute with travel, however, because we are all the time harried into building expectations of a destination. Guide-books and travel articles in newspapers urge us to make itineraries of places to go, places to see, things to do, things to eat, all of which add up to make ‘the experience.’ Very often we already know what these things look like from photographs or videos; very rarely will we be surprised and delighted by some reality of the object that was hidden in the description in the guide-book or the photograph in the magazine. I remember being a bit underwhelmed by the Pyramids of Giza when I first visited them. I remember thinking that they were like the photographs, but less beautiful, more uncomfortable and a lot of effort under the blazing sun.

But we cannot avoid expectations. That would be ridiculous. No one would bother travelling at all if it weren’t for the expectation of something. So how to travel with expectation, but without disappointment? I suppose one way would be to have low expectations, but it is very hard for us humans to manage our expectations, especially excitable optimists like myself. So what can I do?

1) Avoid itineraries.
Remember that whatever is on an itinerary will usually be the default tourist option and thus the most boring thing you can do at that particular destination. You will share the space with hundred or thousands of other tourists and, unless your particular interest is the ethnography of tourists, then that is pretty boring. Don’t just tick off a selection of sights that represent, say, ‘London’ to a collection of guidebooks. What is ‘London’? I’d say that it is an amorphous, phatasmorgorical amalgamation of random events. It certainly isn’t an itinerary.

2) Travel more realistically.
What do I mean by ‘realistically’? I mean that travel in the olden days used to be for a clearly defined purpose. People would travel to market or on a pilgrimage or in a gold rush. Nowadays people seem to travel just to see ‘London’, which as we have seen, doesn’t exist. A more realistic example of travel would be, not to try to see a ‘London’, but to go to see a real and concrete object. For example, the paintings of Rothko in the Tate Modern or The Phantom of the Opera at the theatre or the Rosetta stone in the British Museum. These purpose-driven excursions may well disappoint, but the disappointment will be real and directed at the object, rather than the destination of the imagination. Also don’t try to travel in time. You cannot go to London to try to see Dickens’ London or London in the time of Boudicea. It doesn’t exist. Which leads me on to:

3) Treat the destination with respect, as a living, breathing place.
Do not treat it as a museum or a gallery, but as a town or a country; a place of the world that will continue to be a place of the world until such a time as the world disintegrates. It has a past and a future. Do not expect the past and the future to be as you see it today. Do not expect to see Oliver Cromwell at the Tower or Oliver Twist running down the back streets round London Bridge. The people you do meet have nothing in common with the past and are all working towards their own future, different again. As a frequent traveller to Egypt, I have seen this mistake happen again and again with travellers (and with myself over the years). The past is not a country.

4) Travel to learn.
Don’t travel to see ‘London’ and don’t expect anything of ‘London’. That would be to travel with a closed mind. Travel instead with an open mind, with a mind willing to learn. Travel instead for what London can teach you. Be less selfish with your travel: you sure as hell won’t leave any impact on London, but what impact will London leave on you? Listen, look and let it work.

What is travelling?

It’s a verb of motion, that’s what it is *. But why choose that verb over a hundred others? When are we travelling rather than simply going?

Here’s my answer.

Travelling, like writing, is about asking questions.

I’m going to Egypt, puts the emphasis on the destination, as if the goer and the transport mean nothing, contribute nothing to the meaning of the sentence. Going is almost passive; we all know that it’s the aeroplane that will be travelling and the goer is simply being transported. I’m going to Egpyt doesn’t beg any questions. You would never suspect that the goer is doing anything other than transporting himself to Egypt by conventional means for a holiday. I’d never ask the goer How are you going to Egypt? I just wouldn’t expect an interesting answer. By using the word going the goer is already pushing his journey into the mundane.

I’m travelling to Egypt, on the other hand, asks more questions than it answers. It puts the emphasis on the traveller and on the journey. Travelling seems to be more active, more conscious and more deliberate than going. I might very well ask the traveller, How? and I would expect an interesting answer.

Most importantly, though, travelling also begs questions of the traveller. It is hard to say, in all seriousness, I’m travelling to Camden, without thinking of what that means to you as the traveller and what implications the decision to travel has on your journey. You would ask yourself, How? and already the act is more active, more conscious and more deliberate.

I did this, in fact. Last Friday, I wanted to go to Camden to visit my friend Ben. Fine. I live in South London and I could have quite easily gone to Camden by public transport. But the idea of going bored me so I made the decision to travel. So my question to myself then was How? and suddenly I was part of the journey, not just passive cargo for a train or a bus. Cycling was out of the question because it was pissing it down with rain. Then it struck me that I didn’t know what it meant to travel 7.5 miles across London in the pouring rain.

We are in the situation today that we can transport ourselves vast distances without thinking about it. We can go 7.5 miles. A few hundred years ago going 7.5 miles would have been unthinkable. Travelling was the only option. So I wanted to reconnect with that time, I wanted to understand what 7.5 miles in the rain meant.

So I ran 4.2 miles (in the rain) and then walked the rest (in the rain). It was as simple as that. Now I understand (only a little bit: I caught the train home). If I had gone by public transport then I wouldn’t have been travelling. I would have forgotten what I was doing and I would simply have been going. I would, instead of travelling, have been reading or people-watching or something else, filling time, enduring the transport. But by deliberately changing my mode of transport and by asking myself questions, suddenly I was not going, but travelling.

And that’s the nub of the matter: travel always involves a question or a series of questions. If you don’t ask the questions then you are just going. That doesn’t mean that travelling must only be done at leisure; a commuter can easily travel just by asking questions, by becoming conscious of his activity. Instead of taking the same train at the same time he could walk or run or take an earlier train or a later train or a bus. But it’s not even just about the mode of transport. The commuter could transform his journey by talking to his neighbour on the train or by taking photographs of the journey or by writing a story about the journey – anything to become a conscious part of the locomotion. The traveller is constantly aware of his travel, for him the journey is as relevant as the destination.

This, I believe, is why travel writing is always interesting, because it seeks to ask and perhaps answer questions about the world or about the traveller. There is conflict in those travel stories: will the journey be a success? Will the questions be answered? All stories are questions. All journeys are questions.

And once you stop asking questions, once you stop thinking, you stop travelling and you are simply going or commuting or – worst of all – enduring.

So I always try to ask myself:
How can I travel today? How can I turn my transport into a journey?


* All right, all right – it’s a verbal noun, but who’s splitting hairs?

Hitchhiking: London to Oxfordshire (and Back)

26 September 2010
Distance: 55 miles (one way)

Lesson: The Right Reasons

I got a train out to Gunnersbury to hitch from the side of the road onto the M4. It didn’t work. I stood near a bus-stop with my sign, people looked at me and accelerated up the slip-road. So I took a bus from that bus-stop to Hounslow West and walked to Heston Services. Unfortunately the M4 was half closed and going at a crawl past a traffic accident (I believe). But still, I got a lift no problems, from a travelling solar panel salesman. It took us an hour to get past the accident site, by which time there was nothing left and all lanes were open. But it was a great conversation, he told me all about his dad who was the first military pilot for Abu Dhabi and his brother who was a commercial diver up in Aberdeen. He dropped me in Reading and I walked across town to the railway station. I could have hitched from there to my destination, but time was short and the bus was only £2.90. So I caught a bus.

The next day, I caught a cold. No one would want to pick me up like that and I didn’t fancy standing on the road side in the sharp Autumn. So I caught a train from Reading back to London. It cost me £13, about what it would have cost if I’d bought a return ticket from London to Goring the previous day. My hitch had saved me nothing. So was it a waste of time? No chance. I’d know a lot less about solar panel sales, underwater oil rig repairs and the Abu Dhabi air force if I’d just caught the train.

Don’t hitch for financial reasons, hitch for the right reasons.

Hitchhiking: London to Winchester and Back

19 – 20 September 2010
Distance: 190 miles (including detours)
My first solo hitch in the UK.

Lesson: The Right Question

I picked up my first ride from the side of the road. A man drove past me, stuck in traffic, went to the end of the road, turned around at the roundabout and came back, pulled up and waved at me from the other side of the road. I assumed he must always pick up hitchers, but, no, he’d never done it before. I would have just driven past. My second lift was from Fleet Services. I asked my usual demographic, an older, single male: able to look after himself, unlikely to want to rape me and likely to drive safely. He accepted me, but then revealed he had a wife and a five year-old daughter in the car as well. It was a joy. I just played around in the back with the daughter, watching a DVD with her, admiring her spelling homework, laughing. They dropped me in Winchester. It couldn’t have been a simpler journey. It took me an hour and a half from London to Winchester, 70 miles. There was no need to ask any questions: I stuck my thumb out, I asked people nicely and they all said yes.

But then there was the journey home. I was dropped off at Chieveley Services by my friend. No problem, it was just off the M4, perfect for heading East to London. Or not. I asked and asked and asked for two hours or more. No one was heading East from Chieveley Services. I was bashing my head against a brick wall. I was asking the wrong question. No one stops at Chieveley and then goes East, it is actually just off the A34, which goes North-South and is on the South-side of the M4, convenient for people heading West, not East. After three hours, I changed my approach. I would head West, go with the flow and then try to hitch back from the next Service Station along. The first man I asked took me. The service station was full of people only too glad to help me, but I was asking them the wrong question. I asked the right question and was back in London within three hours.

Ask the right question. Always think of the people you are asking, where are they going?

Hitchhiking: London to Scotland and Back

25 – 29 August 2010
Distance: 1125 miles (approximately)
My first hitching journey in the UK.

Lesson: Optimism

This was a spectacular introduction to what is possible with hitchhiking. It took us a day to get up from London to Edinburgh, only an hour longer than the National Express bus and a whole lot cheaper. We had no idea where we were going to end up when we started – we even discussed what we would do if we failed to get out of London (try again tomorrow) – but the elation of that first lift, and then the second, the third, the fourth, the fifth, pushing ever further North, was indescribable. Meeting the friendly and helpful people of this island was joyous and an education in itself. Walking from the Tube station back to my house, I felt the barriers to limitless travel falling away. Impossible situations ‘worked out’. Stuck in the outskirts of Edinburgh for a couple of hours, tired, failing, something turns up and three hours later we were in Lancaster. Optimism.

The Gaza Freedom March report

In December 2009, over 1,300 international peace activists arrived in Egypt expecting to travel through Egypt to Gaza and to break the siege. The march brought together all kinds of groups: feminists, Vietnam veterans, worker’s unions, Palestinian solidarity groups, Israeli journalists, Jews, Muslims, Christians and atheists – our diversity epitomised by Hedy Epstein, an 85-year old Holocaust survivor.

The Gaza Freedom March was organised by The International Coalition to End the Illegal Siege of Gaza. This organisation was formed after Israel’s 22-day assault on Gaza in Winter 2008-09. The coalition conceived this march as part of a broader strategy to end the Israeli occupation by targeting nonviolently its flagrant violations of international law from the house demolitions and settlements to the curfews and torture. But, on our arrival, the Egyptian authorities prevented us from gathering together as a group and revoked our permits to travel to Gaza.

We protested the decision: some members of the march went on hunger strike, 300 people from the French delegation made an encampment outside their embassy for a week. Eventually, one of the groups who helped organised the march, CodePink, opened dialogue with Suzanne Mubarak, the wife of the Egyptian President. After some negotiations, it was announced that two buses would be allowed to go to Gaza. This made a mockery of the stated reason for our detention in Cairo: our security. Furthermore, the Egyptian foreign minister made an announcement to the effect that the Egyptian authorities had vetted the members of the march and these 100 were the only people who had genuine humanitarian aims for Gaza. Having been involved in the chaotic process by which the list of the 100 was created, I can state categorically that this was not the case. I was telephoned in the evening of the 29th of December and told I had 5 minutes to provide two names of people who would represent the United Kingdom. This was farcical: I had no particular mandate to speak for everyone who came from the UK – I just happened to be the person they had the telephone number of.

This process created a rift among the marchers; in many ways the Egyptian government played the game very cleverly. They gave us just enough room to make our protest, but ensured that it didn’t spread beyond the confines of our visit. Then they drove a wedge between the organisers who accepted Suzanne Mubarak’s offer and the vast majority of the marchers who were angry that not everyone would be allowed to go to Gaza.

As it happened, I ended up on the bus bound for Gaza. As we sat in the bus waiting to leave, one of the organisers of the march in Gaza called. He said that he didn’t want us to come like this; the march was supposed to be an act of solidarity and shouldn’t be divisive. Hearing this, I got off the bus, much relieved.

After another day of protests in Cairo, I decided to get the night bus to Israel to see the conflict for myself.

Living expenses: Egypt 2009

!!! Disclaimer: Some of these prices are subject to negotiation with your vendor. They are guidelines only. However, I do not claim to be that great at haggling so these are neither as cheap as you can get, nor as expensive as you can pay. I try to buy from markets aimed at the local inhabitants but still expect to pay a premium for my tourist status.

Travel

Taxi

Zamalek to Maadi, Cairo 25LE
Cairo Airport to Zamalek 75LE (should be marginally cheaper, therefore, to down-town)

Train

Cairo Metro ticket 1LE
Cairo-Aswan 109LE
Edfu-Cairo 98LE
Aswan-Edfu 17LE
Elbalyana-Cairo 85LE

Accommodation

Hostel in Downtown Cairo, 2 persons, no bath 120LE, with bath 140LE
Hotel in Zamelek Cairo, 1 person, with bath 190LE
Hotel Aswan, 2 persons 80LE
Hotel Edfu, 2 persons 150LE

Communications

Internet 5-10LE per hour
Mobile Phone SIM card 90LE

Food & Drink

Market Fruit and Vegetables

1kg tomatoes 0.50LE
1kg Guava 3.50LE
1kg Melon 5LE
0.5kg Peppers 1.50LE
1kg cucumbers 2LE
1kg bananas 3LE
1 egg 0.50LE
1kg oranges 1-2LE
1kg Apricots 5LE
1kg carob 24LE
1kg peanuts 13LE
1kg pumpkin seeds 26LE

Take Away Food

1 Taamiyya in pitta (Felafel) 1.50LE
1 pot Koshuri 2LE
Omelette 3LE
Fuul 1.50LE
1 Maison Thomas Sandwich 25LE
1 fiteer 11LE
1 large kebab 8-10LE

Restaurant Food

Penne al’Arrabiata and drink, Didos, Zamalek 20LE
Salad at Al-Azhar park 18LE

Drinks

1 large bottle of water 1.50LE
1l mango juice 12LE
1 cup of tea 1.50LE
1 cup of coffee 1.50LE
1 mango juice 1.50LE
1 orange juice 0.50LE
1.5ltr Asab (sugar cane) juice 3LE

From the Bakery

1 piece hot fresh bread 0.05LE
1 leavened bread roll long 0.25LE
1kg biscuits 10LE
1 chocolate croissant 1.50LE

Tourism

Ibn Tulun Mosque entry 5LE
Normal park entry 1-2LE
Al-Azhar park entry 5LE

Other

Cigarettes 8.50LE
Sheesha (apple flavour) 2LE
Postcard small 2LE, large 5LE
Print 1 page text 1-3LE
Small bag of Ariel washing powder 1LE

The Man on the Train

The man on the train leans forward: ‘I did not put my ticket in the machine – is okay? I have not used the train before.’
‘It’s fine, as long as you have a ticket, yeah?’
‘I have’

He is tanned, with a friendly fatty face, roughened by stubble. His eyes and nose bulge disarmingly. Spanish.

He complains about the number of stops to Oxford: ‘Is 20 stops!’
‘You going to Oxford then?’ I ask.
‘No, Hayes,’ he replies. ‘I have never been outside London. Except to Brighton.’
‘London-On-Sea.’
‘Yeah, if London had the sea…’
‘Oxford is quite nice though- the river and the, um… forests.’
I’m not too good on conversation.

Now I notice his red Ferrari shirt. I am confused. Italian? Surely not; he’s far too engaging.

Couldn’t he just be a Spaniard wearing a Ferrari shirt? I begin to doubt myself. Not Italian, not Spanish. I’m out of ideas.

‘Where are you from?’ I ask.
He replies: ‘Lebanon.’

The smile on my face freezes for a moment as I ponder where I have heard that name recently.

Holy shit, I remember: World War III just broke out.

‘Oh…’ I manage, eloquently, as I feel the muscles of my face frantically reconfiguring to register Concern.
‘… Gosh.’
‘Yeah. It is bad.’

At this point I am thrown into shock mode: I follow his monologue with little more than nods, shakes, tuts, buts and ahs.

‘Last night was the worst. My street, I live in South of Beirut, my street is bombed.’
‘Your family?’
He wrings his phone in frustration: ‘I have been trying. I cannot. My sister. They’re not answering.’

He looks pained: ‘No electric, no water – it’s summer, yes? People will die without fan, without water. They forget what is water, what is electric.’

I look down at my bottle of water.

‘South Beirut is like Zone 6 London: all tall houses for all the people, not small houses like this,’ he gestures out the window to a field of warehouses.

‘All tall buildings, all gone. You must understand: all Lebanon is Hizbollah: they are not army, they are not terrorists, they are people.

‘I am Hizbollah, my family is Hizbollah, you are – like you are English – they want to kill everybody.

‘Like Hitler bombed London in 1940, 1945, 1948, I forget these dates, he aims to get everyone. Israel wants to kill everyone.’

He gestures constantly, out the window, at my water, with his phone, up to the sky. His eyes thrust in every direction; my retinas burn when I meet his look.

‘When will it stop? They say today it will not stop. It will stop when we give them anything they want.

‘Since Wednesday they are bombing the airport. And there is English, American, French there on holiday, you know? Helicopters come to take them away – what about us?

‘How can Lebanon defend itself? It is big country against small country – like England against London.’

He realises this doesn’t capture the scale. ‘Or Britain against Luxembourg or…’ His eyes light up and a finger punches into his palm: ‘Malta.’

‘This morning the Israelis say to the border towns you must leave they want to make it to the ground.’
‘They want to flatten them?’
‘Because they want…’ He stares accusingly at the fields rushing past through the window and slices his hand through the air, palm down. ‘… A clear view.’

‘And all the people in these border towns are poor, not like the people in London, in Oxford – they are all rich more or less, not like in the border towns. They are all poor and the UN says no to these people because you know in 1996 the UN building it gets…’ He punches down through the air.
‘Bombed?’
‘And the UN says no so the people get into trucks you know, trucks that they load with stones and rocks, and the Israelis bomb them.’

‘Newspapers here don’t show anything. You must see these pictures – find an Arabic channel, you’ll see the pictures: a child’s arm, you know,’ he bares his arm and grips his shoulder, ‘without the body.’

‘A baby’s head,’ he cups his hands together, ‘smaller than, smaller than…’ He leans forward describing a small sphere in the air with his hands frantically before throwing himself back in his seat, eyes despairing his linguistic failure.
‘Smaller than… a football.’

‘The Sun, The Daily Mail, The Mirror they are all for the Israelis. Hitler did not do so bad to Jews as they say, he didn’t burn them, kill them… Anyway that was in World War.’ He brings his hands together to indicate global cataclysm.

‘Americans, English, French always with Israelis. We have only god to help us, we forget about these people: we live, we die. Not like here where you live, you enjoy, you die.

‘If we die now, 5 years, 10 years is no matter for us. And then they make a film, Hollywood film, out of our lives and will only show Israelis dying.’

I proffer support: ‘But not everyone is with the Israelis, I mean, the intelligent, none of my friends agree with what the Israelis have done…’

He cuts me off: ‘Well they must do something. They are meeting now in St Petersburg and Bush says Israel are defending themselves. They must stop this now.’

We both see Hayes and Harlington pull into view.

‘I must get off here,’ he says. ‘It’s been nice talking to you.’

I shake his hand as he stands; I struggle to my feet and touch him on the shoulder, desperately signing comradeship.
‘I hope your family are alright.’
‘It is life, my friend.’

He is gone. I sit down heavily and gaze hopelessly at the people around me, they seem unaware of our conversation.

I wish I’d asked his name.


This conversation occurred on Sunday the 16th of July 2006 on the 13:48 train from London Paddington to Oxford, between London Paddington and Hayes and Harlington. I spent the rest of the journey writing down everything he said.

The 2006 Lebanon War is believed to have killed between 1,191 and 1,300 Lebanese people, and 165 Israelis.

It severely damaged Lebanese civil infrastructure, and displaced approximately one million Lebanese and 300,000–500,000 Israelis.

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