Points of Vue

Dear Sirs

I visited your Finchley Road cinema on 1/10/12 for the 20:40 showing of Untouchable.

I am a huge cinema fan, and although not the cheapest or most comfortable cinema, I am such a big fan of your brand, and normal high quality level of service that I will always choose your cinema above others.

It is my love of Vue cinemas that made my experience on Monday all the more disheartening.

Firstly, you charge an exorbitant amount for both your tickets and snacks, but it is a price I am normally willing to pay for the fantastic experience. The large popcorn I purchased however can only be described as disgusting. I paid over ten pounds for my popcorn and Fanta ice drink and found the popcorn totally inedible. To say that the popcorn itself may have cost around 20 pence to produce, for the 6/7 pounds charged it really should be excellent.

As I put each kernel into my mouth it compressed into a hard ball and was impossible to chew. On the few attempts I made to eat it, I had to wash each chunk of shrapnel down like a pill with my fabulous Fanta ice drink, now wasting this delicious precious liquid commodity.

I must also note that I noticed your staff shovelling the remaining popcorn into the bin immediately after serving me and my two friends. You must yourselves have known of the shocking quality and been delighted to palm off the remaining vile dregs to me and my friends in three hearty servings for a cool £20.

My dismay did not end there. I had to endure an entire film, which for the record was absolutely fantastic, with a spotlight glaring from the ceiling directly into my eyes. I had a terrible pain in my eyes and head by the end of the film and had to go immediately to bed with a cold compress. I have never known such lights to be on in the theatre during a showing.

Furthermore, the entire cinema’s cooling prowess was directed at me and my friends and we were almost reduced to huddling as penguins do, to maintain heat. There was no need for such violent air conditioning on a chilly autumnal eve.

I have visited your cinema countless times and been a vehemently loyal customer. I therefore understand how excellent the service is normally, and you will therefore understand how utterly devastated I am now.

I did not even have the option to rectify the situation at the time. The film had already started when all these problems became apparent and after a quick search in the corridor for a staff member, I was not willing to lose a further 20 minutes of the film searching for an employee and then make an explanation in the hope the situation may be rectified.

Your staff members were just as illusive at the end of the film. I can only assume they were busy in the staff room roaring with laughter whilst counting the profits they had recently made in selling me rotten popped corn as I emerged from screen 6 in a bleary eyed, painful, ice cold stupor.

I have totally lost my faith in your once fantastic brand. It will take a lot to restore my faith, but I look forward to your response which may go some way in explaining some unknown extenuating circumstances which may have led to the theft of my precious time last Monday night.

I must also make it abundantly clear that this complaint should be read in triplicate, as you also robbed the same hours from precious lives of two of my dear friends, Hamish and Hemile.

Yours sincerely

Nicky Kelvin

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BURSTING THE BUBBLE

“I need a dollar, dollar, dollar is what I need”
Aloe Blacc
Arabs and Jews

An arab shopkeeper at the Damascus gate watches as thousands of Zionist Israelis flow past on their way to the Western Wall

With my departure from the Holy Land fast approaching at breakneck speed, a couple of days downtime off work has prompted a reflection on my whole experience here, and the sudden realisation that I haven’t written anything for far too many months.
Lion Israel Flag

Best flag going!

It’s been a long hot summer since the end of my programme in June and I’ve experienced a whole new side to Tel Aviv – an experience known by the more condescending among us as “real life”.
Selling bread

Job options? An arab Bread Wallah selling his wares outside the old city, with a crowd of screaming zionists filing past.

Before real life hit home, for five months I was given an unrivalled opportunity to take photos of amazing things, be criticised by amazing photographers, and be published in amazing places. My boss Naty would dub me a ‘motherfucker’ for sauntering in with the best picture of the day, and over months saw me grow until he had conviction in telling me I have photography “in my salt” (i think he meant soul) and that I have what it takes to be a photojournalist. To squander my undeveloped talent would be a travesty.
Selling vegetables

Further job options. An arab greengrocer sells his wares under the watchful eye of the Israel Border Police

One thing was for sure however, taking pictures of refugees doesn’t buy you a flight to South America, and so with a heavy heart I unwillingly, and temporarily hung up my camera in pursuit of a quick shekel.
MEZIZIM BEACH

Beach Melons

And so, a couple of phone calls, and an interview confirming my ‘extensive’ waitering experience later, I began work as a waiter at Tel Aviv’s Mezizim Beach restaurant.
This is a job unlike any I will ever undertake again, and after 3 months on the job, I don’t think I would have the strength to have another go.
I worked in the searing heat, sun beating down between pale Ashkenazi shoulder blades, during shifts that seemed to last a lifetime. My longest was 18 hours. And the salary? You had better sit down for this one employment lawyers and trade unionists…ZERO. Nothing. Nil. Nought. They paid me fuck all. As with all the beach restaurants, you hustle, charm and woo customers for a tip. It’s all you get, and it’s every man for himself.
Tel Aviv Sunset

The view from my office

With my bumbag (fanny pack…cue giggles) attached firmly to my waist, I set out each morning with entrepreneurial spirit blazing, to sell as much food and drink to the people of Tel Aviv as I possibly could. At the end of the day, I paid the restaurant for the food I sold, a figure ominously dubbed my “X” and then counted, slowly, and carefully whatever was left attached to my hip. The feeling of counting those hard earned shekels and stuffing them into your pocket, untaxed, at the end of each day is almost addictive. (Worry not vigilant readers and fellow OCD enthusiasts. There was no real ‘stuffing’ going on. G-d forbid. This is merely poetic license. Notes were placed in value order, in alignment, creases gently teased out, and slipped into a crisp white envelope).
PROFILING
Beach Diversity

Beach Diversity

Much like El Al’s security profiling procedures at the airport, the same is essential for any budding beach waiter. Here is my guide to making the most of, and getting the most out of a Mezizim customer.
The French
They have no tipping culture in France. Set out your boundaries and force that tip upon them. Sweeten the taste in their mouth with an abracadabra presentation of French menus. “C’est magnifique!”. Yes it is, now that’ll be 20% sil vous plait.
Americans
Warm service with a smile, accept their constant flow of thank yous graciously and pomp up the British accent. Sit and wait patiently because you know 20% is coming your way even if the service is worse than Manuel off of Fawlty Towers and the schnitzel gives the lot of them salmonella.
Daters
Embarrass the man into expensive drinks and a large tip. Schnorrers don’t get a second date.
Young Israeli Girls
Start service in English before revealing carefully constructed Hebrew with mistakes in all the right places to make it cute. Exchange names on facebook for an extra bonus.
Big Unruly Israeli Family
Complete and utter subservience. They pay well for a slave. Be prepared, everything you do WILL be wrong, and they will make you walk for ten minutes, six separate times, for a cup of ice that they will claim is totally melted by the time you get it to them. Nevertheless, “Yes master” service will be duly rewarded. This may or may not come as Safta’s Jachnun, and vodka redbulls in lieu of a tip.
English Jews
Suckers for a sob story. They probably know your dad and they’ll be horrified when the find out you don’t get paid. And when they find out you’re Melanie Goldbaum’s nephew…
Russians
One word. FISH. Sell them the fish! Invariably they will take it. It’s the most expensive thing on the menu, not that they can read the menu. Write your price on a piece of paper, regardless you’ll probably have to fish around in their wallet for the correct notes anyway.
Israeli boys
Two pronged attack:
1.       Boost the bill and their level of inebriation by selling shots with every beer.
2.       For the big money, sell them the number of the American waitress serving the table next to them. They are probably so horny you’ll get at least 100 shekels.
Israeli men
As Above
Israeli Women
Tell them you are about to be a corporate lawyer. You won’t get a tip but you’ll they’ll give you a choice of their four daughters.
PROTESTS
Protesters Screaming

Tel Avivis sat in the middle of busy Ibn Gvriol road during a saturday night protest

In the wake of the Arab Spring, which saw much of the middle-east rise up against its tyrannical regimes, Israel, the only true democracy in the region saw its own beginning of a revolution.
This time however it was far more relatable. In July, just as university exams were finishing, and the sun cranked itself up to full summer sweltering power, tents began springing up on Rothschild Boulevard, and later in all cities across Israel. It came in response to a facebook group set up by Daphni Leef expressing public opinion on the social climate in Israel. Within days, the tent encampment had swollen to thousands, and hundreds of thousands were taking to the streets crying ‘’THE PEOPLE DEMAND SOCIAL JUSTICE!’’
Israeli monopoly

The new face of zionism summed up in one of my favourite posters of the protests

68% of the Israeli Economy is controlled by 6 powerful families and the companies they preside over. Rent and food prices are sky high, and wages are appallingly low.
It was the middle classes rising. Teachers, doctors and social workers who couldn’t afford to buy a car, go on holiday or even put aside a shekel with the hope of building a deposit to one day jump on the property ladder, made themselves heard.
I feel very lucky to have been living in the heart of this uprising. The atmosphere strolling around Rothschild Boulevard of an evening was like what I imagine Woodstock was like.
Frummers fressing

Frummers Fressing Fabulous Free Food

Impromptu jamming sessions. Rabbis sat with communists sat with soldiers around a table discussing the price of cottage cheese and eating the free chicken soup that the 70 year old grandma who lives in the apartment above their tent had prepared for free.
Bibi on a stretcher

An effigy of Bibi carried through the crowds at a saturday night protest

Each time I was amongst the melee, I was consumed by the though, ‘rak po’…’ONLY HERE!’
AND THE REST
I was also lucky enough to conduct an experiment delving into an unsolved mystery, paying Tel Aviv rents on a Tel Aviv wage.
My first apartment was a beautiful rooftop apartment on Zamenhof. Couches, trees, tables, chairs and flowers, complemented by lots of friends and alcohol every evening felt like the Tel Aviv dream.
CURRY

Serving up my homemade chicken butter masala, with freshly made poppadoms and rice

Next up was Rashi, a spacious, minimalist apartment with an amazing kitchen. Chef Nicky was back in the game. Friday night dinners, chopped liver, chicken soup, curries, malawach and much more flowed out the kitchen day and night. And finally to a workmate’s beautiful apartment, right by the beach where I worked.
I escaped unscathed from the experiment. The beach work paid the bills and a couple of weeks here and there on a promise helped immensely (thank you so much Jonny and Anna!!). But to really save for my travels, I had to search for a supplementary income…
MANNY
Manny

Chilling on the beach with my little pal

And so I became Tel Aviv’s one and only Mr. Poppins. Weekdays became consumed with nappies, bottles and soft play. For each and every day I made a baby’s life easy and carefree, I earned a week to be easy and carefree myself on a Colombian beach, and in the process prepared myself for the day when fatherhood becomes my life for real!
BURSTING THE BUBBLE
Tel Aviv through my sunglasses

Tel Aviv through my sunglasses

I’ve now been floating in this bubble for 8 months. I have lived real life with the intensity of the Tel Aviv inhabitants, summer heat and humidity, and managed to make money working in the Hebrew language. And dare I say it, I’m ready to leave.
Two worlds collide

Two worlds collide in the narrow backstreets of Jerusalem´s old city

For now, Aliyah (automatic Jewish immigration to Israel) is not on the cards. I don’t think I can get what I want out of life here. But I leave brimming with pride for this amazing little country of only 63 years of age.
Tel Aviv Rain

The rain falls in Tel Aviv as the curtain falls on my Tel Aviv experience

I’m now a year down the line since I left for Russia, and it’s finally time to cut my hair, allow the tan to fade, and finally become a corporate lawyer.
Well… not before a cheeky 4 months in South America!!
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THE HOLY LAND

Ein li eretz acheret – I have no other land – אין לי ארץ אחרת

Ehud Manor

Bin man with an israeli flag
A Jewish bin man proudly flying the Israeli flag

Sat on the beach today in the sweltering heat, I tried to process my complex thoughts and feelings on the place I have called my second home for the last 6 years and I feel its finally time to get of my arse and write a blog entry. A selfish and vain attempt at documenting my life – and chance for the few of you that I haven’t bored away already, to share my ramblings.

I’ve done a huge amount in the past 3 months since I arrived in Israel, and with Pesach passing over as a natural halfway point on my programme, it’s time to write!

TEL AVIV

Tel Aviv Beach
Tel Aviv beach and the Mediterranean reflecting the sun after heavy rainfall

Through all the time I have spent in Israel (over 2 years of the past 6 will have been spent here by the end of the year) I have never really got to know this hedonistic metropolis. But it is now safe to say that the city all Israelis call ‘the bubble’, is now occupying a significant chunk of the love available in my heart.

Ayala at benedicts
Ayala guarding the door of Benedicts, home of the best 24 hour eggs benedict in the Middle East.

3 months in Tel Aviv is enough to realise that Tel Avivians do not, and cannot work. They don’t have time. Mid-week drunken nights in wild clubs are followed by hungover days in hipster cafes, nursing mindblowingly strong coffees and the world’s best breakfasts (think freshly baked bread, beautiful eggs, cheeses, fresh salads and spreads and a serving of mouth wincingly bitter olives).

Tel Aviv then floats along for a long lazy lunch and a quick dinner before hitting the next night’s hot venue. I am yet to research exactly how one million people pay for this $100 a day lifestyle along with their extortionate rents, with absolutely zero income.

A city made of residents that hail from every corner of the globe has produced a food and music scene that only the world’s greatest cities can rival. Yemenite, Iraqi, German, Hungarian, Russian, Moroccan, Armenian, Argentinean, Georgian and Brazilian worlds collide to provide solitary, and fusion experiences that pop up in every nook and crannie of this 102 year old city.

There are much nicer in Israel, but having a beach on my doorstep, and right at the heart of a fully stocked city is an amenity not quite provided by the likes of Scarborough to the east, or Blackpool to the west of sunny Leeds.

BURSTING THE BUBBLE

 Arab shepherd
An arab shepherd leads his flock down the main road of the Galilee village of Meilliah

The force of the bubble is strong, but every now and again, I take out my pin and pop the bugger to succumb to my raging wanderlust. The diversity and beauty of springtime Israel is breathtaking and I have found myself in some of Israel’s most beautiful places.

Conquering mountains - Hod Akev
Conquering mountains – Hod Akev

After living in Arad in the Judean desert for 4 months on Yearcourse, the desert holds a very special place in my heart and I have now found my dream desert destination. A two day camping and hiking trip with friends Matan and Sarah is the best I’ve ever done and reminded me why I fell in love with the desert 6 years ago.

Ein Akev
Jumping off the cliff with Matan into the spring of Ein Akev

Ein Akev is an hidden oasis, with waterfalls and deep pools surrounded by cliffs that you can jump off right in the middle of the wide desolate dusty expanses.

Mama Magdalene
Mama Magdalene, my second mother, preparing lafa to put on the fire for me

The journey there included a stop at a cluster of bedouin tents where Mama Magdalene, a lady of the desert, made up fresh lafa breads with labane and zatar, served with tooth meltingly sugary sweet tea. Magdalene told me to call home and tell my mother I have 2 mums now, a true testament to the extent of bedouin hospitality.

“Kelvinmanjaro” reared his ugly head and a mountain was conquered, and the desert wander ended appropriately at David Ben-Gurions grave – the man who was behind the declaration of the State of Israel, and became Israel’s first prime minister in 1948.

GOLAN IN BLOOM
The Golan Heights in bloom

Other hikes in the Galil and Golan Heights showed off Israel’s springtime abundance of wild flowers, water and greenery – a million miles away from the deathly solitude of the desert.

SNAPS

Amazingly I have found time to do a bit of work! I am a participant on the Career Israel programme, and after one month of ulpan (Hebrew classes) I began an internship with a photo-news agency – FLASH90. <– Click here to see my images on their website.

A religious family in Jerusalem on Purim
A religious family in Jerusalem on Purim

I am working with amazing photographers who, in true Israeli style, don’t hold back on both lavish criticism and praise. Their tutelage, especially from the big boss Naty has been invaluable. I could never have gained this insight into the world of photo journalism in the UK, and I can really feel myself improving as I find my feet in the world of professional photography for the first time.

Eritrean Protest
Eritreans protest against the dictatorship in their country outside the Eritrean Embassy in Tel Aviv

Luckily, I have had some of my photos published, and seeing my snaps in the Israeli and International press is so exciting, and shows me that I may one day have a shot at being a real life photographer. (With only an American law firm standing in my way!)

The slave trade in action
The South Tel Aviv slave trade in action, an Israeli coming to take away refugee workers

I am concentrating on building a reportage on the refugee situation in Tel Aviv, and more generally on life in the extremely deprived neighbourhoods in the south of the city.

 Homeless smoker
Homeless Sudanese refugee, Goitom, lights a cigarette before I take him to buy some groceries.

The area around the new and old bus stations is an Israel that most people do not know exists. 30’000 refugees call Tel Aviv their home, and they pour over the frontier with Egypt in their hundreds each month escaping the persecution, violence and dictatorships in their native Sudan and Eritrea.

Berehat
Eritrean refugee – Berahat

One Eritrean man I spent time with this week, Berahat, was trafficked out of Eritrea with 50 other asylum seekers. Only 15 made it alive across the border and into the relative safety of the Israeli detainment camps. The Egyptians are notorious for shooting these escapees, and although life in Israel is tough, they can maintain some degree of safety, security and democratic treatment here.

Refugees in the park
My refugee friend Abdu, with other refugees in the park waiting for work

The refugees eat, sleep and drink in the Levinski park, and wait all day for Israelis to come and take them for a day’s menial labour, washing dishes of working on construction sites.

Heroin Addict
Heroin Addict Anastasia cries as she tells me about her life on the streets in South Tel Aviv

I spend hours documenting this modern day slave trade, and have produced some really great results, that are getting some good praise in the office!

Crack whores fighting
Crack whores fighting on the streets just before their pimp came to break up the fight

That’s probably as much as you can all be bothered with for now – but as a final note, I’d like to make a plea. I’m going to stay in Israel until the winter, and would love all of you, especially those who have never been to Israel before, Jewish or not, to make a little trip and come visit me. I will be your personal tour guide to this magical country. I am desperate to share my passion for Israel with you!

Tel Aviv Prostitute
Tel Aviv Prostitute, Gali, poses for a photo after I refuse her solicitations

Until next time… Shalom!


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INDIA

“If there is one place on the face of the earth where all the dreams of living men have found a home from the very earliest days when man began the dream of existence, it is India.”

Romain Rolland

Varanasi Sadhu
A Sadhu on the prowl in Varanasi

VARANASI

It’s very difficult to explain how the filthiest, smelliest and supposedly the oldest city on the planet has such a powerful force that draws visitors from all over the world. The city is consumed by death. Hindus make the conscious decision to go to Varanasi to breathe their last breath, and after a few dips and sips from the Ganges, their wish will come true soon enough. In return for their efforts, they are rewarded with ‘moksha’ – liberation from the cycle of life and death. The bodies are immediately prepared to be burned, and the ashes are returned to Mother Ganga as part of a well-oiled process that happens to thousands of bodies departing the world on these banks. Not all bodies share this fate. If you were lucky enough to be a Sadhu, a pregnant woman, or a leper, your body will be lozzed into the river to bob along gently, for all to see, as I learned on my last visit to Varanasi 3 years ago.

The lads getting some top tips in Varanasi
The lads getting some top tips

I suppose the possibility of seeing all of this, raw, up close and personal is what gives Varanasi its international appeal and as the holiest Hindu city it has little trouble attracting Indians. The intensity of the streets is sometimes breathtaking and always amazing. The atmosphere was particularly intense during this visit as a bomb that had killed a one year old baby girl and injured more than 30 others was detonated the day before we arrived at the nightly religious ceremony or “puja”, a ceremony attended by a huge number of tourists.

Sahdu catching up on the daily news
A Sahdu catching up on the daily news

The city observed a three day mourning period and the ceremonies ceased. The first ceremony was then received with huge interest. News teams were crawling in every space and flitting to any remotely famous attendee, like flies to poo.

India news reporting from the first Puja
India news reporting from the first Puja

Due to the aura of celebrity that exudes from every pore of my body (and even more so from Chelsea’s) we sampled life as Indian celebrities. Photos were taken, hands were shaken, and most significantly, Chelsea was interviewed by the Indian reporters. Her answers may not have been the most eloquent, but she was put on the spot and she could have told them to f*ck off and danced the Macarena and they would still have been eating out of the palm of her hands. As the melee subsided, we walked back, and the interest quickly ceased. I felt dejected, cheap, and desperate for more attention.

Varanasi star Manot Tiwali interviewed by the press before moving on to Chelsea
Varanasi star Manot Tiwali interviewed by the press before moving on to Chelsea

The rest of out time in Varanasi passed in a blur of bodies, broken kites, desperate hunts for both McDonalds and an old school car horn (both successfully located!) before making the long 48 hour journey to Mumbai by train.

MUMBAI

A Mumbai taxi in front of Victoria Terminus train station

A Mumbai taxi in front of Victoria Terminus train station

 

I love long train journeys. They feature regularly in my travels but journeys now seem to be marred by ‘interesting’ cabin mates (see blog on Tibet). This journey’s contestant hailed from India, and travelled with a servant whose tasks included fetching food and water and regular clearing of the gentleman’s hole in his neck through which he breathed and talked. Daytime dealings were acceptable, but late night blowing, spluttering, choking and croaking were off putting to say the least.

Nevertheless, we arrived safely in Mumbai, and Chelsea’s birthday treat began with a surprise, our names plastered on a brass plaque held by a crisp white uniformed driver sent from the Taj Mahal Palace. All the staff had been prepped for Miss Bradbury’s arrival and she must have been  wished many happy returns about 8 thousand times.

Taking a stroll in the enormous slums of Mumbai

Taking a stroll in the enormous slums of Mumbai

After weeks of terrible food, we made up for it in Mumbai. Chinese food in the Taj (scene of the shootings a few years back) was better than what I ate in China, and breakfast was actually ridiculous. Smoked salmon flowed from the buffet like the Ganges and it was the first time we had been presented with real life cheese for what seemed like a lifetime. 1.7kg of Port Salut later I was wheeled to a luxury sun lounger, and left to rot there all day.

The level of service at the Taj Mahal was unsurpassable. At breakfast two men were assigned to the task of hiding Chelsea’s freshly poached eggs from the birds (“Just in case, Sire”). The plate landed back on the table the exact moment Chelsea’s bum landed back on her chair.

Preparing me a juicy coconut

Preparing me a juicy coconut

Subsequent accommodation wasn’t quite the same although there was something homely about the soiled sheets of the Gulf Hotel.

I also made my Bollywood debut in Mumbai. You should check out the film “READY” with Salman Khan to see me in action!

GOA

Agonda beach my beautiful home in Goa

Agonda beach, my beautiful home in Goa

 

The final train journey of my travels whisked me to Goa. A province of many contrasts, it seemed we struck lucky and found exactly what we wanted from the off. A beautiful beach, sea, sun and not much else.  Agonda was the perfect antidote to the arduous 4 month 10,000 mile journey we had undertaken overland from Moscow to this very beach.

New school communication on old school transport

New school communication on old school transport

A midway accommodation switch to the fantastic Shanti Beach Huts left me wanting for nothing. The food was great, as were the people. Especially the people who taught me how to make the food myself. A masterclass with Bobby and Shalu, Goa’s fiercest and friendliest couple, provided me with skills to cook up a right feast. Give me the raw materials and you can enjoy Paneer Tikka Masala, Onion Bhaji, Aloo Paratha and Masala Papads, tasty enough to rival that of any Indian housewife worth her salt.

A visit from my baby sister Lucy, gave me a much-needed kick up the arse to explore the area. We enjoyed deserted beaches, spice farms, sweet water lagoons and crazy markets and also began an education in classical Indian yoga and meditation.

Couple of Goan watermelons for sale

Couple of Goan watermelons for sale

In stark contrast to the paradise I found myself in, a 15 minute drive landed me in Palolem. The Benidorm of India. My first sight there was of a lobster-red-pot-bellied-englishman nursing a Heineken and taking an afternoon nap on a lilo ‘neath his novelty sombrero. This set the tone for the whole town.

Some events brought home that behind the scenes this utopia wasn’t all it seemed. One afternoon we witnessed the fate of a poor fisherman who had not paid his rent. The landlord came along and razed his house to the ground, along with all of his worldly possessions. The real India was never far from the dream like existence on the beach.

Goan Surf Rescue

Goan Surf Rescue - Not the best equipped life savers in the world

A fantastic Christmas with the Barnett family was very special, and I am grateful for their generosity, tales and abundance of laughter they provided. Another fantastic stay with the one and only Carol Bradbury of international fashion fame was the most perfect way to finish the trip on an absolute high.

 

IN PURSUIT OF ADVENTURE…

Leaving Blighty with nothing but a ticket to Moscow and a handful of hard-to-come-by visas, allowed me to experience my most exciting adventure to date. I saw things that most people will never see, and that I myself will never see again. Siberia, Mongolia, North Korea, Tibet and Nepal all lived up to their emotive and mystical images that their names conjure up, and the memories will stay with me forever.

But the adventure doesn’t end here. I write this entry from the shores of the Levant. Israel, the Holy Land will be my home for the next 6 months, where I hope to develop my Hebrew, finally gain some professional photography experience and further explore this incredible country that I feel so passionately about.

So until next time, for reading by blog… SPASIBO, BAYARLALAA, XIE XIE, KAMSAHAMNIDA, TWECHEE, DHANYABAD, DEV BOREM KORUM, THANKYOU and TODA, SHALOM, U’LHITRAOT.

 

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China’s Disappearing Hutongs

Beijing Hutong Life

Carrying an irrelevant and oversized stick, and probably drunk.

I never truly warmed to Beijing. The only exception was when I took myself away from the imposing communist buildings, wide avenues, shiny hotels and the up and coming middle classes. The true Beijing is hidden behind the new developments, and is fast disappearing. Here is a collection of my snaps of the people of the Hutongs, the traditional alleyways and courtyard residences, which may not be around for much longer as the already breakneck pace of China’s development gathers speed.

 

Big Shpielers!
Big Shpielers!
Big Schnouters!

Big Schnouters!

Big fressers!

Big Fressers!

Big Grafters!

Big Grafters!

Big Schleppers!

Big Schleppers!

Big Schmie'ers! (you try spell that!)

Big Schmie'ers! (you try spell that!)

Rustling up my lunch

Rustling up my lunch!

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NEPAL – The Final Link In The Chain

Acting as a watershed between Tibet and India, Nepal was the final link in the chain between East and West, and the changing faces and cultures we experienced on our long journey overland from Moscow to India.

A sadhu chilling at Pashupatinath

Any country that decides it is necessary to deem itself 5 hours and 45 minutes ahead of GMT is going to be intruiguing, but from the moment we crossed the border from Tibet into Nepal, it was love at first sight. The warmth provided by the low elevation, and the friendly ramshackle filth was so unbelievably inviting after the organised filth and sub-zero temperatures of China. Furthermore, for the first time in 2 months, we had a real chance of being understood by the locals. We planned on scuttling through Nepal in a week, but 5 weeks later and armed with a visa extension, we were only just beginning to reluctantly plan our exit.

KATHMANDU OR KATHMANDON’T?

A Kathmandu cow amongst the pigeons in Durbar Sqaure

Our jeep hurtled round the half finished roads that cling to the sides of the steep valleys winding their way down to Nepal’s capital city, Kathmandu. The salute and namaste welcome of Hotel Ganesh Himal’s doorman made us feel so at home, that it didn’t even matter that I was told my booking had never been received, and we’d have to sleep in the “Rosebud” until an elusive bed at the fantastic Ganesh Himal became available.

You either love or hate Kathmandu. Its tourist area “Thamel” is like the Khao San Road in Bangkok after slipping it a Valium and arresting all the drunk scallies. I loved it.

The buzz of the city was heightened due to our arrival coinciding with the Hindu festival of Diwali. There are no bonfire night-esque safety adverts from the emergency services here. Chucking lit fire-crackers at your feet is the order of the day. The first time the deafening bang flew my way, it was back to the room for a change of pants, but after that it added an element of excitement. You had to have your wits about you. Five years olds lurked in every alleyway.

We were also lucky enough to see the whole process of decorating the streets with powdered paint and flowers, as part of a ritual to lure the Goddess Laxmi into Nepali homes, to guarantee prosperity for the coming year.

Not everything was such fun. The Rosebud’s Diwali celebrations revolved around Fat Tubby Man, Long Haired Creep, Indian Cricket Waiter, a selection of Nepalese midgets, Weird Smelling Finnish Girl and Poor Unsuspecting White Female Victim Girl, gyrating around the roof to the sound of the tabla. In one of the group’s defence, Indian Cricket Waiter said he had an upcoming audition for Indian’s Got Talent, and the dancing would be great practice. He hoped his oversize MJ tattoo would help him get through the auditions, especially because he would get the ‘white’ Michael Jackson emblazoned on his skin, not the black Michael. “His big nose, lips, black skin, big hair, no no no, very very bad sir”.

Bodies burning on the Ghats at Pashupatinath

Day trips from Kathmandu also provided interesting insights into Nepali life. Most fascinating was Pashupatinath, Nepal’s holiest Hindu sight. Nepalis come to the hospices here to die, and be burned on the banks of the river, in an attempt to release their souls from the cycle of life and death.

A photoshoot with the Sadhus

A photoshoot with the Sadhus

The proximity of life and death here is astonishing, but was quickly forgotten when we got involved in a photo-shoot with the Sadhu’s (holy men who follow the god Shiva), who clearly prey on every tourist who are tempted in by their shiny orange clothes and painted bodies and weird hair.

Amongst the chaos of Kathmandu was the Garden of Dreams. Its name explains its existence better than I ever could. Colonial buildings, and perfectly manicured gardens away from the noise, smells and pressures of the city were hiding behind a little cream gate. It was the perfect tonic, as was its all you can eat Sunday buffet feast!

In contrast to this were the sights we saw on the way to an area called Patan. The slums lining the rivers were horrific, even in comparison to other slums I have visited, such as Nairobi’s Kibera slum. Toddlers were sifting through refuse and sewage along with their parents, in a vain attempt to try and eke a living, and huts housed families that would surely be displaced every time rain fell from the sky. This contrast felt somewhat apt, however, in this country where the ice cold Himalayas and lush forests and jungles rest side by side.

CENTRAL HILLS ADVENTURE

Herding the ducks in Bhaktapur

Herding the ducks in Bhaktapur

 

Packing only essentials in my bright red bag, Mark and Sarah, our Irish pals we met in Tibet, Chelsea and I headed out East from Kathmandu to the Newari town of Bhaktapur. We got involved in the rice harvest in this ancient, agricultural town, now a world heritage site, and got lost for hours in its vibrant backstreets. A packed bus then took us to the dusty village of Panauti.

A mention here about Nepali etiquette. Now my patience is generally hard to break, but when it comes to germs and food, I draw the line. This poor kid was in for a scolding. My mum and I have a joke that if you complain your food is cold in a restaurant, the waiter will stick his hand in your food and tell you it’s fine. THIS ACTUALLY HAPPENED. I was genuinely more shocked than I was watching the dead bodies being washed and burned at Pashupatinath. The waiter’s filthy fingers in the middle of my cheese sandwich (fully inside, touching both bread and cheese) was a pretty heavy straw on the camels back, but when he served my toast by grabbing it like a oaf would grab a stress ball, the camel’s back broke clean in two. Unfortunately, my lecture on restaurant hygiene and etiquette was lost on him, and my breakfast was donated to a local goat.

Sarita's 89 year old grandma, Nepal's very own Pablo Escobar, sat next to a bundle of her finest produce

Sarita's 89 year old grandma, Nepal's very own Pablo Escobar, sat next to a bundle of her finest produce

We walked each day to new village to sleep, and the first stop was Namo-Buddha, a temple atop a lung-busting hill. On the way, we stopped at the house of a local girl, Sarita, who was acting as our makeshift guide. We were force fed her father’s oranges, and Sarita’s 89 year old grandma bestowed a gift of 2oz of her finest weed upon us. Mark graciously accepted, and I wished she had given us something I wasn’t terrified of. A couple more oranges would have been nice!

That night we slept in a huge ornate complex that made up a Tibetan monastery. Chelsea and I were the only Westerners around, and eating with the Monks, and attending their ceremonies was made all the more special by being the only ones from the outside world in attendance.  Breakfast of amazing sweet rice, loaded with sultanas and weird juicy nuts, bean stew, steamed rolls and salted yak tea, was part of an elaborate ceremony to celebrate the Guru’s birthday. We scurried around desperately trying to follow protocol, throwing rice and presenting white scarves to the shrine. Things went smoothly until I whacked my head on the enormous portrait of the Dalai Lama during my crack at a solemn bow in front of the entire hall of 100 red-robed monks.

A beautiful Newari girl

A beautiful Newari girl

The next stop was Dhulikhel, where we treated ourselves to lunch at the “Shangri-La”. The inverted commas around this name cant be emphasised enough. It was as good as we were going to get in Nepal’s backwaters, but the power cut that prevented us paying our bill for 2 hours and left us to feel our way home in the pitch black says a lot about this place. I suspect the Office of Fair Trading would also say a lot on the hotel’s use of name.

Dishing out blessings at the Changu-Narayan temple

Dishing out blessings at the Changu-Narayan temple

It was quite enough walking for all of us so a bus dragged us the last leg to Changu-Narayan. By chance, it was the main annual festival of the this hilltop temple, and Mark and I were shown around the dancing and festivities by a family, and blessed by the holy men, whilst the girls were trapped in the 2 hour gridlock of worshippers crammed in on the tiny dust road ascending the mountain.

Our glorious return to Kathmandu from our adventure was marked with a slap up meal in Fire and Ice, the home of Asia’s best lasagne, and real garlic bread. A welcome change after one previous attempt that consisted of untoasted staled bread with hacked up raw garlic.

DEATH BY TREK

Spectacular view of the Annapurna range from Ghandruk

Spectacular view of the Annapurna range from Ghandruk

 

We headed south from Kathmandu to the sleepy town of Pokhara, on the shores of the Phewa Tal Lake on a tourist bus (not one tourist in sight of course – early confusion with one potential tourist was just a case of hair straightners and over-use of skin whitening products).

We set about organising our grand Himalayan trek. Everest Base Camp? Well we did that in Tibet. 22 Day Annapurna Circuit? 22 Days?! Poon Hill? POON? Sounds enjoyable. We’ll take it Sir.

After a two day postponement due to an unexpected bout of the man flu, we were on our way. Well good job we chose the “coca-cola trek” because half-way through day 2, my knees had had enough of the hard labour and caught a donkey back down to Pokhara. I had to wait an entire day for them to return to me. Thankfully I was trapped amongst clear skies, and unbelievable views.

By day 4, Grandpa Kelvin, armed with two walking sticks, was back on his merry way. I krichied my way along for the rest of the week long trek and made it to the end in one piece. I felt a stronger person both physically and mentally, although tormenting jibes such as “HEY, YOU TWO STICKS, GIRL NO STICKS HA!” did little to boost morale.

Injuries aside, the trek presented us with the outstanding beauty of the Himalaya region, and a few too many opportunities to eat apple pie. The only real disappointment was the look of dissatisfaction on our guide Vishu’s face, when I presented him with a box of Yorkshire Tea, in lieu of the usual cash gratuity.

BOBBING ALONG, BOBBING ALONG ON THE BOTTOM OF THE…

Making a shelter out of our raft on a beautiful riverside beach

Making a shelter out of our raft on a beautiful riverside beach

We decided to be real hardcore after our real hardcore trek, and raft for two days down the violent Seti river to our next destination. “Violent” may be somewhat of an over-exaggeration, but I still managed to be the only one to go flying out of the raft on a ferocious grade 2 rapid.

Lighting the Chanukah candles by a fire on the moonlit beach, and sleeping under the stars beneath the shelter of our upturned raft with our new friends, Dan the Brummie, Ryan the Yank, Dagmar the Austrian and Misa, the cheeky Japanese girl, was a real highlight. As was the reason why Misa had come on her third consecutive rafting trip, which revealed itself as she snuck into our guide, Gobi’s tent in the middle of the night!

HAVE YOU SEEN A RHEEEEEEENO?

Our time in Nepal was concluded with a visit to the lush jungles of Sauraha and the Chitwan National Park. An entire morning walk to find only a deer was made up for when I found myself clambering up a tree, and watching a huge rhino munching away on foliage 2 feet below me. This was complemented by a terrified Dan, sneaking around avoiding the Rhino’s war path. So yes Jerry, you weird Austrian, I have seen a rheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeno.

I also witnessed my first live Nepali football goal in Sauraha. It was better than anything the likes of Rooney or Ronaldo could produce. It was booted home by the enormous foot of an Indian elephant.

OH MY BUDDHA

Our final push for the border took us by another of Nepal’s well-kept secrets. Lumbini – the birthplace of the Lord Buddha.

The somewhat uninspiring stone that Buddha’s mother squeezed him out on to was the necessary centrepiece of the whole complex, but for me, jokes with the street food sellers and their amazing old school car horns was much more fun.

Our last night meant a stop in a border town that suffered from the same disease as every border worldwide that make its people weird, and its name unpronounceable (something like Bairhawahahawhaha). It appeared the entire town’s accommodation was full (even “Hotel Glasgow” was fully booked) until we came across a knight in shining armour. Trilock Singh. Trilock managed a beautiful hotel, no room there of course, but he helped us in his perfectly clipped Calcutta convent boarding school accent and sourced a room at the nearby “Hotel Precious”. Needless to say Hotel Precious was precious by name, but certainly not by nature.

First thing the next morning we were bundled onto a bus and trundled towards the Indian border. No pomp and ceremony here, not any form of security it seemed until we stumbled across a dilapidated Office of Immigration on the side of the road.  One Nepali exit sticker, and a shabby archway later, we entered the world’s most populous democracy to see what a second visit would have in store. In a flurry of dust and debris, my return to incredible India began.

NAMASTE and thank you for reading!

NAMASTE and thank you for reading!

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A glimpse into every day North Korean life

To help you with your Sunday hangover, here’s another entry that’s easy on your minds! Just a sprinkling of words hidden between a wealth of snaps that depict everyday life in North Korea. I found a warm and friendly side to the DPRK that I didn’t expect, and that you certainly won’t see in the Western press. Enjoy!

A North Korean soldier in the "Demilitarized Zone" caught off guard.

A mother and child on the Pyongyang Metro, faces looking a little worse for wear, on their way to enjoy the Anniversary of the Foundation of the Worker's Party celebrations.

A North Korea Rollercoaster

Celebrating a day off work on a North Korea Rollercoaster. Check out the woman in the middle who looks like she's had enough!

Young boys, all part of the state approved youth movement, playing by Kim-il Sung Square

A North Korean soldier looking smart in the Demilitarized Zone between the DPRK and South Korea

A North Korean soldier looking smart in the Demilitarized Zone between the DPRK and South Korea

Enjoying the holidays in Pyongyang's Moran Park

Enjoying the holidays in Pyongyang's Moran Park

Playing soldiers on the streets of Pyongyang

Playing soldiers on the streets of Pyongyang

Ladies holding hand in their matching suits made from Vinalon, North Korea's very own ideological fabric

Ladies holding hands in their matching suits made from Vinalon, North Korea's very own ideological fabric.

Pyongyang residents knocking a few bevvies back in Moran Park, Pyongyang

Pyongyang residents knocking a few bevvies back in Moran Park, Pyongyang

A grandma teaching her granddaughter traditional dancing in Pyongyang

A grandma in her "Hanbok" or "Choson-ot" (Korean national dress) teaching her granddaughter traditional dancing in Pyongyang

A few of the 100,000 participants of the Arirang Mass Games

A few of the 100,000 strong army who perform in the Arirang Mass Games

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