Saturday, September 29, 2007


[Warning, this is a rather long post, so feel free to take breaks in between paragraphs, go for a cuppa, have some biccies, have a nap, or even go on a weekend break to Stockholm.]

So here I am, back home and starting to reintegrate myself into everyday life. There's a stack of letters I need to sift through, I have to get a phone (because in today's society you can't exist without a mobile), I've contacted the job centre, I need to have a look at my finances (or what's left of them) and I had an eye check up yesterday. There's a whole mesh of networks that surround and cosset everyday life that you don't don't notice until you leave and try and reconnect to them. But I suppose that's an adventure in itself, and one that I will perhaps return to in later posts (if people still keep reading). Today's post, however, is to look back at the trip and see what lessons, if any, I have learnt, whether it was worthwhile, or whether I was just wasting my time and money on an expensive and time-consuming prank.

Well, from a purely pragmatic and prosaic point of view I have learnt a good deal of Spanish, a smattering of Russian and Arabic. I have learnt what I am capable of physically; I have tried many different activities that few people get the chance to experience; I have eaten a multitude of exotic foods (I particularly liked the spiders in Cambodia but don't need to try scorpions again) that would be anathema for most Westerners; I can manage to passably feed myself with chopsticks; I have seen some of the most beautiful landscapes in the world; I have learnt that Djibouti is a country to be avoided, if at all possible; and I have acquired the, not unuseful, ability to find a camping spot in urban areas. No bad for three years, and possibly more than I learnt during my three years at university! But that's just being facetious. In fact I would say that my three main subjects for this course have been sociology, geography and psychology.

First sociology. During the trip I've seen how people in different countries and cultures live, tried to understand how and what they think (not always possible I must admit), and get an idea of their circumstances and their past. I think that that is truly important in today's world where communities are interconnected and events on one side of the world affect people on the other. Before leaving I thought I was a well-informed and clever individual who was quite au fait with what was going on in the world, the issues, the grievances, the debates. And in a way I was - I was interested in current affairs and tried to inform myself, and I certainly knew more than most. However, as I travelled I quickly realised that the information that you get second or third hand from the medias gives a heavily skewed, parochial view of the world and its problems. In the same way that every cabbie knows how the country really should be run, it is easy to sit in ones armchair and expound upon the problems afflicting other countries and what should be done about them. But things are always far more complex and nuanced than they seem from a distance with every situation having a long and convoluted history hanging like an albatross around it and pulling it down into a boggy mess. Actually I think that's our biggest mistake when we look at various goings-on in the world we don't see it in the context of a historical continuum (not surprising for us Brits when we can drop history at school at the age of 14). Things are not made any better when you have people, who we ought to trust and really should know better, making black and white pronouncements such as "you're either with us or against us". Indeed, so many problems in the world seem to stem from an inability, or perhaps an unwillingness, to see the common humanity in all of us. A stubborn holding on of the us-against-them mentality that refuses to see that there is no them. I've certainly become more circumspect when it comes to passing judgement on other points of view, other people and other ways of doing things.

As a slight aside, it is interesting to note that many of the more long-term travellers out there have a hippy, romanticised, Noble Savage view of cultures in developing countries, idealising them and rejecting everything Western. Although I believe that there is a lot to learn from other cultures, especially with regards to how we treat others as individuals, there are things we have got right in my opinion, especially with regards to the respect of the rule of law and treatment of women. Actually that's one thing that has marked me quite deeply on this trip - I have become somewhat ashamed of my gender. In many places that I visited women would do the lion's share of the menial, back-breaking work, in the fields, in shops, in the home and even on construction sites, whereas men generally seemed employed with less demanding tasks like moto/taxi/tuk-tuk drivers or touts, but more often than not would sit in cafes smoking sheeshas (in the Middle East) or cigarettes (the Chinese), drinking tea, coffee or beer and possibly reading a paper or two (in the Subcontinent), taking care not to get lumbago. That is certainly one of the greatest blights of the developing world as they are depriving themselves of half their talent (probably more actually) and different ways of looking at things only because men are afraid of losing their iron grip on power. I think this also explains the huge taboo surrounding sex in many disparate cultures that share little except the lowly situation in which the women find themselves - sex is the one area of social life where women hold all (most of) the cards, and so men are beholden to them. Unwilling to accept such a state of affairs men have stigmatised sex so that they can maintain the upper hand. It is therefore not surprising that the countries in which sex ellicits the greatest public revulsion and antipathy one also finds the greatest proportion of prostitution because young men have so little opportunity to interact with the opposite sex. Though of course, sexual activity and promiscuity is almost impossible to detect amongst men and so you get schizophrenic attitudes of men who one day pay for sex and the next denigrate the very prostitutes that they visit (and I met several people like that, in different countries with different religions).

And geography? well you can't help learning where places are on the map when you need to sort out trains, buses and connections, or when you need to navigate mountain passes with poorly marked trails. Though that's not really what I mean when I talk of geography, but more the world around us - the natural world, landscapes and ecosystems. It has been my experience that the most beautiful thing in the world is nature. No matter whether it be mountains, desert, forest, coast or plains nothing we create can come close to the majesty of nature. As soon as we change it by building or digging it becomes less, perverted, defiled. The problem we face today is that not only are areas of true, pristine nature shrinking at an alarming rate, but people are also further removed from them because they lead urban lives. They have no contact with the beauty of the world (which reminds me of a girl I knew in London who was 18 before she saw her first cow), they only see dirty streets, open sewers masquerading as rivers and possibly a few lonely, bedraggled trees in a grey urban park, and so they have no love or respect for it. This leads to the disdain with which the environment is treated by many people (in the developed as well as the developing world), as a great big litter bin, where someone else will clear up the mess, especially if you're just passing through. On the one hand it's a perfectly natural response, the problem is that as a species our actions have a far greater impact than nature devised, and so we must strive to rise above our instinctive behaviour and make sacrifices for benefits that we will never see. It's all a question of education, integrity and will, and to be perfectly honest, from what I have seen I hold out next to no hope for us precisely because we are generally selfish and unable to see beyond our immediate surroundings and future. I fervently hope, however, that humanity will prove me wrong.

And as for myself, well this didn't really start off as a voyage of self-discovery, because I'm far too cynical for that. I just wanted to sate my curiosity of the world and my wanderlust, to see what there is out there, to taste and experience before it's gone (and as I mentioned above, I unfortunately think it will be). But I suppose that along the way I changed, and started to look at things differently. I opened up more than just my eyes, and started to look closer, ask deeper questions and take more of an interest into the why's. The long periods of time alone also gave me plenty of opportunity to just think, to go over problems and ideas and try to figure out my personal answers to my own burning questions (although the answer to the big one may be 42, there are still plenty of other smaller questions that still need answering). Walking through a high street in a German town looking at the shops brought it to the fore for me when I saw the following sign in the window of a shop that specialised in bespoke staircases, it said: "helping you get the stairs you've always dreamt of." I stopped and looked at it for a while. The stairs you've always dreamt of. Personally I have never dreamt of stairs (as an entity in themselves that is, I'm sure I have had dreams in which stairs performed an ascending/descending function, but nothing more) and it made me somewhat depressed. What sort of a society do we live in where people dream of stairs? surely there must be more worthwhile things to dream about and occupy our hopes and aspirations with. There must be something greater we can strive towards than hand-carved, solid pine ballustrades.

When trying to decide upon a set of values and standards I think being an atheist helps because for many people in developing countries it is such an unfathomable concept that you have to explain and justify your beliefs (or lack of them). Although it's not just developing countries where being an infidel raises eyebrows as I found out when I got picked up by a priest whilst I was hitching in France who interrogated me, in a friendly way, getting me to justify my convictions. So what miraculous conclusions have I arrived at? Religion is there to give people a meaning, a sense to their lives, what meaning does my life have without religion my priestly companion asked me. Well, I've come to the conclusion that life has whatever meaning you choose to give it. It is up to every individual to decide what is meaningful for them, whether it be the pursuit of happiness, money, contentment, knowledge or fame. People are not all the same and therefore what is needed to make their lives worthwhile (for themselves) varies as well. There is not one size that fits all of us, and seeking the answers from others is, in my view, a pusillanimous shirking of the challenge of life. Personally, I get my kicks trying to see, learn and understand this fascinating world of ours. Of course, learning is just half the story; knowledge which isn't used or shared is pretty damn useless, gathering cobwebs in the attic of your mind. Part of that sharing is writing this blog (thank you my faithful readers if you've made it this far by the way) and trying to incorporate what I have learn into my everyday life (without getting too preachy). Among the concrete conclusions that I've come to are that a lot of what we consider as important or necessary for happiness is superfluous, shackles us and weighs us down seeming only to serve to make us unhappy when we don't have it. Similarly I believe we in the West are far too engrossed in our own lives and don't engage enough with those around us. Now that doesn't mean that we're all callous bastards, but we just don't want to get involved, perhaps through fear, through selfishness or apathy. But not doing bad is not the same as doing good, and we certainly don't do enough of the latter. We shouldn't just not drop litter, but we ought to pick it up as well; we shouldn't wait until people come up to us to ask for help, but we ought to offer our assistance straight away. And then again it's easy for me to say that, sitting here in front of my computer and pontificating into cyberspace, but will I be able to practice what I preach. Well, I certainly hope so, but I've decided to make a conscious effort to do so.

I would be the first to admit that my revelations certainly aren't particularly new or original, I'm sure you could go into any bookshop and find a dozen self-help titles that would tell you exactly the same thing, although possibly with more psychobabble jargon. So what was the point of the whole exercise? it would have been considerably cheaper to have just bought the books, along with a few travel tomes. True, perhaps, but these same self-help books keep getting published and there seems to be an insatiable demand for them. Surely if they really worked then you would only need to buy one. The fact is that some things have to be experienced to be learnt, for them to be truly taken in, understood and internalised there is no other way than just going out there and getting your hands dirty. So my advice, in general, to anyone, would be don;t be too dependent on other peoples' advice (I wouldn't have much of a career writing self-help books me). Go out, see the world (and that doesn't necessarily mean touring round the globe, but going about with your eyes open and a spirit of curiosity), make decisions, make mistakes, and then make your own mind up.

P.S. That's the end of the trip, but I will be carrying on the blog where you can follow my (mis)adventures as I try and find a job and a niche in the 'normal world'. Those of you who would like to unsubscribe from the email posts just send me an e-mail.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Back For Tea

From Cornwall I hitched eastwards to Somerset where I have an old friend (Sarah used to be my boss at the lab I worked at part-time whilst I was at uni) who lives in the country close to Bristol. The hitching experience was quite odd in that when I tried to ask people for lifts at petrol stations (generally a good place to catch rides as it allows you to directly get in contact with people and show them that you are a normal person, it's less dangerous as you don't have to worry about traffic, and it affords shelter when it rains) many wouldn't even stop when I started talking to them, always with an "excuse me" or "I beg your pardon" and would just walk on by trying their hardest to ignore me. Twice I was even thrown off the forecourt for 'harassment' despite being as polite and humble as I could possibly be (you're never going to get a ride by being rude to people). And yet on the other hand my average wait was very short compared to other countries. It seems that while many people just really don't want anything to do with anybody else there are a good number of people who will go out of their way to help.

My last ride that day was particularly funny as I had reached to within 7km of Sarah's house but it was getting dark and I didn't want to walk along the dangerous country lanes where there is no room for pedestrians. Then it started to rain and I began feeling rather miserable (particularly as my shoes have holes in the soles and let in water) when suddenly a young man pulled up in a BMW (a rarity in itself because, as a general rule, the nicer the car the less likely a person is to stop and pick up a hitcher) and offered me a ride. I could tell straight away that he was foreign and I guessed Turkish. "No," he said, "I am from a small country called Georgia, have you heard of it?" "Had I heard of it?" I said, "I absolutely love it," I gushed, and proceeded to regale David (for that was his name) of my love of khachapuri, khinkali and Kakheti wine. I also impressed him by reciting my two phrases of Georgian that managed to hang on in the jumbled attic of my mind. Which just goes to show that learning a bit of local lingo can come in handy in the most unexpected circumstances.

Whilst staying with Sarah I took the opportunity to explore the surrounding area: the town of Bath, the classic spa town (actually the only one in Britain, which is rather poorly supplied with hot springs) with its harmonious, Palladian architecture that accommodated the rich and famous of Georgian Britain. Other attractions in the surrounds are Wells and Cheddar with its eponymous gorge, which, though the largest in the British Isles, is rather wee on the world stage. I have also discovered that being a tourist in Britain certainly doesn't come cheap with many museums and attractions costing about double what I was paying for similar places in Germany or France. Plus the public transport seems to have taken the worst from both countries with a paucity of service rivalling the French and prices on par with the Germans. I was not impressed I can assure you.

But that's enough of my grumbling. Somerset was to be my last stop on this trip and yesterday I said goodbye to Sarah and plodded down to the main road for the final hitch into London. I planned to surprise her by arriving unannounced but was myself surprised when it turned out that she had gone into town to catch a show with some friends and wasn't coming back until late that evening. Luckily we have friendly neighbours who let me in until she returned. A bit of a muddle perhaps, but one thing I've learned on the trip is that muddles can sometimes be quite fun. Anyway, today is my first day back and I'm using it to relax a bit before heading down to the job centre so that I can sign myself up for the dole as my bank account is looking rather anaemic and I need a new pair of shoes after these past 3 years (the photo below shows my long-suffering shoes and sandals that I've had with me right the way through the trip and which are on their last legs).

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Coasting In Cornwall

So I've made it back to Britain at long last, though, to my mum's consternation, my trip isn't over just yet. I arrived in Plymouth, and seeing as I was down in a corner of the country that I had never seen before I decided to have a quick look and see what my own country has to offer. Cornwall is a rural idyll with a dramatic coastline, quaint, little villages, esoteric bric-a-brac shops and cream tea. Honestly, seeing the number of signs advertising cream tea, for some people (old ladies with knitted bonnets?) it must be the sole reason for visiting the place. Many people dream of Cornwall as an escape from the urban rat-race, a place where the community spirit still lives and thrives. And then there are others for whom the main reason is the waves - the Cornish coast is the surfing mecca of Britain. Before I had thought that it was only a small, hardcore group of individuals who would brave the blustery elements of the English seas, but even on weekdays many beaches were crawling with people carrying their boards and trying to look as cool as if they were in Hawaii or California. Though you certainly need a great deal of dedication (as well as a very thick wetsuit) to endure the cold water, drizzle and unpredictable waves.

I took the opportunity to explore the western tip of Cornwall, from the charming town of Saint Ives all the way past Lands End. Saint Ives is a strange place as, although it used to be a fishing village, supports itself exclusively from tourism and art. Every shop in town is either a souvenir shop or an art gallery. The latter are in such abundance that the town has almost become a pastiche of the Bohemian artists colony that it once was (and still is, although with a far greater commercial aspect). And although it is regarded as an exceedingly pretty town my attention was far more captivated by the mythic South West Coastal Path that skirts the entire Cornish coastline along precipitous cliff edges that plunge sharply into the sea, making it undoubtedly the most beautiful walking trail in England. Although the weather wasn't particularly favourable I still really enjoyed myself traipsing along the empty, windswept paths as the waves boomed into the rocks below. Every now and again I would come across old, abandoned tin mines that once formed the bedrock of the Cornish economy, but now left to decay because they are no longer profitable.

Unfortunately not all is as it seems in this rural paradise as the area is one of the most deprived in the country: no jobs, small salaries, high cost of living and little for youths to do all lead to social problems simmering below the surface. And so, after having travelled the world for 3 years and visited so many so-called 'dangerous' countries without feeling the least malice or danger from the locals, I came back home only to be threatened by some yobs whilst out at a club with friends. Rest assured that nothing happened to me, but it is sad that in this country, my home, renowned for its good manners and etiquette, that I should have such a run-in during my otherwise blemish-free (more or less) trip. Perhaps it serves to illustrate that it is easy to find faults in others when in fact we should try and look inwards first.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Winds Of Fate

It looks like I'm not having much luck with the sea on my trip. Although I had found someone with boat willing to take me across to England from Brest when I arrived at the marina this afternoon I was greeted with some unwelcome news: the winds are northerly and are likely to stay so for the next few days. Crossing the channel with such a headwind just isn't feasible and so the owner is waiting it out to see if his luck will change. I, however, with the end in sight am not so patient and will have to bite the bullet and take the ferry across tomorrow. It's a pity as it would have been quite an adventure, but I suppose you have to be phlegmatic about these things when they don't work out.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Little Britain

It's only a small hop, skip and jump from Amiens to Calais and the English channel where scores of ferries cross the busy straights every day ... so how come I'm still in France? Well, I've never been one to take the most obvious route and have taken a little detour to visit Brittany. Though not originally part of my plans I decided to come here as I was in the area (well, at least in the same country) and had never been before, and because the first people who I met on this trip, almost three years ago in Creel) and with whom I am still in touch live here and they invited me to visit. Jean-Luc and Nadine live in Brest at the western tip of the French mainland. The city itself is rather ho-hum with little to interest the casual visitor unless they are big fans of military hardware as Brest is the main base for the French navy and especially its nuclear submarines. But one doesn't visit Brittany for the cities, but for the coastal landscapes and villages imbibed with the distinct Breton culture. Earlier the region used to be called Lesser Britain (to differentiate it from Great Britain), and for good reason, as the similarities are many.

Traditionally the Bretons speak a Celtic language descended from Cornish and their music and folklore heritage, of which they are inordinately proud, has also more in common with the British Celts. Bagpipes, whistles and fiddles inhabit their music accompanied by repetitive chants. But it is also in the terrain and countryside that I am seeing similarities with my childhood memories of Scotland. The Breton peninsula is full of small rolling hills covered by heather and bracken and bisected by narrow, winding roads hemmed in by tall bramble hedges. Small villages and farmsteads dot the landscape, built low and sturdy out of the local granite and topped with grey, slate roofs, to withstand the howling winds that come in off the Atlantic. Cows can be found in every field, providing the butter that forms the basis of the cholesterol-laden Breton cuisine. I had been hoping to hitch a ride on a boat back to England and spent several afternoons to this end, going down to the marina and asking random boat owners whether they were heading north. Personally, following my experience in Djibouti I wasn't holding out that much hope, but then today I came across an older English couple who accepted so readily that it left me somewhat bewildered. If all goes well we sail on Monday night with the tide.

This left me with a bit of time to spend discovering Brest and its surroundings. Nadine and Jean-Luc were kind enough to show me some of the more out-of-the-way corners of this pretty region, especially along the northern coast where large groups of boulders reach dangerously out into the sea and small coves hide beautiful little beaches with perfect white sand (not that, apart from quick ritual dip of my hands, I was going anywhere near the cold waters of the channel). I also popped over to the island of Ouessant (Ushant in English), the westernmost part of France (in the photo below I am at the westernmost tip of the island). I spent the day wandering along the coastal paths that gave views over the unending expanse of the Atlantic, which was behaving itself and very calm that day. And now I'm looking forward, not without a little trepidation, to the last leg of my journey and how things will turn out once I return home.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

La Rue De La Coronation

Travelling through northern France one is immediately struck by the utter monotony of the countryside - large, bare, flat fields stretching to the horizon under a low, grey sky laden with drizzle. This is trench territory where some of the bloodiest, most pointless, battles of human history were fought. Ypres, Verdun, la Somme. At the latter some 300,000 soldiers lost their lives to advance about 3km, a gain of about 1cm per life lost. The countryside is understandably littered with memorials and vast graveyards, monuments t the diplomatic folly that achieved nothing but misery. The region really had a tough time of it during the first half of the 20th century as it got battered a second time in WWII as the Germans came streaming across the Ardennes in 1940. It was also here, in Reims, hat the war officially ended in Europe with the German surrender in early May 1945.

The city of Reims holds a special place in French history and culture being, as it is, the home of two symbols of Frenchness. The first Frankish king, Clovis, was both baptised and crowned in Reims cathedral in 496 AD a tradition which remained unbroken until the abolition of the monarchy during the French revolution some 1300 years later. And although royalty is no longer the order of the day there is another type of nobility that lies much closer to the average French heat (literally only a few centimetres) and that is the nobility of wine. It is no secret that the French are more than slightly choosy when it comes to wine and there is little doubt among them that Champagne is head and shoulders above the rest. As the commercial capital of the Champagne region it is difficult to walk around Reims without stumbling across at least one grande maison. The first one I cam across was Pommery (apparently a big fish in the Champagne business but heretofore unknown to me) and so I decided to take a peek inside. The tour was quite informative and I learned about all the extra steps required to make a wine sparkling, all rather unnecessary if yo ask me as I personally don't particularly like the stuff (luckily for me I'm no gourmand and have simple tastes as some of the bottles of he vintage stuff were on sale for upward of 500 euros).

From Reims it was further north and west to the town of Amiens. Its main attraction is its huge Gothic cathedral replete with buttresses aflying, innumerable statues and gargoyles and all sorts of decorative spiky bits. By the way, wen I say huge that is no understatement, the entire Notre Dame de Paris cathedral could fit inside it two times over. But otherwise the town is rather nondescript (to give you an impression of how bland it is the second major tourist attraction is a part of the city full of allotments). What did strike me, however, about the town is the difference, architecturally, from other French towns I know, where houses are often detached, with high ceilings, wooden shutters and panted beige, whereas here I was reminded more of a northern English town. Entire streets are made up of long blocks of small, terraced brick houses, the sort that used to house workers and their families in Lancashire industrial owns - certainly far more Coronation Street than Champs Elysees. I did also try and get out to the museum and memorials at the Somme battlefield just 30km away but was thwarted in my attempt when I arrived at the train station in the morning (around 8:30am) and asked when the next train to the town was due. The lady informed me that it would be leaving at 4:12pm. I indicated to her that she must be joking, to which she replied that she was a fonctionnaire (civil servant) and therefore didn't have a sense of humour.

And that leads me to today's musings about France and Germany. Now I'm not one to overly stereotype nationalities in broad brush strokes and plus I've already mentioned how I thought that we as Europeans have much more in common than we have differences but I do believe there is a big difference between countries, not in their people and the way they think, but in how things get done (or not, as the case may be). The train situation (or that of public transport in general) is a case in point. The French are able to build the fastest trains in the world, but when it comes to getting people from A to B over small distances they are pretty useless and so people are forced to drive everywhere. In Germany, on the other hand, the local connections are impeccable and frequent which means that many Germans get by with only a bicycle (for which there are dense networks of cycle lanes throughout the country). Another possible reason for the French dependence on the car might be that they need more time to eat. Even the most humble meals in France seem to consist of an aperitif, an entree, the main course followed by cheese and dessert. Despite being familiar with the idea I still have trouble with it as I stuff myself with entree and am ten unable to give proper credit to the main meal, let alone the dessert. It seems that despite the last two centuries of mutual wars and invasions ad lately political raprochement the two European giants still seem poles apart when it comes to many things.