Monday, October 29, 2007

London Is My Marmite

I have a love hate relationship with London. Having spent my university years here I greatly appreciate all that it has to offer: entertainment, culture, whatever - if you want something you are sure to be able to find it here. But it'll cost you. A lot. London life certainly isn't cheap, even if you live in the forgotten depths of zone 4 south of the river, and especially when you aren't earning any money (my unemployment benefit still hasn't come through yet and I'm just grateful that I'm staying with my mum and getting fed and horribly spoilt). And so even when you don't want to money, and how to get it, keep it and not lose it too quickly, never seems to be far away from your thoughts. Getting away from this cycle isn't easy either, as once you are in London it has a huge gravitational pull in terms of employment: looking for a job outside of the capital isn't easy, although conversely, you can always find a job here no matter where you are in the country (or at least an advert for a job - getting it is another matter completely). So once you are here it's hard to leave. Then there's the sheer size of the city. No matter where you want to go it'll take you an hour to get there, regardless of the actual, physical distance. So I just try and stick to my local area which has pretty much all I need anyway. In the three weeks I have been back this weekend was the first time I had ventured into the world of debauchery and hedonism that is zone 1 - to see a concert of contemporary Persian rap with my mum (a bit more on that later).

But even without going into the centre of town and staying in the suburbs I continually encounter what I love most about the place. Whether I happen to be strolling through Sutton High Street, or just sitting on the 213 to Kingston, I can always hear people talking, and as often as not it won't be in English. Chinese, Polish, Vietnamese, German, Russian, Hindi, Spanish and many more that I can't even begin to recognise. London is a true melting pot, in the best form of the term. People come from all over the world to London to make a (better) life for themselves, and so they are all in the same boat and seem to get along well together, accepting each other with no difficulty. That's not to say that there are no race problems, there always are, especially with the British resenting the large number of Poles that have come over with the expansion of the EU (the vast majority of waiting staff in the capital are eastern European). Part of this multiculturalism is found in the diverse number of cultural events to cater for every taste and ethnicity. And so there I was, at the plush Southbank centre watching a concert of Persian rap to celebrate the 800th anniversary of one of Persia's greatest poets Rumi (not much publicised within Iran itself as he was more of a Sufi mystic, and Sufism, despite being a Muslim sect, is very much disapproved of under the current regime). The acts themselves ranged for cringeworthy to very good, with rap switching between between Farsi (which is a surprisingly good language for the medium) and English with frequent criticism of the regime. Though there were a few jabs at the British government aswell due to the fact that several acts were not allowed to attend the concert due to draconian visa resttrictions (despite the fact that they were allowed into other European countries).

Generally travelling has been greatly enriching for me, but there has been one aspect of my life here that has taken a turn for the worse as a direct result of it: I am taking far less pleasure in eating out. Not only can I no longer get a meal for half a dollar, but I find foreign cuisine less tasty than I used to. This is because I know what it tastes like abroad, and the stuff here just doesn't cut it anymore. Plus things taste much better when you eat them from a grubby little street stall on the dusty streets of a third-world backwater.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Showers And Dictators

So I'm trying to get back into things over here. I've started getting onto the whole job-search malarkey, though I suspect it may be a while before my efforts start paying off in interviews and offers.. Otherwise it has been somewhat hard to slip back into polite society, for several reasons I suppose. Renewing contacts with friends isn't always that easy because whilst I've been away they have carried on with their lives (which is self-evident) and so have their routines and it is difficult to slip seamlessly into their already well-arranged lives. Plus what do you talk about? I don't want to sound like a broken record talking about my trip all the time, but then it was the last three years of my life, so what else have I to talk about? Then there's the physical sorting of my belongings and accumulated junk. Unfortunately our house here in London is rather small and I share my room with a lot of my brother's stuff and so am unable to properly spread out and organise my flotsam and jetsam, much of which is squirreled away either in our attic or garage in piles of boxes. I therefore feel as if I'm still living out of my backpack somewhat. And finally over the course of my trip personal hygiene wasn't really much of a priority when camping and staying in tatty hostels (although people who know me would probably say that hygiene has never been a priority for me), but I'm having to make the effort to remember to shower more than twice a week. To help me somewhat I've gone ahead and shaved my hair very short, which makes it more manageable and easier to maintain (I hadn't cut my hair in over a year and it was beginning to show).

On a completely separate note, and somewhat belatedly, I was thinking about Burma/Myanmar the other day. It seems as if there are no problems there anymore judging by the number of column inches the newspapers and airtime the TV news channels are devoting to the situation there nowadays. I was mulling over the political situation there and how it compares to Iraq under Saddam, and honestly I can't for the life of me find any great difference. The repression of ordinary Burmese, their general quality of life (or lack thereof), the extrajudicial killings are quite possibly worse under Than Shwe and his clique of generals than what the Iraqis experienced with Saddam. So what justifies the very different ways in which the two regimes are handled by the international community. Could it possibly have something to do with the huge reserves of oil in Iraq? Well, that would be a far too cynical world-view, wouldn't it...

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

A Taste Of Cwm

Although my travels are ostensibly over I still managed to start my exploration of my own country last weekend when I went to visit a friend in north Wales. I met Liam on the south American leg of my trip and we became good friends keeping in touch throughout the intervening years. He is about to emigrate to New Zealand in a month (to try and reverse the trend and steal one of their jobs!) and so I took advantage of his presence to carry out my first visit to Wales. It's shocking I know, having travelled around the entire world and yet I haven't yet seen all of the Home Nations.

Liam's family lives in the village of Cwm in northern Wales, set amidst rolling hills, the stereotypical fields of sheep and forests filled with pheasants who strut blithely along the country lanes awaiting their turn to be shot by rich, upper-class people with shotguns. The village makes up for its unfortunate name with spectacular views across the Clwyd valley to the rugged peaks of Snowdonia (when the cloud isn't playing silly buggers that is). Liam took Rob (another fellow traveller) and myself on a ride through a labyrinth of lanes that criss-cross the Welsh countryside through the Snowdonia national park, along gushing streams bordered by trees turning golden in their Autumn splendour. The place was also filled with weekend ramblers in their colourful anoraks and raincoats fleeing the grim northwestern cities for a bit of natural refreshment before the coming Winter makes hiking an unwelcome proposal. We weren't really equipped for walking so instead we visited several of the castles, built by the English 700 years ago when they conquered Wales, that form a defensive ring around the country and were used to quell the numerous nationalistic rebellions. In that sense Wales has the dubious distinction of being the first country to fall to the imperialistic ambitions of the English, a conquering habit that carried on until they dominated a quarter of the globe.

Saturday night was spent out on the town in Wrexham, north Wales's only urban centre of any note. It started off with a couple of hours in a pub watching England take on France in the rugby world cup (much like the Scots the Welsh will support anybody who is competing against the English). From there it was off to sample the Welsh nightlife. My first impression was that there was a cloth shortage in the area, as none of the ladies out that night seemed to have enough material to make even the miniest of skirts. I suppose it must be a cultural thing...

All in all it was lovely to catch up again after all this time and renew old ties and the short introduction has certainly whetted my appetite to discover more of Wales, preferably with a backpack and tent (and a bit of sunshine wouldn't go amiss either). On a completely different note I have made the unexpected observation that friendships made whilst travelling seem somehow more intense, and can often be stronger than everyday friendships, despite the contact being of a short duration. I wonder why that is?

Monday, October 08, 2007

Dazed And Confused

When you're travelling there is a certain certainty in your life - you are on the road and therefore your worries only relate to the immediate future: where will I sleep, what will I see, how will I get there and what will I eat. Life on the road, although ever-changing and full of surprises, has direction (onwards). Now that I am back at home I have the luxury to be able to sit at home in comfort with all the conveniences I could wish for. This is all very difficult for me as I easily get distracted - and seeing as I have three years worth of distractions to catch up with they are legion - but I also have a lot of work to do, sorting through accumulated correspondence, files and folders of officialdom. I have to get my eyes checked (done), sign up to a doctor and get my teeth checked as well. I have a mountain of photographs to sort through (which is proving irritating as I cannot find the first thirty-odd rolls) and I need to get my act together and properly look for a job, because unfortunately living costs money, and nowhere more so than here in London.

It is this final quest that I am more than a little apprehensive about. In today's world there are just so many good options open to you that sometimes I feel like a bunny staring into the headlights of an oncoming car - blinded by the sheer immensity of possibility; the dilemma of choice. I would dearly like to try out as many different and exciting occupations as possible but that just isn't viable. I must choose one and stick with it (for a certain amount of time at least). Then there is my experience, or lack of it. I have a general degree from a very good university and I know that I am more than capable of doing almost any job given half a chance, but I have very few concrete skills or experience particular to a profession so I am fretting somewhat about not being able to get my foot in the door due to my lack of them. On the other hand, however, I am grateful that the job market is relatively flexible here in Britain as opposed to the Continent where your career is almost always dictated by your degree. But that is a problem I intend to defer, until after this weekend at least, as I'm off to see a friend from my travels.