Three Tours, One Hostel Chain – An Experience

During my time in Israel I stayed at Abraham Hostels, both in Jerusalem for the conference (see previous posts on my site) and in Tel Aviv for my volunteering (see next post on my site) and I found the hostel to be the best overall I have ever stayed in.

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Hammocks in the communal area and sage life advice – what’s not to like?

For a very reasonable price (at least in this country!) one can get all their travelling needs met during their stay – if those needs, if you’re anything like me, amount to a clean and quiet room, easy access to convenience stores, easy access to world heritage sites and thousands of years of history, a generous free (vegan-friendly) Israeli-style breakfast every morning, laundry facilities (I like to be clean), a lively bar and communal area which you can dip in and out of as you please… and a wide variety of tours in and around the Middle Eastern area. Abraham Hostels aims to cater to the “independent traveller in the Middle East” and as just such a person at the time – albeit certainly not the most confident in my ability to navigate the area entirely independently, as I hear some do – I was sure that at the very least, one tour would tick all the boxes for me. As I was on something of a budget, and having to try to keep a lid on the notorious single supplement as a result, I had to be selective as to which tours to participate in. Time was also a factor too, having to schedule in at least some recovery time after the conference… so I had to make a difficult choice.

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Part I – Masada Sunrise Tour

The first was a no-brainer, as it was included for free as part of participation in the conference: the sunrise tour of Masada, Ein Gedi and the Dead Sea. For me, floating in the Dead Sea was definitely something to “have done in my life” so I was happy to tag along for free, even if it meant a very early rise. By early, I mean 2am, leaving the hostel at 3am. Like, in the morning.

Somewhere about a quarter of the way up Masada mountain, let’s just say I began to question my wisdom in taking part in such an ambitious feat; this was proper hiking up an actual mountain while it was actually still too dark to see very far in front of you. But the promise of an unforgettable view (and not wanting to embarrass myself in front of the people coming up behind me) spurred me on, and eventually I reached the summit. The view was… well, I think the photos say it better than I can:

Absorbing the majesty of the panorama, and glad to have the hardest part out the way, after an hour or so it was time to go back down. After a few moments of mild panic as I wasn’t sure which bus to get on (having a not-insignificant fear of ending up getting the wrong transport and being stranded in the middle of nowhere, with no phone signal or wifi), we soon headed on to the Ein Gedi nature reserve. The scenery alone was a highlight of my entire trip, as was glimpsing wildlife I had never seen before which was native to the area, and I wish I could have spent more time there, perhaps even doing a longer hike. However time was limited so wandering around for a while and taking photos of the mini-paradise would have to do on this occasion:

The next and final stop was the Dead Sea, the lowest point on Earth and the setting for many amusing photos of people virtually lying on the sea due to the extra buoyancy lent by its famous extreme salinity. I am usually quite hesitant to take part in swimming when travelling alone, not only due to being something of a stranger to swimwear these days but also due to leaving valuables at the mercy of a locker which it is never 100% certain will open again. However on this occasion I felt the risk to be worthwhile, so after suiting up for the first time in a very long time I headed down to see if it all lived up to the hype. Easing myself in slowly, and slightly sinking into the sand for a few worrying seconds, time to simply float for a while…

Of course the type of “swimming” one can do here is limited, because of the sheer saltiness of the water; it’s really not called the Dead Sea for nothing, no life forms can survive in there. This means no full submergence in the water and absolutely NO drinking the water. Due to sheer curiosity however, I couldn’t resist a tiny touch of my tongue to my finger – it tasted like strong chemicals and I had a sore throat for a while afterwards so… yeah, definitely no drinking the water here. Then for the mud scrub which is meant to be amazing for your skin. This was in rather short supply when I was there but I managed to apply just enough to look ridiculous, so thankfully no-one was on hand to take a photo of me in that state. However it really does do wonders for the skin; I didn’t need moisturiser again for quite a while.

Thus concluded the earliest event I have ever taken part in, warranting a much-needed rest upon returning to the hostel, and being optimistic for the next, bigger, tour I was to join the following day: the three day tour of Jordan.

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Part II – Tour of Jordan

 The three-day tour of Jordan was one I signed up for in part due to the timing: it was right between the end of the TBEX conference and the beginning of my next project, and of course with Jordan being so close, it would have been a shame to pass up the opportunity. The tour would span almost the entire length of Western Jordan, thereby involving a LOT of driving, but there are certainly far worse ways to spend a few days in this part of the world… so another extremely early rise was then on the agenda for me.

We departed the hostel in Jerusalem at 6am, going to Tel Aviv to pick up those at the other Abraham Hostel, then doubling back and up to Northern Israel, skirting the infamous Israel/Palestine border wall, looking just as foreboding as one would expect it to. We entered the lush and fertile area near the Israel/Jordan border, going very close to Nazareth, and before long we were on the other side of the border and in Jordan.

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Making the most of the panorama feature in my camera…

Due to some confusion surrounding Daylight Savings’ Time we were left waiting for our tour guide on the Jordanian side for an hour, but it was during that time that I noticed the lovely floral scent in the air, which would characterise – for me – the natural beauty of this region, getting things off to a promising start in the country. Finally the tour guide arrived and we started our journey through the landscape of Northern Jordan. I was surprised at the greenery of the area, and then even more so when the guide informed us that Jordan is the poorest nation in the world for water, rendering it extremely scarce. This would be the first of many occasions on which I would be reminded just how precious a resource it would be, and to use it as wisely as possible while there. This to me seemed contradictory to what I had heard about the abundance of hospitality characteristic to the Jordanian people – it is said that they cannot refuse to cater for visitors to their home, and that they should provide as much as possible. When considered in the context of the apparent poverty of some rural parts of the country which we passed through, this hospitality is all the more remarkable. We would encounter a hallmark of this “extreme giving” by way of the (literally) free-flowing sweet tea we were given whenever and wherever we stopped for any length of time.

After a brief stop at a small campsite for some of the aforementioned tea (and as brief a discussion as was possible about the Israel/Palestine situation), we continued on to the ancient Roman city of Jerash. This place has the distinction of being one of the most well-preserved Roman cities still standing, with many of the ruins still identifiable as what they once were. We were able to wander through the old city while learning about the region and its contribution to the old empire, and proceeded to the main amphitheatre where, from a single spot, one’s voice can be projected clearly throughout the entire arena. Many people amused themselves with this feature for quite a while.

Afterwards we stopped for a buffet-style lunch (in the style that all the meals would end up being served here) at a local restaurant, which perfectly reflected that famous hospitality and abundance which is famous in Jordan. Admittedly, as a vegan, I was apprehensive about encountering a scenario in which this would not be understood, and as a result having to endure a very awkward situation and causing offence, which is the last thing I wanted to do while I was there. However the buffet-style manner of serving food ensured that everyone could help themselves to what they wanted, and as it turned out there was plenty I could eat that was already “accidentally vegan”: hummus, baba ganoush, salads, pitta, etc. I certainly didn’t go hungry while I was there, although I had to take the potential lack of water (and the high price of any beverage) into consideration. Then we headed on down to the nation’s capital, Amman, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. And far prettier than I was expecting.

In Amman we saw the standing stones which were clues to the lengthy history of the city; its name had changed quite a few times over the years, including a spell being called Philadelphia. The views from the hill were spectacular, and made me wish we could further explore the city of Amman. It was here that I saw that kite-flying appears to be the national past-time for Jordanian children, giving me the urge, for the first time in many years, to fly one. Then we continued onward on the long drive to the Bedouin campsite where we would be staying.

The darkness of the night sky meant that the stars came out in such a way that my camera couldn’t even nearly do justice to the sight, so I appreciated the starry sky with my own eyes on the way to, and when we arrived at, the campsite. Nestled amid tealight-strewn rocky hills, it was a cosy and welcoming place to spend the night. The tents were well kitted out for the drastic drop in temperature in the desert at night-time (most thankfully for me) and more of the national hospitality revealed itself in the serving of a generous dinner. Simple but filling, which is just what we needed at the end of the day. Tea was also, once again, freely flowing, and sitting by the campfire was a relaxing and novel way to end the first day. Conducive to yet another early rise in the morning.

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The first and only full day in Jordan was to be mainly about visiting Petra. Because of the sheer scale of the site it would require most of the day simply to navigate and absorb everything. We left the camp and headed out on a still-chilly early morning to Petra, getting a first glimpse of the unique sandstone landscape in the light of day.

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The entrance to the Bedouin campsite

When we arrived we started walking down the famous gorge – which had many more carvings and caves than one would previously think. Many forget that it was actually an entire city, carved from the existing rock in a strategic way in order to divert much-needed water into the right places, and also with many caves created to offer some respite from the glaring sun. Many also forget the size of the place.

This rather lengthy walk would lead to one of the most photographed sites in the world, arguably – the Treasury.

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Oh you know, just this obscure building here.

As one might expect, both the number of tourists and the temperature started to steadily climb but of course the Treasury was the star of the show for many (although we weren’t allowed inside), and warranted some time spent there. In addition to many people, there were also a fair number of camels and donkeys looking increasingly unimpressed as the sun and the throngs grew, who I really wanted to offer some shade. There were also a couple of cats I got to meet at the cafe who seemed much happier chilling out there.

It was definitely turning into layer-shedding time, as we started to hike up literally hundreds of sandstone stairs, vendors soliciting our custom every step of the way, until we reached another part of the old city where the colour of the stone started to show a far wider range. This is when it become apparent just how old, yet how fragile, the place was – the stone came away surprisingly easily upon rubbing – which makes it all the more remarkable how long it has managed to survive.

Quite suddenly, the tour guide suggested that we deviate from the itinerary in order to hike from the monastery overlooking Petra back to the camp. It was very ambitious, especially with an uncertain amount of water available at any given time, but the group as a whole opted to give it a go. I immediately began to have misgivings about not expressing reluctance to undertake this hike, but the tour guide promised we would get for free what others pay a large amount for and the views were indeed awesome. And free. It wasn’t easy to take photos and hike at the same time but the few times we stopped – including for some impromptu Bedouin tea – I managed to take these:

We were exhausted by the time we got back to the camp, to the point where I knew I’d barely be able to move the next day, but strangely enough I didn’t feel it necessarily to decline the offer of a drink at a local bar recommended by the guide. After two of the most expensive drinks I’ve ever had, and another ample Bedouin dinner, it was bedtime. Or rather, tent time.

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We packed up and departed the camp early again (while unbeknownst to me at the time I’d left my camera back in my tent, not to be reunited with it until the day before going home) and headed for Wadi Rum. Not before taking some last photos of the place:

On the way we stopped in at a local store – not unlike a service station by the motorway which can be found at home, except the salespeople are a lot more… enthusiastic, shall we say. Having lost one of my scarves in Jerusalem I was happy to buy one here, which was why I didn’t immediately make a polite exit when approached by a salesman and invited to try one on. It was a chance to be done up in the Bedouin style, complete with eyeliner, and have my photo taken – which I’m not entirely at ease with as can be seen here:

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The Reluctant Bedouin

It was then that the salesman informed me that the scarf contained silk and camel hair; being vegan, I don’t (knowingly) eat or wear animal products of any kind, but I’m also very unskilled at backing out of what can only be described as an intense haggling situation. I made a spur of the moment decision to just buy the scarf to avoid conflict, make use it while in the desert climate and then give it away to someone who would benefit from it upon my return. This is where I ran into my next problem, not having the right currency. I only had Israeli shekels left which the salesman was all too happy to accept but when it came to negotiating change from my bill of twenties… I very nearly lost the equivalent of £30-£40 on the spot for a single scarf which I didn’t even want now. It was then that I simply decided to retreat and apologise profusely, saying I’d made a mistake and no longer wished to buy the scarf (I didn’t now anyway), hoping equally profusely that this wouldn’t result in too much of a “scene”, and then a few members of the group swooped in to my aid, pointing out that I was getting an extremely poor exchange and hugely overpaying, and eventually the salesman gave me the scarf – for free. That was some seriously good haggling in the end, then…

Now feeling guilty, and buying a coffee as compensation, I slunk out of the store in shame and then we headed to our next stop – Wadi Rum. The landscape was becoming a proper desert by then, almost Martian in appearance, and indeed many films had been made in the area. Next up was a jeep tour which felt worryingly precarious on the sand at first but eventually simply added to the thrill. Wrapping my scarf around my head in what can only be described as a parody of the traditional Bedouin style (I couldn’t quite get the hang of it at first) we braved the blazing sun, me reapplying my sunscreen every five minutes, to get some envy-inspiring photos of the desert, of the local Bedouins making natural soap from a native shrub… and of a herd of semi-wild camels wandering across our path to the nearest watering hole. It was good to see animals unrestrained in their natural habitat for a change.

Stopping for Bedouin tea (again) and finally working up the the courage to say “shoo-kran” for said tea, we boarded the tour bus, ending the jeep tour, and proceeded to take our last meal of the tour at a tiny local village. The food was remarkable yet again in its simplicity yet abundance. It was all very healthy and nourishing, just what was needed in this climate. It was then time to brace ourselves for the five hour drive back to the border, where during on of the rest stops along the way I had the pleasure of meeting two very friendly stray dogs. I was careful not to let them get too friendly, of course, but they seemed happy for a bit of attention!

At the border, we bid farewell to our tour guide, who we had gotten to know rather well within the space of just under three days, and passed through customs. It was here that the “unlikely event of being delayed for extra questioning” scenario indeed happened to me, for reasons still not entirely known, but thanks to the prior agreement of the group they were all waiting for me when they were finally done with ascertaining that I was in fact not a threat to national security. Indeed I think this should be the standard practice of every tour, especially for those in a foreign land with no easy way to get to their next destination.

Relieved to be back in Israel, but also glad to have had the experience of visiting Jordan (and having ample opportunity to practice far more diverse landscape photography) it was time for recuperate, and to prepare for the next phase on my trip, the blog of which will be coming soon.

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Part III – Vegan Tasting Tour of Tel-Aviv

As fate would have it, the volunteering placement I took on placed me at the Abraham Hostel in Tel Aviv so it was looking like Abraham Hostels would characterise my entire stay in Israel, which was certainly no bad thing…

I had more time during the week I spent in Tel Aviv, but rather less money (and I’m not quite at the “making millions from my blog” stage) but I was also typically indecisive, being unsure whether I wanted to spend the entire time in Tel Aviv (lively but expensive) or go on another tour of one of the regions of Israel (interesting but exhausting and also potentially expensive) but the one I had my eye on, which was an absolute must-do for me, was the vegan tour of Tel Aviv.

The vegan scene in Tel Aviv, and indeed in Israel, was one of the main draws for me to go there, and anywhere there is a good vegan scene is somewhere I feel considerable more at home. Also because I wanted to meet more like minded people (and enjoy some more great food) I signed up as soon as I knew there was one going on.

Actually I very nearly missed the tour, due to it being rescheduled and then departing early, so I quickly signed up, paid then made a beeline for the first restaurant where they were due to meet called Zakaim, a family run place. There I met three other very nice people, two of them tour guides and the other a visitor like me, and they proceeded to order us some fresh Levantine cuisine – a tomato and basil salad with soya cheese in place of feta – and a shot of Arak, the local liquor. Normally I can’t do shots but it would have been rude not to partake…

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Next we went to another family run place called Bustan 15, where we were treated to a pretty courtyard setting, some lentil burgers and mujadarrah, and some interesting facts about veganism. I was quite proud of my ability to contribute, due to my ongoing experience as a vegan advocate, but also just wanted to appreciate some world class cooking in places which I’d never otherwise have been able to locate, let alone enter, on my own.

We had a pleasant stroll to the next place, seeing some vegan graffiti along the way including the now-famous “269” image – a reference to a calf, with whom animal rights activists got to meet all too briefly, who was wearing an ear tag with the number 269. This came to symbolise the anonymous state which farmed animals are kept in, which has helped to fuel the vegan message here…

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… then we sampled more vegan cream cheeses and an aubergine and pesto dish which was so delicious that I had to try not to finish the entire thing.

Next was a local tiny cafe where half the seats were outside, which allegedly made the best hummus in Tel Aviv. This is where I learned that one could eat hummus, and other dips, with a piece of onion. Not the ideal dish for fresh breath but it was all about the experience and it certainly was an enjoyable one. If only I had nearly enough room for everything. Pictured in the photo here is the tour leader, just as enthusiastic about the quality of the food as I had come to be!

We finished at an all-vegan ice cream parlour, where we were treated to a sample to finish off the evening, along with a take away sample of chocolate tahini – which is incredible, if a bit weird sounding. The tour leaders concluded the tour by saying that they wanted to prove to everyone taking the tour how easy and tasty it is to be vegan, and certainly in Tel Aviv it could hardly be easier to be vegan.

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But perhaps not quite as easy to come up with such offbeat graffiti…

It is estimated that 5% of the Israeli population is now vegan, the highest proportion in the world, with there being the biggest increase in numbers over the past few years. It is believed that reasons for this include a speech by a well known vegan activist being translated into Hebrew, and growing awareness of the ethics (or lack thereof) of the agriculture industry. Indeed veganism is becoming vastly more common almost everywhere in the western world but in Israel the rapid rise of a diet which is both the most morally and environmentally responsible one possible today is encouraging, as it shows the capacity for positive widespread change.

In any case, it was a rather memorable way to spend a spare evening.

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The three tours I undertook with Abraham Hostels were great at demonstrating the potential of the solo traveller to participate in what the region has to offer, and I feel that I selected the best tours for me. However I would like to have taken part in far more tours than I had time for, but then again there’s always another time.

 

 

TBEX: A Travel Blogging Conference Part II: The Conference

In Part I there was a brief outline of what had prompted me to sign up for TBEX, the biggest conference for travel bloggers in the world, and a blog post describing the pre-conference jaunt in Europe I arranged for myself to give myself a “taster” of travel again before the main event, as it were.

A brief introduction – Travel Blog Exchange is an online community of travel bloggers and sponsors which has been on the go since 2005 and holding a few conferences a year, in various locations around the world, since 2009. It aims to assist travel bloggers, at various stages in their career, to network and mingle whilst exploring the host location. As a total newcomer, with an embarrassingly low number of followers on social media compared to everyone else, I had initial reservations about whether it was the right place for me. But when I saw the array of experiences on offer as a participant – free cultural tours and parties immersing one in the local life – I knew that it was at least worth investigating. If nothing else, I could always claim to have gone to a foreign conference, which always sounds cool when telling other people…

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I’ll start this section of my TBEX blog post when I touched down at Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv. I was slightly nervous when arriving in such a volatile corner of the world but when looking down as the plane passed over the coast into the country, it looked like any other city by the Mediterranean. Also originally I thought I’d need to write a separate blog about my experience at the airport, as security is the tightest in the world there allegedly, but perhaps due to my status as an attendee at an international conference, and later as a volunteer (more on that soon), my time at the airport was mercifully brief (edited to add – maybe the outbound journey wil need its own blog post after all… (04/05)) and before I knew it I was on the “sherut” to Jerusalem. After checking in and an early night I rose the next day ready for a day of tours of the city. However due to my struggles grasping a language with an entirely different alphabet system I ended up getting lost several times on the way to the conference venue, getting rather stressed out due to my poor start to the trip and missing my first tour, which didn’t leave me in the best frame of mind for the events to come. Luckily though I was able to sign up for the same one the following day and that afternoon I took part in the Jerusalem Jubilee Scavenger Hunt, run by Israel Scaventures. As one of the more reserved members of the group (as I usually tend to be) I settled for the role of “scribe” despite my terrible handwriting and we carried out a series of tasks including counting all the lions in monuments and signs we passed, hugging a bride for a photo, seeking out a hidden Moroccan courtyard and… composing a rap. Really.

It was an amusing way to see part of Jerusalem and later that evening I joined the pre TBEX party being held by Abraham Hostel Jerusalem, where I was staying. I got talking to a few people who, as it turned out, were not members of the conference but who expressed interest in the local vegan scene (which was enough for me) and invited me for a drink at the Machane Yehuda market, which turned into another drink at a bar which I don’t even remember now but which I supposedly used Google maps to navigate to. Perhaps it is the strength of the drinks in this region, as I didn’t have many, but I was feeling a bit “delicate” the next day…

This was the day I had signed up for two tours, both of which I was briefly regretting due to my “condition” but which actually proved to be both very enlightening and quite the thing to take my mind off my state. The first tour was called “Inspiring Hope” which was a glimpse into the more positive side of relations between the Israelis and the Palestinians in the city, led as a collaboration by a representative of The Jerusalem Foundation and a local Palestinian woman doing a PhD in the subject area. First we wandered throught the Old City, particularly the Muslim/Palestinian area, while the guides briefed us on the current attempts to bring Jews and Arabs together in peace. We made our way to the Abna Al-Quds Community Center, a haven for the local population amidst all the overcrowding and funded by The Jerusalem Foundation, where upon entering we saw elderly men playing football, a herb garden (with a cat!) planted in the name of peace, a meeting with local women and then a talk with the director of the organisation. It was explained that the place serves as an all purpose service for the local Palestinian community, many of whom are disadvantaged and lack access to education and work opportunities, and it seemed to make a real difference simply having such a place within easy reach of this part of the population. Next we went to a local Palestinian boys’ school which it took a lot of negotiation to even get into (for their safety) but where they all seemed to think it was a huge novelty just to see us, with one even running up to give us the peace sign! Finally we visited the Paley Arts Center which is also funded by the Jerusalem Foundation. Here anyone is welcome to come and make use of the facilities no matter their race or religion, and we saw that it offered access to painting, drawing, photography, music and film making and we saw yet more children fully immersed in the programme and who seemed excited to practise their English! The unconditional availability of the centre, to anyone at any time, I found to be very impressive, and I was left feeling very glad to have chosen that particular tour to participate in. It prompted me to learn more about the relations between the Jewish and Arab populations, we saw how the Arab/Muslim population was helped within the community however it was possible to still sense a divide and a lack of integration. It is most likely a massive project which will only come to full fruition some time in the future.

Joining some fellow bloggers for a vegan lunch – my first authentic hummus! – at a local cafe, we joined another tour, this time a general tour of the Old City. Here we learned, first off, that Jerusalem is best thought of as being like a layered cake: having been repeatedly claimed and built upon and contested over millenia, and being the “home” of three major religions, there are so many facets to the city that one can never say that there is only one story or one side. We saw the outside of the Tower of David and the Church of the Holy Sepulchure (along with the Immovable Ladder of the Status Quo which has an interesting story, as pretty much all things in this city do), as well as a rooftop location which serves as the intersection between the four quarters of the city, with a view of the Dome of the Rock – the iconic building of Jerusalem – and also a full view of the Western Wall. In addition we saw more obscure areas such as the ancient market Cardo and, off the schedule, evidence of recent snowfall at the foot of a tree.

These tours, and the satisfying lunch, all helped to get me back to normal again, as well as gaining a significant grounding in the ways of the city. That evening there was an opening party but I only made it in time for the talk with two actors, one from Israel and one from Hollywood, which was an interesting event to bear witness to. Talking about the local and international film scene, as well as encouraging mass tweets by everyone in the audience, I returned to my hostel shortly after with a decent introduction to the host city, ready for the conference.

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All the above probably seems like the longest interlude ever between the lead up to and the start of the conference but I feel that context is essential to describing the full experience. But today was the first of the two day conference, which began with a keynote speech by Gary Arndt (who I happened to meet at the hostel bar on the first evening), a prolific traveller and photographer who has won major awards and is recognised internationally. He gave some good advice on being humble and not complacent in one’s blogging work, as in not expecting people to be automatically interested in what you have to say. I could often do with reminding myself of that from time to time. Then after another introductory speech by the Mayor of Jerusalem, the conference had officially begun.

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After some difficulty in choosing which talks to attend, I opted for one aimed at making travel for people with disabilities more accessible, which is an often overlooked issue but one which has a massive impact on the lives of many, determining how and often where they can go. Next was a talk by renowned photographer Ajay Sood on how to graduate from taking photos to making them unique during post-production. This is something I often struggle with, I always try to take the best photo possible from the beginning, by seeking out a vantage point, angle and subject which I feel will best convey my “story”, but when it comes to the various types of editing software I often feel overwhelmed by the variety. Years of underuse of the digital editing skills I acquired once upon a time have set me back to the point where I’ve gone back to being very much a beginner so this talk I felt would give me a decent starting point again.

After a generous lunch of hummus, pitta and many types of salad (it was a mixed omni/veggie/vegan buffet and I had to stick with what I could tell was obviously vegan but it was all awesome) there was one more talk on something which was entirely novel to me: hyperlapse video. Led by Scott and Megan from BoboandChiChi, the idea is to download a simple app and apply the few steps for a hyperlapse video. It’s essentially timelapse but while the camera is moving, and although I feel that it’s probably a lot more difficult than they made it look (effortlessly easy) it’s a novel way to convey a story and most likely worth giving a try soon. Thus concluded the first day.

The evening involved a Tower of David evening tour, during which they projected a light show onto the ancient walls which was pretty impressive. The almost disjointed frames of each chapter in the story of Jerusalem, each with its own beauty but understandable, out of context, to think of them as being entirely unrelated, brought home the idea that Jerusalem, both in its history and in its present day situation, really is like a cake.

On the second day the schedule followed a similar format but with different talks of course. The first was how to get ahead on content writing, which hit something of a nerve with me as I all too often lag behind and talk myself out of writing posts because I often don’t know if what I blog about is interesting enough or otherwise worth the effort. At least 99% of my ideas stay exclusively in my mind as I often have too many ideas to choose just one. But choosing ideas based around a theme, a subject or even a season, means that the blog post has something to hinge on. A bit like this blog post being all about TBEX… #meta

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The next talk was on how to expand your freelance market, namely by cornering an area of the market not yet covered, finding a “niche” and then tailoring the post to the needs of the publication. Even if writing fully independently I guess it goes without saying that you need to think about what people want to read about, otherwise why blog, amirite? Finally there was a talk by blogger Claudia Tavani on the importance of being honest in travel writing. Because many writers are employed by sponsors who have a vested interest in the content, many are understandably wary of writing anything critical relating to either the sponsor or an associate, even if that criticism is fully justified. Yet it is explained that readers often respond better to honest but negative posts if they can relate to the experience, than overly sanitised accounts of places where they may end up going in order to face extreme disappointment that they were not warned before they got there. This is something I certainly agree with, as I far prefer to read something which gives a real account of something or somewhere than read yet another “everything was perfect and it was paradise” blog post which are all too common. Thus concluded the conference – at least for me. There were closing keynote speeches which I was interested in hearing but in order to attend the closing party briefly AND be up on time for a sunrise tour in the morning I really had to get some sleep in…

A note on networking: there were dedicated sessions at the end of each conference day, where bloggers could meet with potential sponsors in order to make contacts for the future. Having never attended a conference before, let alone an international one, this was all entirely new to me and I had no idea whether I was doing it all the right or the wrong way. I simply tried to identify some sponsors whose work I’d potentially be interested in and offer to write articles for them, which I aim to do in the very near future, but overall the conference was something of a learning experience.

It gave me both an excuse to visit Israel (and the very edge of Palestine) and a chance to meet others who manage to blog far more successfully than I. Wanting my venture to last a bit longer, however, I signed up to do volunteer work shortly after, about which I will write a dedicated blog, and in the few days between the conference and the volunteering I undertook a couple of tours run by my hostel: the Masada Dead Sea sunrise tour and a tour of Jordan.

Thse however require a separate post, which will be coming soon!

 

TBEX: A Travel Blogging Conference Part 1: What I Did Just Before

The past few weeks have been taken up with yet another attempt at travelling – so far the longest venture to date. It has been centred upon, and initially prompted by, an intriguing premise. That is, a travel writing – or blogging as we are in the digital age – conference, in Israel, a country which has long since intrigued me. Therefore the decision to go basically made itself and I built an itinerary hinging around this conference. Time to try travelling again…

On this occasion, what marked it out immediately from other attempts at travelling was an official reason to go other than “I’m in the mood again” – from previous experience people tend to puzzle over why one might suddenly, in the midst of doing not much day to day, pick up for no apparent reason and take off on a seemingly random adventure. But a few months ago I heard about the Travel Blog Exchange conference for the first time, and that one was about to happen in Jerusalem, Israel’s ancient and complex capital city, and all but took it as a sign that it had to happen. It was my hope that, if nothing else, it would spark something new in me writing-wise, and be an interesting venture.

However initially I had a significant reservation about participating because as far as I could tell one had to identify as a travel writer, and as of then I was not entirely sure it was a place I would belong. In fact I was quite certain this would be the case, as I have not yet managed to sustain a full, or even part, time living from this website. But after some deliberation, and the realisation that visiting that part of the world might not always be feasible, I should pounce upon the opportunity, in the FOMO spirit I referred to a few blog posts ago, and signed myself up for the conference.

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Of course I immediately felt like I had done something crazy because of 1) me not being a “legitimate” travel blogger (as described above) and also 2) the fact that it was to take place in one of the most politically and socially contentious places in the world. Despite my age, it takes enough reassuring of my parents that I’ll return in one piece when I go to a perfectly safe and stable place so announcing my intention to go to Israel was… nerve wracking. But before too long it became one more thing I was doing, another “venture” to add to my ever growing catalogue.

Also because there are no direct flights to Israel from my country I looked at the places I could fly from and decided to add on a couple of days each in two cities I’d only ever visited once each long ago: Amsterdam and Paris. I would fly to Amsterdam, stay a couple of days then take the train to Paris via Brussels, and reacquaint myself with cities of which I had fond but extremely vague memories. I’d then fly from Paris to Tel Aviv then proceed to Jerusalem where I’d attend the conference, but not before all the inclusive tours they had planned for us in and around Jerusalem which sounded amazing. This is a blog post which focuses on the TBEX conference (and indeed as one of the lectures advised to do, is the focal point around which I hope to paint a picture of my bigger trip so that’s what I’m doing!) but I’ll include here a brief outline of my interlude in Amsterdam and Paris before proceeding to talk about TBEX.

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I flew from Glasgow to Amsterdam where I would spent just under two days (more like a day and a half) but in typical me-fashion I’d need some settling in time in the room first which took up… most of the remainder of the first day. It was my intention to wander around the town and the famous canals and see if anything jogged my memory, taking in a few more museums this time. The only two things I remembered doing in the city the first time (on a school trip way back when I was twelve) were visiting the Anne Frank House, well worth doing if you haven’t done so, and going for a canal boat ride. The reputation of the museums in Amsterdam – and the vegan scene – made me want to have another “go” here, armed with internet technology to be my guide this time! After an interesting and confusing first evening, during which I debated with myself whether I really wanted to sample Amsterdam’s infamous nightlife alone (short version – after a brief sample, not really), I ventured round the city the following day, first seeing the Oude Kerk, the traditional site of the “intersection” between the church and the local prostitution scene (not even gonna go into that right now) where there was an intriguing exhibition by a local artist taking place, which apparently consisted of suspending mirrors from the ceiling of the church and then allowing drafts, over time, to cause the mirrors to fall to the floor and shatter into pieces – it certainly solved the brief puzzle as to why there were broken shards of mirror everywhere. Then I went to a raw vegan cafe to alleviate the night before, opting for a cashew cream “cheese” wrap and a big-ass smoothie. Next I went to the Cat Boat, which is exactly what it sounds like: a boat full of cats, which is a visitor centre, in addition to a sanctuary and adoption centre. It was an excuse to see some local cats in a nice setting so that was a must-do…

It was then that I realised how short a day can be if you cannot for the life of you work out the local transport system, and I had time for only one museum now. I choose the Rijksmuseum, which was meant to be THE museum to see in the Netherlands. It was a good enough museum, as all museums are, but I ended up leaving with the wish that I’d focused on one of the smaller and more “alternative” museums, such as the photography museum I also had my eye on. After an incredible falafel sandwich which I ate while wandering down the flower market (rushing because google maps was in danger of disappearing due to low battery) I prepared to leave early the next day for Paris – another place I’d only visited briefly on a school trip long ago.

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I caught the train from Amsterdam to Brussels, expecting to spend a couple of hours pottering about there before continuing on to Paris, but due to a sudden and unexpected glitch in my mobile data (it cut me off when I left the Netherlands for some reason) I was unable to navigate and therefore, unable to do the brief exploring I’d been planning. Adding to that the acute police presence in the station, I concluded that I’d be safer simply waiting in the station. Due to an hour long delay I ended up spending far more time in the station than I wanted to but not before taking a few quick photos to prove I’d been in Belgium… then finally onward to Paris. And still no mobile data.

After checking in and another embarrassingly early night (in possibly the least soundproof room I’ve ever stayed in – a strong throwback to my time in college) the next day I spent a good while fretting about why I had no mobile data despite signing up for it before leaving home – it seems like a piffling issue but for someone who relies entirely upon internet access to navigate new places and find vegan eateries nearby it was basically disastrous. But I tried to seek out wifi hotspots wherever possible, and my first stop was the famous Shakespeare and Company bookstore. I had about as good a snoop round as was possible when several Americans were there on “spring break woo!” and it was then that I learned that one should never attempt to play the music from Amelie on the piano unless one knows the entire thing…

Next I made the decision – on the fence until the very last minute – to go to the Catacombes, which was just as spooky and sombre as I was expecting. I didn’t take many photos because at first I didn’t think it was allowed but also because it felt slightly disrespectful to the millions of deceased we were walking past continually, and it seemed slightly wrong that people were laughing and snapping away the entire time, so I had to tread a fine line between trying to get some quiet time down there and also keeping others close by enough that I didn’t end up inspiring a future horror movie… then off for a slice of vegan pizza, a big salad and another early night, trying to focus on my Kindle while the party people next door were revving themselves up for a night on the (Parisian) town.

An early rise (which would turn out to be merely one of many) to see the Palace of Versailles. It turned out to be one occasion where I couldn’t have been more glad to have bought a skip-the-line ticket, when I saw just how long the queue was to get in. I couldn’t figure out how to work the audio guide (an example of how I once again earn the title of Silly Goose) so I settled for just absorbing the palace and trying to dodge heads and selfie sticks aplenty in order to get some decent pictures. The Hall of Mirrors was well worth seeing, although would have been far more atmospheric had the room not been reflecting hundreds of other tourists. Also I’m not sure if I’ll get into trouble for saying this but the mirrors really seemed to need a good wipe…

Then onto the gardens, specifically the area which I most wanted to see, the domain of Marie Antoinette. I had seriously underestimated just how vast the grounds were, and it took almost an hour just to reach the queen’s hamlet. But when I got there it was worth every step – it was truly idyllic and an oasis of peace, with the cherry blossoms in full bloom, the fountains and the little hidden paths within the gardens, which are a photographer’s paradise. I could have spent all day there, and had by then fully forgiven the long-gone unfortunate queen for causing me to have such a hard time getting to the mini-palace, and in fact felt like I could relate to Mme Antoinette all the more. If it had been me I’d have wanted to have just such a place to call my own, although the onsite farm, reminiscent of the “farm play” which the queen allegedly liked to participate in, was perhaps a tad excessive – I only hope the animals are well cared for and not being bred and exploited just for tourism as they all too often are.

When I finally returned to Paris it was far later, and I was far more tired, than I had expected, and after stopping in for a bite in the most eerily quiet canteen I’ve ever been in, I conceded that unfortunately I’d have to forgo the evening tour of the Louvre (and the fee I had to pay) because I was utterly spent and, at this point, preparing for flying to Israel, and the conference, early the next day, now took priority. So another night of packing and making sure I was prepared to face the infamous airport security on the other side then yet another early rise.

The fated attempt to take public transport to Charles de Gaulle has been the only time, to date, that I’d ever seriously thought I’d end up missing a flight, as I nearly got on the wrong bus several times and even when on the right bus I had the latent fear that it was taking me in the opposite direction and would drop me off in an unknown rural area of France. But eventually I got to the airport and then… I can now proceed to Part II.

 

 

 

Pre-travel-blog-post-update

Just an update to promise an upcoming post on my recent trip of “self discovery” which has taken me from the furthest corners of Western Europe to the nearest corners of West Eurasia. Reasons for this latest venture are primarily centred on a travel blogging conference and the desire to continue volunteering all whilst exploring new places I’ve not yet seen.

However due to my difficulty in adapting to new ways of using technology, lost camera and general and inexplicable slowness of connection (almost always particularly so when I try to post something) this may take a bit more time.

I can promise that I have an array of tales and images to share, I’ve only to find the time to properly organise it into a coherent storyline.

In the meantime please investigate my updated photo gallery, with much more to come soon!

Copenhagen (two months late)

When it comes to blogging I am perhaps not the most timely. When not posting immediately after the relevant thing has happened it tends to get… lost in the shuffle, the memory fading the more time goes on.

Having made the mistake of falling into that way of thinking when coming back from Copenhagen, I postponed and procrastinated (which I have a real talent for now) and now I have little memory with which to write an account of this mini-adventure.

Nothing except for my photos, which I will have to use to revive my memory.

My recent revival of my love of photography will perhaps most notably pay off in this post, as I delve back into my digital collection in order to retrieve fragments of a randomly booked jaunt which took place nearly two months ago amidst a rather peculiar time, in which I spent most of the time outside of the trip firmly at home, mainly doing freelance work – which isn’t great at getting you outside. In fact it’s very good, if you’re not very careful, at making you rather too comfortable with being in all day every day. Which is fine for a certain period of time, but then you start to forget what “outside” is actually like.

So I will do that delving now, and try to use random photos not just for the reader’s perception of my time in Copenhagen, but indeed for my own…

Day #1

Touchdown. After a (relatively) painless flight, coped with all the better by listening to The Smiths and the Dresden Dolls on an endless loop, I descended upon København, shattered from having to leave home at stupid o’clock in the morning. The first thing I would do would be to lie down. But first to take an establishing photo:

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This was the view from my hostel in the “heart of Copenhagen”, and this was as good as the weather was going to be the entire time I was there. After the nap I had to do something as my “first act in a new place” and so I went a’wandering.

 

Since it was late November/early December, it was prime Christmas Season, the perfect time to see the festive markets in full swing. I remember, looking through the photos, the brightly lit night streets, the quintessential European Christmas market set up and taking pride of place in an actual European city (with which I found it safe to conclude that Christmas markets, like Peruvian flute bands, are basically a universal thing), the quaint but freezing pedestrian streets which probably weren’t any more quaint-appearing than some streets back home but in a new place they’re “just so cute!”, and a general air of calm festivity. Then I went back to the hostel and its very friendly and welcoming bar area, and had a drinkie to christen the place.

Day #2

The primary shot for this day – the bird fountain – brought this day right back to me. Today was the day that I took advantage of not one but two of the acclaimed walking tours of Copenhagen, the first being a “general” tour of the city, and the second being an “alternative” tour of the hippie neighbourhood of the Freetown of Christiania. Having been informed at the beginning of the first tour that this part of the city was once ruled by a party-crazy monarch who commissioned an awful lot of the ornate buildings we saw along the way, we wandered along, amongst many places, the University of Copenhagen campus, the Rundetårn (Round Tower), the local foodie market (also looking very Christmassy this time of year), then on to see more classic buildings, which the tour guide told us were influenced more by other European countries than by homespun Danish design, then over the bridge to Christiantown. This is where we saw the church tower which we were told had a staircase which wound the wrong way (and has been roundly (no pun intended) mocked for it ever since), a canal system which looked remarkably like that of Amsterdam, and finally the lawless (within reason) borough of Christiania – just in time for sundown.

 

Here would have been a great place to put all the photos of this quirky independent neighbourhood but we were warned, in no uncertain terms, that blatantly taking photos of the place is “frowned upon”, and sometimes even met with hostility, so a quick walk through of the place – a strong “herbal” scent pervading the area – had to suffice. One photo on the very outskirts of the place was all I could manage before making my way back home. Rarely have I been more glad of the existence of Google maps than I was then.

Day #3

Today was more of a “see the place for yourself” day. Mainly because I didn’t even want to attempt to navigate the public transport system (and because I didn’t want to risk embarrassing myself by trying to find out a bus fare in another language), I pinpointed some points of interest on the paper map I was given and set out to see some sights. The first was the Amalienborg Palace, the residence of the Danish monarchy. I could’ve had a tour or two of the grand interior but I wasn’t so much interested in royalty, in the brief time I had there, than in just “experiencing” the place. So after a few photos I moved on to Nyhavn, the very touristy neighbourhood which is, basically, the Times Square of Copenhagen in terms of how heavily photographed the place is, but it was still a place to be seen. Also, being so close to the shore, a venture to the very edge of the Baltic was in order. As were terrible jokes about it being Baltic that day… On to the triangular island which served as a military base but now has nothing appearing much more threatening than a windmill, followed by the inevitable selfie by the Little Mermaid statue. Sorry but it had to be done, otherwise how would you ever be able to tell which city I was in?

Going via some green spaces, and some rather funny looking statues, I went to my first exclusively vegan restaurant in Copenhagen – and it would be my last, considering how expensive it would end up being. I would just have to live mostly on rice cakes and Co-op salads eaten directly from my suitcase from then on. Finally, as it got dark, it was time to take to the Rundetårn – but sadly, not to appreciate the awesome celestial view from the world-famous observatory, because it was overcast – on the one day the place was open when I was there. Still, that didn’t stop me narrating on video my progress up the smooth, ramp-like path up the tower (the famous cycling competitions held there appealed to a certain cycling fanatic friend of mine), enjoying the view of the city, if not the sky, from the top, and then checking out the interesting but somewhat depressing museum exhibit on the way back down. I’d say the day ended there but then, in a final bid to “socialise” at the hostel, I ended up getting rather drunk and playing a card game with some friendly strangers, whom I’m confident I will never see again in my life. Unless they pleasantly surprise me somewhere else.

Day #4

Aka, “going to another country for a few hours day” – this was the day when I endured a mild-to-moderate hangover on the Oresundstag, which is the name for the train which goes from Copenhagen to Malmö in Sweden. Like, a whole other country.

But first, I had to visit the library, because it’s the law. My personal law. Known as the Black Diamond (which it would be frankly churlish to say doesn’t look like a certain “Trolltrace” building), it is the royal library of Copenhagen with vast archives, including a copy of every single Danish book ever published. Unfortunately, as I wasn’t a formal scholar, researcher, student, or otherwise have an official reason to be there, pretty much all of these archives were off-limits, but I managed to appreciate the “Danish cartoon” section, which gained notoriety about a decade ago… a swift snoop around the building would’ve had to suffice, before running for the train to Malmö.

 

After a novel but decidedly undramatic transition from Denmark to Sweden, I simply had a wander around the area, because honestly that’s all I really wanted to do. There are no major tourist landmarks in Malmö, and it’s not the most “exciting” city in the world. But the vibe I got from the place was that it was very pleasant and livable, it’s just the sort of place I really wouldn’t mind spending some time in for work or study, and I’m sure the heavily overcast weather didn’t do it any favours while I was there. I’d imagine that it can be pretty glorious in the summertime. So I did my thing: I took some photos, went to a vegan Chinese buffet restaurant to alleviate my “delicate condition”, feeling all the more delicate for being the only sadsack who was on my own in the whole place, took a selfie with a swan, did some more wandering, and then… pretty much just took the train back to Copenhagen. Later that evening, with time for one more “main”  thing, I went to the famous Tivoli pleasure gardens, which was set up like a Christmas wonderland at the time. It was basically a wintery Disneyland. Having stretched my courage to capacity simply by going to Copenhagen in the first place, I wasn’t entirely game for going on one of the scary rides all on my own, but just having a walk through the glittery scene was something.

Day #5

Today was “check out and go home” day, and seeing as it was more hassle than it was worth trying to store my suitcase in the basement of the hostel (which involved actually having to manually haul it down the stairs and then try to find a free locker (I couldn’t find one), I ended up hauling my suitcase during one last seeing-of-sights. The only place I really went to was the local botanical gardens, as seen here:

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Take one last selfie…

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… then it was farvel til København. In typical Danish ironic style (actually I’m not even sure the Danish are renowned for irony, let alone a specific brand of it, it just sounds funny), the last clear night happened to be on the night I was leaving. But this could potentially work to my advantage, as it would offer a full uninterrupted view of the Oresund Bridge, one of the longest bridges in the world, in all its lit-up glittery glory from the sky. But this was the best I could do. My establishing “end shot” to the whole tale.

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Thoughts before my next travel update

It’s weird how I can go from “travelling 1000 miles for a few days” to “barely able to work up the will to leave the house” in such a short space of time. Right now the idea of doing what I did just a couple of weeks ago is unfathomable. But that’s what happens. I have to do things in “bursts”, seemingly, or not at all. It also probably makes me look like a big fat liar or, at the very least, disingenuous, to anyone I might need to convince, for whatever reason, that this is actually the “situation” with me. This inconsistency is, most likely, why I’d have difficulty holding down a “traditional” 9-5 job. For every day that I’d be able to go in and just “do the job”, there would be like three more when I’d have a hard enough time just picking an outfit which I wouldn’t feel stupid and foolish in. I dunno, maybe application forms and interviews make it all seem so much harder than it actually would be. I’ve certainly gone into many a public building and seen workers twiddling their thumbs looking bored and not exactly like the “enthusiastic and passionate go-getters who thrive on customer service” that every single job application seems to call for now. Even the ones which aren’t for a role in customer service. My current job, for example, I have to do in bursts. I spent a week or two actually doing the job, intermittently, but also an equal length of time working myself up to actually doing the job. Right now the idea of doing the project is freaking me out big time, even though I’ve already done it successfully twice before. It was the same with uni, I’d face *every* single essay and assignment with the same feeling of dread and certainty that it would never get done, even though it got done, somehow, every single time. Well *nearly* every single time, it was only on rare occasions that I just couldn’t get the thing done. But those bursts of energy, inspiration, creativity, are what I live for, at the end of the day. I continue to live in (vague) hope that that feeling – which is hard to describe – is just around the corner, waiting to pounce on me once again.

FOMO vs YOLO

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*This post was originally totally different, but I’ve had something of a turnaround in opinion in the past few weeks or so, for reasons which I won’t bore you with right now. It was originally meant to be a critique of the pressure to go travelling without regards to personal circumstances which may hinder someone’s ability to do so, but having read even more on the subject since publishing, I’d done something of a 180 and would like to present the new post here.*

FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) has been plaguing me for many years now, for at least half my life, and a lot of the time I feel like I’m always in the wrong place at the wrong time, having *just* missed out on a life-changing opportunity by the skin of my teeth, and that if I’d only done this or that thing everything would’ve been different and awesome, and that it’s all my fault for not trying hard enough – “don’t you know it’s SO easy now in this eternally connected world so you have NO EXCUSE!” – and generally not being “savvy” enough to what’s hip and happening.

In recent times I’ve tried to combat this by applying for endless jobs (many of which I know deep down I’ve no chance in hell of getting), going on trips here and there (within the limits of what I can afford) because I do like to every so often, but also often just to prove to/remind myself and everyone that I can, and following/tweeting people constantly and obsessively on social media. But even then it feels like the “party” is always just around the corner – somewhere – and only just out of earshot, and that if I just stay alert and accessible at all times then I won’t be the person I once was, who used to miss out on so much and who didn’t even have the privilege of realising this until it was too late.

Somewhere along the line, I got the message that as long as I showed up, looked interested, and was ready for the action at any time, then the rest would follow, even if my head and my heart were a million miles away, or didn’t even want to be close by. From my earliest days spent actively attempting to socialise and to fit in, what I wanted and what I was interested in, the things which I never even got round to really sharing with anyone else, eventually gave way to an abstract idea of how to do things the right way. After all, if everyone else is managing to do the things you love doing even better than you, then you must be missing a trick somewhere…

After half a lifetime slowly neglecting what truly interested me, in favour of the *chance* to be what mattered to everyone else, it’s a long way back again. A long, vague and lonely trail, barely discernible in the ground below and before me, leading and tapering into the distance. Not even definitely going anywhere.

How to get the mojo back again, however, of what I really want from life – which I only have a vague memory of now – that is something which I may need to embark upon a whole new journey to find out if it’s even possible to recapture. But I am (very) slowly but surely attempting to piece together some semblance of the person I was before FOMO started kicking in and kicking everything about me out of my life.

One thing I do love these days – and don’t have to force – is photography. I love going to a new and interesting place (when I’m in the right mindset to do so), taking a great picture from an unusual angle, and revisiting the scene on my screen later at my leisure. Presenting, arranging, contextualising and – urgh – *promoting* said photography, on the other hand, is the current challenge.

Also, I’ve found that whenever I try my hand at anything new, I find that I fall into a pattern of starting out with a fresh enthusiasm, albeit tempered with an increasing apprehension of learning new things as I advance in life, and before too long becoming so frustrated with my sense of ineptitude and inability to “get into the flow” that it just becomes one more thing to add to my Quit Collection. More recently, as I’ve attempted to stretch my wings and venture further from home, travelling is becoming the latest Thing where I start to feel that old familiar apprehension. Just when I feel like I’m “onto something”, the feeling that I’ve missed something crucial and major starts to creep in – that I could’ve had the “true experience” if you’d only done all the things which make you extremely uncomfortable – until you end up feeling that you might as well not even try.

However recently I’ve started to “chance” upon the odd website where I’ve started to see a more heartening attitude which hints at the possibility that I might not be doing everything completely wrong. The message – if it can be called one – appears to be that, while there is so much to be said for going “off the beaten track”, it becomes problematic when it reaches the stage of condescension of those who don’t do everything the hardest way conceivable just for the “true adventure” – travel snobs, if you like. For example, I love to travel (when it’s a good time for me) but due to my particular circumstances – my need for my own space, for example – would struggle to forgo a private room, even just a tiny one, for an extended period of time. Or indeed, frankly, any length of time. However, on pretty much every travel blog I’ve encountered the praises are duly sung of hostelling and “mingling” effortlessly with others there, likes bees to honey. (I’m pretty sure that’s an acceptable vegan analogy, no honey being stolen by humans here!)

However, not all experiences are going to be the same for every person, and indeed what would even be the point in travelling if you did literally exactly the same thing as everyone else. The whole “beach party in Goa” and “yoga on top of a fjord in Norway” and “being at one with the trees in a place where the writer clearly drove to while denouncing all forms of technology while tweeting and clearly having someone taking their “selfie”, while undeniably a positive experience for whoever enjoyed it enough to shout about it from the rooftops, is becoming just a sufficiently recurrent theme to give momentary pause, in which to reflect as to whether this is really what one wants to do, rather than what they feel like they have to do, in order to have that truly Instagram-friendly lifestyle.

What I find especially encouraging about the article is that it dispels many of the myths which women are faced with all too often, and which I’ve allowed to permeate my perception of the world – that it’s simply not safe out there. That I’m at risk of making a fool of myself at best, and at worst… well, in a pretty bad situation. With or without my life. In the end, it seems to be a case of discerning the difference between inspiration and pressure – between the voice inside and the demands coming from outside. That can be a challenge in itself a lot of the time.

For now, FOMO and YOLO (You Only Live Once, for those not up to date on their annoying lingo) remains an act of delicate balance, one which with my lack of co-ordination, will require significantly more practice.

Choice, or the Road Not Taken

I don’t know where to go from here. To be honest I’m having trouble trying to figure out how to write this post in a way which makes sense.

Time has a way of producing, at its convenience, the gift of Choice. Except of course for the fact that, when this type of Choice is presented, without context, boundaries or suggestion, to someone Like Me – someone who struggles to decide what to wear that day, or even whether or not to go out at all that day – then that choice becomes quite redundant. It’s a bit like having a million people calling to a dog who is equally fond of each individual person, but because they cannot begin to decide which one to go to – each imploring and welcoming individual person – the poor dog just sits there, whimpering and in desperate need of a lie down. They ignore everyone because they cannot decide. They have no logical reason to choose one over the other, so they choose Nothing.

I have Ideas of things I might want to do if I could only filter out the millions upon billions upon trillions of other possibilities of things I could also be, or should be, doing. However, since I cannot filter out these other endless ideas, I never get round to sustaining, or even starting, almost any of these Ideas I have. I didn’t even get round to writing this post, the seed of which had germinated in my mind a while ago, until I arrived home where I could concentrate, because away from home I’m basically useless and never get anything productive done.

I am the only one I know with this endless choice, the theoretical freedom to do anything, that I feel like my inability to actually Make Something of myself is utterly wasted on me, when it could be bestowed upon plenty of people I know far more deserving of such a thing.

It brings to mind the Robert Frost poem, The Road Not Taken.

I studied this poem, shockingly, only for the first time a few weeks ago, as part of an online distance poetry course (one of the little projects I’ve been trying out recently and, at the time of writing, failing to complete), I certainly don’t recall ever being exposed to it during high school or even uni. It also happens to be one of the most misunderstood poems of all time, according to the convenors of the course (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, via Coursera, if anyone wants to look them up to find out more), in that it is often read as a praising of the joys of choosing the road less travelled, by virtue of it simply being the less travelled one. Going against the grain. While that often does have some value in and of itself – it can enable a unique perspective which can be shared with others by way of comparison – what the poem is about Really, according to the course, is simply Making The Choice.

The poem begins:

“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, And sorry I could not travel both And be one traveler” – we can all agree that this means that we cannot choose two paths in life at once. So far, so simple. But when, after considering each path equally, the person claims that the passing of each path “Had worn them really about the same”, this already is quite telling of the fact that even the “road less travelled”, as is the common interpretation, is more or less as travelled – in some sense – as the more travelled one. Even this person refuses to fully commit to a choice – “Oh, I kept the first for another day!” – mentally bookmarking it for a return which they, in the following two lines, retract by admitting that there will be no returning.

The poem, essentially, reveals the person to be deliberating over a choice, but – crucially – making one anyway. One which will be looked back on “ages and ages hence”, even if it is the wrong one. There is no mention of the outcome of the choice – regret or pride – but a Choice Has Been Made, by one who had all their options presented to them equally and without influence.

But even in this case, it was one or the other option. Not literally millions upon billions upon trillions upon infinity. All vying for one’s attention, and getting pissy when you don’t pick them over everything else…

So I’ve had to basically take shots in the dark, one by one, picking a direction and hoping that it doesn’t turn out to be the Wrong Choice. It always feels like it anyway, no matter what I choose. Sometimes the choice is so overwhelming that I in fact shut down and can’t choose anything, not feeling able to do anything other than allow myself to be pulled along with the current, with no idea where it’s leading. Well maybe some vague idea, but not something I want to think about anytime soon.

I said earlier that I do Nothing. Most of the time. Well sometimes I force myself to do Something. Usually a big thing, quite disproportionate to my “everyday” life, as and when I have the time and resources to be able to. Sometimes I find that the only way to get anything at all done in life is to, once in a while, treat it like an architecture project and to construct one piece by piece, and then just see what happens when I step in…

A few months ago I went volunteering at an animal sanctuary in Spain. I had a good time, as you can see here:

Last week I decided, on a whim, to go to London and Brighton because there was nothing stopping me.

I had a good time, as you can see here:


But I also began to wonder, the whole time I was there – and indeed anywhere – of all the places where I wasn’t, all the things I was not doing, all the people I was not being… when context and purpose become all too easy to manipulate, and where everything soon returns to just the way it was before in any case. With the exception of simply being a little further along in life.

Sylvia Plath also came pretty close to describing my Situation a long time before I was even born:

So right now the best I can do is continue taking shots in the dark, hoping that The One will manifest into existence, giving my Brain Of Infinite Possibility a bit of peace for once.

References: Sylvia Plath on Pinterest https://uk.pinterest.com/yoursuntruly/first-attempt-at-pinning/

Robert Frost “The Road Not Taken” https://www.poetryfoundation.org/resources/learning/core-poems/detail/44272

Vegan fine dining: a retrospective review

I am not, nor have I ever been, nor will I ever be (at least I can’t imagine) a fine dining person. The anticipation of getting dressed up in an outfit worn only once before is almost guaranteed to be quelled sharply by the practice of going to the fancy place, sitting down and then… basically having to be on top form the entire time, being careful how you sit, speak, order, wait, actually eat impossible-looking cuisine with dignity, pay an eye-watering price, then leave. Still hungry. And now poor too.

However, in a city where there was limited time, bizarre weather, fatigue from trying to fit in all the daytime attractions at once, and not much for one to do alone in the evening besides face the nightlife alone (no) and watch Netflix in the hotel room (not what I paid a not insignificant amount to come all the way out here to do), and as a vegan (where approximately 999 out of 1000 places are unlikely to cater to you), one option presented itself more or less out of nowhere:

“Elisabeth’s Gone Raw” is a top-range raw vegan restaurant in Washington DC which I thought about trying but until then had stuck with grabbing veggie-friendly food on the go. I was hesitant when I saw the words “fine dining”, but also intrigued – usually “vegan” (“raw vegan!”) and “fine dining” are not to be found anywhere near each other in any description, and memories of being offered either a flimsy side salad, a few grains of rice, and the omnipresent “wild mushroom risotto”, along with urgent whispers to “use the right cutlery and no elbows on the table!” have stuck with me long enough to instill in me a lifelong aversion to that kind of place. I simply don’t belong. But… I saw that this place was only open on a Friday – that very evening – for a few hours, and serving an ever-changing weekly menu. Because it was raw vegan (my interest in which had been piqued during my previous visit to Prague) and very limited time only… I had to give it a go.

Upon arrival I almost ran back out again. This place had a cocktail bar and everything, I had no business being here. ALONE. But I was given a warm welcome just like any other patron and shown to the cocktail bar to await my place. One thing I learned is that these places are usually on one extreme, when it comes to serving single people: either acting delighted to see you and put themselves at your service from beginning to end, or completely ignoring you because you’re, well, not more than one person. Initially it looked like I was going to get the latter treatment, where they didn’t even acknowledge my presence. Not even when I eagerly pored over the menu and looked up every ten seconds, doing this on repeat for fifteen minutes or so. The three or four other people at the bar were getting the full attentiveness which can be expected in such a place, but when it came to serving me, suddenly other things needed to be done, like polishing cutlery. I was beginning to need a drink by that stage as what I had opted to do that evening – go to a fancy place on my own – began to sink in. I began to regret ever having such a stupid idea, as this is not the type of situation I naturally do well in. About five seconds before I made to gather my things and flee into the night, I was shown to my table.

Of course – OF COURSE – I was the only one there on my own. On a Friday night in the city. But I had long ago been forced to resign myself to this reality, so I just got on with the whole thing. Equipped with a kindle and phone, I settled in for the ride, and to my relief, was from then on treated no differently to anyone else for daring to show up without another human being in tow.

So now for the actual food experience:

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Weekly menu – because I honestly can’t remember the intricate descriptions of each plate

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The cocktail, “In the Garden of Eden”, was going to come in very handy… I had two of these

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This was the soup – yellow tomato and basil – which proved I was not in the real world anymore

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This “freebie” plate of cashew-encrusted kale chips was to be my social downfall – so many crumbs were accidentally made that the waiter had to produce a specially-designed instrument in order to sweep up the mess I made. The shame. The shame.

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Tatami wrap with “cream” and chive bloom – I had to actually start eating it to find out what this would involve…

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Vegan “caviar” – one of those bucket-list things to try – and whatever “yuzu pearls” are…

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Black sesame wrap with “goat cheese” – interesting combo, and about the time I realised I didn’t think I could manage much more

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Dessert #1: Mango sorbet with olive oil. Yup really.

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Dessert #2: “Spring root garden”

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Braised baby figs and eucalyptus tea

The quality of the food, I think I don’t really need to say but will anyway, was extremely high, and very inventive. They literally turned food into art and each dish was a miniature masterpiece. I felt like I was ruining the experience just by sticking my fork in, and very nearly did with the mess caused by the kale. Some people say no good can come of kale and while I normally disagree this was one situation where kale went very badly for me. Outside of this atmosphere, I think I would also have enjoyed this cuisine, and each bite felt incredibly healthy and alive. That’s the whole appeal of raw food, and it’s something I would commit to more often if it weren’t so heavy on price and preparation.

As for the dining-along experience… it was greatly alleviated by the fact that it was a vegan place, and therefore I felt more “in the right place” there than I would have otherwise. Also, the one and a quarter cocktails I had helped take the edge off a potentially painfully awkward situation, and when seeing the bill – that is the most I have ever paid for something I have put in my mouth and the most I ever will again.

Another major plus is that this raises the bar for vegan cuisine, as more people come out of curiosity and it gains a reputation. It proves that whether it’s a food truck, a cafe, or the type of place where they take your coat and actually narrate the “food experience” prior to eating, like a fairytale, it can compete with traditional cuisine. Hopefully, one day soon, it might even overtake it in popularity, and in terms of normalcy within the culture.

Would I do this again? Not in a non-vegan restaurant for sure. In a vegan restaurant? Maybe. In this vegan restaurant? Again, maybe. I might not even be in the neighbourhood ever again, for all I know – it’s not exactly handy from here. But even if I were, it would be an extremely infrequent occasion. I treated this evening like I would never go again, but it showed enough promise, in terms of its cuisine, that “never say never” is the best attitude to have.

 

Travel and the big 3-0

It’s been a while because, well it’s always been a while since posting.

I started writing this in Washington DC, having arrived here via Montreal and Quebec City, but due to limited time had to finish it back home. More on that in a minute.

Still coming to terms with the turning-30 thing. I barely feel like I should go out of the house on my own, let alone do adulty things like pay bills, do jury service and travel – again more on that in a minute. My twenties have been a life study in not managing to catch up to everyone around me and not-quite getting a career, or proper “life”, going…

I really thought that by 30, that moment where things “began” would have happened a long time ago, but one small thing leads to yet another small thing and now here we are. I tried to write but was rarely inspired in the way which someone needs to be in order to be on the same calibre as the people they look up to. I tried other things, as documented in previous posts, but they also came to nothing, as if they never happened in the first place. This was seriously beginning to get me down, and was doing weird things to my brain. So after a while, I needed to make a change, if not by way of career, volunteering or otherwise, all of which I’ve tried and has ultimately not come to anything. The one thing left to do that I could think of was to go travelling.

I’m not a secret millionaire so obviously I wanted to do as much as manageable, and having been to Europe a few times I wanted to revisit an old friend – America – and try a new area along the way: Quebec, or French Canada. Something about the area fascinates me, so away I went to see the place.

It was absolutely freezing when I got into Montreal, which would set the tone for the rest of the time here. I knew the place was renowned for its bitterly cold winter season but this was coming into spring… still, I did what was available to do off-season. This involved: electric bike riding, cat-cafe visiting, museum-visiting, biodome-visiting, vegan food eating (Montreal is surprisingly good vegan food wise, even if sandwiches were mostly the order of the day for the purposes of convenience), trapeze-trying (utterly terrifying experience but since it’s the HQ of the Cirque de Soleil (and there were few outdoor activities available to do) it had to be done, and, rather more than I expected, cathedral visiting. And of course, photo-taking.

*****

Then I headed deeper into French Canadian territory, taking the train from Montreal to Quebec City, and that’s where the cold really struck with a vengeance. It was between -5 and -10 the whole time, so I dread to think what winter must be like there. Winter had not only come but was not budging…

Quebec City is a beautiful place, very European (now being a cliche thing to say), but with the tiny cobbled streets, the museums, cathedrals, cafes and all the French speaking, it really didn’t feel much like North America. Quebec City, it has to be said, is terrible for vegans but there was an awsome and unexpected little store where I basically got all the supplies I would need for my stay. Other unexpected delights included: a church/library, a film set hidden within the old city,,Montmorency Falls which is narrower but higher than Niagara Falls, and rather more encased in ice, and a rather charming if imposing cathedral where people left “evidence” of their former ailments, and tokens of gratitude, to St Anne de Beaupre, who was meant to be particularly good at granting miracles, which was nice to see. Also, stumbling across Quebec’s Literary and Historical Society (one of the oldest in North America, if not *the*) was a pleasant surprise, if only so that I could pore over a bit of (English language!) Emily Dickinson and modern Canadian poetry before closing time and with nothing but places open around the city where I have no business being, not being a Francophone. But on account of the cold, and huge lack of a vegan scene, I only scheduled a couple of days there and was looking forward to heading to Washington DC…

*****

Right now what to say about Washington DC which isn’t a cliche… not a lot probably. Maybe one thing. When I scheduled the trip to coincide with the gorgeous and ethereal “cherry blossom season” of early spring – along with the decent temperature at that time – I didn’t expect the weather system to be completely whacked out of shape, resulting in a cold spell – actually make that freezing – which followed me down from Quebec province. This meant that the cherry blossoms which I was hoping to see enshrouding the city were, apparently, “long gone”, but I was there and had three days to spend seeing the place. So I took the standard touristy tour of the city, seeing the main sites including The White House, the Capitol, the National Archives, the (barren) Tidal Basin, etc. which was all done whilst trying to maintain a core body temperature. The following day I ventured out on my own, trying to cover what I had not already seen, but which was do-able given the annoying inconsistency of the wifi, the transport system (not a walking city), and that led to gems such as the International Spy Museum and a couple examples of the Smithsonian Institute, namely the Museum of Natural History and the Museum of American History. Places like the FBI building and the Pentagon I already saw in passing (good luck trying to get inside) would’ve been interesting too, and having found out about the Masonic Lodge cluster around the city during my stay, made me want to bookmark that for next time, or at least some investigative reading in the meantime. All of these places which I did manage to see were intriguing and quirky in their own little ways, if depressingly overcrowded (and the Library of Congress is closed on Sundays – IMO this is simply Not On) – but simply trying to imagine what these places would be like, all on their own, made me desperate to see them, one day, at the lowest season possible…

Having spent some time debating whether to stay on and spend more time there, or call it a day and have another go another day another time, I opted for the latter and hope that a day will come where the things which I wanted to see and do, which the weather and season failed to enable, will do so next time.

In the next post I’ll outline one particular experience which is unlikely to be repeated ever again, but which, for posterity, I took it upon myself to sample, record, and present here. Three words: vegan fine dining.