To the Land of Ice and Fire

From an early age I knew I had to one day visit Iceland. Ever since flying over part of the lower half of the country during a layover in Keflavik en route to America, looking down from the airplane window to see a glimpse of a landscape that looked positively unreal – volcanoes, rugged terrain, colours of water one would think completely unknown to nature – I knew I had to go. Or return. Depending on whether you’d count a layover as *technically* going to a place. I guess it also didn’t help that Bjork was playing during said plane journey en route to Iceland – in the late 90s, at the height of her commercial international fame – so their national airline is pretty good, let’s just say, at setting the scene.

Fast forward to nearly two decades later – after spending a period of time this year, ever since my trip to the TBEX conference, being mostly laid low for reasons I won’t go into right now, I gradually improved and decided that I needed to try one of my “attempts at travelling” again, in order to shift my perspective on life back onto a wider plane than it had already started to shrink to. This timing, incidentally, was right smack bang in the middle of what I’ve heard referred to as the “shoulder season” – that time when the summer crowds have largely gone, winter has not yet come laying chaos and destruction, and crucially, when prices have normally gone down.

Because I don’t drive (can’t or won’t I’m still not entirely sure) and my first choice would’ve been to rent a car either myself or with a buddy and see the entire country at my/our own pace, my second choice, in this case, was to base myself in Reykjavik for a few days and get the main touristy tours in, then embark upon an organised tour of the north of the country for a few days, returning to the capital for a couple of nights before flying back home. Sounds relatively simple. OK it turned out to be a lot more expensive than the renting a car/hostelling/camping/hitchhiking thing which many younger and more outgoing people opt to do but this was the way in which I knew I would best be able to appreciate the country the way circumstances (namely not being able to drive and probably being too much of a Goose to drive in a place such as Iceland in any case) currently were.

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After a relatively painless journey to Iceland (thanks largely to the high quality headphones I invested in not long before) I arrived at my hostel – and its rather unusual sleeping quarters. While a long time ago I swore off staying in a dorm room ever again (unless I was with friends for whatever reason) I made an exception in this case because of the special “pod” style beds this hostel had, specially imported from Hong Kong and basically like a really tiny little room in and of itself. Which happened to still be located in a dorm room but this was about as affordable a “single” room was going to get in this country so I conceded, and had a rather fun time on the first night pretending I was on some kind of futuristic space mission…

After falling asleep basically the second I got into that pod-type thing I started early the next day with a tour of the Reykjanes Peninsula, an area of the country which is seemingly often neglected due to its deemed purpose of being just the location of the airport and the Blue Lagoon. It is actually meant to be one of the most geologically active areas of the country (and certainly smelled that way) and hosts the most visible part of the continental divide between Europe and America. That is, where the tectonic plates physically meet, rather than bureaucratically speaking. There were no border checks or anything there.

Setting out early, on a very chilly and overcast (and often drizzly) Halloween morning, our first stops were actually at a gas station, then at some “fish farm” where the catches of the day left a very pungent scent in the air, which would then follow us onto the bus for the rest of the day, in addition to a rather disturbing sight of the disembodied heads of thousands of fish in rows and rows being hung out to dry. Disturbing for a vegan like me anyway – a number of those on the tour were happy to sample the local “delicacy”, which I imagine many people are, for reasons I can’t quite fathom. I guess it comes under “adventurous eating” or something. We left mercifully quickly (although unfortunately I was unable to open a window) then stopped again, shortly after, to capture this view of a rare break in the weather allowing for this scene:

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My first “proper” (samsung camera) photo

This is the sort of scene which I’d imagined long before coming here, and one which really sparks the imagination. It’s easy to imagine the “hidden people” from Icelandic folklore scurrying around the place, presumably being so skilled at building houses that they don’t mind living out somewhere the cold air can actually bite. So despite nearly losing the use of my hands from the low external temperature, I set about capturing as much of it as possible, both here and on the few stops along the way. There was a stop at a rather foreboding looking lake (because of the weather conditions mostly), some curious rock formations, hardly little Icelandic ponies bravely braving the awful weather like the little bosses they were, a random heart-shaped formation on one of the hills we passed, and of course, this all provided ample opportunity (for the few moments I could stand to be outside) to try out the macro photography settings on my camera again.

We moved onto one of the many actively geothermal areas that Iceland has to offer, and it’s one thing to know that such areas exist but quite another to actually see boiling mud and water coming out of the ground, knowing that it is *entirely* the work of nature.

Next we moved onto possibly my favourite part of the tour; the raised tectonic ridge which forms the divide between the continents of Eurasia and North America. Not only was there an abundance of that hardcore-looking black rock and sand which is unique to the country, but the idea of literally standing on the border – the true one – between two massive landmasses, and standing directly on the single longest “line” on the entire planet, was a thought worth reflecting on for a while.

(Brief digression: I got to put the panorama and macro settings on my humble yet dependable little Samsung compact digital camera to full use here. During this trip I would come to learn the limits of this camera (well actually I did on a previous trip but sometimes it takes a while for a lesson to sink in) – as reliable as it is for taking generally high quality photos for the most part, it fails quite spectacularly when it comes to low-light settings, for example. For some time before leaving I painstakingly deliberated over whether or not to invest (splurge) on a more professional camera, such as a Nikon or a Canon, especially with the possibility of seeing the northern lights so tantalisingly close. After a lot of back-and-forth-ing, mainly because I’d already parted with an eye-watering amount of money booking the trip in the first place, in the end I decided to stick with and make the most with what I already had – as it turns out, several cameras between all my devices – and to simply try to improve. In any case I much prefer to travel light wherever possible rather than drag around hulking equipment, especially when there’s no guarantee they’ll actually be put to use. I may however have to reconsider this attitude. End of digression.)

On the tectonic ridge is where I also saw a peculiarly colourful type of plant-life which simply invited a few photos at close range. It made me wonder what it was about the plant which made it hang on in this type of setting, being so seemingly inconducive to thriving life.

Stopping at another geysir (there were honestly so many of these that I won’t bombard the page with photos of every single one we saw – same with waterfalls, as spectacular and awe-inspiring as they are, posting photos of every single one of them might be a bit excessive) and at – *drum roll* – a lobster restaurant in a fishing village (where I only had a coffee and some snacks I had the foresight to take with me), we arrived at the symbolic continental divide, a place where they built a bridge between the tectonic plates so that one could actually know they were crossing from Eurasia to North America, and vice versa. I took a few selfies here but they look dumb enough for me to be too embarrassed to post them here. So instead make do with a photo of the symbolic bridge.

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“You shall not pass!”/”Papers please”

Finally, the tour ended with me, and a few other people, being dropped off at the Blue Lagoon. I don’t normally “do” lagoons, or otherwise any other communal swimming area, but it was one of those cases where it would be so definitive of the experience of visiting the place that it had to be done at least once. However, a mishap with the workings of the lockers, and no-one readily available to offer assistance – along with the unsettling possibility of having all my stuff stuck in a locker and being left all alone in nothing but my swimming costume – meant that I had to, very reluctantly, abandon the Blue Lagoon, merely settling for taking some photos of the surrounding area.

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The next day there was another early rise for a tour of the classic Golden Circle and also, for shits and giggles, a snorkelling session at the Silfra fissure in Lake Thingvallavatn. In a literally freezing lake.

I surprise myself sometimes. I really do.

There was the standard coffee/photo-taking stop en route to the first official stop of the day, where I saw this oddly endearing “earthquake demo” at one particular gas station, a stark reminder of just how likely such a thing would be to happen at any time:

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The first official stop was at Gulfoss waterfall, and on this day we were rather lucky with the weather. Despite being bitterly cold it was clear and sunny, allowing for good photos to be taken with far more ease than the day before. The waterfall was unspeakably massive, and not a little bit intimidating, as was the geysir at… Geysir. The sheer force with which natural elements move is alarming. You quickly learn to respect nature – and the many warning signs and barriers – in this place.

The favourable weather conditions allowed a glimpse of a rainbow. A great photo opportunity here.

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Along the way we stopped at a farm with Icelandic horses, who were willing to come and say hello to visitors in exchange for a few treats. I did not have anything on me to give so I felt like a bit of a tease when they came sniffing up to me…

I felt a bit sorry for them, with what seemed like an endless procession of phones and cameras being pointed at them, but they were lovely to interact with however briefly. I don’t feel as though I encountered nearly as many animals as I wanted to during this trip – very surprising for a country so steeped in its own nature – so perhaps that’s one incentive to go a bit further off the beaten track next time.

 

Our penultimate stop was Thingvellir National Park, where the snorkelling session was to take place. I was already beginning to regret signing up, as I’d battled the soul-chilling cold all day, to the point where it was difficult even to continue to use the camera outside, but it was, by then, One Of Those Things I Had To Try While I Was Here. After what seemed like several hours of suiting up in completely waterproof clothing (I was prepared to take as long as possible to make sure ZERO of that near-freezing water got in), we started swimming…

I actually tried to signal that I wanted to stop snorkelling pretty much immediately, as the cold was so painful on the few areas of skin that were exposed to the water, but I decided to endure it and soon it was fine. This sight – photos here courtesy of one of the instructors – was the reward for doing so. I did take my own photos beneath the surface but feel that the professionals are best suited to portraying the sheer awesomeness of the lake on this occasion. Funnily enough there is also no animal/marine life in Thingvallavatn apart from algae, which made it all the more surreal in my view.

Our last stop was the original site of the Althingi, the first ever known parliament in the world, and it also turned out to be the site of a simultaneous sunset and moonrise, which I didn’t manage to capture properly due to leaving my camera in the van, because I thought it was getting too dark to be able to properly photograph anything by then. I did however manage to capture the sunset earlier, after finishing the snorkelling:

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It was at the end of this long day that I was informed by email that the tour I was meant to embark upon – to Akureyri in the north of Iceland, and the surrounding area – was cancelled due to lack of participants, and then I had to basically scramble to make an alternative plan. It was during this scramble that I began to whole-heartedly lament my decision to take a chance on a third party, and my never learning to drive up until then. Had I been able to hire a car it would have been a lot easier to be flexible with travel from place to place, and probably a lot cheaper too. However I decided to simply try to recreate the original plan as closely as possible, booking flights and a hotel in Akureyri, and an alternative tour of the area. Then to let off some steam I went for a wander in the neighbourhood at nighttime, trying out the night-time settings on my camera.

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The Hallgrimskirkja

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In order to see as much diversity of landscape as possible while in Iceland, I opted to try to stay at least part of the time in another corner of the country. That’s why I opted for Akureyri, in the absence of the opportunity to travel round the entire Ring Road. So I flew up and walked the hour-long journey into town. It looked like a certain quiet mountain town in Colorado I have to say, upon first impression…

The plan was to spend the following day undertaking a tour with a Game of Thrones theme – to see some of the settings of the show, along with Lake Myvatn and some more iconic scenery along the way. More photo opportunities, more opportunities to fire the old imagination back up again… until the following morning, when the tour van didn’t show. Or answer their phone. Or answer their email until nearly a week later. Ok then. No biggie.

The only thing left to do, with no other form of transportation and a flight not leaving till the following day, was to wander around the town. This proved to be quite a logistical challenge as it had been snowing heavily overnight and I couldn’t even see where the roads and pavements began, but it was either that or stay in the hostel the entire time. I was beginning to become increasingly reminded of Bill Bryson’s Neither Here Nor There, in which the author travels up to a remote Norwegian town in the arctic circle, where it is very picturesque but where one runs out of things to do very soon, which leads to a rather humourous recollection. With no chance to appreciate the surrounding natural landscape, and not even very many shops open, some of the few options off-season were, seemingly, to find the nearest bar or cafe and sit nursing a drink for a while. And take some photos of what could be seen through the snow. And have the single most expensive salad of my entire life.

Akureyri was only ever meant to be, for me, a “base” town from which to venture into the surrounding countryside. Indeed I get the sense that had it been during the summer, there would’ve been a chance to go hiking in the area, however on this occasion it was not meant to be. I was beginning to look forward to going back to Reykjavik – if only so I could have a proper meal again.

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Reykjavik is a very pleasant and accepting town (technically a city but it really doesn’t feel much like one) and incidentally, there was a music festival – Airwaves ’17 – while I was there. But being woefully out of touch with the contemporary music scene, let alone the Icelandic one, I didn’t feel justified in buying an entire season ticket. However there were plenty of off-venue gigs which were playing around the town which I got to listen in on, while sampling the local craft beers, some of which I rather liked, some of which I’d gladly never go near again. An acquired taste indeed. It was a pretty interesting time to be in town.

One thing which is starting to increase in popularity, in Iceland, and Reykjavik in particular, is veganism. As a country which is widely known as being one of the worst places in the world to try to find vegan food – where locally grown fruits and vegetables are extremely scarce and imports extremely expensive – I was not expecting to eat abundantly while here. I was fully prepared to survive on snacks purchased from supermarkets the entire time, with the very occasional meal out if there was a rare vegan option somewhere. After all, it was not the local cuisine I came here for, but rather the unique geographical setting. The sheer novelty of the place. Yet options there were, in the most unexpected of places, namely an American diner-type venue where an old-fashioned (veggie) burger, fries and guacamole ended up being one of the best things I’d tasted in what seemed like ages; perhaps that it was eaten during a raging storm taking place outside added to the enjoyment a little. This, and the only vegan bar/cafe in the entire country, was found thanks to the Happy Cow app, which sorts me out pretty much anywhere I go. Also articles like these are a big help, serving as not only a food guide but as evidence that I wasn’t such a strange creature for wanting to continue being vegan even in the kind of place which seems otherwise antithetical to that kind of lifestyle.

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Another reason to go to Iceland? The literature.

Iceland is a country obsessed with reading, having the highest number of published authors per capita (and general appreciation of reading, from casual observance) in the entire world, showing itself most notably in a very charming Christmas tradition of distributing a catalogue called “book tidings”, or “Bókatíðindin“, in order to provide ideas for books to give to people over the festive season. Oh and it’s also a UNESCO City of Literature, keeping company with other cities with a rich literary heritage such as Edinburgh. In short it is a place where it’s deeply cool to be into reading and writing, a perfect place for someone like me and my near-obsession with the subject area.

The literary tradition is, basically, as old as the country itself. The early settlers transcribed their thoughts and ideas into runic form almost literally (ha!) as soon as they made their home here and it would not be long before Norse mythology would manifest in the Icelandic sagas, producing early figures such as Snorri Sturlson – the composer of the Edda – which/who would gain prominence and notoriety over time. In addition, literacy has been a crucial skill ever since the very origins of the nation, even for the layperson, it was compulsory to be able to read scripture when Christianity took a stronghold on the elite and the common people alike. In any case, according to Alda Sigmundsdottir’s fascinating (if oftentimes surprisingly depressing) The Little Book of the Hidden People, life was often so harsh and grim for the Icelandic people that communal reading and storytelling was one of the few ways they could escape their circumstances for a short while. Read the fantastical tales themselves in order to see how far removed from reality they can be (one in particular is almost certainly the result of the inadvertent ingestion of an hallucinogenic substance) and you’ll get the idea.

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An easy way to get a quick fix on the go

As someone who was reading long before they could actually speak, whose favourite thing to do while growing up was to hide out with a pile of books somewhere, and who (eventually) got a degree in literature – harbouring a special focus/interest in mythology and folklore from the beginning of the course – and who, um, once tried to self-publish a “short story” collection on Kindle… I guess it’s kind of inevitable that I would end up coming here, and that I felt like I might fit right in. Even though lately I’ve been in a bit of a slump reading-wise, I always welcome the opportunity to dive right back in, and an entire society geared towards fuelling the habit of reading seems like the ideal environment, and one great example of this, found entirely by chance, is in the park benches in the city which allow you to listen to a sample of Icelandic literature by simply scanning a barcode, as shown in the photo above. I’ve never seen anything like it before.

Of course, I would need to bring at least one book back home with me. A real book, not a Kindle one. I ended up choosing the Elder Edda by (allegedly) Snorri Sturluson, and to be honest I was so overwhelmed by the choice of more modern literature (I’ve just never been into crime as a genre) that I decided to pass – at least for now – and rather admire the sheer legendary might of the literary canon:

 

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So I ended up downloading a short story collection. Also, picking up some token souvenirs from the local grocery store in order to bring a literal flavour of Iceland back home with me. I still don’t know what to do with any of these. Ok maybe except for the herbal tea.

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I Volunteered With Animals Again

I made the decision to volunteer with animals again. As given away in the title.

I’m always on the look-out for events where I can actually interact with animals, especially in a vegan setting. If there’s one thing I can never understand it’s when animal products are served or consumed in a place where the animals are meant to be enjoying a “safe space” from that very thing. Just over a year ago I volunteered at a place in Spain called Jacob’s Ridge, otherwise known as Pig Village, and as a vegan sanctuary it ticked all the boxed for me. In exchange for a few hours’ volunteering per day, you got a tent, lots of homemade vegan food and the pleasure of interacting with animals with personalities all over the spectrum, and of course falling asleep – and waking – to the sound of pigs snorting and munching just outside.

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Pictured: the setting of a previous animal-themed adventure

I didn’t write much about it at the time, because I was only just getting the hang of blogging and there were simply too many angles from which to approach it (going through a writer’s block at the time didn’t exactly help either) so one of these days I’ll need to retroactively write a fuller account of my time there. In the meantime I’ll just focus on the present, and most recent experience.

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I’m a member of the London Vegan Meetup group, which I joined a year ago when I realised that you were actually allowed to join groups based in places where you don’t go to an awful lot but simply have an interest in what they might be doing and want to decide, at the time, whether or not you’ll be available, or be willing to make the effort to attend. I was both of these things and, based on a quick read of the website (and the fact that I was looking for an excuse to visit London (and Brighton) again anyway) I signed up and booked into the cheapest accommodation possible. This proved to be not too difficult as student accommodation starts freeing up during the summer months so woo hoo!

As per usual, I scouted around for lodgings which made up the magic combo – affordable, central in location, and with free wifi. However because it was central London I was prepared to compromise on things like cleanliness, comfort and noise level. As for getting to London, I was going to fly down, having had a not too great experience getting a very busy train for a very long five hours last time, but because it was so last minute flight prices had been bumped right up, so I looked again on the train website for journeys that wouldn’t be too expensive. It was then that I noticed that some first class seats were going not exactly cheaply but far less extortionately expensive than usual, and it was the option which allowed for individual seating. That was me sold, although it took a bit of going back and forth before finally committing to the entire thing – the day before departure.

So I packed as lightly as possible and away I went, the journey going without a hitch except that the seats weren’t quite as “individual” as they were advertised as being, resulting in me cursing my decision to “treat” myself to a first-class ticket for the very first time. Luckily the accommodation was within walking (huffing with a suitcase) distance of the train station, and the room was indeed very “spartan” – it resembled a prison cell more than a student’s room to be honest but knowing that I could leave at any time (minus the accommodation price) made it easier somehow.

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The actual view from my window. Remind you of anything…?

Rising after virtually no sleep (if any) early the next morning, I popped into Regent’s Park and took some photos – and met a squirrel who was not in the least bit shy about approaching me – before meeting fellow volunteers at Charing Cross Station.

 

It would emerge that only a third of the fifteen or so people who signed up actually showed up, which was incredibly disappointing (although this wasn’t exactly the first time I experienced this sort of thing) not least of all for the organiser, but we went ahead anyway. We were picked up at the nearest train station by the volunteer who was driving and we arrived at the sanctuary. It was a glorious sunny day for the event to be happening, and the animals – pigs, cows, ducks, chickens, geese and one very friendly goat – were all happily splashing or wallowing around, just as they were meant to be.

 

A bit of background info: FRIEND Animal Rescue is an organisation based in the rural Kent area which takes in any abandoned and/or neglected animal they can. These are primarily what most people would consider “farm animals” – who are quite possibly the most systematically abused and unfortunate creatures on the planet – along with a few “companion” animals, and here they are allowed to live out their lives in comfort and peace. Also (what particularly drew me to this place) is that it is a vegan sanctuary, with the humans actively promoting a vegan lifestyle, namely through their open days where visiting humans can observe and interact with the animals (subject to the wishes of the animals of course) and learn more about a responsible and compassionate lifestyle.

Back to the volunteer day; knowing that I don’t do well when put in a situation where I don’t know exactly what I’m supposed to be doing, I decided to simply do exactly what the volunteer I was paired up with was doing, and got to work sweeping out the hen houses, picking up the eggs they had laid (along with the, ahem, accompanying fluids attached to said eggs), refilling water, shovelling manure, and generally meeting and greeting (and getting nibbled and pecked by) the non-human residents along the way.

I learned a few things about some of them; geese and ducks are quite bold and defensive, squawking constantly and trying to peck at you if you get too close;

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A not-so-silly goose running the show

Chickens don’t mind too much if you stroke them, providing they’re in the right mood;

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Came up to hang out with me at lunchtime

Goats, or this one goat in particular in any case (who I took it upon myself to name Goaty McGoatface in the absence of knowing their name) can be surprisingly friendly, going as far as to follow you for a stroke or two;

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Probably goes by a different name

Cows, particularly bullocks, are more massive than you’d imagine;

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Their moos are quite earth-shattering

And pigs can demolish entire pineapples and watermelons at an alarming rate;

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Pictured: not a video of pigs at feeding time as I’d wanted (current website plan won’t let me) so here’s one of me trying to remain awake and upright for an on-the-farm selfie

 

Of course, these traits – particularly the ones relating to temperament and personality – are not necessarily ones which define the entire species, as that would be a blanket generalisation which contributes, in part, to the speciesism which humans are all too inclined towards. Some of the negative traits, such as the fear, aggression and irritability, are just as likely to have been the result of mistreatment in their past lives as mere quirks of their individuality – with it being a rescue centre, the animals coming to the place will have come from a background which many would not even want to think about, but one which is all too often a reality – and indeed routine – for virtually all of their kind. However as volunteers we came prepared for entire personality “spectrum”, taking care to practice sensitivity and kindness, and being pragmatic about some of them not wanting to get too close.

In any case, the animals were by and large very good sports at having us there, making brief interruptions to their personal space in order to do the maintenance work required for the open day, although I did get pecked and grunted at more than a few times. Such is the price of caring!

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Travelling all that way down, only to have them turn their backs on me 😛

Before even the lunch break (an all-vegan potluck for which I was woefully ill-prepared with cereal bars being my sole contribution) I was absolutely shattered, and genuinely felt unable to continue for much longer. It is rare that I do a full day of concentrated work these days, my energy only tends to only come in the shortest of bursts here and there (if I’m lucky) but knowing it was for a special cause, and being among like-minded people, I pushed on, and I was most glad I did so. As a vegan who strives to do as much good for animals as possible (I still have too many commitment issues to adopt one but I’m working on that), I would love for this to be a more regular thing to do.

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As of yet there is no fully vegan animal rescue centre in Scotland to my knowledge – at least one that can be reached without a car. There is one which is still in the process of being funded and is not yet open but I don’t know its exact intended location. Not even FRIEND Animal Rescue could be accessed easily without carpooling, but if there were such a place near where I lived I would be a regular volunteer. Ever since volunteering itself seemingly became a “privilege” which necessitates a rigorous screening process and put on a months-long waiting list – or like me, simply being let go after a session or two for no apparent reason – I’ve found my drive to continue to make a come-back into volunteering wane considerably. One might think that simply a willingness to help would be the only necessary prerequisite (along with a basic background check if working with vulnerable beings) but when I find that I spend most of my time at home not really doing anything of much use to the wider world when I KNOW I want to be more productive, and to participate more in society, one can’t help but conclude that there has to be a reason.

The great thing about places like FRIEND Animal Rescue is that they welcome any and all volunteers with open arms, perhaps in part because compassion and consideration for animals (outside of those relegated to pet-status) is still so rare, despite growing awareness with the help of vegan activists, that all the help anyone can offer is the very least that people can offer these animals who have endured such a hard life.

I’d strongly urge anyone to go visit their nearest animal sanctuary or rescue centre – actually go to meet these animals face to face, and then never allow themselves to forget the faces that will imprint themselves on their mind’s eye. The faces behind the “machine” which only views them as products and property, doing all it can to hide the fact that they, in the truest sense, are people too.

 

Getting Back To Nature

It takes me a ridiculously long time to post here, and I’m becoming more aware that it takes me a ridiculously long time to do absolutely anything now. For a long time I had no idea why this would be the case, considering that blogging is meant to be “what I do”, but then again if you don’t have anything to blog about then it becomes harder to blog about just… nothing. Well some might be able to manage it but I only ever want to blog if I feel like I have something worth saying.

After returning back home from Israel I relapsed, with a startling ease, into my default “do nothing but worry about everything” lifestyle, which usually involves… doing nothing. At least on the surface. However I had it in the back of my mind, the entire time, to try to keep up the momentum that I had built up over my most recent excursion, before I became too stuck in my “routine” (more on that on a post soon to come), and it occurred to me that I had not yet used a tent I’d had for ages and was going spare.

Spring + good weather + tent + free time – full-time-job – anything else to do = camping

Also, I wanted – or rather needed – to get back to nature.

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A few weeks ago I went camping in Arran alone for the first time. That is to say, I went to Arran alone for the first time and I went camping alone for the first time. Despite making an effort to travel more – which more often than not means going it alone – these two things I had never once done alone before then, so it was another experience to try, in order to see if I wanted to repeat it in the future. Having initially been thwarted by a ferry already departing when I was about to board (because apparently you cannot arrive less than fifteen minutes before departure) I summoned up my motivation, with some effort, to try again and three days later I finally made it to the ferry – and to Arran – this time.

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The ferry which wouldn’t let me on. I got on one a few days later.

Opting for the same campsite I stayed at the last time, due to it being conveniently located for someone who doesn’t drive, I was sure that it would be a relatively painless first-solo-camping experience. Above all, I was there to go walking, take photos, and generally reconnect with all the things I tend to miss out on when holed up in my home much of the time. It made sense to do this in a place which already held good memories for me.

Setting up pitch was a doddle, with my tent being one of those pop-open ones (flimsy as hell but far more novice-friendly), and I immediately got to appreciate one of the known highlights of staying at that particular campsite: the resident deer community.

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There is something quite special about getting so close to a typically reclusive species, but of course their appearance at the precise moment I arrived, in the mid-evening, indicated that it was already getting late. Not necessarily too late for a quick hike, given the lengthening of the days, but on account of the relatively infrequent bus service, too late for me to do anything except wander to the nearest pub to charge my devices (electrical outlets were only available for tent-residing guests during the day for some reason) and planning the route for the “main” hike the next day. Then it was during the walk back along the virtually deserted road both to the pub, and then back to the campsite, that I was able to take full advantage of my camera and get some of my best yet shots of the twilight and of the moon; (note the words “best yet”, still plenty of room to improve…)

That night, however, would be one of the coldest I’ve known, not on account of the weather itself which was relatively mild, but due to the specific location of the campsite – which acts as the opposite of a suntrap in the evening – and the aforementioned flimsiness of the tent. I suppose it was one of those experiences which they call “character-building” but in any case eventually it became daylight, first marked by the snuffling and munching of the deer just a few inches away outside. I actually feared, one more than one occasion, that they would try and trample onto me, confused by the colour of my tent blending in so well, but I did sign up for interacting with nature so…

It was the original plan to do at least one “proper” hike, from the choice of downloadable routes on my hiking app, but of course to do anything of the kind I would need the phone it was downloaded onto to have sufficient power (I came of age just when technology started to overtake the traditional paper map, and I never learned orienteering) so it was that the entire morning was spent merely charging my phone at the local distillery cafe. This would definitively narrow down the number of routes I could do to definitely one, and *maybe* two at a big stretch. I chose the one which I could access from where I was already, a route which took you from Lochranza round the tip of the north of the island, towards the Cock of Arran (yes that’s really its name) which would make for some impressive scenery along the way.

The app leading me up along the bay of Lochranza, many photos were taken and many sheep were seen, albeit not too pleased to be approached too readily, only being willing to give a wary stare.

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They know how to stare you down…

The northern coastline, at least alone the prescribed route, was quite low and right by the shore, and would lead to a beauty spot called Fairy Dell, where there was meant to be a cottage, then a climb up into the wooded area. Along the shore was where I noticed the features of the landscape seemingly unique to the area; the types of moss, flowers and rocks textured by the sea. It would turn out that I would only make it as far as the cottage, because my phone still managed to run out of power and I wasn’t quite confident enough to go climbing up somewhere I didn’t know with no other means of navigating.

Also, due to the lateness of my starting, it was starting to become more… populated. Which wasn’t exactly what I’d come here to seek out, judging from the expression I now reserve for just such an occurrence.

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Fairy Dell, Arran

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Camden, London

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Petra, Jordan

I’d come seeking total seclusion, but I suppose that if your plans are prone to being overthrown all too easily – say by being unable to gain a full phone charge until later in the day – then these things tend to happen. So doing my best to proceed as planned, it was in this picturesque little area I indulged my camera some more, and tried to figure out just what this Fairy Dell cottage was supposed to be, apart from a landmark on a walking route.

For one thing, there were two cottages: one white and one brown, although from the guide the white one was what they called Fairy Dell cottage. The brown one looked more like a regular hermit’s cottage by the sea. They each looked like a normal residence from the outside, albeit one from a traditional fairytale. According to local folklore, this is the area where fairies come to dance – and presumably, the cottage is where they go to put their feet up and have a drink when they’re tired of dancing (and of constant passers-by interfering with their dance) but when peering inside, the cottages seemed to serve as nothing more than storage space. So much for the magical illusion. But it was nice to pretend that it might still sometimes serve as an idyllic home for some kind of creature, human or otherwise…

Making the pragmatic realisation that, due to transport schedules, this would most likely be my “main” hike of the day, I doubled back on the route back to the campsite, meeting some more sheep along the way who were enjoying the local delicacy, the gorse:

Then it was time to think about sustenance, and also getting some kind of extra layer of material with which to survive the second night camping. Hitching a ride into Brodick (the main town on Arran) I stocked up on vegan supplies at the local store and, realising that I wouldn’t want to sit alone in a pub anyway, even if they did have something I could consume besides alcohol, I hitched a ride right back to the campsite, “squirrelling” my supplies in my tent (as I was once frequently accused of doing, by, as it happens, who I stayed at the campsite with the last time) and squeezing in one last hike. The sunset from this part of the island is a wonder to observe, especially in the summertime, and from this vantage point it would’ve been a crime not to at least try to immortalise it on camera.

The second night, rather than turning into a human popsicle, it was only the weight of my body which stopped the tent from flying off to another remote point in the western isles, and a middle-of-the-night trip to the loo was consumed with worry that the tent would not be there upon my return. Fortunately it was, and having been subjected to both low temperatures and high winds, unexpectedly, during my stay, I “treated” myself to a prompt departure back home.

However ill prepared I tend to be for these types of endeavour, I’m almost always glad afterwards that I at least made the effort to try. If nothing else it produces an amusing anecdote or two, and some images to add to my portfolio. As I’m in the (slow) process of developing a sideline in photography – with a view to becoming more of a “full-time” thing – I try to maximise the situations I wind up in which allow me to take advantage of the ability to practice. Although I’m not sure if I’ll camp again anytime soon though – it turns out that being able to drive is something of an underrated skill, so ubiquitous as it is now, and one that which becomes starkly apparently by its absence. Therefore when I choose a place to set up camp – literally and metaphorically – it has to be both within relatively easy reach of vegan food and have decent wifi.

These are things which I’m perhaps able to survive without for a time – but under my particular circumstances, not to thrive.

 

 

 

 My Foreign Volunteering Experience (well my most recent one)

After attending the TBEX conference in Jerusalem and going on a tour of Jordan, I started a week of volunteering, via an international volunteering organisation, at an animal shelter in Tel Aviv. Once I saw the ad online a few months ago – and saw that a private room (albeit at an extra cost) was available – that was it for me – I had to seize this opportunity. It was the perfect excuse to stay longer in the country, and to make a positive contribution.
I’d heard stories about the “hit and miss” nature of voluntourism, of volunteers paying through the nose to merely have a taster of a volunteering experience without actually making any real difference. I didn’t have a huge amount of money and wanted to be careful, but I also wanted to be open to experiences, as making the effort to do so had paid off before. I’d had a taste of volunteering abroad a year ago, at a vegan animal sanctuary called Pig Village, or by its other name, Jacob’s Ridge, in Spain, which was the perfect volunteering experience. I got to interact with lots of lovely rescue animals, join in with other volunteers mucking out in the sunshine, go for leisure trips in and around the area, camp out in a tent under the stars and enjoy copious amounts of vegan food every day. There was a certain amount to pay for the experience but it was more than worth it, and every penny was going towards the wellbeing and upkeep of the sanctuary. I believe in money well spent, and this was just such a case.
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This was one of my first impressions of the place and it only got better from there…

I’m not quite sure I can say the same about my most recent experience. In terms of how much I spent, and in being unsure precisely where that money ended up going – not in what type of volunteering I did, that’s for sure. I always like to interact meaningfully with animals wherever possible and I got such a chance on this occasion.
I did have one or two tiny niggling doubts in the beginning, but the prospect of caring for animals in a place I’ve always wanted to visit was enough of a lure, and being able to do it for just a week was ideal, so that I could see how I liked it before potentially extending the placement. Those niggling doubts began to increase slightly as the significant and non-refundable down payment was made, only for communication to become intermittently mixed up and confused, with different people emailing me through different threads asking for forms which I’d already said several times that I’d sent. A couple of other niggles made themselves known when the travel insurance – included in the price – turned out to basically not cover anyone taking medication. For anything. This essentially rendered the insurance useless, leaving the only outstanding cost being for the price of accommodation for a week. Then the single supplement was quoted, and shortly after, quoted as being even higher – $300 higher – than a dorm room. But this was one thing which I simply could not compromise on – I needed my own room, especially for an entire week of what would most likely be hard but enjoyable volunteering.
Because everything was non-refundable at this stage, I tried to be optimistic and give the benefit of the doubt. I thought, well for that amount of money they’ve probably got a very integrated and involving placement lined up for me. With everything paid up, and hoping for the best, I embarked upon my trip proper, first going to Europe, then to Jerusalem for my conference, then undertaking a three day tour with Abraham Hostels, where I was staying. Then came the induction day, where I’d be joining my fellow volunteers and having a fun day in the city (or one more fun day in the city, in my case) but it was at this meeting that the volunteer coordinator informed me that I was the only one on the placement. I found this very jarring, as it was entirely unexpected, but what made it even more awkward was the still-standing offer to show me round the city, and at this stage my reluctance to be entirely responsible for conversing with someone at this stage in my travels won out as I was pretty damned tired by that stage in my travelling, and  I was also reeling from the disappointment that I’d have no other volunteers with whom to share the experience, as this was a big part of the reason I’d wanted to volunteer in the first place. So I ended up having another aimless wander in the steadily growing heat of the day, first to Damascus Gate, then back for lunch at a veggie cafe, trying to figure out how to best proceed with the placement now that things were very different from what I was expecting.
They say to expect the unexpected – presumably, I’m thinking, as in, a challenge during the programme, an animal which perhaps needs more intensive care than the others, for example, a challenge which I’d try to rise to. But this here – this sudden… what could only be described as a very expensive awkward situation, was truly unexpected. The type of unexpected which I had most certainly not been expecting. However, after a day spent alone, reflecting upon the situation, I decided to take a deep breath and approach it with a good attitude. I thought, when I get to the shelter, I’ll be taken good care of, it won’t matter, surely, that I’m the only one on my placement, I’ll be absorbed into the fabric of the place regardless. I was looking forward to meeting the animals and getting to show them some much-needed care and attention.
The next day, we travelled from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv to check in to my hostel, and the co-ordinator asked if I wanted to volunteer that day and to be shown around the place. This was something I was definitely up for doing, as I felt that an induction to the organisation was a good start. But it was the phrasing of it as a question – as an option – which puzzled me. The co-ordinator told me that some people choose not to volunteer on the first day and, considering I had only a week on the placement, I found this extremely odd. Why wouldn’t anyone want to go ahead with the induction and tour of the facility? I found it hard to believe that others would willingly forgo a crucial part of their training, especially when they’d paid a fair amount to be there…
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We reached the animal shelter and there, the co-ordinator introduced me to the receptionist, one other person (who I never saw again afterwards) and pointed to a guy outside saying I could ask him questions about the animals if I had any. It was at this point that I’d assumed that at least one of the staff members would chip in and start talking to me directly, building a supervisor-volunteer relationship and showing me around the place themselves. But communication would be extremely sparse for the rest of my time volunteering there. I would end up talking to almost no-one else who worked there, and I’ve no idea why, even now. I was then asked to fill in a form ticking the boxes for things I wanted to do, including dog walking, caring for the cats (and other animals), admin, etc. I wanted to appear as flexible as possible.
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One of the dog kennels at the centre

The co-ordinator showed me the main area where the animals were kept and said that I could pick a dog to walk, for twenty minutes, on the leash the entire time. Any dog. Out of like a million. All the dogs started barking manically, desperate to be taken out for a bit of fresh air and exercise. I started welling up inside as I saw and heard the dogs who wanted so little, but so badly. They all looked so imploringly at me, and most of them seemed friendly, if excitable. I could scarcely choose one. We went into the kennel to choose a dog which the co-ordinator recommended, and it was then it was pointed out to me that some of the signs on the kennels were warnings, saying not to take this or that dog out for a walk that day, that they were likely to bite, to treat with extra care or caution. The warnings were entirely in the local language. I expressed my concern that I wouldn’t be able to understand the warnings but the co-ordinator told me to ask a member of staff if I didn’t understand anything. I was worried about how unprepared I’d I’d most definitely have taken the time to learn more of the language had I known how crucial it would be.
Now to take one of the dogs out for a walk. This was the part which I did genuinely enjoy. The overwhelming excitement of the dog I chose to take out for a walk gave me a feeling of joy and satisfaction which I rarely experience, in such concentrated levels, anymore. Saying hello to the dog was fun, having them sniff me out and wonder who I was, if I was worth getting to know. We’d have twenty minutes of fun together, for which I was all game.
So I chose a nice friendly seeming dog and we went for a wander around the yard. The coordinator also chose one and wandered out of sight from me, basically leaving me to it. When encountering another dog walker and their dog, the two dogs started getting very excitable and, before long, difficult to manage. They got their leashes tangled up and I tried to call for help but it took quite a long time for any assistance to arrive. I didn’t know how to manage dogs in this situation, whether to allow them to play fight or not, as I was unable to understand the specific requirements of the dog due to those requirements being written in a different language. But I was told by the co-ordinator, regardless, when I finally got their attention, that I was “doing fine” and when I expressed concern at not knowing what to do, they simply said that I just had  “spend time” with the dogs. Well in theory, spend time with all the animals, but this was going to turn out to be a very dog-based placement for me.
This was a wonderful arrangement in theory, and something I genuinely wanted to do, but due to the circumstances- that I had flown (literally) VERY far outside my comfort zone, taken a major leap of faith and paid a lot of my savings just to come here – it seemed all so… Lacking in structure. 
At this point I’d like to give credit where it’s due. The shelter where I was placed clearly does the very best it can for its animals and is a much needed asset to the city, and indeed the country, for the work it does. It tries to rehome every animal it possibly can, cares for the animals it cannot yet rehome, and relies heavily upon volunteers to give the animals companionship. I certainly felt the sheer weight of emotional expectation, through the intense gaze of each dog in each kennel, the moment I set foot in the place. However, this ambiguity of expectation was, for me, precisely the problem. The very thing which the volunteer co-ordinator, in particular, seemed to be “selling” to me as the main advantage of the placement – its easy-going, laissez-faire, “come when you want to it doesn’t matter either way” nature – which felt entirely misplaced to me. 
Basically I felt that far too much was left entirely up to me, when my predominant expectation, gathering from what I’d learned from the volunteering material I’d been given, was to prepare for a more structured experience. I was certainly no expert in what those vulnerable animals needed (besides a bit of company every now and again) – I’ve interacted plenty with dogs in the past, but not ones with highly volatile and unpredictable natures who, for all I know, could start mauling me if I didn’t know the local lingo for “sit!”, “stay!” or “down!”, where not even Google translate could come to my aid, as there was no app, as far as I could find, which would aid phonetic pronunciation with languages which have an entirely different alphabet structure to the Roman one.
Of course, there is every possibility that this is simply the Tel Aviv attitude. It is renowned worldwide for its laid-back party atmosphere, and perhaps that extends to every facet of life here.

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In between my all too brief stints of volunteering, I made the most of exploring Tel Aviv – at least the the greatest extent as was possible while afraid of trying to navigate the local transport system and also with it starting to grow too hot to do too much walking around, as is my usual method of transportation. The problem was that, now that I had rather more spare time than I was expecting, contrary to what one might expect, I actually had far less of an idea of what to do with that time, so much of it was spent aimlessly wandering. Granted, there are far worse places to wander in.

There was definitely a particular ambience about the place, which seemed to finely stride the line between relaxed and frantic, between calm and chaos. It was a marked contrast to Jerusalem, where every second or third person on the street is dressed in traditional Jewish clothing – the young people were pretty much all in the same types of beach-ready clothing you would find in any other cosmopolitan Mediterranean city. Two primary motives were at the forefront of my mind: culture, and vegan cuisine. This search took me through the main market street, which made me realise that I’m probably no longer cut out for marketplaces (and haggling), given the sheer throngs which began to build up as the day went on.

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I went in later that day on my own and there was no-one at reception, where I was told I could leave my bag for security, as there were no lockers in the place. I then reluctantly left my bag in a cupboard by the main door (very insecure) and started walking a few of the dogs. I supposed, then, that this was basically the idea – clocking in and winging it. So I determined to make the most of the dogs’ company. One dog in particular I tried to take out walking, as s/he seemed very happy at the prospect of being let outside, but when I entered the kennel, s/he immediately changed his/her demeanour, quivering on the spot, as if terrified of me. After a minute or so of attempted coaxing, I decided the dog wasn’t ready to go out that day. So I tried another one, who seemed far more confident, and it was before long that I realised how different each dog was personality-wise, despite being confined to a shelter and having endured an unknown past. There were shy dogs and outgoing dogs and active dogs and chilled dogs who just wanted to chew acorns while I stood at their side. Every single one of the dogs simply wanted to be happy and to do what came naturally, to be themselves just for a little while. It was always difficult to choose a dog but I just tried to choose one which looked both physically manageable and the most keen to go outside.
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The entrance to the centre

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Too nervous to go out for a walk that day 😦

However, conversing with the other volunteers was an entirely different issue. The other volunteers were all entirely local, and my lack of local language skills was beginning to become painfully apparent, and embarrassing. When the dogs would inevitably start to sniff one another, occasionally escalating into play fighting (and a couple of times, real fighting), this would also, inevitably, bring their respective walkers together for that time. The few volunteers who spoke to me did so in their language, and my sense of social inadequacy was all the more heightened as I had to, repeatedly, ask if they spoke English. I feared that, in their view, I was that typical “entitled foreigner who expects everyone to speak their language without every bothering to learn the local ways of life” – which, I guess in a way I was, but certainly not intentionally. Had I been more aware of the localised, almost grassroots-feeling nature of the organisation, I’d have invested a good few weeks, at least, in a crash course in the language. I always do like to learn the language of any place I’ll be going but, as my levels of concentration are so poor these days I really need to know, in advance, whether it’ll be worth the time and effort (and most likely money) I end up putting in.
I went in the next day, and then the next day, and it was much the same – but again I got the overwhelming feeling that there was just somehow MORE I could, and should, be doing. I was still struggling to choose which dogs to walk, knowing that every single one of them deserved love and affection and companionship and, simply, a reliable friendly face. I realised that this, in itself, was the very thing which I would have appreciated more structure in place in order to cope with – the emotional aspect of the role. Especially being the sole foreign volunteer in a land where I only knew a few words of the language.

 

However, just like the previous time, the animals were what it was all about for me. The same dog who trembled at my approach the day before was confident enough to come out for a walk and, amid bouts of random howling at nothing in particular, liked to gaze out at the greenery outside…

Then there was this little fella here who just wanted to chillax…

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… and yet another dog who seemed to like nothing more than munching on one of the acorns the entire time. I wonder if the acorn tree has some magical properties or something?

 

It was then that I also wondered if maybe I was the one whose expectations were somehow different to what they were supposed to be. Whether I merely needed to check my privilege, pull it together and carry on, whether I was just inventing things to be bothered about, like I tend to do. But I felt compelled to say something, in order to take as much advantage of the opportunity I’d been given as possible.

I emailed the volunteer co-ordinator after one of those days, outlining my concerns, saying that I was becoming increasingly embarrassed that I couldn’t speak the language, that I was expecting them to be more prepared for international volunteers such as myself, that there was no-one at reception when I got there. They agreed to come in with me the next day, promising to resolve the issues, and what happened was that they approached the reception with me, and said something to the same person they’d introduced me to before. And not even in English this time. It was then that, with a sinking feeling, I realised that I was not getting across whatever it was that, deep down, I felt was out of place. And it was then, at the risk of coming across as extremely rude, that I said that I’d be fine just taking it from there on my own. This was the best I could do from then on.

In between these stints I continued to wander aimlessly around Tel Aviv, admiring the overwhelming amount of both cats and graffiti which was to be found everywhere. I even attempted to go for a swim in the sea a couple of times, both times thwarted by how shockingly cold it was, considering how hot the area around the sea was becoming, so I settled for paddling. I began to grow increasingly frustrated with both the almost-anarchic style of driving and the constant pavement cycling, having bikes veering up rapidly in front and behind you all the time. It made walking around a more “jumpy” experience than I would have liked, and somewhat detracted from the otherwise relaxed vibe. I went to the Tel Aviv Museum of Modern Art, the old town of Jaffa and the only vegan cafe which was open on the Sabbath (which is a big thing in Israel), and the photography opportunities were once again ripe:

Although right here I have to ask something:

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What –

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– is with all –

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– the graffiti?

Not that I’m complaining, quite the opposite. I’ve just never seen the streets used so much as a creative canvas anywhere else I’ve been. Or maybe I’ve just been to all the wrong parts of town…

I attended the centre a couple more times – missing a day (which was extremely guilt-inducing) because I felt, that day, that the stress I would experience from all the disorganisation (and the embarrassment at allowing that stress to become so visible to everyone there) would do more harm than good for the dogs, who rely so much on the company. That’s not even to address the fact that I was supposed to be doing more than walking the dogs. I was supposed to be looking after the other animals there too, but it looked like there was now zero chance of that happening. It seemed as though I was not going to have the chance to talk to anyone, or exchange more than a few words which were something other than a mumbled “I’m sorry I don’t speak the language”, as I continued the rest of the placement not knowing a single person’s name. Or rather, I was told the name of one person who I wouldn’t see again.

Perhaps selfishly, I wanted to feel slightly different than all the hundreds of times I’d signed up for a volunteering placement at home. I wanted to feel something just… more, for making the effort to do such a thing – which I could never quite articulate. In a way, the placement itself had an all too familiar feel, and perhaps I was partially projecting that feeling from those times before, when I’d ended up feeling equally disappointed in my inability to make a meaningful contribution, but either way I’ll never know for sure.
After spending a bit of extra time bidding the dogs goodbye, trying to imprint their faces and their personalities upon my mind for posterity (there was no chance of me doing so with all their names as only one of their names was ever disclosed to me), I took a few photos of the place, walked inside, retrieved my bag, signed out, and walked out of the building for the last time.

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I’ve had some time to reflect on this whole thing, and am still trying to figure out whether I was taken in by a voluntourism corporation, requesting a disproportionate fee in order to do relatively little and leave pretty much everything up to me; whether I was unlucky with the timing, and that if I’d had more of a sense of “community” with fellow volunteers, that I’d have been able to better replicate the positive experience of something like Pig Village a year ago; whether I simply had the wrong attitude, and that I didn’t know how lucky I was to be there and to play such a fleeting role in the lives of the animals, that I should have just shut up and kept my niggles to myself and proceeded with a smile.
Or whether I had, for the millionth time in my life, fallen prey to my own AS, struggling with the “unexpected unexpected”, rather than the Unexpected Which I Had Already Been Expecting, with being entirely responsible for my own schedule, with being entirely in charge of making the experience. Assuming I’d manage far more easily than I ever tend to actually do.
Whether it was a case of being the right place – but the wrong placement – for me.
In any case, it’s been another experience, another “thing I’ve done”, which I can add to my list of things I’ve tried at some point in my life. A thing which has given me pause for thought many a time since coming home, turning over and over in my mind, examining from every angle, wondering how I managed to end up feeling this way about something which was meant to be positive Yet Again.
It makes me wonder how I’d cope with future volunteering – which has become an accidental hallmark of my life, in such a way as it does when you do reliably secure regular employment for quite a long time. Volunteering, by its definition, means giving up one’s time for a good cause, and to, incidentally, gain something which does not have monetary value. But again circumstances have a far bigger role to play than one might assume. If I’d approached this placement – and indeed any of my other placements in the past – with the attitude which, in retrospect, I can now say I should’ve done, I cannot help wondering if I’d had “The Experience” which I hear and read so many travellers, on so many blogs, proclaim to be the best thing they’d ever done. To have been, for all the right reasons, unforgettable. To actually rely on being welcomed back at the place at some point in the future.
Such experiences for me are rare, to the point of being uncertain that any of them even exist, even the ones which I consider to be the most positive. Even placements which I look fondly upon now give me the vaguely uneasy feeling that there was some aspect, some detail, which I neglected to notice at the time, which was all too apparent to anyone else there.
Now I am no longer convinced of the benefits of voluntourism. Volunteers whose skills really are badly needed will usually either have their food and accommodation paid for them or even be given a living wage, and of course I was under no illusions that I was going to make such a significant difference in my short time volunteering. I most definitely wasn’t expecting to be paid for my piffling contribution, or anything. I’ve since read and watched material online of the potential harm that voluntourism can do if done wrong, that it is not uncommon for young people on their gap year (who at least, unlike me, have the excuse of being too young to know any better) to look for a “gap year with a difference”, to add a little something extra to their CV. Volunteering abroad is very “in” right now, as the guilt of complacency and affluence, which many middle class westerners have begun to feel en masse, has begun to set in. Thus the perfect marriage of the holiday, and of benevolent contribution, was born. People will pay extortionate amounts of money in order to be placed in a situation which one would normally assume would require those with some amount of expertise. People are let loose in classrooms of children, a run-down village, a parched landscape, a wildlife sanctuary, and basically left to improvise. Some of these people even recall being told that once they are gone, their work is simply undone, as if it never happened, until the next batch of people come in to do the exact same thing. The sheer weight of emotional responsibility to their charges was in direct inverse correlation to the amount of actual skills and experience required for the position.
If the potential volunteer is anything like me, the sheer investment made before even travelling to the place raises a certain amount of expectation, lending the impression that more will be expected of me than your “average” stint of volunteering. However, the odds are most likely that the potential volunteer is not like me, that they simply want to go on a holiday with a feel-good-factor thrown in. Not a bad intention, for sure, everyone wants to feel like they’re doing something good while feeling good all at once. I certainly do. I still do. Yet one has to carefully weigh up exactly what they want to do, and the consequences of that desire, in as far as they can anticipate those consequences reaching.
I want to volunteer with animals again. I want to make a much better impression the next time round than I did this time. But I will have to better manage myself, check myself, prepare myself for the unforeseen nuances of reality. For how things actually tend to be. I will have to try to expect the “unexpected unexpected” next time.

 

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.