Category Archives: travel

Every teardrop is a waterfall

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Our recent Sukkot holiday found us in one of the most beautiful areas of Israel. In the foothills of the Golan a series of rivers snake through the cliffs and canyons providing welcome relief to the searing heat in the summer and dramatic deluges in the winter and spring. The Hermon is Israel’s highest mountain, bordering Syria and at the edge of Lebanon. It’s hard to believe that this beauty and majesty is the backdrop to wars and terror. The fields in this area are fenced and signs warn of unexploded mines from past conflicts. Disused buildings are peppered with bullet holes and the army presence is hard to ignore. But on a beautiful day, when the sky is blue the colours are alive and fish and crabs that live in the clear waters swim peacefully it is good to take a breath, drink in the scenery and try to forget man’s cruelty and the sadness it brings and let nature do the talking.

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The Great Escape

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When I left Israel at the end of July, I left  sirens and explosions, booms and rattling windows. Now I am back. The sirens have stopped, normal life resumes.
I lived in a bubble for 5 weeks, little or no news, only sporadic social media use, a promise to myself not to read the hate or get involved in the arguments about right and wrong in this age old, never ending fight.

Luckily my bubble was full of parental love, family support, old great friends, gin & tonic at 5.30pm and a bedtime of 11pm. Scattered liberally with picnics, chocolate biscuits, fish and chips, roast dinners and ice cream for the kids every single day. Yes it was a bubble but it was a great big happy bubble (with only a few meltdowns on everyone’s behalf – myself included).

 
IMG_2804I re-discovered a friendship, watched as my kid’s started to converse with one another in English and kept busy, really really busy. As I look back I am amazed by the many incredible experiences my childers had. I could write a guide book to keeping small children amused in Cheshire. Bruntwood Park, Lyme Park, Tatton Park, Torkington Park, Bramhall Park. Styal Mill, Walk Mill, not one but two country shows complete with fairground rides and a pony ride. One trip to North Wales to visit relatives and crab off the jetty, a trout fishing expedition resulting in fresh trout for dinner and a ride on a steam train. A hideous trip to Legoland Discovery (the kids loved it), a walk IMG_2876around Salford Quays, a visit to Jodrell Bank and the Manchester Science Museum and number one son went on a night time bat walk (there are more bats in our garden than he saw). Phew. Where did we find the time? And that’s before we mention the camping trip where they pedalloed and kayaked and slept under stormy canvas, over excitement with the cousins, treasure hunts in the garden after tea, building woodland dens and damning streams.

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All this under the shadow of the situation back home that only the adults were aware of.
This wasn’t real life. It was a holiday, an extra long, extra fun holiday – perhaps I was over compensating for my perceived notion of their fear back home. In reality they had no fear, they don’t understand and even when number 1 son saw a rocket being exploded above his head a day before we flew it was my hands that were shaking, not his. His words, ‘why is it a real rocket?’

The coming back is hard.  Coming back is always hard from any holiday – who doesn’t want to escape reality for a prolonged period? The goodbyes are getting harder and harder.  For a moment at the airport I almost said to my mum, ‘I don’t want to go, don’t make me go’, but the truth is that she wasn’t making me go and I am not a child anymore.  My children and my husband need me to act like an adult and accept real life.  If I want to stay in the UK then not getting on a plane after an extended holiday is not the best way to go about it. But what a great holiday, thanks Mum and Pops x

 

 

Roll up for the mystery tour

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It’s that time again when I am about to expose myself, my lack of knowledge and my inability to retain information. It’s time to take a trip north with overseas visitors. These visitors are not 1st timers so I can’t use my usual trick of talking a lot and saying very little, they are also more likely to catch me out in a white lie. These visitors are my parents and next week we will be going back to their favourite part of Israel, the Galilee.IMG_0620

I can wholly rely on husband’s knowledge of all things geographical, historical and social on our trip but when we get to the Christian sites,of which there are a lot in that part of Israel, he always turns to me.

I am not a religious person, if you had to put a label on it (me) I am Christian. I would like to think I am spiritual but I’m not convinced that I can even award myself that title. As a child I went to Sunday school at the local Methodist church because my Mum was religious and my Dad, a staunch agnostic, needed the peace on a Sunday morning. I have the children’s Bibles to prove I attended but can I remember more than a short smattering of the scriptures? Ummm no. In fact now that I live in the Holy Land it’s shamefully obvious how little I have remembered.

Back at the beginning of my life here I worked for a music promoter; when the bands from the States and the UK flew in, generally with a lot of very anti-Israel ideas, I was their whipping boy and one girl PR show for the positive Israel experience. I was the worst person for the PR role as I have my own love hate relationship with the country. Part of my role, when I wasn’t providing spoilt ‘rock stars’ with their every desire (my lips are sealed) was going on a lot of tours in mini buses with stoned/hungover/bored musicians. As you know from previous posts, Israel is an incredible place of natural beauty so it’s not difficult to impress but when we got to the religious sites I let my explorers down, luckily those who were awake/sober enough to listen were way more clued up than I.

Let’s just take for a moment the Christian sites, supposedly something I should IMG_0618have a vague clue about: I would take my Lonely Planet (not terribly informative religion wise) with me on all trips and surreptitiously read it on the bus. I deflected questions until we had our proper guide with us. Once I famously took a visitor to the many churches on the shores of The Sea of Galilee on Easter Sunday and couldn’t understand why they were all shut. Ignorance is too high a compliment. Maybe my goldfish sized memory is partly to blame. After so many tours and trips, having taken every visiting family member, friend, work colleague over an eight year period I should have ingested some of the knowledge. It’s in there somewhere.

So I have a weekend to get revising and try to link the places I know with the stories that I knew at 8. Site seeing is way more enjoyable if you actually have an idea what site you are looking at. If I don’t manage it I apologise in advance Ma and Pa, perhaps you should get googling.

The 3 legged camel

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On our recent Passover trip to the desert we stayed in a campsite. It was not the kind of campsite I am used to staying in, it was what I would term ‘glamping’ (glamour camping).  No we didn’t all don high heels and dressed for dinner (only the boys), but because the tents were huge domed affairs with tiled floors, mattresses and duvets and although we had communal bathrooms they were cleaner and way more spacious than my bathroom at home.  The real treat of this place was the view.  Perched on the edge of a canyon it overlooked the valley below and out towards the mountains of the Negev.

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On our first evening, weary from a long car trip with small childers we all sat and watched as dusk fell and the light changed the canyon walls from pale yellow to pink.  From down the valley we saw a line of camels walking past.  Stopping occasionally to check out the sparse greenery they followed each other until they were out of sight.  Lagging behind somewhat came a second line, moving slower and in less order than their predecessors these camels had one leg bent at the knee and bound with bandages.  At first we thought the leader was injured but as more went by, we realised that these camels must be the runners as they were all tied, presumably to stop them escaping.  Bringing up the rear was a man with a stick.  Where they were going is unclear as they were moving away from the tiny village, perhaps they liked to sleep al fresco, far from man’s encroachment on their desert dwelling.

Apparently this is called hobbling and is not just to keep the camels from moving too far from their owner but is also used for the more aggressive camels to keep them in order and if need be, to attend to them when they are injured.  They were moving slowly but they didn’t seem too bothered by their hindrance, perhaps because they didn’t have a choice but to get on with it.  To our eyes it looked terribly cruel but the bedouins and the ancient tribes have been using this method throughout the centuries to train and control their camels.

The camels became a symbol of our holiday for me.  Holidaying as we always do with a group of good friends and their children I often feel that I too am hobbled.  No, nobody ties me up (except the childers as they all demand simultaneous carrying, cuddling, play fighting), my hobble is due to my inability to fully speak the language.  Always one second (or 10 minutes) behind the conversation as my rusty computer whirrs the translation to English I find myself becoming more mute as time passes.  Sometimes it’s just too hard to keep up.  All our friends are amazing I should add and speak to me in English, they don’t ever intentionally ostracize me but the chat is obviously in their mother tongue and when plans are being made,  decisions being mulled I rely on my ever patient husband to translate when I lose the thread and oftentimes I stay out of it.  This is a big mistake and I fully accept that it is a problem of my making.  If you are in my situation you probably already know this, and if you don’t, take it from me, make sure you are involved as ignorance is certainly not bliss and inclusion as an expat is always the goal, in every situation.

It is easy to fall into the trap of being hobbled in everyday life in a foreign country.  When you are not used to the customs and culture or religion, when newspapers, magazines,  even signs are either illegible or take perseverance, when you don’t get the jokes and can’t join in the chat about pop culture because watching local TV and listening to local radio requires effort, remaining ignorant and therefore disabled in the short-term is the easiest option.  This however is a slippery slope and in the long run leads to isolation, frustration and eventually self-confidence takes a nose dive.

Like the camels we learn to live with it.  Like most situations in life, human beings have the ability to adapt and acclimate to just about anything.  The question  has to be though, when does it stop being so difficult, when does the penny finally drop and full absorption take place?  If it doesn’t, does that mean it’s time to pack up and go back to where we can fully understand the humour, the nuances, the slang?  I liked walking with 4 legs and when 1 is tied at the knee it’s hard sometimes not to just get tired and fall down.

 

We stayed at a wonderful place called Lev Ha Midbar (Heart of the Desert) http://www.levhamidbar.co.il/ in Tzukim about 90 minutes north of Eilat.

7 fail safe ways to impress first time visitors to Israel.

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Thank you to everyone who commented and shared this competition entry for www.expatblogs.com writing competition, no, I didn’t win, but it’s the taking part that counts right?!

For those of you who didn’t see it, here is my entry.  Despite what you may see and read in the press there is a side to Israel that most people don’t know, so if you fancy a visit this is what you can expect to see – especially if I am your guide!

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The Israel most people don’t see

1. Jerusalem. It goes without saying that any first time visitor to Israel should visit this most awe-inspiring city. Not only is Jerusalem geographically impressive, historically extraordinary and religiously remarkable it is also a bustling, noisy city of everyday people in an urban melting pot. Start with a view from the Hebrew University over the whole city then wind down by the Garden of Gethsemane to do a tour of the old city; the religious sites cannot fail to impress. Don’t forget to take an empty stomach to feast on the street food as you wander, from fresh bagels and zartar to hummus, kube, knafe (traditional Arab cheese pastry soaked in sweet syrup), lahmabajeen (meat on pitta) and tamarind lemonade. Watch as your guest’s senses become bloated, as their minds try to absorb the languages, cultures, religions and sheer enormity of the importance of the city to so many. Take some time to visit outside of the old city walls; to the Machne Yehuda Market to taste halva and listen to the shouts of the market traders, to walk through the ruins of David’s City and wonder at the ancient ruins, to sit in the shade of the Montefiore windmill and take in the sights. Leave to the sound of church bells and calls to prayer ringing in their ears via a short hop to Ein Kerem or with a glimpse of the road down to the desert to tease their expectations for what’s to come.

2. The Dead Sea. No matter how stinky and stingy the water of the Dead Sea might be to some, no first time trip to Israel is complete without the compulsory photo reading a book whilst floating on the Dead Sea. Make your visitors strip off and cover them in mud (cameras at the ready), remind them to shower vigorously afterwards and then sit in silence on a cliff top whilst they take in the view. Arrive in the morning and spend the day in the desert so that the true beauty of the changing light on the barren land is fully appreciated. For the historically minded a visit to the majestic Masada fort is fascinating and even for those not so inclined, take them anyway. The view from the top is more than worth the climb or the cable car ride and the story cannot fail to move. Finish the day with traditional coffee in a Bedouin style tent on the shores of the sea, for extra ambience enhancement for your guests, take your guitar (and someone who can play it) to strum as the sun goes down.

3. Tel Aviv sea front and Jaffa. A walk or bike ride from one end of the tayelet (promenade) to the other will take your visitors from the modern cafes and restaurants in the Tel Aviv port, passing the sun worshippers, kite surfers and boogie boarders on the long white beach to the tranquil historic beauty of Jaffa port. A good guide-book to explain the significance historically and emotionally of the port is key, plus a comfy pair of shoes to climb the stairs into Jaffa itself. Once in the buzz of the town, food is once again crucial to the experience so put diets aside and make your visitors tuck into malabi, hummus and shakshuka, pausing for mint tea in the flea market to people watch and pick up an unusual bargain (odd shoe anyone?). If their feet can stand it, make the short walk to the old train station and into the oldest part of Tel Aviv, Neve Tsedek where the tiny run down cottages rub shoulders with designer jewellers and gourmet ice cream parlours and eat dinner in one of the atmospheric restaurants.

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Quiet in Jaffa port

4. North to the Sea of Galilee. The drive from the populated centre of Israel up into the hills of the Galilee should be savoured with regular stops for your visitors to appreciate the abundance of scenery changes on the way. Take the coast road for maximum effect, alongside the turquoise of the sea, the mountain pine forests and city of Haifa and the cliffs of Rosh Hanikra. As you drive inland make sure to point out the Keshet caves, the lonely impressive Montfort, tell the stories of the kibbutzim and their history and make a stop in the ancient and mystical town of Sefad high above the lake’s shore. Pause to take in the history and spirituality of the town, marvel at the views; east to the Golan, north to the Hermon and Lebanon, west to Mount Meron and south to Tiberias and the lake itself. Drive down to Rosh Pina to amaze with the choice of culinary experiences and then head to the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee) itself. I’ll bet they don’t know it’s a lake.

5. The Sea of Galilee. Depending on the age and interests of your visitor, the lake and its surroundings to stun all tastes. The religious sites and churches on the banks marking the locations of Bible stories from Old and New Testaments, Roman ruins, Jewish holy sites, Byzantine mosaics and a 1st Century fishing boat, to name but a few of the historic and religious gems in the area. For the thrill seekers; white water rafting on the Jordan River (in season of course), windsurfing or jet skiing on the lake and for the nature lovers a walk around or up from the lake promises a wealth of bird life, wildlife, and evidence of ancient life. The views are majestic and don’t forget to keep one eye on the sky to catch a glimpse of impressive preying birds swooping and hovering. End your day with a dip in the lake, in summer the water is warm and the muddy bottom slips between your toes. Don’t forget to take along your shesh besh (backgammon) board, your gas burner and finjan (pot) to make the coffee as you watch the sunset.

6. The Negev. So you took them to the Dead Sea and they had a glimpse at the desert. Now you need to head further into the Negev and show them the Israel they had probably imagined. Camels, donkeys and long stretches of road with nothing but rocks and sand, eagles overhead and Bedouin tents in the distance. The Negev has a stark beauty that cannot fail to impress, especially visitors from the Northern hemisphere. Pack your binoculars and the ubiquitous coffee-making equipment for unscheduled shady stops to listen to the silence and wonder at the dry enveloping heat. Your goal is to get to the town of Mitzpe Ramon where your visitors get their first glimpse of the impressive crater, stock up on all the knowledge there that they need to fully grasp the enormity, geographical wonder and history of the massive natural crater. Remember to make friends with the nosy ibex that wander around the hot town’s streets. Take them for a walk in the crater’s floor to pick up ammonite fossils and get a glimpse of the geological curiosities which crowd the area. Don’t forget to show your insider knowledge by leaving via the small crater and your descent by the Scorpion’s Ascent, a steep and winding road down to the main desert highway. As night falls, pull over to watch and listen to the desert come to life as the temperature drops. For the more adventurous, pull out your sleeping bag and sleep under the stars but only if you can handle it, nothing worse than your host panicking when there’s a rustle in the sand.

7. Tel Aviv by night. Any self-respecting local knows that the nightlife in Tel Aviv only starts after 11pm so pre-warn your visitors to take an afternoon nap and prepare to be out ‘til dawn. Book a dinner at one of the many notable culinary establishments Tel Aviv has to offer, think Middle Eastern, your visitors want a taste of the local fare not a bowl of spaghetti. When setting out to the restaurant take a walk down Rothschild or Nachlat Binyamin streets to get a taste of Tel Aviv’s Bauhaus past. Stop for a quick cocktail in one of the multitude of bars. Once full and astounded by the quality of their dinner you can start to head to the bars spilling out onto the streets. If they are still able, at 1am head downtown to one of the clubs where the music is loud, the drinks are shots and the dancing is sweaty. A sleep on the beach as the sun comes up followed by a quick dip should sort out the ringing in their ears and clear their heads for the day ahead.

Congrats to the winners, you can have a read at http://www.expatblogs.com

Jiggety Jog

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As the plane touches down in Israel, especially if you fly with Israel’s airline, the passengers applaud.  The first time I heard it was the first time I visited in Israel way back in the late 90’s and I figured I’d missed something – we were about to crash and the pilot had saved us? – in fact it’s for a much more heart warming reason.  People are just happy to be here.  For many, coming to Israel is a homecoming in the spiritual and the literal sense.  Not only for the Israelis coming home but for the thousands of Jews visiting the Jewish homeland, the Christians coming on a pilgrimage and the tourists who come to visit one of the most hotly debated yet arguably one of the most religious country in the world – for the 3 largest religions.

As I looked around the plane last night I saw just what a big deal it was for many of my fellow passengers.  Hasidic Jews alongside nuns, a couple of priests, an elderly group of Christians and a group of Jewish teenagers from the States on their first visit.  Amongst the business passengers and the visitors coming to their holiday homes there were many who were experiencing the awe you cannot help but feel when you first come here – infamous, historical, Holy; some people dream of praying at the Western Wall, attending worship on the shores of the Galilee.  To them a trip here is a lifetime goal.

Not so much for me, my emotions were somewhat mixed;  I was beyond excited about being back with my husband and children again having left them all for the first time on a trip to my particular homeland,  however,  to come back to the everyday stresses of living here after a whirlwind 4 days of ease; seeing friends and family, talking to people without concentrating, was hard.

As an ex-pat I am caught between the dream and promise of a new life and the reality of being the outsider, the dream of going home to my extended family where everything is familiar and the reality (in my case) of cold, grey weather and double dip recession.

I didn’t applaud when I landed but when my three little ones ran towards me in arrivals with I Love You balloons and screams of ‘where are our presents’ (in Hebrew) I did wipe away a little tear of happiness.  Home again, home again jiggety jog.

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Reasons to Celebrate #5: Love

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It seems only fitting that while the world around me goes mad, I should remind myself of the reason I am here in the first place.  Love.  Yeah you can scoff, but as life ticks on its worth remembering, as da Vinci said, ‘Life without love is no life at all’.

Fifteen years ago in the Australian outback I met an Israeli boy.  He had long curly hair, a beard and a name we couldn’t pronounce.  I must admit when I first saw him I was not impressed.  I was waiting at the end of an airstrip in Borraloola in Northern Queensland and he was in the small 2-seater plane I was waiting for,  he was sitting in my seat. I sat in the rack with the vegetables for the hour flight back to the cattle station in the Northern Territory where I lived at the time.  I was not impressed.  He was very quiet on the flight back, in fact I am not sure he said a word, he just kept taking photos of the brown veined land below us. Turns out he has terrible motion sickness.

True to form the ageing pilot and owner of the cattle station had a sleep at the controls and I also dozed off.  After dodging the bush fire licking the end of the airstrip, we pulled the plane to its tin shack and got in the ute for the ride back to the homestead.  The next few days were tense as the fire threatened to encroach on the house and outbuildings and the Israeli boy spent much of his time outside bashing the sun burnt grass with the other farmhands.  He used to come into the big kitchen with the others, faces caked with soot, big white teeth smiling and twinkling blue eyes.  Danger averted we went back to our unusual form of normal and I discovered he had come to replace me as the cattle station cook.

I’d been at the station for a couple of months at this stage and wanted to continue my travels around Oz.  I was the station cook, which in itself is laughable because at this point I was just about capable of rustling up a spag bol.  Still, I was out for an adventure so had ended up in an area as big as Wales with nothing on it but a lot of dust, a cattle station, 40,000 head of cattle, an old fella and a few jackaroos (Ozzie cowboys).  Turned out this Israeli had thought the same, fancied an experience and with zero knowledge of how to cook – there are no pittas in the outback – had answered an ad in a backpackers to come out to nowheresville.

For a week we worked together, I showed him how to make Anzac biscuits and lemon meringue.  He showed me how to recognize the body parts in the briny bucket of offal we kept in the walk in fridge – brains anyone? He also peeled the tongue for me for which I will be eternally grateful.  He told me a bit about where he was from, his family and the army service he had just completed.  I was totally uneducated about Israel; I knew nothing.  A few days later and with a plan to meet at a later date and possibly travel together – he was planning to buy a car with a friend – I left.

It took me 4 days to get back to civilization as I had left via an upturned crate in the aisle of an OAP’s 4 wheel drive tour bus.  It was not a comfortable ride but to be honest I was just happy to be setting out on my next adventure.  At our first overnight stop he called the roadhouse to check I was OK.  Which was nice of him, if a little over friendly.

By the time I arrived in Cairns I was sporting a large lump on my arm.  The pensioners on the bus had all had a good prod at it and had come to the conclusion it was a spider bite and I should get it looked at.  Eventually, a week later in the rainforest, when my arm was swelling, I had a fever and red stripes on my arms did I go to a hospital.  I won’t go into gruesome details suffice to say they cut it out, stitched me up and I put my backpack back on and staggered to the nearest B & B to recover.  Before sleeping for 18 hours I called the cattle station to tell my new friend that I wouldn’t be in Cairns the following week as we’d tentatively agreed.

To be honest the whole arm thing was a bit troubling, I didn’t feel terribly well, I had my arm in a sling, I needed to get another job to get some more money together – the pittance I had earned at the cattle station had been all but spent by the unscheduled medical emergency. All plans to travel anywhere were on hold until I had recovered and earned some more money. One afternoon on returning from the job hunt to the backpacker’s hostel in Port Douglas, the guy on reception told me I had a visitor, and there he was; the wooly Israeli in his foreign looking sandals, eyes twinkling and white teeth smiling.

On hearing I was in the hospital he had left his job and persuaded a couple of pig hunters, who had stopped at the station to give him a ride as far as Normanton where they were headed.  At Normanton he got stuck for a day and a half as no-one would give him a ride apart from the local policeman; hitch hiking was not encouraged in those parts.  He eventually took a ride with a guy who took care of the remote railway lines.  The distances we are talking are quite unfathomable; it’s about 1200km from the cattle station to Port Douglas, where we met again.  Just to give you an idea that’s like driving from London to Barcelona, New York to Chicago but with more than half the way on dirt roads and it’s only in the last few hundred kilometres that you are back in civilization. He’d been hitch-hiking for 5 days. For me.

Fifteen years, three children and three countries later here we are; hearing the booms, watching the news, reassuring friends and family overseas, trying to act as if everything is normal.  It’s not normal, not in my understanding of the word, but much of our life together has not been normal either. I chose to come to Israel for love.  I’m not sure if at any point did I fully understand the implications of the decision, I still don’t.  I do however believe I am one of the lucky ones who has a life blessed with a really great, true love.

Reasons to Celebrate # 2: Friends part 2

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click here for part 1 Scott didn’t seem overly pleased to see us.  The reason was probably that he’d spun such an enormous web of lies back in the UK that he knew he was going to be caught out when we arrived.  We stayed in the Granny flat attached to his house so we had our own space and we were in heaven.  Sleep, food, not sitting in an airline seat and the holiday ahead of us.

A couple of things set off alarm bells early on but we chose to ignore them thinking we were over sensitive.  He’d told us the weather was warm, the cost of living cheap and that he would take us on safari, up to the lakes to see flamingoes, we would be his guest.  All lies.  In reality after I spurned his advances on the first day his mood became considerably cold towards us.  He told us Nairobi was too dangerous for us to go out alone and therefore he had to chaperone us everywhere; to the mall, to his friend’s house to watch them play football,to his other friends house to watch Indian movies.  Not on safari by a long shot.  When he went out and he didn’t want us cramping his style he locked us in our Granny annex, literally.  They lived in a gated community with a locked gate at the front of the house so we were in fact prisoners.  We considered going to the embassy but we had in the back of our minds that maybe it wasn’t that bad, after all it was just Scott from university, his parents were somewhere in the background, how bad could it get?  We just needed to get away from him, problem was he wouldn’t let us.  He reluctantly took us out with him in the evening and we spoke with his friends about the situation.  They didn’t believe us, except one who suggested we go to Mombasa where the weather was better (it was raining in Nairobi).

We wanted to get to Mombasa as soon as possible.  Not as easy as you may think.  When he got wind of our plans he hijacked them and arranged for his Aunt and Uncle to be our chaperones in Mombasa. We had other plans but we accepted their offer gratefully and figured we’d only call them in an emergency. We decided to travel on the overnight train but it was pricey and we were skint, so we bought tickets for the overnight bus.  Scott and his friends told us we were making a mistake, that it was dangerous, but they told us that everything in Kenya was dangerous and we were beginning to think it was a ruse to keep us locked up.  For what end who knows.

Just before we left he graciously took us on the promised safari. He brought a girlfriend with him.  If a safari is speeding and skidding along dirt roads, whizzing past a couple of zebras then we went on safari.  The phrase bitter disappointment was made for times like this.  Youthful optimism and our  ability to laugh in the face of adversity stood us well.

We arrived in  Mombasa in the early hours before the sun was up and made our way to the beach to find a place to stay.   By this stage a feeling of fear had been instilled into us.  We had been locked in our prison until now and it took us a few days to realise that everyone wasn’t out to rob us, rape us or kidnap us.   We had a few days of freedom and exploring but I am not sure our hearts were in it by then.

Soon it was time to head back to Nairobi to fly home. We went to Scott’s friendly cousin on the last evening as she had offered to take us to the bus stop at midnight.  The Aunt and Uncle on the other hand had heard from Scott that we were ungratefull, terrible people and not to be trusted (?), so we had a frosty reception to say the least.  What a surprise, the bus was cancelled. We went back to the open arms of the cousin’s family and stayed the night.  Hiding in the room and 30 Mills and Boons books later (his Aunt’s only English books) we caught the bus the following night.

The holiday had been a wash out; in Kenya but no safari, in an exotic new country but locked away, there seemed to be a conspiracy between the people we had met and we were throughly disliked by all.  We sat on the bus and sang ‘Take Me Home Country Road’ and laughed about the flight home, would we  even make it?  Then out of nowhere we hit something, the bus started to roll over,  it was pitch black, people were screaming. The bus was on its side hurtling through the dust and rocks.  As we hit I shouted ‘get down’ to Rachel and we both went into the brace position.  Luckily we had already adopted the brace position a couple of times on our flight over so we were old hands at it.  I was sitting by the window and I was braced on top of Rachel, my back being scraped along the rocks as the window had magically disappeared.  Eventually it was quiet.  The bus had stopped moving; eery silence after the terrifying noise of the bus, just the sound of crying.  Within seconds people were climbing over each other to get out, pushing and shoving.  The front of the bus was on fire, I don’t know what happened to the driver.   I felt my back was hot and wet but was too scared to get Rachel to look, everything was red anyway from the dust and it was pitch black bar the fire on the bus.  Did I say, ‘move back its going to blow’, or that’s just how I remember it?  Once out, Rachel  was first to gather her senses and decided that we had to go back onto the  bus to get our passports and money.  What a hero, Rachel climbed back onto the burning bus and recovered both our bags with all our belongings.

A bus crash on that road was commonplace.  No ambulances, no fire engines, no-one knew and there were no phones.  We were miles from civilization.  We found another passenger who spoke some English and she told us that we should all walk back to the road and wait for other buses and trucks to drive past.   When we finally reached the road, we saw the cause of our accident, a baby elephant. heartbreakingly gigantic, laying silent on the road. This was the only elephant we saw on our trip and we had killed it.  We followed the crowd and stood together waiting for the first truck or bus to pass.  The first driver took 2 people, he told us to stick together and if we were still there towards dawn to light a fire as it was lion country.  Lion country?  Are we in an episode of candid camera?  2 down 48 to go including 2 incredulous Brits, not known for their pushy nature.  No doubt we were going to get the last ride.  Eventually a bus stopped and the driver let us sit in the aisles. For the pleasure of being rescued we had to bribe him.

We finally made it back to Nairobi to be met by a very unhappy Scott, ‘ You’re late’.  Picture if you will how we looked.  Rachel had bright orange hair from the dust, we were both covered in dirt, our clothes were ripped and I was bleeding.  ‘You’re late’????  That was the final straw.

Our return flight was, thank god, uneventful.  We kissed the ground when we got off the plane in the UK. I had a couple of cracked ribs and suffered for many months from the trauma of the crash mixed with the side effects of the antimalaria drugs we’d taken.  A week after returning home I received a parcel in the mail.  It was some photographs of Rachel in a safari suit hiding in the bushes in her Dad’s vegetable garden. Dotted around were cuddly toy lions and monkeys.  The note attached said that, instead of the real thing she had mocked up some safari pics for us to remember our Kenyan holiday.  You can’t get a better friend than that.

Reasons to Celebrate # 2: Friends part 1

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By the age of 40 you know absolutely the value of a good friendship.  I have one particular friend; we’ll call her Rachel (because that’s her name) who I met on the first day of University.  In the second year summer break we went on a life changing trip to Kenya.  This is our story (I’ve always wanted to say that).

Scott (not his real name) lived on our corridor in the halls of residence in the first year at University.  He was Kenyan Indian and his family lived in Nairobi.  Rachel and I became friendly with Scott and a couple of his friends at the end of the first year and when they told us the amazing stories about Kenya we were hooked.  We really wanted to go and he offered us a place to stay at his parents.  We spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to get to Kenya for as cheap as possible and we eventually found the cheapest and therefore longest way there.  We were flying with Aeroflot (aka Aeroflop).  People told us that international Aeroflot flights tended to be OK but the internal flights weren’t so good, i.e. they crashed.  Not to be deterred by such over dramatic stories we booked.  Remember this was before internet so we couldn’t Google Aeroflot which in retrospect is probably a good thing.

The first leg of our journey was to Moscow, on a jumbo, just your regular international flight.  We had a couple of hours in the airport before getting the connecting flight down to Nairobi.  Our plane broke down on the tarmac so we spent around 8 hours in the airport twiddling our thumbs, there was nothing open and in those days Moscow airport was far from what you would call modern.  At one point in the night we were ushered to the airport staff canteen and were offered some stew.  It goes without saying that Rachel and I were vegetarian (we were students), so we went hungry.  More fool us.  We finally got on the plane in the early hours of the morning and were told that we were now also flying via Larnaca in Cyprus before continuing to Nairobi.  Fine, why not, it’s not like we’re late already, an unscheduled stop fits in perfectly with our plans.

As we approached Larnaca the wheels went down and we could see the tarmac as we came into land, just as we were about to touch down the engines roared and we took off again.  Panic ensued, I was hyper ventilating into the air sick bag, Rachel was being sick in the air sick bag, passengers were screaming and shouting. No-one knew what was going on.  The pilot eventually told us that the sea mist on the runway was too thick to land and that we needed to circle the Island until it lifted.  So we went around and around and around, aiding Rachel’s nausea beautifully until finally the announcement told us that we were running out of fuel. We would try to land again and if the mist was still too thick, we’d make an emergency landing in an air force base to refuel.  Breathe Katie breathe.  Yes it was 20 years ago but air safety is air safety and has international standards even for Aeroflot, ‘Try again’, really?  So we tried again and once again he pulled us back up, by which time there was pandemonium on the plane.  I hid under a blanket and we held hands – Rachel was too sick to be scared.

A few moments later we were safely on the ground in an air force base. The engines had to be off to re-fuel and we weren’t allowed off the plane.  The plane stank; no air conditioning, 100s of sweating unwashed passengers in 35 degree heat.  They did open the doors to allow Rachel to puke over the side of the plane (the toilets were blocked by this point) which was very good of them. Once we’d refuelled we were back in the air, oh no, we’re not, we’re landing again, this time actually at Larnaca.  Hooray we made it and we were allowed off the plane.  Ah, the bliss of European toilets, food, hot water.  After a quick stop we were back in the air heading to Nairobi.  Or were we?

Djibouti.  Where? Well at least we’d made it to the right continent.  Apparently we didn’t have enough fuel to get all the way to Nairobi.  What? how? why?  We had been in the air up and down, up and down, up and down for around 21 hours by this point, we were beyond tired, dehydrated (did I mention the plane ran out of drinking water), and were prone to spats of hysteria.  After a while they must have realised that it was actually dangerous to leave their dehydrated passengers on the plane in 45 degree heat so eventually they allowed us off . What a shock walking into the oven of the desert, pale young English girls that we were, we’d never experienced over 25 degrees. We were given some delicious sugary bottles of Fanta in the shack and then were sent back to the plane – no, please, not that plane again.  That plane stank.

We shed a few tears as we finally touched down in Nairobi, as we left the plane we were all presented with a certificate and an Aeroflot badge, I don’t know to this day what the certificate says but I’m guessing ‘sucker’.

It had taken us 28 hours to get there and the worst part was we had to fly back.  Still, at least we had our great Kenyan adventure ahead of us before that.  We should have realised when Scott greeted us with, ‘you’re late, I was supposed to play football today’ that it was perhaps not going to be the adventure we had planned…

Reasons to celebrate #1: Experience

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There are times when I think; thank goodness I am older and wiser. I am less likely to get myself in the scrapes I did as a youngster.  Experience counts for a lot at any age and although I owe a lot of my better judgement to age and experience I also owe a lot to my husband.  Within a week of our relationship I’d been in the hospital, written off his car and been locked in a strip club, with the owner.  This must have given him a fair idea of my bad luck/naivety/thirst for a good pub story.  Although I can’t say the first two won’t happen again my husband has taught me some key skills to trusting people eg. that man owns a strip club, you don’t know him, don’t go to his club at 10am, that sort of thing.  Here’s a story of one of my scrapes from my university days. As its Sunday you might want to get a cup of tea before starting this one, it’s longer than usual.

When I was 19 I hitchhiked for charity to Amsterdam with a bloke on acid.  He’d been to Amsterdam before (of course he had) so I figured he was a good travel partner plus he was also a good friend. We were one of about 20 couples taking part for our University’s Rag Week. My partner, we’ll call him Garth, and I made it in double quick time; hitching with two rides down to Sheerness, the overnight ferry and then one very speedy ride right into the centre of a chilly early morning Amsterdam.  When my friends arrived a few hours later Garth was firmly on the road to oblivion, by the time we were due to hitch back the following day he had set up camp there and was showing no signs of return.

I led him out of the city on public transport to where I thought the main highways were but as I didn’t have more than a city map it’s a mystery how I could have thought I knew where we were going.  Eventually we reached a highway, Garth in his crazy-world wisdom was convinced we had to hitch from what I was convinced was the wrong side of the road.  Travelling alone did not seem like a viable option and even though he was worse than useless, he was familiar, and more importantly he was a danger to himself. So I bowed to his cracked judgement (more fool me) and crossed to his side.

We made slow no progress, what with taking lifts North instead of South. Garth was chattering, arguing, chuckling, being abnormally quiet or jiggling around; behaviour which made us unpopular passengers to would be rides.  5 cold hours after leaving Amsterdam we found ourselves back on the outskirts of Amsterdam heading in the correct direction for the port. FYI It’s one hour from Amsterdam to the port in Vlissengen.  By this time Garth was sober and tired and very, very grumpy.

We had a couple of hours before the last ferry of the evening when a car stopped for us with an elderly man in the backseat.  Rule number 2 of hitchhiking (number 1 being, don’t hitchhike) is, don’t squeeze next to an elderly man if you are female. After a few minutes the elderly passenger started muttering in Dutch and his hands began wandering over my thighs. I hissed to Garth that it was time to get out.  Garth came up trumps and was very gallant, yelling at the guy, ordering the driver to pull over.  Bravo Garth! Regrettably we got out on the hard shoulder of a busy four lane highway in the dark, in sub-zero temperatures, and it was snowing. After walking for a few minutes we realised the danger we were in and called from an emergency phone to ask how to get off the highway.  They told us we were breaking the law and to get off the highway. Not terribly helpful. Half an hour later at the next phone we told the police to arrest us.  Eventually a police van turned up.  We were overjoyed at the prospect of at least warming up on our way to the cells.  But no, they had come in a dog van so no back seats just a cage.  Thank goodness they didn’t make us crawl in, instead they put their headlights on full beam and we walked in the glare of the headlights down the hard shoulder – a mini chain gang – until the next slip road where they gave us directions to the nearest train station.

We had less than an hour before the ferry left.  We got the next train to Vlissingen, arriving just in time to see our ferry steaming out of the harbour with all our friends on it.  I clearly remember sobbing as it disappeared from view, never had I felt so desolate and cold. We went back to the train station, the only place open in Vlissengen port, and slept on a very cold stationary train with one ear cocked for the engines starting up.  Suffice to say, freezing and in a state of near panic that we would miss the next morning’s ferry and would be locked in the nightmare for ever, I didn’t sleep, Garth on the other hand merrily slept off the effects of his weekend. I clearly recall the smell of his socks and sound of his snores.

We were finally met at Coventry train station 24 hours later; dirty, tired, hungry, penniless and borderline hypothermic. My mother had been on the phone, the University authorities weren’t too impressed and my friends thought it was hilarious.

My unlucky travel experiences are many and varied, that weekend just one of many, fortunately it just made me want to travel more.  At a stage in my life where travelling is pretty impossible (and with Syria as a neighbour it’s also ill advised) I find myself reminiscing about the ease of living in the UK and cheaply visiting Europe.  As soon as I get the chance I will resume my travels albeit on a smaller scale than in the past and look for new perhaps less risky experiences, well, what would I tell the kids?