Cuba: 2008, Too Late

          A man in a tatty fedora played fevered jazz trumpet to the tangerine sky. Teenage boys black-flipped into the sea from the wall of the Malecón. Men clicked like insects as Anna and I shuffled in short skirts and flip flops along the sea-beaten pavement of Havana’s main thoroughfare. It was hard to believe that you could see the silhouette of Florida floating on the horizon. With a backdrop of crumbling colonial buildings and banged-up 50s cars, we were a world away from McDonald’s and high speed internet.

          A young couple in designer jeans walked in time with us. “Would you like to come to the salsa festival?” the girl asked.

          A week before we left the UK, Fidel Castro had stepped down as leader and passed the baton to his brother, Raul. Now, everything will change, people said. The internet is coming, everyone will have a mobile phone, you’ve missed your chance to see real Cuba.

 

          An impromptu salsa festival sounded like the authentic Cuba I was desperate to find.

          “We can take you,” the man chimed in, all smiles. “It is only today.”

          I was tempted, but Anna is more sensible than I am.

          “Maybe later,” she said. “We have a tour booked right now.”

          It was a lie, but, being British neither of us are comfortable in coming straight out with lines like “no thanks, I reckon you might be a murderer”. We hurried on to find lunch.

Havana Vieja

          Sipping watered-down mojitos, we picked at over-salted fish at a patio restaurant dappled with bougainvilleas in Havana’s old town. I flicked through the pages of our guidebook but couldn’t find any mention of a salsa festival in April. We watched tourists crowd around statues in the square and snap pictures of old men posing with Che Guavara hats and fat cigars. As we walked through the sleek, white streets of Habana Vieja, a salsa beat started up and we heard squeals and murmurs of delights from a cruise ship tour. The thud of salsa drums got louder and the cobbled streets filled with men and women tottering on stilts, some playing trumpets, all clad in bright greens, reds and blues. Perhaps this was the impromptu salsa festival I was looking for. A man bent low from his stilts and in a flourish offered his fedora to us, asking for money. It was a performance for tourists, no more authentic than the old lady with fruit on her head who smiled a toothless grin, cigar wedged between her lips, for $2 a photograph.

 

          We wandered off into the space on the maps where there were no pictures of little cameras or knives and forks. If the travel magazines were right, then all this space would be McDonald’s and Starbucks in a few months’ time. We had to see the real city before it all changed. Barefoot children played in an old cement mixer that had been dormant for years. Scaffolding that propped up crumbling tenements was rusted and covered in twisting vines. Dark-eyed women in ripped shorts and t-shirts two sizes too big for them watched us from their porches. As we rounded a corner a man bouncing a baby on his knee made kissy noises at us.

          “Hey, hey, you looking for a husband?” he called.

Havana ghetto

          We passed a shop selling tins of food. A long line of people clutching ration tickets didn’t meet our eyes. A voyeuristic part of me wanted to snap a photo to show people back home. On the corner a heavily pregnant lady was swapping blister packs of pills for baby formula.

          We stumbled across a market where fruit fermented under a haze of black flies in the baking sun. We tried to buy some papayas but this was a local market, not for tourists. The man behind a mound of browning bananas shook his head at our tourist dollars. At another stall a man with sun-crinkled eyes and dirty fingernails winked at us. He charged us double for two bruised papayas and  gave us change in real Cuban pesos.

Havana market

          As we paused on a bench to eat our fruit Anna got out the guidebook to find the way back to our hotel.

          “I’m not sure where we are,” she muttered, tracing her finger across the page.

          “Maybe we could ask someone,” I said, looking up.

           I caught the eye of a gangly, dread-locked man in a rasta hat and sunglasses. Before I had a chance to look away his face split into a grin and he ambled towards us. The smell of stale rum hit us.

          “Beautiful gringos!” he said, voice thick with drink. Before we had time to move he lurched towards the bench and grabbed my arm with surprising strength.

           “Salsa!” he shouted, with a lopsided grin.

           “No thank you,” I mumbled, trying to loosen his grip as he wrenched me up from the safety of the bench. I looked desperately at Anna who just stared back, mouth hanging open.

          “Salsa!” he demanded again, putting his hands on my waist and moving his hips. This was not the Salsa Festival I was looking for.

          Anna snapped into motion, grabbed me by my free arm and herded me in the direction of the sea and the Malecón. The man swaggered after us, shouting in Spanish. I heard the tick of stones on the pavement. As we met the main road Anna spotted a group of American tourists shuffling towards Avenida de los Presidentes. We slipped into the centre of the group and I looked over my shoulder, expecting my dancing partner to have followed, but there was something about the audio guides and bright blue umbrella that warded him off like sunlight to a vampire.

          We rode the wave of cruise ships tourists back to Habana Vieja. Back to watered down mojitos and fake fruit hats. The only evidence of our time on the other side was the Cuban pesos jingling in my pocket.

          In April this year Raul Castro will step down as el Presidente. “Go now” they will say, “before everything changes.”

Morocco: Merchoui had a Little Lamb

Merchoui Alley sits between two bustling medina streets like a comma in the middle of a sentence. Breaking up the rows of carpet sellers, glistening brass lamps and fabrics every colour the mind could think of, this alley has five or six shops all selling the same thing; lamb. A haze of smoke hangs above the dusty thoroughfare. Clay pots the colour of earth line each stall, some topped with the cooked head of a sheep, like a macabre shop sign. The smell of cumin and turmeric clings to the warm air.

We spent the evening with Salim, a Marrakech local and food guide. He gave us an introduction to the medina over mint tea poured high so that bubbles frothed against the glass. We talked about his school days in the Atlas Mountains over greasy savoury donuts and discussed religion over sweet honey cakes that stuck to the roof of my mouth.

Marrakech donuts

As the sun dipped below the rose-hued rooftops, Salim led us through the labyrinthine souks to Merchoui Alley. At the back of a lamb shop, we peered down into a deep hole in the ground. A blast of hot air carrying the smell of cooking meat hit me. In the darkness under our feet there was enough room for an entire flock of lambs to roast slowly. And indeed Merchoui Alley provides most of the city of Marrakech with its daily lamb. Entire carcasses, yellowed with turmeric, are mounted on sticks thick as broom handles and lowered into the ground to cook for 24 hours. Teenage boys on rusty old mopeds weave through the narrow streets dispatching it to restaurants, cafés and riad kitchens.

Marrakech lamb pots

We ate melt-in-your-mouth meat stuffed into pockets of warm flat bread. Cumin and salt were the only seasoning. In the fading light stall merchants and shopkeepers shouted to each other and street cats with pointed North-African faces slunk between meat sellers. We talked with Salim about life in the Medina, and the tagines his mother made him as a child. As the sun set the call to prayer floated through twilight. Voices melting together and reaching a crescendo.

 

On the final night of our week in Morocco we returned to Marrakech, tired from a 12 hour drive from the desert, sand from a sandstorm lined my pockets and peppered my hair. I had booked us into a top end hotel for one night. For a treat. The lobby was as vast as the Sahara, all marble, glistening chandeliers and brass baggage carts that winked in the light. The crisp-suited man behind the desk looked at our slept-in clothes, our tired eyes and bulging rucksacks and gave us a  “you don’t belong here” look. We trekked across the pool area to our room. Guests in smooth skirts and buttoned up shirts sipped elaborate cocktails while a lady in a sequined dress sang Adele covers.

Tired and hungry we decided just to eat in the hotel’s restaurant. I fished out a crumpled travel dress from the bottom of my rucksack and ran a brush through my hair. Grains of Sahara sand fell to the floor.

The restaurant was just as opulent as the lobby and we were the only ones dining at 9pm. We sat in the centre of the room, the ceiling ending somewhere in the heavens above us. Deep red cushions adorned velvet seats and an army of waiting staff lined up with hands behind their backs ready to pour wine, pick up a dropped napkin or adjust the angle of an out-of-place fork.   We ordered the Merchoui lamb.

An entire leg smelling of turmeric and cumin was set in front of us. A mound of buttery cous cous and warm flat bread accompanied. The meat fell from the bone and melted in my mouth. If I closed my eyes, the waiting staff disappeared, the high ceilings and the velvet chairs vanished and I was back down that hazy alley.

Turkey: Tea Tour of Istanbul

In the sunken courtyard behind Süleymaniye Mosque we listen to Turkish chatter and the trickle of an ancient fountain. It is far from the noisy froth of cappuccino making and nu-folk playlists that signify coffee shops back home. Students of Istanbul drink black tea from gold-rimmed glasses, papers spread out over squat tables in front of them. Some chat in clusters on bright cushions, passing a waterpipe between sips. Business men and stall owners from the Grand Bazaar gesticulate wildly – lost in grand political debate and a haze of apple tobacco.

The first sip of tea scalds my tongue. The waiter appears with our waterpipe. Mark and I look around, hoping that the seasoned pros reclining in confidence don’t notice our wheezing attempts at smoking. The waiter takes pity on us trying to relax Istanbul-style. He gets the water bubbling for us, smoke spiraling from his lips. When the coals burn amber he lets me have the pipe back, as if spoon-feeding a toddler.

After a few splutters our draws become smooth. The tea has cooled to perfection. I sink into the cushions, warm fuzz in my brain and broken sunshine through leaves on my face. We watch the microcosm of Istanbul society until we are left with dregs in our glasses.

istanbul-spices

Past the cries of vendors selling cheap cookware, mosaic lamps and coils of waterpipes the smell of the Spice Bazaar floats on the air. We are engulfed in a labyrinth of bright yellow, burnt sienna and rust coloured powder. Mark dons his chef face, tutting and hmm-ing at mounds of spices. I spot a brass coffee machine through a cloud of steam. The mustachioed barista catches me looking.

“You like to try? For free?” he shouts to me.

I nod, leaving Mark bartering over black cumin.

The barista pours the tarry liquid from a long-handled jug into a tiny cup. He looks at me like I’m mad when I decline sugar. I see why as the bitterness hits the back of my throat, sending electricity down my spine. It’s perfect.

Mark waves a bag of canary-yellow turmeric in victory. I mirror him with a bag of coffee.

Istanbul is built on seven hills, and it feels like we climb all seven on our tea quest. Up a steep, cobbled street a gnarled old man sells tea from another brass contraption. He smiles as he hands us hot, dirty glasses of tea, his calloused fingers poking in fresh mint leaves.

istanbul-tea-trolley

Our final stop is a rickety tea house on the edge of the Bosphorus, where uneven floorboards creak under faded Persian rugs. Another tourist couple has found this place. A waiter lights the vanilla-scented coals of their waterpipe, and they wait until his back is turned before inhaling and spluttering.

I take a smooth puff of our waterpipe and wait for my tea to cool. Tomorrow we might see that couple in the sunken courtyard, reclining into bright cushions like they’ve been doing it for years.

Japan: Oishi!

The tick and fizzle of battered prawns gently frying set my stomach rumbling. Squat shop fronts lined narrow Sunamachi in Tokyo’s Ginza district. Scarlet lanterns and golden streamers hung from every lamp post. The mushroom parade of umbrellas ruffled in hurried apology as lone cyclists slowly picked their way through the crowd. Bicycle bells are too rude for Tokyo so every front wheel that gently noses into the back of your leg is a surprise.

“This is the Tempura King,” our guide, Miyu, said.

A stocky man in a white chef uniform stood proudly behind a stand bursting with golden battered morsels in all shapes and sizes. Neat black Kanji script displaying names and prices looked more like poetry than price tags. I guessed at what might be hiding in each deep fried coating – that green thing could be green beans, the orange one was probably carrot, and that non-descript white thing was probably radish. It was usually radish in Tokyo.

“Please, have anything you like,” Miyu said, her head dipping in an almost unperceivable bow.

Sunamachi is a shopping street, teeming with 100 yen shops selling toilet plungers, coat-hangers and greetings cards. Kitchenware spills out of shop fronts and fresh fruit and vegetables sit in cellophane as if frozen in time, because Japan has not yet cut free from the obsession with packaging.

“Japanese think it is more hygienic this way,” Miyu explained.

This street is not on anyone’s bucket list. There’s no historical lure like the Imperial Palace, no picturesque wooden roofs like Asakusa shrine. There is, however, food. Street food. And people. Normal people doing normal things, like shopping for toilet plungers and greetings cards.

I bit into the crisp tempura.

“Good?” Miyu asked.

I nodded.

“Then you should say Oishi, it means yummy.”

We drank tea the colour of algae, mixed with a bamboo whisk until it was frothy. An old iron bell tinkled in the shop as men and women popped in to pick up bags of tea and greeted the owner like an old friend.

At a small stand where faded J-pop posted peeled from the walls, sleek fish flopped in plastic tubs. A teenage girl cut fresh sashimi at lightning speed, looking down when she handed it to us. It tasted like fresh water. Orange fish roe popped salted explosions on my tongue.

“Oishi!” I said and the girl behind the counter beamed and dipped her head.

oishi-hotch-potch

Further along the street, past a little shrine where stone fox faces smiled down at you, two large women in chef whites ladled out Japanese hotch potch. They gave us a plastic sandwich bag full of hot stew. It was miso-thick with a soy tang and huge lumps of radish and lotus that burned the roof of my mouth.

“Oishi!” I said and the two women laughed as if I’d said the funniest thing in the world.

Though it was well before the yard arm, Miyu guided us into an open-faced warehouse of sake bottles. The chill of early April crept in through gaps in the temporary-looking walls. Salarymen in crumpled business suits that looked like they might have slept in the train station skulked around the flourescent sale signs. Prices ranged from 100 yen to 20,000 per bottle. Miyu filled a couple of plastic shot glasses with the clear liquid. It smelled like something you would use to cleanse a wound. The sake burned my throat and sloshed around in the pit of my stomach.

“Oishi,” I winced.

A crispy minced tuna cutlet dipped in a sweet teriyaki sauce soon soaked up the early morning sake. We waddled to a stall selling yakitori – meat on a stick grilled fresh in front of us. I forced each piece of sticky, glazed chicken into the last remaining corners of my stomach.

oishi-yakitori

“Oishi,” I wheezed, convinced that I was filled up to my throat with food.

“We have one more stop,” Miyu said.

I hoped it was just to buy a toilet plunger or greetings card.

The stall sold Japanese sweets. Little globs of green clung to cocktail sticks. It looked like the kind of thing you’d eat in space, or in a dystopian future where food is not to be enjoyed but purely for nutrients. There was no room left in my body. If I ate anything else I would have to sacrifice an organ to fit it in.

“Honestly, I can’t,” I said to Miyu as she held up a green tea mochi sweet.

Her face fell as if I had just insulted her own cooking.

It tasted a bit like grass, and felt like a slug sliding down my throat. It wouldn’t go down, but stuck somewhere in my chest. My face had probably turned the colour of green tea because Miyu’s eyes were wide. But I held on and eventually the final piece of Sunamachi Street sat in my stomach with everything else.

“Oishi,” I said. But I’m not sure Miyu believed me.

Croatia: Downhill from Here

I pedalled through the hot pain, unable to tell if it was my legs or my bike-frame that was creaking. My front wheel inched forward and I was surprised the tyres hadn’t melted into a sticky pool on the road. I had expected cooler air and cloudy skies in October, but the Croatian sky was chicory blue and the sun felt like wildfire. Somewhere behind the endless pine forest was a cool breeze whipping off the Adriatic, but it had been hours since I’d felt it.

“Shut up, legs” I muttered, willing them to pass from throbbing to numb. Mark was a dot at the top of the hill, luminous in lycra and blurring like an amoeba through the sweat in my eyes. He sprinted up the hill like he was after the yellow jersey. The cycle from Mlina to Bol across the centre of Brac island was supposed to be moderate, but the rasp in my lungs left me wondering why I’d agreed to take the trip by bike instead of hopping on a tourist boat. I could have had a cold beer in my hand swishing about the deck in an airy skirt. Instead I was running out of lukewarm water wearing a pair of padded shorts that felt weirdly like a nappy. We’d wanted to see the real parts of the islands, the centres, the bits that nobody went to. We wanted to smell them from the bicycle seat. The road we were on smelled like hot tarmac and burnt pine needles.

“Ding ding!” I hoped Mark’s bell meant he had found the lunch stop.

Keep going, keep going, keep going, I whispered in time with the slow rotation of my wheels. Collapsing in a sticky heap at the top I saw salvation: a little village almost hidden in the folds of the hills, a single church spire jutting out like a signpost. The lunch stop.

croatia-village

Buildings surrounding the square were beige stone with green shutters and orange roofs. The cheep of birds and click of our bike wheels were the only sounds. If it wasn’t for the colourful washing hanging from some windows I would have thought the village had been abandoned.  We heard the slow slap of slippers on the smoothed cobblestones, announcing the arrival of an old man with a large, drooping moustache and braces holding up sagging trousers. As he approached us his face broke into a grin.

“The shop is closed,” he said, pointing at a cracked Tabac sign. “There is a very nice lunch at the farm up the hill,” the man said. “It’s not far, you can cycle.”

I very much doubt that, I though as I got to my feet, pain shooting back into my knees. The sweat on my forehead had dried into a crust. You could have harvested salt from my pores.

“I will call the cook to let him know you are coming. Fifteen minutes,” the man said.

Mark shook the man’s hand and thanked him.

At the top of the hill a large man in a stripy apron waved us off the road. He guided us to a crumbling old farm, trees growing through the broken roofs of stone buildings and old ploughs rusting in clumps in the yard. A wooden barrel had been turned into a table laden with fresh bread and olive oil. Before we ate, the cook offered us a shot of something that smelled like it might cleanse a wound. It burned my throat. Sunshine broke through the olive trees bathing the yard in warm sepia. I stretched my legs out and let the pleasant hum of the alcohol warm my limbs. The smell of cooking meat floated on the air. A litter of tiny kittens mewed and tumbled over each other, shading under an old cart.

“It was cooked under the bell,” the cook said as he brought our food. “Six hours.”

croatia-food

He placed a platter of tender meat and potatoes that looked like they might melt into the drippings if we didn’t eat them fast enough. A smile touched his sun-crinkled eyes as he also set down a carafe of cold white wine. We ate like we’d been cycling for weeks. The kittens slunk over and mewed until I nudged a bit of meat onto the ground. There was nobody else at the restaurant so he showed us the cracked iron bell that the meat roasted under and told us about the farm’s 800 year history. As he handed us a small jar of honey each “in case of emergencies,” I stretched my legs ready for the final push to Bol.

“Don’t worry,” the cook told us, “it’s all downhill from here.”

We flew down hillside roads with the sun on our backs and bellies full of food. The buzz from the wine made the Adriadic twinkle as we sped into Bol.

Docked in the harbour were two large boats and, as we negotiated the winding lanes and juddered over cobbled alleys we could hear the thud of bass pulsing from the harbour. As we got closer to the harbour the music got louder and little local Tabacs turned into shining modern bars. My legs ached and I was drenched with sweat. Side-on the hill we’d just flown down looked like a mountain, but as we got nearer to the party boats I would have faced a hill ten times the size to get back to the centre of the island.

croatia-bol

Above: Mark relaxing on the pier at Bol, probably staring at the party boats.

France: The Beautiful Game

The bone white facade of Lyon’s Notre Dame de Fourviére looked down on the shambling rooftops of the old town. I threw open the windows of our tiny apartment, expecting the smell of fresh croissants and gentle hum of French chatter to float up and meet me.

“Green and white army!” a strong Northern Irish accent pierced the air.

In the narrow street below, just outside a puppet shop that had been there for centuries, a huddle of bright green football shirts. Further up the street a couple more green shirts swaggered, singing in the sunshine.

“It’s the Ulster boys, making all the noise…”

Before we boarded the train to Lyon I’d noticed the ruffle of newspapers in the waiting room, pictures of red-faced, men in football shirts, mouths twisted into snarls and headlines that read ‘Football Hooligans Wreak Havoc in Marseille.’ As French businessmen glanced over at us, I wished Mark wasn’t wearing a Northern Ireland shirt.

A flutter of relief had settled in my stomach once we arrived at Lyon. The taxi drove past the Fan Zone, vomiting out brightly coloured football fans through metal barriers. If anything was going to kick off it would be here, behind the temporary metal cage. Hopefully the fans would stay mesmerised by images on the big TV screen and accidentally hydrated by 0.5% pints of Carling. Mark and I would just keep to the Old Town, explore the history and little eateries of Lyon and only venture outside the cobbled streets for the Northern Ireland – Ukraine match in the evening. We could still be proper travellers.

Green shirts had gathered outside pubs called ‘O’Brien’s’ and ‘Molly Malone’s’ like iron filings to a magnet. Mark nodded at each of them as we walked past. Disgruntled locals tutted at the loud songs and cheers and I wanted to catch their eye and say “I’m not part of this – I’m a librarian!”

With each flash of blue shirt on the crowded Rue Saint Jean my heart fluttered. I expected jeering, racist slurs, maybe a punch or two thrown. At the very least riot police would seal off the street and I would definitely be caught in tear gas. My mum would see my tear-stained face on the news back in the UK as I wailed to the cameras “I don’t even like football, and I’m not even from Northern Ireland!”

 

A couple of blue shirts stopped outside ‘Molly Malone’s’. I waited for shouting, swearing, punching.

“Excuse me, do you know how to get to Fourviere Hill?”

“Aye, just round the corner, stunning views. Just stunning.”

The bus out to the stadium was packed with green and white. The largest men spread across the back seat, belting out songs and waving their arms like choir conductors. It smelled like sweat and beer. Legs jigged nervously in seats. If Northern Ireland didn’t win this game then the green and white army would be going home.

Two blue-shirted Ukrainian fans squeezed into the already cramped bus. A small man with round glasses like a doctor’s led his nervous-looking wife through the forest of Northern Irish fans. I was scared for them.

“Hey, yous,” one of the green shirts said.

The wife pretended not to hear and started picking at a loose thread at the hem of her Ukraine shirt. The doctor-looking man plastered a smile across his face. They were the only blue shirts on the bus.

“Yous can come and sit by me,” the green shirt said. “I’ll look after yeh.”

He opened up his arms and enveloped the small man in a bear hug.

 

Inside the stadium the crown pulsed with a nervous energy. The man next to me fussed over the flags he’d tied to the balcony railings. Mark squeezed my hand before kick-off. It was the kind of squeeze he used when we were going through rough turbulence, the kind that said “just in case we don’t make it”.

As thousands of voices swelled and screamed through well used football chants I caught snippets of conversation.

“I’ve paid 80 euro for a ticket and I can’t even watch it, just tell me if we get close to scoring,” from a man with his hands over his eyes.

Soccer Euro 2016 Ukraine Northern Ireland

 

Just before half time the net nearest us rippled with impact. 1 – 0 Northern Ireland. The noise around me was deafening. The concrete platform shook like an earthquake. Mark threw himself at me in a hug designed for a man double my weight.

 

By the second half my knuckles were as white as anyone’s. I’d picked up some words to belt out along with the crowd. After the fifth or sixth round of “Will Grigg’s on fire” I turned to Mark.

“Which one’s Will Grigg?” I asked.

“Oh, he’s not playing. Hasn’t set foot on the pitch all season,”

“But all the songs are about him,” I said.

“Northern Ireland fans,” Mark shrugged, as if that explained everything. A felt a little swell of pride for the odd group I was becoming part of.

 

At full time it was still 1 – 0 and an announcement echoed around the walls in French. Nine minutes of added time. The red numbers stayed frozen at 90 minutes. The crowd counted time in heartbeats. “Come on, come on, allé, allé,” I whispered to myself as the minutes trickled past. Ukraine had the ball dangerously close to the goal. I didn’t want to look as the hollow kick sounded around the stadium. The net shivered with impact of the ball. A draw was not enough. Mark had his head in his hands, unable to look at the pitch. The keeper fetched the ball from behind the net.

A groan of relief. We just had to hold on for one more minute. Sixty seconds has never felt so long. A green shirt broke free from the scramble and ran down the pitch.

“That’s it! Just get it down our end and keep it there,” Mark was on his feet.

2 – 0 Northern Ireland.

The green side of the stadium erupted, cheering so loud that nobody heard the final whistle. As the players ran around the pitch celebrating I joined in on my favourite song.

“We’re not Brazil we’re Northern Ireland…”

And I really felt the we.

Russia: Once Bitten

“Yeah, base camp was amazing,” Edwin said, necking another shot of nasty vodka and wincing as it went down. I copied him, the neat alcohol hitting the pit of my stomach. I had run out of instant noodles and was starting to feel hunger pangs. Edwin was a proper traveller; a medical graduate with a mountaineering addiction. I had just spent 3 months on various beaches in tropical South East Asia, drinking gin and tonic from buckets. Luckily the heat was cranked up to the thirties inside the wood-panelled train compartment; the only evidence of the freezing cold outside was a crispy layer of frost at the bottom of my blanket where it leant against the outer wall. Looking out the train window at the expanse of Siberia it was as if someone was playing the same dirty film reel over and over. Low brown hills splotched with snow.

Half-way through the second bottle of vodka, the squeal of train brakes announced our arrival at a desolate Siberian station. Peering out the window I saw old freight trucks standing as if frozen to the track opposite. Edwin applied a million layers of outdoor-activity wear. I, however, prepared to leave the train for the first time in two days by popping a hat and scarf over my linen jungle clothes.

I spotted little shops stocking beer, vodka and a million varieties of instant noodles. Thank God. Without food, the vodka was going straight to my head. Ice coated the external door, freezing it shut. Edwin battered at it with his shoulder, but it wouldn’t budge. I started to panic. I didn’t fancy living off pocket fluff and toothpaste for the next three days.

“Excuse me!” I shouted down the carriage to no one in particular. Other than the two of us it was packed with Mongolian students returning from New Year, and they had all brought enough steamed pork dumplings for the journey.

The Provinista waddled out of her compartment wearing nothing but her thermal underwear and a deep scowl. She was large and bulky, built like a female wrestler with the skin-tight outfit to match. She grunted something in Russian, draped heavy grey coat over her thermals and started battering the external train door with the fire poker. Eventually, with an almighty ‘crack’ the door swung open and the needle-sharp chill of Russian winter hit me.

Within minutes my hair had frozen and a thin layer of ice from my breath had settled across my scarf. It felt like a thousand tiny needles were pricking the surface of my skin and by the time we reached the shops I couldn’t feel my fingers. We stocked up on instant noodles and more vodka because the timetable was in Cyrillic, for all we knew it could be days until the next station.

Just as I was handing over my roubles to the toothless shopkeeper I heard the shriek of the train whistle. Snatching up my instant noodles and renewed stock of vodka I skidded across black ice to the door of my carriage. The Provinista now hanging out of the open train door and bulging out of her thermal underwear again, shouted garbled Russian at me, holding out a hand. I grabbed on to the metal railing of the door and pain shot through my fingers like I’d been burnt, but I managed to pull myself into the carriage. The Provinista slapped me on the back and laughed like she’s never seen anything so funny in all her life.

I threw my instant noodles onto the bed and stuck my fingers in my mouth. They were in agony. Tears pricked in my eyes as the change in temperature sent searing pain through my digits. The tips were turning a dull blue and Edwin, in his serious mountaineer’s voice, shouted at me to run them under very mildly warm water.

The lukewarm water felt like it was scalding my fingers and I started to cry from the pain. Emerging from the toilet compartment fifteen minutes later I held out my bruise coloured fingers to Edwin like a child with a paper-cut, tears streaming down my cheeks.

“Just what I thought,” Edwin said as he studied my hand, “frostbite.”

“What? Frostbite?” I couldn’t believe it. Frostbite is for intrepid Arctic expeditions, not dancing about on a station platform after too much vodka. I clutched my poor, painful fingers to my chest not knowing what else to do.

Moscow was still three days away.

Note: This is my winning entry for the Pure Travel writing competition, published in Geographic Magazine.

Cambodia: Siem Reap Revisited

I’m hulking the same army-style rucksack and wearing the same bamboo flip-flops as when I last visited Siem Reap, three years ago. The smells of oil palm trees and dusty humidity still lingers in the air. A Thomson plane rests on the runway and seeing it sends a rock of disappointment to the pit of my stomach. Since when was this a package holiday destination?

Arriving by bus from Phnom Penh the first time was an adventure. The bus veered to avoid a cow in the road and hooted at a motorbike with a tawny mess of live chickens strapped to it. I sat at the front with two girls I’d met volunteering. We laughed at lazy water buffalo lolling in puddles too small for them.  The foggy haze of cocktails from buckets the night before hung over our heads, my vocal chords raw from shouting over thumping music. My stomach churned each time the bus lurched onto the other side of the road.

“To being free, independent women!” we had cried, clinking bottles of Angkor beer together before sharing stories of men that had wronged us, told us they loved us and slept around. We were on the other side of the world, bettering ourselves through backpacks and absolutely not thinking about them. A weekend exploring the temples of Siem Reap, taking ‘you don’t know what you’re missing’ photos in baggy Aladdin trousers, trees bursting through crumbling walls in the background was just what we needed.

We sat all day in a coffee shop that first day, talking about men.

Siem Reap 3

Families and couples fidget by a bank of tuk-tuks, the gaggle of drivers dinging their bells and crying over to the new arrivals. I grab Mark by the arm and march straight into the throng of them, pulling on my haggling mask.

“Wait, we can’t get a tuk tuk from the airport,” Mark says, his eyes wide. I remind myself that he’s never been here before.

“This is South East Asia, we can get a tuk tuk anywhere,” I reply.

His apprehension melts away the second our driver starts up the spluttery engine and we’re trundling along the road.

The Thomson plane was an omen. On the outskirts of the town the tuk tuk potters past newly built hotels with dead-faced tour buses lined up outside.

“Pfft, this has all changed,” I hear myself mutter.

Mark looks over at me, the smile fading from his face. This is his first tuk-tuk ride and I’m ruining it. I’m becoming one of those travellers unable to return anywhere because it will never be like the first time.

I remember the bumpy ride out past milky rice fields to our one star guesthouse the first time. We slept under mosquito nets on the roof for $2 a night, because why pay the extortionate $5 for a room inside? What a rip off. It’s not like we were sober enough to care where we were anyway. As I looked up at the stars above my bed, with the mosquito net draped dramatically to one side I thought if only he could see me now, then he would know how adventurous and brilliant I am. I also imagined I was 10% more attractive with sun-bleached hair and multiple beaded bracelets. Maybe tomorrow I would get a tattoo…

We approach Pub Street and on the corners open-air Khmer Barbeques are run by chefs in pristine black uniform. Where were the clattery old food carts? The smell of sizzling noodles and lemongrass is undeniably mouth-watering, but I can’t help it, I mutter the same mantra. This isn’t what it was like three years ago. And listen to me; three years ago! It’s not like I’m re-visiting the Middle East 40 years after a spiritual experience. This is Siem Reap – not Afghanistan.

Every time I say it I can see Mark’s face droop a little. A tuk-tuk emblazoned with the words “Dark Knight tuk-tuk” on the back splutters past us and I open my big mouth again.

“That was just the Batman tuk-tuk when I was last here…”

“I know, I know, it wasn’t like this three years ago,” Mark finishes for me and I shut my mouth.

Siem Reap 2

Three years ago, after scrambling over jungle temples all day and finding the perfect place to pose as a group of free, independent women being spiritual and not thinking about men, we ate the best Pad Thai I’ve ever had. An old lady with gnarled bare feet spooned it out from her clattery cart on the edge of Pub Street. We ate there every night. After that we would wander through the night market, crickets buzzing through the thatched roofs. As I sat with a tin of Angkor beer and fish nibbled at my proudly calloused travellers’ feet, I thought one day I’ll come back here with a boy. I will show him all I know about the world and then it will be perfect.

The driver stops outside our hotel, a proper hotel with a swimming pool and a nice restaurant. Mark is delighted. It’s only $25 dollars a night and feels like 5 stars.

“It’s ok, you can say it,” Mark says as we settle into our air conditioned room with a balcony and proper shower that you don’t have to hold in your hand.

“I’m being annoying, aren’t I?” I ask instead. “It’s just that, I wish you could have seen it with me, the first time, when it was all new and exciting,”

“I wish you could see it with me now,” he says, stretching across the king-size bed.

Japan: Capturing Kibune

The view out to the green mountains dripping with mist was the perfect scene in which to contemplate Descartes, Plato or anyone else from my Introduction to Philosophy textbook. The only sound at Kurama-dera temple was the cheep and pip of birds in the trees. The tang of burning incense floated on the air. I’d put on a long swishy skirt that morning so I could better drift about philosophising up in Kyoto’s mountains. I leant against one of the lanterns that looked like a little red birdhouse, stared across the mountains and thought about the meaning of it all.

Click, whirr, clunk, click. My mum’s ancient camera broke the tranquility.
“Lovely view,” she crowed at me.
Click, whirr. She poked the camera in my face.
“Urgh, mum, you broke my train of thought,” I said. “Get a picture of me philosophising over here instead.”
I swanned over to the pagoda-style temple, leaned against the paper sliding doors and put on my best pondering face. Leaning is the key to being deep and thoughtful. My mum was busy beetling around taking pictures of the lanterns.
“Mu-um! Take a picture!” I wheedled, tranquility well and truly broken.
A man in a navy uniform and white gloves scuttled over to my mum as if she was raising a gun, not a camera.
“Please, no photo!” he said, bowing.
My mum bowed back and I flushed scarlet.
“Right,” my Dad said in his train announcer voice, “shall we press on?”
He didn’t have time for drifting around or cultural emersion. ‘Shall we see if we can get to Kibune over that ridge?’ became ‘we must get to Kibune as fast as possible.’
I hadn’t even got a picture of me next to the temple and, if there wasn’t a picture, how would people know I was even there?

My dad strode off into the ancient trees, nose in the detailed map he’d carried with him everywhere like a security blanket. At the dinner table he would unfold it across little plates of sushi. The rustle of paper would attract the attention of Japanese people who came over to help pore over the map, as if my dad was lost in the seating plan of the restaurant. I was mortified when he sounded out Japanese words to the smiles and delight of everyone around.

Kibune 2

Click, whirr, clunk. A snap of golden sunlight falling across exposed roots, withered like old ladies’ hands.

“Konichiwa!” my mum said, ten decibels louder than I’d heard anyone speak in Japan. A Japanese man in a business suit beamed back at her. I looked at the ground. Why couldn’t my parents just float through this country like me, without making a scene everywhere? I saw a huddle of stones bearing neat Japanese script that looked like something out of Spirited Away.
“Mum! Take a picture of me here!” I said, leaning against the tree and looking wistfully away from the camera.
“Ok,” she said. “Smile!”
I didn’t.

I slouched and slumped my way up more stone steps. My dad stalked on ahead, my mum wandering, clicking and clunking with her camera behind him. She snapped pictures of me staring at the ground, my mouth a straight line of sulk while I wished I was there by myself. I was 18, an adult, too old for stupid family holidays.

Kibune 1

At Kibune we stopped for tea and sushi at one of the restaurants perched on wooden decks over the river, the rush of a small waterfall at our feet. My dad got his beloved map out again and attracted a group of locals like butterflies to a buddleia. An elderly man with a kind face broke into laughter at the table opposite us. He was watching my mum fail to pick up her sushi with her chopsticks. I put my head in my hands. The elderly man caught my mum’s eye and, in a flourished gesture, abandoned his chopsticks and popped a bit of sushi in his mouth with his hands before smiling at her and miming ‘photo?’

“Oh! Arigato!” my mum laughed, and gestured for me to give the man my camera. He shook his head and pointed at my mum’s old clunker.
“Smile!” he said. He must have been looking at me.

The sun began to set and, in the dusk, paper lanterns were lit all around the village. I tried to snap some photos of the scene with my fancy digital SLR, but everything just came out as blurry tracks of light, like the erratic scribbles of a toddler. Click, whirr, click.

We flicked through my mum’s photographs back home, freshly developed with that slightly sticky feel to them. My blurry attempts at art and creativity had already been loaded to a hard drive and forgotten about.
The ones she had snapped of me sulking through the forest painted me as the pensive philosopher, contemplating the roots of trees worn smooth with footsteps. The final picture of the three of us smiling away in that restaurant, the only one where I genuinely looked pleased to be there, is the only one I’ve kept and framed.