Mounting Adam’s Peak

Adam’s peak – also known locally as Sri Pada – is the most sacred mountain in Sri Lanka. However, while everyone else climbs it for pilgrimage purposes – or under the erroneous, yet wildly-held assumption that getting to the top of mountains makes your dick bigger – I decided to do it because I have a good friend called Adam and thought it might make for a vaguely amusing pun at some point in the indefinite future.

To date – and I hope for the rest of my days – it remains the most ridiculous thing I’ve put myself through for the sake of a bad joke.

Adam's Peak Sri Pada Sri Lanka

Adam’s Peak (Sri Pada), Sri Lanka

That day I’d already travelled overland from Pasikuda to Anuradhapura. My tuk tuk driver turned out to be something of a tour guide and produced, from some hidden place in the roof of his vehicle, several glossy, laminated images of local tourist sites and a “guest book” filled with (to be fair, very positive) reviews of his services, in English, French, German, Korean, Japanese and many a language I didn’t recognise. I forget his name, except that it begins with ‘P’ and was spelt differently by just about everyone who wrote it in the guest book.

He was determined to take me to the ruins near Polonnaruwa, the cave temples at Dambulla, the much tempting Sigiriya (Lion Rock) and other such places I’d already passed close to and could’ve gone to myself if I’d given two shits – just as he had for all his other happy customers, and was pretty peeved to find that, despite his numerous offers, I was only interested in going to “the tree“.

(Everything I read about Sri Lanka before I left, and every other traveller I met there, confirmed that, while Sri Lanka’s a cheap country, they milk the shit out of tourists. Rental cars, tickets to temples, ruins, etc…these things are ridiculously overpriced. The stilt fisherman down south, from Hikkaduwa to Tangalle are all dead, replaced by grand-kids who pose on stilts for tourists’ photos and then demand a hefty fee – to be fair, a far more profitable (and comfortable) living. In short, that’s why I couldn’t be arsed to “see the sights”.)

“Where are you staying in Anuradhapura?” He asked, and on a whim I said I wasn’t. I decided I might attempt Adam’s Peak after all. (I had wanted to do this first and most of all, but illness and lack of knowledge of the local bus network had got in the way.) In a cybercafe I hastily booked a dorm bed in a small town back down near Kandy, and then made it the afternoon’s goal to get there.

Rather than rest, I caught another tuk tuk to the train station, jumped on a Colombo bound train and established myself in a nice seat…but it was short-lived.

For some reason, even though I’d paid the extra 20 pence for a reserved ticket, I was kicked out of the carriage and forced to squeeze in with the sweaty masses.

I changed trains at Polgahawela and, when the same thing happened, I thought ‘fuck it’ and rather than stand crushed in third class, I took up a spot on the floor in the open doorway, and from there watched the Sri Lankan landscape pass by, then everything go dark, and finally I started to nod off. I laid down with my bag as a pillow, rather than risk falling asleep and out of a fast-moving train.

I arrived at Peradeniya around 11pm, which in Sri Lanka is already the dead of night, and having seen that my hostel was up in the mountains, a little closer to Sarasavi Uyana station, I jumped on a train headed there…

…only to find that there were no tuk tuks there, everything pitch dark and asleep, and the only person anywhere was a sleepy station attendant, who I would like to meet again to thank, because he went far beyond his remit to try to figure out a solution to my dilemma, even though no solution was there to be found and in the end we both slumped down in total mental exhaustion.

I had been travelling all day, buffetted about on roasting hot buses and clammy, claustrophobic trains and let’s not forget I still had the flu, not to mention yesterday’s dehydration, sunstroke and suspected conjunctivitis. Basically, I was beat.

He was covering this station, was usually based in Nuwara Eliya, and so didn’t know the area or anyone local who might be able to help.

He went and banged on the door of a nearby shack, woke up a stretching, sinewy old man, who only confirmed the hopelessness of the situation and went back to bed.

At my request, he called Peradeniya and asked if there were any tuk tuks there. There weren’t.

When I proposed walking, he told me I’d never be able to find the place in the dark (and he was right).

There was a train due for Peradeniya, but that was no help. All he could suggest was that I take the train at about 3am to Kandy, where there would probably be tuk tuks and guesthouses.

In the end I decided there was only one thing for it, shouldered my bag and trudged off down the road.

After about five minutes of walking in perfect darkness, miraculously a tuk tuk did happen to pass by on his way home. I didn’t quibble the fare and he drove me up a labyrinth of ever-thinning mountain roads until we were bouncing along a dirt track barely wide enough for his vehicle.

Suddenly he stopped beside a “23″ and said this was the place. I didn’t have a phone number for the place so we opened the gate and walked cautiously, one step at a time, down a mud path.

“What are we doing?” I heard him mutter in English.

Then from the shadows a dog started barking and snarling. The driver did his best to calm it in its native language as it snapped at his heels.

Eventually the commotion woke the owners and after some explaining they realised who I was. (They’d assumed I wasn’t coming.) I thanked and paid the driver, who left for home. Then the owner showed me my bed and I slept blissfully.

In the morning, fully refreshed, I took a shower, ate a simple but tasty breakfast of toast and tea, and reveled in the peace of my surroundings.

HillCrest Home Hostel, Peradeniya, Kandy, Sri Lanka

Hill Crest Home Hostel, Peradeniya

I made the decision to stay here and rest for the remainder of my time in Sri Lanka.

Then I met the only other person staying in the hostel – a Latvian girl who’d been working on a resort in the Maldives – and she mentioned she was leaving for Adam’s Peak and happened to drop all the information on how to get there. My peace was ruined.

Within a few hours, I was packed and trudging along that dirt road again. I walked to Uda Peradeniya and waited outside the local village shop, where it commenced pissing it down – huge drops of rain that brought a welcome coolness to the back and neck – and I was forced to shelter under the awning, where I became well acquainted with the locals and every visitor to the store, as well as several passers by- all of whom showed the utmost interest in where I was from and where I was going.

Finally the bus arrived, took me to a train station – I don’t know which one, except that it wasn’t either of the ones I’d asked for – and I caught a train to Hatton. I opened the windows and the rain poured in and we slid through the wet, lush landscape – the dripping trees, those little rustic houses, those palm-esque trees with long drooping yellow leaves that I always call banana trees, though now I’m wondering whether I’ve ever actually seen a banana growing on one.

The sun set slow and soft over the layers of blue, green mountains. I realised that this hill region around Kandy, which I had never planned to even visit, is the highlight of Sri Lanka – the real epicentre of the island’s beauty.

From Hatton I took the Nallathani bus to Delhouse/Dalhousie, which raced in the darkness up bumpy, winding mountain roads and there wasn’t anything I could do to stop feeling sick. The Sri Lankan guys laid down and slept in all kinds of strange, unlikely positions while an alert white guy and his porter sat up straight, pulled up socks, prepared water bottles, kept their eyes on the road and never stopped talking enthusiastically about the climb ahead.

I fell asleep in the manner of the Sri Lankan guys.

At Delhouse most people get a bed and start the climb at around 2am. I asked around but couldn’t see much point in spending money on a bed for a few hours when I knew I wouldn’t get to sleep until about five minutes to two anyway, as is always the way. So I gorged myself on fried rice in a dirty, smoky, covered hut affair run by a family playing cards and drinking beers under a lantern like a scene out of the Wild West. Then I began the climb.

Adam's Peak Sri Pada Sri Lanka Trailhead

Adam’s Peak trailhead

The whole length of the trail is lit throughout the night, as this is the best time to make the pilgrimage. (Remember it’s 25 degrees  at four in the morning here!) The lanterns are regular and just far enough apart that you can always see one, and you could see them in the very distance, winding up to the summit and hanging in the black night sky like an unknown star-sign. But the scene was one of darkness and photos didn’t come out without flash.

The trail is lit at night.

For a long time the trail is lined on both sides with market stalls and tea houses, simple huts mostly closed-up with tarpaulins, from which local music can be faintly heard from within. Apparently recorded music, smoking and alcohol are banned in order to create the right vibe. However, I lost count of how many people or saw smoking or heard playing music from their phones. And of course I was fully laden with alcoholic beverages, as always.

I bought a stupid hat for a few pence, simply because everyone else seemed to have one, and because I’d read that leeches were a genuine concern and didn’t really fancy having to put a lighter to my scalp later on. I thought it was amusing that the guy kept trying to push the the pink and purple hats, as though they were his prized specimens, despite my interest in the blue and black ones. The guys do love pink and purple in these parts. I wonder if I’ll ever find out why.

I didn’t encounter any leeches, the hat was too small and far too warm for trekking, but it did come in useful for sleeping on the cold summit later.

Buddhist statues, strange caves, gates, candles and so on also gave a distinct character to the path, which passed over rivers and up an ever-increasing number of steps. In fact, pretty soon it was almost entirely steps, and it was these that eventually killed me – fully laden as I was with everything I might need for the next two or three years of my life.

Still near the beginning, four men passed by in silence bearing what looked like a body on a stretcher, wrapped in a blanket. It could have been supplies perhaps, but it was coming down, not going up, and in any case felt like a bad omen in this strange place in the middle of the night.

I was pouring with sweat and removed all unnecessary layers – including that fucking useless hat.

As everyone who treks knows, it is a hard thing to describe. The route changes, slowly and somewhat imperceptably. The summit seems always very close and very far off. Your mind, despite being focused at all times on the next step ahead, turns elsewhere. The hours pass. All the time you are walking, thinking. But about what?

I forget.

I bore my bags up each steep step, pushed on at a good pace and overtook everyone I came across- sometimes twice or three times if they got the better of me again while I stopped for a break. I got smiles and waves from the locals, and realised I was the only person carrying anything more than a day bag or a bottle of water. (I also had a bottle of water). Stops for rest became more frequent as the trail, as well as each step, became steeper and steeper. Eventually, the air got cooler, the crowds of pilgrims grew denser, but the summit, seemingly back-lit by a red-gold haze against the darkness and in contrast to the white light of the trail lamps, was still distant.

The distant summit

The sounds of the night, chirping insects, the sound of my own footsteps took on the feel of silence.

The last stretch is like climbing a ladder. Hand rails are now a necessity and segregate those ascending and descending. The trail is now barely wide enough to pass, and a long queue forms. I squeezed past old ladies and groups of youths stopping to rest and for a smoke.

Looking back…over my shoulder

When I finally reached the top it was the strangest place I’ve ever been – a kind of concrete plateau. A cold wind blew across the summit. Great bells, the ringing of which had crept into my sub-conscious for much of the journey now bellowed out over the landscape. You had to take off your shoes and socks and hats to enter – it being a holy place.

In the distance was the winding trail of lights I had come up by. It seemed impossible, looking at them, that I’d come all that way, but things always look somehow unreal at night, and also from a mountain top.

Apparently, there’s a big footprint in the top – Buddha’s maybe. I explored man-made caves that ran beneath the stupa and were packed with sleeping pilgrims and butterflies. Sri Pada is also called Butterfly Mountain, and there are butterflies (or moths) fucking everywhere! On every surface and saturating the air.

I got in line and rang a big gold bell, even though I don’t know why.

Barefoot, I looked in vain for a place to lay down, but every available patch of ground was taken.

Finally, after a full circuit of the complex, I decided to take my chances on a series of large stone steps. I climbed to the top, got in my sleeping bag fully clothed, pulled on the hat, drew the draw-string tight and lay down.

As often happens, all it takes is one person to do something… I set a precedent, and every time I woke, which was more often than I slept, more people were asleep around me. Pretty soon I was in a pile of sleeping Sri Lankans.

Everytime I opened my eyes and came up for air it was still pitch black.

Finally I saw the first twinge of dawn and heard instructions from some source and had to stand up, my belongings immediately buried by the crowd, who all gathered together on the steps.

We watched patiently as out of the darkness a jagged horizon took shape in blue, then this horizon separated into several layers and shapes or varying distances. Some turned out to be mountains, some clouds. I have never watched the sunrise in such detail. Like watching paint dry, you would suddenly realise that a whole new object or area had been made visible and you hadn’t noticed…even though you were staring right at it the whole time. Shimmering lakes, great peaks and long strings of cloud came out of nowhere. Blues became golds, reds, whites…I could go on to describe this one dawn for hours. But nobody wants to hear that. (Probably no-one has made it this far.) So, all I’ll say is…go there and see for yourself! And here are some photos which completely fail to capture the experience.

Dawn at Sri Pada

Dawn at Sri Pada

Panoramic of Adam's Peak (Sri Pada) at Dawn

Panoramic View of Adam’s Peak (Sri Pada) at Dawn

Panoramic Sunrise from Sri Pada (Adam's Peak), Sri Lanka

Sunrise from Sri Pada (Adam’s Peak), Sri Lanka

As soon as the sun was up I kicked my belongings through the legs of the crowd, fought my way to the bottom and started my descent. I had crushed only one butterfly while sleeping, which was a miracle considering the space to butterfly ratio up there.

While most people descend back down the Hatton route, I had a romantic notion in my head to actually “get somewhere” by traversing this peak, so I took the Ratnapura route, down the other side. It was the first time I’d ever passed over a mountain in such a way, and it felt good.

My knees jarred with every step down and I had to brace myself.

The Ratnapura route is greener, longer (one and a half times as long) and is supposed to be the more difficult of the two.

I spent the morning amidst incredible views of the surrounding mountains and valleys, with the shadows of the neighbours leaning on their slopes and creating quite a vista.

Morning glory

Bracing myself for a steep descent

Fellow pilgrims on the Ratnapura road

Going down

I descended into forests, the path leading up and down across the range. I bought salty roti bread and bottles of water and pushed on. I saw clans of monkeys swinging about in the trees above, occasionally sneaking down to rob a banana skin.

I was racing the hot sun, which I knew would soon crest the canopy and be directly overhead, but I was having to stop more and more frequently for longer and longer periods of time. I cursed myself for being so arrogant on the route up, and for never learning to “stretch” at school, and for sleeping curled up in a ball in the cold with someone laying on my feet. Now it was everyone else passing me. My state was deteriorating fast. I began to pay attention to the numbers etched in the steps, and soon discovered that they were giving the number of steps remaining. At 6000 steps remaining, I could barely walk. By 3000 I had spent everything I had and was certain I wouldn’t make it to the bottom. I was taking one step every three or four seconds now. Because of my exponentially slowing pace, every time I did the maths and estimated how long it would before before I reached the bottom, the time was longer. I calculated an hour, walked for 15 minutes, then still I was an hour away. I walked another 10 minutes, not including several long rests and now I was an hour and a half from the bottom.

My legs were now seizing up frequently. Countless times my hips or a knee suddenly gave out and I was almost thrown down the mountainside.

Stopping to rest

I tried rolling my bags down the hill and following, but it was no use. They had already done their damage. Without them I felt light as a feather, my balance was affected and it was even harder to walk. My legs were still fucked now, no matter what.

Other symptoms began to hit me. The bags cut into my skin, bruised my shoulders and spine. I wondered what permanent damage I was doing to myself.

I spent more time now laying on the ground, caped in sweat, resting for ten, fifteen minutes just to be able to walk 100 more steps.

Passers-by were now genuinely worried for me. But what could they do? I wasn’t going to have anyone carry my bags for me. So in true Duffield tradition I said “I’m fine, thank you” and they watched me skeptically as I took a few more paces, bent over at a 90 degree angle, wincing with pain at every jolt, taking now at least five second for each step. Count ten seconds in your head, then think about it.

Nearing the bottom

I don’t know how I did it – it is truly amazing what the human body can be put through when needed – but I made it to the 1000 steps mark and from then on there were no numbers. The path slowly flattened out, but now I was used to the single motion of stepping down a step, and my body set in the required pose, so walking on flat ground was almost impossible. I took one step at a time, and with each I careered to one side and stumbled.

Finally I came to tea houses as the sun broke the trees and bore down on me. It got to the point where if I stopped now I wouldn’t be able to get up again for days. I had to keep going.

I asked someone how far to the end. He said “one kilometre”.

15 minutes later I asked another person. Still 1km.

30 minutes later I arrived at the edge of the Carney Estate and asked how far to the bus station. 1km!

There was no other way down. Tuk tuks couldn’t make it up the path. I kept walking, though walking is not the word for the slow, sideways, lurch that I was now managing to muster every minute or so.

Finally I reached the road! How far to the bus stop? 1km.

I flagged down the first tuk tuk and was shuttled a distance that not even the most stereotypically obese Californian wouldn’t walk, my bones and joints rattling with pain.

I was helped onto a bus to Ratnapura, climbed drenched in sweat onto another bus to Colombo, bought samosas, water, downed it, finally got a window seat, passed out and woke up in Colombo in the middle of the night without the use of my legs.

A tuk tuk drove me around for about an hour before finally landing me at a good hotel I could afford.

To top it all off, a monsoon-like rain struck while I was out buying water and within the space of half a second my clothes (jeans too) were soaked through, a waterfall ran over my face, the streets filled up and burst over the curbs, motorcycles pulled into shops for shelter, gutters and pipes pissed from every direction and I had to drag what were effectively now wooden legs through over a foot of water. Probably there was shit in the water. At this point I couldn’t have cared less.

Still, I managed to feel some optimism that this hadn’t happened while I was on the mountain.

I arrived back at my hotel in such a state that the night porter couldn’t keep the look of horror from his face. I had a long, hot shower, ate, changed my clothes, slept soundly, got picked up by a tuk tuk at 4am and taken to Colombo airport and thus ended my adventures in Sri Lanka.

There are a few morals to this story:

1. Climb Adam’s Peak and it’ll be a breeze – an incredible experience! Take all your luggage though and you’re fucked.

2. Learn to stretch in school.

3. Sri Lankans need to learn more ways of expressing distances than just “1 km”.

4. My friend Adam should have been otherwise named.

Categories: Asia, Sri Lanka, Travel Stories | Leave a comment

Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi: World’s Oldest Planted Tree

I know I just wrote about how I don’t give a crap about religious sites, but I happen to be a huge tree fan.

The Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi was grown from a cutting of the original Bodhi tree, under which Buddha sat and from where he gained enlightenment.

Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi tree, Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka

The Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi tree in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka

While the Indian original has since died of old age and been replaced, its Sri Lankan offspring has gone on to become the oldest living, human-planted tree in the world with a verified date. It was planted in 288 BC and has had an unbroken line of caretakers ever since – for over 2000 years!

As you can see, golden crutches have been implemented to help support the tree’s branches.

Golden crutches support the branches of the Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi tree

Golden crutches support its branches

The complex is an unimaginably peaceful place. Monkeys and herons occupy the grounds together in peace, giant ants wrestle eternal in the sand and barefoot Buddhist pilgrims from all over the world come to experience the sense of spirituality. Other, younger Bodhi trees – sacred fig trees – surround the main stupa and protect the Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi from the monkeys, bats and storms.

Monkey in grounds of Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi tree

A very peaceful place

Monkeys and herons at Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi tree

Monkeys and herons occupy the grounds in peace

World's oldest living, dated, human-planted tree

The world’s oldest living, dated tree planted by human hands

If you want to go, it’s in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka.

Categories: Asia, Sri Lanka, Travel Stories | 1 Comment

The Road to Pasikuda Beach

“So you’re one of the crazy ones,” that Slovakian girl said over breakfast. “India is full of people like you.”

I looked down at my mug of Ceylon (Sri Lankan) tea swimming with boiled ants and their eggs, now never to hatch. Did I kill them? Had they been on the tea bag? Or in the mug?

I went and poured out a fresh mug.

She said she had to get a tuk tuk to go somewhere – Badulla, I think – and I saw my chance to get moving again. I hurriedly packed up my bag and we split the fare, me to the bus station, her to the train.

I noticed the driver had a wine bottle in a little holder in the foot well. I’m sure it had some other use, but I couldn’t help but think this was the vehicle for me – the Drinking Traveller Mobile!

I jumped out, we said goodbye and they disappeared into the thrall of belching buses and tooting tuk tuks, all trying to turn around at once.

I took a bus to Kadaruwela, which wound through the green hills, alongside lakes and rivers – rivers crossed by little wooden bridges on stilts leading into those tall, waving trees of all kinds and putting me in the mood for adventure.

We passed tranquil homesteads, each one of which seemed to me then to be a perfect paradise, and I dreamed of buying one and living the simple life, in the same way that people think about Provence in the South of France and other such places where the golden sunlight streams onto the porch, the door and shutters always open, maybe someone fixing a motorbike in the shade of a large tree, a scattering of plants and animals to look after and which to live by.

Giant Buddhas in gold, in stone, gaudily painted – the kind you pay good money to see in Nara or Hong Kong – rose up on nearby hilltops, appeared at the very roadside, starring into the bus at me.

Everywhere plastered billboards and posters for cakes. Sri Lanka is obsessed with cakes – the English kind – the kind my grandparents have with tea.

The mountains gave way to vast expanses of luminous yellow-green fields – rice fields. Lush! That is the word for Sri Lanka! Just a shame about all the rubbish everywhere. I have a vision of it, clean and prosperous, and then there wouldn’t be a more beautiful island.

Occasionally a tree, a pool, a lake-sized puddle, where it’s not difficult to imagine hippos bathing, as they no doubt were in nearby Yala National Park.

Also more than a handful of military establishments – barracks, training facilities, etc – a single clue, remnant of the civil war that racked the country from 1983 until 2009 and which is in no small way responsible for the state of things today.

I never learnt to tell the difference between Sinhalese and Tamil, and never saw anything close to violence. The people of Sri Lanka seemed a peaceful lot. Nobody seemed to be of the thieving persuasion. Everybody seemed well-off – not rich, but content, reasonably happy. Apparantly the cost of living here is very low, even relatively, so maybe that explains that.

Women in their backless dresses, sarees, kurtas, shalwars; young men with incredible black, glossy hair; old, grizzled men with thin hair, dirty shirts, sandals, receding gums, dark skin like cracked, worn leather – one standing, dangling a bottle of Arrack (Sri Lanka’s national spirit) in a little bag that rocks from side to side in front of my face. Sharing these buses, amongst these people, crammed in as you often are, watching faces come and go – some stand out, they all join the flow – you find yourself feeling like you belong here.

At stops men would jump on and make their way up and down the bus selling “wadi, wadi, wadi!“, soft drinks, sacred things to touch, lottery tickets, corn-on-the-cobs, sticker books and toys for kids, mysterious pieces of paper that I’ve never understood – the same crap they sell on buses from Laos to Honduras and back again.

And yes, that sign just said “Punani”.

At some point I was dumped off and rushed onto another bus to Batticaloa, out of water and starving. I thought I was going to throw up from the stifling heat and the constant motion of the bus (remember I’ve still got the flu) but I got a window seat just in the nick of time and shut my eyes and shut off, as I’ve always been able to do (one of the reasons I love sleep so much) while Ruth is the opposite – has to have her eyes open and be sitting upright. I remember grazing my knee on the playground and having to stumble off and lay down on a bench, where everyone finally stopped harassing me and from where I heard Joe Tobin saying “look at Roy, he’s got his eyes closed! What’s he sleeping for?” – Ah, the things I’ve heard while people think I’m sleeping!

Then somebody nudged me and said I’d gone several kilomatres too far. I had to jump off again, tripping on my bags and literally falling out of the moving bus.

I crossed the road, this time bought water, then stood waiting for a ride in the hot sun and dusty street of an unknown town exactly as I had in Argentina – wild country – a few years before.

I got a final bus to Kalkudah and from there a tuk tuk (which, in light of the lack of other cars here, seem to be known as “taxis” or at least “three-wheelers”) to Pasikuda – otherwise spelt as Pasikudah, Pasikkuda, Passikuda and other variations thereof - a beautiful bay just up from the immense but not so “pristine” beach of Kalkudah.

I first heard of this place when I asked Nimesh, my only Sri Lankan friend, for advice and among other great recommendations he wrote “you should try and get to a beach called ‘Pasikuda’, its on the eastern coast of the island. Awesome beach, fricking pristine!”

I Google-image-searched “pasikuda beach” and was convinced.

The place I was staying was called “Pasikkuda Resort”, which is ironic as it’s just about the only accommodation in Pasikuda that’s not a resort – while the resorts all have names like “Centara”, “Anilana”, “Amethyst”, “Maalu Maalu”. Isn’t that always the way? The amount of times I’ve seen a “Grand Hotel” – example, in Shkodër, Albania – that’s far from “grand”.

But at £15 a night instead of £150, who can complain.

I took a stroll under what felt like a 40 degree sun, directly overhead, up Beach Road, a dusty track that ended abruptly in a big, red-earth car park, mostly empty – a few stands, some cows, mopeds, a tuk tuk or two, and a Police Station.

sri-lanka-india 008

A path led to the beach over a bridge and big yellow signs said things to the effect of:

“DRINKING ALCOHOL AND SWIMMING IS DANGEROUS!”

and then

“IT IS FORBIDDEN TO BRING ALCOHOL ONTO THE BEACH!”

A policeman eyed me cautiously and followed me as I wandered along the sand.

sri-lanka-india 011

“Is there a bar here?” I asked him.

“Oh yes, just there.” He pointed to Centara.

I wandered across the resort – pristine, but almost empty – slumped into a big, wicker chair with plush cushions, just in the shade, and looked around for other customers.

A couple lay on sun-loungers. Another in the distance. They all looked like criminals – gangsters from Moscow or London – and their fat girlfriends.

An old German couple, long and lean, red in the face, came and ordered glasses of wine.

I wasn’t exactly sure why these people were here and neither, it seemed, were they. Everything about this stood in complete opposition to everything I’d seen so far in Sri Lanka. I suppose they go out from time to time, in organised tour groups in air-conditioned minivans. I’m not even sure where the air-conditioned minivans come from. Nobody else seems to have them here.

The staff – all well-dressed in black – stood around, vastly outnumbering the clientele. One polite, effeminate and very smiley guy came and took my order.

sri-lanka-india 015

I kicked back, ordered a “Passikudah Memory” – one of their signature cocktails – Arrack, lemon juice, honey, lemonade – a bowl of wedges and some sausages stuffed with cheese, wrapped in bacon and smothered in a kind of tomato sauce…

sri-lanka-india 018

…Not the right food for this heat. I grew drowsy, slumped further, ordered another cocktail, took some photos of the beach.

Leaning against the chair to take a photo I realised my eye hurt. Strange.

I watched the crows swoop in and slowly hop their way to the chair opposite me, edge their way along its arm and towards my food.

I realised all I had to do was stare menacingly at them – or even just be there – and they would lose their nerve at the large minute and fly away in fear. This repeated several times, and they never plucked up the courage to make their move.

When the waiters saw them they came storming over, throwing ice-cubes at them – never hitting one though.

The birds moved almost exactly like the velociraptors in Jurassic Park, then occasionally doing a little dance by skipping sideways like a crab and it was easy to see how these guys could get so infuriated with them.

“Bloody birds!” they yelled, and angryflared into their faces as they threw their ice, destroying the illusion they’d worked so hard to build up of friendliness and politeness and peace. It was like all their pent-up anger at the customers, at the shitty job, was suddenly allowed to manifest itself on these crows.

I’m sure if one of them had got hold of one he wouldn’t think twice about ripping its head off. Or do Buddhists not do such things? But are these guys even Buddhists? Maybe Hindu? Maybe they’ll all be reincarnated as crows on Pasikuda beach. In their black sweeping aprons it’s not too hard to imagine.

Throwing the ice at the crows seems to bond the waiters to the customers, who share their hatred for these annoying creatures. It gives them a common talking point, I watch them laugh together over it.

Until one of the guys inevitably gets to carried away and glances a lounging customer with an ice-cube.

The guy jumps up.

“Oy! What the bloody hell was that?”

The waiter has to go and sheepishly apologise and explain himself. The guy accepts the apology and laughs it off, but you can see from his face if they try that again they’re dead.

For a moment it seems this whole thing is symbolised by those crows.

The waiter comes and starts the usual conversation with me:

“Where are you from?”

“England.”

“Ah, England!”

and that’s the end of it.

Only now he starts asking me if I’m “in resort” and I say no. He asks where I’m staying and he smirks when I tell him. Smug prick. Why do people working in posh places always act so posh, like it goes to their head or something – the act. With the obvious exception of chefs.

sri-lanka-india 021

I wander to the shore, drop trow and swim out as far as I can. There’s nobody else in this stretch of the water. The sun is setting. I lay on my back and drift, floating on the warm, empty, pristine water.

When I get back the policeman wants a cigarette for watching over my clothes.

He gets a “thank you” instead.

Down the beach, off resort, Sri Lankans are swimming, playing, sitting in circles chatting.

I wonder if the resort will ever poison the crows.

But I expect the crows will be here long after the resort.

Funny places, resorts.

sri-lanka-india 023

I go back and pass out in the dark for an hour, then the guy’s banging on the door – I foolishly ordered a fish curry – the thought of which now makes me want to hurl.

I go out, stare at my meal, poke at it with the fork.

I had thought I was the only one staying here but just then a door opened and a woman came out, said “good evening” and sat down at the other table. She’s dressed in a sun-bleached, powder-blue night gown, has long, straight hair (because I’ve reached that age I always thought would come, when ‘old women’ no longer have curled hair) and walks like a ghost. There’s something Miss Haversham about her and I can’t shake the feeling that she’s come here to die.

She eats in silence feel like I’m going to throw up.

“Excuse me?” I said.

No reaction.

I stood up, pushing the chair back with a deliberate squeal and say again louder, “Excuse me! Could you tell him I’m sorry, I’m not well, I’ll pay for the food.” At which point she began babbling incomprehensibly at me and I muttered “nevermind” and went into my room.

A while later I heard repeated banging on the door and the guy shouting, then the old lady said something and he fell silent.

Luckily sleep came before vomit and everything disappeared into darkness.

The mosquitoes ate me alive. I woke occasionally to hear them swooping close to my eyes – their buzz suddenly deafening – and made a few blind swats in the dark, too delirious to get up and put a stop to them.

Finally, in the early hours I got up, switched on the light, saw by the smears of my own blood on my own skin that I’d got a couple, and proceeded to go on a killing spree, not resting until I’d wasted more than 20 of the barstards, many of which, swollen with my blood, made easy targets and exploded in a blast of purple-red that I knew must’ve been mine.

Then I smothered myself in deet to keep at bay any hidden stragglers or new arrivals and went back to sleep satisfied and surrounded by the smears and stains of death.

I woke again in the morning – all symptoms of sickness gone – took a shower with the jumping spiders with their strange, almost mechanical movements, almost shit myself to find a fat cockroach hiding under my bag. He seemed equally taken aback and made a dash for it.

I tried the technique demonstrated to us in Marrakech by our valient riad night porter – namely, crushing the thing beneath be-flip-flopped foot – but I’m English, have no experience in such things, and missed – the fucker too fast for me and bolted under the door to become someone else’s problem – probably best for us both.

I went out and sat on the front patio, overcome by a sense of calm – the occasional bicycle passed the front gate, the oppressive heat that would come later was still a good few hours away.

I took a breakfast of dall and roti…and made a right mess of it.

The crazy lady appeared and said “good morning” in that same polite voice that had erroneously led me to believe she might be an English speaker.

“It bad your hyier?” She pointed to her eye.

“Yes.” How did she know? Are they that bad?

She disappeared and then reappeared with a handful of dirty-white powder, like crystals, which she gestured for me to snort.

Oh, she meant my sinuses.

Why people always assume you can snort anything with a blocked up nose is beyond me, but I made a good go of it all the same.

What language was that old sachet in? Russian? Greek? Hindi? I didn’t get a good enough look at it.

She also told me not to drink cold water or eat ice-cream in the heat (which is actually very sound advice) and said something about “wool” and pointed to her tiny feet in faded, pale-blue socks like a little girl’s and tired, old slippers.

She went and ate inside, I finished my breakfast, kindly informed the manager I wouldn’t be staying another night, settled my bill and jumped in a three-wheeler that pulled up out front – the same guy who dropped me there yesterday from Kalkudah – no doubt he’d been waiting for me.

As an afterthought – actually because I’d left my bottle of water in my room – I ran back in and said “thank you! Goodbye!” but the old lady didn’t even look up. Deaf as fuck.

I felt strangely sorry for her – wondered what her story was – but she seemed strangely content in this lonely silent world – and anyway I was soon out of there, bound for Anuradhapura…

 

Categories: Asia, Sri Lanka, Travel Stories | 2 Comments

Not a Post about the Temple of the Tooth, Kandy

Dropped at the shabby old colonial train station, I bought a selection of samosas – big fat, crispy spicy motherfuckers, not like the little, wet, flat kind filled with a smidge of green mulch you get from Iceland and such supermarkets back home – for a matter of pence.

I got a train to Kandy – some more pence spent – and, for one of the first times in my life, consented to pay (10 rupee) for use of the toilet – (something called the “Tourist Toilet” was locked) – which was the most God-awful place I’ve ever set foot in (though I’m sure I’ve set foot in others just like it) – the air so thick with the smell of hot piss and shit that I was afraid it would penetrate the paper bag and permeate my remaining samosa.

Sitting waiting for my train, it took me a second to realise the bag was in fact glued together pieces of scrap paper (it is this way throughout Sri Lanka) – mine was some form of instructions, printed in beautiful Sinhalese script, in 2011, with some minor corrections made in red pen and a scattering of greasy fingerprints – some mine.

How poor is a country that can’t afford brown paper bags, and has to implement this kind of re-cycling? How much are brown paper bags, anyway? All questions I’d never have thought to ask.

I sat and read for an hour, watching kids jumping the tracks rather than go all the way to the bridge, something I was really glad I saw and always think it would be funny to try in England, if I didn’t know exactly what would happen, where serious, well-off people have been serious and well-off for so many generations they forget that something as natural as taking the shortest distance between two spaces is not a heinous crime…

…then watching a man sweeping up with a dustpan improvised from an old oil carton – and couldn’t help but remember New Years’ when I woke to discover with some annoyance that Ruth had thrown out our dustpan-and-brush as it’d been a necessary tool in cleaning up my vomit the night before and I was being charged an outrageous 50 pence to cover the damages, when I would have just washed the damn thing – then snapped back to the present to join the mad rush for seats as the train pulled in and people started jumping on while it was still moving and coming in somehow from the side where there’s not even a platform, so even though I was one of the first through the door I got the last seat on the carriage and even then only by a split second and with a look that said “you can fuck right off” to the guy trying to save it for his friend.

A sign said in Sinhalese then Tamil then English, “No Smoking & No Liqueurs”.

The train eventually left the city and when passing over jungle-lipped rivers I could imagine coming across Sri Lanka at the dawn of the colonial era and could see how it got its name, which means “resplendent island” – which in turn means an island that is “attractive and impressive through being richly colourful or sumptuous”.

But then the river would pass, followed by another road of dirt and shitty houses and once again the impression returned of a place quite fucked.

From the train I saw a topless young women lit up by the blinding sunlight that spilled into the window of her wooden home. She was swept away in an instant, but I knew what I saw. This may explain why I have so much to say about the passing landscape, but eventually I did succumb to the exhaustion and the heat and all the bodies packed in swaying tight confinement, and hung my head in my sweaty lap – my sweaty thigh fused to the sweaty knee of my neighbour – nodding back and forth and waiting for the sleep that never came.

I felt a nagging pain in my folded left forearm and finally looked, to find a big-old bug hanging onto my flesh. I had to take two swats at the thing to get it loose and then never did find it or know what it was. The bite swelled up and continued to hit me with the pain to the point where I kept thinking it had come back for more – returned to the scene of the crime. I knew I’d by fine but in my tired delirium conjured up ideas of poisonous creatures and…God I needed rest.

Jumping off in Kandy, amidst jungle-furred mountains, I procured the card of a hostel from some British backpackers on their way out of town.

I took a tuk-tuk up the winding hill road, through a long, dark, dripping tunnel, weaving through traffic that the driver wasn’t even looking at – reminding me of that thrill of tuk-tuks and motorbike taxis that is one of the joys of travel, like the time I perched on the back of a moped, racing through some busy little Cambodian town to a bus I would almost miss, with backpack on back, water in one hand and a guitar-case in the other, or the time me and Ruth found ourselves stranded at a nudist beach not far from Salvador, Brazil and had to pay a couple of guys to ride us over the hills…yes, the joys of travel!

Eventually I laid down in my dorm bed, under mosquito net and sheet – thin in all respects of the word, with faded stripes of various colours – as all sheets are in Sri Lanka – and finally, sleep, 50 hours overdue, took me…

…Noises in the night, like some kind of distant street-race, squealing tyres, all of which actually the howling of animals and birds…

…I assumed I’d wake up at least partially recovered but instead the flu regrouped and laid me out for two days.

So, though I wandered around Kandy in the cooler evenings, people-watched, ate and so on, I didn’t go to the Sri Dalada Maligawa – the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic – apparently home to one of Buddha’s teeth, “snatched from his funeral pyre and smuggled into Sri Lanka in the hair of a princess” – bullshit! – which I’m told is sealed away in a gold container anyway, and with a hefty entry fee for tourists.

If you’re unfamiliar with this blog, or with me, I apologise, but I’ve seen far too many temples and been in the presence of enough faux-religious relics to give a shit.

For the naive or the just-starting-out, I’m sure the Temple of the Tooth sounds very cool – like one of those things you just have to see/do in a lifetime, but the truth is, the world is full of crap like that. You can’t see it all. (You can’t “see” it anyway!) Nor does it, in my experience, enrich your life in any way – unless you’re a Buddhist, or maybe a Dentist, or for some other reason have more than a passing interest in teeth – and won’t tell you anymore about Kandy that a walk down the street, or a visit to any home, shop, public toilet.

I know there’s a raging debate in the travel blogging world about “travel snobs” and “whether or not to see the sights” and I’m not trying to get involved in that or judge anyone who does enjoy seeing the main attractions, whatever they may be, as most people do. In fact, I try not to judge how anybody travels (exceptions made for complete retards)and simply ask that you don’t judge me, or label me a “travel snob” and so on.

The truth is I never meant to come to Kandy. I just came here to sleep, and then found it to be one of the best parts of the country.

I woke at strange hours, wandered the hostel like a ghost, lay out on the terrace watching the impossibly tall trees shift this way and that in the pre-dawn, so full of life. Unable to comprehend this surreal view, like something from a dream, where the red or white lights of tiny, far-off tuk-tuks seemed to appear in the canopy and somewhere, somehow there was a road, and people’s houses, in all this madness and nature. It was a view that could never exist back home.

There was an immense sense of peace here and I took back everything bad I’d said about Sri Lanka.

Soon I would be well, myself again, ready for the adventures ahead.

Categories: Asia, Sri Lanka, Travel Stories | 1 Comment

On the Road Again…in Sri Lanka

Out of the darkness came suddenly thousands of sparkling fairy lights, twinkling on and off as the plane slid by, giving the impression of houses and streetlights amidst dense jungle, because why else would they flicker like that if not flitting between trees and vegetation? But really I never knew what I was looking at in the night.

And all this as the unmitigatable pain splitting my earlobe (swollen closed), throat, sinuses and other parts of my face I didn’t even know existed until they started hurting, is reaching its unbearable crescendo. Clenching my teeth and trying to claw open my ear – a process which needed to be repeated every few seconds in order to feel any relief from the pressure building in my face, under my skin, in my skull, threatening to blow the whole thing open – I felt the plane hit the ground running.

Stepping out of the plane I felt the 25 degree heat – at four in the morning! What should be the coldest time of the day – I can’t remember the last time I experienced 25 degrees – and also that sweet, sickly smell of loose earth, street food and garbage, all mixed into one, instantly awakening in me a sense of déjà vu, the surety that I’ve been here before even though I “know” I haven’t, hundreds of vague travel memories I would never have remembered from England, where it is impossible to recall this kind of hot, clammy night because it has never happened there. Was it Hong Kong? Kuala Lumpur? Belize? The senses have a way of bringing memories flooding back like no amount of effort ever can. And I realised then – as I’m sure I have done many times before and forgotten again – that you cannot be said to possess an experience if you are not there in it. Memory is for numbers, words, names, faces, humourous anecdotes, and can sometimes surprise you, but it is no substitute for the sensations, emotions and the experience itself. I’m not sure where we got the idea that it is.

Colombo airport was alive like a kind of bazaar, with white-goods and musical instruments and manner of things on sale side-by-side.

Nobody checked my visa, which I paid £35 for.

So many wobbling signs read “Welcome to Sri Lanka” that if your name was on one it seems you’d never find it amidst the crowd.

I saw sleep here would be impossible so pushed out into the waiting hoards and the sweaty night where I was hounded in the usual way for “taxi” and “tuk tuk”, though luckily I was still half-deaf (and still am actually) which made it all the more easy to act whole-deaf.

To the right I found an ATM (it’s 212 LKR – Sri Lankan Rupee – to the pound at the moment) and Departures, where a guard was asking for tickets and so getting a few hours kip in Departures was off the cards too.

To the left was a booth selling “tickets to the airport” for 300 LKR – which explains the crowds waiting right outside, and which, it’s also worth pointing out, is no different really to our airports of the West, where McDonalds and so on pay millions to “sell their wares” inside the airport, since an airport is after all a business venture and not a public service (nothing is really a public service). The only difference being that in the UK this whole process is behind the scenes and easily forgotten, as everything back home is behind the scenes compared to this, because façades cost money to build -

and the public buses. I found myself tied up with a group of European tourists who’d been led out of a side exit, down a path lined palms, rock-gardens and little squares of sprinkled grass (and after everything I just said about façades) to a fenced off compound with waiting buses, all of which, it turned out when I asked someone, were reserved for private tours, much like the tours we sell at work. Infact, maybe this group was one of ours.

So back out on the road I finally allow myself to be “helped” by one of my harassers, who tells me buses won’t come until 6:30 – pointing to and telling me to wait at a car park which is obviously not a bus stop – but that he can take me by taxi to Negombo, where I should change to go to Anuradhapura (actually I want to go to Ratnapura, in near enough the opposite direction).

So instead I walk off – about 100 metres – to the main road, where I find a bus waiting. I paid 200 LKR (less than a pound) which I suspected (and now know for sure) was too much, but for a journey of 30 kilometres was hardly a rip-off.

Bus at night in Colombo, Sri Lanka

I didn’t take any photos, but this one, by Dennis Kopp of seetheworldinmyeyes.com is spot on.

We set off with a spluttered roar and crunching gear changes, accelerating very slowly like a decades old skip-lorry, fully-laden with sand and brick, and rocking gently from side to side as we went – both the young guy hanging out the door and the driver from his window hollering “C’lumbo, C’lumbo, Columbo!” just like the ringing out of “Flores, Flores, Flores!” and other placenames across Central America, to the point where I wonder if there is a bridge between here and there that I don’t know about or why the poor, hot places of the world (most of it) are so similar.

Take away the elaborate, fraying red and gold Kashmir-esque drapes with which the windows are hung, exchange the little stone Buddha rocking on the dash for a card with the Virgin Mary on it or some other Saint or Idol and we could be anywhere.

These poor guys – possibly a family team – up at God-knows-what hour every day, only managed to get five people (me included) on their bus during the whole length of the journey to Colombo. There was a lot of competition. I only hoped that fuel here was cheap.

Down the road I kept seeing the same backpacking couple, who obviously felt that whatever price they were being quoted was too much (says their guidebook, probably), bouncing between bus-tollers with the low-down, dog-tired, stubborn, proud faces of those who feel outnumbered and surrounded by conmen and thieves yet adamant they won’t be ripped off – an expression I’ve worn a hundred times and no doubt will again, just not today, on the first morning of my trip.

Around the world, backpackers are falling out with ‘locals’ over money – because the ‘scam-artists’ look like everyone else, and we all know all backpackers look alike.

They put on this cheerful local music that I don’t understand, on loop, as we bounce along in morning traffic fumes and pot holes, honking horns and the stop-start slamming on of brakes for brave tuk-tuk drivers and moped riders and actual old skip-lorries that have now appeared as the dawn light strips the land of its romantic darkness and illuminates the shanties, the crumbling, tumble-down and half-built buildings, unpainted or painted out-of-sync, unwashed – dirt and rubbish everywhere. This bus journey, if nothing else, has taught me what an irredeemable shithole Colombo is. (Colombo, not Sri Lanka, as you will soon see. – Big cities and “third-world” poverty are the worst mix in the world – though a sad ‘necessity’ when people want to go “where the money is”.) In fact, the only “nice” building (meaning one up to “Western standards”) I saw was a Mercedes dealership.

I got to wondering what I’d do if the kid, who’d already taken my 1000 under the premise he didn’t yet have the 800 change (less than four pound) (not sure where he planned to get it from) and was now in one of the seats in a pepetual state of nodding off and jolting up again, tried to screw me for it in the end. I would of course put up a fight, but to what extent? Would I go to blows? Would I try to get the cops on side? Thing is, I’d happily pay that for a bus in the UK, and these guys could do a lot more with it than I could. I used to say “I can’t afford to…” because I had a long trip planned and if I got ripped off like that a few times I wouldn’t make it to the end (in fact, I did get to Guayaquil airport in Ecuador with no cash and a balance of zero on all cards, only to be hit by a God-damn $30 departure tax) but nowadays my “trips” are looking more and more like the play-things of a lucky kid from a privileged country. I can live this life that everyone dreams of because 80% of the world are working their arses off for nothing. So looking at it like that, doesn’t the 800 rightfully belong to them?

Some would say – and in fact this was my first justification – that it’s a matter of ‘principle’: that they didn’t ask me for it but took it. But then it occurs to me, it’s easy to have ‘principles’ when you can afford them.

Also, if they had asked, would I have given? That’s called begging, and we hate that even more.

Some would say all people have a sense of right and wrong, some religious system to guide them, to tell them not to steal. But not everyone’s religious, and, again, it’s hard to follow a religion (when the purpose of a God is to protect you and your family) when your kids are dying of hunger. I know, clichés.

I think of those Swiss guys on that bus in Peru, who amongst babbling, shrivelled-up old Inca ladies and their chickens explained to me how it’s a bad thing that their economy is one of the best in the world because it means people might stop buying things from them and the Swiss Franc may lose value…or of Aussies and their “bubble” that they’re so afraid of…or the complaints I’ve had to listen to countless times back home – in bars and from friends and family – that immigrants are “taking money out of our economy and sending it back home to their families” (said with such anger and outrage) and as I look out the window I think: Seriously? Too fucking right! Are we really going to begrudge them that?

“Them”, “our”… I’ve never understood national pride or patriotism, this idea that we are one thing (human?) and “they” are most certainly not. I also don’t like gang culture for the same reason – gangs that, established to unite and protect the weak, soon become the bully – but that’s a whole different thing.

Anyway, if things were reversed – if I was poor and at the bottom of the pile – wouldn’t I think that money rightfully mine? Wouldn’t I want to steal from the rich, like the Robin Hood that we so admire and on whom our society and ‘principles’ are supposedly built?

It’s these kinds of thoughts that once led me down a Che Guevara, Socialist road towards rebellion, revolution, even anarchy.

But it’s no secret that “A revolution without guns…would never work” and anyone can see that violence only begets more violence.

There is something natural in Capitalism and if it is evil it is because a large part of all of us is evil. You can’t stop people from wanting things (an iPad or a new Mercedes even) and you can’t stop people from fooling other people into wanting them. The world is full of advantages and disadvantages. Intelligence, physical strength, a big pair of tits…

Look at the river that rolls a pebble a hundred miles from its home but that has to divert its course for a rock. Look at the tree that for no reason other than chance gains a little extra height and grows tall and flourishes at the top of the canopy while its brother dies and rots in the shade. Look at those things and then try to tell me we live in a fair world where you stand even a small chance of making everything and everyone equal.

So I came to the conclusion some years ago, and have come to it again now, that the world’s problems cannot be solved; that things are half good and half bad, always have been and always will (because you have to have bad to know good) and though you can find enjoyment and sadness here, you won’t find meaning or purpose.

And it’s because of all this that when people tell me something or somewhere is too dangerous I don’t understand because I genuinely don’t fear death – although sometimes I forget this – only ‘not-living’, and I don’t think I’m guilty of not having lived – in fact, probably guilty of having lived too much and probably deserve an early death – because it’s all the same to me if I live or die and it’s all the same to the universe if there’s one less speck in it. I’d only feel sad for the people who love me (very few indeed), who don’t think this way and would be sad.

But you came here to read about Sri Lanka, not the self-obsessed ramblings of a jumped-up arsehole, so that comes next. Just thought we should get to know each other better first.

Oh and of course the guys gave me my change without problem.

Categories: Asia, Sri Lanka, Travel Stories | Leave a comment

To Pack (or Not to Pack): A List for Travellers

Packing my bag for what could be many years on the road, I thought I’d share some of the lessons I’ve learnt over the years when it comes to packing light.

French brandy in airline liquids bag

Shampoo, conditioner…French brandy. In hand luggage, put all liquids in 100ml bottles in clear plastic bag

People always pack too much – I did when I started out, and sometimes even now I catch myself making the same mistakes – but it can be infuriating to watch others. So I dug out my time-honoured list and decided to air it on the web for the good of humanity.

I’ve called it the “to pack (and not to pack)” list because there’s more crossed off than there is still on there.

If I’ve missed anything important, let me know in the comments and I’ll either add it, or, much more likely, tell you why you’re an idiot.

In an ideal world this list, give or take a box of tampons, should apply to both sexes, but I’m not going to get into a debate with anyone who thinks make-up and deodorant are “essentials”, so it might be safer to say it’s a list for guys, or even safer, a list just for me.

Optionals (and things I didn’t actually take) in italics.

The “To Pack” List

Clothes

You’ll be wearing some of this, so don’t worry if it seems a lot.

  • 2 x jeans/trousers/shorts
  • 10* x pairs socks
  • 10* x boxers
  • 5* x light tops (I usually have a couple of t-shirts for sweaty bus rides and just generally being in transit, and a few nice shirts for nights out once I get to my destination and a shower.)
  • Something warm**
  • Something waterproof**
  • Boots
  • Flip-flops (can easily be picked up along the way and hung from the outside of your bag)
  • Swimming shorts
  • Hat
  • Gloves

*Could be more could be less. The more you take, the less you have to stop to wash them.

**These can be combined to form something warm and waterproof, but can also be separated for hot, wet days. They also double as a blanket when someone turns on the air-con on a night bus.

Toiletries

  • Toothpaste (100ml bottles)
  • Shampoo (100ml bottles)
  • Conditioner (100ml bottles)
  • Soap
  • Toothbrush
  • Sun cream (100ml bottles)
  • Malaria medication
  • Travel towel

Essentials

  • Passport
  • Wallet (cards and cash)
  • Boarding passes, hotel confirmations, copy of a recent and generous bank statement, passport photos, visas, vaccination certificates, EHIC card and any other important documents
  • Watch, phone or other time-telling device

Misc

  • Water (acquired on arrival, so leave room; cheaper in larger containers, so it’s not uncommon to see me cradling a 10 or 20 litre water bottle – the kind you turn upside-down and slap on a water dispenser – which often costs more or less the same as a two litre bottle.
  • Snacks/dried foods (can be good idea to have a bag of biscuits or something just in case)
  • Bowl (acts as both plate and mug, as required)
  • Spork (or similar)
  • Money belt (Something like this is advisable so you don’t have to worry about being robbed while you sleep.)
  • Waterproof matches (I’ve never used them. It’s my little peace of mind thing, and because I’m not about to try and make fire by rubbing two sticks together.)
  • Sleeping bag (You may well never use it, but you should at least have some kind of sheet to wrap yourself in should you end up stranded in the cold, in a Nepalese, mountainside hut, or just at a friend’s who doesn’t have any spare bedding.)

Leisure

  • Camera
  • Chargers
  • Plug adaptor
  • Pen (maybe two. Don’t go overboard. You can always borrow one.)
  • Paper, notepad or compact diary
  • Two books (I’ve actually taken more than 10. You can’t underestimate how many books you’ll get through waiting for buses, trains, planes, etc, and book-exchanges in most hostels mean you’ll have a constant supply of travel reads.)

All this fits into universal hand-luggage specifications. If you need proof, I’m not paying for hold-luggage at all on my travels. This means no-one can lose it and I can also walk straight out of the airports without having to wait at the baggage carousel for an hour.

The “Not to Pack” List

Here’s the part where I get to act condescending and take the piss.

Obviously if you’re specifically going camping, or travelling by motorcycle or other vehicle, you may well need extra materials, but if you’re travelling on foot (in other words, by public transport and/or hitch-hiking) then you’ll never be too far from a transport hub, or some form of settlement, and therefore all the amenities you’d expect to find in places where there are people. Sorry if it’s depressing, but it’s true. People are everywhere. Everywhere you are going to go anyway.

Pots and pans. Why? Because if you can buy food to cook, you can just as easily and cheaply) buy food that doesn’t need cooking. Think breads, tinned fish, fruit, vegetables, cheese, cold meats, etc.

Tent? I know, when you picture travelling, you think of the great open road, the wilderness, with no-one else for miles around. But trust me, unless you’re planning on going into the Mongolian wilderness to die, there’s always a hostel, a hotel, a kind local or at the very least a tree to kip under.

Compass? Swiss army knife? Ball of string? Just stop being a twat.

Pack of playing cards? We’ve all made this mistake, and our intentions are good – you meet some strangers, crack out the cards, and before you know it, you’ve made an unbreakable bond, friends for life – but the truth is you can make a game out of anything. Use your imagination. And if that fails, just ask the fool who didn’t read this and did bring a deck of cards.

Anyway, packing light is not an exact science, and it’s different for everyone, but I hope this helped you spot some things to drop.

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How to Get to Heaven: San Marino, City in the Clouds

Having failed to find God in Vatican City, it was with some surprise that I came across him on a mountain road in San Marino.

While Vatican is the world’s smallest country, lesser known San Marino is the world’s third smallest country, and if you want to be picky, the world’s smallest “constitutional republic” (read, real country). This title has been disputed by Nauru, a single island nation in the Pacific, but Nauru also owns shitloads of ocean, so they can fuck off, basically.

Back home, knowing nothing about San Marino, I decided to Google it, and got this.

San Marino

The image that inspired my trip to San Marino

The only problem was, I didn’t know what it was called, where it was, or how to get there. I wanted to go to this exact spot and take this exact photo, but I couldn’t find any concrete information.

So I decided to write this post, telling people exactly how to get to San Marino, or more specifically to San Marino City, the capital, or even more specifically to Guaita, this particular tower. This post should help give you an idea of how to make the journey and what to expect when you get there.

Walking out of Rimini train station, you’ll see a bus stop dead ahead with a kiosk next to it and a big yellow sign saying “tickets”. Don’t be too hasty. Further inspection will reveal a much smaller sign that says something like “…for all destinations except San Marino”.

However, on a nearby lamppost, a laminated piece of A4 with an arrow will direct you to “tickets for San Marino” on the other side of the street. Just outside of Burger King – you really can’t miss it – you’ll see three bus shelters. Imagine there’s a fourth. That is where you get the bus to San Marino, and where, in due course, a strange old lady will appear, set up a small table and sell you the necessary tickets, which are €4.50 each way. She will then disappear again without warning. Buses run every now and then until roughly 6 or 7pm, seven days a week (we made the return trip on a Sunday without difficulty). I think this is the timetable we used.

Rimini, which I’m told is a beach resort, despite the fact that there is no coast to be seen for miles around – at least according to the large city map outside the station – was slopped by an impenetrable blanket of dark, grey cloud. There wasn’t a hope in hell of getting that photo of San Marino on a miserable day like this, but we’d come this far.

The bus wound through the damp foothills, at some point crossing from Italy into San Marino, and passed through the depressingly boring-looking Dogana – San Marino’s most populous town. The modern highway took long, sweeping bends higher and higher up the mountain, the bus coming almost to a standstill due to the gradient and visibility becoming almost non-existent as the fog encircled us, first in light wisps, but before long an all encompassing mass.

Then suddenly the bus poked its nose through the top of the fog, which was in fact the clouds, and almost instantly we were bathed in golden sunlight.

“There is a God!” I yelled…then immediately remembered there isn’t, and took it back.

I’ve seen uneven clouds, that rise and fall with the land, in Switzerland, Peru, Bolivia and so on, but never to my memory seen a place on land that pokes up above them, like an island at sea, or that otherworldly landscape seen from a plane window, or like Cloud City in Star Wars, or the mythical home of the Gods at Mount Olympus, which I’ve been to, and which wasn’t like this at all.

In Cloud City

San Marino: City in the Clouds

San Marino City above the clouds

Above the cloud in San Marino City

Mountain peaks were islands in a sea of cloud

Distant mountain peaks, islands in a sea of cloud

Arriving at the bus stop in San Marino City, the highest capital in Europe, we took the glass elevator up to the next level of streets then ran up the narrow, golden-cobbled passages of this seemingly ancient city, racing a new, higher bank of cloud that threatened to take away the sun once again.

Vampire Museum San Marino Museo dei Vampiri

The Museo dei Vampiri (Vampire Museum) in San Marino

These winding roads are steep and we lost the race, pretty soon smothered once again in the blanket of moisture.

Droplets of moisture gathered in my hair like tiny pearls. Ancient paths and bridges disappeared into the void mere feet in front of us. Perched on the old, stone city walls and looking down into the abyss, we had no concept of how far we had to fall, except that it was a very, very long way.

I began to realise that this was actually a once in a lifetime experience, to be walking around in the clouds. The views were incredible, in their in own blank, grey way.

Path in fog in San Marino City

The path disappeared into the clouds

Fog Clouds in San Marino

Standing beside the Abyss

There are three towers in San Marino City, each one sitting on one of the city’s three peaks. This is the best part of the country. Away from the souvenir shops, the three peaks are skirted on one side by a sheer drop and linked on the other by forested paths and crumbling stone passages that anywhere else would be long gone. The whole town, including the peaks is easily walkable in an hour or less.

The first tower, Guaita (and also known on the local signs as simply “Tower 1″), is the oldest of the three, built in the 11th century.

“Tower 2″ is called Cesta (pronounced like “Chester”) and is on the highest peak.

“Tower 3″, Montale, is the shortest, the least old and generally a bit of a reject. Nevertheless, we sat beside it enjoying the moist mountain air and the view of the white-speckled woodland.

Forest path in San Marino City

My favourite part of San Marino

Just when I thought this country couldn’t get any better, the cloud dropped and the sunny day returned. It was unimaginable to think that if we’d spent the day in Rimini we’d be having one of the dullest, darkest, wettest days of our lives.

Ancient stone passages, bridges and city walls in San Marino City

Ancient stone passages along the city walls

Guaita the oldest of the three towers of San Marino

Guaita, the oldest of the three towers

Sea of Clouds in San Marino

Contemplating the Void

Back in the centre, the drinker in me was happy to discover that most of the souvenir shops were in fact tax-free liquor stores selling novelty alcohols, many with labels detailing parts of the female (and male) anatomy. Prices ranged as low as €6 for three bottles of wine and €9 for three bottles of Italian liqueurs, which led me to once again question whether this was in fact heaven…or, at the very least, that heaven on earth that Belinda Carlisle was always banging on about.

Sunset in San Marino

Sunset in San Marino City

Waiting for the bus, we watched the most incredible sunset of my life.

San Marino Sunset with silhouetted buildings

A gap in the silhouetted buildings

Lastly, I should point out, I’m pretty sure that photo I found on Google at the beginning was taken from a helicopter. I can’t see where else the photographer could have been standing to get that view. But I still thoroughly recommend making the journey to San Marino.

Best San Marino sunset

Not the photo of San Marino I wanted, but even better

Categories: Europe, San Marino, Travel Stories | Tags: | Leave a comment

Boyz 2 Men: Coming of Age in Hamburg’s Reeperbahn

When I turned 18, my best friend Adam and I decided to ditch college for a week and take off somewhere. It has been a highly debated issue whether we knew before we booked that we were going to be staying smack bang in the middle of Europe’s second largest red light district (after Amsterdam, obviously), but I will go as far as to say that I had an inkling.

Dollhouse, Große Freiheit Hamburg

The iconic Dollhouse on Große Freiheit, Hamburg. This one’s not mine.

I suppose this is a coming of age story – The trip that, in many ways, was the making of the man you’ve come to know as the Drinking Traveller. It is also the only time Adam and I have travelled together, outside the UK, just me and him, so will always hold a special significance for me.

As with all childhood holiday memories – before we become old, grizzled travellers and realise that getting no sleep is no fun – we were up at four in the morning, eyes full of sleep and heads full of anticipation. We had packed the night before and Kevin picked me up in the frosty pre-dawn and drove us to Heathrow for 6.45. We ate breakfast in the airport as the sun rose, flew Lufthansa, and arrived in Hamburg airport to find nearly a foot of snow on the ground. I couldn’t remember the last time I had seen snow.

From the shuttle bus I took (bad) photos of old trucks, graffiti covered buildings, underpasses, men in long, heavy, navy blue coats and those hats – the kind of things you see from Oslo to Varna but that back then were strange and new and photo-worthy.

After some confusion at Hauptbahnhof we took the U-Bahn to the Reeperbahn – a long, famous street in the notorious St Pauli district and the aforementioned red light district. We found our hotel on a sleazy strip amongst dark alleys, strip clubs, sex shops, porno theatres, boarded up buildings and on closer inspection, a Catholic church.

“Jesus!” said Adam.

Noah's ark religious graffiti in the Reeperbahn Hamburg

Religious graffiti in the Reeperbahn, Hamburg

We dropped off our stuff, unpacked – something I don’t think I’ve done since. Be honest, who uses the drawers and cupboards in hotels? – but, too excited to hang around, within minutes were back out on the streets, exploring the Reeperbahn (the sinful mile), Große Freiheit (great freedom), Hans-Albers-Platz, Hein Köllisch Platz and the Fischmarkt, where there was no sign of a market, let alone any fish.

We stood watching slabs of ice the size of buildings float slowly along the river, colliding with one another and producing loud, cracking sounds.

A group of German youths threw a snow ball at us and it whizzed past my ear.

“Don’t do it, don’t do it,” Adam was saying as I picked it up and hurled it back at them.

I’m going to be honest; I was shitting my pants too and ready to run. The kids dove out of the way but in doing so one of them ran face-first into it. We waited on tenter-hooks for their reaction. In a couple of seconds we were either going to be running for our lives through the backstreets of Hamburg – a 20-strong mob of bloodthirsty jungen in hot pursuit – or strutting proudly back to the hotel with at least one good story to tell the folks back home.

It was the latter. The kids laughed it off.

We went in a bar called Joker – which apparently still exists. It was empty but, of all the bars I’ve ever been in (and maybe this is nostalgia and youthful ignorance kicking in) was one of my favourites. Words just can’t describe the feeling of being on the cusp of adulthood, sitting in a dimly lit booth in the back of a strange bar in a strange, faraway city, eating rich, creamy, aromatic ham and mushroom tagliatelle and drinking my first (and best, to date) White Russian – the scent of the vodka going to my head and sitting nicely on an empty stomach.

Another refreshing thing about Joker – the girl behind the bar was the only person on the whole trip who didn’t speak English and so my only chance to practice my German. (Back then, I could still say I possessed “my German”.)

After dark we got a Hesburger (a little, hole-in-the-wall burger joint round the corner from our hotel) (Hamburg is after all the home of the Hamburger…I guess) and hit the Reeperbahn.

Street musicians sat at the icy roadside, jamming away.

Hotel Stern and blue night live show table dance strip club Reeperbahn Hamburg

Our Hotel Stern, next to Blue Night table dancing club

EROS stripclub in the Reeperbahn Hamburg

Photo by Adam Barnes

Sex kino cinema on the Reeperbahn at night

Sex kino (cinema) on Hamburg’s Reeperbahn at night

Nevada strip club video show and paradise point of sex Reeperbahn Hamburg

Nevada strip club and video show, after dark in the Reeperbahn, St Pauli, Hamburg

The shabbiness was now replaced by sleaziness, the graffiti nudes by bright neon nudes, the frosty blue sky by a coat of black. Signs everywhere offered SEX, SEX, SEX.

Despite Adam still being 17, Bouncers cum Promotions Guys were trying to usher us into strip clubs and various other dodgy establishments. It was Wednesday – a slow night – so ID checks were out of the window.

I woke up to Adam watching German cartoons. German cartoons in the morning, German porn by night: that’s pretty much how things went down in the room for the duration of the trip.

We went for frühstück. Our hotel (the Hotel Stern) was supposed to be a big ship, so I guess the breakfast room was the galley or mess-hall or whatever. It was eerily quiet for such a large room. Just us and a couple of strange guys (no, it wasn’t a mirror) kicking around.

We had a hard time getting used to the huge selection of breads, all of which were impossibly dense; a recipe for constipation. There were also jam, margarine and, if you’re lucky – which on this occasion we weren’t – hard boiled eggs.

Our first full day in Hamburg. We took the U-Bahn back into the stadtmitte, got currywurst in a stand-up sausage place in the station (I had the Krakhauer menü, says my diary, in case you were curious) and wandered around the Kunsthalle (art gallery, I promise).

Later we explored all seven floors of Saturn (an electronics superstore much like those in Japan) then ate in the rooftop restaurant in the five-story ski-shop opposite – which came to be known as Salmonella’s after Adam saw the guy using the same tongs he used for a raw chicken kiev to portion butter onto Adam’s freshly cooked meal.

So far un-afflicted by food-poisoning, we strolled down the main street to Das Rathaus, all lit up at night in a certain shade that came to symbolise Hamburg for me and that I’ll never forget (anyway I have a photo of it). We trudged through snow and clouds of our own breath, past glittering yellow fairy lights and those lamps like yellow-white bulbs on black sticks, cars parked up on snowy sidewalks, shoppers in fur coats sliding briskly by, people in ads the size of giants.

Hamburg city centre stadtmitte

Hamburg city centre

das rathaus Hamburg townhall city town hall

Das Rathaus (Hamburg city hall)

We managed to fuck up one of Adam’s films (yes, this was 2006 – digital cameras were expensive and shit and the iPhone was a sperm somewhere in an iPod’s uterus) trying to change it with gloved hands. (My camera was also prone to producing unintentional photo-montages, like so:

hamburg photo montage

Somewhere in here a busker is playing his guitar in the snow.

It was so cold we took the train, to St Pauli, then to Landungsbrücken, then to Reeperbahn.

After midnight, still out, we had another Hesburger.

On TV – during the ad breaks between the porn – I watched an episode of Highlander – the one with Lord Byron. In the episode there’s a great cut to that painting with the guy standing on the rocks, cane in hand, looking out over a tumultuous mist. It’s called the Wanderer above the Sea of Fog. We’d been face to face with the original this morning…

Der Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer traveller above sea of fog mist 1818) by German Romantic painter artist Caspar David Friedrich

Der Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer (1818) by German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich

…I must’ve fallen asleep with the TV on.

After sundown the snow on the pavements would freeze into thick, slick, uneven, compacted sheets of ice.

Every night it re-snowed.

We walked to a sculpture exhibit by Hanz Somebody-or-other, then went up in the HighFlyer – a hot air balloon on a giant rope. I’ve never seen this in any other city, so it’s something special! (Oh, apparently there’s also one in Torquay.)

Hamburg HighFlyer hot air balloon at sunset

The Hamburg HighFlyer at dusk

Hamburg from above, from the HighFlyer hot air balloon

Hamburg from the HighFlyer hot air balloon

There we were, what felt like a thousand meters above the city, drifting slowly this way and that with the gentle wind, taking photos of winding patterns made of roads and train tracks, the cars like ants, the people all but invisible, the cracked, frozen River Elbe, running away towards the North Sea. It felt like an age passed – the golden sun beginning to set behind the far reaches of the city – the fresh Spring wind on our cheeks – the balloon tottering about, straining on its rope, crying to be set free, to go higher, further still from the people and the cars and the city.

Hamburg Hauptbahnhof from above

Hamburg’s Hauptbahnhof from above

River Elbe from the air

Hamburg’s River Elbe from above

On the Hamburg HighFlyer

Adam, flying high!

Hamburg factories at sunset

Hamburg sunset from the air

Aboard the Hamburg HighFlyer

Photo by Adam Barnes

Eventually, of course, it did have to come down. When we hit the ground again we went to a place nearby called the Deichtorhallen for more art and photography. The snow was piling up outside in huge drifts, lit on one side by the streetlamps in the gathering dusk.

We dropped into a few more galleries until Adam said, “no more! I don’t want to go in any more art galleries or exhibitions.”

“Well, what do you want to do instead then?”

“I don’t know. Anything.”

“Like what?”

“There must be something else to do.”

“Then what? What is there to do?”

I never have been able to answer this question and “What is there to do?” has been with me ever since, when I’m travelling and even when I’m at home, not going anywhere.

If anyone has the answer, please, do share.

In the meantime, I’ll cope, by keeping myself occupied with long-distance bus rides and books and beaches…and alcohol, which has now replaced art galleries as my go-to thing-to-do.

Anyway, we warmed up a bit in the hotel then wandered the full length of the Reeperbahn, to St Pauli station and the Alter Elbpark, which as far as I could make out was a large square field of snow, with a statue in the middle. Down the network of alleys and passages we found live music venues where the Beatles came and played when they were our age and gambled their education on a life as touring musicians.

A smart move!

Another Hesburger.

Adam also bought a bottle of Evian, and thus began the first of many Volvic vs. Evian arguments.

Back in the hotel we wandered the labyrinth of corridors, listening at people’s doors to the squeals and throes of sex. Eventually we found a door that led out onto the roof. We found ourselves looking down on The Dollhouse “Diner” – the very epicentre of Hamburg’s red light district.

We stayed up there a while, crouched on the roof, shooting the shit, until we got cold again.

Saturday arrived. I had an essay to write for college on The Merchant of Venice, which I’d conveniently managed to forget until now, but which was actually due in the day we left the UK and this was one of my main reasons for needing to get away and buy myself some time. So Adam left and I stayed in the room and wrote the damn thing.

Adam came back about four. I finished just after five. Adam was now asleep so I switched out the light and went to bed myself.

At seven we both woke up, showered (not together!) and hit the town for our big last night in Hamburg!

Fake speech bubble message

A message to our friend Troy

We ate in the “traditional” German restaurant next to our hotel, which we’d promised ourselves since day-one. I had breaded turkey escalopes with fries and mushroom sauce and other shit I can’t remember. I have no idea what Adam ate. I do, however, remember that he had two forks instead of a knife, or that he dropped his fork, or I did, or something like that. Anyway, it was a good meal.

We then took to the icy streets and though we weren’t used to the price of bottles of alcohol, Adam bought a bottle of whisky (Johnnie Walker Red Label?) and I bought a bottle of rum (cheap; nondescript) and a porno mag’ called “St. Pauli Girls” and we drank them back in the room. The magazine was full of obese chicks, pensioners and hairy men – Not a good reflection on the girls of St. Pauli.

Out in Hanz-Alberz-Platz we got into the Becks bar (which is also an Irish bar) without being ID’d. I don’t remember much of what followed but I can say it was one of the best nights of my life. I can say this because it was spiced with a kind of childish naivety and energy and lust for life that we lose forever once we realise all clubs and bars are essentially the same tragic ‘hole and that all nights (no matter how good) end the same way…swiftly followed by a hangover.

An English band played Johnny Cash, the Stones and so on and afterwards we spoke to the drummer for a bit. A busty barmaid meandered through the crowd carrying two-pint stein glasses, each full of frothing beer – Becks, most likely. At some point we’re down the Platz in the “London Pub” which doesn’t share any of the charm of its Irish neighbour. We’re watching the Arsenal game (Adam is – or at least, once was – a devout Arsenal fan) and some English hooligan-types are shouting about Wigan and pissing on themselves while climbing on the urinals in an attempt to see their mate taking a shit in the cubical. It was as though the Reeperbahn had been asleep all week and had now come to life. On the streets, Adam pointed out the hookers that I had been innocently oblivious too, in their bomber jackets, long johns and moon boots. After that, they were everywhere I looked. Thanks, Adam.

Back at the Becks bar, this time Adam got ID’d. But he played it cool and they let him in. Many trips up to the bar followed. We got right up to the stage. As we tried to leave some girls grabbed us and started dancing with us. We were soon surrounded, totally immersed in the music.

The band ended. We went across the road for kebab and fries and Adam got water, but the night wasn’t over. Next we’re in one bar, then another, marching through, picking up the chant of “Football’s Coming Home” with everyone else in the bar and then taking it out onto the streets, arm in arm, singing our hearts out, well into the Hamburg night.

We went back to the hotel but I couldn’t sleep and minutes later, about 5am, I got dressed and crept out again with the romantic notion of sketching a prostitute in the nude, the way my favourite artists once had…only I forget to take any of my art supplies.

Hamburg Reeperbahn U-Bahn entrance stairs

The Reeperbahn U-Bahn entrance: descending into the darkness.

We packed our bags and went for our last breakfast.

I felt sick – not hung-over, but a kind of melancholy, emotional sickness (which, I would learn later, is a common symptom of a hangover).

I didn’t want to leave, yet at the same time I was looking forward to getting home – one of the big paradoxes of travel.

We left the St. Pauli Girls under my sheets as a thank you gift for the cleaner.

Then we had some hours to kill so we locked up our bags and took a walk. We found the fischmarkt after all. (Big surprise, it’s open on a Sunday.)

Everything is closed on a Sunday in Germany, we discovered, and the streets were dead silent and eerily void of people. Just us, padding down the once bustling main street with no place to go.

A bus.

Adam got frisked by security.

A plane.

Back on English time we dropped Adam off and I went home to sleep for a long time.

hamburg painting reeperbahn art

A Portrait of the Reeperbahn as a Young Man

Categories: Europe, Germany, Travel Stories | Tags: | 3 Comments

Kölsch vs. Alt: Bier & Hockey-related Violence in Köln

Because I know how much Ruth loves ice-hockey and getting drunk in the daytime (okay, so maybe that’s just me) I planned a romantic river cruise down the Rhine…with one of my best friends and hundreds of rowdy Köln hockey supporters, en route to the derby in Düsseldorf!

So, when, a few hours before leaving, I heard that some bitch had done a runner with our tickets, needless to say, I was not a happy man.

Plan B. We would steal (or rent) another, preferably more nimble vessel, load it with fireworks and, well, you can probably see where this is going. If we could get hold of some Düsseldorf flags at short notice, we might be able to make it look like a hockey-rivalry-motivated attack.

The mental picture of us pulling off whatever the nautical equivalent of a “drive-by” is – clad in the jerseys and scarves of the enemy – made everyone feel suitably better and we decided that, like most of my crazy schemes, this plan should probably never see the light of day. Luckily, someone was there to put a stop to this one. Often, I’m not so fortunate.

Besides, as you’ll see, there’s plenty to do in Cologne, what with the kölsch breweries and Christmas markets.

Moral of the story so far? Martin, think twice about where you put your dick next time.

First stop was Aldi, which we quickly discovered is even cheaper in Germany than it is in the UK, which I suppose makes sense now I think about it, and the same bottle of glühwein that cost us four Pounds back home was only just over a Euro.

kölsch glasses

Martin’s collection of kölsch glasses

Back at Martin’s we were greeted with various German drinking songs and Sharky, the break-dancing shark, who has his own music video:

After warming up with some glühwein, we hit the streets and found a little pub – or eckkneipe – where the music literally did cut off as we walked in and were confronted by the silent stares of the aging barmaid and assortment of grizzled old men. You could cut the tension with a knife. As you could the cigarette smoke hanging thick in the air…which is odd as smoking inside bars has been illegal in Germany for a fair few years now.

Altbier is the beer of choice in nearby Düsseldorf and is the arch-rival of kölsch. Ever since Martin told me I’d be killed for it, I’d been itching to try ordering an alt in Cologne. However, this was clearly not the place for that kind of stunt, so instead I tried my first kölsch. A Reissdorf to be precise.

From the descriptions of the two beer styles, I’d been sure I would prefer alt, which is often likened to English ale, while kölsch plays the part of lager. However, in practise I took to kölsch immediately, with its cool, melt-in-the-mouth feel.

While they’re mocked elsewhere in Germany (especially in Düsseldorf), the “test tube” glasses that kölsch is traditionally served in are the perfect size for that quick, refreshing drink. Called stangen (meaning sticks or rods), they help keep the beer from getting warm. Kölsch is specially designed to be served cold, and everyone knows there’s nothing worse than warm beer.

They are also ridiculously cheap.

It meant we were on our way again soon, which was sad really, as the clientele seemed to be slowly warming to us.

The Helios brauhaus - the smallest kolsch brewery in town

The Helios brauhaus – the smallest kolsch brewery in town

Braustelle – the Helios brauhaus and Cologne’s smallest brewery – was now open, so we went in for some incredible German food and to sample their beers.

As well as Helios kölsch, they also brew Apfelweiss, a delicious apple beer, Schwartze Sieben (Black Seven, a lethal, 7.8% dark beer) and Ehrenfelder Alt, Cologne’s only altbier, which the people accept on the grounds that it’s made in Cologne.

If you’re a regular reader you’ll already know that I recently discovered feuerzangenbowle, the German Xmas drink made from mulled wine and 80% rum and set on fire absinthe-style, so we headed for the famous Xmas markets of Cologne to get some at the source.

Though it wasn’t as strong as Julika’s homemade version, it was still pretty damn tasty. Getting to the bar was the only difficulty, as people attempted to negotiate their way through the tightly packed crowd carrying numerous mugs of flaming liquid in close proximity to people’s faces and clothing.

“Health and safety” would have a field-day with this in the UK.

A surly, Köln-supporting Xmas elf with mug of feuerzangenbowle

A surly, Köln-supporting Xmas elf with mug of feuerzangenbowle

feuerzangenbowle at Cologne Christmas market

Ruth with feuerzangenbowle at Cologne Christmas market

It was also at the Xmas market that I encountered Dr. Seltsam and his travelling absinthe counter. If you must know, I put this fancy effect on it in an attempt to hide the fact that it’s a shockingly bad photo. Did it work?

Dr doctor Seltsams Absinthe Counter kontor

Dr. Seltsam’s Absinthe Counter

One of Cologne's many Christmas Markets

One of Cologne’s many Christmas Markets

We managed to find Martin’s pal Henning in the crowd, then went to a kiosk for some more beer. We walked past Cologne Philharmonic Hall, where security guards stood around the perimeter and no-one is allowed to walk across when the music is on because some idiot architect made a huge balls-up and put it underneath a public thoroughfare so you can hear when people walk on top.

Then to the bridge, where hundreds of thousands of couples have chained a padlock and tossed the key into the river, symbolising their eternal love. I dread to think how many of these couples are still together now, but it is an inspiring spectacle.

“Won’t it weigh down the bridge eventually?” I asked.

“No way. That’s impossible.”

Love locks padlocks on the bridge

Love locks on the bridge

Ruth insisted we put one up…

…and then this happened.

...and then this happened.

…and then this happened.

Drinking another beer in the Hauptbahnhof (central station), I tried to open Martin’s, only to sheer off the top of the bottle. I prided myself on the clean break, until Martin came back and against all advice (and despite my efforts to buy him a replacement) decided to drink it anyway.

Then again, this is the guy who once picked up a contact lens from a club dance floor and put it back in his eye.

sion kolsch

Me looking radiant in the Sion Kolsch Brauhaus

We picked up Jörn and Martha and after another kölsch brauhaus or two, headed across town to Jay’s Hip Hop Bar & Lounge. Martin had just acquired the keys to his new flat, directly above the bar, and wanted to check it out.

Jay's Hip Hop Bar

Martin’s new “local”

I distinctly remember me, Martin and Ruth kicking ass at beer-pong, then the night started to slip away. They have a deal on where every time you order Jack Daniel’s new Tennessee Honey (which is amazing by the way), you get a free hat, so every time I turned around another one of us was wearing a Jack Daniel’s hat, until the staff brought round a load of free t-shirts and by the time we left the place we were a group of walking JD advertisements.

jack daniels hats and t-shirts tennessee honey

A walking advertisement for Jack Daniel’s

Then they found out Martin was the new man upstairs and brought round all these shots.

free shots woodruff

Woodruff shots, on the house!

By now we were joined by a Pascal and another Martin, at one point I was opening a dusty bottle of Baron Otard cognac, and everyone kept staring into my eyes and saying, “prost!” Which apparently is the done thing, or else seven years of bad sex.

We ended up in a tiny underground club. I danced like a fool for a while, then Martin declared it was shit and we left.

I’ll leave you with this parting image. (Even the German’s we’ve asked don’t know what the “sick” part means or why it’s appropriate for the name of a food service establishment.)

sick grill

Sick grill…anyone?

Oh, and here are some cool photos of Cologne and the Dom (cathedral), taken at sunset from the top of the “Köln Triangle”, which by the way is by no conceivable stretch of the imagination a triangle.

Sunset over Cologne

Sunset over Cologne

Cologne Cathedral

Cologne Cathedral

Cologne sunset from the Koln Triangle

Cologne sunset, taken from the Koln Triangle

Cologne Cathedral in the snow

Cologne Cathedral

Clapton Ultras hit Cologne

Clapton Ultras hit Cologne

Categories: Europe, Germany, Travel Stories, Travel Videos | Tags: , | 2 Comments

3 Reasons Why Band Aid is Shit

Now I know everybody loves this song, and I’ll also give it the benefit of the doubt and assume the intentions were good. However, when it comes to perpetuating the idea of Africa as just one country – and a country of primitive savages at that – this song has to be the main offender.

Of course I have no way of backing up the following statement, but I’d be willing to hazard a wager that in doing so, in the long run, it probably costs the people of Africa more than it gives.

Sorry Sir Bob, but it has to be said.

I was also willing to accept that maybe it was the product of a more ignorant time, that we know better now…but then they re-released it in 2004 and it sold over a million copies.

I’m talking about “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” by Band Aid, which if you’re somehow not familiar with, goes like this:

“There won’t be snow in Africa this Christmas”

kilamanjaro glacier

Anyone ever heard of Mount Kilamanjaro?

Well, firstly, what a ridiculous statement, since half of Africa is in the Southern hemisphere and so has it’s winter at the opposite time of year.

You wouldn’t hear anyone singing, “there won’t be snow in Australia this Christmas”, would you?

Countries like South Africa, Lesotho and even Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda get plenty of snow…in their winter.

Secondly, it’s also not true. Did the writers never hear of Mount Kilamanjaro? It’s just a wee 5895 meters high, meaning year round snow.

Plus, even fucking Cairo gets snow…as recently as a few days ago!

“Where nothing ever grows, no rain or rivers flow”

No rain? No rain? Are you fucking kidding me? Africa is on the equator. It’s got one of the biggest areas of rainforest in the world. That means year round rain, pretty much every day.

As far as “rivers” go, do I really have to say it? The Congo? The Zambezi? The fucking Nile, anyone?

“Nothing ever grows”? I’m not even going to bother anymore.

“Do they know it’s Christmas time at all?…Let them know it’s Christmas time!”

Seriously?

Who are “they” supposed to be, exactly?

I know we love the idea that the world is full of undiscovered places, and that everyone in Africa lives in a remote tribe, deep in the jungle, or in cave in the middle of the Sahara, but they really don’t.

lagos nigeria

Lagos, Nigeria. To name one of many.

Roughly half the population of Africa are Christians. We’re talking about 450 million people. Do we really think that they don’t know what Xmas is?

Almost the same number are Muslims. So, firstly, I’m pretty sure they know what Xmas is, for Christ’s sake! Secondly, if they don’t, are we really talking about forcing it on them?

The small remainder is comprised of traditional African religions and other beliefs, which are dying out fast enough as it is.

This song is starting to sound a lot like racial and cultural imperialism…which, lest we forget, is exactly why the continent of Africa is in this shit-shambles in the first place.

Sorry for the rant, but there was a point to it. There are 52 countries in Africa – that’s more than any other continent in the world – and yet we insist on treating it as one, to the point where it’s easy even for people who have travelled Africa to come back and get caught up in this bullshit discourse.

In short, this could all have been avoided if they’d just said “Ethiopia” in the fucking first place.

Categories: Africa | 7 Comments