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Episode 4 - Mark travels Egypt, Israel, London and Ireland
In the continuing story of Greg and Mark's travels, this is:
Episode 4 - Mark, alone, explores Cairo, Israel, London and Ireland.
For the impatient amongst you, here's the usual table of contents. Otherwise, read on down at your leisure.
Thanks for coming back. Those of you that have read the previous episodes may notice some subtle changes this time around. Significantly longer than any previous episode, and with less digital photographs, the emphasis this time is on the text, rather than the photos. You see, I've always enjoyed writing, and have harboured a long-standing dream to make a career of it. It only took me a couple of months on the road, but I finally realised that these web pages are the perfect opportunity for me to get started on this writing lark, to start warming up, as it were. With this fourth episode, now aware of what I'm doing, I've tried to imagine that I'm writing to a wider audience, such as one that might attach to a published author. As such, I've tried to evolve my writing style correspondingly, to the point where it's more complete, more - well - publishable. I know I still have a ways to go, but you gotta start somewhere.
This instalment really is quite long. In fact, it's so long that it's no longer really suitable for online reading. To cut down on your connection costs, you might want to print it out and read it later, at your leisure. There aren't so many photographs as before, and the text doesn't really depend on them as it may have in previous episodes, so you can always come back later and check out the photos (here).
On with the show...
And then there was one.
I guess it's fairly common knowledge by now, but for those that aren't aware, Greg went home to Australia, temporarily, to fix up some business problems. His software company ground to a halt virtually as soon as he stepped out of the country, helped along by people he thought he could rely on, with behaviour that seemed at times unstable, negligent or even spiteful. But with a Himalayan trek and a visit to Tibet under his belt, Greg had been well and truly bitten by the travel bug and didn't actually feel any need to reconstruct it, and was even reasonably content that it had imploded under its own gravity. However, several debtors were being cagey about repaying the money that they owed him, so he had to go home for a couple of weeks to rattle a few heads. Without the money from that business, his travels were over. His return was kept a secret for a while so as to ensure that evidence was not somehow accidentally swallowed, and Greg was hiding out INCOGNITO in the meantime.
Left alone in Kathmandu, I greeted this not entirely unexpected turn of events with mixed emotions. I was sad to have my great friend and travelling companion leave me alone in a strange land, yet happy that I had some time to myself to be still, reflect and regroup after a tumultuous six weeks. Strangely, I was a little envious of his little sojourn back home. Summer warmth, movies, sanity and tranquillity on the roads, prawn laksas, a smoochy reunion with his girlfriend Christina - the bugger was getting a holiday within a holiday! In my experience, such intermissions are invariably excellent. I've occasionally popped home for a week or six during past travels, and have only the fondest memories of those frenzied and heady periods. I don't suppose I'm allowed to be envious while I'm jetting off on adventures of my own, but I seldom do only what I'm allowed to.
So there I was in Kathmandu, alone, abandoned first by my dad and Ross, then by Greg. If it wasn't for the unwavering hospitality of the Shrestha family, I might have started feeling sorry for myself. Instead, I bought a one-way ticket to Cairo (isn't that the name of a song?), and left the following day.
Whisked off to Kathmandu Airport at 7am in the Shrestha family 4WD, I arrived at the terminal to find the whole complex shrouded in fog, with no takeoffs for the next two hours. Milling around in the zoo that is the international departure lounge, I went looking for somewhere to dispose of my last remaining 200 Nepalese rupees ($A5). I managed to find the donations box for the Everest Conservation Fund, but the top was sealed, and it had a three-week-old sign on it saying that it was closed and would reopen "tomorrow morning." Somehow that encapsulated a perfect final memory of Nepal for me, and I smiled all the way to the duty free shop, where I spent my erstwhile donation on chocolate bars (as you do).
We took off one and three-quarter hours late, and as I sat on the near-empty plane, I wondered how this would impact my connection in Dubai (I only had a one-hour layover). But praise be to Allah! - the Emirates Air 777 to Cairo was itself delayed for two hours. I took full advantage of my hour in Dubai Airport, wandering around the duty free store, goggle-eyed at my first glimpse of true, unadulterated Western consumerism in action after six weeks of the poverty, chaos and spirituality of Nepal. Waiting at the gate for my plane, I was approached by a smiling gentleman brandishing a questionnaire form, who asked me about my impressions of Dubai and the United Arab Emirates. I told him that I'd only been there 45 minutes, whereupon he smiled even harder and declared that I was just the sort of person he was looking for! So to pass the time I gave him a detailed synopsis of the transit lounge, the toilets and the duty free shop, rated all of Dubai's top tourist attractions on a scale of one to five, and made several incisive and telling critiques of recent political developments in the Emirates. He religiously wrote it all down, beaming all the while, then, when I was done, shook my hand, thanked me and showed me where I could buy a doughnut.
The only item worth mentioning about the overcrowded two-hour flight to Cairo was that each seat had it's own TV monitor, showing a selection of movies in English and Arabic, cartoons, news, MTV, etc, etc, plus the view from a video camera pointing out the front of the plane. Watching the take-off and landing from the point of view of the pilot was most cool!
Kathmandu had prepared me for people hassling me at every corner and accosting me as their "friend." So in my practiced way, I coldly ignored the initial two or three such Egyptian overtures from my first sortie into the streets of Cairo that evening. The protagonists seemed genuinely offended at my rudeness, and I felt a little guilty, speculating that maybe Cairo was different to Kathmandu. So when the next one began with, "hey man, walk like an Egyptian!" I gave him the benefit of the doubt, and we fell into friendly conversation. Half an hour later (2am Kathmandu time), I found myself doing him a favour in the local duty-free store, buying him liquor, beer, cigarettes and a Panasonic radio-cassette boom box. He paid for all these, of course - Egyptians cannot buy from local duty-free stores where the goods are much cheaper, and he apparently wanted them for a "party" he was about to go to (I was even welcome to come). Later I learned that these are the exact opening gambits in a common and sophisticated scam that, over a period of several days with your new "friend," inevitably separates you from a fair slice of your finances. I may well have fallen for it and been thoroughly fleeced, had I not that night come down with another violent attack of stomach revolt (top-and-bottom-end rejection of a suspect doner-kebab-fried-meat-thingy purchased from a street stall), and spent the whole next day in bed (except for the 12 occasions where I was walking to and from the toilet). At five in the afternoon I weakly asked the hotel reception for some Imodium, which thankfully arrived only 30 minutes later. The effect was nothing short of miraculous. It was like turning off a tap. I slept blissfully and uninterrupted for the next 12 hours. As a fellow backpacker later so eloquently put it, "oh yeah man, that stuff's awesome! You couldn't do a better job if you plugged your butt up with cement!"
And so on Friday, still feeling a little wobbly from the cement episode, as well as the persistent Tibetan flu (that had recently degenerated into a hacking cough), I ventured out into Cairo a second time. I made it as far as the local Internet cafe, where I hid, looking for words of love from those far away. As I retreated into the safe and predictable world of computers, I reflected on Cairo. Why was I here? Apart from the Pyramids, I couldn't think of a reason. Cairo is not Egypt, and Tahrir Square is not Cairo, But Tahrir Square was all I'd seen of Egypt so far, and it is a noisy, polluted, congested traffic jam (on a good day). I received an email from my sister Lindy, describing many fine things to do and see in Egypt, but somehow I just wasn't up to it. Egypt and me - well, we weren't getting along so good. It didn't seem right to stay - just a feeling, the deep down, pit-of-the-(still-very-woozy)-stomach kind of feeling. So I made the decision to go and see the Pyramids and the Sphinx the next day, and then get the hell to Israel on the bus the morning after.
I'd put a lot of thought into how I wanted to see the Pyramids. I anticipated them having a very personal effect on me, the sort of place you don't so much see as feel. As such, seeing them with a tour group, or even with a couple of other backpackers from the hotel, would have been doing them, and myself, an injustice. I resolved to go alone. So the next afternoon, after spending the morning replying to the previous day's emails, I grabbed a cab and rode out to the edge of town to the Pyramids. As soon I got there - no, thirty seconds before I got there - some "helpful" soul jumped into the cab next to me and informed me that the Pyramids were closed for the day. They closed at 3pm, and it was twenty-past. "Ramadan," you know (an annual Muslim holiday). If I wanted, I could come back tomorrow for the special light show at 7:30am. Suspecting he was trying to sell me something, or even worse, to entrap me in some elaborate Egyptian sting, I asserted half-heartedly that he was lying. He protested, and even the taxi driver concurred (although that was hardly reassuring). As I suspected, though, he did have an angle: if I rode one of his camels or donkeys or carts into the desert, I could still get near the Pyramids for a mere E£60 (A$28), but not touch them, of course (I figured I probably could touch them, but that would undoubtedly cost extra). Disgusted, I told him what he could do with his donkeys, got out of the cab, paid the driver, checked the truth of the situation with the Tourist Office, and started walking around looking for another alternative, or perhaps someone I could smack in the mouth.
There were still many tourists milling around flock-like inside the compound, although they were all slowly leaving, so I walked around to the tourist exit gate, and went in. Nobody stopped me! Feeling pretty pleased with myself, but having gotten only as far as the Sphinx area, I mingled with the other tourist sheep and tried to see if I could find a way up to the Pyramids proper. It didn't look hopeful. I was then accosted by two locals, one of them dressed in a shabby kind of uniform, who said they'd seen me by the entrance earlier and could they please see my ticket? But here's the interesting part: They didn't really want to see my ticket, and they certainly didn't want me to leave on account of not having one. The uniform wasn't real - these guys were opportunists, hoping I would pay them some baksheesh (bribe money) to be escorted where I wanted to go. I had no problem with that, so I paid them a small fee E£20 (A$9), and off we all went up the hill towards the Pyramids. Once we were past the guards, they vanished, as if into the sand, and a little later I found myself at the foot of the Cheops Pyramid, totally alone. No tourists, no locals, not even any security guards in sight. I had finally got my wish - I was free to see the Pyramids any way I wanted. I may not have had the benefit of a full, guided commentary of the history and construction of the Pyramids, but I had something I valued even higher - total liberty and solitude. The sun was setting over the desert, the air was still warm and the evening was quiet and peaceful. Bliss!
Wandering around the bases of the Pyramids, taking the obligatory "My City of Sydney" shot (click here), and speculating, like all thinking persons, just why and how anyone would build such a place, I eventually decided to climb one (as you do). This is, of course, a flagrant violation of the rules spelled out on many signs in the area, which only served to make it more alluring. I even got about a third of the way up the smallest of the three (click here) before being spotted. A local, flanked by three uniformed guards, hailed me with a whistle and ordered me down. Again, they wanted no trouble, just a little more baksheesh to allow a climb of one of their sacred relics. E£40 (A$18) was the agreed fee this time, and that even included a guide to the top - the whistling local. I told him that I preferred to summit the Pyramid alone, and he didn't object. He climbed three-quarters of the way with me, let me climb the rest by myself, and helped me with the inevitable photos (click here, here and here). He asserted that I was to take no photos of him (surprise surprise), but digital cameras are sneaky, you don't have to hold them to your eye to take a photo - you can push the button while the camera's still down at your waist, and noone's the wiser (click here). After the summit expedition, he took me to a site where they were uncovering a new tomb, which he alleged tourists were not yet allowed to see. Not quite believing him, I nevertheless followed him into the bowels of the limestone labyrinth, trusting that he'd allow me to come out alive, and took an obligatory photograph of the recent resting place of a sarcophagus that can now be found (apparently) in the Egyptian Museum (click here).
Happy with his £40 haul, and his tour-guide duty complete, he wandered off to share his booty with his guard buddies (using the term "guard" in the loosest possible sense). Alone again, I wandered slowly back to the entrance gate, remembering to take a photograph of the Sphinx in the failing light (click here). I thought about my day. Maybe I'd gotten a bargain, or maybe I'd been thoroughly scammed, but I'm sure I paid less than the average tourist does for his or her "Pyramid Experience," and it was as personal as I could have hoped for. Walking around the Pyramids without another soul in sight must be as rare an experience as one can have in this land of chaos.
I'm going to be blunt here. Cairo is a shithole. I later learned that it is the third most populous city in the world, with 18 million people. And it shows. It teems. There are too many people, too many cars, and too much noise. The locals seem somehow grubby. And I don't mean grubby in the sense of muddy. I mean grubby in the sense of greedy, money-hungry, deceitful and selfish. I'm making a rash generalisation here, but these are my feelings. I'm sure my perceptions would be radically different if I'd known some locals beforehand and they'd invited me to stay in their home, but that never happened, of course. By way of contrast, the Nepalis, who are poorer and dirtier (in the "muddy" sense), are never deceitful, always smiling, and seem to want you to be happy even more than they want to be happy themselves. Cairo just wanted to take whatever I had, and it didn't take long before I lost my sense of smile.
Time to move on.
All human beings like a balance between chaos and order. Between growth and stability, adventure and security. They crave a measure of new and exciting changes, but lament that things are no longer how they used to be. They seek a healthy mixture of stimulation (but not to the point of being overwhelmed) and familiarity (but not to the point of being bored). (Robert Pirsig - of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance fame - calls these preferences "dynamic values" and "static values" in his book Lila.) Everyone has their own individual point on the sliding scale at which they feel comfortable, or balanced, yet that point changes with the passing of time. Almost invariably, a person's preferences move away from the "adventure" end of the spectrum and towards the "security" end as they grow older. This may explain why most old people seem to fear death more than young people (at least, young people are usually less afraid of taking life-threatening risks than their elderly counterparts): Death is the ultimate change, and will therefore be most terrifying to those who have gradually moved their balance all the way to the "stability" end of the dial and left it there for many years.
This differing of people's points of balance goes a long way towards explaining why some people are afraid to pack up their life and travel for long periods of time, whilst for others, it's an imperative. It also goes a long way towards explaining why I found myself noticeably happier the instant I left Egypt and arrived in Israel. Cairo was just a little too far down towards the "chaos" end of the dial, while Israel was somehow familiar. Very different from Australia, to be sure - in fact a wholly bizarre country in most respects - but the balance of weirdness and familiarity seemed ju-u-u-ust right for this particular Goldilocks.
It was on my wavelength, man.
When the bus dropped me at the Yafo Gate of the Old City of Jerusalem, and I wandered inside, I knew instantly that I'd found a place where I could spend some time kicking back and doing nothing (for a change). It seemed to me to be a cross between Thamel (the tourist district of Kathmandu), with eight out of ten shops selling dubious-looking handicrafts to the tourists, and Venice, with narrow, ancient cobblestone streets (click here) and no cars. It was small enough for you to learn its essence in half an hour, yet large enough to get lost in when you're on your way to buy a felafel. In short, a perfect balance. After avoiding the backpacker scene the entire time I was in Cairo (by staying in a single room in the hostel rather than a dorm, and rarely leaving it), I decided to hunt down a crowded, noisy hostel and rejoin the human race (well, the backpacker sub-species, at least). On a recommendation, I checked into the cheap, large and busy Petra Hostel, just inside the Yafo Gate (click here).
Jerusalem (click here) is, without a doubt, the holiest city in the Western Hemisphere, if not the world. Three major religions claim it as central to their theology. The ancient capitol of Judah, the most enduring of the twelve tribes of Israel, Jerusalem is the axis around which the Jewish faith turns. The town where Jesus was tried, sentenced, and crucified, and then later apparently rose from the dead, Jerusalem is home to most of the pivotal scenes of the Christian New Testament. Even the Muslims have a stake in Jerusalem, which houses the Rock from which Mohammed allegedly ascended to Heaven. I was staggered to read that, over the last 4000 years, Jerusalem has been invaded, besieged or razed, on average, once every 40 years. Apparently, there have been no serious incursions since the Sixties, so I felt an obligation to maintain the average. Fearsome and armed to the teeth with cameras and other technological gadgetry, I left the hostel and invaded the Old City in search of plunder, making it as far as the local felafel bar before being overcome by the city's cunning defences.
History simply oozes out of the rocks (am I sounding like a travel book yet?) Everywhere you look there's another building of historical significance (although if you read your history carefully, you'll realise that the buildings themselves are fairly recent, and that it's the sites that are sacred. If you probe still deeper, you begin to realise that noone can agree even on the location of the sites themselves. So when you hear that, "the building on your left is the birthplace of the Virgin Mary (click here)," you tend to take it with a grain of salt), like the building where Pontius Pilate sentenced Jesus to be crucified, or the Via Dolorosa, the road Jesus allegedly walked bearing his cross (the Franciscan monks re-enact this for you every Friday at 3pm), or the Wailing Wall, where Orthodox Jews come to pray, and where written prayers are inserted into the cracks between the stones (click here). If you can't find your way from one icon to the next, there are dozens of locals on hand, Jews and Arabs alike, anxious to be your tour guide and show you their take on Jerusalem.
Jerusalem is also without a doubt the world's Mecca for religious crazies, and when in town they all seem to stay at the Petra Hostel. I think the Petra must put ads in International Zealot's Monthly, or something. I wanted to immerse myself in humanity again? I'd come to the right place. We had, amongst other assorted fruitcakes:
While we're on the subject of religious nutters, the Lonely Planet Israel guidebook makes special mention of the fairly recent phenomenon known as "Jerusalem Syndrome," whereby up to 300 seemingly normal tourists per year are overwhelmed by the holiness of the town, and declare themselves to be figures from the Bible (Old and New Testaments). John the Baptist is a traditional favourite. Curiously, very few claim to be Jesus (perhaps they fear the consequences should their claims prove to be correct). They've opened a special wing of the local loony-bin just to deal with this latest upsurge. Truth! I confused everyone by claiming to be myself.
My mission to immerse myself once more in the peculiarities of the backpacker set was not long in coming to fruition. Backgammon is the universal language (at least in the Middle East, or the Near East, as they call it in Britain), and few things endear fellow travellers to you more than letting them whip your arse at Backgammon. Using this tried and true technique I met Neil and Chris from England and Siobhan from Ireland, all taking a week off from working as volunteers on a kibbutz in the north of Israel (click here). We did the tourist thing and the getting-merrily-sloshed-during-happy-hour-at-the-local-pub thing together for a couple of days, and before they returned to the kibbutz I had mastered two new card games - "Shithead" and "Arsehole." They generously invited me to come and visit them on the kibbutz "anytime," and I decided immediately that I would be taking them up on their offer. I'd heard much about these Israeli Kibbutzs, and always been curious as to what life on a kibbutz was really like. I was even toying with the notion of signing up for an extended stay should it prove to be the lifestyle of my dreams. I resolved to spend another week in Jerusalem, then follow them north.
So what does one do for a week in Jerusalem once all the museums, temples, churches, synagogues and mosques have been dutifully visited? Why, make a pilgrimage to the Dead Sea, of course. I had heard good things about the one-day, 60 shekel (A$24) tour that takes in, aside from the Dead Sea, the legendary Masada fort, the historic town of Jericho, the desert where Jesus went walkabout for 40 days, and the cave where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found. A little wary about organised tours under any circumstances, I was told that the participants were all young persons like myself, so I swallowed my snobbery and signed up.
One of the high points of the tour is supposed to be sunrise from The Masada, the legendary hilltop fort that, apart from being King Herod's favourite seaside retreat, saw 400 Jewish rebels besieged by two legions of Roman troops for nearly two years. An heroic tale of dogged resistance, when they realised they could hold off the Romans no longer, they committed mass suicide rather than allow themselves to be captured and sold into slavery. The ruins are beautifully situated atop a small mountain overlooking the Dead Sea, where sunrise is supposed to be truly spectacular. Sunrise is also usually quite early in the day, and this particular sunrise required all potential spectators to leave their hostel and be in the minibus by 3:30am. Bleary-eyed and usually hungover, you are dropped at the bottom of The Masada's mountain at 5:15am in the frigid pre-dawn gloom, and shown where to begin the one-hour trek to the fort at the top. Our final instructions were to not, under any circumstances, be late for the minibus, which would be leaving at 7:30am sharp. The ruins were - well - ruins, and the sunrise, if you take away the gorgeous view of the Dead Sea, was just like any other cloudy sunrise (click here and here). All 15 of us dutifully returned punctually to the carpark at 7:30am, and were about ready for a lynching when the minibus finally dawdled in at 8:20.
Our next stop was the Dead Sea, a fairly unremarkable body of water apart from it's absurd salt content, which allows bathers to float almost without getting wet. Shivering as I changed into my Speedo's on that winter's morning at 8:45, I recalled that I was standing on the lowest point on the planet. Just two weeks before, I reflected, I'd been gazing at the summit of Mount Everest. I'd read that the Dead Sea is 350m below sea level, and I remember being puzzled as to how a sea can be below sea level. I waded into the surprisingly warm water, complete with sandals (the salt encrustations on the rocks are guaranteed to cut your feet to ribbons), and floated in water for the first time in my life (I have a strange body mass that refuses to float in water - normal water, that is) (click here). You can lift both legs and both arms out of the water, and still float like a turd in porridge.
Other "highlights" of the daytrip included the anonymous spot on the highway where the driver abruptly stopped and declared "This-place-Dead-Sea-Scrolls-found-we-stop-five-minutes-you-take-photos-have-a-good-time!" We all stood there on the side of the road, scrutinising the distant and featureless cliff face before us, trying to guess what he might have been referring to. And then there was the ancient city of Jericho. In this now-unremarkable Arab town in the West Bank, the driver stopped again, pointed out an inauspicious mound of dirt, and told us that this was all that remained of the famous walls that had come a-tumblin' down. There's a mound just like it in the vacant lot near my place in Sydney, but I don't think Joshua had anything to do with it. There may well be a market there for daytrips, though.
Contrary to Sergei's learned opinion, email is a truly wonderful thing, especially for the itinerant globetrotter. It elegantly solves the problem of staying in touch both with loved ones at home and fellow travellers you meet along the road. Having an email address (usually a free one from Hotmail or the like) is now de rigeur amongst the backpacking fraternity. I remember the dilemmas of the old days (well, 1986), when exchanging details with a departing travelling buddy would go something like, "er, well, I could give you my parents' address in Australia, but of course I won't be back there till next year, or I could give you my Auntie's address in England, but I'll only be there once, in May. You could send stuff Poste Restante to Calcutta, but make sure it's no later than June. OK? Great. See ya! Stay in touch...." With the advent of email, such conversations are banished to the realm of quaint myth and folklore. A quick exchange of email addresses is all that's required. As fast as a fax, you can pick up your mail from wherever you happen to be in the world, needing only an Internet cafe and some dexterity with the mouse. Your friends no longer need to worry about where you are or where you're likely to be in two months' time. The only downside to all of this is that Internet cafes cost somewhere from A$2 to $A15 per hour. If you're like me and are prepared to lug around a baby computer the size of a videocassette, you can minimise these costs dramatically by writing all your emails in the comfort of your hostel's common room (where it raises not a few eyebrows and makes a great conversation piece), or sitting on a bus, and when you get to the cybercafe, all that's required is a couple of minutes to copy the files to the cafe's computer, log into Hotmail and send them.
So it was that I was sitting in the dining room of the Petra Hostel writing the latest in a long series of Sydney-bound emails, when who should happen by but Elijah, Messenger of God and permanent fixture in the Jerusalem hostel scene. "What's that yer playin' with?" he asked, sitting down and ominously putting his briefcase on the table next to my daypack. "Oh-oh," I thought, and desperately probed my memories to see if I'd done anything God-worthy so far that morning. Coming up short, I spent several minutes explaining to him the aforementioned virtues of email, in an attempt to clear my conscience. He sat there astounded, exclaiming "Is that right?" and "You don't say!" with ever-widening eyes, and confessed that he'd always wanted to be able to spread the word around the globe with such ease. Well, one thing led to another, and half-an-hour later I found myself down at the local Internet cafe with him, setting him up a Hotmail account and showing him how to use it. Not having used a computer before, or even a typewriter, he took to it like a duck to boiling oil. His level of understanding of computers could only be classified as "confused to the point of terror", but after 45 minutes of professional tuition, we'd gotten that down to merely "bewildered," and he was up to the stage where he could gingerly hold the mouse.
God's prophet now safely online, I figured I was off the proverbial hook as far as godly deeds were concerned, at least for another day. Elijah, confused as he was, was beaming and scheming about his new-found word-spreading ability, and wandered off to get his business card reprinted with his new email address. If you're inclined, you can get The Word digitally now by contacting firstname.lastname@example.org.
I could have stayed in the Old City for another three months, but my internal alarm clock told me it was time to move on. Ever curious about these fabled Israeli kibbutzs, I phoned Neil to see if my invitation was still open. "Of course! Come on up you old bastard," he said, "I'll organise a room for you." He gave me directions to his kibbutz, called Sede Nehemya, and the next day I boarded a bus to Kiryat Shemona, a town just inside Israel's northern border with Lebanon. After a tolerable four-hour bus ride, I decided to hitchhike the remaining 6km to the kibbutz. Five minutes into my lift I was idly watching the factories out the window when the driver suddenly stopped the car and said that we'd arrived. "No, no, I want the kibbutz," I reminded him. "Sede Nehemya," I added, fearing that "kibbutz" might be the local word for "ballistics factory." He assured me that this was, indeed, the kibbutz, so I got out and took stock. Call me a fanciful traditionalist if you like, but I'd assumed that kibbutzs were more - well - agricultural.
I asked a passing robot for directions to the volunteers' quarters, and was pointed in a direction that looked reassuringly less industrial. I walked a short distance to a leafy, lawned neighbourhood of functional, concrete, single-storey units (click here), and hadn't been there 30 seconds before someone accosted me with, "Hi, you must be Neil's guest." I supposed I was, and she went off to hunt down someone that I knew. Two minutes later I was face-to-face with a smiling Siobhan (pronounced "Shivorn," if you're having trouble), who showed me to my room (a whole room, all to myself!) and spent half an hour with me reminiscing about the good old days in Jerusalem a week ago. She also told me some interesting stories about life on the kibbutz, including the vaguely unsettling news that the kibbutz next door had been accidentally bombed by the Lebanese a month back. Apparently, the nearby Lebanese guerrillas like nothing better than to lob mortar shells over the border into the local town. The only problem is, they're not very good shots, so occasionally they miss and hit the kibbutzs. It's OK, though, because they always forewarn the Israelis of their imminent attack on the town, and the whole valley heads for the bomb shelters for the day, just in case. All of a sudden, the otherwise gorgeous surrounding hills took on a slightly menacing aspect, and I asked Siobhan about the location of the nearest shelter.
Neil arrived shortly afterwards, and took me on the $2 tour of the kibbutz. Young, English, charismatic and arrogant (in the cool way), he was the perfect host and a knowledgeable tour guide. From what I could gather, the kibbutz works something like this...
Set up as an agricultural and manufacturing concern, the kibbutz is home and workplace for about 300 Israeli members, their kids, and 50 assorted international volunteers. Organised as a loose collective, it makes its money from its plastics factory, a chicken farm, and enormous orange fields. The members are paid a salary, the volunteers are paid a pittance, and all profits are ploughed back into the kibbutz for improvements. Virtually a small town, it sports a school, shop, swimming pool, tennis court, nursery, administration complex and a massive dining hall. It even has its own bus-stop, not to mention a dilapidated bus used for weekend excursions around the countryside. When a kibbutz kid reaches 15, he or she is given an apartment of their own for three years before heading off for their compulsory two years of national service.
Life as a volunteer is almost idyllic. You sign up for a two month contract (although you can stay up to six months if you want to), work roughly five hours a day for five or six days a week, and are paid what could only be described as pocketmoney - 75 shekels (A$30) per week. All-you-can-eat breakfast and lunch are provided in the dining hall, as is dinner on the Shabbat (Sabbath - Saturday). Other evenings you cook your own dinner with food provided by the kibbutz kitchen. Accommodation is two or three to a room, with communal showers and toilets.
A hearty evening's entertainment consists of throwing back a few beers or vodkas before settling back to watch "Friends" and indulge in three or four hours of "Arsehole." Party nights are Thursdays and Fridays. On these eagerly anticipated evenings, carpools are organised to get you to one of the bars in town or on the neighbouring kibbutzs, where you are provided with ample opportunities to drink away your weekly allowance of shekels. Afternoons are typically spent playing volleyball, reading in the sun (click here), smoking the largest hookah waterpipes you've ever seen (click here), or sleeping off yesterday's hangover.
Neil introduced me to the gang - a fun, friendly and accepting assortment of souls. Large contingents of Danish, Czech, and English were kept honest by a modest sprinkling of Irish, Swedish and South Africans. The average age seemed about 21. I was a visitor, and as such was afforded all of the privileges of a volunteer (such as free meals), but without actually having to do any work. Sadly, this arrangement had a shelf-life of only about four days, at which time I was obliged to either leave or sign up as a volunteer and stay. I was tempted, I must say. My short time there was long enough for me to learn the essence of Life on a Kibbutz. The carefree atmosphere and relaxed tolerance of the kibbutzniks made me wonder why I was rushing around the world like a maniac. And yet, I'd already seen this movie. When I was 23, I spent a summer looking after little kids on a summer camp in Michigan. With our own collection of international counsellors, we had virtually the same lifestyle (and pay) as a kibbutznik, the only difference being that we looked after children, rather than work in the kitchen or the orange fields. If I'd never had that experience, and was perhaps ten years younger, I would have found the kibbutz a very difficult place to leave.
Neil, a cool frood who (in the words of Douglas Adams) really knows where his towel is, made my time on the kibbutz interesting and fun. He took me up the kibbutz radio tower (click here), invited me to various bars and the occasional volleyball game, told me stories of Kibbutz life, introduced me to his Israeli friends, put in a good word for me with the local ladies, and even helped me check my email on a friend's computer. In return, I slept in every morning, drank his beers, listened to his tapes, watched him score a goal in an inter-kibbutz football game (surprisingly high standard), and of course, created him an email address (email@example.com). One of us got a bargain.
Not wishing to overstay my welcome (and not wanting to actually do any work in order to extend it), after my four days were up I bid them all a cheery farewell, hitchhiked back into town and got myself onto a bus to the Israeli port town of Haifa. From there I was going to try to get a ferry to Turkey, that magical country about which I'd never heard a bad report. Missing Greg and hoping he'd get through with his arse-kicking festival in time to join me, I phoned him, only to learn he wouldn't be jetting out of Sydney for at least another three weeks. Poo!
I remember hearing an apocryphal story a while back about some English fellow travelling the backroads of Ireland, who stopped at a pub and asked directions to Cork. The bartender, so the story goes, stroked his chin for a bit before replying, "Hmmm, Cork you say? No, no, you can't get there from here, to be sure." That day in Haifa, I could empathise with that poor English bastard, as I wandered around trying to get to Turkey by boat. I could get to Athens, Egypt, Cyprus, Italy, and probably even San Francisco, but the south coast of Turkey, the largest country in the region, only a couple of hundred kilometres over the water, proved strangely elusive. I could, of course, take a bus south to Tel Aviv, and from there fly to Istanbul before getting another bus to the Turkish coast, but the flight alone was about A$300, and I decided to give it a miss. Apparently Turkey in February is cold, rainy and miserable anyway, so I abandoned the idea altogether, and booked a flight to London against my round-the-world ticket, leaving Tel Aviv at 5:30 the next morning.
Due to the extensive security check that all tourists leaving Israel can expect upon departure, check-in time for my flight was 3am. Before that, I needed to front up to the Lufthansa ticket office in the airport to get my modified ticket reissued. Fancying that I could sleep on the plane, I caught the last bus of the day from Haifa to the airport, arriving at 11pm. My ticket office didn't open until 2am, so to keep myself awake for three hours I shuffled around the departure lounge sipping Coca-Cola and slapping myself in the face.
My Lufthansa lady eventually ambled in at quarter to three, and four kinds of perplexity crossed her face as she regarded my ticket. Peering at it, shaking it, even sniffing it, she looked so bewildered that I wondered for a moment if I was actually in the right place. I considered the possibility that I'd accidentally stumbled into a Chinese restaurant. The queue behind me slowly grew, both in length and hostility, and I hid my embarrassment as the greatest challenge of this poor woman's life unfolded before her. Eventually she abandoned the computer and wrote out my entire revised round-the-world ticket by hand. This took a further 15 minutes, and the back of my head started smouldering as 24 pairs of eyes bored into it.
The security check the IDF subject you to before check-in has to be experienced to be believed. The Israelis have good reason to be paranoid, of course - if you're a budding terrorist itching to blow something up, chances are you're considering starting with Israel. The most amazing thing about the interview, though, is who they get to conduct it. The inspection counters were manned exclusively by young, gorgeous Israeli brunettes, not a single one out of her teens. I'm not sure I understand this policy. Maybe they're hoping that the average arms smuggler will be so hypnotised by her wily gaze or fluttering eyelids that he'll accidentally blurt out his plans to torch Madison Square Garden. Or perhaps his brain will become so clouded with testosterone that he'll admit to being a terrorist just to impress her. I confess to being tempted by the idea myself. My one was quite yummy, especially the way her smart blue uniform hugged the curve of her...... Ahem! Er, yes. Quite. Trying to keep my mind on her questions was an exercise in self-control. How long have you been in Israel? Where have you visited? Did you take any photographs? Can I see them? Do you have any receipts for your hotel, tourist sites or bus trips? Did any Israelis invite you into their homes? Are you looking at my tits again? Did anyone give you anything to take out of the country? On and on like this for about 25 minutes. Then she walked off with my passport, only to be replaced by an even yummier one with big dark eyes that made me want to stay in Israel. She took another 20 minutes to ask me all the same questions. I didn't care. I was just absently answering whatever she asked, all the time wondering if doing so entitled me to ask her some questions of my own. Bored with all her silly talk about who packed my luggage, I drifted off into a playful fantasy about the handcuffs on her belt. Abruptly, it was all over, and I was startled out of my reverie by her telling me that I was free to go. What a tease! It's really not fair for a girl to get a fellow all aroused like that and then just leave him hanging. I refocused my eyes and wandered reluctantly off to the check-in counter, toying with the idea of becoming Jewish.
But Israel had one final fond memory in store for me before I left. In an attempt to spend my last 32 Israeli shekels (A$13), I went in to the airport's chocolate shop and tried in vain to find something that wasn't chocolate. With 45 minutes before my flight, I gave up and started talking to the three gorgeous girls behind the counter (click here) (why there were three of them there at five in the morning will have to remain one of Life's little mysteries). Having nothing better to do with our morning, we all began flirting madly like there was no tomorrow. The first one professed that she wanted to marry me when she found out I was Australian, the second wanted to marry me when she learned I was flying to London, but the third inexplicably didn't admit to any desire to marry me at all, although she later confessed that she was already married. Silently cursing that I didn't meet these three when I arrived in Israel, I dallied with them so long that I almost missed my flight. Shiri (the one in the middle) had an airport badge, so she escorted me through passport control to my gate and gave me a goodbye kiss. I turned from her smiling face into the scowling glare of a stewardess, who informed me icily that I was the last passenger to board and that the whole plane was waiting for me. Having missed the last bus out to the plane, she summoned a special car, just for me. As I was being driven out along the tarmac, I looked at my watch, noticed that there were still ten minutes before the scheduled departure time, and wondered what all the fuss was about. Damn it, I'm special! Why shouldn't I be the last one onto the plane? As the plane began to taxi, I calculated I could sleep until I had to change planes in Frankfurt, and was unconscious before we were airborne.
I had transited at Frankfurt Airport before, on a business trip to Michigan (long story), and, like this time, found it dark, overcrowded and cheerless. After passing half an hour boggling at the inflated duty free prices, I decided on a whim to visit the Lufthansa Business Lounge, an oasis of serenity and free grog that I remembered from my Business Class travel days. I had no chance of being allowed in, of course, but maybe a hairy, six-foot-three backpacker could somehow sneak past their reception undetected. When I got there I tried the old mill-around-in-the-entrance-for-five-minutes-until-noone's-looking-then-kind-of-just-vanish-inside-unnoticed technique, and had very nearly succeeded before being hailed by the Panzer tank masquerading as a receptionist. "Hoy!" she called in a voice that conjured images of Nazi concentration camps, whistles, truncheons and Alsations. "Boarding pass, bitte," she demanded, and I obediently handed it over, thinking to myself, "don't mention the war." Of course, backpackers such as myself seldom travel Business Class, so I was a little startled when she returned it to me and added helpfully, "thank you sir, snacks and refreshments can be found to your left." Incredibly, I was in! Offering the well-heeled business traveller everything except queen-sized futons, the opulence of the haven in which I now found myself enabled me to pretend that I was sporting a briefcase and a three-piece suit, rather than a daypack and a three-day growth. Having not eaten since lunch the previous day, I did what every traveller on a budget does under such circumstances - I stuffed myself to the point of puking, and read the international papers. The dragon from the front desk appeared beside me an hour and a half later to inform me that it was time to board my flight to London. Delighted, and determined not to miss a golden opportunity, I threw her a quick straight-armed salute, clicked my heels, added a gratuitous "Ya wohl," and sauntered off to my plane.
Things change. I remember the heady days of the London backpacker scene in the late Eighties, back when the Australian Dollar was still worth more than the Italian Lira. Today London is so expensive, and the British Pound so strong, that if you saw an Australian $10 note blowing down the footpath, you wouldn't bother to bend down and pick it up. The current exchange rate, I believe, is one Australian Dollar buys one small, dry English dog turd. Next week it will undoubtedly be less.
I remember in particular the Palace Court Hotel, the finest backpacker hotel I've ever seen. It featured a huge common room cum TV room, a bar, a restaurant, and monstrous dorm rooms suitable for cat-swinging or perhaps even the odd round of golf. It had pool tables downstairs, and I remember watching a talent night once on their makeshift stage. If you were lucky, you could even catch a glimpse of Princess Di escorting William and Harry to school next door some mornings. All this for £8 per night. Less if you stayed for a week or more. I worked there on reception, a job that afforded me the run of the joint. This time in London, I was naturally determined to stay there again. After getting off the plane at London City Airport (the smallest and friendliest of London's 47 international airports), I caught the Tube to Notting Hill Gate, and walked the two blocks my old haunt. It was gone! A travesty! I wasn't so much disappointed as wracked with grief. The posh boys' school was still there, but I reflected that even the chances of spotting Princess Di had been sadly diminished since my last visit. Feeling like I'd lost an old friend, I fished Palace Court's phone number out of my backpack and shuffled forlornly down the road to the phone box, hoping against hope that they'd somehow moved to a new and even more excellent location. I dialled the number and was more than a little pleased when they answered, "'allo, Palace Cour' 'otel?" I jotted down the address (just around the corner), hung up, and virtually sprinted to my relocated home. When I saw it, I wasn't sure that I had the right place. It looked suspiciously small from the outside, and a bit run-down. Undaunted, I went in and asked how much for a bed. "Firty-five for a single, Fifty quid for a dubble." Per night! No dorms. For that matter, no common room, no bar, no backpackers and no class. In fact, it was a dump, the sort of place you might take a prostitute if you were hoping to insult her. Sulking, I went back out into the street, sat down on the bonnet of a Jaguar and started perusing the Accommodation section of the local backpacker mag . Much to my dismay, I learned that most of London's cheap digs were clustered in that infamous Mecca for antipodean travellers: Earls Court.
Things change. £8 will no longer buy you a bed in a hostel. Advertised rates start at £10, but don't bother with those unless you're prepared to sleep in a satellite dish on the roof. The dump I eventually found myself in (The Court Hotel, if you're looking for somewhere to avoid - a bit like the Palace Court, but without the Palace) was advertising £11, but I soon discovered at reception that this did not include VAT. Being Australian, I am forced to wonder how they can get away with advertising a rate that no person can ever hope to pay. "So, how much is VAT?" "Two quid." "Then the room is really £13?" "Yep." "Is there any possible way of anyone paying £11, your advertised rate?" "No." "Would you mind holding this target over your chest please, while I get out my AK-47?" If John Howard ever introduces his proposed GST and prices in Australia become equally ambiguous, I'm not coming home.
I decided to stay nevertheless, asked the duty receptionist for a room with four beds, and was shown to a room the size of - well - four beds. It was a pity if you had any luggage that you needed to actually put down somewhere. If your bed was in the middle (mine was), you could reach it if you were prepared to climb over the other beds, or maybe enter the room via the window.
The bed to my left was occupied by a hapless Irish fellow, who introduced himself as Paddy. I remember suppressing an involuntary giggle. Are there really Irish people called Paddy? Clearly there are. I suppose I shouldn't find that funny, but it seems a bit like finding a dog that's actually called Fido, or meeting an Australian called Fred Bloggs. A lovely guy of 42, Paddy was in town looking for a job. His prospects were being seriously hampered by his pronounced Irish accent ("I arroived in tone tissmornin' at foive-tirty"), his slowness of speech, and the unfortunate fact that he was illiterate. The next morning, before I set off to reacquaint myself with Oxford Street and Convent Garden, I spent a couple of hours reading him job ads from the classifieds, and jotting down phone numbers of employment agencies. That evening, I asked him how he'd fared. Not so good, apparently. He wondered naively why people kept hanging up on him as soon as he introduced himself. Poor bastard.
My early dismissal of Earls Court as a grubby Australian ghetto was, in hindsight, a trifle hasty. Loud, keg-toting antipodeans thrive there, it is true, but with good reason: it is amazingly well set up for travellers. Internet cafes, pubs, cheap restaurants, job agencies, late-night supermarkets, camping shops, travel agencies, laundromats, and cheap phone centres abound. These last establishments are a godsend for travellers. With the deregulation of the British phone market, British Telecom is now absurdly expensive, in comparison with the new players. In a quiet, private booth, I could call home for 15p (40c) per minute, and in fact did, for over an hour and a half. I later found that even that was overpriced. In newsagencies you can choose from an amazing array of phonecards, which can make calling Australia as cheap as 8p (21c) per minute, from any phone in the country, including payphones. The first card I bought charged 9p to Australia, but strangely 12p to numbers within the UK. True! It was cheaper to call the other side of the world than to call the hotel around the corner. Go figure.
Things change. But strangely, apart from the proliferation of private telecoms, London exists largely untouched by the passing of the eight years since I was last there. The tube still goes on strike with depressing regularity, the same teams still lead the Premier League, the same buskers still get told to move along by the same bobbies in Convent Garden, the same friendly cab drivers still know every lane and close in Greater London, and telephone booths are still plastered to the point of suffocation with flyers for XXX Erotic Asian Artistes and *New* Busty Blondes from Birmingham (the Nineties have wrought some changes though: the flyers are now in full colour, rival the best porn magazines for explicit photography, and make you lose your train of thought during phone calls to the travel agent).
It is one of the facts of backpacker life that the possibility of being disturbed in your sleep is the price you pay for a cheap dormitory bed. Midnight arrivals, dawn departures, inconsiderate types (like myself) who feel the need to read with the light on until 1am - these are the perils of the shared room. But there is one particular species that is abhorred the world over and should never be allowed to check in to a hotel, let alone a dorm room - The Snorer. Including myself, there were four travellers in the room on this fateful night, all sleeping peacefully. At a quarter to two in the morning, the silence was shattered by the fellow in the next bed launching into a violent coughing fit, of the sort only made by people who have accidentally swallowed a small puppy. He got up, left the room, and began wandering the corridors of the hotel, hacking and coughing, but regrettably not dying. I distinctly recall hearing him down on the street at one stage, incommoding the passers-by. Eventually, after coughing up a couple of minor internal organs, he returned to the room sans key. Waking any soul in the room lucky enough to be still asleep, he began thumping on the door until one of us (not me) got up to let him back in. Within two minutes (literally), he had fallen into a deep, snoring sleep. And this fellow was loud. I was amazed that he could make a noise like that without waking himself up. I've known some prodigious snorers in my time (hi Budd), but this sleeping construction site was a lap clear of the peloton and pulling away. He was making a noise like that made by a small television that's been thrown out of a window and is falling through a tree hitting every branch on the way down. Having woken us all up, he was now the only person in the room who was asleep. Impervious to my attempts to shake him awake (the room was so small and the beds so close together that I could try this from my own bed, moving nothing but my arm), he lay there violating several British noise pollution regulations. After 45 minutes I considered going down to reception and paying for a new bed in another room, or perhaps even another hotel. But, ladies and gentlemen, I have discovered a sure-fire way to make snorers stop snoring. Truly. I shall be patenting this shortly. I knew that noone would believe my description of the cacophony he was making, so I pulled out my palmtop computer and prepared the sound recording facility (it essentially behaves like a Dictaphone) to capture this extraordinary noise for the web site. As soon as I put the microphone near his nose, he coughed, spluttered, rolled over, and lapsed into a sleep so silent I feared he had swallowed his tongue. Deprived of my evidence, I considered prodding him to see if he would start snoring again, but then realised I was jeopardising not only my own night's sleep, but also that of my room-mates. I decided to let sleeping dinosaurs lie.
The next morning, after the Human Decibel had gone downstairs for breakfast, my remaining roommates and I exchanged knowing glances, and I felt a camaraderie between us such as the sort I imagine would have been shared by the survivors of the Bombing of Dresden.
That day, Saturday, February 6th was a day I'd been eagerly looking forward to. I'd read somewhere that the International Travellers' World exhibition had come to town. A market-cum-convention being held at the London Arena and aimed directly at the international adventure traveller and backpacker, it promised stalls, shops, deals, seminars and discussions regarding every aspect of globetrotting life. What to see and do in Venezuela; cycle tours of Turkey or Vietnam; self-paced hostel tours of Ireland or the US; support groups and knowledge-swaps regarding every continent except the Antarctic; shops selling everything from mountain bikes to water purifiers, world music to Vegemite; a climbing wall; a full-sized, Virtual Reality-augmented hang-glider; a free Internet cafe; and talks that included a bonanza of topics, such as: surfing your way around Australia, trekking in Ladarkh, walking the Inca Trail, legends of the American Indians, poisonous snakes of the southern hemisphere, and successful travel writing. What? Wait a minute - did you say successful travel writing? As in, Mark, come along to this talk to learn how to combine your love of travel with your writing ambitions and create the career of a lifetime? Did someone plan this? Were they all waiting in ambush until I arrived in England before they mobilised the most staggeringly useful exhibition I could ever imagine just for me? Am I the star of my very own Truman Show? Has the world been conspiring to make my life perfect?
Needless to say, I went along, and the highlight (for me) was indeed the travel writing seminar. Hosted by a panel of travel writers, journalists and publishers, it only lasted an hour, but that was enough to kindle my spark of writing ambition into a full-scale bonfire (sorry, just dragging out a trusty old metaphor there). Somehow - and I'm sure this will all happen as soon as it's meant to - I will take my embryonic language talents and foist them upon an unsuspecting public. Of this I am certain.
Anyone who knows me well will recall that the British Isles hold another special attraction for me. A feisty Irish lady called Majella (click here) first captured a piece of my heart when I cycled through her village in Northern Ireland with Paul Klemes in August, 1990. Even after enduring the rigours of a long-distance, on-again-off-again relationship for eight and a half frustrating years, I would still find it very difficult to visit Europe without at least giving her a call. So call her I did, with a view to spending some quality time with her in her own country - a luxury our relationship has never enjoyed, astonishingly. She seemed happy to hear from me, and even managed, at short notice, to arrange a week away from her two children. She told me that she knew of a gorgeous little island off the wild and remote coast of Galway that we might enjoy, unless we were blind, mentally disturbed or inhumanly resistant to rustic charm. With tremendous difficulty I concurred, and purchased a ticket to Dublin from a Flight Centre on Earls Court Road.
I'm sure there's a secret council of people somewhere, responsible for constantly foisting new trends and dubiously useful technologies upon the world. These are the thoughtful souls that gave us such indispensable commodities as Personal Assertiveness seminars and disposable cameras (and, for that matter I suppose, the Internet). For some reason, Ireland has eluded their attentions almost entirely. Ireland is a country that seems to want no truck with petty, latter-day notions like "the passing of time." Being there is like visiting another century, but they're far from backward, just understandably disenchanted with the trappings of late-twentieth century life. When travelling about on the Emerald Isle, every now and again you catch a glimpse of some modern contrivance, like a telephone or a wristwatch, and you think to yourself, "oh, they have those here! But why on Earth would they want them?" It's as if Ireland has no use for such distractions.
I flew into Dublin International Airport (yes, they even have one of those), jumped into Majella's waiting car and was whisked off to a suite in a swish hotel in the centre of Dublin. This particular room is locally famous for it's enormous spa bath, I was delighted to discover. The next morning we drove across Ireland (isn't that delightful - a country that you can drive across in an afternoon?) to Galway, found ourselves an unremarkable B&B (Bed & Breakfast), and had an early night, in readiness for our trip out to the Aran Islands the next day.
The Aran Islands are situated just off the Ireland's rugged West Coast, 20 miles beyond Galway. There are three islands, Inis Mór, Inis Meaínn and Inis Oírr, all connected to the mainland by a twice-daily ferry service. We were to be staying on Inis Mór, the largest of the three, population a whopping 900. To get to the ferry, it is necessary to take a 45-minute bus ride, or leave your car in the expensive carpark for the duration of your stay on the islands. Now, I don't like travelling on buses at the best of times. Apart from being smelly and cramped, they have a particular bussy motion about them that always makes me nauseous and leaves my stomach feeling all frothy. Our trip from Galway out to the ferry terminus was to be no exception. By the time we arrived, all I wanted to do was go and have a little lie down somewhere. No such luck. Standing on the pier, watching the ominous swell roll in, I felt reasonably confident of keeping my lunch, as long as our boat wasn't smaller than the QE2. So it was with no small concern that I watched a miniscule vessel called Our Lady of Motion Sickness bob into the harbour. The hour we spent in that floating tumble-drier felt like a week, but I thankfully managed to retain everything I'd eaten by standing out on the deck in the freezing wet wind and keeping my eyes resolutely fixed on the dancing horizon.
Inis Mór is unique in my experience. Remote, rugged, quaint, stark - it's difficult to find the right words to describe this magical island. You could say that it's like Ireland, only more so. The roads are quieter (click here), the villages are quainter (actually, there's only one village - click here), the weather is shittier, and the local accent is even more unintelligible. On the Islands they actually speak Irish as a first language. In terms of tourist attractions, though, Inis Mór is a trifle barren. There's virtually nothing to do but walk or cycle around the island (click here), stopping for the odd photograph at any one of a dozen sets of medieval ruins (click here). This is diverting enough for - well - say, an afternoon. After that, the excitement fades, and the warm pubs seem increasingly inviting.
We were a bit starved for choices of accommodation on the island. There are actually too many B&Bs to count, but they were virtually all closed for the winter. We were forced to stay in what later proved to be a goldmine of a place. A large, friendly B&B just out of the village (click here), it offered clean rooms, a TV lounge, and a proprietress (Penny) that would bend over backwards to make sure you had everything you needed. The icing on the cake was their attached pub. What a joy it is, as the rain pours down outside, to buy yourself a pint of Guinness (God's own drink), carry it through a door to a heated living room, and settle down on a soft settee to watch a video for the afternoon. In the words of Arnold Schwarzenegger, "I'll be back!"
We were further delighted to find that our quaint little pub, with barely a soul in it during the day, was the venue for hard-core Irish rocking come the evening. By nine o'clock, the place would be jammed, and a four-piece band (banjo, flute, accordion and acoustic guitar) would be warming up in the corner. A curious band - faces completely deadpan, they played like their balls were on fire. If you waited longer than 60 seconds, you wouldn't get a spot on the dance floor. Bobbing up and down like a room full of trampoliners, twirling each other in perfect unison, with knees going in all directions, the dancers all knew exactly what they were doing, and never missed a beat. I just watched flabbergasted, having never seen anything like it. It reminded me of a sort of choreographed football riot. So when Majella grabbed me and dragged my sorry Australian arse onto the dance floor and into a space recently vacated by the coolest couple on the floor, I reacted with a mixture of bewilderment and terror. Expecting my dancing to be inept to the point of embarrassment, I surprised myself by being worse. My elbows kept finding my neighbours' ears, I seemed to have about three times as many feet as I needed, and I persistently managed to zig when I ought to have zagged. Lord of the fucking Dance I was not! But I thought to myself, "Ah, so what? The dance floor's so full, noone will notice." When we eventually sat down again, a chappie from a nearby table leaned over and quipped, "you'd be from out of town then?" As gales of laughter erupted from his table, I quizzed Majella about Irish legislation regarding justifiable homicide.
I won't go into the ups and downs of my week with Majella (mostly ups), but I will say that we finally had the beautiful time I'd always believed that our relationship was capable of. Anyone who has been following the history of my eight and a half year relationship with Majella will know that it has never quite lived up to its potential, never quite managed to overcome the catalogue of obstacles that have always stood in its path. Well, I'm happy to report that, at least for a week, the relationship finally stopped fighting with us, and we got our reward for not giving up on it years ago. After our first day's sightseeing effort, we were content to spend most of the rest of our time on the island indoors, away from the oppressive Irish weather. With nothing to do except just be with each other, one day slipped into the next, and I felt that special kind of happiness that only comes from life's simple pleasures.
Not much detracted from our memorable time on that peaceful island, except of course the weather (but you come to expect that in Ireland, especially in the West), and the fact that, being off-season, there was only one restaurant open on the entire island. Combine that with the fact that the B&B we stayed in didn't cook meals (again - off-season), and we quickly found that our choices of venue for an evening meal were somewhat limited. We'd had dinner in the restaurant on Friday and Saturday nights, so on Sunday (Valentine's Day) we rang them to ask for take-away. "Sorry, too busy to do take-away," came the terse reply. A bit confused as to what we were expected to do for a meal at that point, we asked if we could come down and get a table (again). "Well, there's a one-and-a-half hour wait on tables at the moment, so don't bother." Nonplussed, We hung up and counted the possible scenarios we faced: (1) Not eat, or (2) .... well, there wasn't a second choice. That's Ireland for you. In the States, even tramping in the backwoods of high-country Oregon, you'd still be certain of getting a Dominos Pizza delivered, as long as you were prepared to put up with a 15-minute delay. Our wonderful B&B came through for us, though, with toasted ham and cheese sandwiches and a pint of Guinness. Bliss!
On our last day there, feeling a little restless from so much time indoors, we asked what else the Island had to offer in terms of tourist destinations. We had basically two choices: the sea cliffs on the far side of the island seven miles away, or the ruins of what was allegedly the "smallest church in Europe," fifteen minutes walk up the hill. Not a particularly difficult decision, really. As we traipsed up the slope in the omnipresent drizzle, I wondered what the ruins of the smallest church in Europe could possibly involve. One brick, perhaps? Yet when we got there, we were confronted with such a ridiculously small building that I wondered why they'd bothered to build it at all (click here). Large enough to hold maybe six people, or four if they wanted to sit down, it was scarcely bigger than one of our Nepalese trekking tents (click here). I could imagine an ancient minister presiding over an 11th century wedding: "I am gathered here today...."
And suddenly it was time to go. Returning involved a ferry ride, a bus trip, a cab ride, a cross-country drive, a flight to Heathrow, and a tube to Earls Court, but it all seemed to pass in an instant. Before I knew it, my holiday within a holiday was over, Majella was far away, and I was standing on Earls Court Road, backpack at my feet, wondering if Inis Mór wasn't some improbable dream. London clamoured for my attention, if only so as I could get out of its way. It was too loud, and I missed Ireland already. I reflected on a tremendous contrast of extremes. Comparing the Aran Islands to London would be like comparing a game of hopscotch to a naval battle. I trudged off to my hostel.
You meet someone along the road, and the question, "are you travelling alone?" inevitably arises. For the last month or so, this question has proved more complex than usual. By the time I've finished explaining that, well, I was travelling with a mate from Australia, but you see after Nepal he had to temporarily return to Australia to sort out some shit and he'll soon be rejoining me in London, their eyes have usually glazed over and they're impatiently eyeing the door.
Needless to say, I miss him.
The latest from Our Man in Sydney is that all his machinations are moving in the right direction, but apparently slower than a Chinese visa. According to our phone call last night, he'll be unable to rejoin me in London for maybe another four weeks. Reluctant to cross the Atlantic without him, I imagine I'll do what all Australians do when faced with the prospect of a month or more in ferociously expensive London - I'll get a part-time job.
Greg, hurry up and get your arse over here.
To everyone else, if you made it this far, Thank you.
February 22nd, 1999.
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