Wednesday, 27 February 2013


The two Koreas stand looking at each other across a heavily patrolled buffer zone. They eye each other up ominously like heavyweights before a fight. It makes for a fascinating and slightly unnerving visit. Ben Whateley-Harris went to see it for himself.

I looked out of the window as the skyscrapers and many faces sped by. The further out of Seoul we got they became fewer and farer between until there was nothing but countryside.

Officially the Korean war of 25 June 1950 – 27 July 1953 (3 years, 1 month and 2 days) never ended. There was a ceasefire and a large de-militarised zone created which separated the Korean peninsula in two, creating what we most commonly refer to as North and South Korea.

The Korean War was part of the Cold war and fought by soldiers of many countries resulting in an estimated 2.5 million civilians killed or wounded.

The de-militarised zone or DMZ as it is referred to runs for 250 kilometres from coast to coast, from the East China Sea and the Sea of Japan.

Roughly 4 kilometres wide it acts as a buffer zone between the two countries that have developed completely differently since being partitioned 60 years ago.

I arrived from the bustling metropolis and capital of South Korea Seoul. A city that hosted an Olympics and has every mod con you could imagine. From heated and auto spraying toilets to billboards that show adverts in a light show that makes Piccadilly circus look tame.

My bus travelled the 60 odd kilometres swiftly along the many laned high ways. An American on the bus remarked that there were so any lanes so that if in the case of a North invasion more tanks and troops could be transported to the border efficiently.
I later found out that it was called the Freedom highway.

My bus rolled into Imjingak, a settlement that resembled more of a theme park than a border town. There was an old looking fair with a big wheel and a swinging pirate boat. Not the sort of thing I expected to see.

Apart from bright glaring lights of the rides there were memorials and rows upon rows of large barbed wire topped fences with lush green lands beyond.

The ribbon strewn fence at the DMZ

I walked up to the fence and peered through not sure what I was expecting to see on the other side.

People had tied ribbons of all colours with messages in Korean on them and tied them to the wire; they fluttered in the chilly breeze and I dug my hand in my pockets for warmth.

Imjingak is home to a remnant of the war which the authorities have turned into a display stroke memorial. A large steam train rests on a section of track under a roof. The train has rusted away with time and is riddled with bullet holes all along the sides and front. Some large holes from heavy rounds; creating large dents and holes where jagged shrapnel would have flown off. The train was one of the first victims of the Korean hostilities. Although there was a lack of information boards to read.

Wandering away from the many tourists posing with the train for photographs I sauntered over to the Liberty Bell. A large cast bell in traditional style surrounded by a wooden outbuilding of ornate carving. Once again there was not much information present so after walking round it I decided that I needed to warm myself from the now biting cold and get a coffee.

Caffeine seeped into my system as I went to tackle the next part of the Imjingak Park.
Built in 1972 in hope of reunification of the two Koreas this park has developed as a tourist mecca for Korean War enthusiast and people seeking something a little different. I spoke to a Korean tour guide who must have been about 25 and she said that most visitors here were either die hard war aficionados or didn’t care in the slightest and just wanted to see what she described as a ‘naughty uncrossable border’.

Although to call it uncrossable is a bit of a misnomer as you can get a North Korean VISA in Beijing and go on a very heavily orchestrated tour of Pyongyang for a hefty fee.

Also many people in the past have crossed on foot to escape the North and seek a better life in the south. Some arrived and were startled by the South’s technological advances and in many cases I can only think of the situation of assimilating someone into the southern culture as when I tried to show my 86 year old Grandmother how to use a computer.

Needless to say after five minutes I returned to a screen of error signs. All she was doing was flicking through pictures!

Imjingak has a visitor centre obviously and inside there are films being shown about the war and how the DMZ has become unwittingly a nature haven.

I looked back out through the wire and it was green and lush. Imagine a land once farmed being left to nature to once again re-claim it. Animals galore have benefitted and the land remains relatively unspoilt by humans. Some areas are still farmed by people from the two small villages inside the DMZ however and you can even buy DMZ rice in the gift shop along with pieces of barbed wire.

Once a propaganda film has finished running on its endless loop and the next unwitting set of viewers shuffled in I made my exit and headed back to one of the shuttle buses parked next to a crowded and dated café.

The next stop was the 3rd tunnel. A tunnel hewn from the rock and discovered by the South Korean authorities who have since seized it, blocked it up and fitted blast doors and a large bowser of water to flood the tunnel in case the North tries to invade through it.

Unlike the first two tunnels this was discovered after a defector informed the South of its existence in 1978.
Walking down the tunnel you had to don a ridiculous yellow hard hat and wander the 1.6 kilometres down to the blast door.

As I walked I passed heavily breathing Koreans and overweight tourists as they shed layers as the heat increased.
The tunnel narrowed to a point where it became single file as you reached the blast door. Large signs said ‘no photographs’ but I took the flash off and napped one anyway.

Once out in the fresh air I headed to the observation lookout point. Perched up on a ridge over the DMZ you can see the border and the fake city built by the North to show its appealing way of life off.
A large tower stood in the distance with a giant North Korean flag fluttering in the wind. Apparently it is either the biggest in the world or now second biggest flag in the world. Either way it was large.

You had to step over a yellow line to view the DMZ and once over the line photos were not allowed for spying, security and sniper reasons. I managed to get an illegal photo anyway and think I got away with it.
The shot I took shows the misty area between the two countries and the giant flag fluttering in the breeze.
The 'illegal' photo I took across the DMZ of the North Korean fake city and their giant flag

Unfortunately I could not go to the joint security area. A place where the UN soldiers stand face to face with the North soldiers. Rumour has it that only the biggest, strongest and most well fed North soldiers come to this area to show their ‘superiority’.

I would have liked to have seen the room where you once inside can cross the border between North and South as you walk round a table but alas I could not today.
New North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was making his first official visit to Panmunjom and therefore the entire area was sealed off.

With not a lot to do I walked to the railway station that allows trains all the way from Seoul to arrive and patiently wait here for a time when a line will reach Pyongyang after the much talked about reunification. It’s an eerie place, far too pristine and clinical.

Built more for symbolism than practical reasons with soldiers standing guard bored and people having photos next to them.

I felt like I had missed a trick here. I had learnt something of the Korean War and that the two Korean languages are practically the same but the South’s version had just moved on with the world. I now knew that Koreans dream of unification but also like to make money from the ceasefire.

Lastly I felt that I had seen a small slice to the DMZ cake, but that was all I was allowed to have unless I came back another day. Which sadly with my flight departing tomorrow would not happen.
I left the DMZ with unanswered questions and a slight feeling of disappointment. I didn’t expect a fun fair to be there or comically shaped soldier bins for your litter.

My eyes adjusted to the speed of the bus as the rain lashed the windows en route back to Seoul. The countryside became sparser as we neared the city and the buildings encroached on the land. Soon I was back in the land of the skyscrapers and the DMZ felt like a million miles away in another land and another time.

Maybe that’s the point, maybe it is still 1953 in the DMZ.

The war ravaged train at Imjingak
Date - February 2012
Place - The DMZ, South Korea

Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Kindle vs. Books

The printed word had thrilled, enthralled and shocked for many years. As technology moves on will the new e readers bring about the demise of the paperback and hardcover? Ben Whateley-Harris investigates.

In around 3200 BC in ancient Mesopotamia it is believed that the first recording of words and numbers took place.

Scriptures carved into rocks, wood and painted with animal blood and crushed up berries were the first stories told and passed down through generations. From clay to papyrus these stories would survive longer than the cultures of the people who wrote them.

Studious Monks in lonely cold monasteries, Roman and Greek scholars and Egyptian dignitaries would all record historical events for us to decipher in years to come.

Parchments slowly evolved into large bound books. Many ancient texts survive in museums to this day and in turn large books written by hand slowly over the years developed into printed text which would later become reproduced on mass and shipped worldwide.

The book is a companion, a friend, a confidant and an escape route. It always has been and always will be. But will those feelings associated with the soft worn paperback clasped in your hands be replaced by the kindle, or similar e readers on the market.

Always a book fan I have a collection far too big for my house and boxes of read books that I cannot bare to throw away collect dust in boxes in the loft and garage. Each book ages like a human’s face. The more they are read the more lines and wrinkles appear. Giving them a character and friendly feel.

A paperback can be folded into a back pocket, slipped into a jacket and used as a coaster. T basically can be abused bend back on its spine and lent on. Packed into bags with the knowledge that they will not get damaged. Waiting to be pulled out and read at any moment.

An electronic reader can still be slipped into a pocket but you have that fear of sitting on it and breaking it. It must be backed safely and also have a cover for screen protection. Some covers offer maximum protection while others can be flimsy like a dust sheet off a hard back that usually gets removed until the book is finished.

For me I am and always will be a books man. A good book can make your day and fill those hours when there is nothing to do. Taken anywhere it can be a saviour. I love the feel of the paper pages in the fingers and the turning of the pages.

For me the e-reader was a fad, a thing a little too fancy to last; something that would die out.
Until I got one. My Christmas present from a friend was a kindle. Small in size with a leather case with attached light. It was lightweight and easy to use. I wasn’t completely sold with is until I went online to look at the books I could get. Classics galore were free while other books that were over ten pounds in the shops were for sale for 75% less. I was sold.

Searching through the top 100 free and typing words to match my literary interests into the search bar I uploaded book after book and spent hardly any money at all. Novels for twenty pence and epic travel adventures such as Ernest Shackleton’s South were free.

Soon there was 30 books on the device and I was ready to settle down and read them. But I didn’t!
Instead I sat down and read a book that I had not yet started. Then when that was finished I read the sequel and then the paperback copy of a book which inspired that one.

Then as a present the same person who bought me the kindle; bought me a paperback which I duly read.

Four books passed and the kindle sat there idle gathering dust, unused and unloved.

Until one cold and very wet day.

I had been reading books about retracing Henry Morton Stanley’s route through what would become the Democratic Republic of Congo. I also read his original accounts and wanted to read Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. A novel set on the Congo River after Stanley had set in motion what would become Belgian rule.

I knew I had this book in paperback somewhere. I searched high and low and could not find it. I looked on shelves and in boxes knowing that I had seen it recently.
A quick search online showed me that the book was free for the kindle so I duly downloaded it and synced it to the device. It must have felt strange suddenly after so long being thrust into action.

The book downloaded I settled down to read it.
It takes a while to get used to pressing buttons than turning pages. It becomes a conscious effort to press the correct button and not automatically reach out your fingers to grab a page.

You are aware that this is not a book and something deep inside you does not feel quite right about reading it on a screen.

Then something clicks. As if a light goes on in your brain. That switch was at 3.40pm on a Tuesday afternoon. I had suddenly become a kindle man.
It became enjoyable and I forgot that it was a machine I was looking at and I was transfixed by the words and taken deep into the story. As if I was on that boat in the Congo avoiding sandbanks.
One click and the device can be locked as if a book mark has been placed and you can resume whenever as easy as pie.

I didn’t feel guilty for abandoning a paper book; I assumed I would feel dirty as though I am having an affair from my one true love. Instead I felt liberated and as though I had joined the technologically advanced.
Paper books will be my first love and I will always go back to them. They look amazing on a shelf and can be taken anywhere. Especially on long trips where you need a power supply for a kindle. Although you can argue that you need batteries for a book.

The only argument I have that makes books come out on top so far is that you can read them by the light of a wind up torch and they are more robust than a kindle. If they kindle had a solar power charger or even a wind up one then the gap would be closer.

Kindle’s and e-readers are the future. They are cheaper in the long run and possibly more environmentally friendly. I cannot say for sure as I don’t exactly know what goes into making them. It could be the same argument as the Prius car. In that even though they are good for the environment they produce so much carbon when manufacturing them. This could be the case with a kindle when compared to the environmental impact of felling trees to create books. For me I can see both sides to the argument.

I could not however chose one over the other because both have their advantages and similarly their disadvantages.

Although I know that if asked I would always say I am a book man over saying that I am a kindle man. But that could be because I have grown up with books and the kindle is new; but definitely here to stay.

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

A Painful return to Lacrosse

Back to Lacrosse

Many years ago my late father played hockey at boarding school; by all accounts he was rather good at it.
Then one day someone said to him ‘do you fancy playing hockey in the air’. He picked up a lacrosse stick and never looked back.

We played for Buckhurst Hill lacrosse club for many years and even turned out for some representative teams in his youth.

Therefore when I was old enough a lacrosse stick was thrust into my hands and I was taught to cradle.

I progressed through the youth ranks at Buckhurst Hill and played in over 100 games for the club before graduating to the men’s team. I played in numerous positions and scored a few goals to boot. What’s more I even played for the Junior South of England team and scored against Wales on my debut when we won 3-1. To top that off I went to Denmark to play in the 1996 Worlds junior games which really was a farcical tournament.

By the year 2004 I was at my peak in the sport running my university team and playing regularly for Bucks. That year we lost in the Flags final (South of England cup) in overtime against Oxford University.

The years went by and I continued to play. But my heart was no longer in it. It wasn’t because my father had passed away or that I was no longer sporty or motivated. It was simply that I had just fallen out of love with the sport.

Therefore I drifted away from the sport and disappear to far flung corners of the world and travelled. When I returned I did not have that urge to play regularly and lost contact with most of the team. The urge to play sport however was still strong and I returned to rugby which is a decision I do not regret.
Since 2005 I must have played once for Buckhurst hill and I think that was in 2007. Although I am unsure and my recollection is hazy.

A few people always badgered me to come back and I always considered it. It is a shame that the rugby and lacrosse seasons run parallel and therefore you cannot do both.

Buckhurst Hill lacrosse club, my old club were celebrating their centenary last year and I received an invite to play in a specially arranged tournament. As the tournament was on the 1st April it was just after our regular rugby season. I jumped at the chance to play again and ran to the shed to find my kit.
Stick, check. Helmet and gloves and other pads check. Sadly in my haste I forgot my box. This would be a decision I would live to regret.

I arrived and it was great to see some of the old gang and many new faces and I was thrust into the action. I played in our first game as we drew 3-3 with Portsmouth University.

When the game was over some of the spectators approached me and we delighted that it was me under the helmet. Comments like ‘You play like your father’ and ‘you have your fathers legs’ were both complimentary and rather strange at the same time.

The next game we played York University and we won 7-3. I was getting back into the swing of things and had a few good runs in attack.

This put us in to the final against York again. The game was going well and I even scored my first goal with a well-timed shot and was as pleased as punch as it was the first time I had hit the back of the net in lacrosse since the 2004/05 season (the last regular season I played).

The game was heading into overtime as the scores were level. I collected the ball with my back to goal. Cradled the ball and went to turn and shoot.

Then the agony, the pain and sick feeling in the pit of your stomach hit me.

A low swiping check aimed at the butt end of my stick came flying in. It missed my stick but connected superbly with my gentleman’s region.

The pain was excruciating. I crumpled onto the floor in an instant.

Some guys on the side lines commented that they thought I had snapped my achilles the way I fell.

I couldn't move and was helped off the pitch and remained motionless, breathless and sick for a good 40 minutes. We lost the game in overtime 11-9 but I wasn't caring about the score anymore.

My hastily collection of my kit minus my box had paid a price and that price would be a trip to the doctors the next day where he had very soft hands!

I have played rugby for many years and lacrosse for many years before that and sustained some very spectacular injuries but nothing compares to having a testicle balloon and swell because of a savage swipe.

So there you have it, I paid with pain on my return to a sport which I once played regularly. I still consider going back to play but for now rugby has my heart.

Taken before I was 'incapacitated' by a low check!
Maybe one day I will return; rest assured if I do I will find that box in the shed if it is the last thing I do!

Mustache and beard Spotting

My mustache obsession

Over the years I have been rather fond of growing facial topiary. Sometimes I can pull it off and other times I have made a mistake and grown something that makes me look sinister.

My university graduation photo with me sporting a D’Artagnan style tash and beard is one such example.

What has obsessed me is spotting tashes. Over the years this has become a game between me and my friends. We try and out spot each other and it becomes very competitive.

It has even got to the stage where we will take a sneaky photograph of a mustachioed man and send it to one another.

Every year I wholeheartedly take part in Movember and raise money for prostate cancer awareness. We get together and form a band of tash sporting gents.

Sometimes I wish after November has come to an end that I had kept my mustache  I like the feel and the look especially if I trim to resemble and Errol Flynn-David Niven hybrid.

An American sporting the 'chopper' style mustache. Photo taken at the London Olympics and its is quite scary that he has 'kids' written on his t shirt! This is a favorite tash of wrestlers and murderers!
Every now and then you see a mustache so proud and magnificent that you need to take a photo. If you have had a few beers this becomes easier and you have the guts to go up and take the photo. If not you result to sneaky tactics.

If you are at a festival, event or party it become easier as you just saunter up and take the photograph. Inevitably they will smile and display their mustache in full glory.

You can however catch them off guard and the resulting photo can show a sneer or angry tash as I like to call it.

The tash spotting game was born on a trip to London one summer’s day and we noticed an abnormally high amount of facial hair. Therefore we tried to out spot each other. The normal scores for a day in the city would be around twenty to twenty five spots each.

This is however increased if you go to the continent. Portugal for example offers the mustache spotters a cornucopia of bristles to look out for. There are long droopy mustache  Fu Manchu tashes, neat bristles and the ultimate Hulk Hogan mustache.

Europeans on the continent really know how to pull a mustache off and wear it with pride no matter what the weather or their attire.
This is a typical Spanish mustache. Photo taken in 2011 in Pamlona. It is worn with pride and will undoubtedly catch many food morsels. Just look how happy he is, this tash has made his life complete.

They also like to pose for a photo more often than not, something their British counter parts get a little snotty about it.

Sometimes the best photo can be a sneaky one taken when the tash wearer is caught off guard; it will reveal their true personality.

The game tash spotting is now down to a fine art. You have to call it before the person or persons you are playing spots the mustache  They can however object. For example a shadow at a long distance can be misleading and thus you make a false accusation. Therefore you have to prove that it was a tash. This can be by taking a photo or running up to check if they are a wearer or they are clean.

After a few beers the game becomes quite competitive and people will race up to look into an oncoming butchers shop window for example or other places that tashes like to congregate.

Cab drivers, butchers, bus stops and cafes are the best places to spot a tash. They could be nestling down to breakfast or peeping over a folded newspaper.

Some beard owners do dress and act a little strange.
There are of course rules to this game. A mustache must be a mustache on its own, no beard and especially no tickler on the lower lip. It cannot attach to sideburns as that constitutes a beard and if it merges into a weeks’ worth of stubble that also constitutes as a beard.

Therefore you may think you have spotted an uber tash and when the tash wearer turns round to reveal a tickler you have forfeited that point and have let the tash spotting side down.

Beards are another favourite and are fortunately making a fashionable comeback. Although beard spotting is not as fun as mustache spotting it can be just as fruitful.

The chances of a tash wearer dressed in silly attire is not usually high. They are normally shirt wearers and have a purposeful gait about them.

To do the dance of the morris must you own a beard?
Beard owners on the other hand can be complete mental nut jobs. Some will let their face go back to nature and the rest of their body and attire will follow.

I would hazard a guess that six out of ten beard owners you would not want to leave alone with your children.

Certain hobbies are associated with beards: bee keeping, morris dancing, battlefield re-enactments and ferret keeping. I was lucky to stumble across a May Day celebration in Rochester, Kent. The entire city becomes swamped by beards and tashes galore.
It seemed that every other person had a tash and therefore the game was so hard to play.

So next time you go to London or pop to France or even have a jolly over to Spain. Keep an eye peeled for a tash and let the games begin!

Monday, 18 February 2013

The Arab spring and my small part in it

Ben Whateley-Harris went to Egypt to see the culture, temples and deserts. He ended up seeing much more than he bargained for

The semi-arid landscape out of the bus window began to show signs of life. The odd tree and house dotted the rocky landscape.
The sporadic buildings began to grow in number as the bus started to get nearer to Cairo and soon the sandy, dusty plastic bag strewn landscape gave way to a bustling metropolis that was in chaos.

The date was February 2011 and I had just arrived back into the Egyptian capital from the isolated White Desert.

What I had just arrived into was the Arab Spring and the full scale violence that were the Cairo riots.

At this time Hosni Mubarak was still President of Egypt and his forces clashed violently with protesters and their blood stained the streets and tear gas filled the air.

I had arrived at what could not have been a worse time. The city was collection of groups marching through the streets and then being forced back by overzealous police wielding batons and riot shields.

I stepped off the bus with my backpack tightly clutched in my hand and took in the scene.
Hotels were closed and guest houses were out of the question. I was now on my own and needed to use my wits to find shelter and a way of getting to the airport. That was if the airport was functioning.

Nothing could have prepared me for what awaited me. The normally bustling streets of the Egyptian capital were completely car free. Thousands of people lined the streets, chanting, praying and burning posters of Mubarak.

Tanks lined the streets, burnt out buses and cars were everywhere. Military checkpoints stopped you at every corner and shops had been looted and the ground was stained with blood.

Tear gas filled the air, lingering from the night before. A local saw my eyes streaming and kindly gave me a mask.
After searching frantically I found some fellow backpackers and we agreed to buy our way into a hotel that was still functioning. We managed to pay for a room between all of us which became a massive locked room to keep bags in. We all resulted afterwards to sleeping in the roof top bar that over looked the city. From this vantage point we could see tanks manoeuvring and swarms of people heading in all directions.

The electricity was sporadic and the building would shake when a nearby explosion would go off.
This was exactly a mile from Tahir square and the scenes of the most brutal violence.
Once my bag was secured I felt the weight off my shoulders. I therefore decided that watching from the closed roof bar wasn’t what I needed and I wanted to see first-hand what it was like at street level.

A I got closer to the square the crowds became more agitated and volatile. I walked past shattered glass shop front and burnt out cars and buses which blocked the bridges across the Nile.

Plumes of smoke filled the air and could be seen for miles around.
One of the government buildings had been torched and the small explosions of the air conditioning unit popped every now and then.

I walked up to the Egyptian Museum and it was a scene of pure carnage.
The fires were burning more frequently in this area. The fire service sat nearby not knowing what to do, they could not get near the buildings because of the sea of debris, cars and people milling about filming the scene on their mobile phones.
Tanks patrolled the square itself and people shouted and ran from the police who would hold a line behind their riot shields and then suddenly storm forward.

I saw news crews in flak jackets and army helmets reporting and ducking every time a shot was fired into the air.
Tear gas canisters suddenly rained down on the crowd and pandemonium exploded as bodies scrambled to get out of the smoke. Eyes filled with tears and hands covered mouths. Panic ensued and people barged past one another to try and get to cleaner air.
People became angrier and I would for moments become the target of their rage as they would scream at me in Arabic and berate me for taking photographs. I would move from area to area to escape the people and what I saw would last with me forever.

Ole people would stand defiantly and then be barged to the ground. An elderly gentleman dressed in a tattered suit was knocked to the ground by a baton leaving him dazed and blooded. He was helped to his feet and rushed down a side street to safety.
Women would holler at the police who would retaliate by a volley of blow from batons.
The blaze from the buildings reflected off the dirty Nile where a lone boat was making its way up river chugging along. The man on board dressed in a vest and tattered shorts looked on as anger and violence ruled the streets of his country’s capital.

I thought to myself it is time to get out. But the airport was another matter.
I discovered that all flights had been cancelled, rearranged or re-directed. Therefore my flight back to London which would have been the following day wasn’t going to go ahead.

I chatted to several people who had tried and failed to reach the airport and they all said that you had to pay a cab driver extra to get you there and go during the curfew to avoid protests. This however ran the risk of military check points. The military at this time were only passive bystanders in the protests and had not chosen sides yet.

I could not get to the airport because of the imposed curfew and the taxi drivers refusal to go there.
Therefore I chatted to a girl in the bar that evening as we watched the violence escalate below us and we hatched a plan.

We decided that early the next morning we would attempt an airport run and had found a cab driver who was willing enough to take us, for a price!
That evening the rioting grew worse and the hotel management were scared that the hotel itself would be attacked. The gathering in the bar had grown to quite a few people all of nationalities and all were either shell-shocked or clutching weapons.
We barricaded the stairwell just in case the lifts were out of action anyway due to the last of electricity.
Employees of the hotel stood outside the main door. One had a gold club and another had a pistol in his belt which he displayed triumphantly.
The crowds came and a few boots were aimed at the doors of the hotel but apart from that the mobs passed on to look at unprotected pickings and less defended areas.

People got whatever weapons they could and protected their property in the area we were in. The hotel staffs were armed with poles, pipes and one even had a rapier!
Finally at 6am still during the curfew we managed to get into a cab to get to the airport.
Makeshift road blocks were everywhere.

I had to get out of the cab several times to moved debris from the road. The driver glancing over his shoulder all the time.
I pushed concrete blocks out of the way and moved poles. People still lined the streets with weapons and gave me the once over while I was doing so. Once the cab moved through I would put the barricades back to their approval. Only then would their stares leave me and the cab.

 As we made our way out onto the main roads vigilante groups stood by the road side next to the military checkpoints. Some carried guns and some had automatic weapons stolen from police stations.
All looked agitated and volatile as though any moment they would become trigger happy.

I was glad when I got to the airport. But the fun and games were not over yet.
It was a pure scrum and bundle to try and check in.
The airport was worse than a refugee camp, hoards of people screamed at one another and fights broke out as people tried to push trolleys with their worldly possessions through the melee.

There was not an inch of floor space and the British airways office was swamped with people trying to get on flights or find out information about if there flight was cancelled or departing.
Luckily my name was on the list because I had had a flight booked which was cancelled. Therefore I could try and get through the mass of people and get to the checkout desks.

If anyone has ever been to Cairo airport they will know the silly way with which you have to go through two sets of check in before you are even able to get into the departure lounge. The first set of check in was mayhem.
People pushed and fought to try and get through and the customs officers were shoved opff their feet and onto the floor.
At one point the bundles knocked the lady in uniform looking at the bag x rays off her chair onto the ground. She was swallowed up by a mass of bodies who stormed through resulting in uniformed officers pushing back.

Children screamed; fights broke out. There was no order or anyone taking charge and directing people.
It was hot and noisy and completely disorientating. An elderly Italian man suddenly was swept into the surge and his wife shouted for him. It took all my strength to grab him and pull him back towards her.

It took me an hour to fight my way to immigration, when I got there I was a mess. I glanced back and more fights were erupting. The noise was deafening and a man was walking past with a meat cleaver in his hand.

I was suddenly very glad to be getting out of Egypt!

Tanks outside the Egyptian museum

 Date of trip – February 2011

Place – Cairo, Egypt

Thursday, 7 February 2013

Three Sets of Footsteps to Petra

For centuries shrouded in secrecy, now open to all, Petra has remained one of the true wonders of the world. Ben Whateley-Harris walks in his father’s footsteps who retraced another set of famous foorsteps to discover the beauty of the rose coloured city

The ancient entrance to Petra is down a long channel deep in the rock known as the Siq. Easy to defend in times gone, it is now a walkway where tourists dodge carriages, and silver sellers wave from every nook and cranny. The morning sun is rising chasing the shadows away for the day; in their place you see every shade of red from rust to the brightest pink embedded in the rock.

The air feels chilly and people around me are still in fleeces and hats, but those in the know are already stripping off for the walk to the first awesome sight. The Siq twists and turns and shadows engulf at certain points; the noise of horse drawn carriages carrying older tourists echoes and reverberates down the channel. The tension builds and soon the anticipation is too much for me to take, I start to run.

For me this is not just a trip to Jordan and the Middle East; it is a personal homage and journey into my past. My late father came to Petra many years ago. To say he loved the place was an understatement. He adored every inch of this historical masterpiece. For me this trip has deeper meaning. I want to re-trace his footsteps and see with my own eyes why Petra stole his heart.

The first Whiteman to enter Petra was Swiss Johan Ludwig Bruckhardt in 1812, disguised as a Bedouin. He spent two years previous, in Syria, learning Arabic and converting to Islam. One day he heard locals talking about fantastic ruins hidden in the desert and decided to set out to find them. In full Bedouin attire he managed to sketch the ancient monuments and record a log of his trip, the first ever by western eyes. Unfortunately Bruckhardt contracted dysentery, and died in 1817. He was only 33.

Bruckhardt’s day is a long way from modern Petra. Gaggles of tourists pour into the city and clog the Siq; tour groups following umbrellas are a common sight and I wonder what the place would be like if I had it to myself.

I run to get in front of the crowds (Japanese groups with matching backpacks and white gloves). I just want to get there first, to see the place un-spoilt by tourists. I am not alone though; my younger half brother Tom has come with me and we tear down the Siq arriving at the opening.

Manoeuvring past a camel, I finally come face to face with the Treasury (Al-Kazneh), as the Siq opens up revealing what many know as the Holy Grail’s final resting place in the Indiana Jones Film the Last Crusade. To others it is the Treasury, carved into the rock by the Nabatean race from the 6th Century BC.

Many people think that this is all Petra has to offer, but the Treasury is only the tip of the iceberg. The entire city is a treasure-trove of tombs, amphitheatres and ornate buildings, all hewn from the rock face.

The Treasury stands in front of my brother and I, looming down on us looking weather beaten yet still powerful and royal, like an ageing screen goddess who refuses to succumb to time. By this time the sun is at its hottest and we have taken far too many photos. The crowds still pour from the Siq. Breaking into sweats after the sanctuary of their air conditioned tour buses.

We decide to move on but my brother hasn’t been well on this trip; what started out as the typical holiday stomach ended up as food poisoning. For him standing up without having the urge to run for the nearest convenience is a real effort. Running down the Siq hadn’t done much to ease his stomach, so I have to abandon him in the toilets. I want to wait but he insists that I go on and that he’ll catch me up.

My first port of call is the amphitheatre, which is cordoned off; the only way to get a view is to the climb up to the royal tombs and look down from above. The tombs are perched up high on the valley, looking down on Petra’s Bedouin trinket sellers. Some are almost

inaccessible, but with a small jump and some good balance I clamber up and into them. I wouldn’t recommend it though, as many are used as communal toilets. Imagine climbing in the heat up to an ornate tomb to be greeted with someone’s best deposit.

Next I decide to trek the supposed 800 steps up to the hillside to the monastery. I stand high up looking out for my brother but can’t see him and assume that he is still studying the rock formations of the toilet ceiling.

I walk past colonnaded streets, pausing to peruse the trinket stalls manned by mustachioed men, women with toothless grins and children who hide behind their mothers peering round at you with wide eyes and broad grins. A timeless image that my father must have seen.

I don my straw trilby and feel every inch the explorer. All I have to do is ignore the camel riding Americans and the coffee shops with Coca-cola banners outside and I could have been transported back to Bruckhardt’s time. The climb up to the monastery isn’t as daunting as it is made out to be; I pass donkey trains and waving children. Pathways lead off the main track to smaller tombs; the temple of the winged Lion is one such gem and regularly missed out by passers by.

Then in a cloud of dust out of nowhere Tom rounds a corner in the path on a donkey, wearing a cheeky grin on his face and an Arabic scarf around his neck. I stare in amazement and disbelief, as he is far too large for the small donkey; I laugh loudly sending an echo into the valley.

Tom introduces me to Monica. He tells me he assumed that I would go gun-ho up to the monastery, so he hired a donkey and set off, because if he sat down his bottom leakage problems eased off. Now he is on his way down and says that it isn’t much further. Tom soon disappears down the track shouting ‘I am Tommy of Arabia’; his shouts fade and the echoes die down.

I am left with the children selling rocks from a dusty tray looking at me with large eyes and dirty fingernails, I am drawn in and have to buy three of them from a little girl dressed in a superman t-shirt.

Towering above me casting a shadow over the scorching red sands, stands what many people call the monastery or as the local Bedouin population refer to as Ad-Deir. The shear size and scale of the monastery cannot be described; I ask myself ‘How did they make this’?

Standing next to the monastery I feel insignificant; I cannot fit it into a photo unless I walk a few hundred meters backwards. I feel dumbstruck and completely in awe of what I am witnessing. I now know how my father felt and puzzled how Bruckhardt hadn’t given himself away when seeing this sight.

I sit for a while sipping coffee from a Bedouin vendor when a noise and commotion start up; people are looking and pointing with disbelief. I put on my sunglasses and follow their line of vision. There, high up on the roof of the monastery is a lone figure. The gasps grow louder as he clambers over the edge and soon is traversing his way around the ledges. My heart is in my mouth; I didn’t want to look but can’t turn away.

Once the idiot had traversed the entire roof and climbed back down, I feel enraged that someone would climb on a world heritage site and by doing so encourage others to dice with death. The Bedouin coffee vendor tells me that eight years ago an American tourist had fallen to her death.

It seems to me that Petra is at risk of being loved to death. So many tourists file through the Siq everyday, touching the carvings, wearing away the mountain footpaths and generally being messy and inconsiderate.

I leave Petra through the Siq as the sun sets in the distance. I imagine Bruckhardt leaving for the first time and smile to myself thinking that tourists wouldn’t have surrounded him. The curtain is coming down on my Petra experience. The world retreats into the shadows once more; the red colours fade and are swallowed in the Siq. 

Now, I have to find my poor afflicted little brother.

View of the Monastery

Date of trip - 2008

Place - Petra, Wadi Musa, Jordan

The 'Fun' Also Rises

My eyes stung and I was soaked to the skin.

I opened them narrowly and saw another burst of red liquid come flying in my direction.

It splattered against my face further drenching my clothing.

As I did so a massive smile spread across my face.

Here I stood in a mass of bodies, covered from head to toe in Sangria and cheering.

The throng of bodies moved as one massive pulsating organism.

I was having the time of my life and looked into the eyes of my companions and knew that that feeling was reciprocated.

A feeling of euphoric bliss came over me, I was possibly the happiest I had ever been.

The happiest I had ever been while covered in sticky sangria, dressed in what was once white clothing and sporting a neckerchief.

There could only be one place in the world where I was now.

The opening ceremony of the Festival of San Fermin; in Pamplona in the Basque Country.

What started out as thousands gathering in to the main square to see the bands march past and the idols being slowly progressed through the thronging streets had descended into unlimited, chaotic, beautiful madness.

Sangria being sold for a Euro for two litres was being purchased as if it was soon to be banned and was liberally being thrown over people as well as down throats.

Our group watched as people jumped from statues into the crowd and were caught with arms outstretched and cries of ‘Viva Tora’.

Pandemonium ensued. The main square was swamped with people and they later estimated that a million souls were in the city that day.

Large inflatable balls filled the air and were joyfully punched around the crowd.

Giant flags were unfurled and moved across the crowd. One moment you were in the blazing sun and the next in the shade under a giant flag proclaiming independence for the Basque country.

Every balcony was filled to the brim with people all resplendent in white, for the sangria could not reach that high. 

Balconies had TV crews peering out and filming the festivities below, where people got on shoulders and many lost shoes in the bustling and pushing.

The crowds pulsated with energy and life. The noise was deafening and reverberated off the high walls of the surrounding buildings.

With so many bodies so close together it is remarkable that no one gets injured. I am sure they do but I never saw any evidence of it.

The police and street cleaners dance with the locals and foreigners who have some for the spectacle and old and young shake hands and slap backs.
The air is alive with happiness and mutual feelings of fun which make life the more enjoyable.

Hemingway aficionados sporting beards minger with the crowds and pose next to his statue. They are given a regal welcome and treated almost as if the great writer himself had returned.

His spirit lives on and when he wrote that there was a feeling of no consequences in your actions as the festival literally started with an explosion of life.

You could see that those immortal lines have lasted the years and are as relevant today as when he first penned them.

You step away from the hubbub of the main square and the back streets are just as lively.

People throw  buckets of water out of windows to the crowd below waiting with outstretched arms becoming for a refreshing soak and people jump into fountains to rinse the sangria from their matted hair.

The back streets become the routes for marching bands that play classical Basque music and then belt out a modern song converted for the brass section where everyone dances in the streets.

All of this is just the beginning, the main event is yet to come the encierro, or more popularly known as the running of the bulls.

That can wait for the time being. For now we are having too much fun. Considering the amount of alcohol we have bought we are all relatively sober because of the heat, excitement and the fact that we have thrown it over ourselves and passers-by.

You would lose a friend in the crowd and before you know it they would pop up again down another street with a new set of people. Your group would be 5 then 8 and finally 16 as you picked up people you knew from the campsite where we were staying.

Smiles ruled and fun was the master for this day.

It truly was a day like never before and one of the reasons I am going again this year.

Viva San Fermin, Viva Pamplona, Viva Fun!

Sangria fun inside the main square

Date of trip – 6th July 2012
Place – Festival of San Fermin, Pamplona, Basque Country

What the newspaper said about our trip


The crowds are bustling, you cannot move.

If one person pushes the crowd surges and the entire section moves.

Sometimes you move ten feet without touching the floor, carried along in the crowd.

The expectation reaches an all-time high just before the gun sounds.

Then suddenly you run; you try and run but the crowd surges and pushes.

Bodies fall to the ground and people are trampled.

The bulls tear down on you and knock anyone flying out of the way.

They trample, gore and smash people in all directions.

When the bulls get to dead man’s corner they stumble and some fall.

People are literally fighting to get out of their way.

We made it past as the bulls were behind us and soon they had overtaken being herded and chased by the stick wielding 'pastores'.

We hurtle after them as people shout 'arriba' and bear down onto the arena.

Last year we didn't make it in. But this year I was determined to.

We entered the capacity arena and it made you feel like a rock star as the crowds cheered.

Everyone who got inside waited in anticipation for the younger more aggressive bulls to be released and then suddenly one tears out into the arena.

These young steers must have been provoked because they go mental.

They charged at you and twist and turn and throw people into the air.

The crowd cheers and people (Including me) run up to the bulls and slap them on the arse.

Some crazy locals even jump the bulls.

Six youngsters are released one at a time and each one is more mental than the last.

So by the time number six emerges you are shattered but have had the all-time high of your life.

Especially when they charge at you and you somehow dodge them.

Epic fun and I want to go back and do it all again.

Bring on San Fermin 2013

Date of trip -8th July 2012

Place - San Fermin Festival, Basque Country

To guidebook or not to guidebook?

Travelling has opened up the world so much; that the guidebook industry is massive. But as more people travel overseas new problems develop. Ben Whateley-Harris investigates

Backpackers depart from all over the world, to see new sights, experience different cultures and ultimately live their travel dreams.

The backpacking phenomenon has its critics; many backpackers do not travel to other parts of the word to immerse themselves in a foreign culture, they simply bring their culture with them. Therefore countries often suffer from the influx of tourists who are ambivalent about their values and needs.

Lonely planet publications have been criticised for creating the travel craze that is sweeping the world. Co-founder Tony Wheeler admits that they are responsible for the masses of backpackers heading to certain destinations.

In his book; Backpacking: Diversity and change, published in 2003, author Erik Cohen states: “Even though that one of the primary aims of backpacking is to seek the authentic, the majority of backpackers spend most of their time interacting with other backpackers and interactions with locals are of secondary importance.”

Guidebooks are synonymous with the travel industry; where there is a destination there are a dozen guidebooks. Even destinations deemed risky and volatile still have guidebooks. Lonely Planet was lambasted in the press 4 years ago for publishing a book on Burma (Myanmar), which many critics said promoted the current military regime.

Former Lonely Planet authors have also joined the criticism that surrounds the mass arrival of travellers to publicised lonely planet guide destinations. Other handbooks have also been to blame. For example the Brazilian coastal town of Jericuacuara was a small sleepy paradise unknown to travellers until the 1991 South American Handbook (hardcover, 67th edition) described it as: “one of Brazil’s most secluded, primitive, beaches. Increasingly popular among travellers and Brazilians. It is so quaint that pigs, chickens and donkeys roam the street.”

The 2005 Lonely Planet Brazil says of the town, “a small fishing village popular among backpackers, hip Brazilians, and windsurfers. A beautiful spot where dozens of palms drowning in sand dunes face traditional fishing boats.”
Thomas Kohnstamm wrote for Lonely Planet and disliked the way travellers en mass would bombard a town after a guidebook had publicised it so. In 2008 in his book Do Travel Writers Go To Hell he said of Jericuacuara: “The Locals have watched the place mushroom from a charming yet soporific outpost that didn’t even have regular electricity until 1998 to an international hot spot, complete with beach yoga and crepe restaurants. Locals are side-lined as undesirable obstructions to Jericuacuara’s development, living farther and farther from the central part of town.”
Do guidebooks ruin a destination by bringing with them unwanted travellers who ruin the originality of a place and bring more problems than the local community can handle. Or do they bring valuable lifeblood in to the area enabling development and progress?

The Banana Pancake Trail

The tongue in cheek name of this trail comes from the sweet breakfast served along the route found in countries from Vietnam to Thailand and beyond.

Although there is no firm definition to locate the banana pancake trail the metaphor name is used for the ever-developing travellers trail heading through many different places in South East Asia. There are even arguments that the trail has crept into China and as far down as Fraser Island in Australia. The banana pancake is not indigenous to Australia or China, but the countries are now becoming synonymous with the trail.
Many places have changed forever; the rural has become the urbanised and local jobs have turned from traditional to that of catering for the increasing number of backpacker’s arrivals.

Vang Vieng in Laos was once a small village nestling on the banks of the Namsong River. After numerous praise in guidebooks such as the Lonely Planet the town has grown to be known as a ‘backpackers ghetto’. What was once a sleepy backwater visited only as a stopgap between the capital Vientiane and the world heritage city of Luang Prabang has changed beyond recognition.

With the influx of travellers into an area the demand to house and feed them becomes heavier by the year. One of the main factors affecting local people is that the more travellers who come, the more opportunities for commercial developments will arise. Many developments will be from outside the area and locals will not see the financial benefit. Entrepreneurs will seek to exploit these by building fast food chains, surf shops and guesthouses.

Laos, a communist country does not have big multinational food chains but that hasn’t stopped people outside the areas cashing in on the tourist and backpacker trade. Outside capital from the cities has been put into the town in the forms of restaurants, all privately owned and not owned by the locals who have sold their land for a small fee.

The backpacker may have trampled and stamped their mark on the trail, but now tour operators are cashing in on Viang Vieng’s popularity bringing with them buses of travellers and block hotel reservations. Meanwhile backpackers spend their money in bars owned by hotels, and not the local bars that are in most need.
Even in fiction the Lonely Planet has been lambasted for creating over development in areas of once tranquil idyllic beauty. In the Thailand set book ‘The beach’ by British author Alex Garland he writes, “There's no way you can keep it out of the Lonely Planet, and once that happens, it's countdown to doomsday’’.

Independent Travel
Whether you’re sipping a coke liberally splashed with samsong whiskey in Bangkok’s Khoa San Road or inter-railing around Europe you will see the lonely planet on the table in front of many travellers.

It would be misleading to say that Lonely Planet has spurred the huge growth in travel, though its impact is undeniable. Other guidebooks and cheaper airfares mean that the world has few places left that are unspoilt or not commercial.

In an interview on Lonely Planet’s website co-founder Tony Wheeler said: “I don't think Singapore Airlines buys new jumbos just because we did Southeast Asia on a Shoestring.”

Times have changed since the first Lonely Planet books were published in the 1970s. More people have the disposable income to see the world and inevitably want to travel and take a guidebook with them. However one of the original Lonely Planet Authors Joe Cummings counters that most people who buy the books never put them to use; “The vast majority are armchair travellers.”                                                      

People still travel without guidebooks, seeing them as soft options. Some people delve into travel with a passion and a hatred of publications such as Lonely Planet and Rough Guides. They simply immerse themselves and learn as they go.
This is time consuming and risky, Thomas Kohnstamm’s Do Travel Writers Go To Hell, says of that approach: “Only a small percentage of travellers have the time and skill to travel with nothing more than a dictionary and a map”.

Guidebooks help those travelling to settle into a rhythm and survive exploring areas where they know little or none of the language. This may be due to the fact that backpackers and travellers seem to follow a similar route and meet up, enabling them to network and gather information from one another.
Few people (especially in Britain)have the mastery of foreign languages to get all the information that they need from conversations on the street. Therefore guidebooks will continue to sell and be treated as the traveller’s bible. Despite being voted second behind DK Eyewitness Travel guides in Wanderlust magazines guidebooks of the year, Lonely Planet’s sales are still as high as ever.

The choice is up to the individual whether they use a guidebook or not. Not everyone is a seasoned traveller or has the necessary language skills they need                       

Many people have never experienced another culture and need the advice and help available in guidebooks. It can be a companion, friend, trusted ally and most of all, the hero in a traveller’s hour of need. Imagine turning up late at night in a remote Mexican village and not knowing where to stay. A guidebook will help you.

While some people consider guidebooks a hindrance that brings far too many people to the same locations, ultimately the choice is up to you. It all depends on where you are; where you want to go and how ‘independent’ you think you want the process of getting there to be.
In the end guidebooks are here for the long haul; especially Lonely Planet who are owned by the BBC.

Hanoi on the Banana pancake trail experiences a huge influx  of backpackers.
Haard Rin beach famous for the Full Moon Parties has become a haven for backpackers seeking oblivion!