Thursday, 28 March 2013

Syria in a more peaceful time

Every so often a country reaches out and grabs you. It throws down your throat so much wonderment and beauty that your guts try and readjust to this new exotic taste.

The culture grabs you by the scruff of your neck and drags you around showing you many sights that blow your mind and have you longing to stay and re visit. Dreams fill your head as you sleep and you retrace steps made in places so marvellous that it feels real.

I had the pleasure to visit such a place that every so often in my sleep I travel back there and see those magnificent sights once again.

Sadly my dreams are the only way I can revisit this one place that etched itself into my heart.
This country is now a place of turmoil, war, disaster and terrible crisis. I am talking about none other than Syria.

2008 was the year that I entered that wondrous country and met the hospitable and friendly people. A charming country where shop keepers were smiling, souq and bazaar stall holders were true and funny and the cities were breathtakingly beautiful.

Damascus, Aleppo, Hama and Palmyra were and are cities of such historical value and splendour that I will never forget arriving in them.

Looking at the news now I feel pains in my heart as I see the thousands of displaced people surge into Jordan and crowd into cramped and under resourced makeshift camps. People who had families, businesses, communities and homes are now refugees. A word that many would find hard to swallow.

Syria has long had a turbulent history as showcased expertly by Dan Snow in his recent BBC documentary This world, A history of Syria.

Syria gained independence from bloodshed and fire. They became a nation from under French rule after the First World War and years of Ottoman rule. The Syrians fought the French and finally in 1946 after a long drawn out period which included the Second World War Syria became independent.

When I visited I travelled round the country and visited the famous sites.

Damascus was a true highlight, the world’s oldest continually inhabited city is a true city of wonder and a place that all should se. When I visited there were no street battles in the suburbs like there is now and even though Assad was still in power this was 3 years before the Arab spring would rise its head.

When the Arab Spring started in Tunisia and dominoed through the Arab world I was in Egypt. While I was there I was told by an Egyptian called Mohammed that Hosni Mubarak the President was ‘shitting on his people’. The trained archaeologist turned tour guide was sitting sipping a tea with me in the city of Aswan. While he sipped his tea with chubby fingers a large poster of the president with his dead eyes bore down from the train station. His eyes seemed to penetrate you.

In less than a week later this giant poster would be ripped down and burnt and I would be dodging tear gas in Cairo and trying to get safe passage out of a country imploding.

Syria in 2008 had bad feeling but not a public outcry. Or at least no one I spoke to would say anything about it to me.

The only guy who I chatted to openly about it was a dapper old man called Ahmed who lived in Aleppo. He was resplendent in jumper, shirt and tie and wire brimmed glasses. His manner was smiling and calm with a little voice that projected real warmth. We chatted and he said how Assad the current president who took over from his father was never really intended for the role.

Indeed Assad was a London trained eye doctor and it was his brother who was intended to take over. Sadly his brother died. Syria at the time was littered with large posters of his brother, a fighter pilot in typical top gun poses.

Aleppo is a place that has suffered real hardship and seen some incredibly intense fighting. I look on helpless at the news channels as they broadcast blood, tears and tragedy. I see streets I once walked down turned to rubble and the citadel in the background as men carrying rocket launchers scurry from rubble pile to rubble pile.

The ruins of the temple of Jupiter
Trucks with mounted machine guns on the back rattle around the street and reporters try and look composed in flak jackets and duck at the sound of explosions.

I was there, I saw that place when it was free, fun, lively and full of smiles.

On entering the citadel a group of Syrian school children made us pose for photos with them. They wanted to speak to us and practice English and were a joy. They just wanted to talk and learn and then talk about football!

They were happy and smiling and I wonder where they all are and if they are all still alive. Terribly some may not be and it makes you realise how lucky you are to live in a peaceful country.

Damascus is a truly wonderful city and while news reports are broadcast live from outside the Umayyad Mosque you can hear the booms in the distance from the field artillery.

That very mosque was a place where I covered up and explored. I walked around in awe at the architecture and was made to feel very welcome. Now when you see people praying you think are they praying for peace more than they ever did.
Inside the Umayyad Mmosque

Outside the mosque is the ruined temple of Jupiter which is the home to the Al-Hamidyah souq. A place where you could haggle with a smile and look on in bemusement at all the covered women and the displays of very revealing and spangled lingerie for sale.

Hama the city famous for its noiras (waterwheels) that feed the gardens from the Orontes River has in the past seen terrible atrocities and now is a place where government and rebel troops have heavily clashed in this civil war. I look back and wonder if those families that strolled by the river gazing up as the creaking wooden wheels bigger than a house slowly turned are still there. Are those families hiding, seeking shelter in ruins or are they in a campsite across the border.

I can think that for every town I passed through. Has the fighting reached Palmyra in the desert, the ancient ruined city that took my breath away so much. Are bullets flying in the colonnaded walkways where I once walked in the dust seeing the sunset.

Back then I remember roasting camel meat in the desert as two Bedouin’s slowly approached and then settled down to have sweet tea with us. Do those two young men in their robes now carry guns and hatred in their hearts?

I am privileged to have seen Syria. To have gazed up at the Saladin statue in Damascus, to have visited the Crak De Chevalier that ancient magnificent hill top crusader castle. To have spoken to the locals to have had a gin and tonic in the Baron hotel and seen Lawrence of Arabia’s unpaid framed bar bill and to have wandered the streets.
View of ruins in Palmyra

I drank El Shak beer and went to the world’s worst club that was so bad it was brilliant and all the while I loved it. Syria was and is and will be once again a gem in the Middle East.

One day I vow to return and one day I shall. Peace, intervention and an end must be on the horizon. But how far away does that horizon lead is a loaded question without an immediate answer!

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

I miss London 2012

London 2012 made the nation smile together. Stranger chatted on the train and the mood of every one lifted.
I was privileged enough to experience a whole lot of Olympic and Paralympic events. Some for free and others ticketed.

Here were my favorite parts.

London atmosphere

From the moment you boarded the central line in Essex you could feel the atmosphere. It was palpable and alive. Dutch fans travelling into town clad in orange sang as they boarded the tube from their campsite and faces were painted and flags unfurled and draped around shoulders.

Normally everyone sits sullenly staring ahead or looking into a paper; not this summer though as everyone spoke openly, freely and excitably to everyone else no matter whom they were or where they came from.
Once off the train it was a carnival atmosphere. All nations were represented and it would not be uncommon to bump into an Olympian or a medallist wandering around. I had the fortune of chatting to the lovely Canadian synchronised swimming team on the tube and also meeting many Olympians and Paralympians in Westfield shopping centre.

All conversations in pubs, homes and on the streets were about London 2012. London and the UK was plastered in banners and Olympic fever had reached sky high.

This atmosphere kept me coming back and going to see more events. From football at Wembley to Murderball in the basketball arena. I devoured every chance I had for tickets and many of us all went together to soak up this tantalisingly brilliant atmosphere.

Different areas in London became little countries. Near the Golden Hinde became Little Switzerland where I watched the opening ceremony live on a big screen and St. Catherine’s Dock became little Denmark giving out free sausages. Hyde park was Africa village with drumming galore and buildings were dressed up and tarted up for the occasion.

The Olympics torches were also doing tours and I was lucky enough to hold on in Earls Court at the ladies volleyball. I also encountered the Paralympic torch and held that one too. Both made me feel immensely proud.

Watching on the big screens in London created a great atmosphere. The cheering when Super Saturday brought home those gold medals was ecstatic. We gathered at the screen next to Tower Bridge on Potters Field and as they lit up the bridge the crowds were in full song and lapping up every moment.

Olympic park

What a park? The Olympic park was beyond all expectations and delivered to such a magnificent high standard that I still look back and smile at the cool times we had in there.

All the naysayers were speaking of doom and gloom and how nothing would work and that it would be a shambles. On the contrary it was amazing and worked like clockwork.

You entered the park and the noise from the pool would hit you as you walked over the bridge towards the impressive Olympic stadium.

The entire area was well built and nicely supplemented with green spaces to chill out on.

Everyone was happy and once your event that you had paid to see was over you could spend all day in the sunshine watching on big screens in the park or wandering round and bumping into famous Paralympians such as Dame Tanni Grey Thompson or England rugby internationals etc.

After one hot day in the stadium I came out very burnt. I was sitting in the direct sunlight at the Paralympics and in my haste had put on my team GB vest. This would leave a very impressive vest tan mark and when I was in the park by the big screens later on the camera men saw this and put it on the big screen to the crowd’s amusement!
Walking through the park in my vest I was stopped by BBC radio Five live and interviewed about my experiences here. I gave a clear and well worded account of how I believed that the Paralympic atmosphere was probably better than the Olympic atmosphere and it was a wonder how the nation could throw away its traditional reserve and party together.

I never heard the interview but a friend did and instantly recognised me and text me;; he said I sounded really anal!

The stadium was lit up at night and created a great scene where people stared in wonder and didn’t want to go home. As you left through Westfield athletes galore were being mobbed for autographs and posing with their medals. Young, old and all colours got on and smiled as the world visited London and saw just how great we can be.

Fancy dress in Hyde Park

One day a group of us decided to go up to London to watch the triathlon. The event was mostly free and you could line the cycling route and lean up against the barriers and cheer on the athletes.

3 of us decided to dress up in Khaki, pith helmets and full Old Colonial attire. This worked a treat and we had photos taken at every step we made, TV film crews interviewed us and people wanted to pose with us. Swiss TV saw us and the interview that followed was hilarious, we were all in character and going on about the Old Empire games.

Fancy dress just felt right for the Olympics and on the tube we were the toast of the carriage with people shaking our hands and chatting; not once did we lose character with our plummy accents and moustaches stuck to our top lips. Even when we went for a liquid refreshment we had ‘Empire drinks’ consisting of Gin and Tonics.

The Velodrome
Look who it is. Our future King!

Whoever though that cycling could be that exciting and who would ever think that I was sitting only five meters from our future king!

The velodrome was a fantastic place for noise and atmosphere crammed into an arena. More so than the swimming pool that pulsated with energy.

What a beautiful building and the races were so fast, furious and exciting that it makes you want to get back on your bike!

Free events

I spend quite a bit of money getting tickets for every event I could get my hands on. I thought it was a once in a lifetime event and that I had to go for it. Together with the ticketed events there were a brilliantly large number of sports on offer for free.

Some events were both ticketed and also free and these pulled in the crowds.

The opening day of the Olympics saw the cycling road races and the crowd gathered on the Mall waiting to see a British win that never came. We climbed trees and saw the cyclists come home so close you could touch them. They flew by in a blur of colour and noise with the crowd cheering them on all the while. Many Bradley Wiggins fancy dress costumes were in the crowd and even though this was the first day of London 2012 proper you could tell it was going to be epic.

Hyde Park hosted so many free events and if you wandered back to the malls you could watch the speed walking. A strange sport that had me captivated and we watched for hours as the Chinese destroyed the rest of the field.

Hyde Park also had London live where you could go inside for free and watch events on a big screen with stalls and show and all sorts going on. Every time Team GB won a medal he crowd went while. Even the security guards and police were dancing.

Paralympics phenomenon

In my humble opinion the country went even madder for the Paralympics. I saw more Paralympic events than did Olympic events and the television coverage was equally fantastic.

London became the hoe of disability sport and made the world look at disability with different eyes.
Maybe because the country didn’t want the Olympic party to end and jumped on the Paralympics with zeal or maybe because it was just brilliant. You decide? Either way the Paralympics became one massive carnival.

The park was the same just he signs different and it became a famous face spotting competition from MPs to sports stars to actors and TV presenters. They were all there and would wave or shake hands with you if you said hello.

Channel 4 did a brilliant job in covering the Paralympics and one of the loudest cheers I heard at the games was for Claire Balding as she presented the flowers in the stadium to someone.

The stadium atmosphere was incredible and to sit by the large Olympic flame was brilliant. I took so many photos of it and would smile every time it entered my vision.

The park was where it was at during the games, everything would happen here and everything was possible.

Games makers

Without doubt the people of the games were the games makers. Clad in purple and always jolly they made the game, they sung shouted and were the best hosts. Always helpful and always up for a laugh.

On the trains people would chat to them and out on the streets people would wave at them. The country would be a better place if we still had them.

London 2012 was the best Summer I had ever spent in this country. I hope to the ends of the Earth that the legacy is not ruined by Government incompetence and greed. The atmosphere created was the creates lift the country has had in a long time and if we could bottle it we would be a nation of smiles.

Friday, 22 March 2013

Scared of heights? Try a bungy jump

Despite being a firefighter, growing up climbing trees and scaling mountains; Ben Whateley-Harris still gets that jittery feeling when looking over a shopping centre balcony. Here he writes about travelling to places to cure that dreaded fear of heights.

I stand on the edge, my heart is beating faster than a Prodigy song and I can hear the blood in my ears.
Every fibre of my body is telling me to stop what I am doing and not jump. To turn round and walk away, take the quitters option.

Instead I start to take a deep breath and I slap my chest. I grit my teeth and look towards the horizon. Then it all speeds up. I am hurtling through the air and I am screaming. More shouting obscenities than screaming really and I have no recollection to whether I jumped or fell forwards.
Suddenly the adrenaline replaces the fear and a massive grin spreads across your face. Your eyes water from the onrushing air and your hands and in tight fists.
You realise that you are having the time of your life.
Bungy jumping is brilliant fun. It is surreal, adrenaline fuelled and rather ridiculous if you look at it.
The tribes men from remote Vanuatu were the first to jump off structures with vines tied around their legs. They flung themselves off wooden structures reaching up into the sky in a jungle clearing and as the vines snap back with tension they just touch the ground. The aim is to get as close to the ground as possible.
 In 1960 the great Sir David Attenborough (one of my heroes I hasten to add) travelled to Vanuatu and visited Pentecost Island. Here he made a documentary about The Land Divers of Pentecost. This was before companies set up bungy jumping sites the world over and no one in their right mind would have through of doing something like that.
These brave men of Pentecosts Island did this ritual to pass into manhood and show off their courage to others.
Since then bungy jumping has become a global phenomenon. In the late 1980s A.J. Hacket set up a company providing bungy jumps and also jumped off the Eiffel Tower to gain publicity and was swiftly arrested.
He was the first person to commercialise the 'sport' but before that member of the Oxford University dangerous sports club had staged similar daring jumps and all been arrested.
My first bungy out of the four which I have done was in 2002. I found myself backpacking with a friend up the East Coast of Australia. I was a few months short of the 20th birthday and we were having the time of our lives exploring places such as the Whitsunday Islands and Fraser Island.
We arrived in Cairns which is a bit of a backpacker hole and decided that a bungy was in order.
The Hacket site was just outside surrounded by the final reaches of the Daintree rain forest.
It was 50 meters high and you jumped out over a pool.
Looking back I remember standing on the edge trembling. I was sweating and wild eyed. Suddenly I fell forward and when the bungy recoiled the rope actually hit me in the face resulting in a nose bleed.
The bungy at Cairns
The poor guy in the rubber dingy which he paddles out to unclip you was trying to dodge the droplets of blood falling from me while I cupped my hands over my nose.
Five long years passed before I found myself standing on the edge again. This time I was at the world epicentre of bungy jumping and extreme sports, the fabled town in New Zealand that is none other than Queenstown.
Queesntown is a hedonistic drinking and partying mecca for backpackers and travellers. Each night is full on, fun and a little crazy. Whether you are in the altitude bar drinking from teapots of organising one of the infamous backpacker pub crawls from a hostel; it is always going to be a riotous night out.
This hedonistic pleasure ground offers a choice of jumping off the Kawarau Bridge, the world’s first commercial jump; doing a canyon swing or jumping off the Nevis!
The Nevis at the time in 2007 was the world’s largest bungy jump. That is what I wanted for myself.
A large cable across a ravine supports a car full of viewers, safety men and bungy equipment. You get to the car by travelling in an open air smaller cable car, all the while looking down over the edge as the side of the ravine fall away leaving you gazing into an abyss.
I must admit this jump back in 2007 scared the life out of me. Five years previous I was in humid Cairns in the sunshine and most importantly 50 meters up.
This time here I was in the bleak cold and biting wind standing not looking out across a rainforest, instead all I could see was bare rock and hear the echoed screams below as others jumped.
Cairns was a mere 50 meters, this beats I stood on now was a whopping 134 and as I looked down on the Nevis River below I felt that familiar sensation of my heart pounding in my chest.
A girl before me refused to jump. Point blank flatly refused; she would not and could not do it. This spurred me on and I did not want to suffer the indignation of being a quitter so they strapped me up and onto the edge I went.
This time I was with a group of people who I have been travelling around New Zealand with. They egged me on and encouraged me and suddenly my knees bent and I jumped off. I didn’t fall I jumped.
The noise is the first thing that gets you. The wind rushing past you makes a sound similar to a jet engine. If feels almost as if you shout but you have to wait for your voice to catch up.
The adrenaline pulsated through my veins and I was as high as a kite for about two days afterwards. The experience was fantastic and now I knew I had tackled the biggest one in the world my confidence was sky high.
View of the bridge spannign the Zambezi at Victoria Falls
It wouldn’t be long till my next bungy. After travelling from Cape Town overland through Namibia, Botswana and now into Zambia I found myself standing on the famous Victoria Falls bridge that borders Zimbabwe and Zambia.
By this point in the trip I was annoyed with myself. I did not realise that the world’s largest bungy jump has recently opened not a short drive from Cape Town. Therefore I had missed my chance and had to settle for the fact that I had leapt off the second biggest in the world.
There was just the thing however to lift my spirits.
Victoria Falls in all her natural splendour and majesty also had a naughty little filthy by-line. She had possibly the world’s most picturesque bungy jump off the old iron bridge built in 1904/05.
This 111 meter jump over the mighty and famous Zambezi River was an absolute must. To stand here and see the falls and even better to explore them in the parks was a treat and a true high light in my life. To read stories of David Livingstone who set off from my humble home town and a small commemorative plaque stands to seeing in the flesh was truly spine tingling.
The spray soaked you to the bone and put a smile on your face at the same time. Victoria Falls no matter what side of the border you view her is pure wonderment. If you could can the magic it conjures in your heart when you see it and sell it; you would be a very wealthy man.

Looking back on it now I am quite proud that I did this jump. I am proud with myself for jumping and also for going there in the first place. It truly was so beautifully magnificent that I have  a picture on my walls still.
Barefoot and ready I was on the edge. I jumped, I fell, I smiled and then when you walk back up the bridge is so harsh under foot that you wish you jumped in shoes.
Even at 111 meters it was over quickly and you are left bobbing up and down upside down until a guy on a rope is lowered and grabs you before your head fills with too much blood.
Flying through the air African style at Victoria Falls in 2008
Last year an Australian tourist called Erin Langworthy made international news when she jumped off the same bridge. Her rope snapped and even though the cord had taken one large bounce taking a lot of sting out of the fall she still suffered massive bruising when she fell into the Zambezi below.
Stunned and still with her feet bound she managed to get to the bank safely and crawl out onto the bank on the Zimbabwean side with a broken collar bone.
One broken bungy and 364 feet gave her an unexpected stay in a South African hospital and the company shut down pending an investigation. They said it was the only accident that they have had and they can have up to 50,000 jumps a year.
Looking back I think how lucky it wasn’t me. I am heavier and would I have survived the fall. Did she jump when the river was high or low like when I did?
The most beautiful place to bungy jump.
I returned to Europe and felt all bungy jumped out. I didn’t have an urge to do anymore and especially not those by coastal resorts or in holiday destination.
There was however one thing I didn’t count on. This was stumbling across a bungy in the most unlikely of destinations with a group of outgoing mates.
 2009 saw a group of us travel to Latvia. It was one of those trips where we wanted to go somewhere different and be active as well as have a few drinks and see a city. The group I went with are my oldest friends and over the years we have travelled to many places such as: Iceland, Canada, Ireland, Spain, Poland, Scotland, France and of course Latvia.
 Latvia offered so much to do and one such thing was a train ride to the town of Sigulda. Where after going down a bobsleigh track in the summer on wheels, riding a rodel down a ski slope and canoeing down the Gauja River we came across a cable car over the river.
This yellow cable car offered a small 43 meter bungy jump.
A mere baby to the ones which I have done in the past.
Only two of us had done one before both being the Zambezi bungy so we all decided it was worth the small fee to do it. I say all but my friend Babbs said it would "hurt his belly", so he wimped out and went and watched from the river bank with an ice cream.
We were all in the car and the door was opened. The guy with the mullet who was obviously in charge said in Pidgin English "Who jump first". Without hesitation the most Russian looking man I have ever seen said "me" stepped forward was clipped on in a matter of second and flung himself out of the door. No safety chat, no checking to see if the rope was OK, nothing.
He fell screaming and looked most odd in his shell suit bottoms, woollen pattern jumper and skinhead with what looked like war scarring on it.
Who was next? We suddenly turned to one of my friends and pointed at him. "Him", we said and he looked crestfallen. Alistair jumped and was followed by Ben. Then JP who had done the Zambezi one before followed him leaving me on my own with a man with a bullet in the car.
Before I jumped JP had dared me to sing Total Eclipse of the Heart by Bonnie Tyler when I jumped. I am not sure why but we kept singing it to each other on nights our and have even sung it altogether in a karaoke bar in Marrakesh!
The mullet man clipped on the rope to my ankles, he didn’t seem to check anything and I was ready.
I stood on the edge. I have done this three times already now and still before I jump I am a nervous wreck.
 I jump, I fall, I shout and this time I sung.
I smile as I am being lowered down to the ground and see the smiles on the faces of my friends; I know as we have all had that adrenaline rush tonight is going to be a good night out in Riga.
I think I will never get used to it; but one thing is for sure I rather like it.

Although I still get that sudden jumpy feeling when I stray too close to a shopping centre central balcony' maybe that will never change!

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Dark Tourism

There is something dark in all of us.

You disagree? Well I beg to differ; we may not all have evil ways lurking behind our exterior facial expressions. We do however have a thing called curiosity and a morbid fascination with death, tragedy and things that are dark.

Dom Joly recently published his book The Dark Tourist where he travelled the world visiting places of genocide, murder and horror.

Banners, flags and t shirts with words of love, loss and sorrow adorn the railings at Ground Zero
He visited Auschwitz, The Killing Fields, Chernobyl, Rwanda and even the grassy knoll of JFK fame.

No matter how peaceful, enlightened and calm you are. Everyone will turn there attention to bad news and disasters.

You cannot help it; it is only human to watch as the TVs of the world show scenes of carnage on the streets of Damascus or Colonel Gadaffi's body as it is brutally beaten and then put in cold storage for the world's media to see.

We are just made like that and watch in shock and awe.

Some are more inquisitive however and visit these places in what has become termed Dark Tourism. The term was first coined by Professors John Lennon and Malcolm Foley of Glasgow Caledonian University in the 1990s.

It is a subject that has debatable values.

Some arguments say that it is exploitation. Others say that it is educating and teaches us of the wrong that the human race can inflict upon each other.

I have visited three such places and had very mixed emotions.

Auschwitz in Poland, the Killing Fields and Tuel Sleng prison in Cambodia and lastly Ground Zero in New York City.

Each one affected me in a personal way and each one made me want to know more. It made me want to understand why this happened. Surely this is a good thing if it makes a person ask questions.

Dark Tourism is good if it is educational. Teaching the young about the horrors of the past and why we must never repeat them. It can also be exploitive where traders flog rubble from the twin towers on the streets of New York to make a quick buck.

I visited the site of the world trade center  now called ground Zero in 2002. Under a year had passed since the attacks and it was a very sombre and chilling place. I was moved by the t shirts, posters, banners and pictures of hope and love on the railings. This at the age of almost 20 was my first real taste of Dark Tourism and it felt strange to stand here.

I know I needed to go there and see the place. I was in New York after all and it felt like a pilgrimage to pay my respects to an event that the world watched live on TV.

Teaching youngsters is a great thing and using the money collected from entrance fees to build schools, hospitals and other worthwhile projects is also commendable.

An almost 20 year old me and some travel companions at ground zero

This however is not always the case. Putting the New York rubble sellers aside for the moment I want to turn my attention to the Killing Fields at Cheoung Ek.

There are rumours that a Japanese company will buy them and raise the entrance price. I do not mind paying to go inside as long as my money goes to a good cause. Not a corporate machine.
How can you put a price on the fact that when you walk through the killing fields if you move your eyes from the fluttering butterflies that fill the air and look down you may see you are standing on a human tooth.

Bones, clothing and teeth literally poke out of the ground there. It is a harrowing reminder of how brutal mankind can be.

I travelled to Cambodia in 2012 having previously been there for a short period of time in 2007. While I went off and saw places of beauty such as the majestic temples of the Angkor archaeological park I felt it was my duty as a human behind with a conscience to visit the Killing Fields and Tuel Sleng prison otherwise known as S-21.

When I arrived at the prison I was shocked by how close to the rest of the city it was. Literally it was in the middle of a quiet suburb of the capital Phnom Penh.

It was originally a school and was converted in to a prison when the brutal Khmer Rouge regime under the leadership of Pol Pot came to power.

Their vision was to bring Cambodia into a farming middle age which they called year zero.

During their reign of terror countless people were tortured, killed and disappeared.
What makes your eyes open in disbelief is the fact that some leaders and officials are still alive and up on war crime charges in The Hague.
Only last week Leng Sary one of the Khmer Rouge’s leaders died while on trial for genocide. The 87-year old was accused of persuading exiled Cambodians to return to the country and then organising their mass killings when they returned. A purge of intellectuals. He denied the claims up until his death on March 14th.

From 1975-79 the regime ruled with terror. They reduced a once thriving country to dust.

Cambodia took a long time to recover and the scars in society are still evident.

I walked into the prison and suddenly felt cold. Barbed wire rusting in the heat and moist air covered the windows. A little old man hunched over a table sold copies of his story of incarceration under the Khmer Rouge regime inside a hut.

It was quite odd how tourists posed with him and he smiled. But behind his smile was a man who must have seen the worst kind of terrors imaginable.

There is one thing in Tuel Sleng that makes you take a deep breath and clench your teeth. It is not the skulls in jars of victims long perished, it is not even the tiny cells where the prisoners were kept in their own filth. Nor was it the painting of torture scenes including throwing babies into the air to bayonet them.

The one thing that made me shudder was the blood stain on the floor. A thick stain still dark and almost crusty. It had been here since at least 1979 and made you bow your head in shame at what we can do to one another.

It hit home as this must have been evident to the world, it was only 3 years before I was born.
I left the prison feeling cold even though the sun shone and the air was moist.

The Killing Fields are a little tuk tuk ride out of the capital. En route you pass loads of gun alleys where for a fee you can shoot anything from AK 47S all the way up to bazookas. It is a lucrative business and one that the army seem to be cashing in on.

It didn’t feel right to me to visit a place of mass killing and then shoot a gun. I do admit that I went to a gun alley but I went before I visited the Killing Fields. I am not sure why I went, maybe it was my attempt at pretending to be Rambo for 5 minutes.

When you arrive at the Killing Fields and are greeted by a large stupa. This stupa is filled with skulls from victims who were taken here to be killed. For that fundamentally is what it was; the last place many poor Cambodians would ever see. This lush farmland was transformed into one giant grave.

Women, children and even babies were not spared and some of the horror stories that you read on the signs made a tear well in the corner of your eye.

This is where I saw the tooth on the ground and a fragment of cloth poking out of the dust. You stand still and can hear the hum of other people’s audio guides as you let the breeze hit your skin and a butterfly settles on your arm.

There was a sign saying that you should not pick up the bones because every so often they collect them all and place them in a communal grave or a box. The longer you stared at the ground the more you saw, the more they jumped out at you and the more your mind raced with thoughts all culminating in the word ‘why’?
How can we as a race do things like this?
Cheoung Ek is now a quiet place; a place of reflection. The surrounding grounds however hold a dark story.
The trouble is that when it rains the ground is washed away and a whole new assortment of remains become uncovered.

The undulating ground is now lush with plant life but lurking below the surface no one actually knows how many people died here. In the past the decaying bodies would exploded in the heat and cause the earth to move and swell.

There was a large tree of the chankiri variety; large and imposing and supply shade. This however was used to smashed children and baby’s heads in. They saved the bullets for the adults and didn’t want the children to grow up to avenge their parent’s deaths. A truly savage thing to do.
Cambodia is a beautiful country but their near past is a harrowing story of pure evil. You leave there having been through an emotional roller coaster.

Auschwitz near Krakow in Poland in my opinion should be a place all school children should visit. It is a lasting memorial to the horrors of political ideology gone mad.
The Second World War killed an estimated 60,000,000 people and shaped and scarred the planet and still does now.
I went to Auschwitz with two friends on a cold February day. There was no snow on the ground but you pulled your jacket closer to your neck and your brain could not imagine having to walk barefoot here like the poor souls who perished here had to.

I am not going to go into the evils of what happened here, everyone should know about the full details. What I want to talk about is the fact that somehow the place felt slightly too tourist attraction.

I know in reality it is a tourist attraction but the fact that Japanese tourists were posing with their typical V signs under the ‘Work sets you free sign’ made me feel a little upset. I felt that it wasn’t the place you pose in a photo. Yes take a photo of the sign but it does not require a grinning face in the shot.
I must admit I did get a photo of myself in the drill yard on Robben Island, but in it I am not smiling. Here in the Polish cold it suddenly all felt very surreal.

We had come here to pay our respects and experience it in a way that was educational and almost as if it was something you as a human being should do.

Others I suppose just see it as another part of the tourist trail.
In the end you know if it has affected you or not. No one else can tell you what to feel.

Monday, 18 March 2013

Ten travel risks worth taking

Ten travel risks worth taking

Travelling can be daunting, fun, exhilarating, life affirming and bizarre. It can put you in situations you never expected and can throw many problems your way.
It can also make you resourceful, wise, and canny and enlightens your sense of humour.
If you travel and things like roughing, not knowing where you are going to be next or what will happen tomorrow then here are ten travel risks worth taking.

"When you travel, remember that a foreign country is not designed to make you comfortable. It is designed to make its own people comfortable" - Clifton Fadiman

Pick a destination on a whim      
Don’t just go somewhere because someone told you too or it is the fashionable place to go. Go somewhere that you may have never thought about before. A place that maybe obscure and make people wonder why you went.

It doesn’t have to be far flung; it could be local or only a short flight away.
One of the silliest mini adventures I had was with a group of friends when we went to Latvia. We flew out to Riga before it was a stag doo location and the locals were not annoyed by the influx of Brits.

Travel with strangers

Everything is accelerated when you travel. You may have just met someone a couple of hours ago and before you know it you are travel buddies and planning the next stage of an adventure.
Relationships become accelerated and travel romances blossom for the short periods of time that people are together.
All bar to of these people were strangers before we all met in the Mosquito hotel in Krakow, Poland

Most importantly of all you make new lifelong friends. No matter where they are from, how rich or poor they are or what religion, race, age or creed travel puts you all in the same boat.

Strangers travelling are like strangers meeting at a fancy dress party. You both don’t know each other but you have something in common to talk about.

I.e. at the party you would chat about each other’s costumes. Travelling gives you the conversation starter or; ‘where have you been and where are you going’.

Remember strangers won’t stay strangers for long and you should have the guts to talk to as many people as possible when you travel. No matter how scary or odd they are.

Eat street food and drink the local brew

What are the locals eating? Does it look nice and appetising? Does it make your mouth water? But are you too scared to sample it for yourself.

Pigs snout in Seoul anyone?
Don’t be, tuck in and get involved.

Also drink the local brews, they may be coarse and harsh on the palate but they will do the trick and will also make you fit in better with the locals.

Drink tea under a bridge in the Middle East. Sample street food on the streets of Siam Reap, succulent chicken on skewers.

Or be brave and eat the street BBQ mystery meat! While I was in Ghana, street meat became a staple of my diet. I never really knew what was in it or whether it had any nutritional value. All I did know however was that it tasted lovely with some pepper sauce.

Also in Ghana I drank a copious amount of apethishi the local spirit. This stuff was so strong that one lad I knew who did seven shots of it went temporarily blind for an hour. It was flavoured with roots and earth and left to settle. It was an acquired taste but the more they fed it to you the more it grew on you.

In 2008 I travelled with my brother through the Middle East. I told him eat and drink as the locals do. Under my guidance and tutelage he ended up in hospital with dysentery. Although I blame this on his stomach rather than all the food we were eating as I ate and drank the same.

Remember always wash your hands and if you can sanitise knives and forks to avoid ended up in a Wadi Rum hospital with liquid flowing from your arse.

Teeth and tap water

Always wash your teeth with bottled water, avoid the taps. This is the health advice which I have always been bombarded with and always ignore.
It is definitely a risk worth taking. It has not done me any harm….yet!

Travel the lowest class
When you embark on a journey don’t always pay the full whack for a ticket. Travel on a cheaper ticket.
Travelling on the back of a lorry in Ghana 2005
In the past I have travelled on overnight trains in Asia where the beds pull out from the walls. I have also slept on the roof of an African ferry which travelled up Lake Volta and then ended up ramming another ferry.

When you travel in a class where locals and backpackers alike do you meet the best people.
This also goes with accommodation.

Stay in the cheapest accommodation

If you have a hotel room you are separated from other guests. Sometimes you need the peace and quiet and the privacy if you are with someone. Other times it is brilliant to stay in cheap dorm rooms.

You end up meeting some great likeminded people who become friends, drinking partners and travel buddies. They are also the best sources of book swapping and information gathering.

You can learn so much from other travellers that books will never tell you. Where is good, secret places and the actual prices of tickets and food stuffs?

Everyone who has backpacked will have good and bad stories about dorm rooms. Coming back to the dorm to find strangers shagging in the bunk above you or even worse in your bunk. But putting the smelly people you encounter aside for each bad egg there are ten good ones.

My dorm room tip. If someone is snoring use a little water pistol to shoot them. They soon shut up! Cruel but funny and affective.

Go to a place that people tend to avoid
The sacred pools and crocodiles at Paga, Ghana/Burkina Faso border
I was once told to not go to Chiang Mai because it was boring. I loved it. I loved the serenity and quietness of the ancient city.

Wandering in Sirigu Mountain village

Similarly I have been told that I was silly for going to the Middle East or spending time in Africa. I ignore all these naysayers and go and prove them wrong and discover what brilliant places they are.

Take a gamble and so somewhere that others tend to avoid. Be one of only the few people to go there.
In 2005 I went with a German girl I was travelling with at the time to the Sirigu Mountain village in the Volta region in Ghana. No travel book gave it a mention but we had heard rumours about it.

We caught a ramshackle taxi down a long pot holed road getting two punctures en route. Finally we climbed further and further up the mountain into dense jungle.

We followed a well beaten path that eventually lead to a clearing. A clearing that was dotted with corrugated iron roofed huts and an open area in the middle.

There were no shops and no coca cola signs that you seem to see everywhere.
Our arrival caused a stir and children ran up to us, grabbed us and shouted at us.
No guidebooks will tell you about the 'Big tree' in Oda, Ghana
Being new to the village we were summoned to meet the elders who sat on a long old log.

 Many had long white beards and some wore flowing robes of fantastic colours.
They demanded why we were here and I tried to explain that I wanted to see this beautiful village.
Luckily we had some apetishi the local spirit and after handing it over we were free to explore.
If we had kept to the guide book we would have never seen this gem hidden in the hills.

Talk to everyone

 You never know who they may turn out to be and brighten your life. Travel is like a party where everyone has something in common. Everyone can talk while travelling because they can say the old travellers questions such as ‘where have you been and where you going’. Talk to the locals, don’t just set yourself up in a little backpackers bubble.

One massive mistake people tend to do is go overseas and hardly converse with anyone from where they have gone too. They lock themselves in hotels and chat to other holiday makers.
Chat to everyone, even if they seem unhinged and a little mad. Sometimes these are the best conversations!

Keep a journal
Take as many photos as you can, but remember when you look back on them place names and people’s names will disappear into the far recesses of your mind. Write little notes or keep a travel journal and jog those memories back into life.
It has been scientifically proven that looking back on old photos brightens your mind and alleviates stress. Therefore ward off stress by jotting done who people are and where you were in a rudimentary travel journal.
Or go the whole hog and write everything that happens and keep it for a rainy day.
It may be time consuming and sometimes boring but write stuff down and you will feel better for it.

Haggle, haggle and haggle
Haggle all the time. Do not settle for the ‘tourist’ price. Keep haggling and eventually you will get the item you are haggling low enough to consider purchase.
Places such as Souqs and bazaars in the Middle East, African markets and Asian night markets are all worth haggling.