Monday, 17 June 2013

Holding Hemingway's hand

How do you write about the most incredible experience of your life? The time where you were most happy, excited, adrenaline fuelled and hyped up?

The answer to that question is; you try, you just try!

Ever since I read Ernest Hemingway's 1926s novel The Sun Also Rises I have been on a mission to travel to Spain and seek out the fun and thrill of the festival of San Fermin. To experience the Encierro; which is more commonly known as the Running of the bulls.

Famous for pain, blood, guts and gore and the danger posed by angry bulls hurtling down the cobbled streets while people fall in from of them and try in vain to run in the crowds.

The adrenaline rush of a lifetime, the thrill bigger than all thrills and the chance to run with a ton of steak hurtling at you with anger in its eyes and hatred in its heart.

Ernest Hemingway had a profound effect on me when he described the festival as 'Exploding into life'.

Ernest Hemingway 1899 - 1961

In 2011 I travelled to Pamplona in the Basque country, Northern Spain to seek out this explosion that he writes about in 1926.

What I discovered in this sunny sangria soaked city was more than I could ever have imagined. The pomp, party, entertainment and shear carnival atmosphere must surely rival any event on earth.

Pamplona 2012. My friend Chris Hay is clearly visible under the red graffiti in the centre
San Fermin grabbed my heart and held on. The finger nails dug deep and I was hooked. I was more than hooked I was a convert.

I read information, books, pamphlets and guides to soak up like a sponge all the information I could get about the festival. I watched videos online about running tips from the locals to hone my skills.
Messing about on the famous Bull running statue in Pamplona 2012

I became addicted and after losing my bull running virginity in 2011 returned the following year with a larger group of friends and would be runners and took the city by storm.

As I write this this year’s festival is not far away. In 17 days’ time I will be sitting on a bus as it travels through the night to reach the city where no one seems to sleep and the party continues even when there is no more alcohol, space to dance or light.

2013 I know will be the best year so far. I can feel it in my heart and have a sense that this year’s San Fermin festival will be the best one ever.

Firstly the group of would be runners I have assembled are possibly the best and most outgoing. All want to run and even though I had to take two hand in hand shopping to get their white attire for them I know when the time comes they will show true mettle and face those bulls and reach the arena like we did last year.

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The Hemingway statue outside the third largest bull arena in the world. It reads (In Spanish of course) 
"To Ernest Hemingway, Nobel Laureate in Literature, friend of this city and admirer of its fiestas, which he discovered and brought fame to."

 I cannot wait to feel the sensation of joy and excitement of the opening ceremony. The town all dressed in white and red suddenly explodes into fun and celebration and all white clothing soon is soaked to the skin with sangria.

Imagine the mayhem of La Tomartina but better, more alcoholic and fun. It truly is an experience that you must sample.

In 1926 a barrel chested American writer who preferred writing standing up arrived in Pamplona for the festival. The resulting piece of fiction that came from his pen and typewriter inspired me to retrace his footsteps and experience the festival for myself.

Ernest Hemingway held out a hand from the grave and pulled me to Spain.

Papa as he was affectionately pulled me into a world of macho, adrenaline fun, debauchery and brilliant Spanish culture.

I knew I had to do the outgoing, big drinking, sportsman and big game hunter proud. I had to run and run good.

Running was not optional for me. I will of course miss the views from the balcony or inside the bull ring on the terraces  but I will experience the heart thumping adrenaline rush you get when you heard the rattle of hooves on cobbles and the dinging of a cow bell.

You know the bulls are close when you run. You can hear them and the anticipation in the crowd grows and spills out onto the streets.

The canon has sounded so the bulls are out of the corral and hurtling down alleys ways towards where you are standing.

You manage to muscle yourself into the run down by the old town hall and soon the surging and screaming crowd pulsate forwards.

There is no space to move until as in Moses fashion the crowd parts and bodies fly in all directions to avoid the horns of the bulls that skid and rattle towards you.

Your feet move as fast as they can and the crowd bunches up momentarily lifting you off your feet and along with the crowd.

Ready for the opening ceremony. All clean before the sangria stains in 2012

Bulls skid and topple and crash to the ground at Dead man’s corner as they try and cope with the tight turning circle.
2012 inside the arena, one of the most thrilling experiences of my life

People resplendent in white and red throw themselves against walls to try and hide from, dodge and avoid the raging eyes of the animals.

The noise level reaches pandemonium and all around you is chaos. But do you know what? It does not matter at all.
Somehow you dodge, weave and by the skin of your teeth and luck you enter the arena. The noise grows as you run down the tunnel and because you enter just after the bulls you cheering increases. Running in before the bulls garners jeers and booing.
You are here, safe for the time being. Safe that is until they release the six young bulls who have a small cameo in the arena. Each one that comes out is progressively angrier and more mad than the last.
BNodies fly, local hurdle the bulls and Australians get battered. Blood and sand a gladiatorial battle betwwen those who run and touch the bulls and those who scream and run from the bulls begins.
Ernest Hemingway must have seen it all with his own eyes. The run is very much the same from when he first visited here in the 1920s. Bulls are the same beasts, angry and provoked and dangerous when separated.
People are the same, minus the head cameras and running shoes we generally fight or flight. In the case of the bull run panic and mayhem overtakes them both. You may be macho and stand up to a bull but you will end up on the floor after being tossed in the air.
Battle scars and shown off proudly and the faces of jubilation afterwards could have come from any year, any decade and any one through history.
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Hemingway pictured i the 1920s in the black shirt and white trousers
Hemingway is known to have been in the arena when the younger bulls are released. This is called the amateur bull fight where locals, strangers and travellers all can have a go at dodging the bulls. This is known as the corrida and in 2012 I took part. Sadly in 2011 we were too late and got stuck in the surge of the crowd and the arena gates shut fast.
The following year I was determined to get inside and what I experienced will live with me forever.
Hemingway was a rough, tough bear of a man who boxed, hunted and drank like a trooper. He was a man's man and would have loved the corrida.
I can imagine his large frame staring at the bull moustache bristling int he faint breeze and a wry smile creeping across his mouth as he faced down a bull.
Pamplona 2011
Hemingway was fascinated by bull fighting and went on to write Death in the afternoon and the posthumously published A Dangerous Summer in 1985  about a rivalry between two Spanish bull fighters.
Alcohol features heavily in the sun also rises, the main characters drink heavily and to excess. One even passing out in the back of a shop and waking up in the store room. Pamplona is full of alcohol and the cheap availability does mean that one does partake in a tipple or five.

 It would after all be rude not to especially when a toothless old Spaniard offers you a bottle of wine with a smile and a twinkle in his eye.
During the time of writing Hemingway lived in Paris and often visited Spain. In fact he said that Spain was his favourite European country. Back home in his native US it was the prohibition era. Alcohol was universally banned and maybe this is the reason why the characters hit the bottle hard. Although many academics have come up with numerous reasons and analysis of how. But in my mind I think it is because when in Pamplona, San Fermin takes over and you join in. Simple really and alcohol is a massive part of that.
The book became a film starring Tyrone Power in 1957, but I have to admit I have never seen it and am loathe to buy it in case it ruins the books for me.
The corrida inside the arena
The statue of Hemingway erected by the people of the city in 1968 stands outside the bull ring. I stood gazing up into the bust and wondering what old Ernie would make of it all.
The translated inscription reads.
"To Ernest Hemingway, Nobel Laureate in Literature, friend of this city and admirer of its fiestas, which he discovered and brought fame to."
If Ernest Hemingway had not put a gun to his head in 1961 in rural Ketchum, Idaho in 1961 what would he think about the legacy he created at Pamplona. His statue shining in the sun and appearing in all tourists photos and the influx of thrill seekers descending upon the city.

Would he be proud?

But if it were not for him would I have experienced the best 6 days of my life, twice and soon to be a third time.

Thank you Ernest. I hope when I run you smile down on me through your big white beard.
You showed me one of the true wonders of the world, an experience that will never diminish in the mind and one that will not leave the heart.

The Running of the Bulls, the encierro, San Fermin, Pamplona. Call it what you will the true fact of the matter is that I bloody love it!

17 days to go, 17 long days until the fun begins.

Viva San Fermin, Tora, tora!

Pamplona 2012

Sunday, 9 June 2013

Up on the lake

When I look at a map of Europe one massive glaring thing jumps out at me.

My eyes burn into the map and all I can see is a giant hole where Scandinavia is.

Why have I never been to Sweden, Norway or Finland my mind asks?

Years ago in Africa I met a Swedish bloke and we became good mates. We have kept in touch and he even stayed at mine when he came over in 2008.

Out of the blue he emailed me and to paraphrase said 'Ben, the time has come for you to visit Sweden'.

Ten minutes later and a look at my work rota I was on the internet and had a Norwegian air flight booked to Stockholm and then a connecting flight to the Northern city of Umea where he lives.

Finally I would get to visit one of the countries which I have always dreamed of seeing.

Sweden in June, in the sun, by the fjords here I come.

After speed walking from terminal 5 to terminal 4 in Arlanda airport I was seated in an almost empty jet that shot the short distance up towards the Gulf of Bothnia and landed in Umea in about an hour.

I wandered out of the tiny airport and there was Henrik beaming and standing there in a Union Jack t shirt.

Here begins my flying three days on Swedish soil.

Ironically after a day of exploring the town and visiting Tarftea by the sea on the fjords we ended up in the liveliest bar in town. The night was still bright even though it was past 1am as we stepped into the Bishops arms English pub. Normally I would avoid English pubs while overseas unless the rugby is being showed but I am 100% sure I was the only Brit in there. Maybe the only Brit in town as when people heard us speaking English they made a b line for us to chat.

'Why are you here?Nno one comes to Umea' one bearded blonde Swede said to me at the bar.

The first day was spent drinking, shopping for cheaper drinks in the super market and exploring. We also feasted on Moose heart, moose steaks and dried reindeer. A true Swedish smorgasbord of delights!

The walk back to Tomtebo where he lives at silly o clock in the morning was more like an early evening stroll in the twilight rather than a drunken stumble.

Being in light at that hour is slightly eerie. I had done it once before in Iceland but here in the middle of the town there was something post-apocalyptic about the light and the stillness.

The next day we woke early and went and did the most strange of Swedish traditions. The cow release!

Today was the national Swedish day. They didn’t however have flags galore and parades and music. Instead they went to see the cows released into the paddocks and fields after a long hard cold winter of being cooped up inside.

They run out and leap in the air, back legs flying around to the delight of the crowd.

We were there maybe an hour before we left out of boredom. There however was one strange thing about the event. It was held on a farm in Red Creek (Roback) and inside one barn and then on the makeshift trailer stage a man spoke to the crowd about all the murders throughout modern history that were committed in the town.

He even was selling for about £6 a pop thesis’s on the subjects.

Sandra and Henrik get to know a little calf
How odd that he stood up and on a microphone spoke (in Swedish) about child killers and wife murders while kids were running around in their Swedish flag t shirts drinking the free milk handed out and posing with a man dressed as a cow called Norris!

Off to the lake

Henrik and I along with his misses Sandra drove to Tarftea which lies on a fjord in the Gulf of Bothnia. This stretch of water is the far north of the Baltic Sea and is the water gap between Sweden and her Finnish neighbours.

The sun was shining and the water reflected her rays. The scene was idyllic as Henrik and I took out the canoe and paddled out to sea into the fjord with a couple of cold beers to hand.

It was so peaceful and relaxed and just what I needed, an escape from everything.

Not even the fermented herring that they made me try could spoil this relaxing day.

Imagine putting dog turd in your mouth but it being slimier and greasier and out of a can. That is exactly what fermented herring must taste like as it was single handily the most disgusting thing that I have ever put into my mouth.

The smell lingers and seems to hang in the air attracting flies.
The terrible fermented herring delicacy

Paddling out into the gulf of Bothnia
That evening we sat in the hot tub warmed by the large log burner sipping beers. We only left because we were being eaten alive by mosquitos and I now have over 100 bites on my body which I scratch like mad while sleeping.

The sun didn’t set over the fjord. It just got a little dinner and with the dimming light the day ended and so began my last day in the North of Sweden.

What do you do on your last day apart from explore the city and climb to the top of a hill to look out over the Umea forests? Well the answer to that question is you play disc golf.

Not Frisbee golf as I was corrected but disc golf.

It was actually a very fun game and you can play shirtless in the sun avoiding the holes in the woods because the mosquitos were out in force again.

It certainly should catch on in the UK because it was so much fun.

As we played missing puts and over shooting the discs we saw some people taking it far too seriously. They had special discs and a disc bag, not to mention an extra special disc wiper super-duper cloth! Every sport has the guys who have all the gear!
I didn’t want to leave Sweden. I had only been here for 3 days but loved the place and wanted to stay. The wonderful ikea show house that was there waterfront summer retreat, the weird Kalles kaviar they have in a tube for breakfast on toast and the fact that the Swedes love a beer and are rather friendly. All these facts made me want to move on and explore places like Stockholm, Malmo, Kalmar, Sundsvall and Gothenburg. Maybe one day I will return; hopefully?

Henrik dropped me off at the tiny shack that is Umea airport and we said our goodb
It is always great to make friends and even better to keep in touch with them after so many years.

We had been through a lot in Ghana back in 2005/06 and we still giggled about it as though it was yesterday.

Henrik and Sandra had shown me great hospitality and I was truly touched by the thought and effort that they had put into my visit.

As I stepped up into the aircraft I had that melancholy feeling of leaving a place. I always get that when I travel, the more I see the more I want to see and the longer I want to go for.
Sweden disappeared below me as the plane rose into the evening sun lit sky. The next time I would see darkness would be at Gatwick where I tried to remember where I had parked the car.

Till next time Sweden enjoy your Kalles Kaviar and moose meat.

Date - June 2013
Place - Umea, Sweden

Schnus, a Swedish little teabag of tobacco that you put under your lip!

Observation point that overlooks the forests of Umea

The summer cabin from the waterfront

Sunday, 2 June 2013

Naughty little buckets

The sun is slowly disappearing over the horizon and the humid evening starts to cool slightly. You sit on a beach relaxing on a wicker chair that has seen better days and take a deep draw on the brightly coloured plastic straw. The straw is sticking out of a small plastic child's beach bucket full of ice and wonder.

The cool liquid hits your mouth and instantly refreshes you.

But after a bucket or two all sorts of madness can happen!

 I am of course talking about the wonders of South East Asian buckets. Beach bars from Koh Phangang through Laos into Cambodia and onto the Ho Chi Minh trail all offer this amazing drink to wet your thirst and get you blitzed out of your mind.

Inside the buckets are whatever you want that is on offer. If you need a little pick me up have a Thai Ssangsomg whiskey and red bull bucket. Their red bull is stronger and rather like some sort of adrenaline shot straigth into the heart.

Also their whiskey is reputedly hinted with traces of amphetamines. This I do not know if it is a true story or just one of those long told and elaborated back packer tales.
Probably as true as the story about Chang beer in Thailand being anything between  4% to 13% ABV depending on what day it was brewed. All most likely backpacker yarns told countless times in hostels and on beaches while staring drunkenly at the stars.

Getting back to the wonderful buckets now. If you do not want to go for the red bull fuelled frenzy how about a bucket of a more refined drink. Say Gin and tonic. This too will get you sizzled and when you move onto a second bucket you are probably slurring.

While travelling I dread to think of the abuse I put my liver through. Back at home I am fitness obsessed. Rugby, cycling, running, gym and more all the time. But when I go away I seem to go mad. Almost as if I let myself off the lead and I booze incessantly.


I do not booze like the stereotypical Brit abroad however. More like the backpacking social drinking that leads to ridiculously drunken nights of fun, debauchery and brilliant campfire and dinner party stories.

Buckets have been responsible for me getting into scrapes, meeting amazing people, making important decisions and having a brilliant time.

They truly are a staple of the backpacker trail in South East Asia.

Bangkok's Khoa San Road is lined with bars offering a bucket for 100 Baht. Here you can sample all the wonderfully odd drinks on offer while watching what seems like an endless stream of backpackers, dreadlocks, transsexual prostitutes and drunk Israeli's just out of the army and going mad with freedom all wander past.

In Cambodia there is one utterly brilliant bar that offers buckets. The original and in my opinion best bar in the city of Siem Reap is the 'Angkor What!' bar. Opened almost 20 years ago and since that day it has been home to many faces from all over the world. It truly is a magnetic place for backpackers and has firmly planted itself in the travellers must dos when in the city and the temples are closed for the night.

Here you get a free t shirt if you drink two buckets. Of course it’s not free as you have paid for the buckets but once there I polished off two buckets of gin and tonic on a swelteringly hot evening and then at 4am ended up in a bar full of Russians watching a cock fight!

Of course you can share a bucket and this I have done many times. People bond over them and chat and giggle and swap war wounds from hired moped crashes and travel tales.

Moving down from Bangkok most backpackers will end up on one of the islands, if not most of them from time to time. Hopping on ferries and all eventually descending onto the beach at Koh Phangan for the fabled full moon parties. If you miss that there is also the half moon, new moon and black moon parties. If you are ridiculously unlucky and miss all of them head to the smaller more idyllic (for now) island of Koh Tao and try and jump on the bandwagon of the castle parties.

Koh Phangan is famous for the Full Moon parties which are help in Haard Rin on the beach. Boast pull up from other islands and thousands of people descend onto the beach to basically go mad.

I have heard stories of people falling off Mushroom Mountain at the far end after drinking magic mushroom cocktails and trying to get back down the cliff and people drowning in the sea.

I never saw any one injured I just saw people in an utter mess. Vomiting and shitting themselves and running into the sea to use it as a communal toilet.

This is the bad side of the full moon party.

The beached is lined with literally hundreds of shacks selling every buckets imaginable. All have silly names like 'Happy shop', 'Mr. Toms', 'Bucket God' and so on.

The sun sets soon after you arrive at the full moon party and the music blares. I don’t remember the sun coming up but suddenly I was aware of it being braid day light. I had danced all night and looked around to see that the beach was littered with passed out bodies all curled up in the foetal position.

One day at a quieter bar I brought back to the hostel I was staying in the empty bucket and to this day have kept it at home and use it to keep pens and stuff in. It is bright pink and when I look a it my mind floods full of drinking memories.

Good memories, bad memories, hazy memories but most important of all travel memories.

Buckets are an essential part of travelling what is sometimes called the Banana pancake trail' to many they are a foe to many a friend.

To me they were a naughty little mistress that you have a fling with when you know you shouldn’t.
A dirty little secret that comes out in the open for only a short time.

Before you know it you have moved on and the buckets are a thing of the past and you wish that you had taken one with you as a memento.

It doesn’t matter who you are; in the end I am sure you will succumb to a bucket or two!

Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia you certainly have a lot to answer for.

The beach bars at the full moon party, minus the passed out people