Blog: Escaping Germany for Bosnia via Flixbus, with a broken phone, to volunteer at a Hostel in Mostar (a diary entry)

Editor’s note: Some of the following blog was written stream of concious, and may not reflect the present opinions of the writer. Travel is not that bad and he is not as cynical as it may seem.

(Prologue) Before leaving Germany:

Sometimes it feels like I lurch from self-created crisis to crisis. This feels like one of those moments. I’m living in Germany, where I’ve been for the last year on a Working Holiday Visa. This ends in two days, and although I’ve been ringing and emailed New Zealand and German embassies, the rules surrounding the end of the visa are not clear. Perhaps I have to leave Schengen area, perhaps I can just move to another EU country which New Zealand has bilateral travel agreements with, for example Denmark or Netherlands. But it is not clear. The New Zealand Embassy in Berlin has even advised me that some New Zealander’s stay in Germany for a bit longer at the end of their visas, and that nothing has happened to them. Such help that is, and it leaves me thinking it will be at the discretion of whichever customs official I run into when I do eventually decide to leave Europe, and actually encounter a passport check. Regardless I believe I will leave the Schengen area just to be safe, and then when I re-enter Europe I can be sure I’m on a tourist visa.

At this stage, my in two days I must legally leave Germany if I am being very careful, yet I have not booked anywhere to go. I have emailed a Workaway in Bosnia that has space for me, yet that will involve braving a 24 hour bus ride from Berlin to Sarajevo. Just to add another layer of difficulties, to this already difficult situation, my phone has decided to break today out of the blue. Not charging or turning on. While this might seem trivial, not having a phone in this day and age when you’re planning long cross country travel across Europe, where you’ll need booking confirmations for buses and trains, google maps for accommodation or just about everything, not too mention some music to distract the 24 hours on a bus away, – makes for a considerable extra challenge.

Now in Bosnia:

So I have arrived at my destination, of Mostar in the southern area of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the main city of the region given the name Herzegovina within this country. The 24 hour bus ride from Berlin to Sarajevo went mostly smoothly, the bus was packed so I had to squash up besides a friendly older man from Bosnia for most of the ride, who spoke not a bit of English. We smiled and gestured at each other in a friendly way never the less. I managed to get a few hours sleep during the bus ride, and with no working charging points for my laptop and still no working phone, I spent most of the ride staring out the window, chatting to some other young travelers during the toilet and cigarette breaks, and occasionally read the only book I brought with me, a guide to learning German grammar. Interesting that now I finally leave Germany, I start to study.

There were several slightly nerve wracking stops at customs check points, entering and exiting Croatia and entering Bosnia, but save for being questioned on my travel plans within Bosnia, and having to produce a copy of my German Working Holiday Visa to explain my extended time spent in Germany, It went without a hitch. I received the stamps I needed to show I’ve exited Schengen at the end of my visa, and am now free to explore the Balkans and return to Germany and the EU when I wish on a tourist visa.

It’s interesting having left Germany after a year, that I don’t feel quite ready to leave. Just as I felt when I left London, it’s as if I’ve just gotten started. There was so much of Germany left to see, so much Deutsch language left to learn, and so many friends I had to say goodbye to. Hopefully I will see them again, but it does feel somewhat like a chapter coming to a close prematurely. Such is the way of the traveler limited by visa lengths.

Traditional Bosnian baking class

At the Mostar Hostel where I volunteer:

Still with no phone to guide me I eventually found my way to the Mostar hostel where I would be volunteering, after a bit of a back breaking walk, due to once again too much luggage brought with me, and have to ask the locals for directions. It was good to take my oversized travel bag and guitar off my back, and get settled in to the new Workaway (a workaway is the website where you find these volunteer opportunities). It was not much of a break however, as nearly straight away I was helping the owner set up some crates he had delivered that day for sitting outside, as well as learning how to check in guests and helping fold the laundry. I look forward to a sleep in a bed for the first time in a few nights, and to being able to explore Mostar in the coming days. The owner of the Hostel, Taso, is also helping to fix my phone, which will hopefully get me connected to the outside world again – and be able to travel with a little more ease. I’m slightly lonely, a little worried about whether I’ve come to the right place, but I guess that’s the case with travel. It takes you out of your comfort zone, and forces you to learn from new situations, as well as seeing new places and meeting people. It’s not always easy, but it’s worth it for the journey… or at least that’s what they seem to say.

Mostar’s old town, packed with Tourists

Exploring Mostar:

My first experience in Bosnia and the Balkans itself has been, for lack of a better generalization, a learning experience. I had to learn or get better at laundry and making beds for example, as this has been a large part of my daily work at the hostel, and not something I realized I was so bad at. There’s a knack to speed changing multi-beds and washing piles of linen and in order to have fresh beds for new guests in the morning, and after a rocky first few days I think my laundry efficiency levels had risen considerably to keep up with the demand. I next had to master checking guests in, as it would be my job to stay and keep the hostel running while the owner is out taking tour groups to the famous local waterfalls. This job came with relative ease compared to the laundry, other than the relative boredom of staying in the hostel all day. Once I got some afternoons off, I went to do the usual exploring of a new city, doing the recommended walking tour, learning the history, soaking up the atmosphere and meeting some new traveler friends, most through the hostel.

The famous 24 meter high old bridge, now a main attraction to watch locals and risk taking tourists jump off

For Mostar, the most interesting revelations came because of the not so long ago war and genocide that tore through this city and split it apart. The Bosniaks and Croatians largely still live on separate sides of the river, separations which occurred due to the Croatians turning arms on the Bosniaks, although they were previously allies in expelling initial attacks from the Serbian armed forces. After years of bloodshed, with concentration camps set up at the hands of the Croats, regular civilians taking up arms to protect their families and not one citizen of Mostar spared from loosing a family member or friend, the fighting eventually ended. These people who fought against each other just over 20 years ago now live again side by side from each other, and some have had to show an incredible amount of forgiveness in order to continue with daily life. This terrible history has now become embeded in the tourism of Mostar and Bosnia more generally, and those coming to this land for the sun, activities and cheap beer with also inevitably find themselves engaging with the past and present politics of the area.

The remains of the old bank building (opened just before the start of the war) also known as the ‘Snipers Tower’ for the use of the tower by Croatian soldiers as a vantage point to target civilians

While gazing at the somewhat touristy Minaret’s of the Bosniak Mosques on one side of the river, and the dominance of the Christian bell tower recently built on the other side, it is impossible not to be confronted by the separations, but also this separation has become part of the touristic charm of the city. Therefore, even as things are getting deep on the free walking tour, where the brilliant guide Sheva tells of the traumatic past (he himself had to carry a gun when the war broke out, even though he was a student in the city at the time) – tourists begin to discuss the horror of the events, and grapple with the remaining corruption in the city, while enjoying all this as some kind of pleasurable spectacle to go hand in hard with the Gelato and sun-tanning sessions. Basically, what I’m trying to say is that the scars from the war in Bosnia have not had enough time to heal, yet the city relies on tourism for the majority of it’s income, so the citizens end up commodifying their tragic recent past. I don’t know if this is a good or bad thing, one side of me thinks the reliance on tourism will keep any violence from occuring again, but at the same time the interests of the tourists run at a shallow level mostly. They would not be learning about this history if they weren’t here for the beer, and the closeness to the more hyped up Croatia. Many tourists seem to become history or political experts, or so they act, but it is not the reason why many of the them travel. Mostar is a fascinating and beautiful place, but in some ways still a very troubled one. Hopefully the economy will get better and there will be more fair job opportunities for regular Mostar-ians beyond just capatilizing off the interests of passive tourists. Then perhaps they will resent the tourists less (there is some rudeness in hostels and restaurants, perhaps as a result of the share amount of tourists), and be able to rebuild in a way less focused on the issues of the past.

  

Epilogue:

One week after staying at the Mostar hostel I start to get wary of all the young explorers, traveling for weeks or months at a time, sticking together with fellow international tourist friends met hours or minutes before, ticking off all the same landmarks, monuments, activities and tours. Perhaps the truth is that we’re a mob blindly chasing some original travel journey story, or to tick off our bucket-list to a more impressive degree than our neighbour. We could be buying into the travel dream because that’s whats being marketed to us, because a generation of youth chucking in their jobs and traveling the world equals profit for banks, travel companies and economies. Regardless, volunteering remains a valuable experience, and a continued learning one as that – as I learn that my cynicism and jadedness knows no bounds, and that even in a beautiful place like Mostar, I must over-think everything until the point that I don’t enjoy it much anymore, and feel like perhaps traveling is not for me. I guess that’s why they say ignorance is bliss (i.e. an ignorant traveler is a successful one).

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Travel: Leaving New Zealand (again) – Returning to Europe; albeit with some hesitance

Last year I found myself working on a farm in Germany for several months. As the seasons changed from Autumn to Winter, I felt the draw to return home – to see family and friends that hadn’t seen in nearly three years, and attend a friends wedding. I booked a return flight, assuming I would find some work and save money and be able to return either back to the farm I was working on, or somewhere else in Europe. Truth be told, I hadn’t really thought the plan out, and the impulse to return home led me to some really great revisits with old friends and old places, and spending invaluable time with my Grandma, Mum, Brother, Dad and extended family. Those seven weeks spent in New Zealand summertime were great, albeit full of unsettled-ness as I tried to work out what to do next. Would I return to Europe? I had the return flight booked and this stayed in my head as something I couldn’t waste. Though while being home, the extent of my student loan debts that had been building up became increasingly aware to me, as did the life I was missing not being in my home country. Friends were settling down, moving up the ladder in their careers, pursuing hobbies – all while I continued to live a somewhat nomadic and financially irresponsible lifestyle. The down side to the life of the vagabond traveler became aware to me.

In Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport

While I tried to find jobs or reasons to stay in New Zealand, I left the decision to the last minute, and under 11th hour pressure, it became impossible not to take the flight. It’s true – there may have been someone in my hearts interest pulling me to the other side of the world. So here I am, at Shanghai airport, on a seven hour stop over, waiting for a connecting flight to Paris and from there an overnight stop over before another flight to Hamburg – and I am unsure what is to come next. My financial debt still weighing heavily on my mind, I will try and find a job in Germany and save at least something to get back home. There’s more of Europe I would like to see – and I guess I’m in the privileged position where I can see more. Of course I’m well aware that at some point I need to settle and get a real job. Now that I’m 28, and have been living in this state of unsettled migration – it seems I’m nearly past the point that I can keep doing this, without have little to show for my future, in terms of assets, savings or the manifestation of longer term dreams.

Sitting in Shanghai Airport writing this blog on a seven hour stopover

So this is less of a travel blog and more of a discussion of the emotions of a person in their late 20s, torn between perceived responsibilities and youthful desires. I don’t think I was ever that great as a traveler anyhow, I enjoy being settled and being able to be productive in my hobbies, with music making or film making. I’m gaining experiences from this travel, but I think there is a point where I’m no longer traveling for the right reasons, I might just be running from real life. That being the life where I get a job, and am actually able to be of help to my family and friends and not just a stress and a hindrance. My family, particularly my Grandma and Mum supported me for the seven weeks I was in New Zealand, feeding and housing me and listening to my various anxieties. I owe them an incredible debt, one which I may never pay off. So as I depart into the next stages of my late-20s travel journey, I have some hesitance, and I wonder to an extent if my impulsive decisions may have taken me too far in this direction. It’s true there are many things that I don’t like about New Zealand – but I feel there might be some time soon that I have to commit myself to the place, and really make something substantial happen.

For now, I have a few more months (or maybe years) of wandering ahead of me. Here’s hoping this is productive wandering at least, maybe getting better at German, perhaps making some contacts for my music, writing songs and playing shows. And maybe some more good times with the person who holds my heart. If you’re ever reading those lists of why to quit your job and travel, as ideal as it may seem, just know that as I am expressing, there is a downside. The downside is the lack of stability, increased anxiety from not knowing where you’re heading next and a decreased foresight and security blanket for the future. At some point we all have to retire. I wonder if, looking back, I will be proud of my decision to keep traveling, or If I will wish past me put a little bit more effort into hardwork and preparing for the future. I’m guess it will be a little of both, as it currently is now.

Saying Goodbye to my family (Mum pictured here) at Auckland Airport

If I sound overly negative or pessimistic, perhaps that’s partially due to the worries i have of whether I’ll be able to find work in Germany, or if it will be more of the same. I have a habit of seeking out opportunities but then not following through – perhaps due to fear, or self-doubt. If this European adventure turns out alright, and I manage to find work and not completely crumble in a mess of abject poverty, perhaps I will have a more optimistic story to tell. I hope this is the case. For sure, it is not easy leaving the warm of home in summer, for the cold and uncertainty of an unknown Europe in winter. Maybe it is indeed madness, that someone would leave warmth and security, or something so uncertain as adventure.

The Warmth of New Zealand

Travel: Volunteering through Workaway on a farm community in Germany

In the current part of my last-20s travel journeys: I’ve left London, my television office job and extremes of living in such a large city, and have some how stumbled upon farm life in Northern Germany.  How does a city slicker like myself cope with life in an agricultural environment such as this? Better than expected it turns out.

There were ups and downs in the first 6 months after leaving my office life in London, but I was able to fall on my feet thanks to the decision to become a volunteer worker to fund my travels. Using the site http://workaway.info  , I searched until a found a community that interested me. This happened to be in Lower Saxony, about one hour south of Hamburg via train, at a little village called Sammatz. It was actually closer to Luneburg than Hamburg, and in terms of address it was situated in the area of Neu Darchau (a nearby town, nothing to do with Dachau), but disregarding geography, in turned out to be a great place to volunteer. There were lots of other fellow travelers working in order to have free food and accommodation, in fact in summer we had up to 85 volunteers on the farm! This is not to mention the 90+ permanent residents. Sammatz (google map it here) is a community unlike many you’ll find on the Workaway database – it’s well organised, with much varied work, cooked meals every lunch time, a fridge always full of food to cook your own, good accommodation, really friendly locals and some beautiful surroundings in the Northern Germany forest. As well as an organic farm, they have farm animals including many rare breeds (horses, cows, sheep, goats, pigs, donkeys, an avery, chickens, turkeys, ducks, dogs, cats, people), a bakery for fresh bread, dairy for making organic yoghurt and cheese, an excellent cafe with deserts drinks and meals and also home and schooling for special needs and disadvantaged children. The volunteers can get involved with any or all of this, from caregiving with the special needs kids, to gardening – weeding is somewhat of a prerequisite when you first arrive, there’s plenty of stables and animal work to get involved in and also construction and larger labouring type gardening. Oh, I forgot to mention the kitchen as well, with prepared meals everyday the catering is fantastic from the cooks. These are served Monday to Saturday and you can also get involved cooking there.

Daniel, my friend and blogger, check his hot blog out: https://www.failingforward.today/

So there’s a lot to do within this little (but in a sense, big) community in the heart of Lower Saxony. When I arrived, I was but a mere volunteer, but soon my plan to stay 2 weeks had sped by and it wasn’t long until I found myself staying 6 months, until nearly Christmas. I eventually had my own room to myself, used lent instruments such as Piano and Guitar to continue writing songs, and had gotten the basics of German down thanks to one of the mentors on the farm who also teaches German. I probably would have stayed past Christmas as well, if it wasn’t for a nagging call to return home to my birth land of New Zealand. Coming back to New Zealand had an element of shock to it as well – after the freedom and social environment of the farm – I feel the experience changed me. I will no longer be able to return to the confines of the usual 9 to 5 office job without the knowledge that other, more communal ways of life can exist.

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Not that working at the Sammatz community in Germany was a holiday, we would work 7.5 hours a day, starting at 8am and going until 5pm, with the 1.5 hour break for lunch. This was a little on the excessive side as most Workaway’s have the guidelines that there should only be 5 hours work a day, but the extra work was made up for by the good social environment and good food. The work was rewarding as well, perhaps not the excessive weeding, i.e. ripping grass out of the ground (which could be fun in summer as an excuse to flirt and bond with fellow workies, but was pretty tough by cold Autumn).  With the larger construction tasks, care giving, labouring around the farm something could always be learnt, about team work and individual skills. Cow herding was a highlight of mine, something I took the lead on for several months, along with a Scottish friend of mine. Cow’s turn out to be highly emotional and interesting creatures, not unsimiliar to what a dinosaur might be like. This lead to a screening of Jurassic Park with the borrowed farm projector, which in turn led to an impromptu road trip with the friends group I had at that time, up to the city of Lubeck. Lubeck was in no way connected to dinosaur’s but the trip was a lot of fun, and an indication of the cool things that you can do with the cool people you meet in community volunteering experiences such as this.

Will I volunteer on farms or community’s again? Yes I probably will. Now back in New Zealand I have the choice of staying here, getting an normal job to pay off my ever escalating student debt, or escape back overseas on a flight I’ve booked to return to Germany and start the traveling once again. Since I’ve turned down the job and thus the opportunity to make money, I may as well go for broke and see what will happen in Europe for me in 2018. This time I think I’ll try find a workaway closer to the city, like Berlin and perhaps get involved in the sights and sounds of city life once again. But I have a feeling it won’t be long, until I’m back at that farm in Lower Saxony once again…

Journal: Driving around New Zealand listening to The Clean

As the seasons in London shift from summer to autumn, the slight chill in the air juxtaposing the still bright daylight, and a blue sky not yet obscured by grey bleakness, is reminding me of the similar climates of my homeland. Particularly Dunedin, which if memory serves me correctly often finds itself in similarly contradicting conditions. One of the most pleasant things about Dunedin weather, is that even when it is frozen cold, with morning frosts rendering grass crisp like icicles, the sky will nearly always be blue and welcoming. A cold day will always be bright enough to run about outside – which we did plenty of as kids, in the parks, streams and fields of my hometown, Mosgiel.

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A wet Dunedin day

The weather shift also reminded me of some music that seemed to go hand and hand with the chilly warm days of Dunedin. Before I moved over to London, I did a lot of driving around New Zealand – mostly in Auckland, Dunedin and Hamilton, as I strove to obtain my full license before embarking on a mission overseas. I moved to Auckland for several years before London, but I often found myself flying back to Dunedin to visit friends. During these visits, driving around in my Mum’s silver Kea or Grandma’s Mitsubishi, The Clean seemed the perfect soundtrack to to exploring the winding Otago Peninsula and sloped streets of Dunedin. So now that I’m roughly 19,075 km’s from Dunedin, and have been for over 14 months, it is maybe quite comforting to listen to a band such as The Clean, whose music seems to so strongly reflect the landscapes that the Kilgour brothers, and Robert Scott grew up in. Scott was born in Mosgiel, and the Kilgour’s in Dunedin, and I’m not exactly why their music seems to be to be the perfect companion for our vibrant student town and surrounding landscape. Perhaps it’s just that by me choosing to frequently play their Anthology during my cruises ingrained the comparison in my mind. But it seems quite possible that the landscape and energy of the town equally inspired the music – that which was born in student flats and bars of the 1970s, along with other reverb drentched, jangley, guitar based bands such as The Chills, The Verlaines, Sneaky Feelings, The 3D’s etc.. and all the other Flying Nun and Dunedin Sound family.

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Pulled over by the cops – on the desert road – North Island

I do favour the hilly roads on Dunedin, but the Waikato has it’s share of roadtrip memories as well, as after my Mum moved to Hamilton in 2012, I spent many weekends driving around those much flatter streets, and generally warmer climate, but again found myself often choosing Dunedin sound bands as the soundtrack. The Clean’s Vehicle seemed to suit these roads, their 1990 album recorded in London during a re-union tour. This is an album I’m returning to now, and perhaps finding an interesting existential connection the circumstances that surround that albums creation, seeing as David Kilgour was also lost for several years in this UK metropolis. Vehicle is the sound of The Clean again connecting with their homeland, and for me being all those kilometers away, it serves a nice replacement to actually standing on New Zealand streets.

So before I go off on another Europe adventure, I thought I would flashback to those cold New Zealand driving missions, where in one case we were off to shoot a music video at the abandoned World War II gun emplacements along the Otago Peninsula, just along from the favourite of New Zealand tourism, the Albatross colony. Or another time, heading off with my friend Anthony to explore the West Coast of the South Island, and both the Fox and Franz Joseph Glacier. Being in central London for more than a year, these experiences of freedom out in the Southern most countryside of the world do seem all the more special. There are many things going for London, but space and fresh air are largely not amongst them. That’s something that Dunedin and New Zealand has in abundance.

hamish-and-ants-roadtrip west coast south island

Anthony Keenan (Ants) and I on the West Coast of New Zealand

Traveling through Paris during the 2015 attacks

I didn’t really want to touch the subject of the Paris attacks and the ensuing international panic at the time, hence it has taken me a long time to revisit my trip first trip to France – from November 2014. At the time, the presses reaction seemed typical, repetitious and all too remnant of the post 9/11 events over a decade ago. Murders took place and the immediate gut reaction by world powers was to cause more death. In the two months since, the topic of social media water-debate has well moved on from weather or not England should help in bombing Isis in the Middle East. More topics, tragedies and famous deaths have taken precedence. At the time I felt I wasn’t schooled enough in political history to know whether increasing bombing in Syria and the surrounding areas was the right thing to do. So I withheld opinion, even if my gut reaction was and is that peace should be achieved by means other than violence. I’m probably an idealist however.

But this is a travel blog – so lets move on from politics and discuss my first experiences with the most famous French city. My brother Callum and I had arrived in Paris in the morning of the 13th of November wide eyed and full of enthusiasm for checking out the Parisian sites. My first impressions were positive – the Eiffel tower loomed impressively in the distance and my first taste of French food while on French soil lived up to expectations. I bungled ordering a Baguette, being told off by a shop assistant for lifting up the packaging to see what fillings were inside. I couldn’t yet read any of the labels or understand that the lady was yelling at me – but my brother soon twigged and told me to stop fondling the baguettes. The next mission involved viewing the Eiffel Tower, which was every bit as impressive as the hype had led me to believe. We wandered around the area beside the tower for a while and marveled at the impressive architecture the Parisians have amassed over various political and cultural phase. Darkness hit, the tower was lit up, and then it was back to the hotel. A quiet first day, as me and my brother who was my traveling companion had planned to see more of the city, including the Louvre the next day.

paris november 13th 2016 eiffel tower

That night my brother and I went off to explore the Latin Quarter, the famous area of winding streets, restaurants and markets that would have once housed much of Paris’ artist community. My brother returned to the hotel early, while I kept exploring solo. I had no idea of what was taking place elsewhere in Paris on Friday the 13th of November as I strolled through the Latin Quarter, searching for music venues and enjoying the vibrant feel of the cities nightlife. The vibe there was electric – I had managed to stumble upon a local jazz group playing a cover of Sloop John B. A couple started swing dancing in response to the street jazz band. It seemed a serendipitous occurrence, to have seen something that embodied the stereotypical view of a cultured France. After a bit more walking through the streets, I made my way to an underground Medieval-era bar, Caveau des Oubliettes. A blues band was performing, of not exceptional skill, but the environment was unique.

It was only on my way home that I received worried text messages from both my parents saying that there had been a terrorist attack somewhere in Paris and asking if I was alright. I didn’t think a great deal of this at first, as we hear so much about violence taking place internationally on a daily basis, we become a bit desensitized to such warnings. I took the underground to meet Callum back at the hotel and observed the faces of the locals, wondering if what was taking place elsewhere was serious. There weren’t many people in the underground, but those there did look a bit concerned. One lady held her partners hand, staring sorrowfully into his eyes. The streets around the hotel were largely empty and once I got back to the hotel, Callum clued me up as to what was going on. The seriousness now dawned on me. I vaguely had a look at a news report stating an Eagles Of Death Metal concert had been shot at, but I didn’t want to think about that. I could have been at concert, given difference circumstances. So we decided to get some sleep, and re-evaluate the situation the next day.

We had promised our parents we wouldn’t take any risks the next day, but just after waking we decided to try and visit the Louvre as per our previous plans. My brother was rightfully a bit cautious about traveling through the city – there was police and military presence everywhere including on the tube, and therefore I didn’t feel particularly unsafe. We made our way to the Louvre and there were no queues and barely any crowds of people. It was looking like it might be an easy day to gain entrance due to the lack of crowds. We soon were made aware of the national day of morning – putting an end to our plans to visit any major Parisian activities. Never the less we still managed exploring the city, viewing the Arc de Triomphe, the Sacré-Cœur at the highest point of Paris,  and visiting a few free art galleries. We finished our day with a very reasonably priced three course meal back in my favourite area, the Latin Quarter, so all-in-all it was an as-per-normal day of tourist activities. Just with a much heightened police presence.

The next day was my last day in France, so still no visit to the Lourve this time around. That will have to wait. Even though what happened in Paris was huge international consequence, from by point of view as a naive tourist, the city and it’s people showed no sign of giving into any fear. They were all going about their daily lives, and nothing ever felt unsafe. Which is perhaps more than can be said for the daily life of anyone still living in Damascus. I hate to overlook the losses within Paris – it’s horrible and tragic whenever large scale deaths occur within any community – but what happened in Paris was only an isolated incident. The happening in Syria and other such places is occurring daily. I’ve not a great deal of deep conclusions to draw from my time being in Paris during a large international incident – all I can say, is that from the point of view of an irresponsible and perhaps insensitive traveler such as myself – it was still a good place to visit. I can’t wait to go back.

hamish and callum in paris

Travel: Morocco (part 2) – The Chaos of Marrakesh

In the last blog I detailed my first day in Morocco, a brief exploration of the beach side town of Essaouira. I was only in Morocco for 3 nights, so although I was only just getting my bearings in Essaouira, I soon found myself rushing off to Marrakesh. The short bus journey took 2 hours, the highlight of which a stop at a rural cafe, where I got my first taste of Moroccan mint tea. Also known as Berber whiskey (for the Berber people traditionally don’t drink alcohol), the mint tea was available in every cafe and restaurant and was always a welcome refreshment. When the bus eventually entered Marrakesh, I immediately noted the frantic nature of the place compared to Essaouira. Hoards of bus drivers approached me as I exited the bus, all vying for my dirhams. I managed to talk one driver into giving me a pretty good price, so I was soon on my way to the Riad (which is a traditional Moroccan house).
marrakesh mint tea berber whisky
The Marrakesh traffic was mad, with lanes filled with motorbikes, taxis and cars. The driver insisted not to use my seat belt, which seemed standard among all taxi drivers I encountered. After being let out of the taxi seemingly in the middle of nowhere, I eventually found the Riad, and met up with my fellow New Zealand traveling companion Stefan. We decided to venture into the central market for dinner. The chaos continued as we followed the streets of Marrakesh into the market square. The place was crammed – with people selling things, taxis parked, motorbikes, cyclists, cars and horses. A bit of a difference to the relative calm of Essaouira. We made it to the market and the confrontational style of Marrakesh market owners was immediately apparent. Store owners will approach you directly, especially if you’re a tourist, to convince you to buy their stock or eat at their establishment.  If you’re good at saying no it won’t be hard to resist, but if you’re soft, you could easily find yourself shelling over considerable amounts for trinkets and things you probably don’t need. Market owners will double the price of anything if you’re a tourist – so haggling and bargaining is absolutely necessary to get a good deal.
marrakesh snake charmers
We walked around this for a short time, spotting local performers, drum circles and guitarists performing. Not staying long however, as too long a pause and you’re likely to be accosted by a local to hand over some dirhams. We eventually found a small tent to eat at, and to great pleasure I dined on my first Tagine. A Targine is a traditional Berber dish, named after the Targine pot that it’s cooked and served piping hot in, and is somewhat similar to a stew. It comes with a variety of meats such as Chicken, Lamb, Beef and sometimes Rabbit, with a spicy sauce, with olives and maybe dates and a few vegetables. They are delicious and a major culinary highlight for visiting Morocco.
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Later that night we explored the bar scene in Marrakesh, which isn’t huge as being a mostly dry Muslim country, the majority of the drinking is partaken by the tourists. We found a pretty touristy piano bar and had a few cocktails by a swimming pool, before relocating to a more authentic local bar. Drinking the local beer, Casablanca, we made friends with a local musician working at the establishment, and attempted to jam along with his Oud guitar riffs. The night was slipping by, and it wasn’t until 1pm that we would leave the club, heading back to our Riad in order to get a bit of sleep before the day trip we had planned – which would be beginning at 7am the next morning. It took sometime to escape the bar without offending the locals (or getting into trouble), as a couple of men at the bar were attempting to sell us things we probably didn’t need – perhaps taking advantage of our tourist ways. We got home, but not before being followed by a random man. The walk to the Riad was definitely uncomfortable, due to this man shadowing us. We gave him a cigarette, made it safely into our Riad, and were happy to end the night. Perhaps a slight warning the Marrakesh is not the safest at night, if you happen to go drinking.
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The next morning saw Stefan and I slightly hazily embarking on our day return trip to see Aït Ben-Haddou, a mud-brick ksar against a mountainside, the set of many famous films such as Lawrence Of Arabia, Gladiator as well as another Moroccan location for Game Of Thrones. A Unesco world heritage site, this ksar is one of the best surviving examples of pre-Saharan Berber architecture, built around 17th century (but propagated from very early period architecture from the area) It’s a four hour drive from Marrakesh to Aït Ben-Haddou, winding through the atlas mountains, some of the highest peaks in North Africa. We’d planned to join a tour group to travel to the mud-brick ksar, although due to a booking error on my travel companions behalf, we ended up on a private tour. I was slightly hungover from the night before and being stuck in a car for many hours with just Stefan and our driver-guide Mustafa initially seemed a slight disappointment, as I had hoped to meet fellow travelers via a tour group. But the private tour had it’s positives – Mustafa was a very educated and gave us plenty of information on the Berber and Arab people in the area. We stopped off at an abandoned kasbah along the way – a ruin on the outside yet nearly untouched in elaborate design on the inside. The landscape was spectacular and Mustafa gave us plenty of opportunity to stop and take photos.
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Once we reached Aït Ben-Haddou, we first stopped for lunch, this time trying the cous-cous on a rooftop restaurant with a view of the ksar. Sometimes – sitting a spectacular spot such as this one, viewing an ancient architectural monument, makes one feel that are pretty fortunate, and also fairly undeserving of experiencing such sights. Our generation has travel so easy, you can start to take for granted opportunities to see parts of the world that our ancestors would have had no chance to see. Being among places of splendor can seem transcendent, but just as much they can be fairly unaffecting. To this extent, we finished our meal, eating one of the best oranges I’ve ever eaten (Moroccan fruit and vegetables are notably delicious) and then with a Berber guide we were taken through-out the ksar. Regular people were living their lives in this celebrated traditional structure, with tourists in groups milling through-out. We were taken to the of the hill the the ksar sits beside, and were able to gaze down upon the structure, as well as some of the Lawrence of Arabia film set that still remained. Mustafa would later take us down to stand among the film set – which was a big highlight for me. I was able to touch the construction, see how hollow it was, and noted that up close how not that convincing the paint work appeared.
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Then it was time to drive back to Marrakesh. The next four hours I would drift in and out of sleep, gazing upon the Moroccan landscape speeding by. I had seen hidden parts of North Africa that only a few years ago I could not have imagined actually being in a position to see, but for such brief a time, it was hard to know whether I was really able to make the most of it, or truly appreciate it at the time.

Travel: Morocco (part 1) – The Beach of Essaouira

My Moroccan holiday had started in a typically frantic style. After getting next to no sleep the night before, I made my way to Luton airport and onto a 7am flight to Essaouira. I had originally planned a 2 hour camel trip, and to be picked up from the airport by the guide, although I had cancelled this the night before, predicting my sleep deprivation. I was glad of this, as I managed to take the day at my own pace, meeting an expat local at the airport who offered me advice and allowed me to share his taxi into the Medina.

I was immediately struck by the pleasantness of Essaouira. The road from the airport to the town winded tightly around modest looking orange houses, passing small farms and assortment of animals – goats and sheep mostly. The weather was warm, the sky blue, a welcome contrast from the grey London that I’d just left. I noted the sticky sweet scent in the air, perhaps a smell that permeates countries of warm, tropical climates. I noticed a similiar smell in Kuala Lumpur and Heraklion. Each of these places I’m sure have their own distinct aroma, but the Essaouira aroma for sure brought back memories of those places. Just stepping foot in a Mediterranean climate, and having my senses immersed for the first time in North Africa was a thrill.

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My British taxi companion, who owned a holiday home in the center of Essaouira, imparted valuable advice as we rolled into the Medina. I learnt the cost of catching a Taxi around the Medina, an affordable 7 Dirham (about 50p), as well as where the good drinking spots were found (which he indicated were filled with interesting characters) and that if I wanted a feed, the market at the wharf was best. There you get fresh fish of your choice and have it cooked in front of you. As a appealing as that sounded, I opted to first head to a bus depot and book my bus later that day to Marrakesh, which for 100 Dirham secured myself a seat on a comfortable Supratours coach.

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I then taxi’d straight to the beach entrance, where a mass of Camels were lazy spread out on the sand. As I stood surveying the beach, wondering which Camel was to be my ride of choice, a Berber guide came straight up to me, towing two Camels behind him. He asked me if I wanted a ride, to which I asked of he could take me to the castle’s made of sand. He indicated yes, and mentioned the Jimi Hendrix cafe, something I had a vague interest in seeing, in spite of the exaggerations of the amount of time Hendrix actually spent in Essaouira. Having researched about the culture of haggling in Morocco, I tried my skills out for the first and eventually agreed on good price for an hours Camel ride. I was a initially little wary that this would be the most quality ride, seeing as my Camel looked a bit past it’s prime. Cappuccino, as he was named, was also reluctant to sit down, the guide had to give it a small whip around the legs with his rope to encourage it to do so. The camel knelt down with a groan and in spite of my reservations, I hopped on the seat on the poor old creatures back. Cappuccino set off shuffling down the beach, with a friend Camel following behind, and my guide holding the rope in front. The experience was a slightly odd one, and while it was a  fun and slightly surreal introduction to Essaouira, I was happy I had chosen just the hour long ride, and not the 2 hour trek as previously planned. I did not make it to the Hendrix cafe, although I saw some nice sand dunes, and the guide was good enough to take photos for me. Perhaps If I return to Essaouira, I will chose a healthier looking Camel, to make the animal rights side of my personality a little less guilty.

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Now off the Camel, I tipped my guide for his extra help taking photos (and a music video shot), and proceeded to a beach side cafe for a beer, and to change into togs. Hurling myself into the North African sea, ignoring the slight chill, I spent a good hour rolling amongst the considerable surf. Many other travelers had the same idea, although most people I shared the water with were showing off impressive surfing skills. Essaouira, I soon learnt, has waves just right for surfing, hence the share amount of them out in the water. I took to body surfing, and met a couple of Danish blokes body boarding nearby. We exchanged brief pleasantries, before they took to the task of catching waves with much concentration. I bobbed around in the water a bit longer, appreciating the novelty of being in the North African sea, before returning to land.

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Back at the beach side cafe, I met a British man working from a camper-van in Essaouira –  he has traveled here to chase the sun and escape the British winter, and also his girlfriend who had just that day joined him. She recognized me from the airport, having had been on the same flight. The next few hours slipped away in a haze of beer and baileys, and before I knew it I had only 30 minutes to make the bus I had booked to Marrakesh. Not wanting to leave without seeing some of the port, I said goodbye to my new friends, and quickly ran to the nearest taxi I could find. Having made it to the port, in less than 10 minutes I ran to the sites I had been interested in – the location where they had filmed some of Daenerys Targaryen’s story in Game Of Thrones season 3. I had to give the guards 20 Dirham, as the port entrance was near closing time, but having quickly snapped the desired photos, I again grabbed a taxi and rushed in the direction of the bus depot. Somehow I made it in time, and with a few minutes to spare I boarded the bus.

On the road to Marrakesh, there are apparently goats perplexingly standing in trees. This seemed something to witness, though in part due to the sleep deprivation of catching an early flight, and also due to the drinks consumed, I soon nodded off. The tree standing goats would have to wait ’till my next Moroccan visit.

Next time – the chaos of Marrakesh, adventures to the set of Lawrence of Arabia, and how to fall for the most obvious of Moroccan tourist traps.

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