Wandering Minstrel

Well, I’m still an unemployed bum. Rather than sit around all day though, I’m putting my time to use, by wandering around Southern England.

I went up to Bridgwater the other day, to order my bike, followed by trips to Brighton, Winchester and Salisbury. I hadn’t realised that Brighton was quite so popular amongst the gay community. I found myself in a gay pub – think normal British pub, but where you get better service/attention from the barman. What was probably more disturbing though was that I didn’t have anything to drink there – I was just there to eat and watch the football. It was actually quite a nice pub.

Winchester is a lovely town, and the place I stayed at was just fantastic. The Dolphin House Studios would be easily the best place I’ve stayed at in months. Well worth checking out if you’re passing through. Because of that, and because I was just enjoying being in Winchester, I stayed a couple of nights. A nice town, with a lot of history behind it.

Salisbury next, to visit Stonehenge. I know, I know, everyone will tell you how much of a disappointment Stonehenge is, but I felt that since I was in the area, I really had to go and see it, get it out of my system. It was livened up a bit by a bunch of Druids performing some sort of odd ceremony. I wonder if anyone’s told them that the Druids didn’t build it? I dunno, it looked to me like they’d put on funny robes so they could walk amongst the stones, unlike most visitors. Probably got in for free too. Maybe they’re not as stupid as they look…

But I’m back in London now, for a couple of days at least, until I push on, visit somewhere else. I guess I’ll just keep moving around, until I can find a suitable contract. I wish it was cheaper to travel here though – it’s costing at least 10x as much to get a place to stay as in Egypt. Still, the plumbing does tend to work here.

And these are some of my favourite things…

Someone asked me the other day about some of the highlights – here’s some of them, excluding my time in Crete:

  • Best journey – sitting on the back of a scooter, wearing full backpack, getting a lift from Olympos up to the main road. About 11km of narrow, winding roads, on a small scooter. Certainly a lot more fun than the minibus, although perhaps not quite so safe…
  • Best country – has to be Turkey. Nice people, nice place, so much to see and do. I could (and will) go back and spend a lot more time there. Just a nice, relaxing, low stress place to travel. A little more expensive than I expected, but I imagine that will only get worse if/when they ever join the EU, which I hope they do. Jordan would be the second-best country I think – again, it’s the people that make it. After all the hassle of Egypt, it was so nice to be in Jordan.
  • Best town – Goreme, in Cappadocia, Turkey. If I didn’t force myself to leave when I did, I could still be there. Just a crazy landscape, with a lovely relaxing town to base yourself in. Heaps of good, well-priced places to stay in too. Go to the Kose, and get Spotty the dog to take you for a walk through the valleys.
  • Best experience – getting a haircut, shave and massage in Turkey. My head has never been so well looked after. I’ve never had a haircut involving a lighter before. I don’t know how many different steps were involved in the complete procedure, but it’s not that expensive, and such a cool thing to do. Cut-throat razors certainly make for a smooth shave.
  • Scenery – would have to be in the Sahara, just feeling lost amongst the vastness of it. You start to understand why the Arabs think of it as a sea. Just a feeling of vastness, and terrible power and beauty. Second place would be Cappadocia, for all the weird land formations.
  • Graeco-Roman sites – Leptis Magna in Libya is pretty hard to beat. A huge city, with only part of it uncovered. The ampitheatre is particularly well-preserved.
  • Best city – on this trip, but outside the Middle East would be San Francisco. In the Middle East, Istanbul was awesome. Amazing location, with huge oil tankers cruising right through the middle of the city.
  • Best bar (outside Crete) – Spitfire Bar, in Alexandria. Like a Bangkok bar, but without the girls. Quoting from their business card in front of me ‘If yoy come to Alexandria, dont miss to drop into the “Spitfire Bar” where you will find good drinks And any kind of Music.’ Quite. I liked their system for keeping track of how much you’ve had – rather than throw out the empties, they create a pile just for you, then count them up when you go. So much easier than paying per beer.

Some of my favourite people

I’ve been thinking a bit about some of the more interesting people I met while on the road. Unfortunately I don’t have names recorded for all of them. In no particular order, here’s a few quick portraits:

  • At a bar in San Francisco, I was sitting next to Mark (and his wife who looked like an aged rock groupie – think Goldie Hawn). Mark pulled out three harmonicas and laid them on the bar. I remarked that not everyone carries three harmonicas. “Don’t worry Lindsay, I’ve got more at home.” Not quite the response I was expecting
  • I arrived at Homs in Syria, looking to change buses to get to Crac des Chevaliers. LP said there were two bus stations, right next to each other. Actually LP, there’s another bus station on the other side of town as well. I didn’t know where to go, or anything, plus I was tired and sick at the time. Then I met Hasan, who showed me which bus to get on, refused to let me pay for my own ticket, and took me to the other bus station to get the right bus, and invited me home for tea. This, from a guy who is educated, working a good job, but earns less in a month than I can in a day in London. There is indeed truth to the stories of Syrian hospitality.
  • I’d never seen a 60-year old break-dancing before. But, in Crete, I met a man who did just that. In between sessions on the dance floor (including doing a flip at one point), he would come up to the bar, and order the bar staff and me rounds of drinks. He could certainly put them away too. We didn’t share much in the way of common languages, but we were good friends by the end of the night.
  • Walking past a carpet hospital in Goreme, I was called in for a chat. The owner didn’t want to sell me carpets though, he just liked to chat to travellers and practise his English. Then his uncle turned up with a bottle of Turkish wine. They then opened it in a way I have never seen before. After hunting around for a pair of pliers, they then used the handle of the pliers to whack the cork down into the bottle, splashing wine across the room, and us. Glasses were then passed around. It was a quick way of opening the bottle, if perhaps not the cleanest.
  • In Antakya, I started chatting to a young guy. We were sitting in a park, talking about Turkey, travel, etc, when he started telling me how all his friends were gay. He was quite insistent that he was not gay, but then he went on to describe, in detail, what happened when his gay friend was staying with him for a few days. Now I couldn’t care less what you do with your friends, but I don’t think I needed that sort of detail from someone I had just met. All very strange. It wasn’t even like we were out drinking at a bar late at night – it was just sitting in the park in the middle of the afternoon. However, I now have a contact if I want to import quality leather shoes into New Zealand. Apparently I could make $20,000 in a month, or something like that.
  • Possibly the best guy I met was the connoisseur of fake watches I met in Alexandria. While drinking at Spitfire Bar (well worth a visit) I met Rob, who was in for a few days rotation off the oil rig he works on. His dealer turned up with a bag full of fake watches, and we then spent over an hour going through all the different watches, narrowing it down to a few, then testing the luminous dials, the waterproofness, etc. I learnt several things about fake watches – one is to make sure that all the date/time dials can be set correctly – sometimes you can only have a Tuesday if it’s the 10th of the month. Watch the waterproofness, usually they aren’t. If looking for fake Rolexes, try and get the ones sourced from Italy, not China. Philippines ones are best if you can get those, apparently. It’s not just a matter of going for the cheapest you can find, you know.
  • While sitting outside the train station in Alexandria, a group of young girls came up to me to talk. They were quite impressed with my eyes – I don’t think they see a lot of blue eyes. After chatting with them for a while, they told me, quite seriously, that I should not sit outside the train station, there were too many crazy people there. Funny thing was, that they were the only ones I met outside the train station. Hmmmm.
  • In Libya, we had some locals driving us around the desert. I learnt two things: Even Arabs can have chavs – the desert is not too hot for wearing a tracksuit, and two: you can have an extremely explicit conversation with someone without needing any common language whatsoever. Sign language goes a long way, you know.
  • Captain Basta, in Aswan. He runs a felucca on the Nile. We hired his services for the afternoon, and had a pretty good time. After talking about how he is a Muslim, he then asked if we wanted beers (we did, and we had to get one for him too), and if we wanted any of the joint he had (no thanks, but you go ahead). For the whole afternoon we were mucking around on the boat, we didn’t cover much distance, but we had a good time. He also taught us some Egyptian songs, but I can’t say we were very good at singing them.
  • Pia and Linda at DNA – watch out for Norwegians behind the bar, they get you very drunk. Don’t even think about trying to outdrink them. You have been warned.

Is it really over?

Or is this just a temporary hiatus, before hitting the road again?

I’m finally back in London, and now (shock, horror) thinking about finding a job. Hopefully I’ll be able to pick something up pretty quickly. The sooner I start a contract, the sooner I’ll be able to hit the road again. I probably could have stayed there longer, but people kept telling me I couldn’t just sit on a beach all day, and spend all night in bars. Not that I particularly wanted to believe them.

I had an absolute blast in Crete – choosing to hang out there for a while, and do nothing, was one of the best decisions I ever made. After spending so long on the road, constantly thinking about where you’re going, how you’re going to get there, dealing with language issues, trying to understand piles of stones that were once a city…it was nice to do nothing. My biggest challenges were choosing which waterfront restaurant to eat at, and deciding which book to take down to the beach.

If you ever get the chance to head to Crete, and I highly recommend you do, visit Chania, go to DNA and say hi to the crew – Helen, Steve, Pia, Linda, Daga, Marina. It can get a bit crazy there, but is a huge amount of fun. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a 60 year old man break dancing before. The girls behind the bar will make sure you’re enjoying yourself – just watch out when they start pouring the shots, they can drink a lot more than you. I might put up some of the photos on my website later, but this is a family show, so they might not all be appropriate…

One of the other things that was interesting there was to chat to some of the Americans serving at the Souda Bay US Navy Base. Some really interesting people, with a different take on America to the stereotype. I learnt a lot about America, and American people from them.

It is a pleasant change to be back in a country where I can drink water from the tap, municipal services all work, most drivers aren’t trying to kill me, and there are Western-style toilets, that I can flush paper down. I might even go and eat food from a cafe later, and not be too worried about what illnesses I might pick up. No doubt I’ll get bored of it all soon enough though.

I’ve already started thinking about my next trips – I want to buy a touring bike and ride around Ireland, then Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. I also want to go to Austria again this northern winter, and then maybe Canada next year – how to fit it all in?

I’ll write up more of a summary of my trip in the next few days. Maybe just a listing of some of the highlights. I met all sorts of people while travelling, and I think some of those deserve a mention too. I’ll get onto it this week…

On drinking beer from a boot, and other notes from a small island

You know, they teach you many things in school, most of them a complete waste of time. One of the things they do not teach you is how to drink beer out of a boot. Luckily I am here to fill in that gap in your education. I have gone out of my way to study the art of bootdrinking, and here I present my findings.

One: Order the largest bootsize they have. I ordered one of approximately 2.5L – I don’t know, maybe a size 12? Do not waste your time with the smaller boots, other men will laugh at you.

Two: If there is an inch of froth at the top, it is best to let it settle for a while before trying to drink from it. I made the mistake of attempting a drink, and was gagging on froth for several minutes, with no apparent liquid.

Three: Particularly in the first stage, drink with both hands. Towards the end, you may change to one hand, holding the vessel near the ankle. If you try looking cool holding it with one hand at the start, you run the risk of looking like a right nobby after you have poured 2L of beer onto your lap.

Four: The middle stages are difficult. This is the point where you start to wonder if you will ever get to the bottom. The key point here is that once you get down a bit, you start having troubles with air flowing in and out of the toe of the boot as you tilt the vessel. I have found that holding the boot with the toe pointing down avoids this problem, allowing air to flow without restriction while tilting the boot.

Five: The end – avoid the temptation to bang the empty boot on top of your head and shout some phrase from your engineering student days. It doesn’t go down well with the more sedate customers sitting next to you. After all, you are in a restaurant, not a beerhall.

No need to thank me for this advice now, but you can think of me next time you are drinking beer from a boot.

I flew from Istanbul to Athens, where I caught the fast ferry to Hania, in Crete. Somehow, and I don’t know how, I ended up with a business class ticket. I think the stewards were as shocked as I was when looking at my ticket. I thought it was a little more than it should have been. Turns out though, that business class is not that great. They don’t give you any free food or drink. When I offered a beer to the Greek next to me, he politely declined. I think I would have been better off in deck class. Serves me right for going on the high speed ferry.

I’m in Hania, and I think I will stay here for most of the next week, with the exception of the odd day trip here and there. It’s a nice little town, and I’ve got a nice room right on the waterfront, on top of a row of restaurants. A bit touristy, but it’s not quite high season yet. After doing a lot of travelling over the last few months, it’s time for a holiday I think. Perhaps a week here of doing nothing sounds about right.

I may get bored after a few days though, and hit the road, to somewhere else on Crete. We’ll see what happens.