Thursday, February 21, 2019

Gap Year – en route to Lamu – Meryl Streep interlude


For my overnight stay in Nairobi, I’m lucky enough to get an invite from my new mate Sally to come stay with her. I have only met Sally once before – for about an hour on Gatwick drone attack day when we were both trying to get to Venice for a friend’s 50th. In January, Sally whatsapps me and invites me to stay. As I have a hotel booked, I’m hesitant but Andrea says: “Cancel your hotel immediately; Sally is great and her house is amazing.” It’s all true. Sally is fab, fun and a talented artist (check out her site here) and her house is the Ngong Dairy – which stood in for Karen Blixen’s home in “Out of Africa”. This would already qualify it as a pretty extraordinary place to stay but what really does it for me is Sally’s fabulous art collection – a cornucopia of African art, English watercolours, photographs, a dazzling, wall-sized painting of an ostrich and a staggering collection of kimono-style battle dresses in illuminated glass cases.

When I arrive, Sally has set up lunch on a linen-covered table in the middle of a huge lawn. It’s glorious and almost more Streepy than I can cope with. Sally then heads to the gym and I spend the afternoon wafting around and thinking about Robert Redford. On Sally’s return, we settle down to an evening of gossiping, story-swapping and getting to know each other. It’s a brief but blissful interlude which I thoroughly enjoy.

The next day we drop in to Sally’s gallery before I catch an Uber (yay, Uber!!!!) to Wilson Airport. My driver Martin is chatty and we have a fun ride. Martin wants to be in my blog so here he is:


 At Wilson Airport, I meet Edwins, the owner of Kenya Buses. This might be a useful contact if I was the slightest bit interested in ever using public transport in Nairobi. I introduce him to my other new friend, Priscilla, the engineering head of the Malindi water board. We start talking about bendy buses - not a subject I thought would come up during my visit to Africa. Edwins is planning to introduce them in Nairobi but Priscilla and I are sceptical. I reference Boris and Priscilla says they won't work in Kenya unless you reduce capacity. I am not sure whether we convince Edwins or not.

I ask Priscilla if there are ever any problems with the water supply in Malindi. No, she says, the service is excellent. But after we board the plane, I find myself sitting next to Katoi Wa Tabaka, a jazz musician, hip hop artist and rising star on the Kenya music scene.  He looks like a rock star and is exactly the kind of person I was hoping to meet on my travels.

Katoi Wa Tabaka - are you a rock star?
As he's from Malindi, I ask him if he ever has water problems. Yes, he says, we were cut off the whole of last week actually. Ooh, Priscilla was telling porky pies! She buries her head in her laptop. Oops.

At Malindi, Katoi disembarks but promises to keep in touch; he is as good as his word and although we don't manage to meet up again, he does put me in touch with a great friend of his in Watamu where I'm heading after Lamu. Thanks Katoi!! (ps Katoi's music is great and you can find him on YouTube, Ethnocloud and SoundCloud. This is my favourite track: Kunani - it's great.
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Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Gap Year – en route to Lamu – Gujerati interlude



It’s January 28, midnight, and I am finally setting off for Africa and the island of Lamu off the coast of northern Kenya. Mysteriously my flight from Colombo to Nairobi only costs £220 which makes it super-tempting to make this journey every year. Thanks, AirArabia!

The Colombo-Sharjah leg is dull and cramped and I’m stacked next to a Brugelesque couple who are shaped and dressed exactly like Russian dolls. The next leg – Sharjah to Nairobi – is much more promising. It’s peak wedding season in Gujerat right now and my flight is full of people coming back from exhausting festivities in the mother country. Lovely Chandni Patel is kind enough to tell me all about her own wedding and shows me lots of pics.

Chandni’s marriage was arranged but it morphed into a love match after an intense six months wooing via the usual channels -  ie facebook and WhatsApp. Now I love parties but I'm not sure I could handle a Gujerati wedding. They're are in a class of their own: hard-core endurance tests that involve a full six days of eating, drinking, dancing and performing elaborate marriage rituals. No wonder everyone on my flight looks absolutely knackered.

Here’s the schedule:
Day 1 – Meet and Greet
Day 2 – Disco
Day 3 – Gujerati dances
Day 4 – eight hours of putting on henna
Day 5 – resting (phew)

On Day 6 everyone pulls an all-nighter and the bridal couple engage in a series of elaborate and complicated rituals. These include a photo shoot, dancing round a fire and making vows, the bride’s parents washing the groom’s legs, looking for wedding rings in a bowl of milk and (my personal favourite) a game in which the groom’s parents tie the couple’s hands together with thread and then the couple have to unravel it one-handed.

There is also the all-important covering-yourself-in-turmeric ritual without which no Gujerati wedding is complete. Literally so, because if you miss out on turmeric daubing, you’re not even technically married. There is no alcohol, no kissing until Day 7 and the bride wears a different outfit every day; the whole thing costs hundreds of thousands of pounds.

Chandni says it’s a shame she can’t wear her dress again. I suggest she adapts it as it’s pretty nice – no, she says, she has to be buried in it. Cheerful thought.

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Monday, January 28, 2019

Back in the Hood – Part 2


Gay Ola reunion
Lewis comes down from the mountains and, after a two-day journey on buses, trains, automobiles, tuk tuk and septic foot makes it to the coast and eventually our village.

You can ruin Lewis’s day in an instant by describing him as Gal Oya’s “Assistant Manager”. It’s a sure bet which can be doubled down by adding that his co-host Brent has gravitas, is much taller and has a business card saying “Lodge Manager”. Brent’s business card is a knife to the guts for Lewis – “WE ARE CO-HOSTS” he says to anyone that will listen.

Brent's business card - OUCH!

On Day 2, Lewis and I set off on our eagerly-awaited “Pharmacy tour of Weligama”. First plan was to load up with actual medication for Lewis’s war wounds. Fuelled by Andrea’s paranoia that he is about to die at any moment from septicaemia, Lewis is now in a state of panic about the infected bites on his foot and is becoming almost as convinced as Andrea that he faces imminent death. The “antiseptic” part of the Pharmacy Tour goes quite well and we bag up various liquids that can kill rats. We then embark on the fun part – asking for Diazepam – or anything else that ends in “pam”. I plan to take these recreationally, but they might also have useful “contraindications” ie make me feel sleepy, unable to take wheel of a tuktuk or operate any heavy machinery. (Benjo once told me he couldn’t take diazepam as his colleagues count as “heavy machinery” – ha ha to that.)




Asking for things that end in “pam” in a pharmacy in Sri Lanka can go one of two ways:
a) they react like you have just asked for smack and are horrified; b) they ask how many you want. 

Pharmacy #1 says “how many?” so I get out a quid in rupees and buy 30. Pharmacy Tour becomes One-Stop-Shop. We then head to Food City, which is like going to Waitrose after spending three months in a town that only has a Best Buy corner shop. Lewis is in seventh heaven the minute we walk in as they have air-con. He would have been happy just standing at the entrance enjoying the breeze but I drag him in and we tour the aisles, marvelling at the luxuries on display.

We engineer a Gay Ola reunion with Robbie and Ally who are also now down on the coast and staying in Mirissa. Robbie works for a bank and is a part-time music producer. He comes from Lewis, the same remote Scottish island that Andrea’s husband Simon lives on; Ally is an event manager at the Roundhouse but doesn’t know Charlie Scrimgeour. We meet for Moscow Mules at Tiki Cocktail Bar overlooking Weligama Bay. Great view and spectacular cocktails. Ally tells me fab stories about spoilt A-listers and what they want in their dressing rooms. We discuss our mutual love for Patti Smith, Bowie, Nick Cave, Jane Birkin. Ally checks her diary and thinks she could make Primavera.



We head back to Dorians where we find it’s no longer possible to get a drink; the bar has been raided and the police have taken all the booze. Dorians have applied for a drinks licence but clearly this isn’t going to happen any time soon. Our favourite bar at Villa Naomi’s – with its lashings of arak, beer and unrivalled sunset view – has also been torn down so getting a drink in the village is becoming something of a challenge.

We eat our weight in spicy spaghetti. The fact that I’m currently the fattest I’ve ever been doesn’t stop me – I’m still going for the “Asia’s largest mammal” title. Andrea is also “piling on the pounds” and currently weighs 100g more than she did before her arrival. It’s gone straight to her hips where it proves totally invisible.

Viagra
Francesca’s son arrives from New York and we head into Weligama to hit up the ATM and find some size 10 fins. I NEVER go to Weligama without visiting the pharmacy and this time I’m on mission to get Viagra. “It’s for a FRIEND, not ME,” I announce loudly as we squeeze into the tiny air-conned store. Turns out real Viagra is expensive - £5 a shag. I know my friend will consider this a total waste of money, but they have a generic Viagra substitute which works out at 25p a shag. We all study the box carefully. Is this the same “active ingredient?” I ask (titter, titter). Yes, Madam, guaranteed hard for one month. 30 tablets: £12. Still a bit pricey in my opinion but it’s not for ME, it’s for a FRIEND.

While Nick is sorting out a sim card, I sit next door in an air-conned gem shop owned by Siraj. Siraj assures me he won’t try to sell me anything and then tries to sell me a parcel of land just outside Weligama. He also tries to sell me a gigantic Sapphirine gemstone which he says is the most valuable stone in the world. He’d like me to help him “donate” it to a museum in the UK – in return for some money. He says he can’t “donate” it in Sri Lanka as they’ll just nick it. He sends me pics of the stone later on. It’s certainly big. I can’t work out how valuable it is. He seems genuine though and is a volunteer for the local branch of the International Committe on Seafarers’ Welfare. He also works for a Christian mission, even though he’s Muslim. I get out of the shop without buying anything and consider it a win.

I visit the village shop from time to time, a tiny shack on the verge of collapse where, like most shops here, you get served through a tiny window. This makes it hard to know what they sell but you can safely assume almost everything. Their opening hours are random but Freddie’s mum just yells until they open.

Our friends who were jailed after letting off guns one night from the roof of the guesthouse are finally released. They were locked up for nearly six months – a hell of a long time given that most crimes in the village, such as wandering around pissed and threatening people with sticks – seem to go unpunished. Inexplicably, the jailbirds are all fatter than when they went in so you can forget prison as a detox.

I have rented Freddie’s scooter so spend a lot of time going down random tracks to check out potential snorkelling sites. Sticks Ahangama becomes our new favourite beach caff and close to another newly-discovered snorkelling spot near Ahangama. The beach will have to remain secret but it’s definitely the most beautiful in Sri Lanka – white sand, lush vegetation tumbling down a terracotta-coloured cliff, a reef-protected pool – just gorgeous. Andrea and I decide it's perfect for our annual photo shoot - this year modelling her HookDesignLtd one-size-fits-all (just) beach dresses.


Turtle Bay, on the edge of Mirissa, is another great discovery. It has a fab restaurant and Andrea sees a three-legged turtle. Underwater visibility is crap but above-water visibility reveals hammocks, super-attentive waiters and the best salad I’ve ever had in Sri Lanka. On a subsequent (post-Andrea) visit, visibility is excellent (sorry Andrea) and I see a ton of fish including a huge moray eel, a pair of Oriental Sweetlips and a lot of baby Moorish Idols.


The trip is winding down. We have just a few days left in paradise and Andrea is getting feisty. Neither of us want to leave. Andrea spends her last few hours worrying about dogs – Dots has been banned from EVERYWHERE, and another dog has gone missing after being “rescued” by a tourist. “I only care about children and dogs”, says Andrea as she gets in to the car to head to the airport. “Make sure you find that dog.” We all know we had better find that dog or we’re DEAD.

Hiru - Born to Surf
 
Meanwhile, life in the village will continue ... with its constant little dramas, its lovely people, its spectacular sunrises and sunsets, and the surf .. always the surf, crashing endlessly on.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Back in the hood – Part 1

We leave Gay Ola reluctantly. We love all the staff and our fellow guests and they, possibly, love us. We stop off en route to stay at Jetwing Kaduruketha, a lux eco-hotel near Ella. Jetwing's Instagram feed is my main source for hotel porn and Francesca and I have been die-hard fans for a year so looking forward to taking Andrea.


Jetwing Kaduruketha
Jetwing backfires. Andrea is utterly scathing, calls it faux-eco and has to be forced to dip a toe into the idyllic river which she says is a cess-pit full of waste from the village upstream. I try to fight off the negative vibes with a visit to the hotel's “Gravity Meditation Area”, a pile of rubble near the swimming pool.

Rubble

Despite my hour of quiet contemplation, Andrea’s hostility wins out and Francesca and I obediently fall in line. I still think Jetwing Kaduruketha is pretty nice but have to admit that last year's "Nature Tour" was pants and the “Gravity Meditation Area” doesn't cut it. The fact is that, after Gay Ola, nothing faux-eco is ever going to cut it. Gay Ola is the nuts. (Gosh, I hope Jetwing aren't reading this: I’m trying to get comped for my next visit as an “Instagram influencer”.) 

En route home we stop off at the Buduruwagala temple we visited last year with the Scrims. We admire the 1,000-year-old rock carvings of Buddha and his shapely assistants, then get back in the car. Andrea describes it a perfect visit as it took no longer than half an hour.


Back in the hood, we resume our normal life of lounging on the terrace at Andrea’s, lazing around on jungle beach and snorkelling in zero visibility under crashing surf. I wake up at 4am every day to the usual cacaphony.



dog barking, monkey howl; pig throwing up, peacock squall, bloke opposite clearing phlegm; ethnic chanting, birds, shouty version of The Today Programme; accordion music.

I don’t really mind early wake-ups as I get to see spectacular dawns. Also Benjo, Neil and Jen are having an “adventure” at Atlantic Casino in the Bahamas and are eight hours behind me. They are very funny in our Whatsapp group – a stream of messages updating me as soon as I wake up.

Andrea, Francesca and I spend an inordinate amount of time discussing Dots, a hyper-aggressive, nervy stray who is loved deeply by us and loathed by the rest of the village. Dots leads a double life; at Andrea's he is sweet and only growls/goes for people if approached while sleeping or if they're a man. At his other (real) home – Dorian's Guesthouse – he's known as "Gangsta" and goes for anyone who touches him while he's under a table (he's always under a table). I have been bitten twice by Dots – once two years ago when I approached him while he was sleeping (rookie error) and this year when I accidently brushed him with my toe while he was under a table. He grabbed my foot and held on for over a minute. Then he came to say sorry. We blame it all on his unhappy childhood. 

Our beloved Dots (aka Gangsta)
I continue to meet and engage with random tourists. A German couple in the room next door are vehemently offgrid and consider pretty much all online activity as dangerous and negligent. I think they’re Christians but, at any rate, they're very nice and gave my a pack of Gingelly Balls for my birthday. I don’t even mind their lectures about how awful facebook, Instagram and whatsapp are. As they can’t be tagged in photos, I don’t take any so you’ll just have to believe me when I say Miriam is breathtakingly beautiful.


Gingelly Balls

I spend a lot of time with Katya, a visual artist and film-maker from Moscow, who has ZERO privacy settings. In fact, she is SO unfazed by it all that I am able to read a post she has written about me before she even accepts my friend request. She turned 28 two days before I turned 57 and she seems to think that behaving the way I do at my age is a great lifetime goal. She says privacy settings are a waste of time in Russia as they can read it all anyway. I assume “they” are Novichok dispensers so, personally, I'd set up a few basics but she is unconcerned.

Katya

I meet a nice Swedish couple who live north of the Arctic Circle. They currently don’t have daylight, just a slight uplifting gloom from 2-3pm. Horrific.

A bunch of hot Israelis have taken to putting up a tightrope on the village lawn every night. Christina, who studied at the only British school in Israel and has five A levels, eggs me on to have a go. As it’s my birthday, I decide that age IS only a number and step gingerly onto the strap, supported by hot Israelis; I wobble theatrically so they have to get a tighter grip. A village-load of locals stand around laughing.

I also like a nice Briish couple and their toddler who are taking a six-month sabbatical from being nice in Devon and being nice in Sri Lanka instead. They are sound, down-to-earth London escapees who now live in Totnes. Mrs Totnes does yoga but I am pretty sure that’s as far as she veers towards ley lines and crystals.

I do NOT like the pint-sized Austrian who likes to start his day by lecturing me. First on smoking (he gave up EASILY) and then on using the internet. He tells me he lived for two years off-grid in Costa Rica. Like I give a shit: I am immersed in a frenetic against-the-clock game of Wordsplay with Jen and Rod and the Austrian is stressing me out. Thanks to him, our global team ranking slips to #27.

The wildlife at Gay Ola was delightful but I can see a wealth of birdlife without even leaving my balcony at Dorians Guesthouse. Possibly because there aren’t any predators here but it’s like being inside the aviary at Basel zoo. Flashes of yellow, crimson and indigo dart past. Chirrup, Chirp.

Exclusive link to weird bird call: https://soundcloud.com/stations/track/mad-harper/weird-bird-call

One bird sounds like a Nokia ringtone, another is auditioning for Star Wars #9,: “pew, pew, pew”. He’s the loudest bird out there but there are numerous other contenders for highest decibel count.

Chino Rheem extra
As Benjo and Jen are in the past and I’m in the future, I threaten to tell them who has won the PCA. This is totally against media guidelines. Most of their WhatsApp updates can’t be published but the thread is rich in wit and wordplay. Early on, Benjo discovers that the word “ejaculate” used to mean “suddenly shout something” in the 19th century. He loves it and ejaculates constantly in a virtually silent media room. I challenge them both to use the word “ejaculate” in their nightly updates. Jen gives examples to Benjo as he’s French and doesn’t understand things like GADZOOKS.

"I am the duke's illegitimate child!" McTavish announced. "Good Lord!" ejaculated the bishop.

Benjo gets the hang of it, uses the word “Austen-esque” and says he will ejaculate if he doesn’t make it to the pasta place for dinner and will also ejaculate if he does.

Chino Rheem wins the Main Event for $1.5m and, rather than read PokerStars’ press release which DOESN”T mention he’s a total crook, I am usefully redirected to the 78-page thread on 2+2.

This fits right in with my current bedtime reading - The Last Chronicle of Barset. Anthony Trollope would have LOVED Chino Rheem but he would also have then ensured that Rheem gets his come-uppance and is banished from Barsetshire for ever. In real life, long queues form at the cage every time Rheem ever wins any money and his victims live in abject squalor. GADZOOKS!

Chino Rheem in Barsetshire

Saturday, January 19, 2019

Where were you when the coup in Gabon happened ? – three days off-grid at Gal Oya Lodge

After a fun six-hour journey with driver Gayan – which includes an up-close-and-person encounter with roadside elephants at Udawalawe National Park (and two bakery/coffee/smoking stops) we get to the turnoff for Gay Ola Lodge. It’s actually called Gal Oya, but we have renamed it Gay Ola in honour of a local peacock that spends most of its time trying to get off with itself in the reflective glass window of Room 9.

Gay Ola Lodge is off-grid. There is no internet and the nearest phone signal is a 17km cycle ride up the road. (From time to time, one of the hosts sets off carrying all his colleagues’ phones and downloads everyone's emails and whatsapp messages for them.)

There is no Google. I repeat, THERE IS NO GOOGLE!!!!! There is also no IMDB which makes it nigh on impossible to work out what year Picnic at Hanging Rock came out.


Gay Ola is a stunning place, located on the edge of Gal Oya National Park, one of the most remote and least visited wilderness areas in Sri Lanka. It’s an eco-lodge and for once, the eco bit lives up to its name. The accommodation is lush – beautifully-styled cabanas constructed in wood, stone and bamboo. Big room, comfy beds, semi-open-air bathrooms – and a panic button in Francesca’s room (Andrea and I don’t need a panic button.)


The views are incredible, especially from the pool which has a ridiculously gorgeous vista of nearby Monkey Mountain, (You can climb Monkey Mountain if you want to  - we don't).

Getting Active at Gal Oya
Gal Oya has numerous other activities on offer though; I am tempted by the “Sri Lankan Jungle Cooking Course” but only if we can start with the basics - like toast. There is also “Bicycle Tour” which Andrea does do and actually enjoys, even though it involves scaling a nearby mountain on a bicycle presumably last seen in the Wandsworth Bridge Road. It’s a hard-core adventure but she comes back peaced-out and very happy, especially as she managed to keep up with our new Scottish friends Robbie and Ally who are in their early 30s. 

I opt for “Bird Tour” and spend a lovely hour chatting  to our fellow guests Nina and James while responding sporadically to Boba's numerous sightings of the White Whiskered Tern. I also take part (loosely) in the “Gal Oya Lodge Animal Monitoring Program” by spotting a parakeet and calling it a White Whiskered Tern.

As we are adamant about our desire to NOT climb Monkey Mountain, we are instead offered the newly-invented “Monkey Mountain-lite” option which takes to the elephant grasslands a quarter of the way up. "Assistant Manager" Lewis has billed this as  a “gentle stroll” so I am geared up for a very short climb and a croquet lawn at the top.

We start threading our way up through half a mile of steamed-up jungle to reach the grasslands. I start wishing I hadn't brought the croquet mallets. Lewis has lied and this is only a gentle stroll if you are Asia’s biggest mammal I’m well on my way to the title but not there quite yet. There's no lawn at the top and the so-called “grass” is neck-high and needle-sharp, strictly for ellies which, at certain times of the year, amble through the area as they make their way up to the top of the mountains.

Elephant territory
I immediately lose my croquet ball and can’t look for it as the grass is full of lethal snakes. Boba – a gently-spoken, home-grown quasi-Rastafarian who learned about Gal Oya National Park in school and has wanted to live here ever since, spots some rocky slabs above us and, after checking for snakes and looking for my croquet ball, leads us all safely up. We spend a heavenly hour chatting, admiring the spectacular view and taking selfies with Arrack, the Lodge’s gorgeous rescue dog.
Arrack at rest
Arrack posing

Down at the lodge, there is nothing specific to do apart from lie on your back in the swimming pool and gaze at Monkey Mountain, lie on the sunloungers, read, eat, listen to podcasts, play Chinese poker or make up random facts which can’t be verified. We have three hosts. Nero (aka Gap Year), Lewis from Leeds and Brent from Zimbabwe. The chill-out areas are spacious and perfect Chinese poker territory. I snap out my cards and have both Gap Year and Brent heavily addicted within ten minutes. During practice games, Brent gets a nut low and quads on at the bottom – a feat that definitely won’t be repeated when we start playing for money.

We have nightly lock-ins, even though are no doors, locks, or even people – and sit around spouting unconfirmable facts and discussing Brexit. Gap Year says I remind him of Jeremy Clarkson. I tell him he reminds me of Justin Bieberlake but this is clearly such a weak parry that I’m almost embarrassed. “Clarkson” takes flight as my new nickname.

Gap Year is a semi-genius who is reading a hefty tome on blockchain for fun. We discuss the blockchain future (which Gap Year will be running) and I tell him that Malta is known as Blockchain Island and my fragment of an Ethereum which I bought six months ago for £50 on Coinbase is now worth £6 – or was. I can’t check how much further it’s fallen as I don’t have internet. Gay Ola is not the place to be a trader.

We discuss the suicidal peacock bashing its head on the window at Room 9. It did it five times while I was trying to rest in our chill out area – flirting with his own reflection and then, as he finally rushes in to make his move, knocking himself out.

Brent, who is a wildlife expert, says that apparently one time the peacock hit his head so hard there was blood all over the door and they had to clean it up before the next guest arrived. Brent doesn’t think the peacock’s gay; it’s actually attacking. Gap Year doesn't think gay peacocks exist. Brent mentions gay ducks, I mention gay penguins – and although nothing could be much more gay than a peacock it seems clear that the one at Room 9 is probably straight as he’s in really bad shape. Scraggy tail, unkempt feathers. Not gay.

The conversation turns to the dangers of the shamanistic drug iowaksa. Brent recites the chemical ingredients of iowaska. We can’t challenge him. We don’t have google. #NoGoogle is a thing. You have to try to remember stuff and anyone can come up with utterly random facts and statistics and get away with it.  #NoGoogle was frustrating at times but makes for much longer conversations as everyone scours their brain cells for residual trivia. With hashtag no google, you can’t just shut a conversation down by looking it up on Wikipedia. You have to keep going until there is a consensus or someone sounds more confident – or just louder– than everyone else. Us oldies can’t remember anything anyway, but it turns out we’re just as good as the young at making shit up.

Boat tour
Another exercise-free activity on offer is the boat trip round Senanayake Samudraya Lake, located right in the middle of Gal Oya Park. We see a herd of elephants moving gently along the edge of the forest, lots of birds, crocodiles sliding silently into the water. We picnic on a sun-baked slab of rock – safari style – everything exquisitely laid out in beautiful copper bowls. James – who went to Oakham and thus has impeccable manners – serves us tea, hands us our plates, ferries things back and forth. We are all very jealous of Nina.

Enjoying a spot of lunch at Gal Oya lake
Woman on rock - an ongoing series
Nina did International Relations at Cambridge. We find out she was working for the think tank which advised Cameron NOT to go ahead with the referendum. We are impressed. I get very over-excited when I find out she is mates with Tim Marshall – my hero, author of the must-read Prisoners of Geography). In a rash moment, she promises me we can all meet Tim Marshall when I get back from my Gap Year. James hints that Nina is quite well-known. None of us can check this however back in the land of the internet, we fire up Google and our crush on Nina goes through the roof. She is Sky News, CNN and Bloomberg’s go-to expert for all things Brexit. Andrea and I spend an entire afternoon going through her Instagram feed and listen to her explain on dozens of broadcasts why Brexit is a disaster. Andrea decides she is going to get ALL her news from watching Nina Instagram videos from now on.

Day 2
We are now completely at one with #NoGoogle. We don’t know what’s happening outside the lodge and we don’t care. Even Andrea has given up worrying about all the fabric that is not being ordered and won’t arrive in time for a project she is working on somewhere else in Sri Lanka. We don’t care about anything. It’s very peaceful – just the jungle, arak and us.

Suddenly Andrea comes in in a fury. One of the hosts has just told there’s been a coup in Gabon.

“There’s been a coup in Gabon. How do they fucking know that? They have satellite TV!!! They’re frauds. And who cares about Gabon? I don’t care about fucking Gabon. The only reason to care about Gabon is if you’re from there or you’re planning to visit there.”

“That’s very selfish,” I said. “I don’t fucking care,” says Andrea. “I’m supposed to be relaxing. I’m supposed to be off grid. I don’t want to hear about fucking Gabon.”

“Where were you when you heard about the coup in Gabon” becomes my new favourite expression. What’s clear is that we don’t really know exactly where Gabon is and Andrea doesn’t care they’re having a coup. Back on grid a few days later, I start googling. I find out where it is, what happened with the coup (failed) and the fact that it’s rich in all the bit and pieces you need to make nuclear warheads. It also has the best-preserved rainforest in Africa and looks beautiful; we decide we want to go there. I like the former President’s name a lot but apparently the country destabilised when Bongo had a heart attack last year. He was on holiday in Riyadh at the time. What the fuck? Who goes on holiday to Riyadh????? Thank god for Google.



















Tuesday, January 15, 2019

From Egypt to Sri Lanka: the Jeddah Airport Experience


Jeddah Airport
My flight from Egypt to Colombo is via Jeddah Airport. I have four hours there and my goal is to meet a newly-licensed women driver and ask her how many times she’s crashed her car. Saudi Arabia only allowed women to drive cars last June – the last country in the world to let women get behind the wheel. Ever since I have been obsessed with the image of millions of new women drivers taking to the road and being absolutely terrible. I’m especially obsessed when I’m in Dahab as I can see the lights of Taqba in Saudi Arabia across the water and sit in my comfy lounging area imagining the chaos.

I am so sure that I am going to get into trouble at Jeddah Airport that I send Andrea and Francesca details of my next of kin and passport number in case I’m arrested. On arrival from Sharm El Sheikh, there are only three passengers in transit and we are escorted everywhere in case we try to escape. Initially we are put in a holding pen – a 10ft square with security rails round it in the building of a vast empty hall. We are told to stay there for two hours. 


There are three chairs so we sit on them. My fellow transit passengers are a couple from Kuala Lumpur who don’t speak English. They look like farmers so I'm not sure how they've managed to afford the flight, but I look like I've been sleeping outside Poundland for a week so they're probably thinking the same about me.

I am dying for a cigarette so one of our police escorts leads me to a smoking cubicle which is located inside the airport women's’ praying area. We sinfully smoke as a bunch of women pray earnestly right next to us on rugs provided by the airport. My guard and I work our way slowly through a couple of Camels and then it’s back to the holding pen. The guards change shift and on my next smoking break, I’m escorted to a full-on part of the airport. I am under the impression I’ve been fully released so have a fag, a feta cheese salad and get out my laptop. I’ve been there for at least half an hour before I realise my police escort is waiting for me the whole time. There is one other white person in the smoking cubicle – a Scottish guy who lives in Jeddah. I immediately ask about women drivers and he says he has seen three so far – and one of them was driving on the pavement.

Back to the holding pen, and me and the Lumpans are loaded on to a bus and driven several miles to the International Terminal. I hang out with the security staff for a while before we are finally given boarding passes and let loose in the airport.


Jeddah Airport is an eye-opener. Almost everyone there is a pilgrim on their way back from Mecca and/or Medina. I don’t see any other Europeans or white people for the full four hours I’m there and a security guy says mine is the first British passport he’s seen in years. It’s a bizarre experience. I realise how marginal Whites/Westerners are in this world – a rarity, of absolutely zero interest. No one stares at me, no one asks me any questions. Everyone is a Muslim but it’s clear that there are thousands of different ways to be and dress like a Muslim. There are loads of men draped in fluffy white hotel towels which I surmise have been stolen from the Monte Carlo Bay Resort: they are worn very loosely as if they’re simply heading down to the spa. There are pilgrims from India, Singapore, Arabs of all kinds, people who look Tibetan or Mongolian. It’s a kaleidoscope of different cultures, different national dress, different ways to wear a hijab or burqa. One thing unites them: they are all really into Mohammed. I am fascinated by a bunch of pilgrims from Nepal wearing fantastic, ornately embroidered saris, their hair loosely covered, men in cute caps. It’s a great look which is completely ruined by the plastic tour company holdalls they’re carrying. I can tell they love their holdalls; they have the same look of pride and awe that online qualifiers display when they first put on their PokerStars hoodies.

There are many men in free-flowing long white Saudi robes, women head to toe in black, women in drop-dead gorgeous burquas of every kind. The smoking cubicles are segregated here and the female-only ones are packed with women chatting like they’re at the hairdresser's. 

I ask every single Saudi woman I meet if she has her their driving licence yet. I only find one – Lina – and she got her licence overseas. Lina is in full hijab but holidays in Knightsbridge every summer where she wears fuck all. She shows me pictures of her out clubbing with friends in London on the night they found out that they’re going to be allowed to drive. She’s wearing a boob tube, mini skirt and high heels and looks exactly like girls in West Street on a Saturday night.

Lina - didn't ask how many times she's crashed, did see her London clubbing pics

Everyone agrees it would be best if Saudi women stuck to automatics. One woman tells me she doesn’t want to learn until it’s safe – at the moment Saudi women drivers are still getting used to three-point turns and there are a lot of prangs. A Saudi guy I met told me that new drivers start out on super-high-tech,
state-of-the-art car simulators before being allowed out on real roads and the waiting lists are very long. His sister has applied, his mum isn't bothering.

Jeddah Airport is dazzling and I realise that really the world is Muslim: Europe, the West, the States seem as remote in Jeddah as Togo does to me when I’m sitting at Lawns Café in Hove. Somewhere I’ve vaguely heard of, not really relevant.

Friday, October 05, 2018

A feast of entertainment for VR fans at TOMTech’s 2018 VRLab


Dance fans – and people who like things that go whoooooosh – are going to absolutely love Wave VR at this year’s TOMTech. Grammy award-winning singer and technologist Imogen Heap has been grabbing the headlines with her mesmerizing VR music performance however the experience that literally had me raving was The Glitch Mob's "See Without Eyes". 

 This fab work is fully interactive and more immersive than scuba diving. Soar and zoom through space, sci fi landscapes and other trippy dreamscapes while being aurally dazzled to a 20-minute custom mix of great dance music. For one track, I was able to use my hands to magically transform passing rocks and mountains into pulsating mushrooms of psychedelic colour; in another, I was flying through asteroid fields in an endless galaxy while zapping planets with an arc of rainbow sprinkles. It’s quite a trip – and you’re dancing throughout because, well, it’s just that kind of music.

If you want the same kind of experience but sitting down, then Fantasynth should be your next port of call. Here it’s your chair that’s doing all the dancing as a padded back pulses forcefully against your back and you visually traverse yet more trippy landscapes, all set to the sound of N'to’s beat-heavy Chez Nous.

On a much quieter note, the talented, innovative and very modest artist Rachel Henson takes you on small but beautiful journeys in Outshift. Her small stand in the main room is a little oasis of tranquility. I was intrigued by her flickbooks (remember those??) which take you on charming Super8-style walks round the lamp-lit city wall of Chester or down a leafy country lane at Stanmer Park. A more immersive project are her lovely films – tiny scenes where filmed real-life characters are augmented onto static backdrops such as a photograph of a hospital corridor or a cartoon drawing. Peering through the eyepiece, you control the movement of the figures yourself using a touchpad on the side of the tiny, custom-designed monocular. Despite the small scale, this is awe-inspiring work and I would love to see more of her pieces.

In the bar, there’s a very intriguing and dynamic Augmented Reality dance production to enjoy from AΦE, the people who last year gave us Whist, a creepy and disturbing take on the imagined unconscious. This year’s production is truly lovely with sculpted avatars dancing sinuously around the bar area, superimposed on whoever happens to be standing there. There are several variations during the work – in one piece, two dancers merge on the floor; in another, dozens of tiny, tiny dancers are trapped in a outsized, transparent Rubik’s cube and you can flick them all around in a bid to solve the puzzle.

In the Waterloo Room, The Female Planet takes you back down to earth. This is a series of films which each feature an inspiring female role model talking about their life experiences. I only had time to watch one of the works – actress Gina Rodriguez urging youngsters to follow their dreams whatever their gender or colour. There a real sense of intimacy as Gina, a persuasive and engaging personality, shares with you one-to-one. I will be definitely be back at the Old Market before the weekend is out to watch the other stories from women such as aeronautical engineer (aka rocket designer) Tiera Fletcher, American fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad, who was first the Muslim American athlete to wear a hijab at the Olympics, and Indian-born YouTube star Vidya Vox.  



There are many, many other treats are in store at this year’s VR Lab. I was dying to have another go on Loco Dojo, the bonkers “It’s a Knockout”-style cartoon game that has you milking pigs, boxing eggs, stacking moles and whacking urchins. I also enjoyed another visit to the Plankton World of artist Iona Scott, and a first trip underwater with Living Coast. This is an interactive exploration of the chalk reef just off the coast, between Brighton Marina & Beachy Head.

This unique marine environment is home to abundant wildlife, including threatened species such as short-snouted seahorses, blue mussels & native oysters
. In real life, the chalk creates so much stirred-up sediment that’s it impossible to see a thing but Virtual Reality gives you an insight into just how many underwater riches lie beneath us as we bob around in the Sussex sea.

One session at VRLab probably isn’t enough time to try out everything on offer so I recommend … going twice. I’m certainly heading back there before the weekend is out, ready for another full immersion in the myriad wonders of Virtual and Augmented Reality. TOMTech is on until Sunday – don’t miss it.


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