Saturday, 25 October 2014

Ethiopia and Somaliland 2015

 

The (mis)adventures of the A-Team (Paul Stewart and Brent Hargreaves) in East Affffrica.
 
Some highlights of the positive and negative experiences
 

Surrounded by Predators

From the moment they spotted us they began circling, edging gradually closer, their eyes glinting, testing us for weakness. This, at a bus stop in the middle of town!
 
We're in the town of Harar in eastern Ethiopia, breaking our journey to Somaliland in an ancient place famous for its city walls and as the birthplace of the mass murderer Mengistu.
 
From the evidence before our eyes, the women of Ethiopia do all the work and the men either lounge around doing nothing all day or (and here they come) they prey on innocent visitors. In his book The Road Ahead, Bill Gates coined the phrase 'friction free capitalism', predicting that the newfangled internet, liberating information, would make purchase decisions easier. Scavengers with mobile phones, the street hucksters now surrounding us will, under the pretence of being helpful, attempt to exploit our ignorance and ensure that we pay top dollar for drinks, food, accommodation and onward transport. If we're dumb enough to let 'em, that is......

Harar is the furthest we could get from the capital, Addis Ababa, in a single hop. It was a ten-hour bus ride. From here to the border with Somaliland we need to find transport. But first, we need beer. Shaking off the gaggle of hucksters, and very alert to theft, we stroll off to find a bar. There's one down a sidestreet. Paul and I chill out, taking our time to orient ourselves (is there a bus station?) and hand out token gifts to children across the road.



Colourful women and timid children in Harar, Ethiopia

We decide to hire a private taxi for the remaining 100 miles to the border, and after much haggling agree on a price of $120, leaving tomorrow morning. Now, where are we to sleep? Shunning all advice, we decide to head off in a direction of our own choice in a dead straight line until we find a suitable campsite. Masters of our own fate, with iron resolve, we will not deviate to left or right until we can say: "This is a nice spot".

Our chosen direction takes us through the ancient walled city - through one gate, out the other side, laughing and joking with women heading in the same direction, some driving donkeys with the shopping on, some carrying baskets or sacks on their heads (haha, missus! D'you reckon this rucksack would be better on me head?). The crowds thin out. We pass the smelly municipal rubbish dump and, now very tired, find a nice spot. Suddenly there are dark clouds and lightning flashes. Double-quick, we pitch our tents but the expected downpour doesn't happen.

I go off in search of firewood. There are some funny looking trees. Underneath them one or two green spheres: haha! These are mango trees! and for the next day the song from Dr. No is stuck in my head - Underneath de Mango Tree. Also underneath de mango tree is a hyena: furtive, sly, shifty. It slinks off when I throw a mango at him. By the time I get back to camp he is tagging along behind. "Hey Paul, I've made a friend!" Paul rummages in his rucksack and comes out with the world's biggest Bowie knife to defend us.  



As dusk arrives, three or four other hyenas join the first one. We throw stones at them to no effect. They laugh at us! It's a filthy corrupt sound. When it's fully dark we don our headlamps and, from the reflections in their eyes, we realise that we are surrounded at all points of the compass by at least eight hyenas. It's time for a risk assessment. Can we just ignore them and hope they lack the courage to come through the canvas? Shall we take it in turns to sleep with one of us standing guard? Or must we accept that these are unpredictable wild animals; that we have no experience to guide us; that the only sensible course is to break camp and retreat to the town. We do the sensible thing and pack up. A horrible sweaty night follows, in a double bed, listening to barking dogs, swatting mosquitos (Paul is a brilliant shot) and discovering condoms on top of the wardrobe.
 
In the morning, the private taxi is just big enough for us and our packs. The huckster who arranged this thinks he is squeezing in with us. We politely tell him to go to hell. The trip to Togo Wuchale on the border is great fun, and we tell the driver to pull over when we spot baboons or Lot's Wife or giant phalli (is that the plural of phallus?) en route.
 
   
Baboons, Willy Canyon, Paul irrigating an acacia tree, Lot's Wife sheltering under an acacia tree.
 

Dumber and Dumber

Paul and I had long conversations on "openness", and figured that we would strike the best balance between the two extremes of (a) Being so cautious that it disbarred us from exchanges with genuine people and (b) Believing like gullible fools that everybody was our friend. Could we strike the "happy medium"? Why, shoor.
 
On a long walk through the diesel fumes of Addis Ababa, a couple of friendly guys fall into step with us. "Hello! How are you? Where are you guys from?" and so on. They tell us all about the bus station; about the new railway; about the sports stadium; about the embassies. And, as afternoon turns into night, they ask us if we would like to experience a Tej Bar. Tej is mead, or honey wine, flavoured with a unique local shrub, once reserved only for kings. It's an unmissable experience.
 
We confer, and decide that we can easily afford to treat a couple of ne'er-do-wells to a couple of rounds of drink. We think we are being "open".
 
They take us through dark rubble-strewn streets to a bustling place, with every seat taken. Grinning our stupid tourist grins at the many blank faces turned towards us, we are led through the throng, down a corridor, into a narrow back room where - pleasant surprise! - there is just enough room for the four of us at the end of this cul de sac.
 
 
The Tej is rather nice.  Another round? Yeah, sure! Oh, it's traditional to drink three times. Yeah, sure!
 
And then the bill comes. It's quite high. I forget just how much, but it's maybe twenty or thirty quid. We start to protest. The hard-faced barman, who has been filling these flasks from a big enamel kettle with great dexterity, is not batting an eyelid. He wants paying. We ask other drinkers what price they are paying per shot. They write down exactly the sum of money that our companions tell them - maybe two quid a shot. Paul and I confer. Have we fallen into a trap? Yes we have. Can we afford this? Yes we can. Can we extract ourselves from this without unpleasantness? I want my mummy.
 
When we get out into the fresh air, breathing sighs of relief, but cursing ourselves for letting our guard down, these two bastards are still at our sides. In an effort to salvage some self-respect, I thank the one of them for a useful, if expensive, education. They propose a meal. We say, "Great idea! How about this pizza place over the road. You're buying, then? It's your round!" They vanish at a speed which suggests teleportation or genies going back into a kettle of Tej.
 
There's a postscript. The following day, as he sits typing in an internet café, Paul looks up to see one of these petty criminals next to him. He's full of himself, gloating at his successful sting. He boasts to Paul that with the proceeds of the scam he has bought a set of new clothes and a pair of shoes. Paul tells him, vividly and vigorously, to go away.   
 
 
 
Another day, another dummy

Somaliland 

Unusual in Africa, unsual in muslim countries, Somaliland is a democracy. They change government by election, with the outgoing President handing over without a fight.

Not to be confused with the dangerous Somalia, Somaliland was once a British colony. Thanks to us Brits, they write in a-b-c rather than wiggly squiggly. In 1960, we Brits and the colonial masters of Italian Somalia coordinated our departure and left 'em to it. After a period of calm and oppression, Somaliland broke away. There was terrible loss of life. Today, Somaliland is proudly independent. In the capital, Hargeisa, they celebrate this liberation every 18 May with much waving of their green-white-red national colours. This year was the 24th anniversary.  

Paul and I timed our visit to witness the big parade, hoping to see the famous lions. We were not disappointed.


Wrapped in the flag  - Hand-made Hatband - Hairstyle - Ladies join in 

Paul had a bout of food-poisoning, and was confined to the hotel room on the day before the Big Day. I went walkabout. Walking along Independence Road, I hear a song being played from Tannoys, sounding like Manca Manca Manca. Its tune strongly resembles the French song Alouette. I happen upon a Russian-made MiG bomber on a pedestal and, snapping away, draw a crowd of locals.



Independence from Britain, on 24 June 1960 (or 26th according to the above pedestal) (the guy with the hairstyle says it was the 24th) was then supplanted by the 18 May 1991 independence from Somalia.

Paul and I were dubious about the Mig having been shot down whilst bombing Hargeisa. It turns out that, having bombed civilians in 1991, later engine failure at takeoff left it stranded at Hargeisa airport, hence its good condition to this day.

I asked my crowd of locals about the song. A couple of them gave me the lyrics:

Manta manta manta
Wa ma'alin wee'le manta
Manta manta manta

Today today today
Today is a big day
Today today today.

This was a big hit for a lady called Halimo Khalif Mogol in 1960. On this Big Day in 2015, we sometimes attracted crowds of curious locals, snapping photos of us in our green-white-red, who were very pleased to hear us sing the song.

The temperatures were very high, and I was wearing shorts. The sight of legs attracted some dubious looks, but only when a tall austere guy in a muslim hat pushed through the crowd and accused me of a lack of respect did I change my wayward ways and skedaddle to the hotel room to re-attach the bottom half. When in Rome.....

Watching the procession on the Big Day, a policeman calls us forward. "Come with me", he says. We follow obediently. He makes his way to the steps of a bank where a bunch of top brass are receiving salutes from the passing military. Next thing we know, we are among the local dignitaries, being saluted at. Such fun!


Kalashnikovs. Don't like Kalashnikovs.
  
Did we see the lions? Yes we did!


Lion and hat. "Equal justice under the law"? I'll drink to that!



Not-so-smiley faces                                        Slootin sojers

Sadly, we failed to make contact with a former workmate, Mustafa, who was back home in Somaliland at the same time as us. It would have been great to have had an entrée into local society.

A word about the hat: one evening my adventurous hat with its lovely hatband was whipped off my head by a bunch of youths who yahoo'ed away into the darkness. I yelled, "Oh, no!", but declined to go rugby tackling 'em. Paul and I were immediately surrounded by apologetic adults, ashamed of the offence. One of them offered me the above trilby, which I gratefully accepted. And I got my hat back. Kids, eh?!

The Red Terror

It so happens that Ethiopia is Christian, with a history going back to the 4th century. It is the only African country to have escaped European colonialism. From 1930 its emperor was the famous Haile Selassie. Before becoming emperor his name was Tafari Makonnen, later "Ras" (head) Tafari. For reasons beyond me, a religious movement in Jamaica adopted him as a figure of respect (or higher), and called themselves the Rastafarians. 

Walking around Addis Ababa we would sometimes see a bewildered guy in dreadlocks muttering to himself or singing in a demented way. Go figure.

In 1973 I recall seeing a Sunday Times magazine item entitled "Ethiopia: the Lion Grows Old". The following year Haile Selassie was deposed in a military coup. For the next fifteen years a monster called Mengistu, with Soviet support, set about murdering hundreds of thousands of his opponents with special emphasis on the young. Today, a superb museum in Addis commemorates these dark days. The staff lived through those times. Mengistu lives on, given sanctuary by the lovely Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe.

I try to avoid political comment on my travels, but let the following photos give their own comment:



A street huckster had latched onto us as we walked around the streets looking for a bus station and also the Red Terror Museum. At a certain point, he was pounced upon by a young man who gave him a right pummelling, ending in a pebble the size of a conker being thrown at his head with an audible "thwock". It was only that evening that we discovered the identity of the attacker: he was a huckster from outside our hotel, some miles away from where the assault took place, by the name of Dawyd. Seconds before beating up the other fellow Dawydd had said to me, "OMG! Fancy meeting you here!", but he had clearly been tracking us every step of the way and considered us his turkeys ready for plucking.

This is not nice. With the benefit of hindsight, we should have made greater efforts to get out into the countryside; out of the big bad cities with their hard people.

Border Control Problems

Without wishing to dwell unduly on the problems Paul and I encountered, our unwitting errors caused us great anxiety. Firstly, upon crossing from Ethiopia to Somaliland at the land border, we appear to have strolled right past the Ethiopian exit point without noticing it.

Our second unwitting error was to lack understanding of the visa system. It seems that, unlike on trips to France, there are single-entry and multiple-entry visas. Upon flying back to Addis Ababa after Somaliland, and without the requisite exit stamp, we were attempting an illegal entry after an illegal exit (their words).


Quiz question: can you see my surname somewehere in the above mess?

They confiscated our passports and, in daily sessions at the Department of Immigration, we were subjected to severe questioning, with a silent fellow examining our body language. At one stage, questioned separately from Paul, my inquisitor put it to me that I had failed to spot the Border Control because I "didn't want to see it". (In fact, in their crappy country it's hard to tell the difference between a Border Control and a shithouse.) He went on to tell me that I would have to go on trial, and asked "do you have a lawyer?" I replied "I want the British Consul", which seemed to quieten him down. A later precautionary visit to the British Consulate yielded a phone call which may have helped.

During our daily visits to the Ministry we stayed in a nearby hotel. One evening a stranger sits near Paul and engages him in conversation. Paul is pretty sure that he was working for the Ministry, sent in to observe us up close. He told Paul a story about some Dutch tourists who had strayed into a conflict area and got imprisoned for five years. Gulp.

In the end, they let us off, although Paul had great anxiety at the airport. The passports were missing, and arrived only minutes before his flight closed.

I draw the following conclusion: Ethiopia has no concept of easing international travel; its officialdom, used to lording it over a cowed populace, feels entitled to lord it over visitors. It is a country best avoided by the tourist and probably by the business visitor as well. I for one will not be going back, and consider that I have had a lucky escape.

Last Minute Trouble

Paul flew home the day before I did. I used the  remaining day to walk up into the Entoto Mountains, north of Addis, reaching an altitude of 3000m (just 300m lower than the summit of Etna). Addis, at 2500m, is the third highest capital in the world. I became ill on the 2nd or 3rd day - we believe from altitude sickness. At 3000m (I am amazed to discover) a third of the air is missing!
 
The celebrated athlete Haile Gabreselassie should be renamed Very Highly Gabreselassie.

I stopped off at villages to play with the kiddies and give away some plastic spiders and bubbles and stuff.


Forever blowing bubbles. No unkind references to Michael Jackson, please.

In one of them, I later found, one of the taller boys had managed to unzip a side-pocket of my rucksack as I departed, stealing my torches, six or eight items in total. Upon discovering this, I went back down the slope and made a right old stink: "RIGHT, YOU LITTLE BASTARDS! ON PARADE! WHO HAS STOLEN MY STUFF?!" The adults of the village made an appearance, placated me, and organized the recovery of most of the stuff. Once honour was satisfied, the woman who kindly took the lead shook my hand, bumping shoulders in the Ethiopian manner.


Firewood-carrying women of the Dhorzay tribe. The men just watch...

At the top, not far from a village, I pitched my tent. The next morning, tribeswomen took an interest, and mentioned my presence to local soldiers who (no surprises any more) came along with their silly Kalashnikovs to annoy me. Eventually my "case" reached a high enough level in the chain of command and an officer let me go. Phew!

The Cradle of Humanity

Mankind originated in Ethiopia. A close cousin of Homo - Australopithecus Afarensis - walked upright. We know this from the discovery of a fossilised specimen, named Lucy. She was given this nickname because Richard Leakey's team of archeologists were playing a tape of Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds when the great discovery was made.
 
 
 
Australopithecus Afarensis ("Lucy") and Homo Stewartis ("Paul")
 
Not far from the Somaliland capital Hargeisa we visited some ancient cave paintings, some dated as early as 3000BC. Whilst this is a long time after Lucy, it is still some of the earliest art known.
 
 
Las Geel ("Watering place of the camels")
 
 
Stop Press 28 May 2015 A 'new species' discovered in Ethiopia: Australopithecus deyiremeda (Hyperlink)

Chat

We met many people chewing the narcotic leaf called chat, khat or qat. Even in the very muslim city of Hargeisa it was very big business
 
 
Chat users and sellers.
 
Based on our very brief observations I would say that chat makes people cocky and insensitive, and boggle-eyed. It is also the most revolting sight to see inside the mouth of a man who has been chewing the stuff for a long time.
 

Chat user

In the minibus from the border to Hargeisa, a big guy sat next to me worked his way through a bunch of chat. He would pluck out the tenderest shoots, flick them with his middle finger and gleefully stuff them in his mouth. He seemed most amused at my disapproval, waving the stuff in front of me.
 
I wonder if the mullahs will declare this substance as bad as alcohol and ban it...
 
===========================================

Note for family and friends: If you wish to add a comment below, pick the option of "Comment as - Name/URL" and type your name in.

Monday, 6 January 2014

Vesuvius and Etna 2004

 

A Pair of Volcanoes

Christmas 2004, unable to find a travelling companion and recently separated, I decide to indulge a long held but distant fascination for volcanoes. With a budget flight to Naples (a short distance from Mount Vesuvius), and then an overnight ferry trip on to the Sicilian port of Catania for an attempt on the much more challenging Etna, this was a two-volcano trip.
 
 
 
Approaching Etna
 
It may all sound rather rash - walking up mountains in midwinter - but there is a rationale underpinning my general approach to adventure. Firstly, the scale of ambition has over the years been growing in small incremental steps. One hears of silly people who buy their first boat Monday, set off across the Atlantic on Tuesday, and have to be rescued Wednesday. That approach is rash. Secondly, the enterprise has to promise rewards in the form of sights or events.
 
There's a happy medium between doing something so banal that it's pretend-adventure (the Bear Grylls approach - the contemptuous little tart with his cameraman and sound recordist sharing every "death-defying" experience) and something so risky that one ends up - what's the word I'm looking for? - oh yes, that's the one - dead. In short, it's a balance of risk and reward. The greater one's skill and experience the smaller the risk; from this it follows that with increasing capability comes the opportunity for more vivid and memorable adventures.
 
So one essential skill, which must be refined and honed, is sensitivity to danger. One has to be prepared to pull back; to acknowledge that whatever the steps leading to this dangerous moment every single one can be reversed if that's the right thing to do. In the case of this Italian trip the dangers were all natural, but the same applies to human dangers. One has to develop a nose for human threats; truth be told I cannot categorically say that I have acquired these antennae: it's hard to define. But in many a strange town with its exotic inhabitants I have edged away from the quiet alley, moved towards the more public places, and glanced around for any malevolent eye contact in order to avoid becoming a victim.
 
On that second category - human as opposed to natural danger - we Westerners have to contend with the coloured lens of what is "normal" to us. In exotic locations the locals have a very different sense of what is normal and familiar and, say, hygienic. By way of illustration (I hope I'm not labouring the point here), my stepson Charlie and I went walkabout in Luxor (Egypt) one afternoon. Some other guests in the hotel later said, "What? You went... outSIDE?!! Out walking in the STREET? How brave!" Their temerity may be comical, but for them the unknowns were greater than for Charlie and me; better safe than sorry certainly has its merits as a motto. The trouble is that in applying that motto too strictly, people disbar themselves from a range of experience and end up the poorer for it. (Incidentally, Chas said to me as we walked to a smelly smoky internet cafe twenty times cheaper than our hotel, and bought freshly-squeezed sugar cane juice from a street vendor, "Brent, let's get this straight. It's the hottest time of the day on the hottest day of the year in the hottest year in decades...." "Yeah? Your point?" "Well we're not behaving, er, normally!" Well said Charlie!
 

In the first stage of this Italy journey I had slept on the rim of Vesuvius, the volcano which destroyed Pompeii and which was still smoking slightly after its last eruption in 1944. An astonishing river of cold lava was created in that 1944 eruption, like scummy water swirling its way around the edge of the sink. If this is what they term a Caldera, the known eruptions of Vesuvius may one day be dwarfed by a big one.


 
 River of lava in the caldera below Vesuvius's summit
 
 
I reached the entrance to Vesuvius late afternoon, and was miffed to be turned away by the gatekeepers who were packing up to go home. You come-a back tomorrow. We closing now. After they'd cleared off I sneaked through a gap in the mesh fence and yomped up to the rim, tying my tent onto a vulcanologist's vent-pipe to ensure that rolling over in the night wouldn't end in tears. Here are a few little vids of the approach, the summit,  the fast descent.(Links to Youtube under construction)
 

 
Vesuvius. The smoke and rucksack help give an idea of scale.
 
The overnight trip to Catania was uneventful; I had hoped to see Stromboli in the night (an erupting volcanic dome which protrudes above the waves of the Med). Dawn arrival at Sicily, with Etna brooding above it, was quite atmospheric.



Approaching Sicily by sea: Etna pink above the horizon.
:









A brave - or more likely hungry - fox on Christmas Day, Etna foothills
A fox came to visit me on Christmas day, having tried to dig his way through the snow into my tent. (The photos above must be under a tree.) Here is a video showing what a pest he was.There was a heavy snowfall that night. This photo gives a better idea of the conditions:


Christmas Day on the footslopes of Etna
 
He (or is it she?) couldn't be coaxed to take that fig from my fingers. My Christmas treat was some chestnuts growing there (in England they've all gone by November), a vivid illustration of von Humboldt's discovery that environments exist in bands, with latitude and altitude (two independent variables) combining to replicate the same conditions in far-apart locations such as Everest and the Arctic.

 


 
 Chestnuts at Christmastime













The long haul upwards. Alarmed to find the snow melting from below.

 
 
 
The snow on Etna is melting from below. This made a direct ascent too risky, and so I had to follow the endless hairpins of the ski slopes - no skiers but a tracked vehicle was still driving up and down them. I only got as far as 2700m - the top cablecar station. It was perishing cold, with high winds, and I pitched my tent in the basement using ceramic tiles in place of tentpegs. A notice up there read "Any tourist found beyond this point will be forced to pay in full his mountain rescue costs". Even without this there was no question of attempting the 3350m summit. (Everest - for comparison - is 8850m high.) This was admittedly a hard slog - every sodding footstep! - but its nature was just hill-walking: a tougher Snowdon. No crampons pitons or futons. The white pall showing over Etna in the top photo is no illusion; I think it's wind whipping up ice crystals rather than volcanic activity. Disappointingly I was to see no lava except in the form of mile after boring mile of old stuff at Vesuvius, abrasive as hell and unforgiving in the event of a stumble on the horrible clinking pumice.
 
As I made my laborious way up the piste a tracked vehicle was coming down. Its purpose is to keep the ski slopes flat enough. He pulled over to advise me that I could take shelter under the top cablecar station. In his words there was basso temperaturo which even I can understand.
 
 
The winds on Etna clearly blow in the same direction for long periods. This causes ice crystals to grow unidirectionally, as on this crucifix:
 
A crucifix encrusted with ice crystals on Etna; volcanic sub-craters in the distance.
 











 









The tractor driver's advice was sound. When I got up to the top cablecar station the wind was outrageous. Any thoughts I had had about pitching a tent were unrealistic. The flysheet would have blown horizontal during setting up. And so I was grateful for the basement of the ski lift. It had filled with powder snow - microscopic crystals as fine as flour - which gave no purchase for my tentpegs. Invoking Hargreaves's Rule of Adventure - in case of doubt, difficulty or danger: adapt adapt adapt - I found a pile of gorgeous Italian floor tiles and they served to hold down my tent pegs.
 

Sleeping arrangements in the basement of the deserted ski station
 
As expected, the temperaturo was bloody basso and I was having to stop every few minutes to put my chilled hands down inside my trousers. When finally the tent was up, a bit of a wobble: the zip was stuck. It took several attempts, getting more and more chilled, but in the end I managed to hole up in my sleeping bag shivering like a shivery thing. Cooking involved lying half in the tent and half out: any temptation to cook inside must be resisted for fear of asphyxiation. In order to speed up the morning's cooking I took the stupid decision to sleep with a bottle of snow - a cold water bottle so to speak. After a miserable cold night, I tried to pour out the lovely liquid water only to find it was still solid snow. Duh!
 
The descent the next morning was other-worldly, with beautiful sunshine and the wind whipping ice crystals across the surface, deceiving the eye like the retreating waters at the seashore.
 
 
On the way back down, a scene of great beauty

 I went out of my way to find the tractor garage and pop my head around the door to show I was not stranded at altitude. I was grateful for the driver treating me like an adult capable of assessing his own risks rather than lecturing me for a fool.











Sulhuric gas vents

The sulphur vents were at neither volcano but at Naples. Here's a short vid taken just as my battery died.When the area had become fashionable in Byron's time the Brits constructed cubicles in which to inhale the health-giving fumes. Turns out that these fumes turn to sulphuric acid when inhaled. Not good.

Naples was full of household litter, piled high on street corners and also strewn for many miles on the hairpins up to Vesuvius. This is down to the Mafia, their theft of public funds and consequent failure to dispose of the litter properly there for all the world to see. Shameless; beyond the impotent law. For some reason I shot a vid in the woods below Vesuvius.

For some reason, Pompeii made little impression on me. I seem to have taken no photos, and barely remember walking its streets. Here are some stock photos of what I might have seen:


 
Vesuvius                                  A victim of Pompeii              A past eruption of Etna 
 
As adventures go this was not the most satisfying, but helped quench my thirst to sleep on the rim of volcanos. The unexpected didn't really happen, but once you've done everything to give 'im the opportunity to put in an appearance, well if he sniffs at that red carpet and stays sat in the limo well we're not going to drag him kicking and.... (this metaphor is now out of control and shall be terminated).

One minor footnote: Somewhere around Vesuvius I managed to lose my money belt with passport, cards and cash. I had to throw myself on the mercy of the British Consul, the gent in the middle below. I do believe that the Italian lady on the right was, er, flirting with me. It crossed my mind that, with me a penniless beggar, she might take pity on me. Before this team photo, with just me and her either side of the glass, she was, er, doing things to the microphone. Me being a shy boy, I was never to find out if...
 
 
The Consul, his gorgeous Italian ladies and... that microphone.

Monday, 18 November 2013

Hypothermia and Hydrotherapy - Wales 1992


A Night in the Black Mountains


September 1992

 
Hypothermia is quite scary when you go down with it.

I had heard of it in the past, of course, like everyone has. But who’d have thought it possible for your blood to get so cold that, upon taking a hot drink, you actually feel warm blood going inch-by-inch down your arms and into your hands and making your fingertips tingle? For my legs, when it happened, it was in the great big arteries that I felt it most (what are they called, the big ones going down from your groin, where you bleed to death in seconds if you are stabbed there?)

I was on a ridge of hills. Not really mountains, nothing spectacular, rather like walking Northwards along the spine of a great whale. Except there's no dorsal fin. I was on Offa’s Dyke Path, which follows the English-Welsh border from coast to coast (from Chepstow to Prestatyn). Offa was King of Mercia (middle England) from 757 to 796AD, and he set up this frontier more for the purposes of taxing trade with Wales rather than for military defence a la Hadrian.

This was my first camping trip since… blimey… since I were a lad, bah gum. I had been hiking on my own for a couple of days, my mate Gary Clarke having dropped out on the third morning, buggered off back home on the train. Walking along all on my lonesome,  I had become pretty damned chilly in my inadequate clothes, a constant right-to-left wind blowing my body heat away as the afternoon wore on.

At barely five o’clock - very conservative - I decided to bed down. Let’s get out of this damned wind. Over to the left the land sloped down and gorse bushes were growing. Let's shelter from the bloody wind. As I picked my way through the gorse, I thought This is not the time to break an ankle. It’d be hard to crawl back to the spine of the whale for help. Now, where to pitch the tent? Spaces big enough for a tent were hard to find; when at last I found one, a horse had dumped his load smack in the middle of it.

Having shovelled it away, I felt suddenly drained. Too drained to put the tent up. Too tired to make a cuppa; too tired to lift the rucksack off my back. Warning, Will Robinson, warning! Only after lying down in the lee of the bushes could I summon up the strength to take the rucksack off; to get my stove out and light it. The white slab of hexamine - similar to a firelighter - wouldn’t light. Emergency, emergency!

My mate Mick Bassett had coached me a little back in Telford and, God bless ‘im. He had given me outdated packs of Arctic Rations containing, amongst many things, magic matches. These packs are British Army issue (Mick was big in the local cadets); they are light to carry, but stuffed full of calories. In each cubic box is… how to put this…. a veritable cornucopia of squaddie grub… the accumulated wisdom of decades of army nutritional expertise… and a packet of wonder-matches that can even be struck underwater.

Despite the strong wind, the match lit. The stove lit. And I boiled up a cup of Bovril. As I drank it - nectar! - it warmed the cockles of my heart, and warmed other bits as well.
 
------

My eider-down sleeping bag had been very expensive when Mum had bought it for me… er… a quarter of a century before. As I later found out, these little feathers degrade over the years; they crumble to dust, especially when compressed like this one for a quarter of a century. (I believe that the cost of properly storing the army's eiderdown sleeping bags at Telford's BOD depot is astronomical.) Between me and the cold grass were two lousy layers of cloth and a ground sheet. Man, I froze my *’##$£ off that night. The wind blew in gusts which made a slamming sound on the side of the tent. Sometimes they would have a sequence that resembled somebody trying to attract my attention. Bang…… bang-bang…… bang-bang-bang-bang-are-you-deaf-or-what?

To add to my discomfort was a water shortage. It’s a basic error, I know, but this survival stuff doesn't come automatically, and I had accumulated only a smattering of experience back in my teens with the cadets. On an "Arduous Training" course in Snowdonia the teachers had pretty much told us what to do. Critically, there was no discussion on decisionmaking, arguably the single biggest feature of survival craft. Hoping to find water up here on the Black Mountains, I didn’t carry much up with me. But there were no streams at altitude and my food was nearly all dehydrated stuff. "Add water"... yeah, that's easy for you to say. Around midnight I began to worry that, with such a direct link between my tiny water supply and the hot calories I could ingest, a serious crisis was looming. Things are getting a bit hairy when you have to make a choice between a) Brushing your teeth with it b) making a hot drink with it and c) holding it in reserve. (In the end I chose “c”.)

Sitting there shivering, I devised an emergency plan. The nearest water if I kept going straight forward was at Hay on Wye, which sat at the bottom of a great long downward slope when finally, several miles ahead, the whale’s back ended. If in the morning the hypothermia returned I would have to leg it westwards, bail out down the slope, falling off the whale’s back on the left. There were no signs of friendly Welsh farmhouses on the map or by their lights. I would have to pick my bail-out point with great accuracy to intersect a stream shown on the map. I carefully worked out the compass bearing of mountains to left and right to identify the bail-out point. Of course, it might turn into nothing more than a sunny stroll in the morning, but the hypothermia might strike again. That would be embarrassing.

As it turned out, it was indeed a stroll. But this dodgy experience was a useful stepping-stone to the high level of ‘capability’ I have since developed.

----------

I was so sad to have lost Gary. He was good company, a home-made philosopher. He was also poor and overweight. He had borrowed a cheap rucksack from somebody. Ominously its harness broke on Day 1, on Chepstow train station’s platform. We had walked all of ten yards…

I hadn’t thought of querying Gary’s fitness. Younger than me, I might have challenged him to walk up and down the Wrekin with me but it never occurred to me. Poor old Gary struggled from the outset. As the day-and-a-half of our adventures together progressed, I took more and more weight from him until I was burdened like a mule, carrying maybe 30kg to his ten, taking ten for the team so to speak.

Our first night out was in a stretch of ‘ancient woodland’: woodland that has never been felled or farmed. The most amazing gnarled trees grew there. It was so untidy. Tidiness is a man-imposed thing. My misconception that a tree should, in its ideal form, have a cylindrical trunk and spherical top was shown to be bunkum. Real trees are a mess. In real forests they are all fighting each other. We saw a pair of trees locked in a centuries-old death struggle, each leaving bare scars on his opponent. With time lapse photography what uppercuts, what jabs might we witness?

Against the rules, we camped out in the ancient wood. We made a fire, but left no trace the next morning. As we sat and chatted, owls were gently hooting every minute or two. We debated just what was the purpose of this: mating calls? Keeping in touch? Ah, maybe it's territorial marking: the hoot means, “this is my patch, and I’m at home”. So as an experiment, I gave out my own hoot. The place went barmy, with four or five neighbours screaming “Ta-whit, ta-woo; ta-whit, ta-woo; who the hell are youuuu?!” Gary was bursting his sides.

Ancient woodlands are places of indescribable beauty, places of chaos and irregular geometry which speak of the deep mathematics of multi-species evolution untouched by human hand. In contrast, the obscene ranks of fir trees being planted by subsidy-scrounging agro-business is a million miles away from being natural. It's as stupid as squandering public funds for music on ringtones rather than symphony orchestras. The few square miles of ancient woodland which remain in Britain must be defended. They are riches which our descendants deserve to inherit.

After our second night, in a musty Norman castle run as a youth hostel, in a place called St. Briavels, Gary announced he couldn’t go on, and legged it back home. Later on, after the Black Mountains, the steep upward slope of Hergest Ridge (of Mike Oldfield fame) was to be conquered. A very hard slog. To drive myself on, I used the self-help technique of resorting to anger, unfairly blaming Gary for all my woes. An improvised song came to mind:

           If you go up in the hills today, you’re in for a big surprise,

If you go up in the hills today, you’ll hardly believe your eyes.

‘Cos Gary Clarke’s nowhere to be seen,

He just ****ed off like he’d never been.

Today’s the day that Gary Clarke props the bar up

Before and after the Black Mountains, I had met a woman doing the same walk. She was hideous; from the way her eyes lit up later on upon meeting another woman I think she was a thingummybob. I devised a song in her honour:

            A thingmybob is following me, parlez vous,

            A thingmybob is following me, parlez vous,

            A thingmybob is following me,

            God knows what she’ll do if she catches me,

            Inky pinky parlez vous.

Before the Black Mountains I had crossed the Wye at Monmouth, and after walking much too far (28km) in one day I reached a suitable stopping point for the night: White Castle, a National Trust property. Arriving after dark, I snuck into the place and set up camp on a magnificent lawn just beyond its drawbridge. There was (heaven!) a standpipe, and I exulted in the stream of riches which issued forth, washing myself from head to toe. I suddenly needed to go to the toilet, but couldn’t find anywhere suitable to relieve myself: I could hardly leave a mess on the magnificent lawn – there would be children playing here tomorrow. Now where, I asked myself, would they have gone when the place was inhabited? In the moat, naturally! The sides of the moat were steeply angled, and it would be dangerous to slide down the cobblestoned sides, maybe getting soaked and stranded. The only answer was to drop my trousers, hitch myself up onto the wooden-slatted railing, and protrude my bare bum over the edge. I hooked my ankles behind the vertical slats in the approved manner. And then cramp struck. I was paralysed, perched on the railing. I wondered if the caretaker would arrive next morning to find a wildcat camper interlaced to the drawbridge with a bare blue arse.

Late at night I hear voices and see torchlight on the walls. I've been rumbled. Best to surrender now. I approached the two women saying in a loud voice, "OK! You got me! I know I shouldn't be here so I'll just gather my stuff and move on." Once the two women had recovered from the shock of a deranged wildcat camper emerging from the darkness they explained that they were just having a look around and I could do what the hell I liked as far as they were concerned.

The half-way stage of Offa’s Dyke Path is Knighton, right on the Shropshire border. I decided that I had had enough hardship for this trip. I put one foot over the Shropshire border, then retreated to the train station. With some time to kill, I popped into a shop. A strange feeling of euphoria overcame me, and I wondered why I was suddenly feeling so good. And then it struck me… there was heating in the shop. That strange feeling was...warmth! I had not felt external heat for several days, and the visceral pleasure of again being warm was the reason for this unexpected happiness.

Upon getting back home I found that this wilderness experience had changed me in two unexpected ways: in writing and in bathing.

In order to write something in the business desk-diary I had to take into my hand a strange stick-like implement which left a trace of dark fluid on paper - ink I think they call it. Of course I am exaggerating, but I swear that the everyday task of jotting something down with a pen is everyday only because we do it every day. It's a thin veneer of habit, I submit. Unlike oral communication which goes back millions of years, I submit that handwriting is not deeply embedded by our evolution; is a cultural activity which can be unlearned.

Sitting in the bath at our Telford bungalow I was entranced by the streams of clear liquid treasure coming out of the taps, one cold and the other - woo-hoo! - pre-heated, would you believe?! And this stuff - hundreds of litres of it! - was pure, drinking-quality water. We use this treasure without giving it a thought!

Again, lest a reader (a thick one) go away under the misapprehension that I had genuinely forgotten that Severn Trent Water plc existed, my point here is that this habit of taking unlimited water from a tap is a very recent one in man's history. One of the philosophical benefits of temporarily depriving oneself of luxury is a greater appreciation of it upon one's return. One of them - I think Epicureanism - has wrongly been associated with advocating gluttony when in fact it advocates annual periods of abstention. Abstinence makes the heart grow fonder is just one part of that healthy process of counting our blessings, especially those.... (oh, you know what I was about to write.... you clever people deserve an apology from the thick ones who insist that we explain why a bathfull of hot water is such a wonder!) 

They say that a little suffering is good for the soul. But I have since come to realise that any fool can be uncomfortable; the trick on a backpacking adventure is to achieve Unique Experience (tm) whilst taking good care of oneself.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Baggy Trousers and Meanders - Turkey 1994


An Infidel among the Muslims

 

Turkey 1994-ish.

 

Like a lost sheep, standing gormless and friendless in the smoky, shabby airport concourse at Izmir, I wondered why the hell I had been so bold.

 

I had no currency, no transport, and only a vague idea of my intended first-night hotel. Eventually, after the bout of self-pity, I figured out that the post office was the local substitute for bureaux de change, and obtained a vast fistful of currency for my few tenners. I tried telephoning the hotel in Kusadasi I knew to be run by an Englishwoman, but fell foul of an obscure numbering system, getting at best bemused foreign-sounding voices at the other end. I should have planned how to get to my first-night hotel in Kusadasi.

 

Hang the expense, I extravagated, I’ll use a taxi. The driver tried to stay professional but, when a fellow driver asked him where he was off to, he couldn’t resist a gleeful little twinkle: Kusadasi, as if it had made his week.

 

So, this was what backpackers do! Admittedly, I had a backpack, but I felt rather a middle-aged imposter. At the hotel I was surrounded by fit, confident young people on a low budget. They had no airs and graces. They had an air of contentment, as if rubbing shoulders with exotic aliens was natural.

 

In these early days, I hadn’t quite grasped the hell-for-leather nature of backpacking; the shit-or-bust decisiveness of it. I would stroll out of the foyer, down a dusty road between nondescript concrete buildings, drink too many bottles of excellent Efes Pilsener lager, eat a more-than-decent meal in an attractive restaurant, lonely as hell, and again wonder what the hell I was doing there.

 

A day-trip to the magnificent archeological site of Ephesus began to buck up my ideas. Instead of just shuffling along with the squadrons of tourists, I went off at a deliberate tangent and discovered the hills above Ephesus. At last I gained a sense of tranquility. The terrain was, to my parochial English eyes, spectacular in its aridity. I began to visualise the movements of the hundreds of thousands of inhabitants of Ephesus before the great city was abandoned. As the sun sank lower, and the slanting light took on a more orange hue, I imagined a squadron of Persian mercenaries coming over the breast of one of the hills, all gaunt helmets, all knees and kilts, bristling with spears and shields.

 

 

-------

 

Part of my motivation for touring round Turkey was to get a feel for places which would feature in my novel, The Godmaker: I was following in the footsteps of Saint Paul the Conman. In trying to launch his new religion, he fell foul of people who had a vested interest in the old religions he intended to displace, in particular the religion of Artemis. This fertility goddess had been worshipped in Asia Minor for thousands of years. She was Earth Mother, Mother Nature, and when they found out what Paul was up to, the siversmiths of Ephesus beat him up and ran him out of town, fearing that the market would drop out of the market for silver figurines of Artemis. Other places he ferequented were Iconium (today Konya) Tarsus where he was born, and Antioch (today Antakya), the third biggest city in the Roman Empire after Rome and Athens.

 

Ephesus was a major port in biblical times, but the heavy annual rains bring down tons of silt. The river is called Menender: as the silt creates mudflats, the river is obliged to meander on its way to the sea. Roman enginers had attempted to create dredging methods, but eventually gave it up as an impossible task, after which the port became unviable and the city died. Today it is well inland. Its archealogical glories have only recently begun to be revealed again. Pink Floyd once played in the magnificent amphiteatre where the silversmiths held a get-Paul meeting, then flooded out to beat him up. Toilets have been excavated – an excellent piece of engineering with running water on three sides of a square, and oblong stone slabs over the channels cut with twenty botty-sized circles - no individual cubicles needed in those days.

 

In nearby Seljuk, I found magnificent statues of Artemis carved with dozens of small breasts and with all manner of wildlife. She would be taken through town on a chariot at her annual festival, allegedly drawn by a team of lions. I am sure that the statue would have been made of silver. The Temple of Artemis at Seljik was one of the Seven Wonders of the World, once celebrated as much as the pyramids. Today, only one squalid irregular column remains. The bloody Christians systematically destroyed the place to ensure that their new religion would fully overprint its predecessor.

 

East of Ephesus is the celebrated site of Pamukkale, where a whole hillside is encrusted with white mineral deposits from the volcanic hot springs there. It has been superbly managed, layered with gullies to create an effect like a gigantic stepped wedding cake. I got chatting to some workers picking cotton in a field, and asked what cotton was called in Turkish. It is pamuk. Getting my dictionary out, I wondered if kale was a word. Yes – it means castle and so Pamukkale­ is the Cotton Castle. Yess!

 

Behind Pamukkale are the ruins of the Graeco-Roman city of Hierapolis. Nearby is a cave called Plutonium. Iron grilles protect its entrance because it is dangerous. Poisonous volcanic gases emerge here, and the bodies of small animals which have trespassed beyond the grille are sometimes found asphyxiated. One can well imagine ancient people venturing in there never to emerge, and people saying that the disappeared ones had fallen into the clutches of Pluto, god of the underworld.

 

Heading towards Konya, some westerners on the bus advised me to lose the shorts before walking around this very Islamic city. Upon arriving there I found Konya magnificent. Its centre featured a muslim university and green parkland. Surrounding quarters were a rabbit warren of tiny workshops, a hive of small-scale manufacturing activity where the blue fire of arc welding sat alongside bakers’ shops. The Turks haven’t yet reached the Western state of large-scale manufacture, and the consequent low productivity directly causes the relative poverty: for every production worker in a western saucepan factory there are three in Turkey bashing ‘em out with hand tools.

 

The traffic was infernal and pitiless to pedestrians, with a perpetual fug of diesel fumes. One unfortunate handicapped man with no legs was making his way across town with a large leather pouffe attached to his underside. With massive arm-power, he was hopping along with his palms on the filthy tarmac, his nose level with exhaust pipes.

 

In a delightful garden next to the Muslim University with its minarets pointing at the sky like rockets, I joined in the craic with a bunch of schoolkids keen to practise their English on me. I explained a bit about rugby to them and began passing imaginary rugby balls to them. After looking puzzled, they joined in the invisible game. At one point in the conversation the brightest one enquired what was my religion. I tried to give an honest but evasive answer and said, “Well, technically I am a Christian”. He picked up on the word technically and asked me to explain. “Well, I was christened, but I don’t believe in God.” His eyes opened like saucers, and he slowly said, “Don’t…. believe… in God? But…. but who made the trees? Who made the… the sky?? Who made you???” What could I say? Do I embark on a long explanation of the Big Bang Theory and Darwinism? If I shoot my mouth off too much, will they all sprint through the archway into the university and then come back out pointing me out to a bunch of scimitar-wielding mujahedeen in Ali Baba slippers who would proceed to chop me up into Infidel Slices? No, it was time to backpedal fast. “Look, I’m ever so sorry… you must think me very stupid to talk like this.” The lad realxed and grinned: “No, that’s OK. The Koran teaches us to be tolerant with strangers with wrong ideas.” Phew. Patronising little sod.

 

A stocky hard-faced policeman came over to investigate the gaggle of people. He was the spitting image of the villanous Turkish jailer in Midnight Express who would beat up the American student prisoner. Konya being hundreds of miles inland, I looked up a phrase from the Lonely Planet Phrase Book: Effendi, can you please tell me the way to the beach? He looked puzzled, then bellowed, “Plaja? Plaja?” (la plage). Only when I cracked my face did he give a great guffaw and shake his head at me disapprovingly.

 

My french came in useful on several occasions. They have words like chemin de fer and dush. High up in the Taurus Mountains I spent the night in a ruined Byzantine monastery. When the coach had dropped me off at a tiny village, Mut, I had refused the welcome of a bunch of lads (Muttons? Mutts?) who came out of a little bar, and yomped past them up the winding trail in bright moonlight, observing a pair of toads mating by moonlight. Half way there I saw a big cave on my left: now… that might be a suitable place to sleep! But as I approached, I heard a cough, which alarmed me a little. I carried on up the trail until the cave was below me. I called out, Merhaba (hello). No reply. I yelled “mer-fucking-haba you ignorant lot” and continued on my way. Earlier, in the coach, people had been tapping me on the shoulder to point things out to me, the coach grinding its way through the gears as we gained altitude. We saw a camel caravan bringing merchandise along one of the old trading routes, presumably a little-used mountain pass too narrow for the juggernauts. Maybe such people were in the cave, sneezing. My fellow passengers had asked me what I thought of their country. I replied, Turkiye guzel – beautiful Turkey - which made them preen. They told me the river, whose course we were skirting, was called Goksu – Gok=heaven; su=water, the Heavenly Water River. Aaaah! I shared out my Bombay Mix. (I had bought a dozen packets from the Red Lion especially for the purpose of ice-breaking with the locals, telling the Turks that in my country we have this for breakfast every morning. One guy gasped and said avci! – hot! Among my gewgaws I had a little battery-driven fan, and amused the kiddies on the coach by pretending it was an escaping helicopter, and then pretending to cut my fingers off in the blades, which of course they wanted to do as well, their mothers looking on watchfully.

 

The monastery contained two-metre wide excavations cut into the living rockface: one for each brother’s coffin. The monastery would have thrived before the Turks (from Turkmenistan) overwhelmed Christian-Greek Asia Minor in the 12th century. The whole rockface was honeycombed with these tombs. In a massive act of later vandalism, twenty such holes had been bashed into a single cavern. At first glance, this cavern would be a suitably exotic place to overnight, but the sound of heavy lorries grinding up the pass below was amplified by its shape, so was again an unsuitable camp. Along the hillside I found a stone sarcophagus with its lid ajar. Now, that would be a memorable bed for the night, I thought, but shining my torch into it I saw lots of bones. I shook my head at people dumping their picnic remains in it, and only afterwards twigged that they must be human remains.

 

I camped out on a nice flat spot, and would open my eyes from time to time to see the moon in a new position, like the hand of a giant clock. In the morning I was awakened by the tinkling of sheeps’ bells. A shepherd was driving them along a contour below me, and didn’t spot me in my bright blue rucksack. I figured that the cough in the cave was a sheep, not a person. The shepherd would have enclosed his flock with thornbushes.

 

Before packing up and moving on, an attack of diahorroea struck. It lasted for several hours, by which time the hillside looked like an explosion at the Andrex factory. Since the place was clearly abandoned, I didn’t feel bad about littering the place so. I realised that until my guts got better I would be unable to go down and catch a new coach. Mid-morning, I was startled when a man appeared in front of me. Using my best body language and my Turkish dictionary, I enquired if he was a shepherd. No, he said, he was gardyan – French for a caretaker. He said: bilyet (ticket). I paid him the two-pence entrance fee, and wondered at the economics of his following me up from the village for such a paltry sum. Noticing my loo-roll fiesta all over the stone blocks, he shook his head in sad disapproval, embarrassing me.

 

------

 

Tarsus was a horrible ugly place, so I decided to stay on the coach and go on to Antakya (Antioch) at the top-right-hand corner of the Med. Upon arriving, I noticed that the people here were very different. They had none of the open friendliness of the Turks, but peered at me distantly. I realised that this place was arabic – part of Syria until taken by the Turks in a land-grab some decades before. The surly men all wore baggy trousers. The tourist office was most unhelpful. The river was polluted with green froth.

 

On walking up a little sidestreet, a bunch of lads sitting outside a café clocked me and fell silent as I approached, rucksack on my back, wearing my shorts. Five metres past them, I turned on my heel and yelled “Worra you looking at??? Yeah, you!” I strolled back to them and said, “is it these? Is it these fine English legs?” They were flustered and discomfited, wondering how to react. “You think I look stupid in these shorts? Worrabout you in your baggy trousers?” I took a pinch of one guy’s trousers, waggled them, and said, “What do you call these, then?” He meekly replied, “Shalvar”. I whipped out my dictionary. Shalvar translates as baggy trousers. I hooted. “Baggy trousers? Ha ha ha! Just like the song! You know the Madness song, don’t you?”, and proceeded to sing all the words I could remember: “Lots of girls and lots of boys, lots of smells and lots of noise, baggy trousers do-doo do-doop.” I then hefted my rucksack and waved them goodbye. They were in a catatonic trance.

 

From this far-point, I had an interminable coach ride back West to Izmir. The distance seemed to be doubled by the discomfort of sitting next to a man with the world’s most spectacularly smelly armpits. Given that our sense of smell is actually detecting different molecules – a tangerine molecule being of a different shape to a smoky bacon molecule – I reckon that a microscopic examination of this guy’s stink would reveal grotesque gothic shapes.

 

Half way back we stopped off at a well-appointed services in the middle of the endless steppe. My food was served by a woman behind a counter. I smiled politely at her and got in return an offended scowl. It suddenly clicked that I had seen hardly any women in this country. Where were they all? Pretty obviously hidden away indoors. How strange, at least to my western eyes. 

Before embarking on the long-distance stuff, I spent a few days at the nice little hub-town of Seljuk. Hangin’ out with nothing much to do in the town centre, I sit down next to a man with a shoeshine stand. We begin chatting, and after a while he calls a tea-seller over and buys us a round. These boys dart around the streets holding circular brass trays suspended on a trio of chains, never spilling a drop from a dozen tulip-glasses if tea. He then asks if I am hungry. Well, yes I am. OK, he'll nip off and get us some food. No no, I say, I will buy us some food. "How about this, then", he says. "You give me some money, I go off to buy the food, you keep an eye on my shoeshine stand." I get my wallet out. He riffles through it, selects a few banknotes and shoots off. I wonder if I've been had.

But there's fun to be had here. I can be a shoeshine man. This stepped wooden box, with its polished brass lids, contains a number of brushes and different shades of beeswax polish. I start my act, "Shoo-shayn! Evvrybaddy! Shoo-shoo-shayniepoos! I a-shayn-a yorr-a shoos for youse!" The toursist are mostly Brits, who walk that bit faster when being hawked at. I took especial pleasure in offering my services to people in trainers.

My blokey comes back with an armful of grub: sandwiches and a square of the wonderful bakhlava, a sticky amalgam of almonds and sesame seeds drenched in honey. He gives me my change and I realise that this little banquet has cost far less than I would have paid for just one sandwich.

One of my fellow hawkers (I'm in the union, you see) was shouting out trying to drumup business for his little restaurant: "Very nice food. You come eat here." A young couple come into sight, the girl with the face of a dolly and a shapely figure, wearing hotpants. As they pass us the food hawker's tone drops to a lower pitch, and he calls: "Very nice. Very tasty......" The boyfriend's head swivels slowly round, like the turret of a battlecruiser, his eyes fixing the hawker. If looks could kill....