For the first couple of weeks of August, I was in Vienna with Amir; as I’m not allowed into the US at the moment and he has family in the nearby Czech Republic, we chose to set ourselves up there for a fortnight of intensive getting-things-done time.
We organised a place to stay through http://www.airbnb.com/, which is a website allowing you to let out single rooms or whole properties on short-term leases. We’ve used it before, and each time it worked out really well – this trip even better than expected!
We ended up staying in an apartment in an old colonial pile, sandwiched between an EU building and the Italian embassy, about 15 minutes walk away from the main square. Although the place had been advertised as just a couple of rooms, it turned out that the owner was going away with his family for the two weeks that we were in Vienna, so we ended up with the whole place to ourselves; and it was absolutely gorgeous.
Expansive white walls, sandwiched between high ceilings and original parquet, dotted with enough fantastic furniture and lighting to make it comfy and give each room a character, and yet sparse enough that you could appreciate each piece as a separate entity. Within 10 minutes of walking in to the place, I was gushing about a really nice Bauhaus tan leather sofa Jörg (the owner) had, and going on about my almost fetishistic appreciation of wooden floors. I think he though I was taking the piss, but I absolutely wasn’t…
We spent the weeks at the apartment as planned, working hard and getting the things that had to be done, done. But we went out for dinner each evening, without ever getting tired of sausages, schnitzels and steins, and had wanders around the city a couple of times too.
For the weekend in the middle of our trip, we went up to a little village called Čebín, near Brno in the Czech Republic, where Amir’s parents and grandparents live. His mum was a great hostess, and extraordinarily generous with food and drink; in fact she thought I was dangerously skinny, insisting on piling ever more food onto my plate, to the point that I had to physically shield it from a third helping of beef goulash. That didn’t stop her from ladling, however, and I ended up with delicious hot goulash all over my hands.
Overall, it was really productive and fun: we’ve decided to make a similar trip in about a month’s time, to Berlin this time, potentially with a couple of pals coming across for a weekend in the middle to spice things up a little.
As I won’t be able to make it to Burning Man this year, due to visa awkwardness, I’d been looking around for an alternative festival this summer. Sónar would have been an absolute blast, as quite a few of my friends were going, along with Richard’s Numbers posse, and I probably would have stayed to live in Barcelona for a while. Unfortunately, I left planning a bit late, and it slipped past me…
Instead, I roped a couple of friends, Lisa and Emily, into going to The Secret Garden Party with me. It’s held near Huntingdon, and is much smaller than Burning Man, with about 15,000 people attending for some or all of the Thursday – Monday festival.
Much less planning and preparation is needed than the trip to Black Rock City, as they have luxuries like running water and shops where you can exchange currency for goods and services: a real innovation. We got a coach up from Paddington on Thursday to arrive at about 10pm on Thursday. After getting the tents up and working out the closest loos and taps, we went for a bit of a wander; the site itself was really well laid out in the grounds of a country house, with lots of interesting little nooks and crannies to explore, and great bits of art dotted around to liven things up.
Friday and Saturday were all sorts of fun. Fancy dress was more of a theme than at other festivals – Lisa and Em did pretty well with a bee costume and Alice in Wonderland, while I alternately rocked a tuxedo I found in my garage and Snouto the Pig.
Pics below. As you can see, Snouto had some pretty killer false lashes. You can also see the obvious advantage a 6’3″ chap brings to Twister, even if he’s in a tux and feeling a little wonky:
I got back from Poland last week, where I’d spent about a week with one of my Burning Man gang. Dana is Polish/American, which made communication much easier, but left me feeling guilty only being able to say hello (“dzień dobry”) and thank you (“dziękuję”).
To misquote Feynmann on quantum mechanics: if you think you know how to pronounce Polish words, you don’t know how to pronounce Polish words.
I flew into Kraków, where we spent a couple of days mincing around in the blazing sunshine – after a couple of weeks of severe flooding, it was up in the low 30s when I arrived! The food was incredible – an omnivores heaven – with the highlight being a char-grilled pork shashlik with smoked plum jam, thermonuclear horseradish and caramelised apples. I’m salivating onto my keyboard.
Kraków was great, but the main event for the trip was definitely the time we were planning on spending in Zakopane – a skiing / hiking town down near the Czech border. We got there by bus, watching the scenery change from rolling hills to verdent spring-time low alpine valleys as we went.
We had our eye on one particular trail, a section of which runs (well, advances cautiously) for a few miles right on top of a ridge separating Poland (to the north) and the Czech Republic (to the south). Dana had asked two cousins about it: one enthusiastically said it was the best trail in the Tatras, while the other said several people die on it each year, and that we should do any trail but that one.
So, of course, we decided on that trail.
We set out early from Zakopane to cheat a little and get a cable-car up to Kasprowy Wierch, so that we’d have more time on top. Luckily, it was great weather and we raced along up and over various peaks, stopping for lunch on top of the highest, Świnica at 2,301m. Meaning “swine” in Polish, it’s aptly named as the final ascent was a bit of a pig, with chains and ladders to help us amateurs.
Emboldened by the relatively straightforward climbing and scrambling until that point, we pressed on further along the ridge, until our final planned peak which involved a 40ft ladder descent (did I mention that Dana has a phobia of ladders?), and a pretty sketchy section in which the chains – when you really needed them – were buried under a few feet of slushy snow. Of course, I didn’t get any photos of this, as I was quite focussed on making sure neither of us came a cropper. Honestly, it happened.
At the next col, we had to decide whether to carry on over the next peak, or drop down into Poland on a 60˚ slope covered in more slushy snow, with no chains to be seen. The weather was closing in a bit, with heavy clouds racing in from the north, and we were getting a little tight on time, plus the next peak started with a pretty much sheer climb, so we dropped off the ridge and skittered our way down to the snow-melt lake at the bottom, blanketed in fog by this point. From there, it was plain sailing to the lodge, for mounds of food and jugs of apple and cinnamon tea.
The weather worsened overnight, and although it was still warm, we started off the next day in rain which gradually got heavier until we were treated to a full-on thunderstorm just as we were summiting one hill. However, while we had eye-level lightning on one side, the weather broke just in time for us on the other, and we were treated to a rainbow.
After a much more leisurely stroll than the previous day, finishing with a big pull up to the cable-car station, we were done, and repaired to Zakopane for 90 minutes in a sauna, followed by a sausage smorgasbord (kielbasa, blood sausage, currywurst and a haggis-y one).
After Zakopane, we spent one night with Dana’s family in Rzeszów, who were fantastic hosts and loaded me up with so much apple wine and home-made spirits that I barely scraped through Ryanair’s draconian baggage limits.
All my photos here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/69148053@N00/sets/72157624339454242/
All Dana’s photos here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/dgredysa/sets/72157624302338330/
A friend of mine had heard about a Burning Man-style party somewhere in the Moroccan desert for New Year’s eve, which sounded incredible. However, no matter how hard I looked, I couldn’t find any information online – by December 30th I was reduced to asking likely looking people in the street if they’d heard about it, all to no avail.
Bailing on the apocryphal hogmany rave, I headed back to Essaouira on the west coast. Again, it was a really fun bunch of people there – Kev and Howard from blighty, Marte and Annique from Utrecht and Dani, Anna and Ester from Barcelona.
Luckily, the weather was much better this time, so I even got a few hours kite-surfing in; by the time I left the storms were back, bringing with them 20ft waves!
Back in Marrakech, I ran into a guy who had been to the New Year’s desert party, which was frustrating: maybe I’ll make it next year…Next stop was Fés, where I ended up staying in a palatial guesthouse due to the lack of cheap hostels. Although expensive, it was nice to have a couple of nights in such opulent surroundings, and I set of to the moutain town of Chefchaouen squeaky clean with a bag full of freshly laundered clothes: a rare luxury.
Chefchaouen is breath-taking. A little town nestled in the Rif moutains in the north of the country, which used to be a Berber stronghold against the encroaching Spanish settlers. It’s quite unique in that the old town is mostly covered in indigo-dyed plaster, apparently a result of the large Jewish population.
The town’s at about 1,500m elevation, so it’s very cold and wet – we’re basically sat in a cloud most days – but I love this place. I’ve been here for about a week now, mostly working, although I got a chance to walk out to an derelict old Spanish mosque a couple of km from the medina just as a snow storm was rolling in, which looked incredible!
The plan for Christmas was to have a couple of days off, go down towards Algeria and spend some time in the desert. Ideally, I’d have organised it myself – getting almost all the way by bus, to Ouarzazate, then looking for an option to get out to the Sahara from there.
However, after a bit of research, it seemed that once I got to Ouarzazate I would only be picking up one of the minibuses coming down from Marrakech anyway… So, I opted for a two day trip and decided to stop off in Ouarzazate on the way back, to break up the trip and try and get off the tourist trail a bit.
The drive was not smooth sailing. The Atlas mountains stand between Marrakech and the desert, and although the weather had improved, the twisty roads were still wet and the visibility really bad. Sue, a yoga instructor from London, had bad motion sickness, but was managing to hold onto her breakfast up at the front.
The real problem, however, was a Polish girl at the back of the bus who I could hear quietly sobbing all the way up the mountains and down the other side. By the time we were near Ouarzazate (and well over the worst of the perilous hairpins), she had had enough and refused to go any further. So she got out with her friend and tried to find a way to get back over the mountains to Marrakech. This is the minibus equivalent of swimming 3/4 of a length, getting tired and swimming back to where you started.
By the time we got to where we needed to be, it was getting dark, so it was just a case of getting on the camels and heading off towards the camp. My steed had the look of an Ethel, and was by far the noisiest of all of them. A sub-low, grumbling, gastric gurgle and associated phlegmy frothing at the mouth. After about half an hour, I thought the metallic parts of my saddle was working loose as there was a repetitive screeching sound like that an un-oiled garden gate. Fortunately, it turned out to be Ethel grinding her teeth.
It was surreal, once we reached the tents, to meet four people I already knew from the hostel in Essaouira – Marianne from Finland and a trio of Americans who were studying in Prague. The camp itself was pretty lacklustre, and clearly only existed to accommodate minibuses of tourists. However, once the crowd and the clouds thinned out, there was just a few of us left clustered round the fire, watching the “Berber television” night sky. Loads of shooting stars and the Milky Way easily spottable.
It did get very cold as the night wore on, but with a couple of blankets I was comfy staying out all night, waking up on Christmas day to get a few snaps of the sun rising over the mountains.
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Marrakech is incredibly intense. The old city, or medina, is a labyrinth of souks – jostling, smoky rabbit runs, packed with stalls selling everything fro half-cows to mobile phones to silver candelabras. It’s basically impossible to avoid getting lost here, especially later in the day when you don’t have the sun to keep you oriented. There are no street signs – actually I think most of the streets don’t have names – they all look alike and change appearance over the course of the day. It’s basically a town planner’s nightmare, but fantastic fun.
Once you come to terms with getting lost every time you set foot in the souks, an hour spend wandering becomes a bewildering feast of the senses; there’s always something new and interesting that you come across. I know there are a thousand amazing photos waiting to be taken in there, but I’ve not really managed to capture any, unfortunately… The bright shafts of sunlight piercing the perpetual murkiness of the souks look amazing, but my little camera isn’t quite up to it.
So I spent a couple of weeks working from my hostel, adventuring out for lunch and dinner. The food is deelish, and not quite what I expected. For dishes, there are three main options: tagine (an aromatic stew with meat, vegetables and extras like olives, quince, prunes, saffron…), cous cous (normally with meat, veggies and extras like the tagine) or barbecued meat (mutton skewers, mini-sausages). I also had a sheep’s head one time, which was surprisingly fatty apart from the tongue, brain and delicious eyelid. Seriously, eyelids are delicious. For snacks, there is a haggis-like mutton thing, stuffed in a genuine Sheep’s Stomach™, little beef meatballs (called kefta) in a sandwich and falafel.
The only real hiccup was that my laptop charger gave up the ghost about one week into my stay, leaving me with 10 minutes of battery life to last for two months. There are no Apple stores in Morocco, and the nearest reseller is in Casablanca. After wandering the souks for a while, forlornly looking for a second-hand replacement, I found a little chap who seemed to know what I was after and disappeared off for 15 minutes or so. He came back with a brand-new original Apple charger – I have no idea where it came from, and can only hope there’s not a fellow traveller somewhere in Marrakech who’s had theirs stolen…
On the 20th, I decided to head up to Essaouira, right on the north-west tip of Africa. It’s a fishing town which juts out slightly into the Atlantic, meaning the ocean gales hit it absolutely pummel it. In fact, “Essaouira” means “the windy place” apparently – it’s the Chicago of Morocco. I got talking to two Dutch guys in my hostel, and it turned out they were going there too, for kite-surfing. We travelled up to the coast together, on a little local bus with seats apparently designed for double amputees, and found the Essaouira Hostel with some help from a friendly man selling oversized donuts. On a side note, Moroccans seem to have serious issues with left and right; I’d say about 1 in 3 people I’ve got directions from have said “gauche” and pointed right, or said “droite” and pointed left.
Hostel Essaouira was great. There were some people there that I already knew from Marrakech – Jerry and Andy from Australia, and I just missed Scottish Duncan – and lots of new people who were all super. Unfortunately, it was really stormy when I was there, so kiting was out for a beginner like me, especially as the water was brown with (hopefully) sediment after the heavy rain flushed the riverbed out into the bay. Still, I got lots of stuff done during the day, and playing poker and shithead in the evenings was loads of fun.
I got the slightly more upscale (i.e. legs are accommodated) Supra-Tour coach back to Marrakech on the 23rd, ready for a trip out to the Sahara for Christmas.
Although London was loads of fun, and I really enjoyed living so close to a bunch of good friends, the weather was getting a bit miserable, and repeated conversations along the lines of “I’m really lucky to be able to work from anywhere” made me think a winter away was in order.
So I was really looking forward to my trip to San Francisco to see friends, followed by a few months in Puerto Rico. Unfortunately, it seems the US immigrations officials didn’t believe that a chap going to a Carribean Island with a rucksack full of flippers, boardies and diving magazines could possibly be going for a holiday, rather than doing gainful work.
We’ve been really careful to make sure that everything we’re doing is above board from an immigration and tax viewpoint, but despite my best efforts, and after 4 hours of interrogation at San Francisco International, I was put back on a flight to the UK, not to return until my O-1 visa comes through.
On the way back, I was considering writing the idea off and hunkering down for the winter in London, but I’m all set up for some Christmas sun now, so decided instead to look for a cheap flight somewhere when I got off the plane.
I’ve always been drawn to the idea of rocking up at an airport with nothing but some innoculations and a passport, and seeing which crazy last-minute cancellation deals the airlines are offering. Word of advice: don’t. Everyone was very boring, and there were no last minute deals to be had – the best I found was £900 to Cape Town.
Instead I decided to tick off another continent, and found a nice cheap EasyJet ticket to Marrakech for tomorrow (Saturday) morning.
Although not quite as warm as Puerto Rico, it should be a more interesting, and I’m really looking forward to it. I’ll probably stay in a hostel for a few nights at the start of the trip, then get a little apartment, same as I did in Nicaragua, if it makes sense.