Sunday, 13 May 2012

Home sweet home

I have frequently talked about travel, the places I have been to, the things I have seen. I could set up my own version of trip advisor I have stayed in so many places. In the last few years, I have stayed in so many places, but it’s the sheer range that amuses me. When I first started to travel, whilst I was still at university, it mostly hostels. Sometimes this worked out rather well. I stayed in a hostel for three months in New York, just a few blocks from Colombia University. The real bonus of that was laid back group of people I could mix with. However, it took the blackout across most of the North East of America to bring us together. I was working vampire shifts at the time, so it was hardly conducive to meeting people, other than at night clubs. Obviously without a functioning subway; there was little chance of going anywhere. Most of the residential buildings near Riverside Park are six stories high, and without street lights, it was almost impossible to climb the stairs, everyone spilled out onto the streets that balmy night. Most of the people staying at the hostel were seeking their first big adventure or career push and were hoping to make it there; it was up to New York, New York, New York. That night was a welcome break, a chance to discover the dusk without the Neon Blue lights and bees’ nest of downtown. Many places that people stay on holiday, it is the building, the room the facilities that count, a chocolate mint on the pillow. In some ways, I never lost my love of hostels, even if I can afford far better places, the human possibilities for contact reaching from new friends to chats with new acquaintances, as opposed to an employee’s welcome. I met two Swedish brothers up to tricks, who were very comfortable with a distinct lack of clothing. They would often answer the door in nothing at all, and I would stand there in the hallway whilst everyone could see them; I maintained ‘British’ eye contact. I think they were encouraged by the American girls. Often a night out would end up with one of the brothers kicking the other one out because of local success. I got to hang out with boys in a platonic way, I took the place of active observer and it was a great lesson in male behaviour which helped me when I became single. I also had a secret, that is, it was a secret I kept from him. It was an early twenties giggle, a secret in the playground, with only one person playing tag. I privately swooned over this modern Robinson Crusoe. He was probably the scruffiest man I have ever been attracted to, and probably the answer to why I don’t mind beards, not that I was ever that close to test out my theories. Thankfully, on some occasions; I conversed with him at a level beyond bimbo. We would talk and watch the rats run from one pile of trash bags to the next. We established that the rats in New York have a healthy lunch. At other times, there was a guy from Seattle and he would play his guitar and we would all sings songs on the steps of the hostel, bottles of wine getting warmer in their brown paper jackets on the frequently airless nights. On one occasion, we had to perform dares and I managed to get him to wear one of my bras, even if he did spoil it by wearing the bra over his top, it was hysterical. I don’t think that the luxury of having now stayed at several fantastic five star hotels will ever wear off, but essentially, a building is a building, with concrete, bricks and glass, much the same as the next. In my professional career, I have been placed in villages, town and cities all over world, the quirky nature of which would surprise even Lady Gaga. I stayed in a small villa with a family in Sri Lanka for a research trip for my master’s degree. It was the first time I had witnessed third world poverty. It was easy to be fooled by the exotic location at first, but you soon come to notice things, and then forget them. Every day I would wake to the sound of competitive chants of the Islamic call for prayer and Christian calls for payer. I would be driven by the family to work shortly after a cold shower, at about 6am. The only part of their morning routine I could not manage was eating curry for breakfast. The mother would roll little parcels of curry and rice into newspaper for each family of the family. She always ate her breakfast upon arrival at work and I would buy little curried egg rolls. Every day before entering work, our bags would be checked for bombs, there was always the chance that someone else would plant bombs into our bags. We would travel home on the bus together; I always knew when we were nearly home. I could smell the rubbish tip just outside where we changed buses in a dusty shopping village near by the family’s house. The bulls and cows roamed freely over the peak of the tip and grazed on whatever was not plastic or tin. In the village, we would pass an old man, he was black like a currant; he sat like a question mark in the passage way to the next bus stop. I had thought to give him money, but I was told he was most likely just a begging slave. I always noticed a lot of stares as we travelled on our way home, it was quite a site for the people in the village to see a white woman following a Sri Lankan woman. It was even more of a spectacle when I managed that journey with some set phrases by myself, just because I knew exactly where I was going. I was very proud of myself when I made that journey home from Kandy and I didn’t even call the family to ask for help. Even to this day, I love trying to use local transport, as opposed to swanning around in taxis and tuk tuks. There were also evening rituals I came to love. Every day, it was job to scrap out a coconut to make milk for the curry, and in return, the mother would cut down a papaya fruit from the tree to make some juice for me. Out of respect for the family, I kept to the same spending habits, with the exception of one occasion when I had a foot massage. I begged the daughter not to say anything, but she did anyway. I felt so gulity that I felt obliged to give the mother one, I now understand why everyone makes such a big deal of the fact Jesus washed his disciples feet. Out of silent gratitude to the family, I tried to do everything they way they lived; it was only at the end of my stay when I found out that there was a hot shower in the master bedroom. When I first arrived in Russia, I took a training course and was placed in a typical Soviet era flat at the last stop of the metro, some forty minutes away from Tverskaya. It was my first visit to Russia and I landed at 4am in the morning and I was taken to a flat with contrasting patterns of jaded orange and brown. After the fuzziness of travelling, temporary shelter in any colour scheme is well received. I awoke the next day to find my roommate and I were locked in by an unsurpassable iron door. Later that day, I went for a run and realised I had no idea which building was mine and I could not speak Russian; it took an hour to find my apartment. It was easier when I lived in the countryside; I lived in a gated community which was surrounded by little Russian, wooden cottages and a number of stray dogs baying for my flesh. I know what would have happened should I have ever been caught in the snow. For one week in Austria, I was sent to work in a very small village where there is a major rail interchange. I had thought it would be a bustling town before arrival, but soon realised when all my colleagues were collected by local residents and not by taxi, that this was not the case. For one week, I lived in a convent, which could only be reached via a road, up a hill, through the woods which inclined so steeply, even a champion cyclist would have climbed down to walk. We were at the mercy of the punctual, routine of the nuns to provide for us. Every meal was served with a smile and attempts at German to show my gratitude and to provide entertainment. There were only two buses a day which passed the convent and after 7pm at night, the taxis in the village would not take passengers. It was an area of lonely magnificence, but when the light faded in the evening, I did not stay in the village centre long enough to become wolf food. The men and women were segregated in different wings of the building. I work in a male dominated industry and found myself all alone in the wing. My room was very pretty, with the old dusk of yellow on the walls and a patch work quilt; however it was stony quiet until morning bird song. At night time, I don’t think any number of crosses over my bed would have stopped my active imagination from believing that ghosts and Dracula were present in the dimly hallway to visit the bathroom. I would look back at every angle behind me, once was I spooked by one of the nuns, gliding in her long, white, night dress. More recently, I found myself accommodated in a fort, and for the time being, it has cured my internet addiction, the walls were about a metre thick and telephone signal was impossible. My friends took some convincing that they didn’t need further details of my address, other than X fort and, “look up the hill, you can’t miss it”. There was a warren of dangerous tunnels, some of which could have led to my untimely death into a moat. Although perhaps no place was more aptly named than my residence in Ethiopia, Akaki. I had my own small apartment there and on my days off, I managed to take the taxi buses to the Addis Ababa, which was essential, there was nothing in Akaki. In comparison to the world outside our gate, I knew I lived in luxury, with an on- site generator, water and the odd shower. Every day, on the coach to work, I would see cardboard communities peer out of their boxes and plastic sheets, out popped people dressed respectably, fit enough to be a butler. At the weekend, I would watch the community come down to the river and clean their clothes and hang them by the riverbank. Even if the occasional wash in a water butt is not everyone’s idea of luxury or glamour, there was little to complain about, especially once an outbreak of diphtheria was reported nearby. There is probably only one more place that would be unusual to stay at, but I would have to be a very bad girl to have the Queen as my host and guardian.