Four Days without Reggaeton

‘You want taxi, my friend? No? What, you no want talk to me? Why you travel if you no want talk to people? You all the same, you think you are better than us, but you are wrong. We are better than you.’

Welcome back to Morocco, I suppose.

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Goodbye Tarifa!

There’s something endlessly enchanting about waking up in a new country. It breaks up the monotony of the everyday. It sends gears spinning that had until recently been lying dormant. It also comes with a change in breakfast too, which is never a bad thing.

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Bang in the centre of the medina and all you can eat for 10 euros a night…

On one of those fantastically last-minute whim decisions which I have been known to make , I decided to take up the offer of two of my English department colleagues to spend the puente de Mayo in Morocco. Four days isn’t nearly enough to enjoy Morocco – each town deserves a full day and night’s exploration to even begin to get a taste of the area – but when it’s so close that you can see the cars from the other side of the sea, it’s impossible not to feel the tug of the south. I’m not very good at saying no to anything, but when it comes to adventure, I find it exceedingly difficult to say no. So here I am, on the 12 o’clock bus to Chefchouen, saying yes – and loving every second of it.

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Getting Bourne Ultimatum vibes…

The last time I was in an Arab country was Jordan. Let’s not go over that again. Jordan’s going to be a bug-bear of mine for a very long time. It’s a name which carries greater fear for me than Syria, Korea and the Democratic Republic of Congo ever could. It wasn’t so much the country as it was the fact that I simply didn’t want to be there. Backed into a corner as I was with my commitments to the British Council, I wasn’t given a choice. And in that frame of mind, as always, I was defeated before ever I got on the plane. It wasn’t in my interest… And as my parents will know only too well, if something is not in my interest, the chance of me doing well is next to zero.

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The Rif: b-e-a-utiful

Not so Morocco. Maybe it’s the green hills and the icy rivers flowing down from the mountains and into the sea. Maybe it’s the jaw-dropping kasbahs of the desert south or the quiet, homely feel of the melting-pot medinas of the north. Maybe it’s even the simple fact that this is Africa. But I think that the real reason I have so much love for this country is because I want to be here. It’s a minor difference, but it changes everything.

Waking up with the dawn chorus in the middle of a city sounds ridiculous, especially when there’s a complimentary alarm service courtesy of the mosques at four in the morning, but in Tangier it’s easily done, and the soundscape is just as fantastic a mix as the city itself. There’s the warbling calls of flocks of roving bulbuls, that ever-present feature of Arab towns; on top of that you’ve got a chorus of roosters crowing at the dawn, interspersed with the occasional bubbling note of a laughing dove, two quintessentially African sounds; and then there’s the aggressive cackle of the gulls, which smacks more of Europe than anywhere else. Even the repetitive wi-tu wii-twii-tu wii-twii-tu of the house buntings echoes the sales pitch of the taxi driver, yelling the name of his destination over and over as though it were an object to be bought or sold.

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Spot the six species of bird in this picture (better still, imagine them)

And that’s just the naturalist in me. The linguist side of me is in his element: this is a place where I could be using all four of my languages – English, French, Spanish and Arabic – at any given moment. Across Morocco, but especially in Tangier. It’s like something out of a dream, and we haven’t even got to Chefchaouen yet.

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Tangier’s Kasbah is actually a lot more impressive than it is made out to be

But for a less-than-welcoming start thanks to a jilted taxi tout lying in wait at the dock entrance, it’s been so good to be back. And as I’m the only Arabist in tow, this time it’s up to me alone to do the talking – and that’s a huge plus right off the bat. I hope there may soon come a time when it’s safe enough to study Arabic anywhere, from Western Sahara to the Sudan, from Yemen to Iraq; to excel, I need to be on my own. And that’s what this year has been all about. I’ve learned from my mistakes in Jordan. Moroccan Arabic won’t be any easier than Jordanian, if not harder, but I’m going to tackle it head-on and alone – and better still, in a willing state of mind. I can’t wait. BB x

Frustration

The year abroad, as is so often said, is supposed to be one of the best years of your life. Erasmus students say it. Universities say it. Even the interns say it. Heck, I’ve probably said it at least four or five times already. It’s about spreading your wings, perhaps for the first time, and branching out into the outside world.

The British Council sent me to Villafranca de los Barros, a middle-sized municipality in the Tierra de Barros of some fourteen-thousand inhabitants in Extremadura, a Spanish region largely overlooked by all but the most intrepid of tourists. That suited me just fine – after Amman I was practically desperate for the lull of a country town – but you’d think it’d be no place to start looking for contacts in the wider world.

Like me, you’d be wrong. Over the last couple of days, it’s as though somebody stepped on the accelerator pedal. A visiting school group from Lugoj, Romania, shook things up by giving me an unexpected two days of bilingual art class, working as both translator (Spanish into English, which the Romanians had a better grasp of) and art teacher in various exercises using Dadaist motion-capture techniques, light and shadow, cartoon creation and plasticine modelling.

Somehow, my vocabulary was just about up to the task. An easel, for the record, is a caballete.

As it turns out, the leaders of the expedition were so impressed by my attempts that they asked me to join them in July for the International Arts Festival held in their hometown, board and lodging all paid for. All I’d have to look into would be the flights.

In July. When I’m supposed to be in Morocco.

The following day I went out for lunch with the Romanians and their hosts from Meléndez Valdés, where one of my English-teaching colleagues put before me a proposition to spend the May Bank Holiday weekend with the English department in Morocco. Not one to turn down anything travel-related unless backed into a corner, I naturally said yes. Fortunately, I had no prior engagements that weekend. I’m booking that tomorrow, so more on that later.

Anyway, the lady in question offered to drop me off in Almendralejo afterwards, there to meet up with the Escuela de Idiomas and set off for our weekend language exchange in Burguillos del Cerro. In the car we discussed Morocco and she put before me another proposition, more enticing by far: Egypt.

You might remember my failed attempt to travel to Egypt last year; the one where Andrew, Mack and I were turned down because of the colour of our skin. Granted, it was a fair cop. In retrospect, crossing the Sinai peninsula by bus does sound a little hit-and-miss, to put it lightly. I’m still damned keen to see the place, if not for the fact that it’s bloody Egypt – enough said, surely – then for the simple fact that the place is so devoid of tourists at the moment. Ten years ago the pyramids and the temple complexes would have been heaving. These days, people are afraid. I suppose they have their reasons. They also have reason, which I tend to lack from time to time.

When? Oh, that’d be July, too. A couple of days after returning from Romania, to be precise.

The same teacher has her oposiciones coming up the following year and is keen to travel as much as she can before the year is out and she is thrown back into the impoverished, restricted life of a student once again. So she’s traveling to Thailand in August and – you guessed it – asked if I wanted to join.

Baby, I swear it’s déjà vu. This is Jordan clashing with Archie’s grand Central American adventure all over again. Only this time I genuinely want to do both. One of the main advantages of both Romania and Egypt – the two that are actually feasible, given the time frame – is that I would be traveling with Spaniards and consequently speaking almost entirely in Spanish. What that equates to is almost an entire year  working on perfecting my grandfather’s language, which is absolutely amazing for my Spanish.

As for my Arabic, it leaves much to be desired.

What I have to keep reminding myself is that Arabic is not a career path for me like Spanish is. I love the Arabic culture, the beauty of the language, the history and the world that is North Africa… but I’ve never wanted to work in politics, or diplomacy, or the Army, or even as a translator, and I’d like to think that I’ve at least enough morals not to even go near the oil industry. Besides, Spain feels like home. It always has. Therefore it has and always should occupy the greater part of my mind.

That said, I have to spend an absolute minimum of four months in an Arabic-speaking country. There’s simply no going around that. What with the sudden arrival of so many opportunities, it’s not just frustrating that I’ve got this quota to fill – one that I genuinely want to fill. It’s brutal in the extreme. If only I could stay abroad during Fresher’s Week and gain myself one week more… but I have prior commitments – not least of all the upkeep of this blog – that require me to be back in Durham before September is out.

I’m not saying I wasn’t warned. We were explicitly told on several occasions that taking up an eight-month British Council Assistantship would royally screw over your second language. Put bluntly. And I fiercely maintained that, come all the paradoxes of Hell, I was going to go for it anyway. Because I’m stubborn like that. And it’s been one of the very best decisions of my life, one that I don’t regret for a second, and an experience that I’ve loved so very much that I’m finding it very hard not to apply for the very same Villafranca de los Barros in a year’s time. The fact remains that I need that four month quota, and the way things are going, it’s looking like a month and a half on either side. Which isn’t exactly ideal.

Do you ever feel like time is running out on you? I do. So very often.

I’m going to do what anyone with half a brain would do in my situation: consult the parents. I had to back down from South Africa for various reasons, and I really don’t like quitting. Especially when there are so many people counting on me. Oh, to be free from the shackles of academia! 2017 can’t come soon enough… BB x

2016 Reasons to Smile

Hello you. Welcome to 2016. Happy new year, feliz año and all the rest. I’ve only really just finished with my first teaching day of the year and I’m already broken, but my Gold Box playlist is on at full blast, currently serving up a fantastically uplifting Son of Man courtesy of Phil Collins and all is as it should be. 2015 is behind us, a brave new year awaits. And it’s you who’ll climb the mountain, it’s you who’ll reach the peak.

What was it I said last year? That 2015 would be my year? In a sense, I suppose it was. It was, in all honesty, the very best of years. I took part in an international a cappella competition in London. I braved the Atlas Mountains. I sang the Circle of Life solo in front of a thousand-strong audience in Durham Cathedral. I recorded a single with the Lights. I saw the sun set over the Holy Land, swam with triggerfish in the Red Sea and watched a meteor shower over the desert in Wadi Rum. I found my old friends in Olvera after so many years and had some of the best nights of my life in my old hometown. I also had a close encounter with a griffon, saw the cranes come down for the winter and learned to harvest olives.

It wasn’t flawless, by any means. My essay ethic got worse and worse and my timetable got busier and busier, Persian was (sadly) a mistake, I had some Judas-level loyalty issues between the Lights and my official post as a musical director for Durham’s gospel choir and Year Abroad admin threatened to break me body and soul for several months. Amman, ever more of an obligation than a decision, practically drained me to the last drop of my will to study Arabic, and if it weren’t for having such good and honest companions about me, I might have tossed in the towel for good. And maybe, just maybe, I came home all the stronger for the ordeal.

But that’s looking back. Here’s to looking ahead. I’ve never been one for living in the past so much as in the future, which is equally problematic. One of my New Year’s resolutions really should be learning to live in the moment, which is a healthier state of mind by far, but… I guess I’d better be realistic. You can lead a horse to water, but if it’s not thirsty, there’s no point in drowning it just to make a point. So here, without further ado, are my reasons to smile in 2016.

  1. I’m alive. That’s as good a reason as any.
  2. I wanna know ’bout these strangers like me.
  3. I’m living in Spain. It’s what I’ve always wanted.
  4. I might be working long hours, but I’m being paid for it.
  5. Winter is upon us, and that means spring is around the corner.
  6. I’m going to be here in Spain when spring arrives.
  7. In three months’ time the bee-eaters will be here.
  8. Jesús and Laura, two of my primaria children, gave me a hug today.
  9. I’ve just seen The Lion King. Twice. Once on stage, once on film. Big smiles.
  10. Femi Kuti’s Truth Don Die has just come on.
  11. I’m going to learn something new this year.
  12. I’m going to go somewhere new this year.
  13. I’m going to live somewhere new this year.
  14. I’m going to meet somebody new this year.
  15. The world is huge, and full of life, and wonderful people, and beautiful moments.
  16. The sunsets here are nothing short of gorgeous.
  17. The novel is coming along better than ever before.
  18. You’re never lost if you’ve still got hope. And there is always hope.
  19. I’ve finally found my feet with serious photography after a few years’ absence.
  20. Get up, get on up; stay on the scene, like a sex machine.
  21. Durham chose me as one of its international bloggers.
  22. My brother and I are more alike than I ever knew.
  23. I know who my dearest friends are and I love them so.
  24. Erin Shore.
  25. I haven’t had to do a maths paper for almost six years.
  26. I haven’t started the TLRP yet, but it’s going to be hella interesting when I do.
  27. My passion for learning new (useless) facts hasn’t dried up.
  28. Nants ingonyama bagithi baba (sithi uhm ingonyama).
  29. Wa sangoma ngi velelwe.
  30. The 2015 negatives paragraph looks longer than the positives, but only because it ends on a positive.
  31. I’m not in Syria. Whoever decides these odds has dealt me a very fair hand.
  32. I’m an Englishman in a country where English is always in high demand.
  33. Consequently, I don’t hate being English anymore. Thank you Allan Quatermain.
  34. Dar baz ast.
  35. There’s plenty more fish in the sea. Oh, and the nearest sea is the Mediterranean.
  36. The Herculean backlog of stories I’ve got to read is still growing.
  37. The new Star Wars film is nowhere near as bad as the prequels.
  38. Zulu chant never ceases to lift my spirits, and it never will.
  39. I’m going back to Morocco in June.
  40. I’m not going back to Amman in June.
  41. Thriller.
  42. I might well be fluent in Spanish by the end of the year.
  43. Two of my Big Five life ambitions have already been accomplished.
  44. I’ll never stop chasing my dreams.
  45. I’ve still got two new pairs of socks to wear.
  46. Incidentally, the laundry is almost dry, too.
  47. Philip and Stephanie live happily ever after in the end.
  48. My childhood obsession with video games is over. Sméagol is free.
  49. I actually have three weeks’ worth of lessons already planned for once.
  50. I’ve got somewhere to live next year.
  51. I’ve got a roof over my head at the moment, which is more than can be said for many.
  52. Everyone is where they need to be, doing what they need to do.
  53. Everything that happens, happens for a reason.
  54. It’s raining, but I love the rain.
  55. All the setbacks in the world will never kill the romantic in me.
  56. I’d originally planned on twenty-six reasons. We’re now approaching sixty.
  57. There are only four of us left, but I love my family to pieces.
  58. It’s the little moments, not the major ones, which make life worth living.
  59. I’ll never give up on myself.
  60. My last class ends at half seven tomorrow, so I’ll have time to go grocery shopping.
  61. Chipicao might be gone, but Spain still deals a roaring trade in its twin, Bolycao.
  62. The last song on shuffle just happens to be my all-time favourite: Back in Stride, by Maze and Frankie Beverley. The ultimate in cure-all, feel-good songs.
  63. Don’t worry. Be happy.

If all else fails, put on a smile yourself. It’s not a failsafe, but it sure looks nice, and it makes everybody else feel nicer. And maybe they’ll smile too. And that will come around and make you smile, too. And that, in itself, is a reason to smile. BB x

The Green Hills of England

It’s drawing near to December, that time of year when, like as not, English hearts across the world look back to Albion. Say what you like, but Christmas just isn’t the same anywhere else. I’ve been told as much by the Spaniards themselves, some of whom know it only from what they’ve seen in books and on TV.

I’ve never been the kind to get too nostalgic about home, probably because I’ve always lived by the creed that home is where the heart is, and if truth be told, my heart is rather portable. I’ve been none too careful with it. There’s pieces of it everywhere; in Olvera, in El Rocio, in Boroboro and in the Lake District. This year is no different. I’ve been working here in Villafranca for exactly two months now, and I’ve yet to feel any desperate pangs for home home. How can I, when there are so many places I want to be? I’m also a natural loner, by habit and by necessity. Spending long periods in my own company has never bothered me all that much. Sometimes I prefer it that way. It’s a lot less complicated. So it’s got a fair amount to do with my personality, but it could well be because I’m simply too busy to get homesick. Being told I wasn’t needed for one of my classes this morning felt so decidedly wrong that I heard myself asking to make up the time later. I’ve told you before, I can’t deal with not being busy up to my eyes. It’s a state I both love and hate. But it’s a damn sight better than having nothing to do, which is the very worst state of all – just short of despair, which, I suppose, it is, in a way.

Enough musing! I’m not completely immune, and after reading several blog posts on a similar theme, I’ve got to wondering what it is that I miss about England when I’m not there, and I came up with a few:

  1. Milk. You know, regular, cold milk, none of this warm UHT stuff. Yes, I get it, we’re the only species that drinks another animal’s milk and it’s unnatural, but it’s a lot nicer in the morning than UHT.
  2. Music. I’ve already elaborated on this one, so I won’t go into it again.
  3. Footpaths. When you’ve grown up in a country so well-stocked with public footpaths across open country, coming to a land where unsigned farm tracks of dubious public status are the only alternative to roads is a little depressing.
  4. Rain. There’s something magical about rain. It makes me feel elated, especially the real storms, the ones where you simply have to rush outside and get soaked to the skin. That’s more of an African thing than an English thing, but we do get a lot of rain in England, and a lot more than Spain, anyway.
  5. Green. It’s not as much of a problem here as it was in Jordan, as Extremadura is actually rather green itself at this time of year, especially in the north. But it extends beyond that. It’s that cold wind in the night, the dewy scent in the morning, the crunch of frosty ground underfoot. An English autumn green and red and gold. As much as I love hot countries, it’s the one thing I truly miss when I’m gone. And nowhere, NOWHERE does it better than the Lakes.

That’s about as much as I can think of. Family, obviously, would be at the top of the list, but that’s a given. That’s the only reason I’m going home for Christmas this year, because I’m rushing straight back out here for January; for the Reyes Magos, for Olvera and for the Lion King in Madrid (I’ll save that for a later post). What with my younger brother at university now, all four of us left in the Young family are living and working in four different places, so it’ll be nice to be home together again for Christmas. As for the things I thought I’d miss – friends, food and life in general – I’ve got plenty of all three out here, and in a few cases it’s better than back home.

But the important thing is this: Christmas is a time for being with your family. Forget Christmas; the end of the year, when it’s dark and cold, and a new year is on the brink – that’s a better time than any to be with your nearest and dearest. I’d have liked to have stuck it out here, in defiance, or maybe gone to Olvera to spend it with my friends, but at the end of the day, they have their own families, and I wouldn’t want to hijack somebody else’s special day. So for England I’ll be bound, mere hours before Christmas Day, and for once, for the first time in as long as I can remember, I’m not ashamed to be British. And I have Allan Quatermain to thank for that. Allan Quatermain, and John Lockley, and Flashman, and all the other British heroes of literature, who in spite of all of my self-imposed angst at the shame of being British, have shown me that there is in fact a fierce integrity in being from Albion.

For the first time in history, I’m an Englishman abroad – and it doesn’t bother me in the slightest. BB x

The World’s Most Beautiful Women

Why am I doing this?

No, seriously. Why am I doing this? This isn’t Amman. This isn’t even vaguely Arabic. We’re halfway to Kiev on a bus that isn’t the Skybus that Google and Tripadvisor recommended. Come to think of it, I didn’t even ask the driver where we’re going. It might not even be Kiev. I’m going by the size of the city and the great big river we crossed earlier and assuming it is. Other than that, I really don’t know. I can’t read the alphabet. Any and all Russian I learned in those four after-school sessions has jumped clean out of my mind, except that the letter P becomes R and K, T and A stay the same. Ten points for effort for this worn-out linguist! I mean, there’s no escaping it this time: this is sheer lunacy, even by my standards.

‘We could be going anywhere right now,’ says Andrew. ‘We could literally be going anywhere.’

Well, this really isn't Arabia anymore...

Well, this really isn’t Arabia anymore…

We really could. It all looks bleak and Soviet; pine forests, grey skies and grim skyscrapers with peeling walls. Even the hooded crows look seedy. But I do have £33 worth of Ukrainian hryvna in my wallet (or at least, I think I do) and I plan for us to be back at the airport for six o’clock at the latest. So there is some semblance of a plan beneath the anarchy. Blimey, but what I wouldn’t do to have fellow linguists and Russian speakers Shahnaz and Rosie here with me now, if just to have a vague idea of what’s going on.

Nope, I don't understand any of this

Nope, I don’t understand any of this

If that whim decision to go for the twelve-hour layover bothered me slightly at four o’clock this morning, it was practically crucifying me by nine, when we’d touched down in Borispol Airport and navigated customs. Andrew managed a good couple of hours’ sleep on the journey from Amman; I did not, and it’s really beginning to kick in now, as I’m no longer constantly on the move. But fatigue is the smallest of barriers to the determined adventurer!

…once again I find myself picking up the mantle some two hours later. Two sentences later I woke up with the iPad slipping off my legs onto the floor of the bus. So I take that back. Apparently fatigue has other ideas.

I digress. After a minor financial confusion over the exchange rate of the Ukranian hryvna, Andrew and I made it to Kiev (it really was Kiev in the end) with six hours to kill. Cue at least half an hour of ‘wow’, ‘I can’t believe we’re doing this’ and ‘this is absolutely bonkers’ as Andrew patiently bears my childish enthusiasm. We took a wander into the old part in search of the Bessarabsky Market to grab a bite to eat. Every single stall inside, without exception, was manned by what can only be described as the stereotypical babuschka. And no, try as they might, Andrew and I didn’t understand a word of what they were saying. But an idea struck me at one of the aisles and I procured a tin of caviar from one of the stallholders who was anxious for us to try a spoonful of all of her wares, from sweet to tongue-zappingly salty, from lumpfish to Beluga sturgeon. And if you think I’m exaggerating, I point you towards the sequin-scaled monstrosity lying headless on a mound of ice near the market door, barbels removed. It hardly needs saying, but this is a world away from Amman. Period.

Concrete block for make unification of great Russian Power and Ukraine

Concrete block for make unification of great Russian Power and Ukraine

The miracle of Kiev is that there is so much to see in so small an area. Like I said, a world away from Amman. In just under four hours we had covered almost everything there is to see. Beginning with St. Volodymyr’s Cathedral, an elaborate Orthodox affair in gold leaf and black-robed majesty, we set off an a tour of the old city. There’s something really special about Orthodox churches. At first glance it all looks a bit showy: giant crosses, bold block colours, gold used just about wherever there’s breathing space, not to mention all the icons. But it’s a great deal more complicated than that. It was Andrew who pointed it out to me. The congregation, outnumbering the sightseers by about nine to one, were mostly women, in varying states of dress, but the one thing they all had in common was the wearing of a headscarf. A kind of step-down for us from Jordan, perhaps.

‘Surely it doesn’t work like that,’ says Andrew, as a scarfed young woman in high heels leaves the cathedral after making the sign of the cross twice across her chest and bowing out, a lurid pink thong showing above the cut of her miniskirt. Apparently, it does. You know what they say about book covers…

Overloading on the blue, much...

Overloading on the blue, much…

One of the subjects that came up in conversation with Fahed and Massoud yesterday was the subject of Ukrainian women, whom Fahed believed, as ‘proved by science’, to be the most beautiful women in the world. I set out to test that theory today, both to conduct some kind of fair test in light of such a sweeping statement (especially when any suggestions of Spain and Colombia had been overruled just minutes before), and more so to justify this ridiculous little side-quest into Kiev at the end of our labours.

Or you could just cut out the middle man...

Or you could just cut out the middle man…

I’m going to surprise myself, but Fahed’s got a point. Ukrainian women are pretty stunning. They must be, or we wouldn’t have run into not one, not two, but a total of seven weddings in the course of our wanderings. There’s also a heck of a lot of them; more than the men, anyway, at least from my observations. A bit like Elvet Riverside, come to think of it. But seriously, those weddings we walked in on (there was hardly any avoiding them, they were all over the place…) Flowing white dresses everywhere on a backdrop of marble steps, spiralling turrets and Orthodox spires. My heart was on a serious flutter. Perhaps it’s the healthy skin tones, the raven hair, or the eyes that shelter a mixture of light and dark? Or even the fabulous dress sense? No, surely it’s the curled smiles most of them are wearing… (I wish Nizzar Qabbani could help me out here, I’m teetering on the edge of the villainy of objectivity)

Somebody stop me before I make a rash move!

Somebody stop me before I make a rash move!

Before I go too far, I’ll throw you the anecdote that tipped me over the scale of utter disbelief of Fahed’s claim to conceding a little ground to the guy. In the grounds of the St. Sophia Cathedral, Kiev’s jaw-droppingly beautiful UNESCO cathedral complex, Andrew and I stumbled upon an outdoor recital by a young Ukrainian student playing quite possibly the largest lute I have ever seen. I believe, if memory serves, that it is called a bandura? We still had a good three hours to kill so we stopped to listen, and am I glad we did! No sooner had she put her fingers to the strings than the girl began to sing, and in all my years as the son of two music teachers I have rarely heard a voice so magical. Like a siren, but sadder and more graceful. I was totally drawn in – so much so that it took me some time to realise that the bandurist and I had been staring at each other unflinchingly for almost a minute before I snapped awake, and she’d been singing all the way through.

‘You should have got her number or something,’ said Andrew, as we moved on to the Great Gates of Kiev twenty minutes later. ‘You haven’t got forever. Get them before they’re all gone, that’s what my godmother told me.’

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I’m not running out of time yet – at least, I hope I’m not. Maybe I should have done or said something. As ever, I was lost in the music, I guess. Too lost to appreciate that we kept looking back at each other after her set was over. My obliviousness reigns supreme. At the very least I have a good three minutes of her set on video, so I can listen to that siren song again if ever the mood requires. And by that I mean, of course, sleep. Andrew fell asleep during her recital. If I hadn’t been so entranced, I guess I might have done so too.

It's ok, as long as I have cats I'll be just fine

It’s ok, as long as I have cats I’ll be just fine

Water under the bridge, hey? But what an adventure, and what a way to end my time in Jordan! It’s been a pleasure to live and work alongside you, Andrew, and I wish you all the best in France (knowing that you’ll be back in the comfort of your own home by the time you read this, and that Babette won’t have to check on how you’re getting on in this long-winded fashion anymore!) As for the rest of you, dear readers, I shall probably take a few days’ hiatus to catch up on sleep, as I’m dangerously behind, and to clear my head. Just a few minutes in one of Kiev’s parks was enough to recharge my batteries right the way up – green, green, GREEN, oh my God, the trees, the leaves, the grass and all of the GREEN – but I intend to set up stores for the winter, as it were. Villafranca’s not lacking in countryside, but I’ve learnt my lesson, and I’m not setting off into the open world without a well-supplied heart next time.

There’s still another hour to go until boarding begins for the flight back to London. Farewell, До свидания and I’ll catch you all later. Yours truly needs a well-deserved break from all this madness. Until the next time! BB x

Giving Amman a Second Chance

Had I known the Kievans would throw a violent protest four days before my return flight to the UK, I might have forked over that extra £80 and come home three days earlier on the two hour layover, instead of holding out for one last fling on that twelve hour layover that awaits me now.

The last stretch always seems like the longest. Only three nights remain, which is a damn sight closer than three weeks, and I have a bed for only two of those, as my 4am Saturday morning flight means that Andrew and I will be on stakeout at Queen Alia International Airport all night, catching sleep when and where we can. I’m still up and raring to get out and see Kiev during our ridiculous layover, protest or no protest, but it won’t be much fun on less than an hour’s sleep, and I’ll probably need my wits about me in the current climate. Especially when I speak about as much Russian as the hornet buzzing about my window. Still, that’s as much of an adventure as I could ask for, and the more I think about it, the better I feel for being so parsimonious with my flights back in May. Let’s just hope they let us out of Borispol first, or the whole thing will be dead in the water. 

But let’s not jump too far ahead! I’m still here in Amman. The breaking of the fellowship has come about at last, and a great deal more sincerely so than the last time I used that turn of phrase in Casablanca. We said farewell to Mac yesterday, after five days on the road together. Kate and Katie left for home in the early hours of this morning. Of the original Ali Baba team, there’s only three of us left. Andrew and I are practically the old guard. When first we arrived, it looked as though the end wouldn’t be ‘farewell’ so much as ‘until next year’, with all five of us set to return next summer; same people, same time, same place. Fortunately, life is a constantly fluctuating thing, and I’m bound for other lands next year. In truth it’s most likely that I won’t see the bulk of Team Jordan until we’re called back to Durham next October, now far in the distant future. So perhaps it really is farewell- until the next time.

It’s coming up to five o’clock in the afternoon, which means this post has taken me all of an hour and a half to write. The midday sun is just beginning to think about giving up the ghost, Andrew’s penning a couple of final postcards and the fan’s on at full blast, as it has to be if we aren’t to pass out in the fug. The hornet’s gone, thank heavens, and the orange vendor is back on the job, driving lazily up and down the streets with his pre-recorded pitch on a tinny repeat. We picked up our luggage yesterday and made a gesture at packing up, even though three whole days remain. It’s the thought that counts. Trying to fill up the final hours is a tedious affair, but on the plus side, downtown isn’t as frightening a beastie as it used to be. I guess that has a lot to do with living two minutes’ walk from the centre. Date bread and street pizzas from 25p a piece, slushies for half a dinar and plenty of cheaper eateries than the falafel mothership that is Hashem’s – and best of all, all of them within walking distance. So we come to it: it’s not the crush that bothered me so much as it is the needless expense on the taxi rides to and from wast al-balad. Diagnosed, at last. And that, I hope, is my last spark of angst off my chest.

For two months I’ve bombarded this blog with big city blues and saturated you all with my town mouse tantrums. I look back on all of that and laugh. It’s easy to do when I know I’ll be home in four nights’ time, of course, but it’s the final and most important part of the therapy. I’m not about to turn around and say that Amman is a great place to live – it’s not – but I’ll concede some ground to my detractors in that it’s not the Hell on Earth I made it out to be. It’s a question of willpower, living in a place like this, and I’ve learned a great deal about that here. Whether it’s a choice between holing up in your room with a book and braving a night on the town, or striking up a conversation with a local without a prompt, or even finding a functional solution to the ten-foot tall, sixty-foot long man-eating slug in the eleventh room on the left, one of the most important lessons you can learn in life is conviction. Being true to yourself. I thought I was pretty on it before I came here, but I see a lot of what I thought of as conviction now as my natural stubbornness, and there is a difference. You shouldn’t do things because you feel like you have to, just as you can’t be made to love a place you don’t like, but if you don’t make an effort on the inside to see the good in all things and stand by it, you’ll be on an island forever. Take it from the king of the castaways: man up. Some troubles in life are insurmountable, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re unassailable.

I’ve come close to breaking my golden rule and slipping into despair out here, but it’s that brush with the very worst emotion of all that’s given me the strength to go on. And Amman, for all its flaws, is built on a bedrock of warm, friendly people. Sure, you might have more adventurous encounters outside the city limits in provincial backwaters like Tafileh, but Amman itself is a very good place to start. Don’t make the same mistake I did and allow yourself to be freaked out by the size and speed of the place; beneath the rush are a host of charming characters who simply want to know how you’re getting on, if you’ll give them the time. The guy who runs this hostel, the Bdeiwi Hotel, told us last night that you often judge a language by your experiences with the people who speak it. He’s got a very good point, too. Sit on a step off the main road like a local and you’re bound to have somebody come over and strike up a conversation, in Arabic or in broken English. It’s heart-warming once you get used to it, just how much these people care. The sheer extent of the hospitality of the Arabs can seem so great as to be insincere to the untrained Western eye, as I once had to explain over a failed homestay offer in Morocco; we, a country so used to living off the hospitality of others. I think back to my trek across London with sixty-three kilos of luggage on my back, when I collapsed flat on my chest from exhaustion in the Underground and it took all of eight minutes for somebody to ask if I was alright; Amman is not as faceless as that, nor could it ever be.

Three nights remain. Twenty six dinars are left in my wallet. My city angst is exorcised, I’ve had a good two months’ run of it, and Andrew agrees with my final judgement. All is well with the world. BB x

Breathless in Paradise

Snorkeling is just about the best idea anybody ever had. The world underwater is singularly enchanting, whether you’re drifting over white sands, coal stacks or the open blue. If it weren’t for my breathing issues, and a nasty little demon called fire coral, I’d rank it right up at the top of my favourite things in life.

With school out for the end of summer – just like last year, I’ve been working all the way through it to the point where it feels like it never came at all – we’ve nothing but time on our hands until our Saturday morning flight. At Eloise’s suggestion, Andrew and I find ourselves back in Aqaba, two weeks after we popped by for a visit on our way back from Wadi Rum. By some curious stroke of luck, our hotel, the Bedouin Garden Village, happened to be the very same place we’d got our snorkeling gear from last time, so the manager, a carefree local who makes his living lounging about on the beach, smoking shisha and leading diving groups out into the reefs, already knew us and was pleased to see us again. It’s still intolerably hot – the midday sun peaks at a regular 42 degrees – but it’s cooler than it was, if you ask the locals. 

 

 The last time I wrote about snorkeling, I gave myself a paragraph. Looking back, that’s more than a little silly. It’s criminal. So this time I’ll put you inside my head, so you can see what I see:

I squeeze my feet into two giant flippers and waddle down to the water like a particularly incapable penguin, adjusting and readjusting my snorkel; there’ll be none of last time’s mistakes, or I’ll just have o March straight back to the hotel and ask – God forbid – for a demonstration. Walking forwards in the water isn’t easy in footwear more than three times the size of your feet, so I turn and start walking backwards, for all the good it will do. And what do you know? It’s a little easier. There’s a neat little life hack for you. Alternatively, you could just belly out and swim. And so I do.

For the first few metres it’s a long stretch of silver sand, dotted here and there with a buried cola bottle or lens cap. The first few fish are tiddlers, with the exception of a familiar school of silvery mullet that gawp their way along the shore. Up ahead, the reef looms. One more kick of the flippers and we’re over.

There’s only a small space between the reef and the surface, hardly enough for a man to swim over untouched, but temptation is a dangerous lady, and I can’t stop myself. Up on the reef it’s a sudden explosion of colour, and the coral has very little to do with that. It’s the fish that light up the place. There are canary yellow butterflyfish in twos and threes, flanked by dusky Arabian angelfish and solitary sergeant majors; the mottled form of a greasy grouper hugging the rocks while a triggerfish, resplendent in robes of blue and green, watches from the sand; dragonfish staring up in a stargazing torpor from the seabed whilst speckled white gobies dig their nests all about; clownfish weaving in and out of the multicoloured anemones they crave. Stranger denizens still, like the angular boxfish, the pipefish-through-photoshop cornetfish and the bizarre unicornfish, with what can only be described as a horn protruding an inch and more between its eyes, haunt the nooks of the reef, like the shady underbelly of this grand fashion show.

I’d like to say those are the thoughts going through my head right now, but it’s actually more of a constant stream of ‘ohh’, ‘wow’ and ‘ohmyGodthisissobeautiful’. Poetic to the last. And this time, my mask isn’t leaking and my snorkel is watertight, and I can enjoy this whole spectacle without hyperventilating. Further out, there’s a shipwreck that’s supposedly crawling with moray eels, and even a sunken tank. I’d love to swim out to see them for myself, but I don’t put much trust by the strength of my reserves. I may be a mean (if explosive) sprinter, but I’m not the strongest of swimmers, having been much too obstinate to ever learn to breathe properly. I’ll leave that adventure to Andrew and Mac. They already have a taste for exploring creepy wrecks from the abandoned hospital off Rainbow Street. I might try again this afternoon, but right now I’d rather continue to explore the reef.

Oh bummer, some seawater got into my snorkel. I have to surface to spit it out, but in the action a great wave pushes me under and I get an eyeful of Red Sea salt. By the time I’ve got my mask back on, it’s steamed up and I have to take it off again to clear it up. The vicious waves are making this little task impossible. I make a beeline for the buoy line that marks the edge of the reef and try holding on to that, but of course, it goes under the water, and it’s prickly to the touch from all the little reef creatures growing on it. So I make for a stack of brain coral and haul myself as gently as I can to sit on it and readjust my mask in peace. The wind’s really picking up; you can see the sand blowing across the beach back on the shore. The waves are equally relentless, but I’m holding my own here. I can see Andrew and Mac a fair way out. They’ve gone beyond the buoy that marks where the sunken tank is supposed to be, but they’ve drifted quite a way off course. If we’re not careful we’ll have a fair walk on our hands when we get back to the beach – or a harder swim, flippers or no.

Fwoosh! The giant wave comes out of nowhere and throws me back against the coral. No, not the coral, against the rock, and a stack of fire coral, which isn’t really coral at all, but a jellyfish-like creature with a nasty sting. I don’t have much time to think about that, because I’m back underwater without my mask. Pulling myself angrily back onto the brain coral and securing my mask back onto my head, I examine my arm. There’s an ugly red weal running up the length of it, scored with white. It could just as easily be leprosy. Not only that, there’s also a similarly nasty scar on my lower back and cut across my right hand from where I grabbed the reef as the wave took me under. Oh yeah, and the covered in salt water, too. Time, I think, to beat a hasty retreat.

  
The beach is no friend of mine today. Two seconds on my front in the sand and there’s a stinging sensation all along my right-hand side. It’s not even my reef scars; it’s the sand, whipped up by the wind to scour my skin. Talk about a full-body workout! We’re going to have to retreat further than just the shore. I’m heading back to the pool. I don’t think I’ve ever been more grateful for such a thing.

  

All the same, I don’t regret it for a second, even though the fire coral rash along my arm continues to pester me, some three days later. For another hour with the colorful denizens of the Red Sea, I’d do it all again. Tell me, though; is diving supposed to be such an ordeal every time, or is Butterfingers over here just as naive as ever? BB x