…holding pattern

Just submitted an application for a job – a promotion that I don’t want but will probably get – while waiting to hear about an unexpected job opportunity that I didn’t realise I wanted so much until today. At the same time anxiously watching the timer tick down to my “end of June” deadline for action.

I am the pause at the top of an inhale at the moment: my first step off the ledge. Caught in an anxious moment of breathless anticipation.

Ill hear about all of these opportunities in the next 2 or 3 weeks…

Weeks!!!! 

Tick tick fuck.

All my careful planning and orchestrations over the past year have made May/June this year the crunch months. I’m trying to control too much outside my sphere and its doing my head in at the moment.

All I can do is wait until these opportunities are either ticked off or taken – and I really hate waiting. 

Don’t get me wrong – I’m extremely grateful to have so many exciting opportunities given the current state of the world. But hey, it’s me. Activity is my heroin, remember? Complacency can suck it.

At least the Green card lottery results are in. No luck there and can tick that off for the year.

It’s actually quite an exciting time.

USA, Romania, Antarctica, South America, Dubbo. One of these things is not like the others.

More on these later as things develop. I’m being intentionally vague but there are massively exciting games afoot.

…yes its a tease, but the Interweb’s digital walls have ears.

**I found a heap of old Biggles novels at a book fair today – being a voracious reader as a kid I devoured all these titles and any other series I could find – Famous Five, Hardy Boys, The Three Investigators, moving on to Tolkien, Conan-Doyle, Fleming, Doc Smith, Zane Grey, Asimov and Wilbur Smith and more. Perhaps it was these early literary adventures that set a book and movie geek on his meandering path an age ago. 

Anyway some things never change … Book Fairs rule…

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trapped…

There a war of sorts going on here in Thailand. Its an urban battle fought house by house, corner by corner, street by street. Every man, woman and child armed to the teeth, ready to engage.

Pickup trucks full of masked combatants prowl past the safety of the hostel windows. The wail of ambulances echo through the streets which are starting to fill again after an uneasy ceasefire overnight. 

Here in Chiang Mai today, shellshocked Chinese tour groups wander aimlessly – all colorful dazed and confused – dragging large clattering suitcases on wheels over the rough concrete roadways looking for escape much like a gaggle of geese crossing a busy freeway.

Don’t panic.

It’s Songkran 2017. Thailand’s New Year Water Festival celebrating the end of summer and the start of Wet season – and the largest shit water fight on the planet. 

The only way to survive is to submit.

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Songkran is a 4 day party where most Thais head home to their families and celebrate a New Year. Tourist (and drunken asshole) numbers swell unbearably. Many shops are closed but the bars are open late. Alcohol runs freely even as hostels run out of fresh water.

Seriously, Thais take this water festival concept to a whole new level of batshit crazy.

The Moat surrounding the Old City drops a foot from the water consumption as the streets and gutters run ankle deep wet from the water fights. 

High pressure water cannons, fire hoses, bathtubs and garbage bins, massive 44 gallon plastic drums of iced water, blow up swimming pools, large eskys – anything that will hold/throw water – line the streets and are set up on most street corners and traffic lights where a pedestrian, scooter or Songtaew must stop. Then the flouro-coloured cackling crazies descend and a watery battle ensues.

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Riding in a Songtheaw (red truck)? Tough luck. the driver will pull up at a corner/traffic light/roadside and let his passengers get completely ‘blurged’ (thats my new word of the day). 

Riding on a motorcycle? Too bad – you will cop a thorough ‘blurging’ at 60km per hour . It’s deadly but hilarious to watch .

Chaotic doesn’t adequately describe the level of dangerous mayhem.

The papers post a Songkran daily death tally – last year over 400 people died (mostly in Chiang Mai area) and over 2,500 people injured in traffic accidents directly related to Songkran celebrations.

This year’s stats are in and its not looking great (although deaths are down. Yay less death!).

Sobering, you would think . Nah. Each year it’s about the same.
In Chiang Mai the entire Old City Moat several kilometres around – both sides – is filled with little booths and stalls selling food, drinks, water pistols, plastic bags and hats as everyone tries to make a quick baht and have a good time.

Roadside stalls sell huge blocks of ice to make sure the water freezing cold.

All the alleys and side streets are covered. There is absolutely no escape.

And this shit happens all over the country!

Amazing.

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What to do?

Firstly – Pray to your Gods.

Secondly – Prepare.

So Day 1: (quick cut ‘gearing up’ montage here)

Phone wrapped in cheap plastic bag. Check

Quick dry t-shirt, shorts and sunglasses. Check.

Wallet and cash in a cheap plastic bag. Check.

I head out onto the packed streets with the aim of my usual walk from Nimman down to the Old City, around the moat and then back, just to see what the fuss was about. Usually takes about 90 minutes there and back.

A few steps out the door of the hostel I was hit in the face with a bucket of ice cold water – and this kept happening for pretty much the rest of the day.

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2 hours later I stumbled into the Starbucks at Thapae Gate and gave up. It wasn’t even 1/3 of the way. Sunbaked, crowdshocked and soaked to the skin in a fruity cocktail of warm green mucky moat water and freezing cold ice water, my inadequate plastic protections leaking and damp, and feeling ill from the gallon of green moat water that had been forced into my nose/mouth/ears.

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I lasted 5 hours on the unforgiving streets and then retreated to the hostel, slinking back through alleys like a gunshy dog. Unfortunately, my sleepy hostel Bed Addict – Nimman ( 350 baht/night, close to Maya, my beloved cinemas, vegan eateries and some cool coffee shops) had been invaded by a group of loud party hard American students that had trashed it like a college dorm room.

With no dry clothes and no escape, I was trapped in my hostel kitchen – the quietest place I could find. Outside, the artsy part of town had turned into a techno-pumping foam-partying disco-lit aqua-nightmare.

Add to that the several competing foam parties, massive dance parties, and a dude in a tuktuk with enormous WHOOMP WHOOMP speakers parked just outside my dorm window and my night did not improve.

The walls of the hostel were vibrating as was my head. I jammed in my earplugs and tried to tune everything out – the thought of engaging and going out into this nightmare was unappealing. I wasn’t here to party.

But I’d finally figured out the main problem – I was resisting.

———————–

So Day 2. (slightly less enthusiastic quick cut ‘gearing up’ montage here)

Recheck my attitude. The key? – gotta get involved.

Upgrade the plastic bags to waterproof cases for phone and wallet (on sale everywhere). Check

Get a cheaparse sunhat for 25 Baht. Check

Buy a kickarse water pistol. Check Check Check.

Fillup, lock and load.

Lasting 6 hours on Day 2, I had a much better time of it. The best advice is rather than fight it, just go with the flow. Accept that you will be wet and hot and cold and covered in white paste for hours on end. Its all in good spirits and is actually a ritual blessing, so feel free to return it as often and to as many people as possible.

The lovely Thai people will (mostly) respectfully splash you or gently anoint your face with white powder or paste, the kids will love a waterpistol fight, and the littlest kids will giggle and smile like angels (right up til the point that their older siblings sneak up behind you and dump ice water down your back – after which everyone bursts into hysterical laughter). It’s so much fun.

It gets trickier with the tourists though.

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Usually some screaming psychotic tourist (see example above) with a massively expensive water cannon will run up to you and blast you in the face, knocking your sunglasses off or half drowning you before yodelling off into the crowd. Best to steer clear if possible.

But if you are up for a water war, then there are plenty of other soldiers here that will accommodate you.

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Day 3. Flick to Saturday morning and its an uneasy ceasefire – the celebrations are winding down but the odd water-pistol bearing straggler refuses to let go. Its still impossible to rent a scooter in this city as there are so many tourists, but the traffic to the airport is increasing as the tourists vacate.

The crowds are still there though and accommodation still hard to find. The mood is high but the celebrations are winding down from crazyassed to an almost manageable level.

*Still no sleep as the partying Americans have been replaced by partying Chinese students.

Day 4. Ahhh better. Now is the time to hit the Sunday Walking Markets, chill and explore the spiritual side of the festival as the craziness abates, with early morning happenings at the 50 or so temples around town, or better still up on Doi Suthep peacefully overlooking the city.

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Songkran 2018 – it was so much crazy fun, but next year remind me to be on top of a tall mountain, anywhere but here.

P.S

*so tired today I rinsed my glass in a sink and then drank a glass of tapwater today without thinking. Lets see how that goes.

**written over the 4 day festival but finished on Monday morning after no sleep for 3 days and totally stressed out by the frenetic pace of the holiday weekend.

***reminder to self  – never do this again.

re-entry…

So I’m back at work now. You can imagine my excitement.

Back in Dubbo, Australia now for 10 days, spending the last 5 days locked in an office, glued to a phone and computer, staring out a distant window at the sunlight, wishing I was somewhere else. Its ‘Luke Skywalker Syndrome’ at its worst and it’s easy as my office walls are now lined with new travel photos – a quick glance left takes me away to the forests of Olympic National Park and a distant view of Mt Rainier, a bit further takes me diving in Koh Phangan, to my teacher training class in Bali, or the Giza pyramids, or to Carthage.

I’ve led a charmed life this year no doubt about it.

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Now that’s in the past.

Settling back into Dubbo hasn’t been a lot of fun – the numbness and “dead inside” feeling has persisted and the episodic disconnection (almost disassociative at times) is still present but slowly waning. I’m getting out and about, getting as physical as I can on my current prepayday budget. I haven’t wanted to settle back in though, avoiding people and doing my own thing as usual. Walking a lot as I can’t sit still (the restlessness persists and as you know stillness is always an issue). There’s like a constant pressure in my head that I’m attributing to the instant onset of extreme hayfever (yes that a real thing  – there have been people dropping dead of asthma in Melbourne over the past few weeks).

The water here tastes like mud (algae in the river water we drink apparently), the dry heat and hard water has turned my skin to flaky crap and my hair to a dandruffy hair helmet, but the clear blue skies and sunsets in the evenings have made everything worth it.

Almost.

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In the grand scheme of things though, I can’t complain. Decent job, great money, good conditions, new work car (hopefully flame proof after the last one), semi-autonomous and self managing to a large degree. I work alone in a regional area of New South Wales, my immediate supervisor (now retired) is a 3 hour drive away, my team Manager 6 hours, the remainder of my team spread all over New South Wales. Perfect.

Almost.

You might recall that I mentioned that nothing had changed here in the past year. Well that holds true for work as well.

Starting back last Monday, a few people were surprised but most were welcoming (It was a sad day as a colleagues’ son had committed suicide over the weekend so the mood was low). I wasn’t expecting a parade but people passed by in the corridor, a few remarked that they hadn’t even realised I’d been gone.

Nice.

Walking back into my office after 11 months I expected at least SOMETHING to be different. But nothing was (except someone had stolen my 2 x new 22″ monitors and had replaced them with shitty old ones).

I settled back in, checked the few emails filtering in from colleagues who finally realised I was back, and then started catching up on mandatory training that been missed  – online talking head videos about terrorism or radicalisation or somesuch “fear fear fear warning warning warning’ nonsense –  (I suppose to be fair one of our own colleagues had been assassinated/shot point blank right outside the front door of Headquarters last year so a little paranoia is to be expected).

After a few calls from my colleagues, I was again getting drawn into the same corporate bullshit, the infighting and office politics that I’d been happy to leave in the dust. All the same personalities involved, their low morale, negativity and backstabbing once again hurled at me as the corporate factions struggled to find support and numbers. Tiresome and sickening but not entirely unexpected. I usually try to stay above it but sometimes its hard when it catches you off guard and it finds a way in.

It was then I started to feel the psychological load building again as all these familiar things reasserted control over my mind and began manifesting in my body. Pain free for the past 12 months, in this 2 day period things started to happen again. The crunchy shoulder muscles, the hypertension, irritability and anxiety. The shoulder and neck pain came back in 1 day. By Day 2, the tingling in the fingertips and wrists started up again, and lower back pain started to fire up. These things had spilled over and caused Hell  in my personal life and even in the first few weeks of my holiday, had caused aching pain and a lot of discomfort from sitting (especially touring around in Jen’s little 4WD for 3 weeks)

Usually I’d just go and stretch, chillax for a bit but ultimately put up with it. But “Bugger this” I thought – my health is important to me now – and got the local Workplace Health and Safety manager to come in and check out my office equipment. Sure enough, he measured and tested and moved things around, eventually ruling that every single piece of office furniture and equipment I’d been using for the past 4 years was totally unsuitable, too small , or needed changing out.

SO – now I have a standup desk! (at least temporarily)  – IT’S THE BEST THING EVER…and it’s gone a long way already to stop the aches and pains.

Short story is I’m doing ok. It’s not all doom and gloom.

Daily, I’m examining and reframing all the negative thinking, watching my mind, meditating and breathing purposefully. Flicking my gaze to next year while staying rooted in the present. Its a skill for life : less crystal ball gazing and more staying open to opportunity, but luckily I have some amazing friends in other countries that are still traveling and they are keeping me level – <Shaye, Megan, Kate, Anna, Megs, Christina, Connie, Bronnie especially> – if it wasn’t for the support of these guys (albeit remotely) I’d be a real mess.

The tiny OCD part of me still needs a plan ABC to settle down though.

So plan B is off to Bali in February to complete another 2 modules in the Svastha Yoga Therapy program. It’s something I really want to finish and after Bali there’s only 2 more modules to go and I’m certified.

Oh and I’m learning French! – met with a local tutor and shes going to help me over the next 5 months. There’s a plan bubbling away in my head to use Language study to travel the world – get an education visa for a year, study at a language school, move on. French first, then Thai in Thailand or Arabic in Tunisia at Bourguiba Language School.

It’s my plan C if the USA goes up in flames with Trump in control. (Did I mention I’m moving to the US next year?)

Next week brings Doctors visits, assessments and some work related travel to Bourke, Brewarrina, and probably Walgett. Today, I’m enjoying the Sunday sunshine, a decent coffee or two at Dahab Cafe, my new Jack Reacher novel and then who knows what the future may bring.

 

baguette?…

…was about the extent of my French when I hit Paris.

Well maybe not just ‘baguette’…I’d heard horror stories about the legendary rudeness of Parisians (and the French in general) towards non-French speaking foreigners/tourists and I was a little bit worried. In the last few days of Tunis (thanks to my Tunisian friends expert tutelage) I’d managed to progress to the stage where I could confidently greet someone, order a coffee (most important) and a meal, plus make extremely general inquiries. I thought I was rocking it. Obviously I wasn’t.

The first time I tried that in a classy sidewalk Paris cafe, the waiter actually laughed at me. In a sympathetic way, like you would a cute but backwards child (who may wear a bright orange ‘stakhat’ to school). Ill take sympathy over scorn any day, so I stuck with it. As long as you at least make the attempt to say ‘bonjour’ and speak even a little French (even badly) there is a definite defrosting of people attitudes towards you. Although to be completely honest, I never met any one person in France that was actually rude to me.

Maybe I was just lucky.

My first night in the hostel was interesting. After my little emotional adjustment at the Louvre, I wandered up the 2 city blocks to my hostel and checked in. The hostel was great, with dorm accommodation (bunk beds and shared bathrooms) but the building itself was several hundred years old, had excellent facilities, and I was right up top on the 5th floor with a wonderful view of the Paris rooftops. The place was the type of hostel that take large school groups and it was full of schoolkids on an excursion. It was currently a buzzing mass of kids as 2 groups had overlapped – 1 coming in, 1 going out – and instantly unbearable. The poor girl on the front desk was frazzled as she processed 100 excited kids and the wifi was getting hammered as everyone was online.

So a good opportunity to bug out and explore. With the Immigration officers words  – “most dangerous city in Europe”  – still bouncing around my head, I was a little uncertain of heading out at 11 pm, but the streets were full and the sounds of the inner city were beckoning, so I rugged up and headed out.

So where to start? I only had 5 days in this beautiful city to explore.

Retracing my steps back to the Louvre, I turned towards the distant Arc de Triomph glittering 3.5 kms away, thought ” I can do that” and started walking into the cold dark Parisian night.

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I’d gotten about 100 meters before my spider sense started jangling.

Walking through the Arc de Triomph du Carrousel (above) you are strolling down a wide barely lit gravel boulevard, surrounded by dark hedge gardens and statues.  I was wandering down trying to take photos in virtual darkness, when I noticed dark shapes lurking in the gardens beyond the lights. At first it didn’t seem like anything odd, but I then it occurred that there were no tourists in this area, just me.

I stopped and looked around, patting my pockets down looking for my cigarettes.

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Three dark figures detached themselves from the deep shadows on either side of the path and wandered out of the gardens, forming a rough triangle around me. Casually moving towards the spot I was standing. Dark jackets, scarves and beanies. Identical. Indistinguishable.

Ruh roh.

I took a moment, lit my cigarette and looked at my options, then turned and started casually walking back towards the light, and safety of the tourists on the other side of the arch.

They all instantly changed their approach vectors (fuck) and the closest guy intercepted me part way there, babbled something in French, and held out a cigarette. My heart was thumping a little and I thought “Ok here we go”. Watching the others approach closely but casually, I fished out my lighter and passed it to him, all the while still heading towards the light, forcing him to keep pace with me. The 2 guys were closer now, just strolling alongside but never more than 10 steps away.

The cigarette dude lit his cigarette, and paused. Exhaling a cloud of smoke into the night sky, he looked at me and I met his gaze with my best “don’t fuck with me” look. He nodded and held out the lighter to return it. I took it quickly, rumbled a low “merci’ and walked quickly through the remaining 2 guys into the welcoming light of the archway. Turning back on the other side of the arch, the men had gone, melting back into the shadowed gardens.

And then I was back with the laughing tourists, the lovers and the light.

So lesson learned – when someone tells you to not do something stupid in a new city, this is the sorta thing they are talking about.

Day 1 eh?

Deciding to call it a night, I wandered back through the busy Louvre complex, past the Comedie De Paris, passing through the local streets to my now largely silent hostel.

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I’ll start exploring tomorrow.

In the daylight.

 

 

 

We’ll always have Paris…

… which is lucky as I never made it to Casablanca.

With the watery ghost of the viral infection/food poisoning still lingering, I was physically exhausted. On the plus side it was great for losing weight, but the minuses sucked. Sleeping was difficult and I couldn’t venture far from a bathroom. Although I’ve a generally robust immune system even it was struggling to cope.

My daily wanderings around the city had slowed and I was barely leaving the house. I couldn’t even walk across the street to the supermarket without feeling dizzy, which was annoying considering I’d averaged about 24 km per day walking on this trip.

Damn you Tozeur. You and your dodgy camel hotpot.

Usually its a simple fix for a gut bug – just load up on medication – but this year I’ve been experimenting with natural remedies and relying on my own immune system. So hot water and vinegar, garlic and ginger tea, and rest. After 3 days straight in bed (sleeping sometimes 14 hours a day) I’d finally started to bounce back. 

Unshackled from the toilet, I began exploring again but already Tunis was losing its sparkle. Yosra was busy with assignments, Hasna was in France on vacation, Arianna was getting ready to leave, and Dianna was busy with study. I was going over old ground, the same places, the same markets, even the food was annoying me (meat, meat and more meat). I chipped a tooth on a piece of gravel buried in a makloub – the first actual real food I’d had in days  (grrr)  – and that was the final straw.

It was time to go.

Still recovering, the thought of battling Morocco (which was even more aggressive to tourists than Egypt, I’d heard) did not fill me with joy. With my birthday plans having changed for the better, why was I going to Morocco anyway?

I needed a softer option.

With Europe quite literally on my doorstep, and airfares cheap ($55 to Paris one way…c’mon!) once I started looking the decision was really easy. For the cost of an airfare to Marrakesh I could fly to Paris, then Rome, then fly back to Tunis if I wanted.

*also I don’t speak French, but fake it til you make it, I say. Besides, I’d faked my way through Tunisia with my terrible high school French – how hard could France possibly be?

Screw Morocco. Decision made.

I was off to Paris!

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Getting out of Tunisia was a breeze – booked a Tunisair flight online for $55 one way, grabbed a taxi for 5 dinar to the airport (now that i know the real fare and can argue with the cabbies its a no brainer), early check in, bag drop and then an hour of grace to relax and review. A quick round of thank yous and goodbyes then Bam – I was set .

First job was to find a place to stay, so I hit the Hostelworld app and Airb’n’b (the usual suspects) and discovered the bleeding obvious – Paris is expensive!

After trolling through countless sites and internet travel blogs, I discovered a hidden gem – tucked right in the city, only 2 blocks from the Musee de Louvre in the cafe district, was the BJV Louvre, a youth hostel with the bare basics but a stupidly cheap rate. $24 AUD per night. Now this place had mixed reviews but the location and the price was a complete winner for me so I booked in for a week and trusted the travel Gods that it wouldn’t be a complete dump.

Arriving at Orly (or the crappiest no services airport Ive even seen), I picked up my bags and absolutely breezed through security and immigration. I was really surprised how fast – the airport was practically deserted, the immigration cop barely glanced at my Passport and made little comment except “Hmmph…you are Australian? Why are you traveling alone? This city is the most dangerous city in Europe – be very careful here. Have a nice day”.

Wow. Lucky I have my trusty climbers knife still  (Thanks Sean it’s been really handy)

Not a great introduction to Paris be sure, and Orly Airport certainly didn’t impress. Nor did the weather. After Tunisia’s bright and sunny 30 degree days, the dull grey 9 degrees of France in Autumn was a cold but ultimately refreshing slap in the face. Luckily I’d lugged cold weather gear around with me since Washington ( yes I may not have even unpacked) so I rugged up, popped on a beanie and my hilltribe scarf and was set. Very chic.

Getting from Orly to the City  was a breeze (ORLYVAL plus a RER B change at Antony station), then a quick METRO ride and I was there. Traveling through the French countryside by train, listening to the grey haired gypsy-like accordian player busking in the carriages, and watching the transition from autumn forests into urban cityscape was simply wonderful. The babble of French was champagne to my ears and not speaking any,  I was blissfully unaware of peoples lives and conversations but full of a growing excitement. 

Paris! My God. How on earth did I get here? It’s a long way for a kid from Wombat, NSW (pop 120). Grinning like a fool I leaned into my backpack, settled in and gazed out the train window as Paris City zoomed into view, the sun setting and the rainy grey cityscape disappearing into the dusk.

After a few lines changes, some confusing station signage and a slight wrong turn,  I found myself on the Metro heading into the city through the Paris underground system.

Eventually I was spat out at Palais Royal Musée du Louvre – quite literally right in front of the famous museum.

Reaching the top of the stairs at the Metro station, I turned and looked up through the adjacent passageway. My jaw dropped and remained there for the next hour.

I was here.

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In Paris.

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At the Louvre.

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OMFG.

And there I sat for an hour or so. Leaning back against my trusty rucksack, against a massive statue of Louie XIV. Feeling…odd. Emotionally flip flopping. Elated. Defeated. Lost. 

The transition from North Africa to Paris was unsettling and had caught me completely off guard. A literal culture shock and it floored me. 

Sitting on the cold concrete, watching the families and tourists mill. Grounding myself or at least trying to. Surrounded by people but very much alone. For the first time in weeks I wished Jen were here. Should be here.  Wasn’t. I recall taking a long, shaky breath at that moment.

Dammit. Fuck.

“Just breathe it out” I told myself. Let it out. Let it go. But I felt wrong. Askew. A massive emotional mass was shifting and stirring, an uneasy sensation from some thing slithering deep in my darkness; sniffing at life, sensing insecurity, seizing opportunity – breaking loose from imaginary bonds and hungrily making for the surface.

Taking away its power is the trick. That takes a little focus and control but is easy enough once you know the signs. And I do, now.

Just as suddenly, it let go and the moment passed. (Overly dramatic? Maybe. Looks like I still have some work to do though)

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But still I sat quietly. Just observing. Feeling. Unbelieving. Watching myself at first, then the honeymooners, the lovers young and old, the photographers framing shots and the artists sketching wildly away; the families roaming, hearing their kid’s laughter echoing loudly around the plaza. My eyes swept the space, noting the lions and the lambs: the hawkers and the scammers versus the tourists – finally glancing up to meet the cold judgemental gaze of the many statues perched on the rooftops of the Louvre, frozen in space and time. Like I was, pinned there by the weight of this reality.  Breathing in the cold Parisian night air,  mesmerized by the spotlights from the Eiffel tower playing over the city, gazing into the reflective pools, marveling at the sheer beauty of it all. The history here had such a palpable weight and I felt the briefest moment of connection, an earthing, to this place.

I sat there for a bit longer as the crowds dwindled and the night got colder. A little in shock, a little sad, painfully lonely, but somehow still connected and feeling very much alive.

Alive!

This is how it must feel.

I like it.

🙂

to be cont.

…Far far away!

I’m at a turning point in this trip. Bingo funds.

Push on or turn back but as my Dad always said “It’s bad luck to turn back”.

Leaving the chaos of Cairo far behind, I was heading for Morocco for my birthday. Megan was staying in Cairo, D’ had gone home and it was time to go.

Iris my Californian patents lawyer/Star Wars geek travel bud had just visited some original sets in Tunisia before heading off with her Tinder “boys” into the Balkans. She had planted the seed in my brain however for a small detour on the way to Marrakech.

So I booked the flight and landed in Tunisia – a place apparently scary and very dangerous according to our governments website.

Firstly – what a load of fear mongering crap.  I’ve felt more in danger walking down the Main Street of Dubbo at 3am.

FU travel warnings.

*there ARE a shit ton of heavily armed police, national guard and take-no-bullshit military units around with full body armor, big arse truck mounted machine guns, and tanks but hey…that only spells security to me.

Landing in Tunis a few weeks ago was like emerging into a virtual paradise.

Immigration? Smashed it.  Pssst… you are Australian… NO VISA! Welcome!! Wtf?…then 3 steps out of immigration … Pssst… wanna free Orange SIM card? HERE!…just 20 dinar ($11AUD) gets 3gig data and unlimited calls for 30 days…want to top it up now?… Hell YEAH 🙂

Then I stepped outside. Huh? No scammers or sellers? No garbage? Fresh air? No pollution? No crowds? No traffic?

So this is Tunis? But its all so…so clean and so…so quiet? Am I really in North Africa?

Am I lucid dreaming?

Ok the airport taxis were tricky and I only got a tiny bit ripped off  but lesson learned. The lesson is ignore the taxis and the predatory taxi touts, walk out of the airport case park to the road and hail a cab off the street (with a red window light – green means booked), check he turns the meter on and the rate is correct  (1 usually, after 9pm the rate 2 surcharge starts). Typically airport to the French Embassy in town is under 5 dinars as a benchmark…and off you go.

I’d “Plan B”‘d (yes go on…giggle those that know me) the accommodation as the hostel appeared to vanish after my booking and never returned any calls, answered emails or even their phone. Even by their own admission were hard to find AND they advised never walk in the Medina after dark as it was too dangerous.  So in the 11th hour with not even a booking response I went to Plan B.

Plan B was the best thing ever – an Airbnb with a lovely local lady with some amazing housemates – staying up and letting me in after wandering around the Medina at midnight like a lost lamb.

And so, disheveled and slightly in shock, I met Hasna (eventually), Arianna (+ Dino), and Diana – three amazing Tunisian, Italian and Moldovan women studying and working in Tunis that allowed me to share their home for the initial 3 day trip that’s turned into 3 weeks so far and counting.

Arianna was studying Law here for a little while, and Diana had just arrived a few days earlier but was itching to explore the city.  Day 1 was explore day for me so Diana and I set off and began losing ourselves first in the Medina, then Carthage, swimming in the Mediterranean, then the city at large.

Here to study Arabic and already fluent in several languages (including French and Arabic), she was awaiting her partner to arrive and was the perfect travelling companion to ease me into a completely alien Arabic/french speaking Muslim country. I unashamedly picked her brain to help me get oriented and comfortable with some basic French and Arabic.

We also accidentally broke into the Carthage site via “a secret way” but that’s another story.

**note : ALWAYS explore a hole in a fence, especially the one near the roundabout overlook at the base of the site…shhh

We dove into a local Couchsurfing group meeting and met so many friendly and open people who just welcomed us into their fold.

So much so we ended up on a 2 day camping and hiking weekend with about 30 of them way out west near the Algerian border where we endured endless border patrol and police checkpoints but man oh man, was it worth it.

Best birthday memories made so far in Tunisia:

  • spending my birthday weekend hiking into incredible terrain and traveling with a joyous bunch of Tunisian/Egyptian people:  campfires, singing folk songs, dancing and enjoying life well into the night
  • getting more than a little paranoid by being mega close to the Algerian border then getting surrounded and followed in a dodgy border town by the ubiquitous white Toyota trucks that we know all the terrorists drive.
  • driving through each border town with M.I.A “Paper Planes” on repeat,  blaring out the windows and laughing our heads off at all the white trucks. It became our anthem for the trip
  • Meeting and making many new friends.

But SO much better then sitting alone in a bar in Casablanca and proceeding like I’d originally planned.

*Plus waking up with sticky notes all over the house just totally made my day 🙂

There’s so much to see and do in this small but historically rich country.

It’s been a wild few weeks so far.

*breaking in to and exploring historical archaeological sites at Carthage and Sidi Bousaid.

* wandering the Bardo Museum marveling at the mosaics and weeping at the bullet holes.

*spending days wandering through Punic, Roman and even older ruins.

(I MAY have also snuck into the Les Villa Romaines via the paddock and the thorny hedge next to the large Mosque – hey I was exploring!!! )

*wandering lost for hours in the massive Medina.  (dangerous? …pffffft… night is awesome in there)

*Spending an afternoon at beautiful Sidi Bousaid and relaxing by the Mediterranean.

*a 7 hour bus ride to Tozeur and visiting Star Wars and Raiders movie sets.

(I look smug for a reason – I’m on a freakin Star Wars set!!!)


* the 4wd drive through the Sahara that was incredible.

*a virus/food poisoning that laid me so low in Tozeur I missed Star Wars Canyon and had to fly home. Slept for 2 days and have just now gotten over it.
*the possible source of the camel tagine that brought me undone … Dear God the humanity 😦

*and the general weirdness of being in a completely ancient and totally foreign culture.

I’ve also learned that no matter where I go, people seem to generally like me. Perhaps I’m not as awful a human being as I’d convinced myself I was.

To be continued …

checkout time…

It’s 11.45am on Sunday, Islamic New Years Day.  As I sit here at Kafein editing the crazy out of this post, the call to prayer is echoing around the city from every mosque in town. The blend of calls, all slightly out of time and with different tones and voices, create a dull but powerful roar when heard from outside the city but from the inside it feels comforting and warm.

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There is a particular vocalist who’s voice is absolutely beautiful and it literally moves me to tears every time I hear him.

(I recorded a bit on my Instagram so check it out there as I’m only on the tightarse WordPress plan).

It’ll be a bit hard to leave this time as (per usual) in my last few days  I’ve met some fascinating people and just as we are getting to know each other, its time to go.

Megan, Ollie, D’e, Ilva, Iris, Ahmed – uniquely talented individuals : photographers, artists, performers, businessmen. All travelers like myself on various personal journeys and battling their own demons. Despite my best intentions I still seem to collect people.

Letting go is a skill for life – whether its a partner or a friend, or just personal baggage or belongings. It gets easier as you go along I think but the sooner you get used to it the better. Its the whole impermanence thing.

Its almost time for me to check out and move on…next stop Tunisia on Monday for a little while. Going to work my way across the top of Northern Africa and see whats what.

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So some entertaining stories for you. How about the nightclub hostage thing. 🙂

Lets start here.

I met Megan  at my hostel, (we were roomies there) and she’d been her a week already when I first arrived. An American girl on her first trip to Egypt but this wasn’t her first rodeo. Here long enough to make friends with the locals and have some insight into where to go/what to do. We went to a film at a local mega mall (Magnificent Seven – so good!!) and the next night decided to go out to a local bar with some of her Egyptian friends. Met up at a local joint, drank beers and smoked many exotic things, and eventually ended up going to a seedy belly dancing place downtown.

You know the type of place – dark stairs leading up to a black door and doorman on the desk. Tinny arabic dance music blaring, serious sweaty men leaning in shadows.

I let my guard down for a time and relaxed into the evening.

We got to the place, and the sting began.

We had to pay a ‘foreigner’ charge to get in the door. OK, fair enough i guess (entry was free to locals).

So in we walked like hammered lambs to the slaughter, our local friend getting an earful from the host, us largely oblivious and my spider sense chemically dulled. We were guided carefully to a ratty table near the centre of a space where a terrible 3 piece electro-arabic band were belting out belly dance music on a small stage. Fog machines and cheap disco lights. You know what I’m talking about.

The place was a joint. Filled to the roof with a thick layer of smoky haze, tacky tables filled with swarthy men, my friend the only woman save for the dancer on stage weaving through the swirls of fog and spinning disco lights.

At this stage I’d like to paint an exotic picture of your idyllic bellydancer but the reality was closer to a tired old stripper going through the motions, in costume but barely moving at times, stopping occasionally to take a drag of a cigarette or have a brief chat to her thickset handler lurking off to the side of the stage. She coughed heavily several times in the middle of the routine. Possibly spat the phlegm out discreetly into the stage. Bored. Barely there. On autopilot.

The men, all smoking and drinking, never looked directly at her. Eyes to the floor, or ceiling, or each other.

Now for some reason all the lounge singers here appear to be men. The dude on the mike was giving it his all but the incompetence of the band was exceeded only by the shrillness of this guys voice. Using tinny speakers with the treble jacked up to 11, his performance was both interesting as a cultural phenomenon and in the way it made your nose bleed when he hit the high notes – like a slightly blunt dentists drill the ululations made your eyes water.

The drinks started coming immediately – unasked for and unendling. A large silver alfoil swan appeared filled with exotic dried fruits and sliced dates – again unasked for.

Our local friend leaned in “no matter what happens, do not give anyone money. Under any circumstances, ok?

Yeah sure I mumbled, soaking it all in. 

Still no spidey-sense tingle.

Then the dancer seemed to notice us for the first time. She  spun closer and closer and closer, working her way down the tables of now demure men who refused to make eye contact with her.

She got to our table, shimmied up to me and held out her hand… “Hello, where are you from?” she said in perfect English.

Now me, being the canny traveler that I am, immediately smiled my biggest, drunkest smile, shook her hand and said “Hi, my names Jamie. I’m from Australia!”

Snap…and the trap was sprung.

So she smiled and danced on, shimmying her bits,  refusing to let go of my hand, all the while shaking her thang right in my face while I was trying desperately to maintain eye contact. The music played on, her dancing got a little more urgent, her handler came over, and the creepy men around us looked on expectantly.

Then she leaned in and whispered those magical words…

“Money…money?”

huh? (what was that tingling down the back of my neck?)

“you give me money now…”

I looked to my friend quizzically. He was looking at the floor.

Ahh sorry I don’t have any money on me. (the tingling became more urgent)

Her black rimmed eyes hardened. I wouldn’t have thought it possible.

The dancer got closer.  She leaned in and this time practically hissed in my ear.

“money…you give me money. Money.”

The handler put his hand on my shoulder.

Ruh roh.

I looked around nervously – my ‘friends’ were all staring at the floor or off into space, every other eye in the club was on us.

In an unintentional Hugh Grant impression, I tried to bumble my way out of it…lots of umms and ahhs, “sorrys”, “you are lovely but no”, “you danced really well” and such.

With a disgusted snort she eventually turned away and moved on to the next table.

I turned to my ‘friend’ – WTF? Did I do something wrong? You said no money!!!

He just said “No don’t worry about it”. But he looked worried.

But from that moment on I was suddenly sober and on high alert. The club had taken on a sinister tone and I could sense the attitudes towards us foreigners had changed. We weren’t the ATMs that they were hoping for and as such our value had diminished.

I’d completely relaxed my guard and look where it had gotten me. No more beers (I’d only had 2), no more food, no more drinks at all. It was 3am.

Megan had had enough of it all, got up and left, ostensibly for the loo.  One of the local guys at our table left to follow her and they didn’t come back. That’s when I knew we were screwed.

I stayed there with the 2 local guys left at the table and waited for them to finish their drinks – my plan to pay the bill and get the Hell out. My share should have been about 150 Egyptian pounds which was good as that’s all the cash money I had on me (at the last place the beers were 20 Egyptian pounds each and here I’d only had 2)

We asked for the bill.

550 Egyptian pounds.

Fuck.

Explaining that Megan had left and I didn’t have enough money to pay the whole bill, the mood changed. The minders put a hand on each shoulder and guided me back to the table, telling me politely to ‘sit down’ while we waited. And waited . And waited.

I knew shed gone home, but just played dumb.

The locals tried to call Megan and she had gone home, driven home by the other guy as it turned out. She wasn’t in the loo. The local guys tried to call their friends to borrow money (as they had none either but for some reason I was the one being held accountable).

The general atmosphere worsened, the smiles disappeared completely,  and I desperately faked a loo visit to see if there was a way out.

2 guys followed me – 1 stayed at the door, 1 came in and stood next to me.

Damn.

By this stage I was thinking of an emergency exit strategy and whether I outrun and evade 3 tattooed bouncers in their own city.

2 flights of steep stairs, 2 guys at my elbow, one guys at the top of the stair blocking one guy at the door below. I did the math and came up really short.

Anyway, long story short, the local guys finally got a friend to go see Megan, she gave him cash money, we paid the bill at 5am and they finally let me go.

So that’s the story.

People may think that I’m uptight and serious all the time but in truth I’m just as capable of letting my guard down, being stupid, and getting into jams as anyone else.

I’d just prefer not to most of the time.

That’s just one of many tales of this trip though. Its been a buzz.

There’s the hair raising car trip up to Alexandria with Megan and Ollie, the Nile River cruise and the buffet from Hell with Iris, sitting on balconies and talking about life with D and Ilya. To many to elaborate on but they’ll stick with me forever.

The scene here in Cairo is relentless – all-nighters are the norm and the local watering holes are open ’til practically dawn (For a muslim country there sure is a lot of alcohol and weed here).

So my time in Egypt has been enlightening in so many ways. Apart from the massive changes in this countries economy post-revolution, there is a resilience to the general population that is amazing – they just gets on with the job of living, loving, walking their dogs, hugging their children and earning a living. Just like us all in times of adversity.

Much of what happens here stays here and isn’t even reported in the West. We had a car bomb here on Thursday afternoon in New Cairo, locals trying to assassinate the Minister of the Interior – heard the ‘boom’ from here but apart from sirens the locals didn’t even bat an eye. This happens a lot and people get on with life.

Anyway, Ive haunted the streets here for almost 2 weeks, getting to know the city on foot and seeing how people live at ground level.

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I went out to the pyramids a while back – caught an Uber out from my downtown hostel (33 Pounds) and spent the day out there virtually alone for most of it. Explored the entire complex, sat and  rested in the shade with the hawkers out there, who welcomed a chat after realising that they couldn’t sell me anything. As Muhommed said to me after selling me a bottle of water at 1000% the street price “Tell your friends in Australia to come to Egypt. We need you”.

Then I walked back to downtown. 15kms. Took me 4 hours as i wandered and got lost in the alleys and fringes of Cairo. It was the Cairo that you see in the old movies, all alleys and tenements, bumper to bumber traffic mingle with donkey carts and camels, street urchins and marketplaces, all dirty and dusty yet vibrant and alive. Buzzing with energy that I drank deeply of.

If you come here, take time and get out on foot. try not to just do the tourist things and leave as it wont do the city justice.

It is tourist-safe here on the streets and out in the desert, even wandering the alleys and streets at 4am alone  (unless you are an idiot then Darwinism will apply). Ive never felt threatened or anxious about my personal security and literally everyone Ive met has been extremely friendly and welcoming.

If you are thinking about going to Egypt – just do it. they need you.

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Plus the pyramids are nice.

Watch out for dodgy belly dance clubs though.