Saturday, November 14, 2015

Because I've always been a Hippy at heart.

I'm as shocked and saddened by the events in Paris yesterday . We always find ourselves asking "why?" and I started to think about it. It's also important to open our perspectives on the situations in the rest of the world; unfortunately this is not a singular occurrence - even for this week-  look at America let alone Beirut. Badness can seem to be everywhere. We are often all to quick to blame something we fear or don't understand - religion is the classic example, Islam even more so. We blame Islam for ISIS yet we don't even know what the Qur'an states the Caliphate is meant to be let alone knowing what a Caliphate actually is. Now we blame religion on things we don't understand whereas religion used to be the reason behind everything we didn't understand. Ultimately, religion - or the lack of it- is not what makes a person good or bad.

We must use these feelings of anger, pain and frustration conjured from the attacks on Paris, Beirut and Baghdad (and the countless before them) and remember these are the same feelings that have been felt by families around the world every day when undue harm has been brought down on their lives whether we hear about it or not. Due to human nature, it is these same emotions which will have instinctively caused a fellow human being to fire hate and blame towards another human being, or nation, whom they believe is responsible. I know that even if there were just two people left on Earth it would still probably result in a war but lets start with trying to not get to the point where there is just two people left! People are doing terrible things but we must find their exact motives; be it revenge, disagreement or heightened beliefs. We can't say the problem is religion and then ask everyone to pray. We need to understand.

Not everybody in an occupied territory is there because they want to be, some are there because it was once, and still is, their home. They will either leave to find safety from what has been brought to their life or stay and defend their right to shelter. Say they decide to stay but a defensive air-strike comes and destroys everything they own? Surely this will make them not intolerant to who kept them there, but to what took that final blow to everything they loved. Now say they leave to a promised safe haven only to have the door shut in their face. It's acceptable to say that the one billion plus ordinary Muslims around the world have suffered the most from ISIS, be it directly or indirectly.

The West can't play the full victim today as our panicked attacks in the Middle East could be seen to mirror those of the past week by ISIS where the victims are decided by where they live regardless of their opinion and arguably fueled the whole thing. As we learned as children, it's important to clean up the mess you've made. However, as ISIS' victims are desperately to try to get our help, we are turning them away - both on their doorstep and on ours.

The attackers may have been misguided from the start but many have been recruited somewhere along the way through fear or anger. War breeds war and we have to make sure our pain and frustration does not turn into fear and anger. We can offer the only empathy we can by saying that we now understand your pain and want to help it heal.

We are all humans.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

10 Things to do During Your First Year in Oxford

Moving to Oxford as a "young professional" and not as a student, the place feels a bit like a big party but you're walking past outside wondering where your invite could have ended up. Being part of the university feels like you are part of Oxford- you get the special treatment and the gaping mouths on impressed faces when you tell them what you do rather than the feeling of dying a little bit inside every time you say " Do you need a bag?" Luckily there are still plenty of ways to enjoy Oxford without actually going to the University.

This covers a lot of bases on your Oxford tour with 38 colleges that make up the majority of Oxford's fancy buildings so you've already got your work cut out at No.1. However, people stay here for years and never see them all. Each one will make you think you're in Harry Potter but if you want the creme de la creme then Magdalen(To my fellow scots, this is Maw-dlin rather than Mag-dalen) and Christchurch are probably the most grand and extravagant - Magdalen College even has a deer park with actual deer. Oxford's other university, Oxford Brookes' Headington Hill Campus is also gorgeous and worth a look. If you have proof of residency in Oxford you can get into a lot of colleges for free - just remember to bring it with you!

Christchurch College

Bodleian. Sheldonian and Radcliffe Camera
While you are wandering the streets dodging tourists and bikes you will probably stumble across a round looking building encircled by yet more bikes and tourists. This is rather ambiguously named the Radcliffe Camera and most people comment on how it looks nothing like a camera - this is because (as any latin scholar knows...) 'camera' means 'room'. "The Bod" is also nice to look at and is home to every publication from the United Kingdom as well as the filming sites for the infirmary and library in Harry Potter. Walk all the way to the top of the Sheldonian to get a panorama of Oxford.

The Sheldonian

Two of the biggest museums in Oxford are bundled into the same building at the Natural History Museum and Pitt Rivers. The later is a hoarders memorial as well as an anthropological nirvana and I am sure if Mr Rivers lived in this day and age his name would have popped up on the Interpol Watch List if the third floor is anything to go by. The Ashmoleon is also one of the most prominent museums in Oxford but there are also some nice little museums including the History of Science and Story Museum.

Oxford probably has more green spaces than housing (well that makes sense considering the rent prices) and the parks are the perfect place to sit and think. Infact they might be the secret behind why Oxford scholars have been so influential as there is so much space in this town to just sit and think. The university park is probably the biggest but South Park cannot be ignored for its wonderful views of the dreaming spires. Port Meadow is a bit different as it's full of horses, cows, untouched archeology, a swimmable lake in the summer and an ice rink in the Winter.
Port Meadow

Iffley Village
If Oxford isn't twee enough for you, head down Iffley Road or along the Thames until you hit Iffley Village where you will be surrounded by stone brick houses, flowering gardens and the sound of silence. Iffley Lock is where the village meets the canal and as well as being mega pretty, it is home to a pub and a gaggle of lively geese.
Iffley Lock

Cowley Road
Most peoples idea of Oxford is of a bit of a snooty fancy atmosphere with fancy old buildings and they are right for some parts. South of the Magdalen Bridge is a different story. Walking down Cowley Road you are bombarded with the smell of incense and coriander, the warm glow of coffee shops and shouts of drunk students and crack addicts. It's the road to the "real" Oxford and is home to some of the best cafés, restaurants and shops in Oxford and you could spend your life trying each one. Most importantly though it is home to the best atmosphere in Oxford (Probably a debatable point but I'm biased).
Cowley Road Carnival

Speaking of Cowley Road, one of it's treasures is an ice cream parlour known fondly as G&D's. It;s a home-grown Oxford gem and one of four dessert parlours on Cowley Road alone but has lasted through the competition. They have two other shops elsewhere in Oxford but they all serve their own ice cream which suit both safe and experimental palettes. Order a cookie monster and thank me later.

When it comes round to "warm winter" the ducks of the River Cherwell and Thames have to share their home with a fleet of tourists, hen parties and loved up couples. Don't let that put you off though, punting is a must while you're in Oxford and you can either show off your muscles (the poles are deceptively heavy) or enjoy being punted around while you sip on prosecco. Just remember to make sure your phone is stowed safely out of your pockets, ya know, just incase.

Punting with Prosecco!
Get Drunk
Oxford is a haven for niche little pubs. There is the famous Eagle and Child which was graced by Oxford's literary greats including Toilken and C.S. Lewis. The Isis Tavern is only accessible by foot, bike or boat and maintains the country pub image with infamous folk nights and obscure opening times. Then there is The Mad Hatter where you can only enter after answering a riddle and drinks are ordered via a phone on your table.

Leave Oxford
Ultimately Oxford can get a bit suffocating but it is close to cities to get lost in or the fresh air of the countryside is only minutes away. If Oxford gets too small then London is only an hour and a half away by bus and from there you can easily get to Edinburgh or Paris in around 5 hours. On the other side you could cycle to Boars Hill for some hill top view of Oxford or to Radley to see traditional English countryside. Or if Oxford isn't grand enough then Blenheim Palace should do the trick.

Blenheim Palace

Others/Highly Commended: Hinksey Outdoor Pool, Walton Street, Magdalen Street (Rusty Bicycle, Oli's Thai, Oxfork), Boswells Book Shop, Botanic Gardens, Thames Path, Magpie Lane, Shops and cafés on High Street, The Library (pub), Scriptum, The Varsity Club's roof top bar for a "free" (you should probably buy a drink at least to enjoy in the sunshine) panorama of the city, Kashbah/Cafe Tarifa/Cafe Coco.

You should also be aware of Daily Info where you can find everything Oxford related from things for sale, whats on and accomodation.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Varanasi - Gawkers, Ganges and Gowns.

Varanasi was the last stop in India before moving onto Nepal and to get there we had to sample the 12 hour sleeper train. The drive there was lined with cows and full beams replacing the horns of the day time traffic. Jhansi station was still teeming with people, and cows, as we boarded our train despite it creeping close to midnight. The compartments were nicer than western perceptions had us believe they'd be (or at least our carriage was) but they were entirely mixed and my berth was in a compartment with 5 other men...I can only thank our guide Manu for negotiating with a fellow passenger to let me swap beds with him so I could sleep in the same compartment as one of my travelling companions. Our bedding was given to us in a paper bag which was a surprising piece of luxury and as we finished making our beds my female companion and I turned around to see a row of men sitting up on the bed across from us looking at us. It was almost as if they were waiting for us to do something and was a bit off putting considering we were less than an hour into the trip and I wasn't keen on sleeping with one eye open. However, as soon as I swung a scarf round my head their interest seemed to wane - an example that it pays to respect the traditions of the country you are in if you don't enjoy unwanted attention. I would learn though that in countries like India, my pale and ginger colouring results in not so much a holiday but the winner of a "live like royalty for a fortnight" experience - experiencing both the good and bad parts of the job.

I donned my ear plugs and eye mask and got a surprisingly restful sleep despite screaming babies and waking up to strange men sitting at the end of my bunk. As they say, it's all part of the experience. By 7am everyone had pretty much vacated the compartment and the rest of the journey was quite pleasant, even the squat toilets were somewhat nice, although train toilets are definitely for the advanced squatter. There was calm before the storm as I enjoyed reading on the train in peace before arriving in Varanasi where all of it's 5 billion Tuk Tuk drivers offered to take us the two minute walk to our hotel.

The afternoon was spent recovering from the train ride resting in the hotel re-charging our western selves before being let loose on the streets of Varanasi. Situated along the holy River Ganges, Varanasi is constantly full of crowds and the roads become too narrow for tuk-tuks at a point and that's where all the crowds seem to double. Varanasi was more manic and rough than the other places we'd visited in India, that was until you got onto the Ganges where things were busy, yet peaceful. Pilgrims were bathing, tourists sitting in boats on their Ganges cruise, families mourning and lost gap yah's learning how to meditate. We did our duty as tourists and got on a boat for a cruise.

Every evening locals and tourists alike take part in the Ganga Aarti ceremony where a small offering is made to the Goddess Ganga. Traditionally aarti is a ritual involving fire and candles are often lit within a case made of flowers and released into the river while making a wish. Although this ceremony happens every night and although for many it is their first time, I doubt the beauty of the constellation of candles along the river fades easily with time. Back on land we attended a more grand example of Aarti with choreographed dancing with fire and incense sticks. Our guide had some mates on a bar with a balcony so we got a good view and as the sun set the night was lit up by people in colourful fabrics who crowded around stages with the smell of burning cow dung battling with incense to fill the air and even in the distance there were flashes of lightening concluding the sensory cacophony of Varanasi at night.

As the choreographed ceremony started, India's most famous show began: the monsoon rain. Somebody's wish to Ganga for rain came true as we swam through the streets to find a tuk-tuk which was harder than expected since tuk-tuks aren't allowed near the river side. The weather was a great testament to my Rab jacket which kept my whole top half dry against the personal dunk-tank that was the monsoon weather. We got back to the hotel and attempted to dry off before falling asleep to the cascade of rain and the chirping horns of urban India's wildlife.

The next morning we woke up in the dark and headed into Varanasi on a tuk-tuk through the unrecognisable dark and empty streets. In contrast, we were dropped off next to a parade of pilgrims who were chanting and at this time in the morning I couldn't help feeling somewhere between being caught in the middle of a rowdy stag-do still out from the night before, to being carted off to be sacrificed as we were being led alongside chants in an unfamiliar language and the beat of drums.

We paraded to the riverside and joined the motley crew of worshippers and bathers and rowed upstream to see the other ceremony that takes place on the Ganges. Cremation occurs on the Ganges as Hindus believe that this will break the cycle of rebirth and sets the soul free. Even before sunrise the cremation sites were active and it was quite a peaceful experience  and quite contrary to the tales that people have seen body parts float past them on the river. The sun peaked through as we headed back downstream and we pleaded with our guides to let us take them back down the river despite how feeble my rowing attempts were.

It was only 6:30am when we crawled back onto the streets of Varanasi where the idea that the smell of Indian streets can change from mouth watering-ly delicious to vomit inducing with every turn, is most apparent. We wound our way through alleyways where every second window was a shrine to a different deity and ended up on a manic main road in time for the school run. We completed another number on my Indian experience checklist by having a street chai in a clay cup alongside some fresh jalebi. After a short break back and the hotel we was whisked off to a silk emporium where we were met by a small, frail man with missing teeth but friendly eyes and a genuine smile who took us to see where the silk is woven. The factory was spread through several houses in the neighbourhood and employed over 700 people. It was less of a factory and more just like an exceptionally large production line because it was quite a relaxed environment and it seemed that every one of those 700 people had their own particular job from drawing a sleeve on graph paper to gluing a diamond on a wedding sari. At the end of the tour we were taken into Rozi Silk International were we said goodbye to our lovely little guide as he left us to sit on the gleaming white cushioned floor contrasting the rest of the factory sites.

There we were joined by Farooq Kahn who was the proprietor who wore a crisp white salwar kameez and had a perfectly preened moustache which curled as he saw two goriyaan in his silk shop. I was expecting to just get a sari and go but Mr Kahn had other ideas as he pulled out pillow cases, duvet covers and pashminas and waved them down on the ground with a flourish like a butterfly showing off it's wings. After falling in love with 6000 rupeeyay (£60)worth of duvet covers  he finally moved on to the saris. I fell in love with the first one he pulled out. It was a stunning turquoise silk with silver embroidery and also the most expensive one he had there. Love can make us do silly things and with that I justified the 16000 rupeeyay (£160) and didn't even try to bargain.

After some chai to help us recover from our purchases we were shuttled back out to a new tourist attraction at Sarnath which was the site of Buddha's first sermon. It was a nice area to walk around and a bit of a green oasis compared to the rest of the city. As an agnostic of sorts, I always enjoy learning about the stories behind the origin of religions but in the same way I enjoy reading Greek myths - I find them interesting but struggle to see their plausibility at times. We returned to the hotel after a exceptionally bumpy tuk-tuk ride which confirmed the fact that I still didn't quite know what side of the road they actually drive on. During dinner men from the Silk emporium came to deliver my tailored blouses for my saris and confirmed that the rest of our purchases had been packaged up to be sent home.

It had been a long day in Varanasi and our last full day in India but Varanasi had given everything characteristically Indian we could have wanted from monsoon rains, chai masala and chaos. Our next stop was across the boarder in Nepal and although I'd been charmed by India I was looking forward to the promise of a calmer country. Having returned to the UK since then I can only compare my first trip to India to a pregnancy - at the time you are experiencing a roller coaster of emotions and often more stressed than necessary but after it's all over you kind of forget that and before you know it you crave to do it all over again.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Orchha - Old Temples and Young Tycoons

From Agra we caught the train to a town called Jhansi which seems to be home to the most decorated Tuk Tuks in India. We were greeted by a very young boy and his Tuk Tuk and driven for half an hour into the countryside to the village of Orchha which has more temples than people - surprisingly common in India.

We were staying in The Orchha Resort, one of the few hotels in town and where the tourists were again treated like royalty for a budget with an actual chlorinated pool and massive buffet lunch. Rather than reuniting with these Western luxuries we walked along the dirt road back into the village to be hawked down by numerous street sellers -  however again a somewhat western novelty. The street sellers here were different to what we were used to; although children are often the ones making the sale it was more often than not young boys whereas in Orccha there was a business ring of young girls selling gifts. As usual they were attentive but rather than just pestering they would  literally sit with you giving you henna tattoos and ask things about you. Only then once they built trust would they ask if you wanted something and more often than not their charm worked. We were all impressed by their business skills and amazing customer service that we almost didn't notice spending so much money in their stores - except when you finished at one stall a girl would go "You coming to visit my shop?" and before you knew it you were following a trail of henna and incense to the next stall. After a few days in India  your patience for street sellers usually wanes but here we were only impressed and it was a refreshing to see that it was entirely girls in charge of the face of the business.

About 45 minutes into what should have been a ten minute walk we made it into the village centre where I found a sari shop and through broken Hinglish I got measured for my first sari. That evening we went to the the Ram Raja Temple which is the largest Hindu temple in Orchha as well as a pilgrimage site for Hindus. We caught an evening ceremony(forgive me for not catching which one) where the smell of incense, sound of bustling prayer chants and Chinese cymbals added to the spectacle of the building itself (Indiyaaaah dahling!).


The next day we were off to visit the cenotaphs which were conveniently right next to our hotel. They were build for the Rajay and Ramani of the area. However, it's not really because of the history that people visit but it's because of the scenic beauty of the place. Through a rather unassuming gate guarded by some stray cattle there were some well tended gardens surrounded by intricate cenotaphs lined up along the river. Those in the complex were reasonably well tended too but I fell in love with those outwith it which were taken over by greenery and vultures looking like something you only see in fantasy computer games. As we climbed to the top of one of the cenotaphs the views kept getting better and better and I think it was honestly one of the most beautiful man-made scenes I've seen.

Jahangir Mahal

It was then off to play the game of running around to find the best view at the Jahangir Mahal which was a palace in Orchha. Again it was made up of tiny staircases leading to daringly small edges or up turrets where you could climb to get a better view of Madhya and Uttar Pradesh. The presence of the British empire hadn't entirely faded as the weathered outline of a tennis court could still be seen at the palace entrance.

In the afternoon we went to visit a development project where local women made paper from old rags and we got a tour watching the bleaching and pulping processes before finally watching then press the paper. At the time they were actually creating the paper for the degree certificates for a nearby university showing that the hard work was supported by local organisations. Back in Orchha it was time for the part I was most excited for on the whole trip - the cookery class!

She's not impressed at my skills...

We were taken away from the familiarity of Orchha's main road to a family home which was converted into a demonstration kitchen with all members of the family on hand to chop and collect utensils for a a Blue Peter style "Here's one I prepared earlier!" cookery show. Our host was Rajni who couldn't have been much older than me but had bucket loads more business initiative as it appears she was the face of "Rajni's Cooking School." First up was a chai masala which was the best we'd ever had and she kept throwing recipes at us making the alchemy that is indian cookery look easy. She finished with making chapattis and poori and watched our failed attempts at rolling anything resembling a round chapatti. At the end the girls took me aside as they noticed my sari in a bag and wanted to dress me up - there is nothing more amusing to Indians than a gori (white girl) in a sari. It turned out the measurements were slightly off and it was too tight to fit over my boobs which is a problem I rarely encounter. As I was to discover, saris only work with an arsenal of safety pins holding them in place so all the female members of the family started hacking at the top with safety pins to loosen the stitching to make it fit perfectly! A small first hand sample of the resourcefulness and hospitality of the Indian nation!
Sari purchase no. 1..

Back at the hotel we indulged in the luxury of the pool after wandering all day in the sticky heat and relaxed before our 12 hour night train to the pilgrimage site of Varanasi...