‘Just arrived’ travel anxieties…

…and an irrational battle with the contents of the suitcase, in which there was no clear champion

Street art, Malaga, Spain
Street art. Malaga 2016.

Time to take a deep breath.

I’m many miles from where I woke up this morning. After a bout of being home in England, and feeling comfortable in my surroundings, I find myself face to face with a large mirror I’ve never seen before reflecting back a room which until a couple of hours ago, I’d never entered.

The clothes are the same. They’re flung haphazardly across an unfamiliar bed as if war broke out of the suitcase. It’s the electric plug converter’s fault. It was hiding. Then it took me so long to find the light switch I started to worry I was going mad.

What sort of room has its only light switch nowhere near the door?

Part of my grouchiness is a lack of sleep. It’s very rare I cannot sleep, but the night before I fly it’s guaranteed. I keep on waking and prodding my phone to see the clock, paranoid that I’m going to miss my flight. You would have thought with the amount of flying I’ve done recently I’d get over this.

It’s ironic that the time I came closest to missing the flight I actually arrived at the airport with plenty of time to spare. So much time that I treated my sister to a proper breakfast. We relaxed, started chatting about our plans and lo and behold when we finally thought to look at the screen our flight to Vienna was being boarded.

None of my many alarms failed me this morning, but it was still dark and cold outside all the same and I still awoke, worrying, many times throughout the night.

It’s hard to remember that worry is entirely internally generated and unnecessary once when there’s a multitude of different alarms on different devices all set.

Arriving in Malaga, making sure the Internet works on my phone, finding an ATM and cursing as it’s stingy about the ratio of paper to Euros was all fine.

As a side note, I listened to a podcast the other day that pointed out that just because you arrive at an airport you don’t have to rush through it, you can sit down and catch your breath for a while. You don’t have to leap right into the stream of people amassed outside the arrival hall. I consider this wise advice.

I was also fine getting the bus and even in hopping off at the right stop. A version of ‘fine’ from the newer version of the Italian Job.

John Bridger: Fine? You know what “fine” stands for, don’t you?

Charlie Croker:  Yeah, unfortunately.

JB: Freaked out…

CC: Insecure…

JB: Neurotic…

CC: And Emotional.

JB: You see those columns behind you?

CC: What about them?

JB: That’s where they used to string up thieves who felt fine.

CC: After you.

The Italian Job

A few hours later I’m in a different state of mind

The most important stuff has been extracted from the suitcase. I’ve had a cup of tea (there’s a packet of PG Tips here?) wandered outside – without following the commands of an electronic map around each corner or dragging my suitcase behind me.  I find a statue of a friendly chap playing what looks to me like a tambourine. He seems ever so jolly.

chap playing tamborine, Malaga
Tambourine man. Malaga 2016

It feels like someone caring put together this place. Someone with an eye for detail. There are random bits of coloured tiles mashed together. It is beautiful. Floral decorations accentuate balconies and I can’t help but think that Cairo could learn a lot from the brightly coloured shutters.

I like shutters. Places with sunshine have shutters. It’s a promising sign.

Big paintings on public walls draw your eye. But so do the small flourishes on signs and doorways. Minor amusements, like the clinic for bicycles amuse me. Cambridge has one of these and both the one here and the one there have half a bicycle stuck up on the wall. Spain isn’t that far away really.

Picasso was born here

I’m excited to step outside with my sketchbook and grateful for my paints. But not tonight.

I’m feeling happier by the time I’ve bought pasta. I shocked myself by understanding that the woman at the till was asking if I wanted a carrier bag ‘bolsa’, because it’s so similar to the Italian ‘borsa’, even without her pointing or holding out a bag (yes I know it’s a guessable question at the check-out, but still, you’ve got to appreciate the little achievements).

My spoken Spanish is non-existent, but how much I can read is a pleasant surprise. Context of course is everything.

I buy vegetables in the greengrocers

I stare at the courgette and the cucumber wondering which is which before making a random choice. I get back to the apartment in time to Skype my sister and tell her I’m well. I discover it is indeed a courgette as I hoped.

This span of travelling comes with a purpose. I’m in the city centre. My room is spacious, indeed is contains a substantive desk at which I now sit and a double bed where I shall sleep. I have books, my notebooks and a clear plan for writing. To find restaurants and bars, or a plaza with sculptures, benches and coffee shops takes no more than a minute or two, it’s all just outside my front door.

Malaga is a different colour to England

More tints than tones. Travel pours images and characters into my imagination, without which there would be no stories begging to be written. A woman harvesting herbs from her balcony. A child with his whole body pressed up against a glass pyramid twice his height, staring down through it into the Roman remains below the street.

What’s more, I’m not rushed. I’ve got plenty of time to explore my surroundings, and plenty of time to sit still.

Sitting still is important too

It’s easy to talk about writing without actually putting a pen to paper, or to put a pen to paper and be prolific with the word count but stingy with the produce or quality. Well-meaning isn’t enough in practice. You can be well-meaning and still wreak havoc.

If you can’t read what I write, it doesn’t count

My routine is broken. I’m here, free, and that means there can be no excuses and no complaints. I’ve got pages and pages of draft material that deserves a second look. My job here is to refine it and learn something from it. There’s space in my mind. Everything slows down to accommodate this shift of pace and I stare around me with wonder.

The slower pace suits my writing.

The to-do list doesn’t matter.

Flying home

[Written on my phone on the plane home from Cairo.]

Flying home Dendara Egypt Ceiling

This evening will be my first in England this year.

Home.

We each have a different resting point between curiosity and comfort. Certainly my equilibrium sits further on the curiosity side than many people I know. It’s a position of balance only I can recognise, and yet it’s also just a theory, based on too many assumptions.

Free of friction.

I sit aboard a plane, falling to the ground. Although, as it’s controlled and predicted, we prefer to describe it as landing.

My stomach churns. It seems to rise and fall inside of me carried by the planes momentum. Yet this sensation, twisting and tumbling, can be falsified with the power of my mind.

It’s not a simple balance between curiosity and comfort. There are many forms of curiosity – that which you experience yourself by watching, that you discover by doing and that of reaching for the encyclopedia. There are similarly many forms of comfort. Luxurious surroundings make you feel physically comfortable. A deep mattress and warmth. Family and friends give another type of comfort, one of belonging and security of place within a heavily populated world. Religion and traditions give comfort, in the same way as habits – like taking the same route to work.

Sometimes curiosity leads to danger and exhaustion. Sometimes its allure commands attention that should be allocated to responsibilities.

But too much comfort too can be damaging. Stagnation, obesity, taking our privileges for granted.

Why travel? Why seek the world?

Why return to a place called home and the arms of those with love for you?

It’s a tumbling feeling. Freewheeling through life, trying to find a grip.

I wake in Cairo. I fly, and I tumble. Searching to satisfy this curiosity, desperate for the comfort of belonging. For a fleeting moment I land.

And then, when I’ve taken that deep breath and regained my composure, I’ll be off again. Chasing a dream.

Photos: Taken at Hathor’s Temple, Dendara.

How to be courageous, follow your heart and stay alive

sed festival luxor temple

“Still alive?”

My Egyptian guide looks at me tapping away at my phone, frantically sending messages back to England which prove not only that I have not yet died, but that I’m healthy, happy and safe.

Photos travel by email, Snapchat and various forms of instant messenger. Hopefully their recipient looks, sees a picture of something I’m clearly fascinated with, or a picture of my beaming face drinking yet another cup of hibiscus tea, and feels reassured that I am, truly, still alive.

I grin back at my guide. He approves of me having regular communication with the folks back home. He thinks I’m too reckless.

This practice of reassurance lacks certainty, but in the circumstances it’s the best I’ve got to offer. I can’t promise that terrorists won’t attack my hotel, that nobody’s going to hurt me, steal my sketchbook from my handbag or start a violent political protest beside me, but I can do my best to keep the up-dates flowing. Even if it’s out of character for me.

It’s all worth it, because I love Egypt.

Although I’m not entirely sure why.

How I ended up in Egypt

In the summer of 2011 I went out of my comfort zone in a manner I wasn’t aware was possible, and for the weeks following my inhibitions took a backseat. It was a first taste of freedom. In the months prior I hadn’t really been excelling at being happy. Too many things were unknown or falling apart. But the taste of achieving the impossible gave me a zap of energy.

I met a young Egyptian man who told me some interesting facts about his country. Interesting facts, like it had once been part of the British Empire. My ignorance astounded him. The conversation began a whole series of Skype calls between us. Typically, each includes my friend being astounded by my lack of awareness of his world. He sends me books and links and tries not to despair.

That summer, I knew I’d fallen into a rut. I knew this needed to change how I was thinking about the world. I needed something to sink my teeth into and Egypt piqued my curiosity. My university offered a series of evening classes, so I spent all of three hours thinking about it before picking the first on the list – Ancient Egypt.

What followed was a crazy obsession.

Books and seminars weren’t enough.

Yet, going to Egypt isn’t something that I could just do. Firstly, everything I knew about it was at least 2000 years out of date. Secondly, traveling anywhere new is scary, and the more different it is, and the further away, the scarier it becomes. Third, just a few security concerns. Planes dropping out of the sky, people being stabbed or shot. Things that you really don’t want to happen to you.

The courage to just go for it

Not unexpectedly, nobody showed any interest in accompanying me. My Egyptian friend invited me to visit, but still, the idea of going terrified me. I put it off. I went to Eastern Europe with my sister. I went to Italy and Iceland. I visited Ireland and counted the days of my holiday allowance, recounted and then counted them again.

And then my Egyptian friend asked again. Did I want to visit? Did I want to see what life was like in a real Egyptian household. Did I want to see his country? Did I want to spend time getting to know him better?

Saying yes was a significant step in this current bout of change I’m inflicting on my life (and everyone in it). Before I quit my job, I’d already decided I was going. I didn’t want to live in one little house repeating the same journey every morning. I want to see the world. I wanted Egypt through an Egyptian’s eyes.

I’d been reading about it for four and a half years.

And so I did it.

I kept expecting to reach a point where I was too afraid. Where I didn’t have the courage. I know what this feeling is like. I know the paralysis, the procrastination, the physical distress of not being able to do something because you’re too afraid. I could almost touch it, I dipped my toe in it, but it always it stayed a step ahead.

But like physically pushing yourself, running, cycling or whatever and breaking though the mental barrier that keeps you from going faster and further, once I’d got past the decision to go, I found I had a power I hadn’t known existed.

The hardest step was booking the flight.

Photo: Luxor Temple. The scene from a Sed festival – a celebration held after thirty year’s of a pharaoh’s reign to rejuvenate his (or her) strength to continue ruling. The king really is shown running and the three marks behind his bum represent the boundary stones that he was expected to run between.

Flying to Cairo

Ancient Egyptian Model Boat Cairo Antiquities Museum

Boarding the plane

Despite being the fifth flight I’ve now done on my own, crossing the Mediterranean to come to Egypt has to be the one that has been the most intimidating. Of course, when you tell friends and family that you’re going off to Egypt just as a Russian plane ‘crashes’ into the Sinai desert, there’s a few raised eyebrows. When you clarify that whilst you’re meeting a friend once you’re there, you’re getting there alone, there’s a small amount of agitation.

But this wasn’t what got to me. It’s silly really, but when I looked across the bus that was taking us to the plane I realised I was truly alone.  Not looking like the people you are travelling with is something totally new to me. This is what happens if you never travel very far. I think of ‘people like me’ as being the ones who sound like me and can name Henry VIII’s wives in order. Looking around a crowded bus and seeing headscarves and black beards had an unexpected effect.

I felt different.

An uneventful, but entertaining flight

So, when I sat down on the plane (windows seat – yey) who should sit beside me but a Scottish lady. Her Egyptian granddaughter sat with her parents in the central seats apparently pleased to be returning to somewhere that wasn’t so cold. As the 5 hour flight progressed the same Scottish lady entertained me with stories of her absent children and grandchildren, amazingly distributed across three continents and dotted across the wide spectrum of nationalities. This was a multicultural family who clearly embraced difference.

She reminded me of my own grandmother, who like the Scottish lady comes across as knowledgeable of the world.

The flight itself was uneventful. There was a little turbulence and a few negotiations with air traffic control about when exactly we were landing – explained to me by the knowledgeable Scottish lady who’s an expert on planes – and then we were down.

The chaos of Cairo International Airport – Terminal 1

The time was just past midnight, New Year’s Eve. We took a bus to the terminal and then stampeded through to passport control and the place to get your visas.

However, inconveniently, I didn’t know that’s where I was.

I was much too busy looking completely lost, confounded, rabbit in the headlights, overwhelmed, to actually process any of what was going on around me.

And yes, before you ask, I had done my research and had read the bit about getting your visa from the ‘bank’. I just didn’t really recognise the ‘bank’ when I was standing in front of it.

I was feeling a little frazzled, probably because I’d seen the chaos in the next room. The series of desks, each with an extensive queue sprawling out behind it, felt deceptively like shopping on Christmas Eve.

And the queues didn’t appear to be moving.

I didn’t have a clue whether there was a ‘right’ queue where English girls were meant to be. And to make matters worse, apart from an advert about re-energising the tourism industry in Egypt, everything was in Arabic so I had no idea how I was going to find out.

Luckily, I was too perplexed to panic.

Now, I like to believe that given time I would have worked the system out, but I am super grateful for the Scottish lady and her family who stepped in to rescued me. They explained how I was to get my ‘paid for a visa sticker’, what to do with it and invited me to queue with them.

It always pays to be nice to the person sitting next to you on the plane. You never know when you’re going to need a friend.

Then I was through.

The queue had taken ages, but thankfully my form was correct. I stepped through and my bag was waiting for me. Following my instructions, I avoided all the men offering a taxi ride, strode through the crowd (looking terrified apparently), and was swooped into a huge hug with my dear friend M.

Photo: A model boat from the Cairo Museum

An accident of tectonic plates or the bubbling resentment of giant?

The Greek myth of Polybotes

From the blood that fell when Cronus castrated Uranus, Gaia became pregnant (don’t ask me how), producing a son Polybotes.

One day, Poseidon got rather pissed off with Polybotes, I believe they were having a little war. As Polybotes was swimming away from the island of Kos, angry Poseidon tore off the end of the island and threw it at him.

Poseidon clearly was incredibly strong because the rather large rock that he flung through the air landed on Polybotes, trapping him underneath. This rather large rock became the island of Nisyros.

Now, the fact that an irate Polybotes is stuck beneath it may or may not explain why mathematicians would hold a conference on automorphic representations there. I’m thinking that the good weather might have had a say in the matter, but I can’t see how Nisyros – as beautiful as it is – would be a nice place to visit, especially if you weren’t paying. However, the transport options are limited – ferry or helicopter – and I didn’t see many conference centers. The islands entire population is only about 1000 people. There were twice that many pupils at my school.

KOS_Maths

Polybotes, whilst not explaining the oddities of mathematicians, does perhaps (if I’m willing to ignore the intensive education I’ve received on geophysics) explain why there’s a volcano bubbling away in the middle of the island. Never mind tectonic plates, there’s an angry son of Gaia trapped under there, and by the smell of it he hasn’t showered in a very long time.

Barefoot adventures – The Island, Kefalos, Kos

Kastri Island, Kos

Just off the bay at Kefalos is an island that, as long as you are a confident swimmer, you can swim across to. The biggest challenge is not to swallow the seawater as the waves splash up in your face.

A less confident swimmer might not find the swim quite as enjoyable.

Barefoot I clambered up the rock to the little church that sits up there. The area around the church is scattered with gravel. If you’ve got thick feet, like mine, this isn’t much of a problem. If your feet never step on anything rougher than a carpet, then you might hobble around a bit and complain bitterly. It’s a pretty church from the outside, but it’s not particularly pretty inside. Rather plain actually, it houses stacks of plastic chairs.

This is also a point where being able to see comes as a huge advantage. If, perhaps, you’re eyesight isn’t as good as mine and you left your glasses tucked in your shoe on the beach so that you wouldn’t lose them in the sea, then you might risk falling over a peacock or stray rock.

I climbed up along the narrow path upwards, towards the seagulls hovering above. Although half an hour earlier there had been a wedding party, and after that – we met them swimming across the sea – a couple of young men had paid the island a visit DeepThought and I were the only people on the island. He remained close to the church while I adventured.

Once we were safely back on Kos, DeepThought declared that to celebrate having survived the ordeal he was going to have a cocktail. I looked back at the island, quietly wishing that there were more times in life you could run barefoot, climbing rocks and exploring.

How tough are your feet?


Details:

The island is Kastri Island, you can also get there by hiring a boat from one of the many vendors along the beach. There’s an area marked out with buoys to keep swimmers separate from these boats. The foreground of the picture is an early Christian Basillica of Agios Stefanos which I visited multiple times as it’s freely accessible, and just part of the beach.