Over the autumn of last year I went to Tanzania for three months with the charity Raleigh International. This is a taster of life out there. If you have any questions about what we got up to, the work we did, or the ICS programme, leave me a comment!
In September I’m travelling to Tanzania for three months with the charity Raleigh International for a placement. I’m excited and scared. This won’t be a holiday. We undertake pre-departure training and training in country. Independent travel is not allowed and the projects we work on will be constantly under review. To add to the challenge, we will each live with a host family and an in-country volunteer but without other UK volunteers, meaning hosts may not speak much English. My Swahili still needs work… To top it off, our access to electricity and running water will be limited and to phones and wifi to call home: non-existent.
Finally, Raleigh is an amazing charity. As part of our training, we are all asked to raise money. This does not fund the trip. Instead, it ensures the valuable work of Raleigh can continue. To find out more about this amazing charity or the ICS programme, Click Here.
I’ve been putting off writing about this for a long time for fear that I could not do justice to the experience. However I finally think I may have digested enough. Politics seems to be taking the front pages of the newspapers – here in the UK at least – so the refugee crisis has taken a backseat in the public mind for the time being. This doesn’t change the fact that hundreds of thousands of people are displaced.
Near the beginning of this year I got the chance to join a group of students at my university in travelling to Athens to volunteer. The group was brought together by a student at my university who lived in Athens and had spent Christmas volunteering in Lesvos. She had seen firsthand the people suffering and wanted to do what she could. People often ask whether I traveled with an NGO but the truth is, the situation is not that organised. Most of the work I saw is grass-roots, self-organised with little overarching organisation for an area.
We left home about 2.30am on a cold, misty night. We slept a four hour journey down to the airport and a two hour flight. We wondered zombie-like through the airport and metro and finally found ourselves in the blaring sun in central Athens. After dumping our bags at our AirBnB, we went out for a meal, fueled by the buzz of over-tiredness. Then we headed into the Athens night. This first walk through the humid, rainy city brought home what my week was set to be. None of us knew exactly where we were headed or what we would find. We were exhausted and got lost and I was near tears by the time we got back. But this was a rekkie. We had heard of a number of “houses” set up in abandoned buildings and providing space for as many people as they could. They were run by locals who had the bravery and initiative to make a difference. These places had space for only around 100 people at a time: tiny fraction of those who needed them.There were no maps or advertisements. We simply had to search. We visited two houses that night. Both had people sitting or standing outside, smoking or talking. Some eyed us with suspicion, some smiled. The houses were not built for people – one was an old tax office – and the narrow corridors were almost always full. Only one had any form of planning for volunteers that coming week and when we went to sign up, the schedule was empty.
The next couple of days, five of us took work at the house, while the others went elsewhere. Throughout the week we moved through the camps and home scattered about the city. Each place was so different yet our tasks were almost exclusively sorting, folding, and handing out donated clothing. The first day at the house, we spent hour after hour trying to get the piles, boxes, and shelves in some sort of order so people could find what they needed. I spent one afternoon literally up to my waste in baby clothes, close to despair as I tried to sort them into age groups and force them into the shelving space designed to take half the volume. At Piraeus, the port which seems to have become notorious for its camp, we sat in the dust on the floor of a huge, dark, cold, and grimy warehouse sorting and folding. At what had once been an Olympic hockey stadium, I spend two hours straight slicing bread and blistered my fingers in the process.
I only spent a week there and often I felt like giving up. Hours spent sorting would end in ten minutes of people, desperately searching for coats, scarves, basic clothing to protect them from the cold or replace what they had been wearing for days. By the time the panicked search was over, our hours of work would be totally undone. I can’t help but think of tales of Black Friday in America where violence breaks out over a good deal. Though searches here were desperate in some cases, the people took the clothing with such gratitude. These items were not only free but desperately needed yet those searching through would do all they could to thank us and if they spoke no English, to smile.
Things weren’t always pretty. One morning we found the warehouse had been broken into overnight. One time we had to turn away a pregnant woman asking for shoes, because we had none in her size. When handing out donations, we had to place a limit on what we gave so that everyone got a chance. It isn’t the place of a group of students to deny donations to people in need but the truth is, we could see no better way when there wasn’t enough to go around. It is hard to know how to reconcile yourself with that. Yet there was no clear agency to oversee things. I saw little more of Red Cross and UNHCR than the odd medical van. That is not to say they are not doing what they can. Simply that there is more to be done than seems possible.
One hot day we stood in a shipping container set along the slab of concrete in Piraeus that had become the home of so many, sorting donations for distribution later. The container acted like an oven and we took regular breaks to sit just outside, gulp down water and wipe the sweat from out faces. At regular intervals, people would approach. Some spoke in English, others pointed, all asking for water. In some cases we had to hug our bottles protectively to us “It’s for me. I can’t give it to you. I have no more to give. I’ll have nothing to drink.” We pointed them to the other end of the concrete: “water is that way”. But finally, one of our group decided to make sure our second-hand information was right so we sent off. We had been told a blue shipping container was doing water distributions but as we neared the end of the camp, we found nothing. Several medical vans and charity workers were about. We started with Red Cross. “We don’t know. Check UNHCR.” UNHCR sent us somewhere else. We bounced from place to place seeing no sign of water and I began to feel I had stepped out of reality and lost myself in a Kafka novel. Finally someone came out of one of the canteen to speak to us. She seemed exasperated. “We’re not giving out water bottles” she said as though it was the thousandth time that day. “There’s water on tap that’s fine to drink. They just don’t want to because they’ve come from places where you can’t drink tap water.” I wondered why she wasn’t telling the people around us that. Then I wondered why I wasn’t telling the people around us that. I couldn’t speak there language in most cases and what good was telling one or two people in a few thousand? We traipsed back to the shipping container demoralized. Others came by that afternoon to ask for water and we told them they could fill their bottles from the tap but later that day, when we were gone; that night when more people arrived; next week when god knows what was happening, who would be there to tell people where to get water from?
The essence of the crisis seemed to be that no one could plan ahead. Everyone is so busy just about managing that there is no space to breath and plan, let alone to communicate and coordinate. Everything we did was so necessary but it would be necessary all over again tomorrow.
I was near tears several times during the trip but they weren’t always unhappy. The moments so vivid in my mind were moments of utterly beautiful human nature. One afternoon during our break a group of children asked us by gesture to join their game of catch outside their parents’ tents. A striking woman in a turquoise scarf looked on protectively from one and although she said nothing to us, she looked so glad that her children had these moments of joy. When we went to leave, she called to us and held up a phone to take a photo of us with the children.
The next day one of the little girls from the game of catch ran up to me and held out her fist. I opened my palm and into it she dropped two gold plastic earrings. They are the sort of things I would have treasured for dressing up when I was her age. I would have put up a fight before letting anyone else take them, yet this girl with so little insisted that I take them. After I hugged her she ran away seeming quite happy, tailed by her little sister, who had acquired a plastic viking sword and helmet from the donations earlier that day.
I don’t know what will happen to those people who had such an impact on me, or to the thousands like them. I can’t pretend to have any expertise or begin to make suggestions. I only hope that the generosity and goodness I saw both in migrants and volunteers can begin to counteract the ugliness and difficulty of the situation. Bad things are happening but the only way to act, it seems to me is with some patience and compassion.
If you are considering volunteering, donating, or doing anything for this cause, I urge you to do so. Plan carefully and stay safe if you want to travel to any of the camps. The best way is to contact current volunteer co-coordinators via Facebook or email beforehand. There are a lot of people already doing incredible work but more is needed. Anything you can do is worthwhile. Expert help is especially treasured but the manual labour to get food and clothes to those in need is also great. I was there for a week and the situation varied from day to day so I can’t comment on how it compares now to when I went but if you are considering doing anything, I urge you to act.
This week’s foodie find is not simply an item, but a favourite little deli and café of mine. The Hairy Fig is a “purveyor of fine fodder” in York. When I first walked past the windows of the little shop, it took me a moment to realise I was looking into a food shop. It is formed of two sections in adjacent shops. One is a unique delicatessen selling an array of hard-to-find fresh fruit and veg and home-cooked delicacies common in the north: pies, pasties and sausage rolls.The other half is more difficult to identify. At first I thought I’d found myself in a tiny emporium of wonder. In fact, it is a sweet and treat shop cross café. The shop sells tea, coffee and chocolate as well as specialist liquors. It feels as though each time I enter, there is something new on the shelves to greet me.
The tiny café at the back has only four tables. On the way in you pass a coffee table with the day’s selection of cakes. Behind you on the wall, a scattering of chalk boards offers the limited but delicious sounding menu. Visiting with a friend, I ordered a pear, walnut and gorgonzola toasted sandwich, served with salad and sweet tangy chutney.
But perhaps the pride of this little place is the liquorice. Shipped over from Europe and presented in glass jars just like an old-fashioned sweet shop, liquorice is present in shapes and flavours I never even knew existed.
Today, I made it my mission to try something new so I selected 3 unfamiliar types…
Dutch School Chalk liquorice looks exactly like a piece of white chalk. In fact, the outside it a crisp outer sugar coating. Biting into it, the sweet was softer and chewier than I expected, the inside something like dense marshmallow with a lightly salty, aniseed taste. Surprisingly, it left a fresh feeling in the mouth, almost breath-mint like.
Belgian Liquorice and Ginger was much chewier, like a gummy sweet. It also had a much stronger flavour. Though the liquorice was still there, it has a definite heat from the ginger, reminding me of ginger wine.
By far my favourite was the Citrus liquorice. It had a thick, melting outer layer which reminded me of condensed milk. Inside was a large, dense piece of liquorice. Since the outer is something like a rich, citrus/white chocolate truffle, it sits beautifully with the salty, tangy liquorice, which brings out and compliments the rich sweetness.
Not only will you find unique treats here, but the owners are wonderfully friendly and eager to share their experiences with the curiosities on offer. If you ever find yourself wondering the streets of York, it’s certainly worth a visit.
Late Wednesday night I arrived home with jet lag, a suitcase of gifts and probably an extra couple of inches around the waist, but having left my heart behind. I was lucky enough to spend a week in Boston for a biology conference, and though much of my time was spent in the conference centre, I did manage to get out to see the beautiful city. But before we get onto that, can I ask why all American food is so…
Don’t get me wrong, I have a veery sweet tooth but all the junk food and soda was getting a bit much for me. Perhaps it was because I was catered through the day at the conference but it didn’t help to diminish stereotypes. That said, I’m going to contradict myself and congratulate Boston on its fantastic coffee culture. Caffeine addicts, the lot of us, we headed without fail for a bakery or coffee shop first thing each morning. First morning we found a Bon au Pain. It seems to be a chain in Boston, though not one I recognize from the UK as with Starbucks. We stumbled in and were immediately greeted by a confusing congregation of stations offering hot food, cold food, coffee in a plethora of flavours and types, and a huge warmed cabinet of a cakes and pastries of confounding beauty. Coffee shops seem to brim over mid morning so we went for a wonder and found ourselves in a lovely, autumnal park. Boston is stunning in autumn; the city is so green and America offers a sight that the UK rarely does: front gardens. The trees were intense reds and yellows and we watched leaves form a glittering cloak behind a guy on a ride-on leaf blower.
As Bon au Pain was somewhat out of our way for the days we needed to be at the convention, we decided to make our way in the mornings with the blind faith that we would stumble upon a caffeine source, and our conviction paid off. Perfectly in our path, we found ourselves at Flour. I’ve added a link for those of you lucky enough to live in the area. The bakery, though small and a little out of the way, was evidently popular and I can understand why. The counter was crammed with delicious freshly baked cakes and pastries of all descriptions. The chilled cabinet offered granola and yogurt, trifles and juice. I would happily eat there every morning for the rest of my life. Sadly, I only had time to sample 3 of their treats: a low fat fruit scone (maybe low fat but glazed in sugar and mouthwateringly good), a creamy yogurt granola pot and a vegan apple and cinnamon muffin. The coffee there too is very good.
With our breakfast sorted, we were well set up for the conference as well as for the two days we had either side for sightseeing. As I mentioned, Boston is beautiful in the autumn and my favourite parts had to be the trips we made to Cambridge to visit MIT and Harvard. Harvard Yard is a stunning little haven in the middle of a city, full of trees and traditional architecture. In contrast, MIT paints a beautifully formidable picture in the centre of a busy district. Both Universities have their own charm and are well worth a visit. The presence of the universities give the city a sense of easy homeliness: something I was amazed to feel, coming from such a safe and tiny city as I do. Everyone I spoke to was friendly and eager to help. It was wonderful always having someone to chat to, ask for advice or directions. Occasionally, it gets a little overwhelming for an introverted English girl when every shop assistant wants to stop and talk but the city felt so open and welcoming.
The absolute highlight of my trip though, was a totally unique chance I got to visit the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, connected to MIT. Due to family connections with one of my travel companions, I had the incredible opportunity to meet the eminent scientist Robert Weinberg. One of the leading scientists in his field, Weinberg was incredibly personable and welcoming. He took our group of 8 into a board room and spoke to us – in relatively simple terms – about the research he was doing, the ways he liked to approach it and the multidisciplinary approach he had to science and education, there and at MIT. He wanted not just to teach, but to inspire and this was a sense I got throughout my trip. The friendliness of Boston seemed to be about encouraging and inspiring the same passion that the locals felt for their homes.
This was certainly reflected in another sight I was lucky enough to see. On our last evening, a group of us visited the skywalk at the top of the Prudential centre and watched the sunset over our host city. On first approaching the windows, I think all our breaths were taken away. We hadn’t expected a view over a city we barely knew to be so lovely. Boston feels like a city with continuity. I love London’s jumbled architecture, representing its equally jumbled history. The juxtaposition of old and new is startling, lovely and jarring in equal measures. Boston, in contrast, has a juxtaposition which seems to hold together: though the buildings vary is style, age and design, they sit together as though they were meant to be. As the sun set, the city sat sublimely, quiet and homely. Then, as the lights came on after dark, it seemed to come alive. In the same way the building’s differences work, the contrast of easy welcoming days and bright, exciting nights made Boston somewhere I wanted to stay.
But back to where we started: the food. We simply couldn’t leave Boston without trying some of what is was famous for: seafood! After only a few days I felt as though I could never face junk food again (then immediately contradicted myself by heading back to Flour for breakfast) but the abundance of sugar in so much of the food was getting too much, even for my sweet tooth. For me, sushi is the ultimate antidote to an overdose of sweets, cakes and cookies. It’s light, salty and oh so savoury. We found the most amazing looking freezer cabinets of sushi in one of the supermarkets and honestly, I could have gobbled the whole thing up.
But what Boston is really famous for is the lobster and the chowder. On our first day, we passed a place called Legal Seafood and joked that anywhere that had to put “Legal” in the name was probably dodgy. However, after hearing only good things, we decided to book ourselves a table as a last night treat. It certainly was a treat. Though most things in Boston were noticeably cheaper than home, the menu here made it clear we were in a classy establishment. The staff were so friendly and patient with us while our table made our first attempts at ordering seafood by weight but when it arrived, it was certainly worth it. I ordered a starter of rich, creamy chowder, and popcorn shrimp (from the appetizer menu) to follow: I would never have managed chowder and a main. The portions were massive but all of the fish was cooked absolutely beautifully. After only a couple of mouthfuls of shrimp, I significantly brought down the classiness at our table by manually de-popcorn-ing my shrimp (don’t blame me! There was SO MUCH batter).
I did steal little bites of calamari and lobster from friends in return for tastes of shrimp and chowder. The calamari was the best I’ve tasted. Lobster, though I’m sure it was perfectly cooked like the rest, may not be my thing. I’m not a fan of crab meat and to me this was similar but with less flavour. Overall, we made our way home on the last evening full and contented. Boston had been a wonderful host and we were all regretting we had to leave so soon.
A single day somewhere new can rush by in the blink of an eye. When you travel it can sometimes feel like you’ve barely set foot in a place before you are whisked away to your next destination. In Zurich, this was not the case. Ok, I claim Zurich. In face my “day” in Zurich was 12 hours in Zurich airport. Lucky for me they were separated into two different six hour stints either side of my current trip. For me travelling can be one of the most thrilling and rewarding experiences, but all too often, it can involve a hell of a lot of waiting around. I can’t help but wonder whether seasoned travelers have tips and tricks for dealing with long waits; no matter how good a book, it can only sustain me for so long.
So what are your tips for long periods of travel? Let’s see whether I can make my next visit to Zurich airport slightly more productive!
Here’s a little preview for my posts to come on my current trip!
I was lucky enough to be invited to Bath to celebrate with the family this weekend. So at 4pm on a Friday afternoon, I found myself sitting in York station in anticipation of a 5 1/2 hour journey ahead. Long train journeys are something I’m becoming very accustomed to but there isn’t much that can prepared you for a very loud phone conversation being had just across the aisle, for the majority of the journey.
Our day ended in the stunning Tasbourgh House Hotel. Despite our late arrival, the owner greeted us full of smiles and showed us to our rooms at the top of the house. The hotel sits atop a steep hill. This is not ideal when you are on foot, heading back and desperate for the loo, as I discovered to my cost. But the positive it that from our windows are some truly spectacular views of the City.
The following morning, we awoke to the smell of freshly baked pastry and a wonderful breakfast spread including homemade granola, toast, and croissants. After a lazy breakfast, we were ready to face whatever the day had to throw at us. Of course, we headed straight for the spa.
At Bath Thermae Spa I had my first massage. I’ll admit it was a little odd at first, particularly when I sat down with the masseuse to have a talk about my general health what I wanted from the massage (to relax?), and then she left me to get (almost) naked. I’m not the sort of person who’s all too comfortable with being exposed to strangers. Though I’ll admit I’m not as bad as my friend who claims she can’t even look in the mirror naked…
Back to the massage. I hadn’t expected to find it so strange, someone touching my back, but a couple of minutes in and it stopped feeling odd and started just to be lovely. I’m sure my brain slowed down and 50 minutes were up in a flash. Then we were onto the actual spa. By this time it was somewhat busier and the gorgeous roof-top swimming pool was a little packed. Each pool there seems to have currents and if, like mine, your muscle have decided to take a break by that time, you can find yourself awkwardly close to some bathing-costume-enrobed strangers. Overall, a morning at the spa was a gorgeous treat, though I wouldn’t have wanted to stay longer than our allotted two hours.
In fact, by that time, our oh so long and tiring morning had left our stomachs rumbling and we headed out to Lunch. The Great Bath Feast is on all this month and the foodie in me desperately wanted to make the most of it, but sadly, the rest of that day had to be devoted to work, since my uni term has just started again, and at full throttle.
Possibly the loveliest part of the weekend was the following morning. The hotel, set up on a hill, has a beautiful garden leading down toward the canal, so we followed the dewy grey-green grass down toward the town. The walk had an element of the fairytale to it. We past a stenny of bee hives and crunched over late-fallen apples until we reached the train line, at which point the scenery became less brother’s Grimm, more steam punk. I’m a rambler at heart and an early morning, late autumn walk does more good to my heart than any spa day.
But all too soon, the serenity of my morning was punctured by the clock and I was headed back to the station. My train took me northward into an all together bleaker landscape, though one with it’s own kind of beauty.
I hope your weekend was as lovely!
Part 1 here
The heady dusk of Skopelos played first host to our nights out. The town has bloomed since the filming of Mamma Mia on the island and you can take a taxi to see the hill-top church. We chose instead to start the day with a dawn swim off the little pebbled beach, then wonder the pale, stepped, and meandering streets. As the sun rose above our heads we revitalised with a cold drink (cappuccino freddo became a personal favourite but only brave it if you like your coffee bitter) and headed back to the boat for lunch.
As the evening came, we headed up the winding streets in search of dinner. Anna’s is a little open air courtyard, serving traditional Greek food along with a few specials. A dish unlike any other is their Agean paella. Served on a base of potato rather than rice, the whole dish is totally unexpected. Chunks of sweet, melting chicken and mixed with salty seafood and tangy broad bean purée to make an intense, complex and satisfying dish.
Somewhat later, we found ourselves in The Hidden Door. Our group of perhaps twelve packed out the tiny bar and we sat and chatted as the bar tender flicked through the playlist on the laptop precariously balanced on a shelf behind him. The cocktails were stunning. A little pot of wooden clothing pegs was used to decorate the glasses with sprigs of fresh herb, I was blown away with my mastic tale, a herby, tangy cocktail with an after taste of rosemary.
But in the long English winter, the memory of one place will linger on. Once the daily hassle of anchoring and mooring was over, we all sat back to appreciate the beauty of Stenni Valla. It is little more than a waterfront line of tavernas in a picturesque bay. We washed off the heat of the day by swimming straight off the back of our boat. Next we headed to the mini-market, as rumors of free showers went around – a luxury after a week on the boat. The owner of the market and the little cafe next to it is one of the friendliest people I have ever met. Kostas Maverik owns the market and cafe Ikarus, the diving school behind, curates a museum in the nearby town of Patitiri, and has published his own book on the history and folk-lore of the islands. He is also a lovely human being. Though we only stayed a couple of days in the hamlet, it quickly became my favorite place in Greece.
Though there is a ridiculously disproportionate number of tavernas for the permanent population (I wonder whether I could count the people on one hand..?) we somehow managed to choose a fantastic one for our first nights stay. Tassia’s serves a wide range of mouthwatering home-cooked delicacies and good wine. Though I had stuffed myself silly on a dish of sausages and peppers in tomato sauce and a drop too much white wine, I couldn’t resist an extra treat when our bill came with complementary mini ice creams!
The night became cloudy and overcast as we headed over to Ikarus cafe and ordered cocktails. The menu isn’t extensive but the mojitos are good. And as we sat under the awnings, playing cards and sipping cocktails, a storm blew up around us. Finally, slightly tipsy, we headed back to our boat to snuggle down with the sound of the wind and the rain outside.
Though our long and languid days seemed to stretch on for ever, all too soon we found ourselves back in Orei. And from there, an all too early coach trip and ferry ride to the airport and the flight home. I had expected a holiday of relaxing and getting away from it all. I never expected the spirit and people of Greece to stick in my heart as much as they have. Sailing is by far the best way to see these beautiful islands and meet their warm welcoming people.
As I sit in a darkened room listening to the hush of rain outside, it’s difficult not to believe the past two weeks were more than a hazy dream; there is little more dream-like than the spattering of islands in the north west Aegean.
After a 3 hour flight, 2 and a half hour coach ride and a half hour ferry trip, I found myself in a muggy greek twilight on a quay in the sleepy town of Orei. A family of stray dogs watched with interest as a tired out band of tourists loaded bags onto a series of yachts. Ahead of us was the prospect of two weeks of long and lazy days island-hopping. I’ll say now: sailing is not for everyone. Yachting in Greece may sound utterly romantic but the reality might not live up to expectation. It had been few years since I’d last been sailing but by day one I remembered some of it’s realities. Proper toilets and showers are a thing of the past and a combination of sweat and salty sea air mean you quickly become used to feeling slightly sticky all over. Finally there’s the sailing itself: a strange mix of inactivity – little to do but sit or lie for hours on end – and activity – hauling ropes and not being able to move more than a couple of steps without using every muscle in your body just to stay upright. But there is a reason this place has remained so untouched; there is no way other than boat to see these island-be-speckled waters.
We had joined a flotilla with Sailing holidays. This meant we had more of a social side to our holiday than bare-boat. I also gave us some added security if things went wrong. This wasn’t the sort of holiday where you are looking to pack your days full. Our long and languid days were filled mostly with reading and sunbathing. Around lunch time we’d anchor in some deserted bay to swim in the turquoise waters, then, as the sun reached its peak, there was little more to do than sleep. By late afternoon, we would usually have reached our night spot and then, because we’re a family of Brits, we put the kettle on and stretch out to watch the town come alive.
Because it’s with the stars, that the Greeks arise. Greece seems to be a country of the dawn and the twilight, where the beat of the midday sun is just too much. From the cockpit of our boat, we watched the waterfronts transform from drowsy idylls and listen to music long into the early hours of the morning.