Taking Photos of North Korea (Sort of….)

In the balmy summer of 1989, there were two major global events taking place which would change the course of modern history as we know it.  The first was a chain reaction of radical political changes,  including the liberalisation of the Eastern Bloc’s authoritarian systems and the erosion of political power in the pro-Soviet governments, leading to the destruction of the Berlin wall; and the second, occurring a little further west, was my 4th birthday party where I was enjoying not only an excellent bouncy castle, but also that most coveted of childhood birthday accoutrements – a caterpillar cake.  I’ll let you decide which was more crucial in shaping the modern socio-political word we know today.

Unfortunately 16 years on, with the Berlin wall smashed to bits and distributed throughout the world’s museums, Korea has yet to learn the lesson of the caterpillar cake, and so remains the only divided country in the world.  Officially split in half along the 38th Parallel, Korea is now divided into two distinct sovereign states by the 4km wide, 250km long Korean Demilitarised Zone (D.M.Z for short) – The Republic of Korea (South Korea) sits on one side, and the infamous, almost mystical, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (otherwise known as North Korea) on the other.

The chirpy sign welcoming us to the most militarised border in the world...

The chirpy sign welcoming us to the most militarised border in the world…

The most heavily militarised border in the world, between two countries who are still officially at war isn’t the obvious choice for a tourist attraction, but with the establishment of the D.M.Z. that’s exactly what this place has become, and thousands of tourists a year head here in the hope of a glimpse of the global quandary that is North Korea.

With only a couple of days left in Seoul before my flight onto the Philippines, I thought I would follow the tourist trail, and see how close to North Korea it would allow me to get. There are two options for tourists, the standard D.M.Z. tour, and the ‘proper’ tour which heads into the Joint Security Area (J.S.A.) and allows you to see the arbitrary line which has been drawn (literally) between these two countries.  The J.S.A tour seemed like the best option, if only for the photo opportunity with a North Korean soldier in one of the ‘peace rooms’ where the line continues to run down the middle of the room, and even onto the table, and is where all the peace talks since the establishment of the D.M.Z. have taken place.

Unfortunately due to my failure to consult the latest copy of  ‘Herbs and their Festivals’ magazine, I was unaware of the national Korean ginseng festival taking place near the border which clearly constituted a massive security risk, meaning the J.S.A tour was off limits.  A more considerable risk may have been the incursion exactly two weeks prior to my visit by an 18 year old North Korean defector – it boosted my confidence that he apparently had to knock on the door of the South Korean barracks to let them know he had arrived after walking unnoticed across the D.M.Z.

At least somebody finds it funny...

At least somebody finds it funny…

Standard tour booked, I was up early and ready for my trip to North Korea – or at least as close as you can get to it without spending a fortune, or having government officials question your motives.  Generally speaking I’m not a huge fan of organised tours, but for somewhere like the D.M.Z. there really isn’t another option, and so with a rapid, frantic knock at the door which set the pace of the day, I found myself being bundled into a black people carrier along with another 6 similarly confused and bleary eyed tourists.  This wasn’t so bad I thought, an intimate small group of likeminded people, a comfortable ride, and a driver who seemed to be showcasing his impressive evasive manoeuvring skills which although unnecessary on the empty back streets at this time of the morning, might prove useful later on – I might have this organised tour business wrong.

Unfortunately this was only the transport to the 52 seater coach that was full to bursting with aging tourists complete with high socks, floppy hats, and enough cameras and accessories to make the paparazzi blush.  I found a seat next to an eager American chap who immediately introduced himself and began showering me in Korean War facts and spittle before he was interrupted by our even more eager Korean tour guide called Sunshine: “Hi, call me Sunny!”  Sunny by name, sunny by nature, I wasn’t sure this petit Korean lady with tourist board approved shirt and smile was the most suitable front woman for the highest concentration of military forces in the world, but I had been wrong before, and so tried to listen to what she had to say between bouts of “Did you know…” from my slobbery seat mate.

The ubiquitous sign in the DMZ...

The ubiquitous sign in the DMZ…

The bus pulled out into the organised traffic of Seoul, and headed north on the hours’ drive towards the D.M.Z.  As we left the towering city behind Sunny began to tell us some of the rules and regulations of the day: No photos here…no photos of that statue…don’t talk about North Korea in this area…we only have 12 minutes 47 seconds at this place etc. It looked like it was going to be a day of being herded around like cattle, and not actually seeing very much, Mr projectile-saliva beside me could barely contain his excitement. As we approached the first checkpoint we drove alongside a river with our first hazy view of the barbed wire of the D.M.Z. on the other side.  The side we were on was lined with guard towers, and more barbed wire to stop people getting blown up by the landmines which apparently get washed out of the fields into the river before being carried downstream towards the South Korean capital.  Interestingly despite this, The D.M.Z. was the only place which was exempt from the USA’s 2014 pledge to eliminate anti-personnel mines.

Just in case you were thinking of going for a wander...

Just in case you were thinking of going for a wander…

After a few armed checkpoints “NO PHOTOS” and a South Korean soldier counting us twice like a diligent school trip leader, we drove across a bridge to our first stop of the day – the brilliantly named ‘third tunnel of aggression’.  I wasn’t really sure how a tunnel could be aggressive, a shady alleyway -certainly, an underpass at night – perhaps, but tunnels have always seemed more functional than ferocious to me.  This animated name wasn’t a mistake or a poor translation, it was another example of the not-so-subtle propaganda which became more and more apparent as the day went on – at every opportunity we would be reminded of North Korean ‘acts of aggression’, and how the war had been started by the North, and the only reason Korea was still divided was because the North wanted it to be. The same was true when I had visited the informative yet slightly biased Korean War museum in Seoul the day before, after realising that I knew next to nothing about the conflict in Korea.  Although I did learn about the origins of the conflict, and some of the key facts and dates, (in between posing for pictures with South Korean school children – their idea not mine!) the main message I came away with was how everything was the North’s fault followed by a wealth of examples of how they had broken the armistice and continued to attack the South – needless to say the ‘aggression tunnels’ featured heavily.

Powerful statue outside the Korean War museum in Seoul...

Powerful statue outside the Korean War museum in Seoul…

Although we were only allowed to spend 20 minutes at the site, this was long enough to walk down into one of the four discovered tunnels (although there are believed to twenty more!) which were dug under the D.M.Z by the North.  Each tunnel was a staging point for an invasion, and it’s reported that they could deliver 30,000 fully armed troops from the North into the South an hour!  One of the tunnels is apparently even big enough for tanks – alas not the third one though, no, the third tunnel seemed only big enough for toy soldiers considering the number of times I hit my head on the rusty girders lining the ceiling, providing a route for the rusty water to drip down my tourist board approved yellow hard hat and onto my face.  Obviously we weren’t able to walk the full length of the tunnel which at a length of 1.7 km would take you almost into North Korea proper, instead we were allowed to walk about 400m through the tunnel before our progress was halted by a substantial brick and concrete wall with a small, thick, Perspex viewing window built in to allow us to peer into the abyss towards the ‘traitorous’ North.  I couldn’t help but think North Korea were missing a golden opportunity to station a soldier on the other side of the wall to wave at the tourists as they shuffled past.

There were dozens of coaches all full with tourists being herded around which made the tunnel more like a conveyor belt than an exhibit, but the concept was intriguing, and the crudely placed gift shop as you exited the tunnel also sold cheap cornettos – a dream in the muggy afternoon, so it wasn’t a wasted trip.  Along with various other patriotic trinkets, the gift shop also sold “genuine” North Korean brandy, which I was tempted to buy as I thought it would be a great talking point at a dinner party; that was until I realised that I don’t go to many dinner parties, and am not really a fan of brandy, so I decided to wait until I actually get the chance to visit North Korea for real, and settled on a very authentic South Korean mint cornetto instead.

Casual Korean Cornetto...

Casual Korean Cornetto…

Next stop on the Sunshine express was the observation post, where you could look through a set of telescopes clearly stolen from a British coastal town, across the D.M.Z. in the direction of North Korea.  We were only allowed 15 minutes here, and with an uncharacteristic frown, Sunny reminded us that we were absolutely not, under any circumstances, allowed to take photographs over the very official looking yellow line which had been painted on the floor towards the back of the observation post. Why the yellow line was there in the first place, I’m not sure, as unless you had a giant camera lens with some serious zoom (which is fairly conspicuous) you really wouldn’t be able to take a picture of very much other than a hazy hill – certainly nothing of significant strategic importance, which is probably why “The Yellow Line Rule” was being enforced by a single, timid looking South Korean soldier armed only with a microphone and a whistle against literally hundreds of tourists who were clearly flaunting the rules and taking pictures over the yellow line.  I’m not sure what this poor soldier had done to deserve this duty, but he was going about it with all the passion and commitment of a bad supply teacher, with people taking pictures behind his back, distracting him, and generally not paying attention to anything he said.  I did see him ask one person to delete a photo, and during the subsequent discussion, I took the initiative, and in a flurry of school boy mischief I managed to sneak a picture of North Korea – a picture which showed absolutely nothing but a slight orange haze, and so was subsequently deleted. (For any Korean military officials reading this, this is most definitely not an omission of guilt, and I’m very sorry for stepping over the line, and I promise not to do it again.)

Don't cross that line...

Don’t cross that line…

The view through the telescopes was also nothing more than an orange haze, but I did manage to see some factory buildings, a line of people which looked like soldiers (but almost certainly weren’t), and the giant flag pole which at 160m tall used to be the tallest flag pole in the world built by the North in the 1980s in reply to South’s feeble 98.4m effort sparking the so called ‘Flagpole war’.  The North Korean flag flying atop this apparent declaration of war is reported to be the heaviest flag in the world, although I’m almost certain that the South would disagree. (Personally speaking I think the one flying in the Zocalo in Mexico City would give any flag a run for its money.)

What everyone expects to see through the telescopes...

What everyone expects to see through the telescopes…

The final stop on the ‘Tour’ was arguably the most interesting, and certainly the most forward thinking with regards to the possibility of the reunification of Korea.  The newly refurbished and eerily empty Dorasan station stands as a chrome and glass testament to the possibility of a peaceful future between the two sides.  Currently it marks the northern most station on the mainline from Seoul with only the odd cargo train being allowed into the D.M.Z. to deliver raw materials and to return with manufactured goods from the joint industrial area; but with the establishment of this station and its northward winding tracks, South Korea is now (in a physical sense at least) connected to Europe by rail.  This has huge social and economic implications, and could be the start of a whole new European-Asian economic trade route, but unfortunately until the D.M.Z. goes the way of the Berlin wall, the great idea of travelling by train from London Waterloo to Seoul via Pyongyang will have to remain just that – a great idea.

The empty Dorasan station and its optimistic route map...

The empty Dorasan station and its optimistic route map…

The optimistic map on the wall of the spotless station alluded to this future, and I hope that perhaps one day it will be possible, but for now I bought a souvenir ticket, and posed for some photos with the friendlier South Korean soldiers who were redundantly sat guarding an empty station, and seemed to welcome the distraction. Once again time was of the essence, and we only had a matter of minutes at the station before we were back on the bus and being asked to handover our cash as the bus raced back towards Seoul.  I’ll be honest and say I wasn’t awed by the experience, if I’m brutally honest, then I felt I had been a little bit cheated – the whole day had seemed quite gimmicky and geared up to make as many tourist dollars as possible.  Yet, politically speaking, I had just been to one of the most unique places on the planet, an area steeped in propaganda, with an atmosphere of tension and uncertainty covered over with a thin venire of organised tours and cornettos.  The truth of the matter is the D.M.Z. is a fragile line across an active war zone, a war which still claims casualties as soldiers from both sides push their luck in a bid to gain the upper hand.  The future for Korea as a unified country is more than uncertain, North Korean politics are a widely reported enigma, and until there is a significant culture change I’m unsure there can ever be peace on the 38th parallel, but when that day does come, and one day it will, you can be sure I’ll be at Waterloo station with a ticket to Seoul in my hand.

Maurice meets the South Korean army...

Maurice meets the South Korean army…

Andy Browning © 2015

Breaking Batad

Stepping out of the bus I literally and metaphorically breathed a sigh of relief.  Having spent the previous week in the stagnant smog of one of the most polluted mega cities on the planet, the opportunity to fill my lungs with the cold sweet air of the mountains of Northern Luzon was pure ecstasy.

Tricycles at the ready in Banaue...

Tricycles at the ready in Banaue…

I had taken the 11 hour trip north from Manila for one very specific reason – to try and get a glimpse of what is often referred to by Filipinos as “The 8th wonder of the world”, the famous rice terraces of Banaue.  Unfortunately  the mountain weather had other ideas, and as I grabbed my bag and headed down some slippery steps into the busy early morning, Banaue’s famous rice terraces were but a figment of my lonely planet induced imagination with low grey clouds sinking heavily into the surrounding valleys obscuring everything but the most immediate.

Banaue is compact to say the least, and standing at the main junction it was easy to take it all in.  Looking up and down the main street for somewhere to stay,  I spied the Greenview lodge, and although there was certainly nothing green to be viewed, I managed to nab myself a very reasonably priced room, and set about washing the long bus journey off me.  Feeling more human I set out to explore Banaue, and after 5 minutes I had concluded that it really didn’t have much going for it other than a thriving tricycle industry, and an incredible bakery selling all sorts of carb based deliciousness.

The weather had begun to deteriorate, and back at my guesthouse as I tried to make a dent in what can only be described as a ‘sack full’ of flapjack brought from the bakery, an old TV in the corner explained why – the north of the Philippines was experiencing the tail end of Typhoon Bopha – one of the strongest tropical cyclones to ever hit the southern islands.  Unlike the south of the country we were in no real danger, but it did mean that the chance of me seeing anything more than grey cloud for the next week was greatly reduced.  Worried about the dangerous flapjack and cake addiction I could develop if I stayed within walking distance of such an exquisite bakery, I decided to leave Banaue to explore some of the surrounding villages, complete with their own rice terraces, and settled on the tiny village of Batad on account of its remoteness, and the fact that the woman at the tourist centre told me that tourists didn’t often go there for more than a day trip.  This was music to my ears, and after politely declining the ridiculously priced tourist bus, I decided to take the local jeepney instead and spent the difference on buying supplies for my trip – at the bakery.

Holy Land Transport

Jeepneys are an amazing form of transport – originally converted from American army jeeps left in the country after World War II, jeepneys are now a national icon in the Philippines and are quite the artistic statement – the modern versions are true to the original shape, but now sport the most audacious designs and names, making them both gaudy and brilliant in the same dubious brush stroke (not unlike Guatemalan chicken buses or East African Matatus)

I found my way to the jeepney stop, and was pointed in the direction of “Holy Land” a classic chrome and stickered beast heading to Batad.  Of course it wasn’t leaving for a while, and so I climbed in through the small rear door, and waited until the bus filled with local people and all the accoutrements required to ensure the full rural Filipino jeepney travel experience.  Soon the jeepney was full of local people laughing and joking in the local mountain dialect whilst bags of all shapes and sizes, sacks of rice and pig food and crates of beer were loaded up around us before the final touch was added in the form of a dozen chickens all tied together in case they made an uncharacteristic bid for freedom.

To pass the time I shared some of the legendary flapjack around with the giggling gap-toothed old women opposite me and immediately made some new friends for the journey.  With a crunching of gears and a satisfying backfire, we left Banaue in a cloud of blue smoke and the jeepney began to climb the surrounding mountains on precarious roads, struggling each time we turned one of the dangerously tight switchbacks.  Despite the grey skies and drizzle, the drive was stunningly beautiful –  huge vertical drops into the valley below were covered in lush, dense forest punctuated by powerful waterfalls all passed by at a modest pace as the jeepney struggled up the ever increasing gradient.  The final mile was straight up the mountainside on a track which by rights should only have been navigable by a serious off road vehicle, but incredibly the jeepney was nursed to the top by our noble driver, with the only damage being a motion sick child, and a bus floor covered in chicken shit – no doubt a dirty protest to their unlawful imprisonment.

Arriving at the addle - check out the chickens being 'liberated' from the jeepney...

Arriving at the saddle – check out the chickens being ‘liberated’ from the jeepney…

We had arrived at the ‘saddle’ which is as far as the slight depression in the mountainside which is laughably called a road goes, so to get to Batad proper I would have another 45 minute walk, mercifully all downhill.  The remoteness of Batad had really appealed to me, and although the rice terraces were still obscured, the mist rolling through the valleys made the scene suitably exotic and adventurous.  After consulting with a woman holding the largest coconuts I had ever seen (food stuffs not breasts), I headed down the precariously slippery slope towards the little village hidden in the clouds which by now had menacingly enveloped the entire region, slipping and falling almost every other step as the path down to Batad was quickly becoming a river valley with all the rain even more eager than I was to make it down the hill.

About halfway down the hill one of the other passengers from the jeepney caught me up, bounding down the hill with two giant gas canisters and negotiating the slippery path in a pair of flip-flops which must have been made by NASA or something as they seemed to defy all sort of laws of physics relating to gravity and friction.  We stopped for a rest under a small locally made hut and he introduced himself as Rambo the farmer.   After some inane chit-chat the conversation somehow drifted onto the topic of fighting (which I guess shouldn’t be surprising considering my companions’ name) at which point Rambo stood up, and enthusiastically proclaimed “Which is exactly why I carry this…” and proceeded to produce a handgun from the depths of his baggy jeans.

The 'path' down to Batad after the rain...

The ‘path’ down to Batad after the rain…

Having rarely been faced with gun wielding farmers named Rambo, I didn’t exactly know how to react, initially I thought about running, but considering the topography and my seeming inability to even walk down hill without falling over, I decided that wasn’t ideal, so I instead tried to channel my inner gangster and appear completely nonplussed that I was on a remote mountainside with a strange man grinning at me with a gun in his hand.  It turns out that my inner gangster isn’t very good, as Rambo seemed to immediately sense my concern and assured me that he did actually have a licence for the gun…but had unfortunately ‘lost’ the paperwork.  Trying to show an interest in this increasingly surreal situation, I asked Rambo why he felt it was necessary to carry a handgun, he waved the gun towards the cloud hidden peaks and said it was “very important” to have one whilst hiking in order to deal with the “snakes” on the trail!  Now I do not claim to be the world’s most knowledgeable when it comes to weapons or that I have an intricate knowledge of the indigenous snake population of Northern Luzon, BUT surely a big stick would be sufficient enough to deal with all but the very largest of snakes, and even then a sturdy log would probably suffice wouldn’t it?  I tried to carefully communicate this to Rambo, but sensing the conversation had reached a confusing crescendo, and with apparently no regard for his future chances of procreation, he thrust the gun back into the waistband of his jeans, launched the gas canisters back onto his shoulders and with a smirk which bordered on sinister left me to slip and slide my way down the hill.

Wet from the rain, muddy from my lack of balance, and still suitably baffled by meeting Rambo, I made it to the small village of Batad.  I had opted to stay at Simon’s guest house predominantly on account that his son had been responsible for nursing our jeepney to the saddle, and as I negotiated the final few slippery steps into the open plan wooden deck which over looked the valley below, I wasn’t disappointed – Simon was a real gent, and as I was his only guest (I was apparently the only traveller in the whole of Batad) he treated me to an evening of stories of his time as a globetrotting sailor over giant plates of pork and rice, and several cold beers.

The beautiful rice terraces of Batad...

The beautiful rice terraces of Batad…

The following morning I was woken up by a shaft of light arrogantly shining through the window which could only mean one thing – the typhoon had finally abated.  Walking out of my room and onto the vast wooden deck I was confronted by one of those views which you can only really throw clichés at when you try to describe it – the deep valley seemed to drop for miles but instead of the typical smooth curves formed by nature, this hillside bore the beautiful scars of human intuition and creativity.  Hundreds of flat ‘steps’ had been laboriously carved out of the hillside and ingeniously irrigated from the surrounding forests to create a watery patch work of rice terraces with the ability to yield enough rice to sustain the entire local population in an area otherwise devoid of any other suitable agricultural land – an incredible feat of human engineering over 2000 years old.

I couldn’t wait to get down into the valley and explore the terraces properly, especially whilst the weather lasted, so after a speedy breakfast of locally sourced mango, I loaded up my dry bag, slung it over my shoulder and headed off to find the Tappiya waterfalls located in the next valley.

First stop was the neat and tidy primary school perched on the side of the hill at the head of the path down towards the terraces.  Judging by the drop behind the school, it’s a good job that basketball is more popular in the Philippines than football as a wayward shot in this playground would see you lose your ball forever.  I began to zigzag down the hill passing neat little houses full of scatty chickens and the odd pig, towards the terraces glistening in the sun.  The last house I reached before getting to the terraces proper housed a gnarly looking old woman who said she would come back and see me later on to give me a massage – I looked back up at the almost sheer mountainside I had struggled down, and then looked the frail old woman in front of me and decided I was pretty safe from her wrinkly embrace, so I smiled and left the path and headed out onto the terraces.  Walking through the terraces required balance, forward planning, and good eyesight to spot the brilliantly positioned stone steps to either climb up or down onto the next level, and slowly I managed to navigate my way along the thin edges which bordered each of the perfectly kept water filled rice paddies.

Man tending to his rice...

Man tending to his rice…

In the centre of the rice terraces is a small settlement consisting of about two dozen small houses and an ugly church, I walked past smiling children happily annoying their mothers whilst the men trudged up and down the terraces towards their little patch of land, smiling at me through twisted teeth stained red by the constant chewing (and spitting) of bettlenuts – a local nut which when chewed stimulates the body and mind much the same way as cocoa leaves do.

The path on the other side of the village was straight forward to find, but incredibly steep.  The sun was beating down now, and I was getting a healthy sweat on whilst middle aged men carrying huge loads practically ran up and down the path with their perfectly adapted calves providing propulsion.  From the top I could see down into the next valley at the swollen river racing around its meanders fuelled by days of rain.  Following this force of water through the muggy undergrowth I once again elegantly tripped, slipped, and fell down towards the valley floor where eventually I was met by a thundering wall of water surging from 30 metres above me crashing into the dark volcanic rocks below, showering me in its cool refreshing mist, a welcome interaction after the sweaty walk.  After the rain the river was a force to be reckoned with, and I decided swimming wasn’t the best idea, so instead I spent the afternoon climbing around on the rocks nearby, getting as close to the lip of the falls as I dared, and basking in the warm tropical sun.

The beautiful Tappiya falls...

The beautiful Tappiya falls…

On the way back to the village I passed day-trippers from Banaue eager to spend their five minutes at the falls before rushing back to the warm, guidebook approved embrace of their privately hired minibus and hotel – why the rush?  Doing things quickly seemed to be completely at odds with the ambiance of a place like Batad and I was enjoying the change of pace after a week in manic Manila.  Back amongst the terraces I got woefully lost trying to pick my way through the intricate maze of narrow paths, and after a good 20 minutes of trying to pretend I wasn’t lost but merely taking pictures, I conceded and asked a red toothed drunk for help, who with an unsteady gait and a penchant for shouting at chickens, somehow managed to get me back on the path which led to the last hill of the day.

Back at Simon’s I celebrated my day’s achievements with a cold beer and took up my position on the edge of the deck overlooking the terraces as the sun began to set turning the sky an angry crimson.  What followed was one of the most magical things I have been privileged to see – the setting sun was reflected in 100s of water filled terraces creating what can only be described as a natural glitter ball – it was an incredible sight, and I couldn’t help but sit and smile as I took in this natural wonder and strummed away on an old guitar which I wish I could actually play.  The sun had set and I was once again full of good food, it was the perfect end to the day – I felt almost guilty that I had the place all to myself, until I was joined by a certain increasingly amorous gnarly old women who I then had to spend half an hour trying to explain to that I really didn’t need a massage – how she made it up the hill that night I have no idea, but I decided to take the extra precaution of locking my room that night – just in case!

Clearly thrilled to be walking back to Banaue...

Clearly thrilled to be walking back to Banaue…

I spent a couple more wonderfully peaceful days in Batad, refuelling and recharging before deciding, with the onset of yet more rain which returned Batad to a misty mystery, that it was time to head back to Banaue to continue my Filipino adventure.

© Andy Browning 2014

Once more into the breach dear friends…

Image

Embracing the chilly climes of the UK…

Captain Lawrence Edward Grace “Titus” Oates is most famous as the companion of Robert Falcon Scott (Or Scott of the Antarctic to his mum).  A noble chap to the end Oates, afflicted with gangrene and frostbite, famously walked from his tent into a blizzard allegedly uttering the immortal words “I’m just going outside, I might be some time” a phrase now synonymous with self-sacrifice and departing with dignity.

Alas I did no such thing, leaving this blog unattended for over a year, and instead of a stoic phrase of legendary heroism, I merely left you with some innate ramblings about some ill-advised South Korean route planning, and wantons – not exactly one for the history books!

Now I could offer you some excuses for my slackness: my joyful return to friends and family distracting me from other activities perhaps, or my slightly less joyful return to the world of employment draining away any available free time, or simply that I have been busy ‘re-calibrating’ to the UK, but they are all hollow excuses for what is effectively laziness.

However, the time has come for me to reprioritise my life, and make the most of the free time that I have and, to perhaps extend this already strained metaphor, do what captain Oates did – man up, put on a warm coat, and brave the blizzard.

In addition to completing the Tuvalu saga (the odd collection of ramblings that you wonderful lot were so kind to follow and read) there are various past adventures and experiences I want to write about: Avoiding volcano dwelling rebels in DRC, receiving a standing ovation for singing karaoke in a back street Filipino ‘nightclub’, and eating the mysterious ‘poisson de lac’ in Burundi to name but a few.

I am acutely aware that writing some of these stories of misadventure retrospectively from the chilly climes of the UK will perhaps take the edge off their excitement, or dilute the adventure somehow, but I want to write them anyway; partly for posterity, partly to convince myself that these things actually happened, and partly (and arguably most importantly) I realised I quite enjoyed writing them!

So if you can deal with the slightly dubious chronology, with posts jumping from the past, into the future, and even some from the present to keep your body (blogdy?) clocks on track, then I hope you will keep reading and enjoy the following stories.

 

© Andy Browning 2014

That’s what you get for waking up in Gangnam…

It has happened to us all at some stage, maybe it happened to you after a particularly long day at work, or perhaps you succumbed after another long, dull meeting, or most likely you passed out after one too many drinks, however it happened, we have all at one time or another fallen asleep on public transport, only to awake, normally with a trail of dribble running down our suits, with a guilty feeling in our stomachs and a host of fellow commuters judging us.  Already pretty bad, the whole experience is made worse, when you  realise that not only are you covered in dribble, but you have also missed your stop.  Now depending on how lucky you are, you might be fortunate and find yourself a mere extra 5 minutes from home, thankful for the extra walk to sober you up; on the other hand you could be particularly unlucky, and be faced with the horror of waking up in the wilds of zone 6 on the last train home, trying to fathom your way out of those distant bastions of the central line – Epping, or worse still the enigma that is West Ruislip.

That’s what you get for waking up in Gangnam…

However, this is not a time to panic, this has happened before, and we know how to deal with it, and even in the truly worst case scenario (which we all know is that you have somehow ended up on the central line ‘loop’ somewhere between Hainault and Newbury Park) you are still able to get out, ask for directions to the nearest taxi rank, and fork over an extortionate price to get home.

Winter sunshine warming up the palaces of Seoul…

Unfortunately when I woke up from my blissful train slumber this wasn’t an option for me, as instead of being met by the comfortingly familiar sight of grumpy Londoners on their way home for another exhausting day in the capital, I was instead met by a gaggle of laughing Asian school girls, and a stern looking train guard who pointed at my rucksack sprawled on the floor of the carriage, indicating that it had strayed outside the official ‘luggage’ zone, and was causing a scene.

This was my first impression of Seoul – the bustling modern capital of South Korea, and as about as different from my sleepy, tropical island experiences of the last 12 months as you can get!

I re-adjusted my rucksack, smiled at the guard hoping I hadn’t broken any actual laws, and took stock of my situation – I remembered getting off the plane and picking up my bag from the carousel,  I remembered navigating my way through the exquisite Incheon international airport towards the metro, and I distinctly remembered being faced with a flashing screen covered in indecipherable symbols beeping at me – I assumed this had something to do with tickets, and after mashing some buttons a bright green button mercifully bleeped at me and flashed the words “ENGLISH”, highlighting quite abruptly my linguistic deficiencies in the part of the World – I even remember getting on the train (nice and easy as the airport is at the end of the line and there is only one direction to head in) What I didn’t remember though was falling asleep and missing my stop.

Street art in Seoul…

“It’s fine” I thought wiping the dribble away from my mouth, “I can figure this out, I mean how hard can Korean be…” these of course turned out to be fatefully words – Korean is bloody difficult to speak or understanding, and basically impossible to read.

Even so I persevered, and with a bit of common sense, and some luck I eventually found out that by some twist of musical fate I had inadvertently found myself in the now globally famous Gangnam area of Seoul!  Trying not to get my hopes too high, I got off the train and began to scan the crowd for signs of an international dancing sensation.  Unfortunately  I was disappointed, as I’m sure you will be, to discover that the real Gangnam has very little to do with the music video, and I didn’t see  a single Asian in a tuxedo jockeying around a warehouse, or being straddled in a lift – nightmare.  What I did find though was a map of the Seoul metro system, which although not as entertaining as the viral music sensation, was probably more useful.

Korean business lunch…

Being a geography teacher, I do love an excellently coloured-in diagram, and the Seoul metro map is an excellent example which demonstrates the importance of good colouring-in over actual words or information (in turn justifying many of my lessons), and so with a few traces of my fingers, and by following a few arrows around the station, I made it to the right line, and forced myself to stay awake so I didn’t miss my station again.

When I did eventually find the right station it was almost 9pm and I was ready for a shower and some food.  I bounded out of the station and began the short walk to the hostel I was staying in, and was instantly subject to another sensation completely new to me after so long in the South Pacific – it was FREEZING!  Now after checking the temperature on the internet the next day, I discovered it was, at worst, 12°C – not exactly sub-zero, a fact which does not bode well for my return to UK shores in the midst of December.  I donned my hoddie which hadn’t seen action since October 2011, and my faithful beanie, and marched as quickly as I could to where I was staying cursing my flip-flops and their lack of insulation.

Seoul – flowering with national pride…

Fortunately the BiBim Guesthouse where I was staying was wonderfully warm, as was the welcome by the owners Konda and the excellently named Panda – if you are ever looking for a place to stay in Seoul, check out these guys, you won’t regret it – http://bibimguesthouse.com/ they treat all their guests like best mates, and are a wealth of information about Seoul, the surrounding area, and South Korea as a whole.  During my time there I never once felt I was staying in a hostel or a guest house, instead it felt as if I was just crashing with some of my friends, as was the fantastic atmosphere.

Shower over, I delved into my bag to try and find some clothing that constituted ‘warm’ and came out looking like a ridiculous tropical hiker in my action shoes (without socks), linen trousers, hoodie and beanie.  The cold issue had been dealt with for the time being, so next on the agenda was to find some sustenance, as it had been hours since I had eaten on the plane, and I had heard so much about Korean food that I was desperate to get involved, so I stepped back out into the arctic conditions, and went on the hunt for some food.

Oasis of calm in this Asian mega-city…

One piece of advice I had been given before going to South Korea was to look out for restaurants which had pictures on the menu next to the indecipherable hieroglyphics, giving you an insight into exactly what you are going to be eating.  This is sound advice, but it struck me as a little unadventurous, it’s like wrapping your Christmas presents in cling-film – it totally ruins the surprise, and so I adopted more of a ‘Russian Roulette’ style of selecting dinner – looking at the prices, finding a dish or two which I could afford, and then blindingly firing off my order with an authoritative point as if I was fluent in Korean and knew exactly what would be coming my way – the key to this method is to react with apathetic indifference when your dish arrives regardless of what it is – fortunately my limited drama skills didn’t have to be tested too much, as each time I tried this method, the universe rewarded my bravery with a delicious selection of Korean food ranging from soups and noodles, all the way up to whole BBQ chickens, all of course served with the ubiquitous national staple kimchi – a delicious pickled cabbage which I came to love.

Dubious food abounds in Seoul…

Full of delicious food, and with mixed feelings about having left the Pacific after a year and beginning my journey home, I collapsed into bed and reveled in the novelty of having a duvet over me for the first time since leaving the UK – maybe there is an advantage to being cold.

Initially I was due to have a week in Seoul before heading back to the UK, but not wanting to head straight home (I mean what am I supposed to do between now and Christmas really?) I decided to take my chances and find the cheapest flight to South East Asia I could, and then work it out from there, so after a quick google search and a blur of credit card details, I had a flight booked to Manila in the Philippines, subsequently cutting my already short time in Seoul down to a mere four days, so not wanting to miss out, I got up early and headed out into the city to try and get a feel for this vast Asian metropolis whilst I could.

Imposing statues a reminder of a unique history and culture…

Over the next two days I must have walked marathon distances around the city, and travelled equally far on the ever increasingly straightforward metro system (thanks to the colouring-in).  Walking around the streets of Seoul, I felt like Marty McFly walking around 2015 Hill Valley – everything was so futuristic!  Ok so there were no hoverboards or flying cars, but in their place were giant TV screens filling entire buildings, sleek, silver, modern looking cars, touch screen information booths, and everyone was attached to some sort of smart phone – I realise that this might not sound very futuristic to those of you living in the real world, but when a blender is considered the height of technology in Tuvalu, you realise just how strange this all seemed.

I walked the streets for hours, walking along immaculately clean pavments, and marveling at the towering skyscrapers.  Every now and then I would pass an imposing statue or epic temple reminding me of the incredible culture and history unique to this part of the world, and then there were the palaces – Giant structures built to utter perfection, and still an imposing presence today (if only for the hundreds of school trips rushing around inside each with their own speaker wielding tour guide shouting out facts and instructions) – it is hard to imagine how imposing these palaces would have seemed to a visitor coming from an ancient rural community.

As I walked around, I quickly realized that high on the list of most entertaining things to do in Seoul is to spot hilariously translated signs – I won’t put up all my photos here, or give you too many examples (there are hundreds of websites and facebook pages dedicated to that sort of thing) but by far my favourites were posted in a very cool and trendy cosmetics shop, I’m not sure about you, but I would love a “Radient Glow Face” not too sure about using “Timeless Placenta Bound Cream” though!


I was getting hungry again, and having being told about the famous Dongdaemun market by Panda the night before, I jumped on the metro and headed towards the culinary mecca of urban Korean street food.  I got out at the nearest metro station and trusting my sense of direction (always a good idea), I headed off with purpose to track down some deliciousness.  I had been walking for about 10 minutes when I spied an exceptionally attractive Korean woman get out of a taxi in front of me and start to head in the same direction as I was.  In my mind this could obviously only mean one thing – she was on the hunt for some delicious food too, and so would naturally be heading to the same market!  We were kindred spirits both undertaking that most fundamental of pilgrimages.  Maybe when we got to the market I could buy her a drink, or perhaps a tasty street snack, we could become friends, maybe more – with these ideas running around my head, and so convinced of our joint destination, that I forgot all about my sense of direction, and continued to follow my culinary mews towards the market.

The wonderfully hectic Dongdaemun market…

It was only when I had to sidestep round a rowdy drunk, and avoid a well chewed wad of tobacco from hitting my face, that I realised we weren’t in the normally clean and well maintained streets of the city anymore, instead I found myself on a street that at best could be described as ‘sketchy’ and at worst ‘down-right scary’.  “Not to worry,  just keep walking forwards, and avoid eye contact, and I’m sure it will sort itself out” I said to myself as the cute Korean disappeared into a block of flats, and I rounded the corner only to discover a dirty dead end full or rubbish and a large amount of shifty looking characters.  Now lacking the prerequisite street fighting skills, I decided it probably wasn’t the best idea for me to hang around in this dark corner of Seoul, so adopting as casual a manner as I could muster, I nonchalantly looked into a rundown mechanics shop nearby, adopted a pensive look as if browsing for rusty spare motorbike parts, and then gave a slight disgruntled sigh as if yet again I hadn’t been able to find what I was looking for before beating a hasty retreat, making sure to stay on the opposite side of the road from the angry drunk – I think we can all take a moral from this story!

Playing ‘Russian Roulette’ with Korean street food…

Eventually I got back on track and I found the market, and wasn’t disappointed -the market was a maze of shops and businesses, and along every walkway were hundreds of small stalls run by efficiently wrinkled old women, serving an array of food which defined the word omnivorous.  Along with some of the more expected fare like noodles, wanton, BBQ, and of course piles and piles of kimchi, came other unidentifiable bits of meat, various strange looking fruits and vegetables, and ugly creatures from the deep which would have done better to stay underwater.  Squeezing onto a bench at a nearby stall, I reverted to the tried and tested ‘Russian Roulette’ method of choosing food, and was rewarded with delicious wanton soup, a bowl of slimy green vegetables and noodles , and something which I think once used to be inside a pig…somewhere.  Before leaving and heading back to the hostel, I tired chatting to the old woman behind the stall, but all I managed to say was hello and thank you, she then smiled at me, and told me I had an “Excellent face” – I made a note to stock up with some Radient Glow Face the next time I saw some.

Some things truly are global…

Little did I know that the next day I would have to use my “excellent face” to charm some angry looking South Korean soldiers….but that’s for another blog post!

© Andy Browning 2012

Tofa to Tuvalu

They say 1300 planes take off and land every day at Heathrow airport.  Things in Tuvalu are slightly different.  In theory there are supposed to be two planes a week which means at the gloriously named Funafuti international airport there are about 0.28 planes taking off and landing every day – not exactly a transport hub.  That being said plane days in Funafuti cause a level of excitement which you would be hard to find at Heathrow or any of the World’s other major airports.

My plane on my final plane day…

Plane days are an excuse to finish work for lunch early, catch up with friends, meet returning family members with hugs and smiles, and say goodbye to them with tears and beads.  During my time in Tuvalu around 100 planes have landed and taken off again, and for the majority of them I have joined the locals and watched to see if any exciting people have arrived, and to say goodbye to good friends, some for a couple of weeks, and some unfortunately for much longer.
For the last few months in Tuvalu I have felt like a big fish in a small lagoon.  Walking around Funafuti I recognise most people and most people recognise me, there are head nods, eyebrow raises and “talofas” all over the place.  I know people’s names, I know where to get things, I understand some of nuisances which make day to day life here so interesting, and I have even started to understand the shipping schedule (sort of) – Tuvalu has started to feel like home, I have friends here, sports, hobbies, and a job which gives me the opportunity to really get involved with day to day life.  Unfortunately as I stood in the maneapa and watched for the last time as the familiar red fire engine zoomed up and down the runway blaring the siren, I realised that today’s plane was actually my plane, and its arrival meant that it was time for me to leave.  Immediately I felt like a very small fish indeed.

Will I ever go camping in Tepuka again?

I had packed up my mats and souvenirs to be shipped home, I had given away my spear gun, I had been on my final camping trip, I had said most of my goodbyes, and I had spent the best part of 6 hours trying to cram everything else into my rucksack ready to set off, but I still felt uneasy as the second siren wailed across the usual groups of people who had come to watch what was for them just another plane day.
Standing in the maneapa and watching as the familiar Air Pacific plane screeched down the full length of the runway I was comforted by the fact I was surrounded by friendly faces, friendly faces from the Scouts, friendly faces from the Niutao rugby team, and friendly faces from my palagi friends who had all come to wish me luck on the next leg of my journey.  As is tradition in Tuvalu, when someone you know and care about is leaving on a journey you decorate them with traditional beads made from seeds and sea shells, and as I walked around the maneapa I was humbled by the amount of people who saw it fit to present me with some beads.  Each time one of the beautiful necklaces was draped round my neck the lump in my throat got bigger and higher, I felt my pockets for my sunglasses, not to protect me from the sun, but for the fact I was on the edge of balling my eyes out.

Saying goodbye to the Tuvalu Scout – fantastic young people every last one of them…

I hardly noticed the passengers getting off the plane, but only noticed them as the exited the terminal building, their Tuvalu adventure was just beginning, but mine, with the call of “pasesai pasesai” was almost over.  Just time for  a few more beads, some more heartfelt good byes, some firm handshakes, and some emotional embraces, before I was forced to don my sunglasses, and walk away whilst fighting back the tears, from all the people who had made my time on the island so special.
Walking out of the terminal building towards the plane it started to hit home that this was it, I was expected to get on that plane, and even with my modest fitness level, and the blazing sun, the short walk really wouldn’t take long.  I tried to slow my walk down, everything all of sudden became very important, I looked over at the power station – did I have enough pictures of the power station? What if I didn’t?! It didn’t bare thinking about! I’d forever be trying to remember what the power station looked like, how could I not have taken a picture of this highlight of Tuvaluan culture to remind me of my time here?!  And then I realised that it didn’t really look too dissimilar to other power stations around the world, and besides I’m sure somewhere amongst the thousands of photos I’d carefully backed up there would be a picture of the uninteresting white building.  I breathed a sigh of relief and began to climb the thin metal steps towards the smiling Fijian air steward, I could feel the air conditioning pumping out of the plane, inviting me into its icy grasp, but I didn’t want to cross the threshold.  For the last year of my life I had been living in the sweat box of Tuvalu, and anything else seemed uncomfortable and strange, so I lingered at the top of the steps and looked back towards the airport and the meeting house.  Despite my vision being hindered by the bright sunlight, tear filled eyes, and quite frankly rubbish sunglasses, I saw my friends smiling and waving up at me, and I couldn’t help but smile.  So many memories to call upon, so many stories to tell, each person adding in some way to my Tuvaluan experience, be it the Scouts, the bearded wonder, the Niutao rugby team, my awesome palagi friends, or the old man of Niutao whose conversation skills would wreak havoc in a donkey sanctuary.

Getting beaded…

I knew this was a big moment; this would be my final chance to make a statement, to give a lasting impression, to convey my thanks, appreciation and wonder at having spent a year in this amazing place.  I’m not sure if you’ve ever tried to convey appreciation and wonder in a hand gesture at distance, but it’s not easy, so I opted for an enthusiastic wave, a fist pump, and a double thumbs up to ensure I had all my bases covered.  I took it all in, took a final breath of fresh Tuvaluan air, and then relented to the ticking clock and ducked inside the cabin.
Inside I couldn’t think clearly, the cabin was too small and my bags too big.  The beads around my neck had begun to weigh me down, I couldn’t find my boarding pass stub to find where I was sitting, and the air con was more con than air, so the temperature inside the plane was rising rapidly, whilst my composure was falling at an equal rate.  I shoved my bags in the overhead lockers as best as I could and eventually found my seat (after 2 failed attempts which is impressive considering the size of the plane).  Luckily I found myself sat on the right hand side of the plane so I could wave a final goodbye to my friends as we taxied past the meeting house, and I would have the best view when we eventually took off and headed south towards Fiji.  The engines kicked into life, the large propellers started to turn and the plane shuddered in protest as we began turning and making our way up the tiny runway, sight of so many touch rugby games.  I waved at my friends one last time as we passed the Filamona guest house, I smiled as we past the Governor General’s house, and remembered the day he had given us quiche, and I felt a real pang of sadness as I spied the little yellow boat bobbing around on the lagoon, which had been the facilitator of so many weekend adventures.  We reached the end of the runway and turned around to face the full 1.5km of take off space before the engines revved, and we started moving at a speed which I hadn’t even come close to since arriving.  The buildings on my right hand side tore past in a nostalgic blur: the vegetable garden, the prison, the control tower/gym, TANGO, TuFHA, the power station, the met office, the works department all having added a memory to my experience, and finally as the wheels left the tarmac, we passed the national stadium home to so many memorable rugby and football matches for the Niutao Sharks – mate mo Niutao!

Saying goodbye is never easy, but there is always the next adventure…

And so we left Tuvalu, banked right, and headed south towards Fiji giving those of us lucky enough to have a right side window seat an utterly spectacular view of the island I had become to call home.  As the strips of turquoise and emerald sailed past, no longer were they nameless, generic, tropical beauties, instead, they now had names, they had a history, a future, they had individual features, and story to tell.  There was Tepuka, sight of so many epic camps and fishing trips, further south there were the golden sands of Funafala home to only a handful of families living in the traditional style in an ever increasingly cosmopolitan capital, and lording over the most spectacular views in Funafuti.  There was the uninhabited island which became home for 6 hours when bad weather forced us to tie the boat up and wait.  There was the tiny channel which tested the nerve of even the bravest fisherman and their boating skills.  In the middle of the lagoon there were the reefs of shark attack and spear fishing fame, there was the tree on the pacific side, which served as a shady reading cradle on those quiet Sunday afternoons, and at the far side of the lagoon, the sea weary Nivaga II was limping back into the lagoon through the channel towards the pearly white wharf glistening in the sun, after another trip to those mystical and magical outer islands.

Moonrise on one of my last nights in Tuvalu…

I watched the perfect smears of colour on the otherwise monochromatic ocean through tear filled eyes until they had disappeared, and then I watched them some more until my eyes began to hurt, and then I watched some more.  The cheery Pacific tunes pumping out of the inadequate sound system did little to break the melancholy of the situation.  I longed for an iPod full of Coldplay and Radiohead in order to sufficiently wallow in my emotion – unfortunately my iPod could easily be mistaken for that of a 15 year old angst ridden girl, and so pseudo pop punk and power ballads had to suffice, and so tearing my eyes away from the vast Pacific I put my earphones in, closed my eyes, and tried to sleep so I could imagine myself back on those beautiful islands which will always have a place in my heart.
So to everyone who has made my time in Tuvalu such an amazing experience, Fakafetai lasi lasi it has been a true honour to be part of something so unique, and is something that will stay with me for the rest of my life – this blog post is dedicated to you – Tofa!

The sun has set for me in Tuvalu…but where will it rise next?

I just wanted to take this opportunity to thank all of you who have taken the time to read my blogs, write comments and send me messages.  It really means something to me to know that people are actually reading what I write, and if some people are to be believed are sometimes even enjoying it!  Although my time in Tuvalu might be over, the adventures certainly won’t be stopping there.  I still have plenty of blogs I want to write about Tuvalu, and rather than head straight back home, I’ve decided to make the most of being on this side of the world, and to take a more convoluted route home.  I have really enjoyed writing this blog, and I hope to continue writing about the places I visit and the adventures I have along the way.  So I hope that you will join me,  humour me by continuing to read what I write, and hopefully will still enjoy reading it.  Thanks again guys, and here’s to the next adventure – Cheers!
9th October 2012 Suva, Fiji.

© Andy Browning 2012

Dancing in the Middleton of nowhere

“STRAWBERRIES!” Admittedly they are delicious, but when you are woken up at 6.15am by an old woman shouting it through your window, they tend to lose their appeal.  Bleary-eyed I opened the door and tried to understand why a pensioner was shouting the name of a fruit at me which I doubt has never actually made it to Tuvalu.  Turns out she was head of the “Cooking committee” section of the “Royal Visit Task Force” and she just had to have some strawberries to make the perfect dessert for Wills and Kate.  I tried to ask which traditional Tuvaluan dessert called for strawberries at 6.15am but I don’t think she was impressed, particularly as the Royals were due to arrive the next day, and so she stormed off.  I just hoped it wasn’t going to be strawberries and cream.  I’ve had the “cream” here, and you can imagine being thousands of miles away from the nearest cow, it requires a bit of imagination when eating it.

Ready for the Royals…

This was just the sort of mad panic which had slowly descended on Funafuti in the last few days leading up to the Royal visit.  Despite having months to plan and prepare for the visit, the Pacific isn’t renowned for being good with deadlines, and so everything had been left for the last minute.  Frantic painting was accompanied by manic weaving, frenetic dance practices, and chaotic sweeping giving Funafuti the air of productivity for probably the first time since the last Royal visit in 1982.  All the work was being headed up by dozens of committees with the most specific roles such as “Flower garland making committee” and “School gift making committee” (there were two of these) unfortunately it seemed that instead of actually planning the elements of the visit, the committees were spending more time on coming up with their name, like the delectable “Royal Visit Task Force” and deciding on what colour they should have their matching committee t-shirts.

Despite the last minute rush, exemplified by the main meeting hall being painted literally hours before the Royals were supposed to be arriving, by the time the familiar siren sounded to signal a plane was approaching, Funafuti looked all dressed up, and ready to put on a show for the Royal couple, even in the pouring rain which looked as if it was out to ruin the day.  The private jet which landed looked like bullet and managed to land and stop using only half of the already pretty short runway, taxing around and coming to a stop just in front of the hundreds of excited islanders who had come to watch this very special plane day.

Uplifting welcome to Tuvalu…

Their Royal Highnesses glided off the plane and onto the wooden platform which this time last week was still a pile of wood at the public works department.  The platform was hoisted into the air by a small army of muscular men in traditional skirts, and less traditional white vests or wife beaters (which seems quite apt for a county with one of the highest domestic violence rates in the Pacific).

Middleton was looking elegant in a yellow dress and Wills was rocking the laid back and casual look in a smart suit sans tie – if you were hoping for a more in depth critique of their outfits, I’m sorry to disappoint, but that’s about as detailed as I get, except for that fact they were both wearing inappropriate shoes.  For those of you who want to know more about what they were wearing, check out (What Kate Wore Link) particularly the “young” and “stylish” Scout at the bottom of the article!

The big black cloud which had drenched the crowds just moments before the plane was supposed to land, seemed to have done a loop, and was once again looming heavily over the runway.  Fortunately the jubilant singing and colourfully dressed dancers and dignitaries did enough to keep the melancholy weather at bay, until a less than rousing rendition of the national anthem resembling a forced hymn at a school assembly, seemed to summon the rain and the crowds all dove to safety as umbrellas were rapidly produced for dignitaries, and Wills and Kate were hurried inside the local meeting house or maneapa for the official welcoming speeches.

Kate is escorted to the welcoming ceremony…

We listened through the pouring rain as the grainy microphone transmitted the voices of the prime minister, and governor general welcoming the Royal couple to Tuvalu, and outlining some of the day’s itinerary.  Then Wills took to the stand and gave a well written speech about the special relationship between Tuvalu and the Royal family, before having a crack at some Tuvaluan, which wasn’t bad for a first effort, and seemed to go down pretty well with the crowd.  Whilst waiting for the rain to stop Wills and Kate laughed and joked with some of the grass skirt clad Tuvaluan warriors also cowering from the rain, and seemed happy, relaxed, and professional – you never would have guessed that this was the final stop on a hectic tour schedule after only a few hours sleep the night before and a early flight.

Meeting one of the island chiefs…

The rain began to ease, and so the “wet weather program” was put into action (no doubt argued and arranged by a separate “wet weather committee” with their own t-shirts and group photos). First stop on the itinerary was the local primary school where the young people arranged themselves to make quite a formidable barrier between the Royals and the wet paint which had been liberally applied to every surface the day before to make it look much shinier than usual.

A smile and a nod from the legendary Royal photographer Arthur Edwards who I had met a few months previously told me that Wills and Kate were about to leave the school, and head to the University campus conveniently placed just across the road (The “Primary School to University Transition Committee” Clearly deserved their t-shirts)

Nauti Primary School out in force…

I was politely pushing my way through the crowds (a skill honed on the central line in rush hour) in the hope of a good photo when I was stopped by a voice; “Excuse me are you Andy” said a posh, well clipped English accent which turned out belonged to a tall man in a dapper suit with the grand title of ‘Royal press secretary’.

“We’ve heard a great deal about you” he said reaching over the wire fence to shake my hand at quite an awkward angle.  “Why don’t you come round and say hello” he continued, still holding my hand but no longer shaking it – well you can’t turn down offers like that, so I strode confidently around the gathered policemen, and into the grounds of the University of the South Pacific campus where Wills and Kate were busily chatting to students.  “So you’re the Scout guy then” said the press secretary, who despite being soaked by the earlier downpour, still managed to look pretty suave in his suit.  “Guilty as charged” I replied, which is strange as I have never uttered that phrase in my life, and most likely made me sound like a bit of a dickhead.  “Oh right” said the press secretary clearly thinking I was a bit of a dickhead, “Well have you had a chance to meet the Duchess yet?” My eyes lit up, no, no I hadn’t but I would love to, what an amazing opportunity!  I tried to articulate this, but remembering my “Guilty as charged” clanger, I tried to play it more nonchalantly “Nah not yet, would be cool though I suppose” By now the press secretary had definitely decided I was a dickhead, but fortunately my friend Lizzie from the Foreign Office arrived, and saved me.  We talked logistics and decided that as the visit was currently behind schedule due to the rain, the best time to Their Royal Highnesses would be the following morning before the final fatele in the maneapa.  “That would be amazing!  Thank you so much” I practically shouted at the press secretary whilst shaking his hand far too vigorously.  He seemed to understand my excitement, and casually released his hand from mine and threw me a “See you tomorrow then” before I was asked to leave the University grounds by a policeman who had only just realised that I had walked past him about ten minutes earlier.

Wills getting his feet wet…

The rest of the day was a Royal themed blur, racing my motorbike from location to location, and generally watching Royalty to Royal things, like drink coconuts from the tree the Queen planted during her visit, plant their own coconut trees (presumable for their children when they come and visit in 30 years time), start canoe races, laugh as half the competitors capsized in the large swell, play local sports, meet local children, and take a wander through the Tuvaluan village of local culture where Wills failed miserable to open a coconut (I bet Middleton could have done it!)

It was during their wander through the Tuvaluan village that they came right over to where I was standing and started to chat to some of the young people who were apparently demonstrating the traditional Tuvaluan skill of sandcastle making.  Wills proved himself to be a bit of a pro grabbing a conveniently placed union jack and pushing it into a pretty decent sandcastle, although I think they could have made a bigger one (clearly the “sandcastle and flag placing committee” were too busy deciding what design to have on their t-shirt).  Whilst Wills was playing in the sandpit, Kate wandered up and down chatting to the children, and then as she stood up to go, she caught my eye, looked at me, and gave me a smile which seemed to say “Wow you’re good looking, I hope I get to meet you at some stage” I smiled to reassure her that she definitely would be.

The Duchess – Always smiling…

The day finished with more traditional dancing in the maneapa including a stunning performance from Middleton who really got into the swing of things and was fatele-ing like the best of them, unfortunately for Wills he just looked like someone’s uncomfortable uncle trying to dance at a wedding.

Up close and personal…

Wednesday morning arrived, and I was up early to make sure I didn’t miss my window of opportunity.  I arrived at the maneapa at 7am and was met by the Niutao island community who had already been there for about an hour in order to practice their fatele which was to be the final farewell for Wills and Kate rounding off the visit and hopefully giving them a fond and happy memory of Tuvalu to go home with.  Having spent 6 weeks in Niutao earlier in the year it was an opportunity for me to catch up with lots of friends who had come from the outer islands to the capital especially for the visit, including the larger than life Inaki of Uncle Bulgaria Scouting fame.  He, along with some of the other Niutao Scouts, had been asked to sit in the front row of the fatele no more than 5 metres away from Wills and Kate, and would be the front line of the traditional singing and dancing which they had been meticulously rehearsing for the last few months.  Uncle B was obviously chuffed with his position in the line up and was eager to show me the exact spot he was to be sitting in, so we ducked into the maneapa and sure enough there at the front of the fifty or so gathered men and women already sitting down, was a gap right in the middle ready for Inaki to sit in.

Wills getting his sandcastle on…

As has so often happened during my time in Tuvalu I completely misread the situation, and after a rushed conversation with the community leader it transpired that the space reserved at the front of the maneapa directly opposite the future King of England and his wife, arguable two of the most famous people in the World wasn’t only reserved for Inaki, oh no, it was also reserved for a now very pale looking white guy wearing a Scout uniform.  I tried to play the “official meeting” card, but another brief and much curter conversation with the secretary of foreign affairs made it clear that me meeting the Royals was about as likely to happen as it was for him to grow a sense of empathy and reason, but before I had time to dwell on his petty God-complex, I was sat down with the Niutao community and waiting to perform for Royalty.

Getting ready to dance for Royalty…

The crowds had started to gather outside, all the island chiefs and distinguished guests were sat expectantly inside, and I was still trying to figure out exactly what was going on.  Three shiny new land rovers arrived at the entrance to the maneapa and ejected their passengers into the middle of hushed excitement.  A small cheer erupted from the back of the maneapa as the doors of the final land rover swung open and revealed Middleton once again looking stunning in a summery dress (shoes still totally inappropriate) and Will looking a bit dishevelled and wearing the same suit as the day before – which made me feel better seeing as I was wearing yesterday’s Scout shirt, but then my clothes arrived to Tuvalu in a rucksack, his arrived in a giant private plane, so surely he could rectify that.

Tuvalu Scouts presenting Kate with a Tuvalu scarf…

After shaking the prime minister’s and the governor general’s hands Wills and Kate walked towards the centre of the maneapa and found their seats.  As they sat down, they both glanced towards the front row, and scanned their way along it.  I made eye contact with the future King of England, and although a little confused, he managed a polite smile and a nod, and then it was Middleton’s turn.  I looked at her, she looked at me, and with a flutter of perfect eyelashes she silently said everything that she had clearly been aching to say since seeing me in the crowd the day before.  Although only a few seconds long, that glance spoke volumes, and the subtle quiver of eyelids and pupils told the story: “Hi” she seemed to say “you’re that hot Scout guy from yesterday aren’t you?  I’m so impressed that you have integrated so well into local culture that you have been selected to dance in front of this clearly well practiced group of actual Tuvaluans who know what they’re doing.  If only I had met you before Wills, I’m sure we could have had a long and happy life together, but alas, it wasn’t to be.  Fear not though, as you have my word that as soon as I’m back on the plane I will be texting my sister and telling her all about you, she has a real thing for guys in Scout uniforms and traditional grass skirts you know…”

Now I’m sure to everyone else Kate’s look was the look of bewilderment and confusion as to why a white guy wearing a Scout uniform was sat in the middle of a traditional Tuvaluan dance troupe, but to me and Kate, we know exactly what that look meant.  I obviously tried to respond with my own series of subtle eye movements, saying that I couldn’t wait to meet Pippa so we could all go out on a double date to Laser Quest or something, but then realised that I looked like I was having a seizure so stopped and simply smiled instead.

In a whirlwind of grass skirts the Niutao dancers manoeuvred into a circle around the community leaders who began their haunting chant which was followed by the rest of the group with perfect tone and timing.  Having not been at any of the previous practices and having only a slightly better grasp of the Tuvaluan language than Wills, I struggled to keep up with what was going on.  This was not good, I was supposed to be performing for the Royals, this is probably the only chance I will have to sing and dance in front of a future king, probably, I needed to up my game.  Fortunately there is a high amount of clapping involved in fatele and without wanting to sound arrogant; I am bloody good at clapping.  So that’s what I did, I stopped trying to sing and dance, and proceeded to clap along whilst looking over at Wills and Kate and probably doing a good job of convincing them I was still having a seizure.

The ladies LOVE a man in uniform…

Luckily my clapping didn’t ruin the ambience, and the fatele seemed to achieve what it set out to do, and provided the perfect, traditional end to a Royal visit which even if briefly, put a spotlight on Tuvalu and Tuvaluan culture.  After a final speech from the prime minister the Niutao community (including their palagi imposter) escorted the Royals once again being held aloft on their platform down the runway and back to their silver bullet of a plane.  Wills and Kate were in Tuvalu for less than 24 hours, but the impact of the visit will be felt for a long time.  Throughout the visit they were calm, funny, personable, and professional despite a lengthy tour and the pressures of global newspapers publishing topless photos.  Although gutted I didn’t get to meet them, just being able to witness something so big was an incredible experience, and at least I have Pippa’s number to look forward to when I get home.

*For copies of photos please email andrewjbrowning@googlemail.com*

© Andy Browning 2012

The Whole World’s a Stage…

The lights fade to black, an eerie chanting can be heard as a dim red light illuminates me creeping across the stage, immersed in the role I am angry, frustrated, and out for revenge.  Frantically rummaging through the on stage office set, the classical chorus crescendos, and without warning, an office chair spins round apparently of its own accord revealing, starkly illuminated by a fierce halogen, the truly terrifying vision of my character’s dead daughter – a ghoulish finger is pointed to the drawer of the desk, and opening it with conviction, my character locates the proof he has been looking for, the proof that will prove his innocence and clear his name…

“AND BLACKOUT!” apparently oblivious to the series of horrendous dramatic clichés she had just witnessed, the imitating voice of Ms Cooper, my drama teacher, began to praise our performance saying how she admired its “depth”, although she did suggest that for the final performance we didn’t use as much flour on the ghost, and the scene with the gun might be a bit more realistic if we used sound effects, and didn’t actually shout “BANG”.

The focal point of the only village on NIutao…

I don’t really know why I chose to do drama at GCSE, but ultimately it worked out well, and my performance in our truly awful play “the Green Eyed Monster” somehow was worthy of an A grade.  Being a certified actor opened the door for me to a number of starring roles both at school and the local ammeter dramatics society – playing with conviction such integral roles as the non-speaking childhood friend of scrooge in “A Christmas Carol”, Angry Russian policeman #2 in a “Government Inspector” (Angry Russian policeman #1 went on to star in Eastenders, so I think it’s obvious just how high my level of acting was) and the role of Jem Finch in Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mocking Bird” which was critically acclaimed in the Epping Forest Gazette no less, where I was described as a “competent young actor with a passable southern accent” (Southern as in the American deep south – no one has ever confused me with a northerner)

Unfortunately despite this clearly diverse and complete acting portfolio and my “passable southern accent” I was completely unprepared when I was asked by one of my friends if I would help out the Niutao church youth group by taking part in a play being held at the church that coming Sunday.  It was months until Christmas (which was a shame as I play a very convincing innkeeper #2) so I doubted it was the nativity he was talking about, and so I asked him which play they were doing – “The day of the good news of course” was his reply.  I shook my head and asked for an explanation – I must have missed that week at Sunday school.

The audience, I mean congregation wait in anticipation…

The “Day of the good News” celebrates the day when Christian missionaries from the London Missionary Society first arrived in Niutao, and began to introduce Christianity to the islanders by spreading the ‘good’ news.  Despite there being a perfectly good spiritual and belief system before hand, the missionaries went about their work with ruthless efficiency, persecuting and ostracising those who refused to believe them, so much so that there are still people in Niutao who are shunned by their society today because their ancestors refused to yield to the ideas of the missionaries.

This isn’t the place for a religious and ethical rant, and I would be the first person to stand up for the individual’s right to believe whatever they want to believe, but the idea of forcing a religion on a group of people is so inherently wrong, that I’m amazed it ever really happened, and continues to do so – but that is for another time.

Not wanting to disappoint my friend, I of course agreed to be in the play, and rehearsals started immediately.  I had assumed after hearing the plot (fairly I think considering I was the only white guy on the island) that I would be playing the role of Christian Missionary, and so I had been mentally practicing my posh English accent, and missionarying techniques (strictly in the Biblical sense you understand).  Unfortunately the roles of the missionaries had already been filled, so instead I was to be playing the part of Chief’s bodyguard #2 – perhaps the organisers had seen my great work as angry Russian policeman #2 all those years ago, or perhaps I just have that #2 actor look about me?  My mood improved dramatically when I was told it was a speaking role, but quickly plummeted again when it dawned on me that I would be speaking in Tuvaluan and unless I needed to ask the missionaries how they were, or help them count to ten, I was in trouble.

The missionaries ‘sail’ into Niutao…

After the briefest of rehearsals consisting of me standing next to the guy playing the Chief at the front of an empty room, and not understanding a word that was said, I was deemed ready to perform, and was given a scrap of paper with my two lines on it to go away and learn – there were two days until the performance, I figured learning a line a day wouldn’t be too difficult.

The day of performance was upon us, and as the congregation gathered in the church, myself and the other actors were busily preparing for the performance of our lives in the traditional meeting house next door.  I looked around me at the gathered actors, some going over their lines, some busy putting the finishing touches to their costumes, most catching an early morning power nap, and felt a buzz of excitement – the Chief was looking resplendent in all his pacific regalia, and the missionaries were looking suitably hot and uncomfortable in their shirts ties and jackets.  My initial disappointment at not being chosen to play a missionary had turned into smugness, and I relished the fact I wouldn’t have to sit in a church sweating in a suit that seemed to have been made for a gorilla considering the length of the sleeves.  But of course what goes around comes around, and a sharp tap on my shoulder brought me back to reality as I was handed a traditional grass skirt, a few strips of coloured bark to go round my neck, and a giant spear made from the trunk of a palm tree, and unceremoniously told my shorts were too long, and would be seen under the skirt, so they needed to stay behind and my underwear needed to be rolled up – glamorous.

Wearing my Sunday best…

To add insult to potential injury, arising from using my traditional coconut spear like a lightsaber, Chief’s bodyguard #1 arrived to help me get ready.   With his grass skirt, coloured bark necklace, and coconut spear, Chief’s bodyguard #1 looked like something you’d find in ancient Greece with his bronzed skin, chiseled jaw, and quite frankly intimidating six-pack.  I on the other hand looked like something you’d find in modern Greece – a pasty white guy from Essex with a beer belly trying to look hard – although my beer belly was on account of the Herculean portions of rice I was being forced to eat and not beer – there isn’t any in Niutao.  I reluctantly put on my grass skirt, tied it as tightly as possible, and did my best to match the six pack of my opposite number.  Unfortunately that only lasted as long as I could hold my breath in for, and didn’t look that convincing, so I accepted my fate and along with the other grass skirt clad Pacific warriors headed to the corner of the room where we were to be greased up with Johnson’s baby oil – nothing homo-erotic about that I can assure you, particularly as all I could think about was how on earth a bottle of baby oil managed to find its way here.

The moment of truth was upon us, and like a group of condemned men, we walked in procession towards the church, and up the steps which lead to the side entrance.  The sun was hot and bright, and its intensity on my bare back, magnified by the copious amounts of baby oil all over me, once again reminded me that I was about to walk into a church full of very traditional,  God-fearing people in nothing more than a pair of rolled up pants and a grass skirt.  I was so busy rechecking the flimsy knot holding my skirt up that I barely noticed as the procession shuffled through the door and into the church.

Protecting the Chief like a boss…

When a priest can see your nipples, you know something has gone a little awry.  Fortunately as my nipples and I crossed the threshold into the church, instead of being met with a barrage of angrily thrown bibles and hymn books, I was met with wide eyes, open mouths, and stifled laughter – much better.  I tried as best as I could to avoid eye contact with anyone as I took my place at the front of the church next to the Chief, but avoiding ear contact was much harder and soon the stifled laughter began to become much less stifled, so much so that the hymn that was being sung was abandoned in favour of pointing and laughing at the half naked white guy – I swear I saw two ancient women at the front of the congregation in tears from crying so much.

But the show must go on, and as the excessively loud sound system kicked in with budget wave sound effects (the church is no more than 100m away from the real thing) the congregation were treated to a theatrical spectacle as the Christian missionaries ‘sailed’ up the aisle in a canoe announcing the good news and arriving on the ‘beach’ where they were met by the islanders and brought to the Chief’s hut at the front of the church.

This was it, this was my big moment – the most dramatic part of the story (probably) I confidently strode out of the Chief’s hut expertly miming the low door as I did (it’s all about the detail) I gave the missionaries a cursory glance with a look of cautiousness and intrigue on my face, which I’m sure was conveyed to the audience.  Then in my best Tuvaluan I said the words “Tapu” whilst holding up my hand and then “Sou Kilotu” which roughly translated means – “Stop” and “Yeah you seem like fairly decent guys you can come in if you like, as long as you don’t have a go at the chief alright?”

My award winning performance…

The  missionaries obeyed my instructions, and I followed them back into the Chief’s hut, but my role didn’t finish there – with commitment to my character that De Niro would be proud of, and justifying my GCSE A grade, I bounded up to the side of the Chief and adopted a defensive stance with my coconut spear – what if they weren’t missionaries and enemies from another island instead (is what I imagine my character would have been thinking) and so I put on a mean looking face and pointed my spear menacingly – the stifled laughter began again – Its seems my menacing spear wielding needs work.

The rest of the performance went without a hitch, mainly on account of the Chief displaying excellent slip fielding skills by catching a rogue coconut which was set to upset the whole performance after being held aloft as a gift to the missionaries.  And so, after some prayers, hand shaking, and the symbolic putting down of our spears, the story was over, and the ‘good news’ had been delivered to Niutao.  As the spears hit the ground the congregation erupted into rapturous applause, and as we walked down the aisle towards the midday sun and the Tuvaluan red carpet outside (gravel) I finally broke out of character and managed to smile and nod as the pointing and laughing began again.

Spot the “truthful” Pacific warrior…

Outside the cast and crew posed next to the small concrete obelisk commemorating the building of the church for photos and interviews with the audience, which I have no doubt will somehow find their way on to the DVD extras.  As I posed for pictures looking and feeling whiter than I had in a long time, the priest came and congratulated me on a very “truthful” performance, and complimented me on my menacing spear wielding, although I think he was just being nice.  Before leaving, two of my friends and fellow actors, approached me and asked me for my autograph – I wasn’t sure if they were being serious, and I have to admit that when one of them handed me a rusty nail instead of a pen, I knew something was wrong.  They told me to follow them, and so we headed back into the church and up and old ladder into the church’s bell tower.

Chilling in the bell tower…

Being the highest point on the island, the view outside the bell tower was incredible, but it was the view inside which we were here for and the walls were covered with graffiti depicting names of what seemed like the entire island, with dates going back to the 1950s.  I was struggling to find a spare patch of wall until I looked above me and saw a completely un-sullied plank of wood which had my name all over it, or was about to.  I shimmied up the bell housing, and began to carve my name into the fresh wood.

Tagging wood…

Please with my handiwork, I looked around, and as I took in the best view of the setting sun from anywhere on the island, I smiled to myself and at the knowledge that for as long as the church stands, so will my name, reminding everyone of “That naked white guy with the nipples from church” well it’s always nice to leave a legacy isn’t it?

Sunset from the highest point on the island…

© Andy Browning 2012