Giving it the beans…

“When you drink a cup of coffee ideas come marching in like an army” (Balzac)

Although I’m not often short of ideas, there is only so much you can do whilst waiting for the visa bureaucracy machine to do its thing, so what better way to pass the time in the Ethiopian capital than to partake in something so ingrained in Ethiopian culture that one is often synonymous with the other – a cup of coffee.

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The bustling interior of Tomoca

Tomoca is famous for being Addis Ababa’s longest running coffeehouse serving the Ethiopian need for quality coffee since 1953; it is frequented by the full range of Addis’ society; young, old, rich, poor, it seems that this coffeehouse with its unassuming, almost sad looking exterior and peeling paintwork is a real leveler, it doesn’t matter what is going outside in the ‘real’ world, inside at the coffee counter everyone is equal.

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The infamous coffee emporium in Addis Ababa…

When we arrived, the coffeehouse was busy and alive with early morning chatter and high pitched clatter, as people gossiped and discussed the day’s news, and tiny glasses wobbled on their saucers.  The atmosphere was thick with the intoxicating smell of freshly roasted coffee beans, which drew me in deeper like a cartoon mouse floating towards a lump of cheese.  The wood paneled interior was dated, and the fading posters on the wall explaining the history and growing regions of Ethiopian coffee could do with an update, but this ‘lived in’ feel gave credence to Tomoca’s heritage, and confirmed that it was the coffee itself, and not the surroundings which is so ingrained in the Ethiopian psyche.

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The retro feel of Tomoca adds to the atmosphere of this place…

Fighting through the crowd to the till at the front of the shop, we paid for two coffees and were handed two square plastic tokens which we handed to the stern looking woman manning the counter next to the overworked coffee machine.  Our plastic tokens were added to an intricate system of endlessly rotating saucers and cups to ensure everyone got their coffee fix.  A perfect line of glass saucers were lined up on the counter, each dressed with a tiny silver spoon awaiting a cup to make the set complete.  The straight line of saucers formed a barrier between the caffeine deprived clientele, and the all powerful servers – different coloured plastic squares identifying the type of coffee that had been ordered flew backwards and forwards as people crowded the counter so as not to miss out on their morning beverage.

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The mystical token/cup and saucer method for serving coffee…

When your drink is ready a tiny glass full of caffeinated nectar is unceremoniously put onto one of the perfectly lined up saucers near your plastic token with a surprising amount of force considering the glass involved, and then it is your responsibility to negotiate the ever mobile crowd with your unsteady, tiny, drink to find a space on the bustling tables – there are no chairs here, so we squeezed in between two old men animatedly discussing the freshly printed newspaper, and prepared for a taste sensation.

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The perfect cup…

Intimidated by the potential strength of the coffee, we began to look around for the sugar, and as if by magic a bowl of the sweet stuff appeared from the crowds being carried aloft by an elderly gentleman in a white coat; this sugar guardian whose sole job seemed to be to redistribute the single sugar pot between the dozens of customers doesn’t hang around, and you have a matter of seconds to combat the bitterness before the man and his sugar dissolved back into the crowd.

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Tiny cup, big flavour, massive poser…

Finally the coffee was ready to be drunk – the flavour was fresh, it was rich, and it was so strong the tiny cups were more than justified.  The sugar offset the bitterness beautifully, and if you have opted for the macchiato, the small amount of milk helps to make the whole experience delightfully creamy – put simply, in my amateur opinion, this is a great cup of coffee.  I would happily stay for another, if only to soak up the atmosphere, but with my body used to the more ‘dusty’ coffee offerings of Tanzanian ‘Africafe’ I decide it’s better for my health if I give it a few hours, and so shuffle out of my place at the table to make way for the next satisfied customer, and vow to return as soon as I have stopped shaking.

Andy Browning © 2016

Following in family footsteps…

They say a picture paints a thousand words, well not this one; after looking at the familiar picture on my grandparents sitting room wall, I was struggling to get into double figures; I had ‘man’ and ‘moustache’ which I had quickly followed up with ‘bicycle’, ‘train’, and ‘silly hat’ (which I was definitely counting as two) but beyond that I was finding it hard to find any words to describe this unremarkable sepia image of a man in a hat – that was until I was told that the silly hatted man in question, was in fact my great grandfather.

The familiar picture which sparked so much…

After discovering the identity of the bicycle wielding moustache enthusiast, the words I had previously struggled with began to appear, only now, they were in the form of questions: Where was this picture taken? How old was it? Why was there a train in the background? Where did the train go? Did the hat have something to do with a bet, or was it a genuine headwear choice? After each question came an answer, and each answer provided new words I could now associate with this increasingly interesting picture, exciting words, previously unheard words, words like ‘Sudan’ and ‘Khartoum’ causing my young eyes to grow ever wider as I began to hear the story of a man who had lived and worked not only in Sudan, but in Egypt, and Kenya, and Tanzania! And he wasn’t alone, because providing me with the answers to my excited questioning was my grandmother, who as a young girl had joined him on his African adventures. 
Growing up, my grandmother was always an excellent source of stories about her time in Africa, stories about her naughty pet chimpanzee, or stray elephants wandering through the garden, and her anecdotes about pharaohs and pyramids brought the warmth and excitement of a far away continent to South West Essex. The places she had lived and visited all sounded incredibly exotic and exciting, as did the journeys she took to get there. Hearing these stories at such a young age must have planted a seed somewhere inside me, a seed which, by the time I was considering places to travel as an adult, had grown into the desire to explore the continent I had heard so much about as a child. My first trip to Africa was a defining moment in my life, and I fell for this beautiful, enthralling, and often misunderstood continent in a huge way – I vowed to return as often as possible so I could discover more of its charms. 

 

Previous trip to Africa, crossing the Malawian border with too much luggage…(Thanks @tommyatkins9 for the photo)

 
Fortunately towards the end of last year I was given an opportunity to return to Africa, and for the the last three months I have been living and working in one of East Africa’s gems. Tanzania has been good to me, it has allowed me to get a better understanding of East African culture, it has once again thrown me into the beautiful chaos involved in even the most simple of tasks, and it has even given me the opportunity to learn some rudimentary Swahili (very rudimentary since you ask!) I have loved my time here (and will hopefully be blogging about some of my experiences) but unfortunately the time has come for me to leave Tanzania, I am currently a week into the one months ‘grace period’ allowed on my expired visa, and so I had begun considering options for onward travel, when I remembered that picture on my grandparent’s wall, and the familiar cogs of adventure planning with the accompanying rush of endorphins began to engulf me, and a new adventure plan began to form. 

A glimpse at what I’ve doing for the last three months… (thanks @medicinthewild for the photo)

 

So what’s the plan?

My plan is to follow as near as possible the route my great grandfather (and grandmother) took overland from the UK to Africa in the 1930s, but in reverse. 

Instead of catching the train to Liverpool and getting on a boat to Egypt, my route will start in Dar Es Salaam (conveniently as that’s where I currently am) and will then continue through northern Tanzania towards Nairobi. From there my great grandfather would have travelled north through what is now South Sudan towards Khartoum – however, given the current security situation in South Sudan, I’ve decided against following his exact route, so instead will circumnavigate the world’s newest country by heading into Ethiopia (a very agreeable detour!) 

From Ethiopia (with hopefully a side trip to see one of the world’s most unique volcanoes) I will get back on the family trail, and cross the border into Sudan, where I will head north west towards Khartoum. From the Sudanese capital I plan to take the train north to Wadi Halfa, on the border with Egypt, and then follow the River Nile north towards the Mediterranean coast, and onwards to Europe and eventually home. 

 

Casual cigarette and monkey pose…


 
Sounds straight forward enough, but there are a few potential hiccups along the way – Ethiopian visas are not available at land borders for example (and apparently they aren’t currently in the business of giving them out to non-residents at their embassy in Nairobi), Sudanese visas are notoriously lengthy to obtain, and all passenger shipping across the Mediterranean from Egypt to Europe has been suspended until further notice due to conflicts in the Middle East, so there is every chance that I will have to get creative with the route (although with neighbouring countries along the way such as Somalia, Eritrea and Libya, my creativity might be stilted somewhat), there is also the very real possibility that my proposed plan will be shot down by bureaucrats and tied up in red tape before it has even really begun; even exiting Tanzania might be a struggle given that there seems to be some ‘inconsistencies’ with the understanding of ‘one months grace period’ between immigration officials, but whatever the final outcome, if I manage to get that far, I hope I’ll be able to add even more words to the familiar picture on my grandparent’s wall, and hopefully take a few of my own, which one day might plant their own seed of adventure.

Andy Browning © 2016 

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…

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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