Tuesday, 28 April 2009

This is London?

Explain this to me. I make eye contact with the guy sitting opposite me on the tube. I say "Hey, how's it going?" His response? "Don't talk to me." So I don't. We get off at the same stop, get in the same lift, and he starts talking to me again. "You got a problem?" he asks me, like I'm threatening him. I say it's a bit of an over the top reaction to a simple 'hello'. He gets aggressive. I tell him this is his issue, not mine, and walk off.

And everyone I speak to about this goes, "Oh, well, you shouldn't speak to people on the tube, you're lucky you didn't get stabbed".


Sunday, 12 April 2009

Coming Home

If I'd sat down six months ago and made a list, a 5 step plan as it were, of things to avoid doing, so as not to be a gap year casualty, my list would go something like this:

- Don't constantly go on about how people you know 'could really benefit from travelling'
- Don't interrupt with an interesting (but largely irrelevant) story about 'that thing that happened to you in Singapore' (or wherever) when someone is trying to tell you about a current (and highly relevant) emotional trauma they're going through
- Don't carp on about how 'everything's different now'
- Don't tell people you've 'found yourself' (or that you now understand what the whole concept of 'finding oneself' truly means, not on an intellectual, head level, but on an emotional, heart level, or through true experience of the very action of 'finding oneself' itself)
- Don't complain constantly about how it's 'so cold' in this country

So I am definitely, one hundred per cent, without question, a gap year casualty.

It's okay, I'm not too bothered (which would be number six on my list if I hadn't confined myself to just five spaces), it doesn't matter. I'm just glad I'm still wearing socks and have never, ever uttered the justification for my feet smelling that 'that's why they're so far away from your face, innit'. I don't have blonde highlights. And at the very least, I'm still self-conscious enough to put quote marks around the words 'finding myself'.

Still, it's a strange and wonderful feeling to be back. The cloistered feeling that made me leave London in the first place has been replaced by a quiet admiration of it's good points, a ringing condemnation of it's bad points but also a general feeling that this may just be another place, but right now it's the place for me. It's great to be somewhere where there's so much going on, even if I haven't had a second spare since I've been back, let alone an hour to check out all the galleries and shows I want to see.

More to the point, my 'eyes are opened now' (number seven) to what London is like. I never really noticed how unfriendly (eight) and closed off it is. People seem quite lonely here, but scared to break out. Sitting on the tube I said hi to the girl sitting next to me. She practically curled up into a ball and cried. I turned back to my friend. As I left the carriage at my stop, I looked back, and saw her staring at me, this enormous, cheerful smile on her face. She kept her eyes fixed on me, the same open-faced joy on her face, until I was two carriages down and she was out of my sight. Strange as that sounds, stranger was the musician I met the next day who gave me a fake address so I could come and see his band play.



Monday, 23 March 2009

Do these things have to happen in LA, or am I just lucky?

Curious thing. Since arriving in LA I've had the Human League stuck in my head. Maybe because it's a great song, maybe it's because every actor in LA is currently working as a waitress, I'm not sure. It makes for some odd bar chat. My favourite was the girl who plumped herself down at our table as she ended her shift, half mad and ranting from partying too hard the night before, saying she wanted to meet us because she heard we were English. If she wanted to hear our accents, she had a funny way of going about it, she monologued at us for an hour, talking louder every time anyone else opened their mouth and, every so often, letting out a deep bray for no apparent reason.

"I want to write for television. There's nothing intelligent on TV any more, it's terrible."

I squeezed my surprise in edgeways. "Is that true? What about the West Wing or..."

"Oh, yeah, like I've got time to watch for like an hour."

"So you want intelligence but you only want it for five minutes?"

She may not have realised I was playing, but she fixed me with a look brimming with integrity. "Yeah, exactly. That's why I write parodies of adverts."

Apparently this passes the 'intelligent TV' test.

She's not the only curiosity. There was the actor type walking down the street drunk at midday screaming obscenities at his (I'd imagine) perennially suffering agent (not present). I averted my eyes to avoid being hit and as I walked past him he yelled at me, "Why aren't you looking at me?"

I'd be tempted to call that a lucky experience, if the same thing didn't happen another two times before I got back to the hotel.


Friday, 20 March 2009


I knew what to expect from Hawaii. Golden sandy beaches, bronzed bikini babes, muscly hunks showing off their comedy-sized junk in speedos on surf boards and all the dudes, beers, gnarley waves and coconut scented suntan lotion you could shake your long, blonde hair at. After a hard slog across the pacific's remoter islands, I was looking forward to some sunbathing time, a bit of beach chilling and more than a few chilled beers.

If I was disappointed in every single one of these expectations (except for the surfers, who were everywhere), missing out on another beach holiday was made up for by an island which offers some of the most astounding natural beauty I've ever come across. Away from Oahu which, with the exception of the view from the Diamond Head Crater, offers mainly tacky tourist beaches and chilled out surfer towns highly reminiscent (in every sense except for location and climate) of Cornwall, there's a rich variety to see.

Take Maui, one of those destinations - like Bora Bora, Bali or Tahiti - preprogrammed into our cultural consciousness to be associated with words like 'luxury', 'celebrity' and 'wedding'. Yet in a forgotten corner of the island, accessible only via a terrifying narrow winding road that veers round steep cliff faces, followed by a two mile hike through a dense and claustrophobic bamboo forest, stands something truly remarkable, a towering 400ft waterfall that gushes out of the cliff face and into a tiny pool below, where you can shower off in its chill waters and warm back up in the midday sun as you admire the view.

Or the Big Island, from which Hawai'i takes its name, which currently sits over the volcanic hot spot that created the rest of the islands in their turn, before they were dragged away by the Pacific plate and eroded by wind and sea. Here you can view the still smoking crater of the Volcano goddess Pele, or view the red glow of a lava river hitting the sea. Or you can take a car and drive up above the clouds, to the heights of the Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea mountains, until the landscape changes beyond recognition and you find yourself driving among the craters of the surface of the moon, or past Mars' red hills, or further until you see something you'd never expect from the beach vacation destination of Hawaii, thick blankets of snow, marked here and there by the faint tracks of skis.

This may not be the Hawaii I was expecting, but Christ, is it worth seeing.


Friday, 13 March 2009


Once you've seen one island paradise...

The variety in Micronesia is in the nuances, so here is my very handy rundown of what's what in the Pacific.


The world's number one scuba diving spot according to many, the blue wall is supposedly unmissable. Supposedly, because of course we missed it. A Republic in its own right, Palau is the most developed of the truly Micronesian islands, and the natural beauty (particularly in the Rock islands) is unsurpassed.


Yap's sold as the Manta Ray island, but it is also the most traditional island in Micronesia, where women still go topless and tribal huts abound.


I expected American military bases and Japanese weddings, so I wasn't disappointed. Part of America, although I'm not sure what part.


The only island we didn't visit, this is supposed to hold some of the best wreck diving spots to be found - difficult to dive, but apparently worth it.


The largest island in the Federated states by far, the highlight here is above the ground at Nan Madol. An ancient city built in the shallow waters of the coast out of gigantic rock pillars many times bigger than people, nothing about this place is easy to believe. Clamber over ancient tribal resting places and kayak between the ruins and the mangrove forests.


The least developed of the islands. There's some good coral for divers, but the Lelu ruins (in theory the forerunners of those in Pohnpei) are badly preserved, overgrown, and full of trash dumped by passing locals.

So that was Micronesia. Have now crossed the International Date Line and reached Hawaii, so what I think is today is now tomorrow again. Weird.


Wednesday, 4 March 2009


It was Magellan who discovered Yap. According to local legend the word Yap actually means 'oar' in the local dialect (in Yapese the island is known as 'Waw'). Magellan, it appears, was holding an oar up when trying to work out the name of the place, and the confusion has stuck with it ever since. Or so our cab driver tells us as he spits the betel nut he's chewing out of his open window and starts the tricky preparation procedure for his next one, taking his hands off the steering wheel to pour ground up coral onto the betel nut, and wrapping the whole thing up in a leaf. We drift ominously towards a pack of stray dogs in the middle of the dirt road, and I grab my seat instinctively as he pops the nut into his mouth, takes control of the car again and releases a long red stream of spit out of the window. Noticing my concern he gives me a toothy grin, revealing his blood red teeth, stained and whittled down by the habit that's as addictive as smoking and so common on Yap that the airport floor has been painted red, so the spit stains won't show.

"You want one?" he offers.

I take one, as does Alex in the back seat. We prepare the mixture carefully, and I bite into the sour, bitter nut. My mouth fills with fluid, and I start to gurgle red liquid into my hands, like a helpless horror movie victim. The driver laughs and pulls over to the side of the road so I can spit out the juice and the chunks of leaf that are swimming between my teeth. The path is stained red where others have spat before me. I continue chewing, confused as to why people would put themselves through such an unpleasant experience, when I suddenly realise I've been cut off, I'm floating in my seat, a heat spreading around my shoulders and head that I've never felt. Take the first hit of a cigarette after a long abstinence and multiply it by ten, the feeling of release all the stronger but also warming you, and not just in your shoulders and the back of your neck but all over your body. That's what betel nut is like.

It's exceptionally popular on Yap, an island that accomodates modernity into it's traditions, and not the other way round. It is an island of wooden 'men's huts', stone money and bare-breasted women. Much of this is on display during Yap day, an annual celebration which combines ancient tribal traditions, arts and crafts and school sports day. Here you can see local dancing, where a village's women, all dressed in vibrant grass skirts (and topless except for loose decorative necklaces) sit in a line, with the youngest at the ends and the oldest in the middle, and chant ancient stories in a language only they are taught, ornamenting their words with claps, waves and other gestures.

Or you can see the master shipbuilder discuss the history of his craft on the island, and explain how one of the more popular designs came about, created by a boatbuilder to entice his son, who had gone into the woods out of shame about the poorness of his family's boat, back home. Or see schoolchildren compete in games like coconut husking, or mat weaving. Or, most impressively, see the carrying of the stone money, six strong men hulking an enormous round lump of rock along, supporting it on their shoulders with a trunk that's passed through a hole in the middle, like ants supporting a polo with a toothpick.

Then there's the scuba diving, which is what brings most tourists to Yap, and the manta rays. After completing our open water and nitrox training yesterday, we set out for our first proper dive today. Descending into the murky depths we were brought to a cleaning station, where smaller fish clean the manta's large, sleek bodies, and where male mantas come to scope out the females. We find a sandy patch on the ocean floor, so deep we can't see the surface any more, and stare out into the gloom. We don't have to wait long. With the tinkle of a little bell our guide alerts us to the manta's presence. I stare into the green fog, and gradually a dark shape appears, takes on elegant, streamlined contours and emerges gracefully, 10 foot long and smooth as a movie starship gliding through space, stroking its way through the water towards in us. It circled us for a while whilst we admired its contours and smoothness and then, all of a sudden, it was gone, scared off by the arrival of a new batch of divers.

In all we're spending a week on Yap, the longest stop on Alex and my trip together. With its tropical beauty, (so far) perfect weather, amazing wildlife and idiosyncratic culture, that was definitely a good decision.


Sunday, 1 March 2009


Located about a two hour flight from Manila, the Republic of Palau is generally considered to be the number one scuba diving spot in the world. Among the myriad islands and the lush tropical greenery stands a genuine natural wonder, the blue corridor, where divers can be amazed by a stunning variety of fish and coral. Of course, neither me nor Alex knew this when we booked our trip, which is why we only spent 24 hours on the island, unable to do anything except miss out on one of the world's great treasures.

Which isn't to say we did nothing. Palau may be a diving hotspot, but it has a wealth of other sights to enjoy. Our tour took us round some of the best areas to see beautiful coral, incandescent fish and white-tipped reef sharks, which allow other fish to swim mere millimeters in front of their mouths without coming to harm (can't think what the fish are thinking, I kept my distance despite the dubious claims of 'safety').

The undoubted highlight was swimming in the Jellyfish Lake. The experience was more than a little queer, not to mention terrifying. These jellyfish may not be able to sting you, but what they lack in threat they make up for in number. Snorkelling away from the shore, spotting the first miniature orange blob quivering towards me through the lake's murky green clouds, I felt a minor wave of panic. This was the point at which I realised I was more than a little scared of jellyfish, a creature I associate in my mind with disturbing tentacles and large amounts of pain. As more and more of the buggers approached me my panic grew, and I started to contort myself in increasingly frantic ways, desperately avoiding another orange blob as it calmly sauntered past. I was pushing on blindly now, just hoping to get past the wave of creatures, and each messy thrash brought me deeper and deeper into a dense web of them until, with a shot of pure terror, I realised that I could no longer move without being sure of touching one. I seized up, icy cold in the warm salty water, and stared around me. I realised that I was completely trapped, encircled. I surfaced and turned to our guide, panic writ plainly all over my body. She looked at me reassuringly. "Just touch one, you'll see they're fine" she said, and picked up a quivering lump in her hand to show me. So I looked back down and gingerly - oh so gingerly - touched the smallest, most innocent looking baby I could see. It felt like firm jelly. No sting, no blinding pain, nothing to worry about. Still, I wasn't quite yet ready to be won over. I made my way cautiously, experimentally prodding jellyfish of increasing size, each time sure that this one, being larger than the last, was the killer I was sure was lurking in the depths. Finally, with that euphoric feeling of released fear, I was able to appreciate what was around me, a gently shimmering neon orange universe that spread as far as I could see. Without the threat of intense pain, jellyfish become quite sweet to look at. In the dark, moody water they acted as beacons, making the depths seem brighter and prettier. We swam around for half an hour, admiring the colour and the movement, and when it came time to swim back I felt a pang of regret to be leaving.

Despite missing out on the scuba diving, I wasn't sad to leave Palau. Yes, it's incredibly beautiful. Like a lot of places that reach a certain point of popularity with tourists, however, there was a sense of being part of the tourist economy, rather than just a visitor. The tour guides, and a lot of the workers around, were not Palauan but Filipino, brought over to provide cheap labour, and their focus was on making money rather than sharing the beauty of their country. Like parts of Thailand, Bali and Manila, we came away with the definite sense of having been ripped off, prices a lot higher than they should be and the locals all with a keen eye on how to get a bit more cash out of you. Normally I'd say avoid these places - I'd avoid returning to Bali for instance - but even with the cynical attitudes Palau is definitely worth the trip.