This was my entry to the 2011 Bradt/Independent on Sunday Travel Writing Competition. It didn’t win, but I recently discovered that it was longlisted! (And published here!) Such a morale boost – especially as, looking at it now, I can see it definitely ain’t perfect – take the lack of dialogue, or the trying to fit waaay too much into 800 words… But still, I’m pretty pleased with it. Any constructive feedback gladly appreciated…
This is a story of stupidity and luck, youthful foolishness and old-age kindness. I hope you like it but I really really hope that you learn something! Namely, kids: don’t forget your umbrella. It’s all that stands between you and a cheery scene like this:
Dicing with danger in Dali
Some people risk their lives scaling snowy mountains or rafting down rapids. To them I say, anyone can do that. To dice with danger in a laid-back, lakeside tourist trap? That takes a special kind of talent.
Though maybe talent’s not the word.
The day starts so promisingly. I traipse the hectic market of Dali, southwest China, haggling for jade jewellery and watches from Switz Erland in a Mandarin whose only words are numbers. Cobbled streets wind down to a lake that glitters in the baking noon sun – but my friends and I set our sights higher. We head up, up towards the fringe of town where the land shoots into the cloud-capped Cangshan mountains.
At the chairlift, the ticket-seller proffers an umbrella. We look at the sky, and decline.
Our chair sidles up the mountainside, away from the grey stubble of the receding town and over thick, dark forest dotted with graves. We barely register the bruising sky and spiking wind before the rain starts – and then starts to hurt. The tourists that pass us, descending, don’t even try to hide their hilarity: four guys and a girl in shorts and t-shirts, no sweater, mac, or umbrella between them, inching up a mountain in a hailstorm.
We reach the top just as the rain stops, soaked to the bone and a minor spectacle. Those not looking at us peer over the rail of a terracotta-red gazebo at the town far below, spread like crumbs on a corner of the lake’s vast mouth. A tiled roof curves over their silhouettes, its spine spiked with coloured bulbs and its rafters painted with bright, intricate patterns. But at the far end we spot something even brighter – a bonfire.
We fork out for translucent macs in bubblegum colours, hoping they’re somehow cold-proof too, and make for the flames, where we sit devouring noodles in slowly steaming plastic robes. The man opposite me folds his girlfriend a heart from yuan as we shiver and sweat and peel clammy plastic from our saturated skin, hot in patches but mainly very, very cold.
Two hours later and we’re no further from pneumonia, or the chairlift. We decide to walk ourselves warm along the tourist trail, a wide paved path that winds for hours between rock-face and thin air to a chairlift and guesthouse on the other side. (We remember it from the guidebook).
Walking works! Soon our only focus is the breath-snatching scenery of our route: rocks bulging out of the cliff just overhead, mists drifting peak-wards like the spray of broken waves, thin silver ribbons of water dropping off cliffs and down through endless forest, their tumbling amplified by metres – miles, maybe – of rock. There’s man-made marvels too – the duo that speed round border-less corners on a dull metal bike, the lookout-points with their curling-leaf roofs and blue-and-white scenes. ‘Caution, drop down!’ read stone slabs shaped like parking meters near the sheerest sections, the ones where the roots of trees can’t even cling.
We arrive with just enough light to discover the motionless skeleton of the chairlift, and, bizarrely, a giant droughts board splayed with counters, the final moves of a game the giants have abandoned halfway through. What we don’t find are buildings, or people, or signs of life. If the guesthouse exists in our guidebook, it definitely doesn’t here.
To make matters worse, when the sun sets – as it promptly does – the rain arrives, once again. We didn’t bring waterproofs, we didn’t bring guidebooks and we definitely didn’t bring torches – but we did, thank the lord, bring mobiles, and between us have signal and an LED light. Our hostel’s manager recommends retracing our steps to an inn near the other chairlift – so off we set, one phone to guide our way along the smooth, increasingly slippery path.
My friends all think the situation’s hilarious, and for a while their singing mixes with the pelting of the rain. (I’m practically hugging the wall). But it gets louder, and the phone flashes with two stomach-turning words: ‘battery low’. Without light, we’re just sliding along a cliff in the dark.
Then, just as it dies, another flickers distantly. Nearing, we make out a hut, and when we knock, two old women greet us and heap noodles onto plates and blankets onto tables. We sleep in the barn, huddled head-to-toe under a sky of striped tarpaulin, dusty brown bottles and framed calligraphy faintly visible in the dim glow of a bare white bulb. It’s the best sleep ever.
In the next weeks we cross semi-collapsed mountain passes in blind mist and trek along the world’s deepest gorge – which is definitely not paved – but neither scares me like Dali. Some people risk their lives scaling snowy mountains or rafting down rapids – I only wish it were that hard.
This was post was written as part of ’48 hours of blogging for East Africa’, an initiative started by US site The Daily Kos, which aims to use the internet ‘to get as many people as possible talking about the food crisis over the course of this weekend’ – and raise more money in doing so. I’ve already written about the East African food crisis for Oxfam; this post considers it from my own personal perspective. I hope it inspires you to donate something!
As an intern with Oxfam in Ethiopia, I learnt pretty early of the bad drought affecting some southern regions this year. But the first time it really registered for me was a few months ago, when I went to Shinile in the southeast.
I went to learn about Oxfam’s cash for work schemes, which pay poor pastoralists to help construct trenches, dams, etc to protect their pasture so that in future drought years, their animals won’t die and they won’t lose their livelihoods. It was great to hear how the money had been a lifeline for people in the current drought. But something else came through loud and clear – this was no ordinary drought, and, in the escalating situation, our support was no longer enough.
At this point, the drought there was not yet a crisis, and there was still hope that things would get better. ‘We are waiting on the rain’ said Hanura, a grandmother and carer of five. But though it did come in the end, it wasn’t long or heavy enough to change anything – for the cattle, most dead or dying, or their owners, losing their lifeline, their income to buy food, and walking half the day to get water.
On my last day, I’d just finished talking with Hanura when I heard a commotion in the distance – I thought it was a fight. But when my colleague and I approached we found an incredible sight: forty-odd women (and children) standing in a long line, clapping and swaying and chanting our names. They’d come to meet us and thank us for listening to their problems and requests. It was incredible – smiling, joyful people in bright psychedelic robes that dazzled against the pale sand and the pale sky like a vision. And then suddenly it was over, and we watched them disperse into the pale landscape.
I’ll never forget their spirit and energy in the face of hardship many of us could barely imagine. They didn’t want handouts: they wanted us to support them through a situation where they could no longer help themselves. They’d even written petitions, in English and Somali, requesting more cash for work. ‘We need to work, but with the drought there is no rain, no crops to harvest, no food’ said one woman. I left feeling incredibly humbled, but also concerned, at how much our support so clearly meant to them; and both the urgency of conveying their deteriorating situation and fear that doing so might not change anything – that Oxfam might not have the capacity or the resources to give them much more support.
Three months on, so much has changed. The drought has worsened rapidly to crisis point in parts of Ethiopia and Kenya and famine in parts of Somalia, and is now a global news story. Oxfam (and the UN and many other aid agencies) has launched a campaign and a massive response; in Ethiopia, Shinile is a part of it. I think of the line of women thanking us for listening, and am so relieved that it meant something; that their voices have, in effect, been heard by the world, and they’re getting the life-saving support they desperately need.
Three months on, I am also now helping in a more direct way: supporting Oxfam’s drought response in Ethiopia, chipping my own bit off the mountain of work that providing life-saving support on this scale requires. Here in the Addis Ababa office, I’m surrounded by people working an ungodly amount of hours seven days a week, every week, with teams on the ground across the worst-hit areas, giving life-saving assistance to those who need it most: from rural communities to Somali refugees in Dolo Ado refugee camp. Water, food vouchers, cash transfers, water-purifying tablets, latrines, refugee protection, the list goes on. I’ve watched the response gather pace with excitement: one day plans on paper, the next teams of experts arriving in the field, new boreholes meeting thousands people’s daily water needs, 600 tonnes of supplies ariving in Dolo Ado…
Of course with successes come frustrations alike, but the dedication and ability of my colleagues in delivering a complex, logistically challenging and ever-growing response is nothing short of inspiring – though far from unique in those responding to the drought. I only hope that we can all provide enough assistance to the ever-increasing number of people who need it – according to UNOCHA, as of August 2, only 37% of the estimated amount ($398,400) needed forEthiopia has been funded, and only 44% for the Horn of Africa as a whole, with $1.4 billion still needed. This is why donations can really make a difference. And, as I learnt talking to poor families in Shinile: a little really can go a long, long way.
Obviously as an Oxfam employee, I’m somewhat partisan, so not sure I can pick an organisation to send donations to as other #48forEastAfrica bloggers are. So here are links to donate to two:
NB this from the WiserEarth blog (though replace $ with £):
Remember to add $.01 to your donation so it ends up being $5.01, $20.01, $50.01, $100.01, and so on. This will enable Oxfam to keep track of all Daily Kos donations.
More about #48forEastAfrica
The event aims to increase understanding of the causes of the crisis and how problems that include marginalisation, conflict, a lack of investment in small-scale food producers, and a changing climate must all be addressed in the long term
Follow the action at the project homebase East Africa Food Crisis: 48 Hours of Action. Use the hashtag #48forEastAfrica.
Horn of Africa Drought Facts (combined sources from DailyKos)
• More than 12 million people are affected in Somalia, Kenya, Djibouti, Sudan and Uganda
• Nearly half of Somalia’s population is facing a humanitarian crisis – almost 3.7 million people
• Over 2 million children under the age of five who are suffering from malnutrition; 480,000 are severely malnourished
• UN declares famine in two districts- Bakool and Lower Shabelle – in southern Somalia; anticipates spread of famine throughout the entire southern Somalia region.
• Women are disproportionally affected by the drought as they are the last to eat when food is limited.
• Aid response nearly $1 billion short of what is needed
• Immunizations have begun in Daab Refugee camp, where medical teams are in serious need of additional supplies.
• Over $1bn has been committed but a further $1bn is still required to save thousands of lives
The most surprising and amusing part of writing my blog has to be looking at how it’s discovered. I don’t know how Google search algorithms work, and looking at what leads my way definitely doesn’t clarify anything, but I think I like it like that – how for all the searches that match the content of my blog, there’s a big chunk related to it only by a sprinkling of shared words, like star-crossed thoughts colliding vainly in the night. If you think about, there’s something pretty romantic about Google – matching up thoughts, desires, interests over the surface of an unfathomable deep – but sometimes …it’s a really bad matchmaker.
1) things that make sense (…and horses)
The boring but gratifying category of searches I actually want people to find me through – Ethiopian New Year, Addis Ababa stuff, International Women’s Day, the London Underground, etc. Unsurprisingly, searches for the last, particularly on maps and history, send the biggest chunk of traffic my way; Dire Dawa and bajajs (and Dire Dawa bajajs) also feature highly for some reason.
But the single phrase/notion that brings in browsers the most? That’s something I never would have guessed. Turns out there’s an insatiable demand for ‘black horse with white stripe’ and its endless misspelled, odd and overly-specific permutations: black horses with lightning strikes on them (harry potter: the horse years); horses with a stripe-you can only see their face; black horses morgan with white strip (who’s morgan?) etc etc.
Someone should start a website, there’s clearly an unfilled market niche here. Who would have thought that likening myself to a horse would be such a good idea?
2) the slightly alarming
The predictable flipside of writing about Addis Ababa nightlife: the searches for prostitutes (or ‘night girls’, or ‘working girls’ – how strangely coy). Though that someone would feel the need to search for ‘Bole prostitutes’ instead of just walking down any street in Bole any time after about 9pm is beyond me… And though after writing about prehensile penises (penii?), I anticipated a bit of phallus-related traffic, the phrase ‘penis tube’ didn’t come to mind. How intriguing. Also in this category: sexual tube map (erm, what would this entail?), sexual experience underground train, sophie’s world sex scene (…did I miss something when I read the book?), street hookers asia (…really, no idea how that wound up at my blog).
Within this category we also have the slightly-alarming but massive ego boost: the subcategory of searches for my name, and, more creepily, of my name with location/job/other specifics. Who am I kidding, I’m very flattered. Just please, no stalkers…
3) the google lucky dip
Herein the incredibly generic phrases that were directed to the blog god knows why. Of all the websites in the entire world that could cater to your interest in ‘coca-cola’, ‘front of car’, or ‘boys’ (‘boys’!) – is mine really up there?!
There’s also specific phrases which I kinda sorta wrote about… in a totally different context: live match logo of world cup 1994, or underground animals (unless they really were hoping to discover how the northern line looks like a penguin) …or not at all: protruding forehead in children, english country town shop, man running from the scene of a crime, er, minibus with kids next to them in Sheffield (?!)
4) the curious/bizarre/AMAZING
I get so much joy from the fairly large amount of phrases that fall into this category (which is pretty good compensation for my blog’s total irrelevance to most of them). Some favourites:
forged steel sophie moon – no idea what this could mean, but I love it.
sophie and the shadow woods where was the yellow gem hidden? I have spent years trying to think of a good musician name for myself. Sophie and the Shadow Woods …YES! Although it turns out this enigmatic, surreal phrase actually refers to a series of children’s books about a 10-year-old tomboy, so there could be issues around copyright/severely disappointing an army of tweenage girls…
велосипед – a lot more intriguing before Google Translate informed me it means ‘bicycle’
contribution of three wheeler bajaj transport in awassa – beyond its specifity, the fact it appears six times. Well, if you gotta know, you gotta know.
Wolfpeople – ?!
commercials without head underground London – maybe this should go under slightly alarming.
i need the symbol of premier england used on saxophone from the ancient days till date – no. words. (and weren’t saxophones invented, like, last century?!)
how common is indecent exposure on the underground – what is it with the london underground and sex?
guerilla helium balloons – my faith in humanity is totally restored.
Within this category we also have what can only be described as poetry: phrases of vast accidental beauty totally wasted on the philistine mind of Google. But not on me! Undeterred by the total lack of anything but nouns, I’ve made a Google Poem!
Amazing things of world
Sleep in london:
a bright town
a desolate street.
Sand of dire dawa
man walking at the river
addis ababa dusk:
rain street, grass mountains
Chasing style and rail door.
London decay painting:
coca cola neon
– Sophiemcgrath WordPress
Actually, I do get the odd sentence in amongst the nouns – assertions, or better yet, commands. I like pretending that some frustrated soul is hunched over their computer desparate to tell someone, somehow, that ‘London Underground is hell’, or to ‘get in line’, or to broadcast the world-changing revelation that ‘somalis chew chat’. Or, my favourite, cannot contain their passion for a certain city of peeling paint and rugged hills: ‘I love Dire Dawa’. I love that someone loved it so much they typed it into Google, and I LOVE IT TOO!!
5) “things in quotations marks”
OK, I KNOW that these are just a functional way of searching for an exact phrase, but, as this website proves hilariously, the quotation mark has an amazing power to make anything look verrry suspicious. I wonder if the person who typed ‘joy of riding “the circle line”’ is as annoyed as me that it’s no longer a circle. And as for “sophie mcgrath” – nothing like a bit of well-placed punctuation to make you question your own existence.
I can’t work out if these means my attempts at SEO are good or bad – my words attract people, but not necessarily for the right reasons. And if they are bad, do I want to get better? And miss out on a whole bizarre, baffling and hilarious world of searches? …Surely not.
It’s my fourth month in Addis Ababa, and I’ve just stumbled on a cathedral.
I’d been wandering in Kazanches, past bunting trailing from telegraph poles and blankets of chillies drying in the sun, when I heard a shout.
‘Where are you going?’ called a middle-aged man from over a red fence. ‘I will show you the cathedral, it’s up this road.’
And there it is – the must-see I could never find, the last emperor’s legacy, set upon steps and surrounded by trees, all turrets and angels and creamy brown stone.
Inside, it’s beautiful: bright stained-glass tableaux, the emperor’s throne, heaven scenes on ceilings, chandeliers. But it’s nothing on the grounds, a tangle of trees and unlikely scenes.
Untended graves crowd the area, their statues maimed, their letters faint. Rusting cages litter the ground: an angel prays behind bars. Lovers lounge in alcoves, whispering.
Men and women in white shawls sit silently in the shade, eyes on the front façade, as if watching something I can’t see. At the back, a tree heavy with fuchsia flowers leaks the slightest scent into the still, close air. A blue-and-white taxi glints in the sun, Bob Marley’s face sagging on a flag in its window. From somewhere comes the faint sound of singing.
Gravel paths lead off in all directions, to padlocked gates and distant walls. I follow one past trees and over rubble until something small and gold flickers in and out of view. From behind a metal shed the scene edges into sight: a man writing, cross-legged, a candle balanced by his side. The ground around him is littered with paper.
I leave him in peace. There’s more to discover, much more. Elsewhere, an old priest with a contagious smile holds ajar the museum’s splintered basement door and beckons me over with words I don’t know. The musty room’s dim light keeps all to itself but the slightest of shapes – of women, sitting, eating, talking. Their voices are quiet and rough with age.
Behind a wall there’s even a church, bustling with the theatre of worship: figures lighting candles, mounting steps, pressing their foreheads to the circular wall. Some slip coins into bright tin boxes, others stand in twos and threes, their voices mingling with teachers’ exposition.
The setting sun gilts the roof’s fringe of bells, and a slight wind spikes the cooling air. Three girls in Sunday shawls claim the bench in front of mine; their feet move restlessly underneath. The elder two giggle and whisper as the smallest shifts to sit with me, smiling broadly, saying nothing.
This place is like a dream. My eyes catch on everything I pass as I leave, trying to take it all in, but feeling, in this place of chipped graves and faded photos most of all, how little can ever remain.
I pass the men and women sitting silently, eyes on the facade, as if watching something I can’t see. Maybe what’s left is enough. I walk out and don’t look back.
After four months I finally found one of Addis Ababa’s main attractions – Holy Trinity Cathedral, built by Haile Selassie, the last emporer, and his final resting place. As beautiful as it was, though, the little things in the corners and in the shadows, rusting, crumbling, whispering – those are what stayed with me, what made walking away feel like losing something fragile and irretrievable, and what compelled me to write.
That is what this blog is for – to attempt to retrieve something of the magical, beautiful, accidents of wandering around. Addis is a city full of unexpected sights, everyday marvels, secret histories and delicate dereliction. It’s not boring, or a ‘shithole’, as someone ranted at me the other day. All it takes is an afternoon and the mood for adventure to find something that will make your day. It might be something big or something small: a cathedral, or a friendly conversation; a field full of rusting imperial trains, or a minibus with the most bizarre decor known to man. It might be a meadow full of woodsmoke and playing cards, a garden full of life-size pottery animals, a table football match in full swing on a crowded cobbled lane, a procession of children with silk flags, singing…
Stories for another day.
I’ve just got back from the probably the most amazing holiday of my life, travelling the North Ethiopian ‘historical circuit’. As anyone who’s been will appreciate, my photo this fortnight is an absolute no-brainer.
(yeah, so the Photo of the Week thing didn’t work out… let’s try Photo of the Fortnight. Hey, it alliterates, it’s already better…)
10 REASONS WHY THE LONDON UNDERGROUND IS AWESOME Pt 2 (Collective Joy to Cockfosters & Other Curiosities)
So…have I convinced you yet? If you’ve read part one of my post on why the tube is frankly the best thing since the invention of the wheel – that is, if you’ve read about subterranean secrets and tube trains in the sky, flamingos and flirting and poets and puns – and you’re still not convinced (er, whatever), then read on. The tube’s awesomeness has no end…
6. COLLECTIVE JOY!
What a stage of human drama is the tube – from the miserable lows of crushed commuters united only in misanthropy to the gleeful solidarity of flash-mobbing merry-makers, it brings out the best and worst in people.
The best, though, is pretty wonderful – if not weird with it too. Take the annual ‘No Pants Tube Ride’ – one of 40 similar events on metros across the world. You’ve got to hand it to those 100 brave men and women who partook. How this escapes being indecent exposure I do not know…
It’s not all fun and games, though. When Boris Johnson, Mayor of London, introduced a ban on drinking on the Tube, thousands of people took to the tube to see out their freedom in force – half piss-up, half protest. (Tube workers themselves tend to harness its political potential through the opposite tactic – staying away.)
In related topics of Underground joie de vivre, the Tube also inspires feats of charitable dedication, such as attempting to run between all the tube stations (400+ miles) in less than 9 months for a miscarriage charity, like this guy. Awww.
And I don’t just mean Baker Street (groan). The buskers are everywhere – well, 39 designated sites apparently – making all kinds of pretty noise until the wee hours. My favourite is the underpass at South Kensington, for the acoustics, and singing into them when it’s too busy to hear. (One day I’ll busk there. One day). But it’s not just live music you might hear on the tube – some stations, like Ravenscourt Park on the District Line, pipe classical music instead.
I’m not sure which is weirder, the fact the scheme was started to discourage loutish behaviour at tube trouble-spots, or that it actually works – reducing crime by 33% in its trial period, apparently. Music, is there anything you can’t do…
Tube décor is random and wonderful. I sometimes used to imagine I was walking through the brightly-coloured capillaries of a huge porcelain nervous system. (Judging from this map, I’m not alone).
Some of my favourites:
Tottenham Court Road – shiny psychedelic pixel-vomit
Gloucester Road – soft, suave lowlight. This is basically a lounge bar without the bar.
Charing Cross – medieval-style pictures of historical London things! Like going back in time!
Westminster – the closest you’ll get to the Futuristic Zone on Crystal Maze (unless, like my brother, you got to visit it in your childhood. Lucky bastard.)
Once I found myself near Charing Cross with a few hours to kill and an overwhelming urge to nap. Having scoured the bookshops in the vain hope of finding a SINGLE CHAIR (I know, right?), and for some reason oblivious to the plush leather seats freely accessible at the national gallery a stone’s throw away, my weary soul alighted on an unlikely beacon of somniferous solace: the circle line. Safe in the knowledge that it would just keep going round and round, I napped to my heart’s content. (and then woke up at rush-hour in a packed train, taking up two seats. My bad.)
Though, now the circle line’s a mutilated shadow of its former self (see previous post), who knows if you can still ride right round…
10. COCKFOSTERS AND OTHER CURIOSITIES
At university all our ‘bops’ (sigh) had a fancy dress theme. Once it was ‘The London Underground’. There were some great concepts – not mine, I stuck on some wings and came as ‘Angel’ – the best probably a huge, prehensile penis made out of beer cans.
The station? Cockfosters, of course.
I think this aptly illustrates the hilarity and randomness that pervades tube names. Just – why? What HAPPENED there? Also, what did White City used to look like? Why is there a DLR station called ‘Cyprus’? What the hell is ‘Penge’?
At the other extreme is the reassuringly literal: Marble Arch, Monument, Bank. You know where you are with these. If you’re a tourist looking for St Paul’s, no problem (perhaps not quite so easy if you’re after the V&A…)
The names alone are pretty evocative for history-lovers too. Turnham Green – where the Royalists repelled the Parliamentarians in the Civil War in 1642!!! Monument, where 40 years later the dead king’s son built the then-tallest building in London to crown his post-fire city!!! Charing Cross – or Eleanor’s Cross, where Edward I turned his grief into stone. London Bridge. Victoria. Waterloo.
And let’s not forget Grange Hill. TV gold.
Wordnerds/quiz fans should take note, too. Apparently only 2 stations contain all five vowels – Mansion House and South Ealing – and there’s only one without any of the letters in ‘mackerel’ (God knows who and how realised this). This is quite a common quiz question, so maybe I shouldn’t tell you… oh, alright then, St John’s Wood.
This is, of course, less about the Tube and more about London, about England, about English. To contemplate these names is to contemplate the richness and long history of the language, etc etc….
…Cockfosters. You’ve gotta laugh.
Let the music transport you by rd saunders
No Trousers flashmob picture from a great set by Idil Sukan
Balloon animals by Aslef shrugged
Gloucester Road by Tim Carson
Monument stairs by tht studios
Tube tunnel by the amazing MSH*