Around the World in Street Art: My 7 Super Shots

Last week the Kit from the lovely Seek New Travel blog tagged me to participate in HostelBookers 7 Super Shots.

So here are mine. I’ve chosen a bit of a street-art/graffiti theme and stuck to the suggested titles in only the very loosest of ways.

1. A photo that…takes my breath away

This shot was taken in early 2005, a few months after George Bush had defeated John Kerry in the US Presidential race. It was my first time in the USA and I had hired a monster of a car to drive down Highway 1 from San Francisco to LA. I’d never driven on the right hand side of the road before, or driven an automatic, so large portions of this trip were spent with me trying to navigate roads while not veering into the wrong lane while pumping the Chemical Brothers on full blast. Driving through the university town of San Luis Obispo I came across this stop sign and had to pull over the car to take a photo. As someone who thought Bush was a total imbecile, it was great to come to the USA and see that a whole heap of Americans thought so too.

2. A photo that…makes me laugh or smile

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I found these patterns and paintings down several of the laneways in Jerusalem’s Arab quarter. They instantly made me smile – they seemed so fun and colourful. I asked one of the guys selling coffee next door to this one what they meant, and he told me they were there to commemorate that someone from that house had embarked on the Hajj – the pilgrimage to Mecca which all Muslims are required to make once in their lifetime. I loved that this was an example of ‘graffiti’ being used to celebrate a religious tradition.

3. A photo that…makes me dream

What you can’t see in this shot is that I’m staring at the London Olympic Stadium directly in front of me. I had honestly thought that at this point – July 2011 and a year before the Games – that the stadium would still be long off completion. But it wasn’t. It looked sorted. I was impressed and happy. Meanwhile, behind me is one of Stik’s biggest projects; a huge huge stick man painted on the floor of what was a bit of no man’s land in Hackney Wick. I was there with my friend Heather dancing the night away at a local art and music festival – I don’t think it’s on this year because of the Games.

4. A photo that…makes me think

I was working on a UN event called ‘Cartooning for Peace’ in 2006 when I first heard of Palestinian cartoonist Naji al-Ali, whose work regularly featured the image of Handala, a barefoot child with his back to us, silently watching what’s going on in his homeland. In 1987 al-Ali was gunned down in London; Ismail Sowan was arrested for his murder although it was never clear whether he was acting for the PLO or Mossad – both of whom he admitted working for as a double agent. The image lives on however – it’s painted here on the Palestinian side of the Separation barrier near Bethlehem.

5. A photo that…makes my mouth water

Slightly tenuous, but I was starving when I took this photo. I had just climbed to the top of Lycabettus Hill in Athens – everyone had told me there was a cafe at the top, but no one mentioned how expensive it was. By this point my stomach was really grumbling, but I liked that someone had bothered to draw the words ‘Antifa Hooligans’ on the stone slab – I remembered someone telling me once that this was an anti-fascist football song of some kind. The view was gorgeous, and here I was thinking of anti-fascist football songs. With a rumbling stomach.

6. A photo that…tells a story

This mural is right around the corner from my house and was painted way back in 1985 based on the Hackney Peace Carnival two years earlier. I love it because it has loads of energy – something which the area still has in bucket-loads. Here, Ray Walker’s mural show the community coming together against the bomb and the threat of nuclear war. There are a lot of things Hackney residents come together on here in 2012, but CND isn’t usually one of them.

7. A photo that…I am most proud of (aka my worthy of National Geographic shot)

I’m not sure it’s so much this particular photo I’m proud of – it’s not like the composition or even the subject matter are particularly unique now. I do however like it for personal reasons. While at uni in Bristol we saw Banksy stencils and artwork pop up all over the city, so it was great to see how, ten years later, similar images of resistance and satire were finding themselves on the Separation Barrier between Israel and the West Bank. Quite a long way from the rat stencils he printed outside our local Somerfield.

And now it’s your turn…

Over to you:

>;;;;;;;;;;; Mums Do Travel

>;;;;;;;;;;; LIVE SIMPLY, TRAVEL LIGHTLY, LOVE PASSIONATELY & DON’T FORGET TO BREATHE

>;;;;;;;;;;; Taste of Slow

>;;;;;;;;;;; Hectic Travels

>;;;;;;;;;;; Kendall in Paris

Alternative Athens: Air BnB and Exploring Exarchia

At first glance, Athens’ off-centre neighbourhoods do not look particularly enticing. Beyond the hubs around Monastiraki and Syntagma squares, neo-classical architecture quickly gives way to a mishmash of concrete buildings, narrow laneways and uneven pavements. Add in persistent strikes, protests and the occasional burning building and it’s perhaps understandable that tourists tend to hole themselves at the base of Acropolis in picturesque Plaka and Thissio, conveniently bypassing today’s Athens in favour of the spectacle of millenniums past.

Admittedly, as I’m waiting for the lift in the ubiquitous apartment block near the less than salubrious Larissa train station, there is moment where I too think that opting to stay in the city’s Northern sprawl instead of its Greek island-esque historic centre might not have been the best plan. This doubt lasts for about three seconds however, until the moment Air BnB host opens the door to the place I’ll be staying for the next few days.

The apartment is lovely, and I instantly feel happy to be here. There is a bright open plan living area, floor to ceiling windows and huge terrace all creating a warm and welcoming Mediterranean feel, while the avant-guard fashion photography on the walls looks oddly similar to that in my own Hackney houseshare. The best bit however is Eleni, my host and housemate for the next few days, who is friendly and open, immediately inviting me to make myself at home while handing me a cup of tea and an epic supply of fresh fruit from the local Carrefour. She’s just returned from a weekend in London, so we chat about how the two cities compare (Athens is smaller with better weather, beaches and outdoor cafes. London has better architecture).

AirBnB was perfectly designed for travellers who want to get a local perspective without breaking the bank. To stay in one of the large rooms in Eleni’s apartment costs just £26 a night; a bargain when you think that you not only get a home from home feel but also instant access to insider knowledge. As Eleni talks me through maps of the city, I immediately see how valuable this is in somewhere like Athens, where with the perceived turbulence on the streets it would be easy for visitors like me to play it safe and stick to the obvious tourist areas. However, as we discuss the recent riots, she smiles; “That was just one day! One hour! Those areas you saw on TV – Syntagma and Exarchia – are perfectly fine most of the time! In fact you should see for yourself, walk through them at least – Exarchia is just near here. It’s funny; tourists see that image of buildings burning and think it’s all that Athens is. It isn’t!”

She’s right of course. I’ve done enough of these trips to know that what you see on TV rarely if ever captures the real spirit of a place, and that the crisis points upon which the media so enjoys turning the spotlight are often just one small part of a much more complex picture. Keen to explore this for myself, I pull myself off the sofa and hit the streets, waving goodbye to Eleni as she heads off to work in a local café while I aim myself firmly at Athens’ anarchist hub.

Night Cafe: mkhalili, Flickr

Home to students, artists and activists, Exarchia’s laneways have attracted resistance movements ever since the Polytechnic uprising in 1973 – where twenty four people were killed when military forces stormed the university – in a tank – as activists barricaded themselves inside in protest against the then dictatorship. Walking down Stournari Street and past the uni it’s hard not to be reminded of the blood spilled within its concrete walls in defence of democratic ideals, though it’s also clear that this defiant spirit is still alive and well today as a group of students crouch down on the pavement painting black protest banners with white lettering; Public Enemy blasting out from some nearby speakers.

While locals complain that the area is succumbing to inevitable bohemian gentrification, as a first time visitor to the area it’s hard to see it. I veer left towards Kallidromiou Street the graffiti encrusted walls, crumbling pre-war townhouses and post-war apartment blocks still have an unkempt, gritty feel. And while Exarchia has been described by some as Athens’ answer to Dalston or Williamsburg, it still feels quiet and residential, with bric-a-brac stores, pharmacies and grocers sitting next to occasional vinyl record shops specialising in hard rock and metal.

There is, however, a sense of the usual vintage/art/music scene that you often find in the more counter-cultural, student neighbourhoods, and soon enough I’m in second hand clothes store Yesterday’s Bread – rummaging through nylon dresses and a mountain of old converse trainers while chatting to Charlie, an American student digging through the coats. I ask her about the local art and fashion scene, and while she confirms that there are other areas of Athens like Gazi and Psyrri which also have an urban edge, Exarchia is holding its own. “There’s actually a new arty-style vintage store called ‘Les Broderies Anglaises’ opening up near Exarchia Square next weekend,” she says, holding a leathery-style jacket, “There is stuff going on if you know where to look.”

Leaving several Euros lighter, she points me in the direction of the Pro Art gallery down the road, and after this, several bookshops and a fat chicken souvlaki pita wrap, my post-flight head is weary and caffeine is definitely in order.

Eleni had already told me that putting the world to rights over a coffee is something of a national pastime in Greece, and when I walk into the Floral café on the corner of Exarchia Square, I see what she means. Students are squeezed onto benches piled high with papers, buzzing with conversation and surrounded by hardbacks from the alternative bookstore downstairs. A book called ‘Debt-ocracy’ seems popular, and as I search for a seat and order a double cappuccino, a young guy hands me a leaflet advertising a meeting on ‘fighting the rise of the European dictatorship’.

It’s here that I meet Yannis, a journalist friend who moved to Athens to cover the crisis. We decide to share a fresh Greek salad and as I connect to the wifi and scan the place’s event listings on my smartphone, I note that with everything from live music to political debates Floral seems to be more of cultural centre in its own right than just a café. “This is typical in Athens,” says Yannis, “It’s just like in the time of Socrates. The food and drink is important – and of course it’s excellent – but what Greeks want are places to come together and exchange ideas. Things might be difficult, but this is part of how we manage. Art, debates, music – these things are happening everywhere.”

“Everywhere”, I smile, nodding my head sideways to draw Yannis’ attention to the table beside us, where a group of twenty-somethings are locked in an intense discussion. He gets that my lack of Greek is making eavesdropping a bit tricky, and starts talking to them, presumably explaining that the nosy British girl wants to know what they’re getting so exorcised about. Luckily, this isn’t seen as being particularly rude and a guy with folk trend beard immediately switches into English, “We are talking about food. That with this crisis we need to eat natural things. Not American burgers. Things we make here.”

Again, I smile. After all, beyond its pretty tourist centre Athens seems fairly grey and ever so slightly decaying. And yet here I am, with just one afternoon in Exarchia showing that just through the doors of the shops and cafes there is still an undercurrent of cultural action; new ventures, political and philosophical debates, art, music. That perhaps protest isn’t the only way people are responding to this crisis. And later, when I get my first glimpse of the Acropolis Hill lit up against the dark sky, it’s good to know that however breath-taking the ruins, there is something more to this city than just its past glories.

Featured Image: The memorial to Aleksandras Grigorópulo, by Jose Téllez, Flickr

Five of the Best Cafe/Bars in Athens

Athens is very good at cafes. It needs to be; as my friend Yannis says, Greeks like nothing more than gathering together over a good espresso and putting the world to rights. Which means than not only are there a lot of cafes, but that cafes need to be more than just place to grab a drink and a snack in order to attract the crowds. Cultural centres in their own right, if you will.

It’s also fair to say the lines between cafes and bars are quite blurred in Athens; bright homely places where you might go for lunch and a catch-up seem to transform as the sun sets into dark, atmospheric spaces where the music gets louder and the drinks get significantly stronger. So, for no other reason than because it’s impossible to separate them, I’ve bundled cafes and bars together here.

You’ll see what I mean. Here are my top five.

1. The Art Foundation (website) – Monastiraki Metro

‘TAF’ is a bit of a challenge to find; located around the back of Monastiraki on a small laneway and through what I seem to remember was an unmarked door. This of course makes the whole experience of actually getting inside all the better – the cafe section is set up in a beautiful outdoor courtyard (covered over in winter) surrounded by old townhouses housing art installations, which you are free to wander through while enjoying any number of strong cocktails or a spirit-fuelled hot chocolate. While I was there they were hosting an exhibit called The Blog Diaries, where local bloggers were invited to exhibit work from their personal blogs, but the programme includes everything from theatre to live music.

2. The Black Duck (website) – Panepistimio Metro

A self-proclaimed ‘multiplarte’, the Black Duck is a slightly classier kind of establishment, with a cafe on the ground floor, a restaurant on the first floor and a gallery in the basement. It’s slightly upscale without being in any way pretentious; very much the kind of place you could feel very comfortable spending hours typing away on a laptop, then meeting friends for coffee followed by food and wine from the gorgeous Euro/Greek menu. The filo feta with honey and poppy seeds is definitely worth stopping by for. And like TAF, the Black Duck isn’t short of live music, book tours, poetry readings and intellectual talks to keep you entertained.

The Art Foundation

3. Bliss (website) – Syntagma Metro

Bliss is just lovely; a caring, sharing, brightly coloured, slightly hippish kind of place serving Indian yoghurt, buckwheat muffins and ‘theraputic’ herbal teas. The cafe is a riot of pinks and oranges with tables covered in what seemed to be fruit inspired wrapping paper, while the back section is all big comfy cushions and low tables. They also have a packed seminar programme, covering a huge range of ‘good living’ topics from Mexican cooking to laughter yoga.

4. Floral (website) – Exarchia, Omnia Metro

Housed in a Bauhaus inspired blue building on the corner of anarchistic Exarchia square, Floral is part cafe, part university common room. The place is usually packed with students from the Polytechnic enjoying standard cafe staples like omelettes, crepes and of course good coffee, while the alternative bookshop downstairs gives the place an intellectual vibe. Definitely the sort of place you could feel comfortable sitting in for hours reading Chomsky or Sartre. Again; music, talks, debates. You get the picture now.

5. A is for Athens (website) – Monastiraki Metro

The rooftop cafe/bar at the A is for Athens hotel is quickly getting a reputation among locals and tourists alike as being one of the few places in the city you can enjoy the incredible Acropolis view without spending a fortune or booking a table. That said, by early evening the place is packed, so it’s probably worth going down as early as possible to secure a prime spot. Again, in summer the place is open air, but in winter the temporary roof gives the place a warm and cosy atmosphere.

Photo Credit: Tilemahos_E

Athens Now! Tourist reflections on riots and ruins

Hi everyone, here’s a quick video blog on how things are in Athens right now from a tourist’s perspective. I should say that minutes after finishing this I walked through Syntagma Square and saw the riot police/army gearing up again, so perhaps things are not as quiet as they have first seemed. Also, sorry for the wind / sound quality – what can I say, Athens is windy!
Hope you enjoy,
Kim x

The Intellectual Particle Accelerator that was TEDxManchester

We are 3 talks into TEDxManchester and Tara Shears is giving us a crash course in advanced particle physics. On the screen is a giant animation of particles smashing together in the Hadron Collider at CERN, and she is talking and gesturing enthusiastically about how this is part of the scientific community’s ongoing quest to find that God(damn) Higgs-Boson particle and validate the notion that we might have some kind of a clue what the universe is all about. Because, as Tara explains, without Higgs our theories for the universe simply don’t work. We’re back to square one, or at least in need of a bloody good plan B.

Now I can’t say I completely understood everything that Tara was saying (what is a quark? Anyone?). But I love this. I love that some of the world’s greatest minds have spent decades (and several billion pounds) searching for something that might be nothing more than an idea, all so that we can understand the forces of the universe a little better. Yes, the technology used at CERN will undoubtedly have practical uses at some point down the line, but right now its primary purpose is just to turbo charge global knowledge and understanding about the world around us. It’s purely and simply an exercise in discovery.

Which is probably the same reason why TEDx appeals so much. Like some kind of giant intellectual particle accelerator, this Manchester based event has gathered together a collection of experts from fields ranging from arts, music and philosophy to science, digital technologies and architecture, put them on the stage in Cornerhouse cinema 2, wound them up and let them fly at us.

Mary Anne Hobbs on pursuing your passions

We had Tom Bloxham, standing against a slideshow of some of his massive architectural achievements, appealing to us to stop striving for perfection and make more mistakes. David Erasmus, social entrepreneur extraordinaire, who is intent on changing the world and for whom the word ‘can’t’ simply does not seem to have a place in his vocabulary. Brendan Dawes, whose playful approach to constant iteration and discovery resulted in the creation of his seminal work – Cinema Redux – which is now part of the permanent collection at New York’s MOMA. And Mary Anne Hobbs, reminding us that even living on a bus for a year with questionable sanitation surviving on a diet of chips is no hardship at all if it’s in pursuit of your passions and dreams.

TED might be about ideas worth spreading, but what struck me most about all the talks yesterday was the consistent theme of Action. Do something; even if it means making mistakes along the way. Do something; even if you don’t know if it will work. Do something; as it’s the only way you’ll achieve your dreams. Do something; as that next tiny step might result in greatness. Do something; because things are not ok the way they are, and we can do better.

And, as is the point of these kind of events, I for one left feeling a little more excited and inspired, and a little more ready to take some action of my own.

Thanks for reading. If you’re interested, you can read my reflections on TEDxManchester 2009 here.

Interview: A guide for visiting Palestine

Every day, Fred Schlomka’s Green Olive tour company picks up a car full of Jerusalem tourists and guides them through the Separation Wall into the Palestinian West Bank, visiting refugee camps, social enterprises and – in what’s been seen by some as a controversial move – settler communities.

Having joined one of these tours earlier this year, I recently interviewed Fred to find out first hand why he set up Green Olive Tours, and what he sees for the future of Palestine.

1. So, where did the idea for Green Olive Tours come from?

I launched Green Olive Tours in 2007. For many years I had been organizing specialized tours for two Israeli organizations that I worked for, Mosaic Communities and the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions. These tours were aimed at activists and researchers who came to Israel/Palestine to further their understanding of the political issues here and experience the events on the ground.

I decided to offer these types of tours to a broader public, and include cultural experiences and some more conventional tourist activities. The blend of experiences serves the general tourist public and enables them to go home with a more rounded view of our country.

2. And why was it important to you to set up Green Olive Tours?

Most tour companies offer a ‘Disneyland’ view of the country, from a Jewish or Christian perspective, often excluding information, experiences, and sites that conflict with their worldview. Green Olive Tours tries to offer a more comprehensive experience while gently advocating for a more humanistic and democratic perspective.

The tours serve as a bridge between my political and professional work. Through traveling the West Bank almost every day I am able to monitor the situation and stay in touch with my contacts. Through offering tourists the opportunity to benefit from my experienced guides’ knowledge, and witness the impact of the Occupation, they often are motivated to become politically active when they return home. Some return as volunteers in the organizations we introduce them to.

3. Is it important for tourists to visit the West Bank?

It is extremely important. Most Israeli tour companies offer only limited opportunities to visit the West Bank, often telling their clients that it is too dangerous. However there are many important religious and historical sites in the West Bank, and hospitable Palestinians who are eager to tell their stories. No visit to the Holy Land is complete without at least several days visiting the West Bank.

4. What’s been the hardest part of setting up and running Green Olive Tours?

Lack of capital. We are a ‘bootstrap’ operation and completely self-funded. If there was access to capital then the business could grow faster. However growing in an organic fashion has its benefits. When we make mistakes it is less costly.

Another issue is marketing. All the major tour companies that conduct day-trips have full access to the residents of tourist hotels. Our brochures and flyers are rejected by the mainstream hotels for political reasons, and we are restricted to marketing through the smaller and Arab-owned hotels.

5. What do you think is the main thing that people on your tours get from the experience?

They see the reality of life in the West Bank and Israel, and are provided with enough information to make up their own minds about the issues. People-to-people contact is also much appreciated by our clients. On most of the tours they are able to meet Palestinians and Israelis, have conversations, and often to have lunch with a family.

6. You have recently launched a ‘Meet the Settlers’ tour. Why did you decide to run this tour? Has that been controversial?

The tour was started to give visitors the opportunity to hear from the settlers themselves about their philosophy and reasons for living in the West Bank. Some Israeli and Palestinian activists are critical of this tour. Since the settler/guide receives a fee, they feel that the tour is actually supporting the settlement enterprise.

However on balance I think that it is more important to educate tourists about the settlements than to worry about a few dollars ending up in the hands of a settler.

7. What are your hopes for the future of Israel and Palestine?

My hope is that we all can find a way to live together within a democratic framework. However the present trends of settlement expansion and lack of negotiations does not bode well for the immediate future.

I believe that any possibility for the ‘classic’ two-state solution is over. The idea is a fantasy that the settlers will be removed from the West Bank and a largely Jewish-free state is formed in the West Bank and Gaza. Reality must sink in. There are now over 600,000 Israelis living in the Occupied Territories. I think the best we can hope for is a Palestinian state that allows most of the settlers to remain under Palestinian sovereignty. This will preserve the national aspirations of Palestinians, and the integrity of the state of Israel.  Of course if Israelis are permitted to live in Palestine then Palestinians should also be permitted to live in Israel.

Perhaps a solution like the European Union may emerge – a Three-State Solution, which would put a third government on top of the two states, with a hard external border but a soft internal border.

Thanks to Fred Schlomka and the Green Olive Tours team for this interview. You can find out more about the Green Olive story at www.toursinenglish.com

A Local’s East London Travel Guide

Here is a classic traveller’s dilemma; you want to travel to and experience one of the world’s greatest cities, but you want to see the ‘real’ London/Paris/Istanbul – not the one served up to you by the guide books and the tourist maps.

But when you have limited time, this can be tricky. If you’re anything like me, you can end up spending days on the tourist trail getting slightly frustrated as you just know there are cooler and more interesting places to be spending your valuable time. But without the benefit of a local to show you round, you just don’t know where to look.

So, as I’ve had a few friends travel to London recently asking for tips on what to do and where to go, I thought it was worth putting this wisdom down on paper (or, ahum, wordpress). If you were to ask me to show you around London – this is where I would take you:

Sunday Markets In North East London

If you live anywhere with an ‘N’ or and ‘E’ post code, one of your standard Sunday activities will be meandering (or more likely, pushing through the crowds) along the hipster market trial running from the gorgeous Columbia Rd Flower Market, through Brick Lane‘s vintage clothes stores, grabbing some food from one of the international street stalls around the UpMarket and Truman Brewery, and then finishing up with a more ‘civilised’ meander through the newly refurbished Spitalfields market.

This is one of those experiences which, in my opinion, sums up everything that is awesome about London town – people from all over the world coming together in mild chaos, enjoying great food, quirky fashion, unique architecture and a music festival vibe (helped along by the multitude of buskers playing everything from skiffle music to fleetwood mac). If you decide to head this way, these are just a few things you might want to check out:

  • queuing up for cheap as chips salmon and cream cheese bagels from Brick Lane Bagel Bake (nice blog piece on it here)
  • a dance and a pint on the outdoor terrace at Vibe bar
  • calamari from Lee’s on Columbia rd
  • perusing new music in Rough Trade East

And not too far away…

A night out in Shoreditch or Dalston

It’s fair to say that Shoreditch and Dalston come in for A LOT of criticism (Vice magazine, somewhat hypocritically, captures it perfectly here). On the one hand Italian Vogue is calling it “the coolest place in London”. On the other hand, well, just watch this video:

However, whatever you think about the strange eco-system that is Shoreditch/Dalston, it is, I think, worth a visit. If only to check out the outfits.

It is also an area on contrasts. You could, for instance, have a very classy (and expensive) night drinking cocktails at Collooh Callay, opt for a fun-filled fine old time at one of the quirkier events at The Book Club (life drawing or electro swing anyone?), or jump headfirst into Dalston’s slightly edgier scene at The Nest or Passing Clouds.

Now, it’s worth saying that some people definitely find this part of town a bit intimidating / pretentious. This is completely understandable (and not too far off the mark). However, I would encourage you to instead see it as a place where anything goes; where you can dance until dawn with a red stripe in hand or have peppermint tea and cake on sumptuous sofas at 3am (read this excellent write up on the Bridge coffee house if this appeals. I’ll see you there).

It’s also a place where new bars/cafes/clubs are popping up all the time. With this in mind I must mention my friends at Ridley Road Market Bar, which is down to become the new tip-top place in this part of the world, partly because it’s brilliant, and partly because of Luca’s amazing meatballs. Not a euphemism.

And finally, live music the London way

While most out of towners will have heard of the O2 or Wembley, London has a crazily long list of music venues worthy of a visit. For me, there is no better live music venue than the Roundhouse in Camden. A former steam engine repair shed, the building itself is pretty epic, built in the round (hence the name) with high vaulted ceilings and feeling that wherever you’re standing or sitting, you’re close to the action. If you can’t get into a gig here, they host all sorts of other events from film nights to poetry slams. You won’t be dissappointed.

However, if you’re looking for somewhere where you’ll be guaranteed entry for around a tenner, you could do a lot worse that The Lexington. Not only do they serve the world’s greatest rum, but their bands are always good quality in that ‘not really famous but we have a big muso following’ kind of way, and the bar/pub downstairs has an excellent table football table. Have had some very good nights here.

I could go on an on, but I’m already breaking the bloggers’ cardinal word limit rule. Hopefully that will give you a few sure fire ways to experience a Londoner’s perspective on this amazing city, and if you want any more tips, feel free to post below…

Top 5 Tips for Travelling Solo in Morocco

Morocco is really a pretty safe place for a woman on her own, as well as being a fairly easy place to get around. The buses between cities (supratours and ctm) are a darn-sight better than anything you’d find in the UK, the people in hotels and riads are really helpful and full of advice on where to go and what to do, and it can be really easy to meet other travellers, particularly if you book on a tour or stay in one of the hostels/budget riads (I loved Riad Fantasia in Marrakech and the 3 day group desert tour was brilliant for meeting people).

However, let’s not kid ourselves. There is sadly a bit of a stereotype about Western women which does not do us any favours when it comes to travelling in North Africa and the Middle East. You are female, on holiday, and therefore some men will think it is totally legitimate to persistently try their luck. Therefore, you’re likely to get some attention.

Now, when balanced against the amazing landscapes, great food and incredible value for money, having people regularly approaching you to buy stuff / chat you up might not seem like such a big deal. However, while I should probably have a thicker skin by now, there were times when I did find this attention pretty annoying. Luckily, there are a few simply steps you can take which will help to minimise the attention you get, so you can walk down a street without feeling on your guard and get on with having a wonderful time.

1)      Dress like you live here

Now, I’m not saying you need to don a kaftan. To be honest you’d probably look a bit silly if you did and may actually end up getting even more attention than you bargained for. But I am saying leave the ‘holiday wardrobe’ at home. Those little summer dresses and tube tops might work wonders on the beach, but will turn you into a moving target in the medinas. Jeans / over knee skirts and long sleeved tops / shirts are your best bet; and although t-shirts are broadly ok, I noticed a significant increase in cat calls on the days I didn’t have my arms covered.

You might also want to try out a headscarf. It’s by no means obligatory and many Moroccan women don’t wear them, but it does send a signal that you’re a woman giving (and deserving of) respect, as well as being a fairly useful way of keeping the sun off your head. I got very little chat on the days I bothered wearing one.

2)      If you don’t feel like laughing it off, accessorise

If you can just find it all a bit amusing, then you’re onto a winner. However, for those moments when it gets a bit much, try the following (not necessarily at the same time) : dark sun glasses, ear phones, pretending to talk on your mobile. All of these things send a signal that you’re otherwise engaged and not open to every invitation. Obviously they are not always practical – you’ll look a bit silly wearing your Ray Bans at 10pm – but all can be useful to have on hand if you feel the need to get from A to B hassle free.

3)      Walk with confidence

Being confident and walking with purpose makes people think that you know the city/town well and you have somewhere to be. They can therefore deduce that perhaps you might not be in the mood to peruse ceramics. However, if you don’t know where you’re going it can also be a sure-fire way of getting lost, quickly, so use with caution.

4)      Respond or not to respond

Really this one’s your call. A lot of people will say you should just ignore any advances and keep walking, which works perfectly ok, but to me it just felt a little rude and made me feel even more on guard as the calls of ‘hello, excuse me, how are you?’ followed me down the street in every language known to man.

I found it was better to simply say hello back, to keep on walking, and just say ‘maybe tomorrow’ to whatever request might be presented to me. It felt less rude and sometimes led to some mildly amusing exchanges.

And last but not least…

5)  Go out at night; but stick to the well lit areas

Not so much to do with hassle this one, but really just a note to say you do not need to hole yourself up in your riad at night time just because you’re travelling alone. The main square in Marrakech was as bustling at night as in day time and I felt perfectly fine having dinner on my own in one of its restaurants/street food stalls after dark.

However, I did find it was incredibly easy to meet people in Morocco, whether from your riad or on a tour, so finding a group to go out with was never much of an issue. Plus, most riads will provide an amazing dinner for you, so you don’t need to run the gauntlet if you don’t feel like it.

So finally…

Don’t listen to those people who might warn you off travelling on your own to Morocco. With a bit of preparation and decent a sense of humour, you’ll have a fine old time.

Photo Credit: DavidDennis on Flickr

20 hours in Morocco

Approximately 20 hours into this holiday to Morocco, I’ve gotta say; so far it is a little disappointing. Admittedly, I have spent all of one day here in Marrakech, so perhaps it’s a little early to be passing judgement on a whole entire country. However, I’ve been to enough places to be able to recognise somewhere interesting / exciting / awesome when I see it, and this – so far -is not it.

I’ve noticed that when travelling on your own that the place, and of course the people, have a much greater influence on your experience than if you are travelling in a group. When travelling with others almost anywhere can be fun – even 20 hour train journeys in the stifling heat or days spent stranded in a one horse town waiting for the next bus. Games, conversation and yes even vast quantities of alcohol can be enough to turn the most dire and dull of places into the backdrop for some of the greatest adventure stories of your entire trip.

Travelling alone, you are more reliant on your surroundings to fulfil your trip’s potential. Sometimes this makes for greatness – stumbling upon new activities, making unexpected friendships, meandering at your own slow pace exploring the new, weird and wonderful.

However, for some reason, Marrakech is not delivering. There are some environmental reasons for this. For a start, it is raining. Now technically this is not Marrakech’s fault, but it does make a difference. For years I hated Paris because every time I visited it was constantly damp.

However, the bigger point is that there isn’t really that much to see. Everyone I have asked tells me I must go to the souks or to Jardin Majorelle. I have done both and while they were charming, neither set my world alight.  I thought at least the souks would be exciting; everyone had told me that, as a girl travelling alone, I would be hassled within an inch of my life and find myself crawling out on my hands and knees sobbing and shouting ‘make it stop!’.  The reality? Not one person spoke to me. I was left to my own devices, browsing through scarves and getting lost in laneways without so much as a ‘bonjour’.

Possibly I was overly prepared. After all, I had my darkest sunglasses at the ready, had donned a headscarf and had my earphones in – just as my guidebook had advised. Perhaps my strategy worked too well, creating an impenetrable wall between me and the market folk? Or perhaps the ‘hassle-levels’ aren’t nearly as bad as most people make out? Both are probably true.

What I know for sure though is that, travelling alone, the last thing you want to do is start building barriers between you and the place you’re in. Be careful, yes. But don’t ignore. Don’t be so quick to say ‘no’, or worse ‘go away’ – one of the few phases my guidebook has translated into Arabic, Berber AND French, just in case people don’t get the message.  

So perhaps the reason Marrakech isn’t delivering is because I’m not letting it in? Intriguing. I think it’s time to take off my dark glasses…

The Ahava Protests: A Victory for BDS?

On the sunny April afternoon I’m invited to check out the fortnightly protest against Ahava’s Covent Garden store, it’s clear that this week – perhaps more than most weeks – emotions are running high. It is just one day after the body of peace activist Vittorio Arrigoni was found by Hamas forces in an abandoned Gaza house, allegedly murdered by radical religious fundamentalists, and it’s clear that this tragedy is serving to add yet more fuel to the animosity between the opposing sides gathered here.

I arrive on Monmouth St just after midday to the sound of one of the boycott protesters yelling “fascists” at the Israel supporters. A few minutes later a minor scuffle breaks out, ending with several police officers holding one of the pro-Palestinian activists against a wall while two of the Israel supporters begin shouting “Hamas terrorist” in his direction. Moments later one of them guffaws “Vittorio sleeps with the fishes,” and soon, the handful of protesters on either side of the metal barricade are trading insults; “No Nazi boycott in Covent Garden!” shouts an Israel supporter. “That’s right; go home” retorts someone from the Palestinian side.

Having researched the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement before coming here – a movement that advocates non-violence – I have to admit the level of agitation on display from both groups of protesters takes me aback. While the passion on both sides is undoubtedly emblematic of how much the activists care about the Israel-Palestine issue, at several points the trading of insults between the two groups seems almost comical; at one stage three men stood watching the commotion next to me whisper to one another “is this actually serious?”

And yet, as curious as these scenes might seem to the average Londoner, this is serious. Ahava is the target of this boycott action not simply because it is an Israeli-owned company, but because the beauty products it sells in over thirty countries worldwide are manufactured in Mizpe Shalem, an Israeli settlement roughly six miles inside the Israeli occupied Palestinian Territories. As Rose, one of the pro-boycott activists tells me a little later in a quieter café on Shaftsbury Avenue, “every time someone purchases those products they’re supporting that illegal settlement, and helping to entrench the occupation of Palestine. This conflict does not happen in a vacuum, it persists in part because this kind of economic support from the West.”

And that is the point of the BDS movement – to stop international complicity in the sustained Israeli occupation of the West Bank which both undermines the human rights of Palestinians and holds the region back from attaining a meaningful peace. But more importantly, it wants to remind us that it is a conflict we can do something about, in this case simply by being more conscious about where we shop.

But is it working? The Palestinian solidarity protesters say yes. For a start, just two weeks ago Ahava announced that this particular shop will close in September as a result of the protests which, Rose tells me, the boycotters see as a victory; “this will be one less place taking money from London shoppers and investing it in supporting Israeli settlements”.

What is more significant perhaps is that Israeli authorities are taking notice of this campaign. Last year, Tel Aviv’s Reut Institute presented  a report to the Israeli Cabinet singling out the BDS movement as one of the most significant global forces threatening the security of the Israeli state (something I blogged about at the time). Furthermore, when I asked Omar Barghouti – one of the movement’s founders – about the Reut Report at last month’s 6 billion ways conference, he stated that Israeli authorities had responded by tabling a motion in the Knesset last year stating that any boycott activity targeting Israeli companies should be made illegal. The law hasn’t passed, yet, but with that kind of alarm-bell it’s no wonder some pro-Israel supporters are working hard to fight the movement.

However, when it comes to Ahava, it’s worth questioning whether this ‘success’ is as clear cut as it may seem. For a start, the closure does not reflect a decision on the part of Ahava to pull out of the UK altogether; in this case their landlord has simply decided that the protests are causing too much disruption to the wider area. Ahava may simply relocate elsewhere, which suggests that this is perhaps a somewhat less noble victory for civil disruption caused by the animosity between these two opposing groups of protesters, and not a true signal that the BDS message is succeeding in educating people and affecting public opinion.

Furthermore, as I stand watching the taunting from both sides, I can’t help but think that were the tone of these protests more consistently in line with the reasonable and non-violent aims of the movement, even in these trying circumstances, it might be more successful in doing so. And half way through the protest, something powerful happens which proves this point.

For just one minute, the boycott protesters turn their backs on their pro-Israel opposition and hold silent vigil in honour of Vittorio Arrigoni. The street, previously noisy and chaotic, packed with the sound of offensive jibes and campaigners enthusiastically thrusting leaflets in the hands of bemused passers-by, becomes deafeningly quiet. The Israeli supporters stop shouting, watching the vigil with what seems to be a mixture of interest and confusion, and a group of London shoppers approach a police officer and ask him what’s going on. He explains in hushed tones that people are protesting against Ahava because they support the Palestinians. That someone from the protests was killed in the region, which is why everyone is more upset than usual. And for a moment, it feels like we all get it.

Ahava is important. But isn’t finding reasonable means of educating people about the situation in Palestine, of engaging in intelligent discussion and rising above the knee-jerk reactions that have fuelled this conflict for decades, even more so? Shouldn’t our protest movements reflect this ethos, and not just in words and grand statements, but in behaviour too? I think so. Regardless of the provocation. And particularly when Londoners are watching.