May 13, 2010

Cairo to London travel details

Ladies and Gentlemen… here is a raggle taggle guide to how we made it home, bus by ferry by taxi by bus. Some of the trips might take you much less time, some might take hours longer. It’s a bonkers, beautiful trip to make; you can’t timetable for some happenings that might happen. But dive in, and enjoy.

29-30th March

Bus Cairo – Taba:

22.00 / 5.00

30th March

Taxi Taba – Eilat

8.30 / 9.00

Bus Eilat – Tel Aviv

11.00 / 16.25

1st April

Tel Aviv – Jerusalem

13.00 / 13.55

Number 21 Bus Jerusalem – Bethlehem

40 mins from Damascus Gate bus station. Bus leaves when it’s full.

3rd April

Taxi Bethlehem – Ramallah

About 1 hour

4th April

Minibus Ramallah – Jerusalem

07.00 / 09.30

(including time getting through checkpoint)

Bus Jerusalem – Eilat

10.00 / 14.52

Taxi Eilat – Taba

1/2 an hour

Minibus Taba – Nuweiba

1 hour

5th April

‘Fast’ Ferry Nuweiba – Aqaba

1 hour (could leave absolutely any time!)

5th – 6th April

Taxi Aqaba – Amman

23.30 – 05.00

6th – 8th April

Damascus – Istanbul

22.00 – 08.30

8th – 9th April

Bus Istanbul – Prishtina

17.30 / 09.40

11th April

Taxis Prishtina – Skopje

11.00 / 12.50

Bus Skopje – Belgrade

13.00 / 20.45

11th – 12th April

Belgrade – Brno

21.30 / 9.30

13th April

Brno – Prague

12.30 / 15.00

13th – 14th April

Prague – London

17.30 / 10.15am

April 14, 2010

The culture shock of coming home. Brno, Prague, London.

In the morning, Rita is gone. We leave her flat for a bus to Prague, where we have two hours to wander.

Prague. We mainly spend our time eating noodles in a Chinese-run traditional Czech pub full of cigarette smoke and Chris Rea. When you’re travelling constantly, cities rushing past you at a rate of three a day, you learn not to try to grab at them. It’s enough just to be stationary, present in one bar for a brief time only. If we were trying to see all the famous towers we’d lose our footing altogether.

We do have a short walk along the river, though: we see boats full of tourists slowly tacking, watched by the statues that guard the rooftops. Buildings are pink and yellow and pale blue. Billy takes black-and-white pictures of their shadows. Turning back to the area around the bus station, we find it full of erotica shops and club posters. A MacDonald’s squats under a flyover.

Time up.

We pick up our bags from the two-woman coven behind the left luggage counter, and take a moment to breathe. This is the last journey on the mission. Here are the people we’ll be spending the next 17 and a half hours with. They’re impassive, a line of shut faces waiting to stow their bags and find their holes.

“Alright mate?”

Nothing.

“Hello?”

Nothing.

Fine. We’ve become expert at shrugging off the human cold. We own the bus. Our seats at least, leathery and reclining. Our humour fills the small space and we settle in for the whole haul, ready as anything. A young woman is looking after us all, she comes down the aisle with headphones and coffee. We sort of make friends. The bus pulls away, through fancy Prague and into the cylindrical world of travel-limbo, that ventilated strangeness of snores and knees and sideways glances.

* * *

I wake rolling over smooth plains, where pylons march jockey-legged against a flat dawn sky. A sign for Dunkirke flashes by, then not long after that a sign for Calais -30km. We’ll be on the ferry soon, I suppose. I look around the coach- the other passengers are slumped in their own unlikely positions, the man to my right with his forehead against the window, jiggling gently. There are only a few of us awake.

“Boozers”

announces a sign on a supershop building,

“The Spirit Of Calais”,

and Calais appears without a word to say for itself, a spread of modern semis with no visible spirit at all.

* * *

I supposed wrong: we’re not getting on the ferry. After our last border crossing, where the French border guards animatedly bad-mouth the British ones, who tiredly wave us through, our bus ramps onto a slot on a train which in turn slides into the Eurotunnel. Within an hour, we’ve got Dover behind us and we’re travelling up the very English M20 to London.

I wanted England to be sunny, all cricket whites and village greens, but it isn’t.  We roll into London under a sky of grey flannel, past Beyonce Hair Salon and a gap-toothed crackhead, who weeps and offers a fistful of cigarettes to a hooded bloke.

Victoria Greenline Station. We emerge from the bus blinking, the last two to disembark. We can’t be arriving yet. Not yet. There’s a fast food place in the station, does it do breakfast? It does breakfast. We order one each, and there we are, sat stunned over plates of beans and chips and tin-tomatoes.

Welcome home.

April 12, 2010

Shouting Yeah at the right moments. Brno.

We change trains in Budapest, eating falafel on the platform and wishing we could go and hear Lucy play her violin.

On the train to Brno, we share a slot with a young family and an IBM worker on his way to Bratislava. The worker lived in Omagh for years and has a strong Northern Irish musk in his Slovak accent. The little girl sings to her Smurf. We’re passing through countries without noticing, in the Schengen now. It’s a relief after the last many borders.

A Tesco sign announces our arrival in Brno, and Rita is waiting on the platform. Her face comes out of the crowd like an old friend, although we’ve never met before. She is American and an expert listener.

Brno. The Old Western World. Where Kosovo was crumbling or newly assembled, Brno is statuesque, ornate pillars and ground that has been paved for centuries. That’s where Gregor Mendel was a monk; there’s where Milan Kundera was born.

We catch a tram to Rita’s place, a cosy, well-lived flat at the top of a building. It’s still morning- Rita cooks us a hearty North American breakfast, which we eat with a special vigour (the vigour of people who’ve lived weeks on falafel and flimsy pizza). Eggs! Bread! Mugs of coffee! We eat until our moods are two sizes larger, and then Rita takes us out again, this time through a city washed with rain. We land at Masaryk University, in a big panelled room where stern-faced professors stare from the wall. The space is huge, and the stage is governed by a lectern. I wonder how many people will come, and how I’ll manage to work a vibe into existence in a lecture theatre. Within an hour, though, the seats are almost all full of buttock, and somehow the gig is working- me slinging rhymes and explanations at EFL students, them shouting Yeah at all the right moments. I get excited. I get the mic lead tangled. I pull the computer monitor off the lectern. Gully.

Afterwards, I’m embarrassed by the number of people asking me to sign things, and more embarrassed by the number telling me they didn’t have a clue what I was talking about. I thought we’d really connected there.

Nonetheless, Masaryk is enthused. Twelve of us sit together in a side room for their weekly Music Group (I’d asked if I could take part), us and Rita singing Woody Guthrie songs in a mostly Czech accent and playing beats with yoghurt pots. The music leads us to a bar, and onto another.

I find these Czech minds honest to bursting. English men are generally ugly, I’m told. English humour is frankly shit, I’m later informed. And this delivered with impeccable hospitality, constant generosity and attentiveness. Tough love.

I go home to Rita’s with a pulse in my temple and a sway in my step.

Thank hiccup.

Thank you Brno.

April 11, 2010

Prishtina to Brno

Leaving Prishtina in the morning, we bid farewell to another set of new friends. To get to Belgrade and then on North towards the Czech Republic, we’ve got a complicated journey ahead of us: because Serbia doesn’t recognise the existence of Kosovo as a separate country, it’s not possible to cross into Serbia from Kosovo without already having a Serbian stamp in your passport. This means echoes of Egypt; we have to take one taxi back down South to the border with Macedonia, cross the border on foot and find another taxi to take us to Skopje for the very-long-cut bus to Belgrade. The second taxi drops us at the bus station with five minutes to spare- we hurry to the ticket office and slap down the money.

“Bus full”

We are told.

“Next one at 5”

Hearts sink. Five is just not possible. Our train from Belgrade to Brno is at 9.30, and the journey there takes 7 hours. If we miss the Brno train, I miss my Brno gig, my final slice of purpose for the last stage of the journey. We plead, and the woman agrees to sell us a 5 o’ clock ticket with a note on the back to the 1 o’ clock driver

“Let these idiots on”

or something similar. We rush through, waving the noted tickets, and find the driver. He doesn’t know the English word for No, but he’s fluent in the gestures. Fuck Off, his arms and face tell us loud and clear.

Bruised puppy, I stand by the door of the bus while he loads the other passengers on.

Fuck Off, says his back.

My spirit slumps, and my face follows. It must be a mask of despair. He turns, closes his eyes, inhales a lungful of pity and says

OK Then

with a swipe of his hand. We blossom into action, swing our bags into the hold and board the bus triumphant. We spend most of the journey cramped into the stairwell, being stared at by an old lady with the most impressive moustache I’ve seen for a while, but we do arrive in Belgrade in time for our train, clutching cold slices of pizza we picked up on the way. I stick my head out of the train window as it pulls away. If I had dog ears, they’d be streaming out behind me.

April 10, 2010

Prishtina, Kosovo

We meet Vigan outside the Grand Hotel, one of the few structures in town that looks solid. He is stubble-chinned and greets us with a generous smile. We’re led through side streets to Tingell-Tangell, one of Vigan’s two bars –I’m booked to play at the other one. It’s the spit of an East London coffee shop, line drawings on the walls and Sugarhill Gang on the sound system. We feel at home and drink our coffee in the sun outside, meeting Vigan’s friends one by one. They’re all artists of some sort, into film or paints or music, wearing cardigans and talking culture. I cast my mind back to images of Kosovo from 90’s news flashes, and it has a hard time finding a place to land.

The old pain is still there, though, hiding in the corners: talk to a Kosovan for five minutes and you will hear a story that aches your heart. One told of his Albanian school being shut down. He and the other pupils were moved to a school up the road, a Serb school- they had to attend at night once the other kids had finished. He was beaten up every day, he said, his nose broken. The Serb kids brought chains and sticks. When the war came, he was a refugee- his father was in the army and wouldn’t follow orders. He describes how it feels to turn on the television and see the names of family members among the newly dead.

Another man says he was stopped in the street by four policemen, who searched his bag. Finding an Albanian language book, they beat him with boots and batons. There was nothing he could do but take it.

This was just over ten years ago, when I was into pills and falling off my skateboard. I’m humbled.

My time in Prishtina is busy; Lara (a friend’s friend who lives here) has set me up just lovely. First is a slot on Urban FM, a local hiphop station manned by Bim, run from the top of a ramshackle house with a punctured van outside. Afterwards, Bim drives me to his mate’s studio at the top of another house, his mate a long tall producer with a mad expressive excitement for his craft. The three of us set to making a tune together, and I find I can write about nothing but Palestine, walls placed to diminish your pride, sticks and stones.

The next morning I go for a run in a park close to the guest house Vigan arranged for us. Kids play with a ball, crisp packets blow through, and I come across a cluster of graves. There must be forty of them, and every single one carries 1999 as the year of death.

Though razor wire lines the cloud and saps its colouring

The music isn’t dying out. In fact it’s flourishing…

We work further on the song that afternoon, and the more I repeat the words I wrote for Palestine, the more they fall for Kosovo.

A young child’s lifetime ago, this nation was subjected to systematic persecution, racism, rape, murder. And still, I’m in a flat with three of its grinning sons, bopping our heads in the universal dance of hiphop appreciation, stating ourselves with equal pride and equal humanity.

… and nothing can stop it. Not a tank, not a government

We do it for the rush and the love of it.

In the evening, I perform at Vigan’s other place, the Tetris bar- jammed full of people, all shouting Yeah at the right moments. Vigan plays Roma music off his laptop, afterwards, and we all dance ‘til we can’t any more.

Kosovo, Pristina. Photographs of men who 'disappeared' during the conflict are pinned on the government gates, to remind politicians of issues that have still not been properly investigated. 2010

Kosovo, Pristina. Children carrying a football walk past the Kosovan government buildings. Pinned to the gates are photos of men who disappeared during the conflict. 2010

Kosovo, Pristina. Shopping for jeans, downtown. 2010

Kosovo, Pristina. Locals buying groceries at the public market. 2010

Kosovo, Pristina. Posters cover a wall in the capital with hateful images of 'Don Anton' - a Catholic minister, originally from Kosovo, whom local people say "compared Kosovans to dogs".

Kosovo, Pristina. Wall of a house in the market area. 2010

April 9, 2010

Istanbul to Kosovo

Our bus is waiting. It’s full of big-faced men from Kosovo, looking tough and joking loudly across the aisles. The atmosphere is good. We leave the vast labyrinth of Istanbul station at 5.
* * *
We’re dumb animals in a clamour of incomprehensible language and occurrences, only each other’s daft humour for company. The Kosovan men look on us kindly with a small amount of condescension. There are two Serbian women on the bus. When we stop for a cigarette leg-stretch they stand apart. Billy teaches them how to moonwalk. They show me phone-videos of them bellydancing, and communicate that they moved to Turkey when the Nato bombing started, and that they think Tito was Very Good. Music, they tell me, music and dancing is everything, it is Joy.
At the border with Bulgaria, the bus stops and stays stopped. The luggage is searched. It’s searched again. We wait for authorization to cross, and watch cars stream through with barely a nod. We move forward fifty yards and stop again for another search and a passport check by guards in green uniforms.
All in all, it takes us four hours to move the 100 metres to Bulgaria. We ask the man in front of us why, and we discover he speaks passable English. It’s because we’re headed for Kosovo, he says, and Kosovo is a difficult place to come from. Kosovan sovereignty is not exactly recognized by Bulgaria, but not exactly not recognised either.
The checks continue all the way through. At a service station, in a lay-by, at the border with Macedonia. We get off, green uniforms get on. We heft our belongings out of the hold, some of the passengers lifting car parts and office chairs onto the tarmac. The green uniforms finish with the bus and start work on the luggage, demanding that bubble wrap is unwrapped and cardboard is cut open. I wonder what they’re looking for. The Kosovans tolerate it all with practiced patience.
Through the green valleys of Macedonia, where plastic bottles bubble in a river, and finally into Kosovo at 9am, green-vallied too and a little bit dirtier. A huge cement factory greets us first, then a procession of half-built houses and pizzerias takes us into Prishtina, capital of a brand new country.
We’re very glad to stand on solid ground.

April 8, 2010

Istanbul

I wake with my leg worryingly swollen. We’ve stopped at a service station outside Istanbul. I jump down from the bus and jog on the spot manically, head full of Deep Vein Thrombosis. I take my socks off, wiggle my toes. My leg returns to something like normal. Back to sleep.

* * *

It’s raining. A commuter bus passes, full of workers with their heads bowed forward, the head of each resting on the headrest in front. At the side of the road, bag-eyed people wait for trams. Europe looms.

* * *

Once we’ve bought our tickets for Prishtina, Kosovo, we head for town. The tram sets us down in Sultanahmet, and we’re in a world of mighty stone mosques and high-price tourism. Away from buses, away from cars, we breathe and rejoice at the collective daftness of tour groups. They put their shoes in plastic bags and wear big grey gowns. We follow them into a mosque, huge and blue-tiled inside. It’s called the Blue Mosque, we overhear. I follow various tour groups, guides speaking French Spanish Japanese about sultans and the Holy Koran. Men have come to pray- they walk a wide expanse of rich carpet and kneel, while the tourists film and take photos from behind the barriers.

Outside, it’s bright. We drink tea in an overpriced café where Hotel California pipes through the speakers, and feel disproportionately happy.

Istanbul, Turkey. Tourist outside an ancient mosque. 2010

Istanbul, Turkey. Outside an ancient mosque, local man Hamdi dresses as a traditional Turkish citizen for the tourists. 2010.

Istanbul, Turkey. Locals mix with tourists holding guide-books and tour-leaders holding flags to signal their presence. 2010.

Above image: Tourists and flag-waving tour guides mix with the locals. Istanbul, Turkey. 2010

Damascus to Istanbul

Still no sleep. It’s four in the morning when the bus arrives at Antakya.

“Out”

Says the driver.

“What?”,

say us.

We have to change buses here, he tells us in an elaborate series of gestures. Shite, say us. We heave our bags into the empty terminal, no idea when the next bus to Istanbul is. The desk for our bus company is unmanned. My exhaustion has reached dangerous levels, and every detail of the world jars my soul. I lay my sleeping bag on the dusty floor and try to sleep. Billy sits up to watch the bags, bless. When the man from the bus company arrives, Billy comes back with a face full of bad news.

“The next bus isn’t until this afternoon”

He says,

“At 3.30”

This flings me into a rage of unreason. I haven’t slept properly for three days, and the thought of twelve hours in Antakya is inconceivably horrible. We’re supposed to be arriving in Istanbul this evening, to stay with a nice woman called Kate. In a bed. I yell at the bus man. I plead with him. I slam his door. I feel like a total nob almost straight away. I go back to sleep.

I wake with a foot nudging my side. You can’t sleep here, a security guard tells me in Turkish. I grunt and move onto the bench. Foot, again. You can’t sleep there either.

Well, anyway. The world seems a bit better now, and Antakya’s not too bad. We board a minibus for town; a very friendly man invites us to his house in the next city; we find an internet café and prepare our lives for coming home.

April 7, 2010

Damascus

One taxi driver steals our biscuits, and another takes us to the bus station. There, two companies offer buses to Istanbul, our next stop. One is a couple of hundred Syrian pounds cheaper than the other.

“Don’t go with them”

The more expensive one advises us,

“they will stop in Antakya and make you pay more”.

The man speaking is slick-haired and overfriendly. I instinctively don’t trust him. But what if he’s right…?

“Don’t listen to them”

The cheaper one warns,

“they telling lies”.

We’re stuck between the price and the risk. Eventually our slick-haired friend lowers his price to match next door’s, and we go with him. He’s excited by my guitar- he play the Oud, he says. A memory stick appears in his hand and we’re hunched over my laptop, listening to flamenco. He gives me folders of music and says I must come to his house at 5.30pm so we can play together. His name is Ma’an, he says.

Although I’m grateful for the music, I still don’t trust Ma’an. Security was breached by the bus dilemma, and I feel like I witnessed in him a sly businessman in action, something I intensely dislike. I say I’ll call him, and Billy and I pocket our tickets and head into town.

Damascus: another loud, busy hub, but somehow different. The sunlight feels older here, and there’s a pedestrian life buzzing in spite of the cars, louder than their honking. Mountains of coffee beans line the market streets; a horse and cart trot through; sellers cry out with capital-city confidence. There’s a darkness, too. On a footbridge, a child sits on a square of cardboard with his small hand outstretched and a frown set in his brow. He can’t be older than four. An older boy in a torn T-shirt watches him beg.

There are a lot of children in the streets here, darting between legs or working on the stalls. Unbroken voices join the chorus of men shouting Coffee, Soap, Walnuts For Sale.

“Super Top Best Hip Hop”

reads a pair of not-Nike shorts hanging at a stall,

“New Game”.

We find the Old City. It’s a jumble of ancient pillars, ancient walls and new tat, bright stuffed toys and bras and brushes. Tourists amble slowly, not looking ahead, while Syrians hustle through fast. There are red and yellow mounds of spices, and brass Aladdin lamps, and a garden with real trees.

It’s been a long time since we saw a garden: the last two weeks have been a parched expanse of desert. We sit in its shade gladly and watch enormous ants exploring a wall. Swallows scoop flies from the air. A river runs by.

Things to do, though: we eat falafel and I get my hair cut by a market barber whose shop hides up a set of stairs. Cigarette smoke wreathes my head as his clippers buzz it tidy. The warm press of the machine shaving my skull and the chanted prayer from the television soothe me into a trance, exhausted as I am. Then he slaps me with cologne, brushes me down and spins me off the chair. That’ll be one pound fifty.

By the time I’ve found an internet café, got the blog half up to speed and looked for presents for Laura it’s long past five thirty, and I think perhaps I’ll call Ma’an after all. It’s half an hour before I find a place that’ll let me call a mobile.

“Where were you? I am waiting at five thirty.”

I hurry onto a minibus and run to meet him outside the bus station. He isn’t there. A group of street kids play with a small digital radio and count at me in English.

“One Two Five Four”

Three Four”,

I correct them and they cluster around me, eager for a lesson. We count all the way up to Ten together, the eldest one bright with pride that he’s managed it. I wonder when they last spent a day in school.

Ma’an arrives, in jeans and a smart shirt with a friend. He’s all smiles, and is so genuinely disappointed that I didn’t come earlier that all my suspicions about his motives disappear.

“It is too late to go to my house now. Let’s get something to drink”

We sit outside a teashop and talk music. Ma’an’s vocabulary comes to life when music is the subject, all Notation and Melody and Tone. A warmth builds quickly between the people of our group, a phenomenon I’ve noticed often when chatting to Middle Eastern men. Friendship is announced and nurtured from the very first, bolstered by smiles and nods and listening eyes. Within minutes we’re firm friends, and within half an hour we’re close to tears at parting. I try to pay for the tea, but Ma’an and his friend physically restrain me and insist on paying themselves.

“It would be shaming for us if you paid, you must understand”.

A sadness of no longer flying is that it’s less likely that you’ll return to wherever you visit; it’s just so much harder to come. But Ma’an makes me promise I’ll come back, and I do believe I will.

Damascus, Syria. Two women in traditional Islamic dress watch pigeons flocking in the square.

Syria, Damascus. Layers of ancient + recent architecture in the Old City. 2010

Syria, Damascus. Anti-Israeli graffiti in the old city. 2010

Images of Damascus..

Here ıs the fırst batch of ımages from Damascus, Syrıa.
…more to come.
Bılly

(CLICK ON IMAGES TO ENLARGE)

IMAGE: Damascus, Syrıa. Crossıng an overpass ın the newer part of town. 2010

IMAGE: Damascus, Syrıa. In and around the old cıty. 2010

IMAGE: Damascus, Syrıa. In and around the old cıty. 2010

IMAGE: Damascus, Syrıa. In and around the old cıty. 2010

IMAGE: Damascus, Syrıa. In and around the old cıty. 2010

IMAGE: Damascus, Syrıa. In and around the old cıty. 2010

IMAGE: Damascus, Syrıa. In and around the old cıty. 2010

IMAGE: Damascus, Syrıa. Dızraelı (AKA Rowan Sawday) gets a haırcut - seen as a reflectıon. 2010

IMAGE: Damascus, Syrıa. In the 'New cıty'. 2010

IMAGE: Damascus, Syrıa. In the newer part of town. 2010

IMAGE: Damascus, Syrıa. Young goldfısh salesman ın the newer part of town. 2010

IMAGE: Damascus, Syrıa. Customer buyıng tropıcal fısh. 2010

IMAGE: Damascus, Syrıa. In and around the old cıty. 2010