Tuesday, 28 December 2004

No Joy in Jericho

So the craziness that is my life continues...

This entry comes to you from a little Internet cafe in what is without a doubt the maddest, most fascinating, incredible and most jaw-dropping place I have ever step foot in...Palestine.

In all of my travels, in all of the places I have seen and the people I have met, in all the things I have done, I have never experienced anything quite like the Middle East.

This is truly a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants visit; I have no idea what is going to happen from one moment to the next. Danger is ever present, things are out of control and unpredictable.

Palestine is an insane place of checkpoints, conflict, persecution, anger, religion, poverty and some of the friendliest people I have met. I doubt whether there is anywhere like this on the planet.

I arrived in the Middle East two weeks ago. I flew from London, with an 8 hour break in Budapest, which gave me a chance to explore the city, and arrived in Tel Aviv in the early hours of Thursday morning.

After leaving the airport I grabbed a 'sherut' - a local minibus - and headed to the Fascial hostel in Jerusalem, where I slept for about eight hours, before making my way to Jericho in Palestine.

I am here with a large group of international volunteers to learn more about Palestine, and the conflict, and to help the local farmers and let the Palestinian people know that they are not alone.

These past weeks have proved to be interesting and educational. I'm having problems in my private life at the moment which has made being here difficult but nonetheless when the pain has eased and I remember this visit, I will look back with wonder.

After spending so many months in Belarus, a country most people have never heard of, it's interesting to be in a part of the world that continues to dominate TV news shows and the front pages of newspapers all over the world.

Myself and the volunteers have divided our time between helping the local farmers in their fields, gathering fruit and vegetables, and visiting places of interest in Palestine.

Today we returned from the Dead Sea where we spent a few hours floating on the water, covering ourselves in mud and getting salt in our eyes. A few days ago I returned from Ramallah where I had a chance to visit the resting place of Yasser Arafat.

Later we had a meeting with Saab Erekat, a well known Palestinian negotiator. He was an interesting and an intelligent man and I hung on his every word.

On Christmas Eve we headed to Bethlehem where I was lucky enough to be able to enter the Church of the Nativity. We had tickets for the midnight mass. As much as I hate to say this, I didn't stay for the service. I headed back to my hotel before midnight.

That may be something I regret in years to come. I was in the Church of the Nativity, in Bethlehem, on Christmas Eve, and I didn't stay for the service? But I had other things on my mind (the problems I mentioned earlier) and it was difficult for me to think of or do anything else.

I did get the chance to visit the spot where Christ was apparently born. However, as I have serious doubts about Christ and who he was or whether he actually existed at all, I can't say that I was particularly moved or affected by the experience.

I think the highlight of these two weeks has been simply meeting and getting to know the Palestinian people. They are a very brave, warm, humble and friendly people. They are suffering a great deal, yet they still manage to smile, even when all hope seems lost.

Before I came here, I knew a little about the Israel / Palestine conflict. What I have discovered during these past weeks has shocked me. My disgust towards Israel - and as ever America - increases daily.

The persecution of the Palestinian people is a crime and one that the world continues to overlook. The West takes an interest when suicide bombers blow themselves up in Israel, yet these bombs are a response to Israel's crimes and occupation.

Call these young men and women terrorists, but also realise that Israel is a terrorist state and one that murders people every day. In just the past few days alone around twenty Palestinians have been murdered by Israeli soldiers.

But this is not just about the death count. This is about the daily persecution and harassment of the Palestinian people; from the humiliating checkpoints they have to pass through every day, to the massive wall that is being built around Jerusalem.

A few days ago I visited refugee camps in Bethlehem and Jericho. I met some wonderful kids living there. They showed me around the remains of a house which had been demolished by the Israeli army.

It was heartbreaking to be shown around this house as the children described, in broken English, and in a matter of fact way, how Israeli soldiers had come in the dead of night and ordered the family to leave before lobbing grenades into the house.

No child should ever have to see this or tell a story like that. And yet this is a story that will be repeated until the dream of a Palestinian state is finally realised.

Indeed, being here in Palestine has been an education for me. I leave with a head full of memories and a heart full of emotions.

Certain events replay themselves over in my mind, like working in a farm in the early hours of a sunny morning and hearing the echo of distant gunfire as the Israeli army practised in the surrounding hills.

Or walking through a checkpoint late at night, guns aimed at me, as Israeli soldiers barked orders at me and I tried desperately to understand what they were saying.

Or driving a tractor for the first time. Or touching a camel. Or being treated like a celebrity by friendly and curious children.

Despite my inner pain, which has dominated my every waking moment, these have been a wonderful two weeks and I will miss these people and will return to Palestine again.

Tomorrow I leave Jericho and head to Jerusalem where I will enter Damascus gate and explore the Old City.

Then at 6am on Thursday I head to Tel Aviv for a flight that will take me to London via Budapest (where I have a gruelling 8 hour wait for my connection). I must then catch a bus that will take me to my Mother's house where I will arrive at 7am on Friday morning.

I spend three days with my Mother before returning to London and then catching a flight to Poland on the 5th of January. From Poland I travel to Minsk in Belarus for what will be my eleventh visit.

But before I do any of that, I must bring this entry to an end. I would like to say goodbye to all of the wonderful people I have met here, especially all of the Palestinian volunteers, and to Andrew, Tim, Karen, Miki, Meg, Martina, Hisham, Kristina and Hasan.

This is an Englishman, in Jericho, wishing you peace...

From the memory box of a Professional Englishman.

Tuesday, 23 November 2004

Back in the USSR

A few days ago I found my brother David living in an orphanage in Belarus.

I didn't expect to find him there. It came like a bolt out of the blue, something that I could never have anticipated, and it upset me a great deal. For the first time in over a year and a half I had to fight to hold back the tears.

I was visiting an orphanage in Minsk - where I've worked with children with mental and physical disabilities for over a year - when I met a little boy called Artur, twelve years old, who reminded me so much of my brother David, it was uncanny.

He looked like David, he had the same mannerisms and gestures. David, who is now 22, has not spoken to me for some years. He ignores my calls and my letters go unanswered. David had a very difficult childhood and my Mother often mistreated him or did not give him the affection and love that every child needs.

I too picked up on this and was unkind to David, not as a brother should be, which is probably the single biggest regret of my life.

As a result, David has grown up angry. He has a chip on his shoulder. He has no contact with me or my Mother. He is very much alone.

Meeting this little boy, dressed in old clothes and torn slippers, who tried to impress me with his break dancing, really brought home to me the plight of these children. At the same time it brought back memories of David and for some minutes I was overcome.

It's rare for me to get so upset. Normally I enjoy visiting the orphanage and I have a lot of fun with the kids. I've known most of them for a year, we've forged a bond, and I've come to care about them and I believe that they care about me too.

These kids, and my dear Emily, are two of the things that bring me back to this crazy Soviet republic; a land of milk in bags, speeding metros and general all-round craziness.

I arrived in Belarus almost one month ago after spending a wonderful 2 weeks in Poland. This is my 10th visit. I will leave here tomorrow and head back to Warsaw for a few days before returning to the UK on Saturday, where I will recharge my batteries for two weeks and then hopefully set off on my travels again.

It has been snowing heavily in Belarus these past few days. Minsk looks very pretty today, covered in a blanket of white. Despite plummeting temperatures - a couple of night ago it was six below zero - it's nice to be back here in this wintry wonderland.

Belarus is indeed a strange and incredible place. It has changed little since the collapse of the Soviet Union and is full of old Soviet lorries and statues of Communist heroes.

Many Belorussian people - including Emily, who is only 27 - look back on the Soviet period as a golden era, when life was simpler and problems were few. Lukashenko takes advantage of this nostalgia, which has probably helped him to remain in power for so long.

The Belorussian people themselves are very nice, very hospitable and very friendly. They are always kind to me, and Emily has as ever been simply wonderful. But there is a lack of common sense here, an absence of logic, that often irritates the hell out of me and sometimes just drives me mad.

Take today for example. I was walking down the main high street in Minsk, picking my nose, minding my own business, when I turned round to see a tractor rapidly approaching me. On the pavement.

The driver made no attempt to slow down, he was too busy concentrating on the snow that he was meant to be clearing. I moved to let him pass and watched, in amazement, as children went running for cover and elderly women dived out of his way.

The crazy thing is that at the time it was snowing heavily, and less than an hour later the pavement was once again deep with snow. (Maybe next time they'll use two tractors?)

This is just one example of the craziness of this country. I've given many more examples in my other entries from Belarus. Common sense still hasn't been able to get a visa for this country.

But if you can learn to live with - or at least tolerate - the killer tractors, the milk in bags, the speeding drivers, the speeding metros and the bowel busting food, it's possible to have a very nice time here, simply because the people are so wonderful, and unlike any I have met before.

I've noticed that my life kind of grinds to a halt while I'm in Belarus. When I visit other countries I get out a lot and visit new places.

But here my life revolves around Emily, Patio Pizza (my favourite restaurant in the world, and one of only a handful of good restaurants in Belarus) and visiting the kids in the orphanage.

Still, I do enjoy my time here, and I will at some point return to Belarus, though I have no idea when. For now there are other places to see, other people to meet, and it's time once again to leave this wintry wonderland behind and head to pastures new.

I will write to you again as my travels continue.

Until then, it's time to say goodbye to Minsk, goodbye to my angel Emily, to Artur and all of the children I know and love here.

This is an Englishman, leaving the USSR, wishing you well.

Take care Belarus. Take care Emily. Take care David.

From the memory box of a Professional Englishman.

P.S. Emily has asked me to make it clear that she in no way shares my opinion about the craziness of this country. She doesn't believe it's crazy at all. Which only goes to prove my point...!

Thursday, 28 October 2004

The Children of Chudobczyce

Last Monday I travelled backwards in time.

I slipped through a crevice in the space-time continuum and found myself in a long forgotten place inhabited by long forgotten people.

A place called Chudobczyce...

On Saturday I left behind the comfort of Nathan's Villa and the hustle and bustle of Warsaw and travelled to a small city called Poznan.

Poznan is a beautiful city. My guide for the two days I was there was a Polish girl called Dominika. On Monday I left Poznan and boarded my time-machine - in this case a small Polish bus - and began to make my way through the villages and countryside of Poland.

Civilisation fell away...my watch began spinning wildly in the wrong direction...the crows feet around these blue eyes began to fade...memories cartwheeled through my mind and a multitude of faces danced their way across my brain as the bus wound its way down winding roads and past wizened trees.

Eventually the bus came to a stop and I got off, backpack in tow. A German girl came bounding up to me. "Are you Andrew?" she enquired. I replied that I was, because anything else would have been a lie. My journey was at an end. I had arrived in Chudobczyce...

Chudobczyce is a small village with a population of about 170. Life has changed little since the collapse of Communism, or indeed since the collapse of the Roman Empire. Cars and mobile phones, and indeed Englishmen, are not a common sight here.

Chudobczyce is home to a project called Barka, which helps recovering alcoholics and homeless people. It's also home to a Spanish girl called Berta, her boyfriend Mariusz (who I like immensely) and Linda, the German girl who met me at the bus stop.

Berta has dedicated the last year and a half of her life to helping the children of Chudobczyce...a noble task, giving up all of the luxuries that we take for granted to help the children of a forgotten village.

I like these kids. They're sweet. I've spent the last days playing and chasing them - or being chased by them - and I think (or hope) I've managed to connect with many of the youngsters.

Shortly after my arrival on Monday I went to explore a nearby forest, where I promptly got lost. I had visions of being eaten by a bear (a rabid bear recently attacked and killed two people in Romania) and it was up to the children and Linda and Berta to come to my rescue.

But that and one other incident aside, I've really enjoyed my three days in this funny little place.

I came here to meet the children, and Linda and Berta, and to decide if I want to return here early next year. But as much as I've enjoyed these last three days, there's one thing that I hate about Chudobczyce, one thing that I truly despise: the flies.

Chudobczyce is home to millions, possibly billions, of these big, black, buzzing creatures. And they're adventurous little things - they like to explore your soup, your hair, the odd nostril and one or two other orifices - but we won't go into that (or them) here.

On my first night I discovered dozens of the little monsters living around the window in my room so I decided to zap them with a can of Raid. Big mistake.

It was like something out of a Stephen King novel. They started attacking me and dive bombing everything in sight, including my head, so I got out of there pretty sharpish, taking my mattress with me, and set up camp in the kitchen.

But the flies followed me and were soon dive bombing me in the kitchen. Enough was enough, I was not lord of the flies. I retreated outside of the my room and slept in the hallway, where I was awoken some hours later by a drunk man who was kicking me in the head.

But as I wrote, imaginery bears and flies aside, I have really enjoyed my time in this long forgotten place and I hope one day to return. I'll just remember to bring a bigger can of Raid...

And now it's time to board my time machine and head back to civilisation. My bus leaves in an hour from now. It will take me back to Poznan where I will board a train for Warsaw. Once I'm in Warsaw I will catch a train that will again take me backwards in time to the long forgotten country of Belarus.

Until my next entry, from within the USSR, it's time for me to say goodbye to Dominika, Berta, Mariusz, the children and the flies, and time for me to prepare for the long journey ahead.

Goodbye from Chudobczyce...

Back to Civilisation.

From the memory box of a Professional Englishman.

Friday, 22 October 2004

The Westernisation of Warsaw

This must surely be the place that hostels go to when they die.

This entry comes to you from Nathan's Villa in Warsaw, the best hostel I have ever stayed in.

It's simply perfect - more like a hotel than a hostel. It's extremely modern and well designed with three floors, numerous common rooms, a great spacious kitchen and private bathrooms with showers.

There is no check-out time, a free laundry service, free Internet, free lockers and even a free breakfast. The staff are young and friendly and it's very central; the main railway station is just a stone's throw away.

I arrived in Poland on Tuesday after a two hour flight from London. It's nice to be back in Eastern Europe and to be greeted by friendly smiles. Poland is very westernised now and completely different from its neighbour, Belarus.

If you stay in Warsaw for long enough you can almost see the Westernisation (which, let's face it, is mostly Americanisation) taking place. Poland is embracing capitalism, and has been colonised by McDonalds, KFC, Coca-Cola, Pepsi and Britney Spears.

This is a more than a shame, as I see Westernisation as a kind of evil, and I can only hope that the Polish people don't ever become like the British. If you've never been out this way, I would recommend that you visit Eastern Europe now, while it's full of decent and genuinely friendly people, before capitalism truly sets in and eats away at their souls!

On Wednesday I got to know two young travellers, Sharon from Australia and Chieko from Japan. I usually find Australians to be loud, brash, indifferent and unlikeable, but Sharon was completely different and I enjoyed the time that I spent with her and Chieko.

We visited the Palace of Science and Culture together (a large tower in the centre of Warsaw presented as a gift to the Polish people by Stalin - it's both loved and hated by the people) and for the first time since the summer of 2000 I made my way to the viewing point near the top and looked upon this fine city.

Later we made our way to the Old City, which I didn't even know existed. It's beautiful and well worth a visit. As we explored the churches and cobbled streets, I was accosted by a man carrying an axe who insisted that I either pose with him for a photo or let him bury his blade into my neck.

He's supposed to be a 'tourist attraction', but the axe man was just a little too persuasive, and his grip just a little too strong, and it was up to Sharon to come to my rescue. It's a good thing she did, I may have lost my head, and decapitated men generally don't write good blog entries.

Later we went for a meal and were approached by a boy who tried to sell us flowers. When we left the restaurant we were approached by a man who tried to sell us cabbages. Then a little later we were accosted by an old man who kept us talking for a while, which could have been nice, had he known more English than just three words, which, oddly enough, turned out to be 'Hitler,' 'fascist' and 'Liverpool.'

But it was all good and I enjoyed the company of Sharon and Chieko.

I find it difficult to approach people and often end up wandering around alone, so it was nice to meet some new people. Sharon and Chieko left Warsaw today and are probably in Krakow now. I will never see them again, so I will end this paragraph by wishing them well.

A week before arriving in Warsaw I said farewell to Exeter.

Exeter, in Devon, was my on-off home for two years, almost to the day, in between visits to Warsaw, Minsk, Riga, Miami, Detroit, New York, Nassau, Douglas in the Isle of Man, Paris, Cheshire and York.

Leaving was sad. I made some friends and met some good people in those two years.

On my final night in Exeter I visited the cinema with my friend Craig where we watched Code 46, a pointless film. At one point in the film there's a gratuitous, unnecessary lingering shot of a woman's vagina.

On the way home Craig and I had a lengthy conversation about whether the vagina belonged to Samantha Morton, the lead actress in the film, or whether it was in fact a "stunt vagina," employed by directors for times when the action becomes a little racey.

Only the vagina knows for sure.

My last week in England was spent mostly on my Mum's settee. It was nice to see my Mum and my brother Mark, after not having visited them for three months. We enjoyed some days out, visiting a nuclear bunker in Nantwich in Cheshire, built during the Cold War to accommodate local VIPs in the event of a Soviet attack.

Tomorrow I catch a train that will take me to the city of Poznan. I'll be staying for two days in Poznan, and sleeping on a stranger's floor, before heading to a little village nearby.

I'm thinking about doing a two month SCI project in the village in January of next year and this will be a chance for me to meet the kids and the other volunteers and get lost in the fields of Poland. After that I'm not sure. I got a one month visa for Belarus today - my tenth - and I will probably head to Minsk next week but nothing is set in stone.

The world is my oyster now, with roads going in all directions, all of them leading into the unknown, and all of them leading to a place that I will, for a short time, call home.

Some of the roads I am taking will lead me to many of the people reading this entry, and I hope that we will have the chance to meet again, somewhere on this crazy planet that is home to all of us.

Until then, this is me, making the most of the free Internet in Nathan's Villa in Warsaw, saying goodbye and wishing you well.

Let's see which way the wind is blowing.

Skyler Black

P.S. Hi Mum and Mark xxx.

Wednesday, 16 June 2004

Email for Emily

Hello again.

So I'm back in England.

Back in the land of milk in cartons, fish and chips, ugly girls, common sense, capitalism, sensible drivers, Big Ben and cold, indifferent people.

I arrived back in the South West of England after enduring a 12 hour train ride from Minsk, a 24 hour coach ride from Warsaw and then a further 5 hour bus ride from London.

Once again I've said goodbye to Belarus with all of its complexities and its speeding Metros and milk in bags. I've also said goodbye to the most lovely and precious girl in my life, my dear Emily.

I can't say that I'm happy to be back in the UK. In fact, the opposite is true. Whenever I return to England from Belarus I always go through what I call 'a period of readjustment.'

After two months spent basking in Emily's love and enjoying the warmth and hospitality of the Belarusian people, it's very difficult for me to adapt to the cold people that are my countrymen.

If I had a penny for every time somebody spoke to me like I was dirt, a euro for every time somebody tried to bully me, a dollar for every time somebody patronised me or a zloty for every time somebody tried to rip me off, then I would be able to leave this rainy island behind and start a new life abroad.

I could give you examples, from the first man I spoke to after arriving here on Wednesday to a girl who tried to steal something from me on Thursday night, but I won't give those people the justice of writing more about them here.

There are exceptions of course - and hopefully those exceptions include many of the people reading this blog entry - but most Westerners have fallen under the spell of capitalism and this country has signed its soul away to the United States of America.

I've become disillusioned with the West and people in general. So its like a gift from God that at this stage in my life, when I'm turning into a bitter and angry young-old man, that I should meet someone like Emily.

Emily and I should have met in September of 2001 when I was working at a centre for terminally-ill children in Minsk. I was quite lonely, and didn't really have any friends, so a lady working at the centre contacted Emily and told her about me. But I left the centre shortly afterwards and so Emily and I never met. I didn't know anything about this meeting - I didn't even know that Emily existed.

Emily knew about me. She knew my name was Andrew, she knew that I was from England, and she knew that my grasp of the Russian language was even worse than my taste in clothes.

Two years later in 2003 I found myself in Belarus once again. A girl I briefly met told me that she knew someone who might be able to help me. That someone turned out to be Emily, who knew straight away that I was the man she should have met years earlier.

And so Emily and I finally met, albeit a little late, on the streets of Minsk in September of last year. It wasn't love at first sight - my heart didn't start beating at a million miles a minute and there were no fireworks going off in my mind.

But during the past nine months, Emily has become one of the most important people in my life. With her love and her compassion, her kindness and her sympathy, her generosity and her sweetness, she has earned a very special place in this ageing and weary heart.

I sometimes wonder how I have managed to get through 29 years without her. She is my one true friend and she has done more for me in the short time that I have known her than almost anyone I have known before. If Belarus wasn't such a crazy place, and it didn't affect my physical and mental health to such a degree, then I would probably move there like a shot.

But as much as I like the people, Belarus is a very difficult country to live in - it brings out some of the very worst parts of my character and Emily is often on the receiving end of my frequent outbursts.

This isn't fair to her - she treats me with nothing but kindness and respect - and only serves to upset both of us. So I've decided to take a long break from Belarus. I will probably return there next year, but I need some time to get the place out of my system.

Emily will, I hope, continue to be a part of my life for years to come. I've never told Emily this before, but she is quite possibly the best thing that has ever happened to me. She has blessed my life with her presence and she has become the centre of my universe.

So this email, long overdue, is for my dear Emily and for everything she has done for me and for everything she means to me. I think about you every hour, Emily, and I count the days until I can be with you again. Take care and know that my thoughts are always with you.

Bags of love, Andrew x x x x x

Thursday, 10 June 2004

Mission to Minsk


So I'm back in the USSR.

Back in the land of milk in bags, zebra crossings on corners, juice that comes from trees, wonderful people, beautiful girls, communism, stupid drivers and pointless bureaucracy.

Back in the country the BBC describes as "a giant Soviet playground...a place where time has stood still." Back in the place that has been part of my life now for almost five years.

This is my 9th visit to Belarus. I arrived a month ago with my trusty backpack and my usual assortment of titbits and wacky clothes in tow. But this time I brought something else too...this time I have brought three young Englishmen with me to Minsk.

Those three young Englishmen are Ben, Craig and Tim.

Ben's mission was to meet girls; pure and simple. Belorussian girls are among the most beautiful in the world and they are mostly very shy and friendly and really quite sweet. There are of course exceptions but generally the girls here and far nicer than the cold and vile girls you can meet in the UK. It's very nice to be able to walk down the street and have beautiful girls smiling at you and waving just because you are foreigner. It's shallow, but great!

I am happy to report that Ben has been successful in his mission. As I write this, Ben is in Vitebsk - a small city about a three hour drive from here - where no doubt he is spending time with girls who are in awe of the fact that they are talking to a genuine young Englishman!

Craig, who left Belarus last night, was here on a similar mission. He also visited this little corner of Eastern Europe to meet the world's most beautiful women but he also wanted to see something new and to take a break from his life in England.

Tim, who has a girlfriend, is here on a different mission. He has come to Belarus to visit me and to see a country that most Westerners never visit - a mysterious and confusing place that is closed off from just about everywhere else in the world.

And I too have a mission. My mission is to meet new people, spend time with Emily - who remains the most wonderful and giving person I have met - and to visit the children that I first met last August.

But as much as I enjoy spending time with Emily, I don't feel that I have accomplished my mission yet. I haven't enjoyed my time in Belarus as much as I did when I was here for two months last year. The main reason for this is the living arrangements.

For the past few weeks Craig, Ben and Tim and I have been sharing a very nice but very small flat together. This has been difficult for me. I visit Belarus to get away from the West, to have my own space, to be treated like I'm special and to lead a very different life to the one that I lead in the UK.

Tim and Craig are really nice guys and I like them immensely and Ben is funny but I think that we all needed our own space. I hope they all visit again but next time I think we'll get our own flats.

When I arrived in Minsk I was disappointed to discover my favourite restaurant, Patio Pizza, was closed. Apparently they weren't paying enough tax so the government shut them down!

Patio Pizza is my place of a million memories. Not only do they serve damn good pizza, but I've been there with every Belorussian girl who has meant something to me. I only hope that Patio Pizza reopens soon because Belarus just isn't the same without it.

I have noticed that Belarus really brings out the best and worst in me. The best because I visit kids and try to make a difference in their lives and the worst because I become quite arrogant and angry when I'm here. The Belorussians are tolerant and hospitable people - perhaps I take advantage of this.

This is indeed a frustrating and perplexing country. Common sense didn't visit Belarus - it couldn't get a visa. There is absolutely no logic here. I think that even Gandhi would eventually have lost patience.

If you ever take a ride on the Metro here, be prepared to hold on tight. The Metros zoom around the city at breakneck speed and when they approach a station the driver breaks suddenly and everyone falls over! And this happens every damn time!

Just to enter Belarus you need an invitation letter from somebody in the country. The visa then costs about forty pounds. When you arrive in the country you then need to pay six dollars for medical insurance even if you already have worldwide travel insurance!

As if all of that wasn't bad enough, you then need to register as a citizen the country and pay £1 for every day you are here. I find that particularly irritating. I come here to pump money into the economy and to help kids and I have to pay just to be here?

This is why few people visit Belarus. It's a backwards Soviet system. It does however have its plus side - Belarus has resisted America's corrupting brand of capitalism. And I've said this before and I will say it again and again: the people of Belarus are the finest in Europe.

A few days ago was quite a historical day for me in Belarus. On Sunday, for the first time in five years, I visited a new city - I stayed for a couple of days in Vitebsk with Ben and Craig. I encountered a few incredibly rude province people, and lots of skinhead beer-drinking morons, but otherwise it was quite enjoyable. Alyssa and Olya, two girls who looked after us, were also very nice.

And that's just about it for now. I can't think of anything else to write. Perhaps I'm running out of inspiration - blame a diet of pizza and vodka!

I have about two weeks left in Belarus. Tim will leave tonight and Ben leaves next week.

I will spend these weeks visiting the ballet, visiting the kids and hopefully enjoying my time in this crazy, wonderful, beautiful, forgotten little corner of Eastern Europe.

And now it's time for more pizza and vodka.

Until next time, take care and stay well.

From the memory box of a Professional Englishman.

Monday, 29 March 2004

Adventures in Ann Arbor


Welcome to Ann Arbor in Michigan, USA.

I flew into Detroit, Michigan's capital city, on Friday afternoon after leaving behind the awe inspiring metropolis that is New York City.

On my last morning in the Big Apple I managed to visit the American Museum of Natural History - though I only had about half an hour there - and then I rushed like crazy to get to the airport on time.

Sadly, I never did make it to the Bronx, though I did pass through Harlem on my way to LaGuardia.

Harlem is an interesting place and it looks exactly as I thought it would. It's quite rundown and the streets are full of young black men all wearing sunglasses, baseball caps and jewellery. It's certainly a place worth exploring and I hope to return there soon.

But now I'm in Michigan. I can't tell you how nervous I was about coming here. I haven't written about this before, but I came here to meet someone.

For the past twelve years I've had a friend in Ann Arbor. Her name is Amy Visel. Over the years, Amy and I have got to know each other well - I've told her things I've never told anyone. I've shared some of my deepest and darkest secrets with Amy, things I would never dare mention in this blog, things I may tell never anyone again.

Amy is one of the least judgemental people I have known and I think it's fair to say that I grew very fond of her over the years. And yet, until last Friday, Amy and I had never met...

Amy and I started out as pen pals, regularly sending each other twenty page letters about everything from politics to The Wonder Years, and then as technology moved on we moved on too and we started exchanging emails and then meeting online in chat rooms.

Then last Friday, after twelve years, hundreds of pieces of paper, litres of ink and oodles of electronic space, Amy and I finally met when I arrived at Detroit airport. And boy was I nervous!

If Amy and I hadn't known each other so well, if we hadn't shared so many secrets, then I don't think I would have been so anxious, although I do often tend to get nervous around girls anyway. But it was because I knew so much about this girl and yet at the same time knew nothing about this girl that made me so nervous.

Now, four years after meeting Amy, I can reveal the truth about the few days that I stayed with her. As much as I hate to say it, we didn't get on at all. In fact, I really didn't like her and we never felt comfortable together. The reason for this was quite simple: She just wasn't a very nice person.

She never took me out, never showed me around her town. She complained about little things that I did. She never offered me a thing to eat or drink, even though I was a guest in her home. After I left Michigan, I wrote to her one last time, and then never wrote to her again. We really were best of friends...until the day that we met.

In fact the only good thing about visiting her town was that I found a store selling Garbage Pail Kids. You're probably wondering what Garbage Pail Kids are. Well, they're trading stickers that were first issued in the mid-1980s. I collected them obsessively, they were a huge part of my childhood, but I lost all of them when I had a fire one night in my flat sixteen years ago.

I always regretted losing my Garbage Pail Kids. It was almost like I lost a part of my childhood that night. I really believed I would never see them again and yet here they were, a brand new series, on sale in a little shop in Ann Arbor. I bought boxes of the stickers and I was so happy to have found them again. My childhood was restored!

I'm glad I got the chance to see Ann Arbor. It's a nice college town - the kind of place that you could come to if you wanted to escape from the world and lead a safe, anonymous life. It's weird to compare some of the people of Michigan, with their funny accents, lumberjack shirts and hats, with the people of New York and Miami. America is most certainly a country of contrasts.

Tomorrow morning I leave Ann Arbor and fly via Chicago to Miami before heading back to London on Wednesday. I'm taking a break for a week - I plan to become the laziest person in Britain - before heading to Eastern Europe to begin the second part of my travels.

I return to England with a new collection of precious moments to add to my bulging bag of special memories. When I look back at these days spent travelling around America and the Caribbean I will remember many things.

I will remember jumping into the crystal clear waters of the Bahamas as a group of black tip reef sharks swam silently below me. I will remember finding my own private little beach on Blue Lagoon island. I will remember walking around the Art Deco District of Miami and feeling like I was in an episode of Happy Days. I will remember thinking how all of the beautiful people looked exactly the same.

I will remember running around New York City and being bowled over by everything I saw. I will remember ice skating on a warm night in Central Park. And I will try to forget a girl called Amy Visel.

This hasn't been a great visit, but it's been interesting. My three days in New York were the highlight of my visit. Miami was awful awful awful. After Wednesday I will never again holiday in Miami.

While this trip has not banished the negative view of America and the American people that I had before I came here (in fact it has only served to reinforce it) I have at least found one American city that I like and would like to visit again.

And that's it for this slice of American pie.

Take care and look after yourself. And each other.

From the memory box of a Professional Englishman.

Thursday, 25 March 2004

Englishman in New York


This entry comes to you from the world's biggest Internet cafe in Times Square in New York.

What I'm about to write will probably sound a little geeky, but ever since I wrote my first blog entry, I've wanted to write an entry with the subject title 'Englishman in New York.' And now that I've done it, it actually feels quite good! Another ambition achieved! Two to go!

I arrived in the capital of the world on Tuesday after a two hour flight from South Beach in Miami. Miami is the worst place I have ever visited - it must surely be the place that devils go to when they die. A plastic place full of beautiful, awful, rude, plastic people.

I was forced to endure three days in the sunshine state after flying in from the Bahamas. I must have been on coke when I decided to include Miami in my travels. And it's not over yet - I have to spend one more day there before I fly home. Aaaargh!

But enough about Miami. What I want to write about is New York City. It's funny, but the strangest thing has happened. I've realised something, something that I could never have predicted or expected. What I've realised, simply, is that I love New York.

Yes - me! Mr. Anti-American.

This is my first visit and I never expected it to affect me in such a way. I understand now why New York has been the inspiration for so many films and musicals and why so many artists have been able to harness the almost tangible energy that runs through these dimly lit streets. I've never experienced anything like it before.

Within just a few hours of flying into LaGuardia airport I knew that this city was going to have a profound affect on me. I was like a kid in a candy store, running through the streets, marvelling at everything around me.

My tour of New York City began yesterday with a trip to the Empire State Building in Manhattan. My hotel is nearby and so it seemed like a logical place to start. I took the audio tour and learnt a little bit about the history of New York. It also gave me the chance to see the entire city spread out before me and to marvel at the scale and the scope of this vast metropolis.

I liked the view so much that I returned to the Empire State Building and looked upon the city by night. It was a beautiful sight, a million lights stretching out before me, seeming to go on forever.

After visiting the Empire State Building I made my way down Fifth Avenue. As I did so I listened to the song by Sting that was the inspiration for this entry - another ambition achieved! (One to go).

While on Fifth Avenue I did something that every visitor to New York should do - I bought a hot dog. And it was pretty darn good! I haven't travelled in a yellow taxi cab yet, but the night is still young!

After devouring another 2 hot dogs I made my way to the ice skating rink at the Rockefeller Center. I stood there and watched a few dozen people skating and I wanted, more than anything, to join them. Yet I lacked the confidence to do so.

That sounds strange, I know. I can travel halfway across the world, I can swim with sharks, I can go paragliding, I can eat in restaurants alone and yet I can't bring myself to go ice skating alone?

Even with all these thoughts going through my head I still couldn't bring myself to step onto that ice rink. The head said yes but the feet said no. The truth is I'm a shy person, I lack confidence and there are just some things I find it difficult. I guess that ice skating alone is one of them.

So I left the Rockefeller Center behind and made my way to St Patrick's Cathedral, the oldest cathedral in New York. It was okay, though my eyes were drawn to the gigantic American flag hanging from the ceiling. The stars and stripes inside a church? Ugh.

After leaving the cathedral and the flag behind, I made my way to Central Park where I found another ice rink. This time I was determined to let my feet do the talking and before I could doubt the wisdom of my thinking I paid $13 and made my way on to the ice.

And it was all okay. The world didn't melt, Michael Jackson didn't turn black again. Skyscrapers didn't fall. I didn't even get laughed at. And I didn't fall over once!

True, I went went round slower than almost everybody else and I did knock a few kids over, but I didn't fall over once!

It turned out to be one of the most enjoyable times I've had during the past 16 days and it was quite magical, skating in Central Park at night, surrounded by skyscrapers. Quite magical.

And that was my first night in New York City. After stopping by Grand Central Station and New York Public Library, I returned to my hostel and was soon sleeping soundly in the city that never sleeps.

Earlier today I took a short helicopter flight around Manhattan. It was fun, a little scarier than I imagined, almost like floating.

Afterwards I made my way to the site where the World Trade Center stood. It was a sombre moment, standing in the spot where, two and a half years ago, nearly three thousand people lost their lives.

September 11th was a chance for America to change. Unfortunately, under the leadership of George W. Bush, America was transformed that day into something awful.

Monsters created more of a monster. And now, sadly, because of this Government's appalling foreign policy, what happened on September 11th was just a taster of what is to come.

After leaving Ground Zero I took a ramble down Wall Street and soon found that Battery Park and the ferry terminal to Liberty Island were nearby. I couldn't resist going to see the Tall Lady so I paid my ten bucks and headed out to see the french visitor.

And she was kinda small...!

After the Statue of Liberty I made my way here to Times Square - and boy what a sight to behold. Piccadilly Circus eat your heart out! I think that the first time you see Times Square you are either amazed or appalled. Or, like me, both.

Times Square is a mesmerising combination of skyscrapers, advertisements, flashing lights, TV screens, crowds of people and yellow taxi cabs. It's hypnotising, impressive - and probably quite evil!

A few hours ago I was standing in Times Square, wearing my Versace coat and taking photographs with my mobile phone, when a photographer doing a photo shoot started taking photos of me! Really!

A child of capitalism in the capital of capitalism.

And that's just about it for New York City.

I leave this great city behind tomorrow afternoon and board a flight that will take me to Detroit. Hopefully I'll be able to squeeze in a quick visit to the American Museum of Natural History before I leave. I also want to visit the Bronx.

But for this entry, and for this night, this is an Englishman in New York signing off and wishing you well. It's after eleven and I'm miles away from home.

I'll write to you again from Michigan.

Until then, take care.

New York, New York.

From the memory box of a Professional Englishman.

Saturday, 20 March 2004

Diving into Danger


So, it's time for me to say goodbye to the Bahamas.

Time to say goodbye to the people and the palm trees, the colourful buildings and the conch, the seagulls, the starfish...and the sharks.

It was not my fate to die in the Bahamas. I'm leaving here with all my limbs and without a scratch on me. I do have a tan, a few mosquito bites, I'm dehydrated and for the first time in my life I am badly sunburned, but otherwise I am fine.

Last Sunday, two days after arriving in Nassau, I went snorkeling. I didn't enjoy it - the boat ride out to the reef had me feeling sick - but I found out later that I simply chose the wrong tour company.

On Monday I went paragliding. I was attached to a parachute-type-thingy and pulled across the sea by speedboat. Up there, hundreds of feet above the ocean, the same thought replayed itself over and over in my head: "I'm insane. Yup. Totally insane."

I came down with a bump and was "dipped" - I fell into the sea and was pulled across the surface of the water as the man steering the boat shouted: "Here sharky sharky!" It was a lot of fun.

Afterwards I hired a jet-ski and roared across the ocean for twenty minutes. That was great too. On Tuesday I arranged to go scuba-diving. It was my intention to have an introductory lesson and then to go and meet the sharks on Thursday.

Unfortunately, when I arrived at the dive area I discovered that it wasn't possible for me to take part because I suffer from asthma. It was the same with every other dive company on the island. My dream of scuba-diving with sharks ended then and there.

However, I came to the Bahamas to swim with sharks and I was determined it would happen. I had heard of a company that offered snorkelling with sharks. So I contacted them and on Wednesday morning I finally climbed into the sea and came face to face (or face to teeth) with a multitude of black tip reef sharks.

After boarding the boat and heading out to sea, a dive instructor dropped a basket of fish remains into the water. Within minutes the sharks had arrived.

It was fantastic. Incredible. Definitely the highlight of my visit. I floated on the surface of the water as these beautiful, graceful creatures swam just twenty feet below me.

It wasn't really scary - black tips are shy, timid creatures and they are only about five feet long. There was only one mildly frightening moment when one of the sharks broke away from the group and started swimming towards me, but I splashed around a bit and he soon decided that I wasn't on the menu.

Later that I day I boarded a sea-taxi and headed out to Paradise Island. Once there I visited the Atlantis Hotel - it's huge, grand, incredibly expensive and really quite sickening - and paid $25 to see some more sharks in their aquarium, which is supposedly the biggest in the Western world. It was crap!

On Thursday I paid another $25 - the Bahamas is an expensive place - to take a ferry out to the Blue Lagoon. The Blue Lagoon is a private island with a stingray sanctuary, a dolphin park, lots of hammocks, kayaks and countless American tourists.

I did a spot of kayaking which was about as exciting as reading this entry. Later, when I was sure nobody was watching, I slipped under a fence and went to explore some more of the island by myself.

I found a wonderful, little cove with just enough golden sand for me to stretch out and relax. I lay there for an hour or two. It was lovely. There is a lot to be said for just lying on the beach. It's funny, but it was something I had never done until I came to the Bahamas. I lay there with only the ocean, the sand, a couple of conch and a giant starfish to keep me company. It was perfect.

Yesterday afternoon I took part in a guided tour of Downtown Nassau. I was keen to learn more about the history of these islands. The tour was interesting enough but now, a day later, I've forgotten almost everything that charming black lady told me.

And that's just about everything that I've done during the past eight days. To be honest, now that my time in the Bahamas is coming to an end, I can't help but feel a little disappointed.

I first came to this country for just a few hours in 1998 - I was on a cruise from Orlando - and I promised myself that one day I would come back here. I've done that now, but I'm not sure if I will ever return to these islands again.

The Bahamas is a really beautiful place, and I've done some interesting things, but I would really rather be in Belarus, sharing a conversation with Emily or Katja or taking in a ballet.

These islands are too commercialised and there are too many tourists. I'm a shy person, I hate being in big groups of people, yet for this past week I've done nothing but try to avoid the crowds. And is there really anything worse than an American tourist?

Some days ago I watched a ragtag of black children playing in the sand as a cruise ship sailed by. During the past eight days I've seen more more yachts, more big houses and more limousines than I've ever seen before. It's grotesque. Okay, these people are rich, but do they have to flaunt it when so many Bahamians live in decaying wooden shacks?

The fear of crime is also something that has been on my mind a lot. I haven't been able to walk the streets of Downtown Nassau at night without being approached by guys offering me "powder".

It really is quite intimidating when a car screeches to a stop beside you and a black man with dreadlocks pops his head out and says, in a deep Caribbean accent: "Hey Mon, you want a taxi?"

Most Bahamians are nice though. They're sweet. I met two lovely girls who work at a nearby hotel and strangers are always saying hi to me and calling me "sir". I think that the Bahamians are acutely aware that tourism is the biggest industry here.

Though having said that, it's been difficult for me to form an accurate opinion of the Bahamian people as most of my conversations in the past week have been nothing more than "Can I have my room key please?" or "How much is the snapper fish?" and "Can you please remove the dead cockroaches from my room?"

I don't think that I will return to these islands. I think that next time I head to the Caribbean I will find another place to explore, somewhere off the beaten track, free of tourists.

And next time I will find somebody to go with me - the Caribbean is not the kind of place to explore alone. Some nights, as I lay on my bed in my hotel room, the corpses of cockroaches littering the floor around me, I listened as the world went by and I couldn't help but feel a little lonely and a little lost.

But anyway. You probably have people to do and things to see so I'll start to bring this entry to an end. Later tonight I head to Miami and then it's on to New York, Michigan, back to Miami, the UK and then on to Poland and Belarus.

But it's time now to say goodbye to the Bahamas and goodbye to the beautiful and misunderstood sharks that inhabit the waters around these islands.

Until my next entry, which should come to you from New York, it's time for this wandering Englishman to say goodbye.

Now it's back to yucky Miami.


From the memory box of a Professional Englishman.

Monday, 15 March 2004

Swimming with Sharks


I know that they are out there.

I've been thinking about them almost constantly for the past few weeks. Whether I'm walking the streets of Downtown Nassau, or lying on my bed in my hotel room, they are always in my thoughts. And when I sleep, they even find their way into my dreams, slipping in and out of my consciousness like guilty thoughts.

When I look at the waters that surround these islands, I can almost feel them...out there, just below the surface, waiting for me, my destiny. And now it's time for us to meet...

This coming Thursday I go swimming with sharks.

It's the reason I came here, to the Bahamas, and though I don't feel nervous yet, on Thursday afternoon when I board that boat and sail a few miles out to sea and ease myself into that crystal clear water and the multitude of fins come ever closer, that's when I'll start to feel, well, more than a little nervous.

And if the sharks don't kill me, then American Airlines might.

I hate flying, more than I can say, yet these 3 weeks have included ten flights crossing numerous oceans, cities and time zones, flying with the terrorists' favourite airline.

Actually, it's not so much the flying that frightens me - more the crashing, the burning and the being smashed up into a million little pieces. (Three flights down, seven to go).

Then there's the helicopter ride around New York City to worry about. I arrive in New York on March 23rd after spending 3 days in Miami. I'll be an Englishman walking the streets of the Bronx wearing a Versace jacket which says: "Mug me, I have no fashion sense."

Then there's always crime-ridden Miami to worry about and four days I'll be spending in Michigan - perhaps I'll be shot dead by Robocop when I fly into Detroit...

And if this all doesn't kill me, I'm also having a go at paragliding, which involves being attached to a parachute-type-thingy and then pulled across the sea by speedboat.

So lots of opportunities for a grisly and painful death.

For as long as I can remember, I've felt that I have a self-destruct button, and these 3 weeks are about pressing that button...again and again and again. So these could well be the last entries made by this Professional Englishman...lucky you!

This entry comes to you from a little Internet cafe, with three computers, in Downtown Nassau. I'm staying here in Nassau until Saturday when, sharks permitting, I fly to Miami for a few days.

I don't like Miami. I was there for a day and a half last week. As you know, I've written some negative things about America in the past. I had hoped this visit would banish some of those prejudices, but my time in Miami has served only to reinforce them. I will, however, reserve my final judgement until the last days of my visit.

So where was I? Oh yeah: I don't like Miami. I arrived in the sunshine state last Wednesday after a ten hour flight from London via New York. I checked into an awful hotel full of awful college kids.

On Thursday I met a nice Russian boy called Gerasin - as you know people from Eastern Europe are my favourite people - and we drove together to Key West. Key West is nice - it's small and it has a lot of character. Gerasin and I visited a seafood restaurant together and I sampled everything from their buffet.

I made a point, however, of avoiding the shark meat on offer. I didn't want to tempt fate - if I eat sharks then it's only fair they should eat me!

The following day I left Florida and boarded a flight to the Bahamas. The Bahamas is an interesting and exotic country. Palm trees line every street in Nassau and the colourful, colonial buildings are a reminder of the country's imperial past.

The Bahamas was a British colony until 1973 - the year of my birth - and today the islands are a curious mixture of British, American and Caribbean culture.

The people here seem nice, although having said that I did meet an asshole yesterday. I was walking through a nearby shanty town - a hundred black men watched my every move - when a guy called Troy approached me and offered to be my bodyguard.

He took me around the city, introducing me to his friend who tried to sell me some "powder". After a while Troy started to bark orders at me and became quite obnoxious. He followed me for an hour until I eventually told him to get lost.

Today I feel quite angry at myself. I should have been more assertive. Instead I tolerated this guy. He was an asshole. Hopefully today he's gone to play basketball with some bull sharks.

And that's it for this Bahamian entry!

Providing I survive my shark encounter, I will add another entry on Friday before I leave the Bahamas and head to Miami. So long as I don't come across any bull or tiger sharks then I should be okay...maybe. If you don't hear from me on Friday, then worry!

Before I conclude this entry, I would like to give a mention to everybody I left behind in Exeter in England: Ben, Tim, Sylvia, Craig, Jenni, Karl, Reza and Lakshmi - I miss you all and I hope that we will meet again in Exeter one day soon.

And that's it.

From the memory box of a Professional Englishman.

About Me

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London, ENGLAND, United Kingdom
This is me. Read a few entries and they will tell you more about me than I can fit into these few paragraphs. Many of these entries started their lives as mass emails. That was before I discovered blogs. Thanks for stopping by and thanks for visiting my blog and reading about my life. Both a work in progress.