Thursday, April 26, 2007


Athens is a beautiful city. I guess I wasn't really expecting much - or at least wasn't sure what I was expecting - but Athens has just blown me away!

I arrived at around 1:30 on Anzac Day. I went straight to the hostel, dumped my backpack, and after purchasing a day pass for the Metro, headed into the city for some serious sight-seeing!

[a poppy near the Acropolis - how fitting for 25 April]

After arriving at the Akropoli metro station (and buying an extraordinary and fabulously bitter frappe), I couldn't help but laugh at myself when I looked around for a sign that would point me in the direction of the Acropolis. I then turned around to behold the absolutely stunning ruins atop a hill - so high up, in fact, that I have since discovered they can be seen from almost anywhere in Athens! I had a little trouble finding the entrance (something, it turns out, I did often in Athens), and after winding my way past other sites at the Acropolis (including the magnificent Theatre of Herodes Atticus), I eventually found myself at the Parthenon. I didn't expect it, but seeing the Parthenon in person almost brought me to tears. It is just stunning. I also took a moment to reflect on a few things: my pride in myself on being there, my realisation of my utter insignificance... it was a wonderful experience.

[The Theatre of Herodes Atticus]

[that's one lucky dog]

[the Parthenon]

I then wandered around Ancient Agora for a little while, marvelling at the Church of the Holy Apostles (and its somewhat eerie interior), the Stoa of Attalos (and the amazing statues - Iliad, Odyssey and Aphrodite were among my favourites), and the Temple of Hephaestus.

[The Church of the Holy Apostles]

[The Stoa of Attalos]

[Odyssey and Iliad]


At this point, it was beginning to get a little dark, and I was beginning to get a little hungry, so headed into Plaka in search of some delicious (but preferably cheap) Greek food. I'd read about Eden's Vegetarian Restaurant in the Lonely Planet, but it appears to have closed down. I didn't mind, though, because during my search for the restaurant, I was able to take in a fair bit of Plaka. It is a beautiful suburb. It is very touristy, with souvenir shops and restaurants everywhere you turn, but they are nice souvenir shops and classy restaurants, surrounded by cobblestone streets and pretty, clean buildings. Cars and motorcycles came and went, but it was, for the most part, pedestrian friendly. And then every now and then I'd see a fenced-off area - just another ancient ruin. I wonder if Athenians realise just how lucky they are to be living in such a terrific city!

After much deliberation (such tempting food, but such high prices!) a very charismatic man talked me into taking a seat at the Plaka Taverna where I was to have the "student' set menu. Oh my gosh - €9.50 never tasted so good. Bread, Greek salad, eggplant moussaka, stuffed tomato and then Creme Caramel. I ate every last mouthful and felt hideously ill afterwards, but it was worth it. I had got to talking with the men at the table next to me - Al and Bill from Pittsburgh Pennsylvania - and it was nice just to have a bit of company. When they were leaving, the waiter informed me that they had paid my bill. I was so touched! They said it was "for a young woman's adventure." They re-instilled my faith in fellow travellers.

After finishing my mammoth meal, I waddled back to the Akropoli station and headed back to the hostel. I chatted briefly to my German room mate (whose name I've forgotten, but who I remember comes from Nuremberg because I said "oh yeah, as in the trials?" Awkward, awkward). It turned out she is going to be visiting Thailand in December, so I shamelessly plugged the Elephant Nature Park before heading to bed. I was buggered!

Thursday morning started noisily, with the two room mates who had appeared during the night crashing about. I eventually got up just after 7 and went for a jog. I'd figured out how to get to the nearest park (Areos Park - a cute little area, surrounded by busy streets), and it was easy enough to find, but I had a terrible time finding my way back to the hostel. No one seemed to know where Victor Hugo Street was (perhaps because in Greek it is Victor Ougo Street, and I also took a while to remember the name - not Marco Polo, for instance). I ended up running into the same man twice - the second time he actually went out of his way to take me directly to my street. I was mightily impressed, and Victor (as it turned out to be his name) made me like Athens even more.

After a quick shower in a very cramped cubicle, I headed back into the city in search of a travel agency. I stumbled upon a two-day food fair at Syntagma metro station. What luck - a free breakfast!

The travel agency I was looking for seemed to have closed (I think my Lonely Planet is a little outdated), but did find a bookstore (bought "The Kite Runner" by Khaled Hosseini), and eventually did stumble upon some other travel agencies.

I then headed to the Temple of Olympian Zeus and then the Roman Stadium - home of the first modern Olympics.

[Temple of Olympian Zeus]

[Roman Stadium]

I walked through the very pretty National Gardens on my way back to Syntagma station, and then stumbled upon a large gathering of tourists in front of the Parliament Building and Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. An English travel agent (in Greece to sus out hotels - what a life!) informed me that the Indian president was coming to lay a wreath. And indeed he did. The highlight was, of course, the ridiculous uniforms they make the poor guards wear!

[Parliament Building and Tomb of the Unknown Soldier]

[Now that's just mean...]

I took the train back to the Akropoli, and after going to see the once-grand Theatre of Dionyson, called home and spoke to Mum, Dad, Nan and Da (who apparently had a ball at the Anzac Day march - can't wait for photos!).

I bought the best punnet of strawberries, and after eating about half of its 1kg, doddled over to the Roman Agora - the more recent of the two ancient marketplaces. The Tower of the Winds (a giant weather-vane and sundial) would have been quite spectacular in its day.

I took the train to Omonia and found a fairly dodgy cafe - bu just needed to sit! I spent a good hour pouring over the information I'd received from the travel agencies, and think I've finally got my head around Greece... a little.

On my way back to the hostel I popped into a supermarket and bought a tub of Greek yoghurt - the tub being made out of terracotta. Though it will most likely break within days, I love my little bowl! And I quite enjoyed my "dinner" (of strawberries, yoghurt and free cereal, at 4:30pm) while sitting on the balcony of my empty-but-for-me hostel room. A lovely way to end a great time in Athens!

[view from my balcony]

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

It's a Man's World

Dubai is a very strange place. Not only is it a city in the middle of a desert, a city in a constant state of construction, a city which re-claims land to build 7-star hotels and mini-Earths... there is something else a little amiss with Dubai, and it took me a good half hour to put my finger on it. The men! Or, perhaps, the lack of women. Regardless, it makes for an unusual feel to this already unusual place. [Note: According to various websites, men make up somewhere between 70 and 75% of the population in Dubai]

The first time I noticed that something was a little strange was when I boarded the bus from the airport. The first four rows of the bus were "Reserved for Ladies." This meant that even if there were only two women on board, some men (and there were a lot of men) still wouldn't sit down. I also encountered a bus conductor who, having said something to the men standing in line for the bus, caused them all to shuffle out of the way and allow me to board first. I didn't mind the special treatment (especially as it got me out of the stinking hot sun), but there were occasions where I felt a little objectified, so won't miss Dubai and its many men too much.

After arriving at the United Arab Emirates Youth Hostel Association (a fairly swanky hostel, but who would expect anything less in Dubai?), I updated my blog (I have my priorities nice and straight), and then headed out to explore.

[would you expect anything less than a swanky hostel in Dubai?]

I met a nice German lass on the bus on the way to Deira, and though we wandered around together for quite a few hours, I never learned her name. By the time I thought to ask, it had gone past the point of ridiculousness in not knowing it, so I just let it slide. We explored Deira, the eastern half of the main city of Dubai (Bur Dubai is to the west of the Dubai Creek) and though we were, for the most part, looking for a tourist agency for her, managed to see many of the sites of Deira. We accidentally stumbled upon Heritage House and Al Ahmadiya School, two buildings built in the early 1900s and as interesting in their design as their history. We also visited the Gold and Spice Souqs, as well as the surrounding alleyways which contained countless stores selling various fabrics. It was actually very interesting to see the contrast between these places and the shops which surround them. One minute you're looking at store after store flogging gold, silk and beautiful spices, and then you are faced with dodgy watches and even more dodgy (and not even Genuine Imitation) t-shirts. It didn't help this little consumerist, of course, that due to supply-and-demand, most of the clothes stores were targeted at men.

[an early example of Dubai architecture at the Heritage House]

[a fancy name for a "bubbler" at the Al Ahmadiya School]

[the ridiculousness that is the Gold Souq]

[Nuts! I had to buy some... well, a lot...]

[if only this captured the smell - the Spice Souq smelled pretty good!]

I got a bit shirty with The German Girl, as she will henceforth be known, and I blame it on dehydration. I was determined to buy a nice, big bottle of near-freezing cold water, but was mightily disappointed (and somewhat astounded) at the lack of fridges! Store after store seemed to have cans of Coke and bottled water just sitting on shelves - ridiculous! The German Girl was also annoying me because she expected me to lead the way. Most of you reading this know that i have an abysmal sense of direction, and it frustrated me to no end that she kept waiting for me to figure out where we were. But oh well - I saw some places I might not have otherwise. She eventually went off to find the tourist information place on her own, while I wandered down to the creek for a look-see and a yummy falafel sandwich.

[Dubai Creek]

After my late lunch, I headed back to the Gold Souk Bus Station (which, I discovered, was incorrectly labelled on the tourist map I was carrying, which lead to much of GG and my confusion earlier in the day), in search of ice cream before bussing it to the hostel. Would you believe it, ice creameries, like cold water, are also practically non-existent! Of all places, you'd think Dubai, with its 30-something degree averages, cold water and ice cream would be big business. Crazy! I eventually went back to the hostel for a swim (I told you the hostel was swanky), a shower (my first hot shower in weeks - thoroughly enjoyable) and an early night.

I was woken before 6am by one of my room mates blowdrying her hair. Who does that? I got my own back this afternoon, though, when I returned to the room to find her asleep. I re-packed my backpack with not an ounce of concern as to how noisy I was being.

Not only does the hostel have a pool, they back on to a running track, so, for the first time in more than three weeks (due to fear of numerous things - Thai drivers, being attacked by startled elephants...), I went for a run. Boy am I out of practice.

Breakfast was supplied by the hostel, and though it was simple (bean mush, cheese and pita bread), it was just what the doctor ordered. I don't know how traditional Arabic it was, but it was delicious!

I spent my second day in Dubai on a bit of an unintentional mall-crawl. I went out to visit the Burj Al Arab (the 7-star hotel that looks like a sail), and was amused and a little affronted at how over-protected it is. The security guard insisted I stand in a certain area just to take a photo. It's a cool-looking building, but having seen it and all the fuss that surrounds it, I think it's highly overrated.

[a man taking a photo of the Burj Al Arab from the allowable side of the street]

Just near the hotel I discovered the mall that the travel brochures tout as being in a style that is "traditional Arabian." It was actually quite a beautiful place, but the sale of Croc shoes and overpriced designer clothes made it feel a little less authentic.

I then headed to the Deira City Centre (not actually anywhere near the centre of the city) in search of air conditioned comfort. I looked around for a while, and just as I was starting to feel nice and chilly, headed outside again into the heat. The temperature changes dramatically between shady areas and the areas in full sun. You can actually feel your body start to sweat!

I went back to the Gold Souq for a little while, had a lovely dinner of Moroccan salad and bread (after looking everywhere for somewhere selling something more substantial than a burger), and then a delicious “fruit cocktail” at the bus station. I don't know what was in that thing, but it was amazing.

I was so engrossed with “Life of Pi” (a great book – highly recommend it) that I got off the bus too early, and ended up visiting yet another mall while waiting for the next 17 bus to come along. I eventually made it back to the hostel, re-packed my backpack (with a sleeping roommate, as mentioned earlier) and, after spending some time updating my blog, went to bed. Goodnight, Dubai. It was... interesting.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Elephants, Mud Pits and Dogs - Oh My!

I've just completed my week of volunteering at the Elephant Nature Park, and even though I'm pretty sure I've never paid so much to do manual labour in my life, it was such an amazing experience, and I can't wait to go back again to spend another week (or two, or three, or four) hanging out with those gorgeous creatures.

[view from the dining room]

[view from Hannah and my room]

[I'm not sure who this is, but it's one of the older girls... it's amazing the way some of the people working at the park can automatically recognise each elephant!]

For those of you who didn't hear my vague ramblings about the Elephant Nature Park before I left, the basic story is that a woman named Lek has been saving injured, abused and neglected elephants from around Thailand for the past decade or so. She brings them to her park and allows them to recuperate and, for most of them, live happily ever after on a property that she has worked extremely hard to obtain. The place is booming - the woman who I shared a room with had come to the park three years ago when there were 17 elephants. There are now something like 37.

[Hannah and Adam feeding some eles]

[Max, possibly the biggest elephant in Thailand. At 3.3m, no one messes with Max!]

As a volunteer, each day was pretty well structured. Breakfast and chores before 8am (I tried to do a different chore each day so scooped cow poop, elephant poop, collected figs, washed out kitty litter, watered plants...). After chores all the volunteers were expected to help in various projects: mending roads, building fences (which took only a nudge by a playful elephant to destroy), peeling corn, and clearing out the mud pit. After the morning projects we had to feed the elephants (having unloaded, washed and chopped two to three ute-fulls of food), before having lunch ourselves. After lunch we would wander down to the river and bathe the elephants, and then at around 2:30 we would start another project. The elephants tended to toss dirt on themselves straight after their baths (something of a natural sunscreen), so we would have to wash them again before dinner. Though it was hard yakka at times (me? Build a fence? Ha!), it was well worth it.

[preparing lunch for the elephants]

I have to say, there were two expressions that popped into my head on various occasions, and I couldn't help but laugh. It turns out that Dad's sayings, repeated enough times, have actually stuck. Unloading the trucks, for instance, I couldn't help but think to myself "many hands make light work!" And when we were in the mud pit, digging around in the sludge, trying to heave buckets of soft, squishy mud out the sides of the soft, squishy pit, I kept thinking of the saying he had for if he and Mum ever broke up: "Your mother would have trouble finding another man, and I would be pushing shit up hill."

As well as the daily routine, there were a few out-of-the-ordinary events, such as visiting the Elephant Haven. On Thursday afternoon, we went for a bit of a walk with a few of the elephants, and a couple of the dogs (Copper, Number One and Number Two are three of the cutest dogs on the planet - and they're tough old things, too), and stayed the night in a cabin owned by the park in a public area of the jungle. It was a nice change of scenery, and lovely to hear stories about the park's history from Pom, Lek's go-to girl, and the toughest chick I've ever met. Those elephants definitely know who's boss when Pom's around!

[that's one good-looking butt]

[Elephant Haven]

[such good food - I think I gained about 3kg, just in Pad Thai]

[stories round the fire]

On our way back from the Haven, we were given saffron cloths to hang around the trees in the forest. Apparently it's a Buddhist tradition, and if someone cuts down a tree with one of these cloths on it, they will be plagued by bad luck forever.

[Ben saving a tree]

[cooling off after a long walk - and trying not to glare at the elephant trekkers passing us by]

On Thursday afternoon, we also had a bit of an adventure. About twenty of us piled into a truck (I felt like a cow, standing with my fingers holding onto the eight foot high grate that surrounded us all), and went up stream to buy bamboo. They buy bamboo in the form of a raft, and then, having paddled it back to the Nature Park, they demolish the raft and use the bamboo to build new huts (and re-build fences destroyed by boisterous young elephants)! We had to drive the rafts a little down stream, which was an experience in itself. The rafts are so long, they had to be placed practically on top of the aforementioned grate, so we were all sitting on these bloody great rafts, about three metres in the air. The rafting itself was a lot of fun. We saw lots of people washing their dishes and bathing in the river, and laughed ourselves silly at Craig and Richard, two English volunteers, as they tried to catch up to the raft having refused to board it at the beginning of our trip. I think Richard was running after that thing for a good 40 minutes!

Which brings me to the people I met. Richard is a great guy. He's originally from England, but has moved to Wales and seems to be a part of the Welsh Tourist Authority. He has insisted that I visit Cardiff when I'm over there. I think he might hunt me down if I don't. Brooke from California reminded me a lot of Mel - bizarrely so at times! Janna, a Canadian girl who will be at the park for three months as a Volunteer Coordinator was a lot of fun, too. She and I were big advocates of the "my clothes are going to get so dirty, I may as well just wear the same thing for a week" policy. Adam from Canada (seemingly from all over the country at one time or other) was good value. He also looked as if he wanted to adopt every single dog at that park at one point (except Nip Noy - the psycho little thing). And then there was Ben and Joanna from Boston, who, though sounding just like every other American at the park, did very, very good Boston accents when encouraged. Ben worked with autistic children before travelling abroad, and pointed out that "artistic" and "autistic" sound pretty similar with a broad Bostonian drawl, which apparently led to some awkward conversations for him... They've insisted I come and visit them in Boston when I'm over there, and I definitely plan to do so.

[Jo, admiring the view]

[Copper, ignoring the view]

And now for the shameless plug for the Elephant Nature Park. I didn't really realise why this park was so special until I got there. I'd had conversations with people about elephant training, and not really understood how it worked. So here's the short-and-sweet version:

  • Elephant trekking is a terrible industry. Elephants are not designed to carry baskets and two grown adults on their spines, not to mention the amount of energy they expend while going for long walks day in day out, with very little food to sustain them. They are undernourished and overworked, but elephants are such a big part of Thai tourism, it will be very difficult to change this.

  • Regardless of what they do - be it trekking, painting, kicking soccer balls - traditionally, the Thai people believe that the only way to tame an elephant is to break its spirit and cause the elephant to be so terrified of its trainer, it will do what it is told. This means that, oftentimes, an elephant will be trapped in a small cage for days, or even weeks, while Mahouts (Thai elephant handlers) prod, poke and beat them into submission.

The Elephant Nature Park is trying to spread the word that using elephants for our own entertainment is causing them great harm, and that Positive Reinforcement could become a viable alternative to the horrendous beatings these elephants receive. Unfortunately, Positive Reinforcement is not believed by the traditional Thai Mahouts to work, and Lek is David up against Goliath, because, like I said before, Thai tourism depends so heavily on elephants.

So, while I climb off my soap box, what I'm really trying to say is that if you go to Thailand, visit the Nature Park, spend some time with some gorgeous elephants who spend their days just being elephants, rather than spending 30 minutes on the back of an overworked, exhausted animal who is being beaten by its trainer.

And if words aren't enough to convince you, then here is a photo of Ora - one of three baby elephants at the park. Two of the three babies, including Ora, are strictly on lease to the park (Lek agrees to save the lives of these animals - and even pays to do so - while their owners refuse to sell them to her because they will be financially better off in the long run to slowly kill their elephants at trekking camps). This means that Ora - this beautiful little girl - will one day be tortured in order for her owners to control her, and then live a life of servitude.

[Mary feeding Ora]

And on that delightful note, I must leave it there. I'm exhausted, having arrived in Dubai only a few hours ago and having slept only a few hours on the plane, but have to go out and explore!

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Water Water Everywhere...

...and most of it either brown and gross, or freezing cold.

The Songkran New Year's Festival is from 13-16 April. The Thais really know how to party - four days of drunken tomfoolery! Apparently, way back when, the tradition was that you would pour a small amount of water on a passer-bys' feet or forehead as a sign of good luck for the year ahead. It has escalated since, and is now a 4-day water fight.

[view from my Penthouse Bunk]

I arrived in Chiang Mai, having had a delightful overnight train ride from Bangkok, on what seemed to be the only carriage filled with locals and not backpackers (something I quite enjoyed), and set about finding somewhere to stay. At the train station, as has been the case in most of central and northern Thailand, I was pounced upon by taxi and tuk-tuk drivers, as well as guest house owners, each offering various deals. In the end, I went for Safety in Numbers and befriended a nice Scottish bloke named Barry. He and I shared a taxi, and on our way into town saw the craziness of the first day of Songkran.

[They look so innocent... Look what happens when they grow up, below]

Chiang Mai has a "new town" and an "old town," the latter being an area surrounded by a moat. The main street running north to south along the eastern side of the moat (where the taxi dropped us) was full of people with brightly-coloured super soakers and buckets full of water. People were sitting in the back of utes, huge garbage bins full of water (some with ice blocks inside - for an extra kick), buckets in hand, pelting pedestrians. This was a lot of fun to watch from the safety of the taxi, but once we were out in the open and completely defenseless, it was a bit of a different story...

Barry and I ended up agreeing to stay in a guest house together, and it has been quite nice to have some company (but a little interesting trying to co-ordinate times to meet up as we only have one key).

On Friday, my first day in Chiang Mai, Barry and I wandered around together for a while before going our separate ways. Not a good idea. I got horribly lost trying to make my way back from Wat Chiang Mun (the oldest Wat in Chaing Mai, built in the late thirteenth century):

[Wat Chiang Mun]

It didn't help, of course, that my map was becoming more and more saturated. I tried to take the back roads in an attempt to avoid being doused in water, but this just meant I was the lone target to small children with buckets, and teenagers with long, brightly coloured stick-looking things that could project water an awfully long way! At first it was a lot of fun, but after a while, it got a bit old. I was soaking wet, and getting more and more grumpy. There are only so many times you can say "thank you" to someone for pouring water on you (sometimes at close range and directly into your ear, at one stage). I shouldn't whinge, but it was a little much after a while - all the locals thought it was funny to pour water on the soaking white girl, and all the foreigners thought it was funny, too.

I went back to the guest house, soaking wet, and showered and changed for the second time that day. I had intended on wandering the streets to find a cheap Thai massage, but was too scared of getting wet again, so went to the place across the road. 200 Baht for 1 hour seemed like the going rate, anyway. I'd been told by Anja that Thai massages were the Greatest Thing On Earth, but I have to say that the jury's still out... I'm still not sure whether it was enjoyable or painful. Afterwards, it felt as if I'd gone for a long run and forgotten to cool down - my calf muscles were so tense from the hammering she'd given me!

After my massage, Barry and I ventured back into town to explore the night markets, by which time everyone had calmed down considerably. The markets were HUGE, but I didn't buy anything - too many weeks of being a penny-pincher in the lead up to my trip have made me a little frugal. This is bound to change, though, given time...

On Saturday I attended a Thai cookery class, which was a lot of fun - and I was somewhat glad just to be out of harm's way for a while! We did a tour of the market with our instructor (who said his name was "Meow - like a cat"). We saw all kinds of exotic fruits and vegetables, and watched a woman turn a coconut into coconut cream and coconut milk. I will think twice the next time I buy a tin of the stuff from Coles!

["Meow" at the market]

[first she ground the coconut to a pulp...]

[...and then pressed it into cream, and then, after adding some water, into milk.]

[The Buddha at the market, for Songkran blessings.]

The cooking class itself was great! I made six dishes (including Green Curry, Pad Thai and Sticky Rice... mmmmm). I also met a nice girl named Jackie (we bonded over our vegetarianism) who has suggested I look her up when I get to London.

[Yours Truly, cooking up a mean Pad Thai]

[The Green Curry didn't make it into a photo... I ate it too quickly.]

When I returned from class, and - bursting at the seams with self-made goodness - didn't really have the energy to do much at all. If it hadn't been for Barry coming in and out a couple of times, I would have been asleep by 8:30!

Today - Sunday - I have spent leisurely day exploring the Day Markets (buying mangosteen [?] and rambutans), and getting doused (but not as badly) by the locals. It seems they're calming down! There was also a bit of a procession down the main drag, with people all dressed up in traditional Thai outfits, brandishing banners for their hotels, day spas, etc. I would have taken photos, but was too concerned for the well-being of my camera!

Tonight I hit the night markets, and tomorrow it's off to Elephant Nature Park for my week of volunteering! Can't wait!

[Night Markets]

Oh - and Mike, if you're reading this - I just stumbled across good old Mike's Hamburgers (Converting Vegetarians Since 1979). Too funny...

P.S. As per Gemma's suggestion, I've updated my settings so now anyone can comment on my blogs.