Old Delhi; live wires, kindness and confrontation.

Leaving the mosque towering over us in the background, feeling a little jaded by  our experience with the guys at the gate and with sweat in our eyes, the hot midday sun scorching our scalps, we find ourselves deep in the maze that it is the streets of Old Delhi. It feels, well, old, in the sense that it is well-worn, tired like an old jacket, or a much-loved pair of shoes. Old Delhi is a like family heirloom, handed down the generations, every amenable inch of it being utilised to the fullest potential by those that call it home, old and young alike.

There are hundreds of stalls, shops, doorways displaying everything you can imagine. Rows of traders selling copper pipe, followed by rows of little stores selling door handles, or those old-style dial telephones, or shoes, hankies, books, chicken wire… Men cart huge flat trays on wheels through the hoards of people, these carts overloaded with potatoes, or fabric, or cardboard boxes, or stones, or paint. Others carry oversized boxes atop their heads, or bulging mounds of dried leaves, grass or vegetables. Others have long rolls of carpet, or metal tubes balanced on their shoulders. There are surprises around every corner, and a great, great many corners. Life is all around, and much of it is in a mad hurry to be somewhere else.

I find it hard to focus on any one thing, my eyes darting from the pavement and all the trip hazards of potholes, kerbs without pavements, people sitting or sleeping on the ground, and general STUFF, up to the mass of, what I would consider to be, ridiculously unsafe electrical cables and live wires bulging on wobbly wooden posts and poles along the roads. They flit over an abundance of small billboards and signs, many in English, many in Hindi, many in both languages; adverts for Airtel, Aircel, Vodafone, Gionee selfie flash camera phones, photocopying, shoe repair, fresh juice, fancy clothes, hand made sarees… the list is endless. It’s a shoppers paradise, as long as you’re the kind of shopper that doesn’t mind not knowing the price of anything and has little-to-no social anxiety. The practice of retaining a calm demeanor with the thousands of blaring distractions around you is exhausting. In crowds this dense, with the deafening noise of traffic, of metalwork, of sawing and welding and cutting, of animals carting heavy loads through the narrow streets, of mopeds and rickshaws, of bicycle bells; with the constant hum of a city full of people all talking at once, it is very easy to feel overwhelmed here.

One minute the streets smell of aniseed or garlic, the next of burning metal, as sparks fly into the air from a man welding on the kerbside. A few steps more and it’s the scent of urine that fills your nostrils, and just as you gag from this, the air is banana flavoured, or the aroma of curry suddenly makes your mouth water. There are goats tied to steps, icecream stalls with young children shouting “hello! hello how are you” at us as we edge our way through the crowds. Streets that are mere metres wide have scooters whizzing along them, cows drag carts of people and produce, chipboard, hosepipes.. everything you can imagine is somewhere in front of you if you look hard enough. All the vehicles on the road are going whichever direction they need to, and people weave in and out of them wherever there is space for a foot or a front tyre. The sound of horns, again, is incessant.

As we make our way down a particularly narrow alleyway, Vitor stops to buy a samosa from an open stall of hot silver metal and glass panelling. An old man in a beige short-sleeved shirt with linen pants smiles as we look through the array of fried treats on his table. I’m not hungry, but the boys buy some chaat, some aloo tikki, and more samosas, all served with little tin foil trays of spicy red and green sauces. A kind looking man on the opposite side of the alleyway pulls up a plastic bench, which he covers with cardboard for me to sit on as the boys talk about food and tuck in. He shows me some Indian coins, and some american cents. I give him a few English coins, and despite our inability to communicate well verbally, we smile and gesture enough to keep each other smiling and laughing. He has the kindest eyes, a delightfully common trait in India. A friend of this man comes over from an adjacent doorway, and motions to me and then to a rather shady looking young chap in denim stood just out of my eyesight to the right of me. He then points at my bag which is beside my feet on the floor, the strap wrapped around my wrist. Suddenly, my old friend reaches for my bag just as this other man makes a dart for it. I am a little taken aback, unsure if these men know each other or if I’ve just been lulled into a false sense of security and I’m about to be robbed. There are some raised voices, and the shifty looking man scurries away. “Many cheaters” my friend says to me and the boys. “He is looking for you” he says, as he points up the alleyway in the direction of the denim clad guy, who, despite scurrying away, has come back towards us and is now very blatantly staring at me. Our new friend takes Dawid’s rucksack from his back and swivels in on to his front. “Take more care” he says. I start to feel like we should move on, we have drawn quite a lot of attention, so we say our goodbyes and thank yous, shake hands and start back on our way into the streets.

Being aware of pickpockets is one of the single most pressing mindsets you have if you are a responsible traveller/tourist, and this is especially pressing in crowded areas like markets and tourist attractions. All of the guide books, the blogs, vlogs and fellow travellers you meet implore you to mind your belongings, keep your valuables out of sight, stash your money in a few separate places just in case you are victim of a pickpocket. It’s hard not to feel vulnerable as a traveller. You are generally carrying all of your worldly goods on your person quite a fair bit of the time. Since leaving the mosque we hadn’t come across a single other person that looked like they were travelling or backpacking, or indeed one that looked lost; everyone seems to be heading in their own direction with great determined purpose. As 3 backpackers, 1 in a football top, 2 in shorts and all 3 pointing their cameras at very average everyday sights like cows in the streets, or guys chopping and selling fruit, we may as well have had TOURIST stamped on our foreheads in amongst the hundreds of Indians in the streets.

As we continue walking, I’m very aware that the denim clad man from before is following us. The boys are a few steps ahead of me, and it’s very easy to get separated in the crowds. My bag is in front of me and I feel this man tap my shoulder. I continue to walk, thinking he will leave me be if i ignore him. He doesn’t. A few more shoulder taps and I turn to tell him to leave me alone, go away, I have nothing to give. Again, he doesnt. Having stopped briefly, the boys are now quite far ahead of me, and I start to feel a little panicked as I rush to catch them up and stalkey man also rushes, grabbing loosely at my bag strap. I push him away, firmly shouting “NO” and as I turn to walk ahead, he reaches down and firmly squeezes my bum! Now, in my research into India, I had read the occasional horror story, the odd tale of groping in the streets or on the bus, of men brushing themselves against you, peepholes in cheap rooms, of men attempting to take your picture without your knowledge, and I’d been told to be aware of eve-teasing; the practice of men making unwanted sexual remarks or advances on a woman in public. India has this reputation to the outside world, that some of it’s men, not all, hold derogatory or old fashioned views towards women, and some men and women believe that white women are..morally loose. There is no denying the preconceptions I was given. There is a section in the Rough Guide about how incidents of sexual assault are on the rise in India, and how to best observe the very stark cultural differences so as not to draw attention to yourself as a solo female traveller. To my mind, India couldn’t be that much worse than other places in the world, and I wouldn’t ever tar every man in a country with the same brush. I have worked in the bar industry for years in the UK, and I have been subject to all kinds of smut, groping and inappropriate behaviour throughout my career from men and women alike. I don’t think much can prepare you for when something untoward actually happens, and yes, it is always uncomfortable and wrong. Thankfully, I really don’t believe this kind of behaviour is common practice, and even though this was my first day in India, and I just got followed through the streets and groped in public, it only happened once in three months, and I dealt with it the exact same way I would do in the pub – by slapping the guy straight in the face. “DON’T EVER FUCKING TOUCH ME” I shouted, pushing him as hard as I could away from me. He cowered, and the kerfuffle drew attention from other men, who started to come to my aid and shooed him away. I am a little stunned, but it’s not the worst thing that could have happened. And to be honest, at the time of writing this, I have just been groped by a group of guys on bikes in East London, who rode off laughing. So it’s not something that’s specific to India, in any way. 

Dawid and Vitor spy me over the sea of fuss and we meet again. They seem bemused. Vitor’s phone is hanging out of his pocket and Dawids backpack is open. I urge them to secure their things and they shrug. I think maybe I’m a little more conscious of the environment than they are, I’m certainly a little more stressed than they are. I tell them I feel a little unsafe and they assure me it’s fine, but they take up their positions either side of me for the rest of our wander. 

We head to Connaught Place, my senses heightened and my heart beating a little quicker than I’d like. Connaught Place is a large westernised shopping circle, encompassing a park and some market stalls. We’re looking for simcards and somewhere to book train or bus to our next destination. Dawid has a ticket for Jaipur so we figure we’ll stick together. Shouldn’t be that difficult hey.. 

Ahem.

Jama Masjid; A Big Mosque and a little friction.

 

Using Dawid’s offline map, we navigate our way through the winding roads and hustle and bustle of the Chawri Bazaar, spying the red sandstone minarets of the mosque. We head up some 30 odd steps to a main gate, where we see signs telling us not to pay any money for entrance to the mosque, you only have to pay 300 rupees to take in a camera if you are a foreign tourist. As none of us are carrying a camera, we assume we can enter for free.

We take off our shoes, and are asked for money to watch them, then we are asked to hand over our phones. I’m not entirely sure how it happened but upon deciding that one of us will sit outside with our shoes and phones whilst the other two go inside, suddenly we are told we cannot enter at all without paying. There is some sort of communication breakdown; we motion to the sign saying entrance is free, and we show we have no cameras or phones on us and we are point-blank refused entry, a churlish old man holding his hand to my face and shooing us away from the entrance. When we take our money out to pay for the cameras we aren’t carrying, he becomes erratic and shouts at us in Hindi. We leave, confused and a little annoyed, but walk a few minutes around the outside of the mosque to the other gate, where we have a much more pleasant experience. I pay the 300 rupees to avoid any further confrontation, and Vitor shakes his head at me, saying I am soft and I will get ripped off if I always cave in when asked for money, exclaiming that it seems unfair that foreign tourists must pay drastically inflated prices to enter places that are free or a small fraction of the price to those who appear to be native to the country. I feel a twinge of sadness, as I also feel it’s a little unfair, but similarly, I want to see these things and I can afford to pay the money to do so. “It’s the principle of it” Vitor says. I agree, but I’m inclined to think that I’m going to have to tweak some of these principles in order to make life a little bit easier.

Dawid sits outside the gate on a bench with our shoes, phones and our bottled water. I’m given a brightly coloured floor length kaftan thingy, to cover all of my arms and legs. With my bag underneath. it closely resembles a circus tent. Vitor is given a sheet to wrap around his legs, and we step through the gate into an enormous courtyard, one that we’re told can hold 25,000 worshippers.

There are about 250 or so people here at the moment, so we’ve come at a quiet time, and given the scorching heat of the ground on our bare feet, I can see why there aren’t many people walking around. It is unbearably hot and exposed.

In the centre of the courtyard is a square pool, with men washing, ritual ablutions, some even brushing their teeth. Pigeons congregate across the courtyard, flapping and pecking the ground, and black kites circle above. Glistening marble domes along one side of the courtyard house a long prayer area, with great interior arches and a black and white tiled floor. Children lay on the floor, looking at the mosaic-clad ceiling, and men kneel to pray, their foreheads to the ground.

There is a gaudy chandelier, and some young Indian girls in denim jackets and jeans are taking selfies on the steps up to the prayer hall. I marvel at the mix of old traditions and new and old style clothes and technology; the salwar kameez, the burqa, and the skull caps, the kurta, the Adidas trainers, the denim jackets, the iPhones and the selfies…so many selfies. There’s something awkward about seeing men and women looking to their God in prayer just inches away from men and women looking at themselves in their phones.

On the other side of the courtyard, we stand on a raised platform where many people are sitting, laying, talking, sleeping.. We can see the sprawling streets of below, and the Red Fort sitting majestically in the distance. We remember that Dawid is sat outside and we head back out the gate to swap places. Vitor decides to go in again with Dawid, so I sit with my bottle of now very warm water and attempt to plot a route through the streets of Old Delhi to our next point of interest, neglecting to address the fact that Old Delhi in itself is one big point of almost indescribable interest, of endless fascination and awe.

The clouds of yesterday have dissipated and the skies are brilliant blue. We head back down the scorching steps into a maze of streets, with no real direction. Luckily we have nowhere to be and wandering aimlessly for a bit is a luxury we can all afford.

xxx

Waking up in Delhi; Hostels aren’t terrible; Procrastinate long enough and you’ll find a friend-03/09/16

My first morning in the hostel, I awake at 5am as Sanne, a short Dutch girl with big eyes and wet hair is frantically packing up her rucksack to leave. She arrived late at night, solo, and is joining a group trip today visiting India’s Golden Triangle, the nickname given to the typical tourist route India consisting of Delhi, Agra and Jaipur. I start to wonder if I should have booked on something like that, as I still have this sicky feeling in my belly, a feeling indicating that it is going to take me until about lunch time to work up the courage to go outside alone.

If you recall from my last post, my first hostel, Stops Delhi, is situated on the corner of Chandni Chowk, one of the oldest and busiest market districts of Delhi. It is intimidatingly busy, the streets are awash with animals, people, litter, dung, discarded food, these little bowl things made of leaves, bottles, rubble, bricks, sacks of..well anything and everything, and vehicles of all shapes and sizes competing for a space in the commotion. There is an airport style metal detector at the door on the way into the hostel, which made me feel safe and unsafe simultaneously, and a liquor shop a few doors down, a furore of weathered men with stern faces, shiftily buying bottles of rum and whisky. Everything feels a million miles away from anything I’ve ever experienced in Europe, and from South East Asia. I could compare it to some parts of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, but with regards to my comfort zone, I was certainly as far removed from the sleepy market town in Oxfordshire I had left not 48 hours before as I had ever been. In trying to work up the courage to go exploring I am also wondering, with only one more night booked here, where I am going to go next? If I am moving on tomorrow, is there too much to see in Delhi in this one day? What sights should I definitely go and visit and which could I miss out if I’m pushed for time? How I will get to the places I decide I want to see today, but also how will I get to whichever city I’m going to next, wherever that may be? Arrgh!

“Enjoy your time in India and be safe” Sanne whispers, as she tiptoes out of the dorm. I already feel like I’m saying goodbye to a friend, even though we’d spent, oooh, about 14 minutes talking last night, maximum. Travelling sure does intensify a whole bunch of everyday situations and feelings. You forge plenty of instant connections with people and places, some superficial, some genuine but all seem completely and utterly necessary at the time. India, as I had read a hundred times over, can especially be an absolute rollercoaster of emotions, gifting you with the highest highs and the lowest lows in quick succession. In meeting another solo female traveller on my first night to having her leave me not 8 hours later, I had already been so pleased and so disappointed already. And oh man, there are so many more examples of these yo-yo emotions to come!

The pressure of making my mind up about what to do with the day drives me back under the bedsheets, and I stay there a little longer. I’m awoken about 8am by the rumble in my tummy, reminding me that I went to bed hungry last night, and I hear Dawid, a young Polish guy in the bed below mine get up and shower. There’s a free breakfast somewhere with my name on it, so I get up and dressed, the bathroom a little dingy but spacious and clean, not at all like the horror story hostel bathrooms you so often hear about. Deciding what to wear whilst travelling in India was a bit of a chore. There are no end of articles and blog posts dedicated to advice on dressing respectfully in a foreign country; cultural awareness, keeping cool and clean, recommending comfortable and safe attire for wandering in the cities, what to wear in a mosque, in a sikh temple, at the Taj Mahal, what footwear for climbing mountains, most comfortable clothes for flying in, for 22 hour bus journeys etc etc. I read a whole bunch of them, and despite this, I always felt over or underdressed. You’ll see what I mean as time goes on. I’ve covered my shoulders, and I’ve got long pants on too. I put flipflops on today. “Comfy for a wander around the city, when I eventually have the courage to go outside” I thought. That was a mistake. Filthy, filthy, filthy feet.

I head out of the dorm into a brightly painted corridor, down a few stairs, past a water dispenser, filling up my bottle as I go. The hostel kittens are lazing on a colourful arrangement of oversized floor cushions in the common area, there’s the obligatory guitar, a tv, some playing cards, Uno and various copies of the Lonely Planet India from all over the globe on a sideboard, and a couple of computers set up for internet access. A couple more steps down out of the common room, and I make my way into the kitchen. I am greeted by two young Indian men, both with floppy fringes, and bare feet; one is cooking eggs to order, the other just casually leaning and watching, a very common pastime in India it seems. Every cupboard in the kitchen is a bold primary colour in contrast to the white walls. There are two sinks, and three kettles on the other counter top, all boiling away for teas and coffees. A large square table in the centre of the kitchen hosts two other travellers, all silently tucking into their breakfasts. The table is loaded with bananas, cornflakes, bread, butter and jam, and metal jugs; one of cold milk, which happens to be warm, and one of warm milk, which is even warmer still. “Hey” I mumble, as I sit down. “Hey” they reply, not looking up from their phones or their cornflakes.  I fill up on bananas and cereal, wash my plate and head out for a cigarette, and to plot a route on my phone to a nearby landmark. It is warm, 29°C, a dry heat. It’s dusty, and the air is thick with traffic pollution. The sounds and pungent smells of a couple of million people and animals getting on with their lives is drifting over the high walls into the open courtyard, and it’s all a little disorientating, intimidating and I’m procrastinating…

Half an hour passes.

Come on Charlotte, time to just go outside. Just go. Out. Up we get…

At this point, the door opens and Vitor comes out, a tall, dark haired guy in a Brazilian football shirt and shorts, so I sit right back down, hopeful that he will be friendly and not just another Hey-er. “How are you doing?” he asks, looking right at me. An open question! Score. We chat a little about our journey here and he offers me a small greenish-brown rolled leaf, tied at one end with a piece of string. I’m not entirely convinced he’s not offering me drugs, and I sit uncomfortably, wanting to be open to his generosity but at the same time thinking that this guy could be offering me pretty much anything in the world right now. The last thing I want in this sweatbox of potholes, of hidden alleyways, with these animals, these cows with sharp horns roaming the streets, dudes with snakes in their pockets jumping out on you from between parked rickshaws..the absolute last thing I want is to be any kind of high. I decline, and watch as he lights it up, then tells me excitedly, that he bought a whole packet for about 5 rupees, that’s about 6pence. He shows me the little foil pack. “It’s just tobacco” he assures me, and offers me a drag. I try it, it tastes funny, not unlike rolling tobacco just a bit more…leafy. “These are called beedi” he says, “it’s so cheap here to smoke! They sell them everywhere in the street”. My plans to quit smoking are slowly going out of the window, as I cling to the social interaction it provides, but I’m not converted to beedi just yet. We talk some more. He got here yesterday. He went to The Red Fort in the afternoon and today, he’s meeting up with Dawid, the guy from my room, and they’re going to find Jama Masjid, one of the largest mosques in India. He invites me along. I am beyond happy to accept the invitation, and we arrange to meet in 10 minutes at the reception area.

20 minutes later, we head out into the streets, making the usual standard getting-to-know-you chit chat along the way. Dawid is from Poland, early 20’s, another one in a football shirt, travelling alone for a few weeks, having a break from his call centre job that he loves. He has a pretty solid plan, trains and hostels booked for the next week or so. He’s enthusiastic, and smiley and I like him instantly, especially after I spot his Rhymesayers tattoo. I’ve never met anyone that loved Aesop Rock and I honestly didn’t think I would meet someone that did in Delhi.

Vitor is a lawyer from Brazil, travelling alone for a few months, with plans to go to the north and spend some time with Buddhist monks in Dharamshala. He is confident and openly, brazenly inquisitive about anything and everything, and my initial awkwardness with him in the smoking area has dissolved. He is enthralled by the complexities and multitude of religions and religious sites in India, and as the three of us traipse along, following our noses to a degree and sticking out like sore thumbs, I feel safe, happy and way calmer and less worried about being alone already.

xxx

 

Welcome, namaste, don’t go outside alone; Delhi metro, auto-rickshaws and my first night in India.

Having acquired a few small notes in currency in the airport, I follow the surprisingly useful yellow signs from the exit at Indira Gandhi Airport to the metro line. Yellow line is the airport line, that’ll take me to New Delhi station and from there I can plan my next move. I’m already a bit hot and bothered, and it’s a few minutes walking in the early morning heat, through seemingly abandoned tunnels and underpasses, with my heavy rucksack on my back and my daypack on the front of my body. The metro feels.. eerie. Unlike London, there are no buskers, no music, and barely any commuters wandering to the platforms and ticket booths. It’s about 10am.

I join what I assumed was a queue to buy a token for the metro; it’s more of a huddle of men, pushing and shoving, paying no mind to my presence, which is both a blessing and an annoyance I guess. I ask for New Delhi – one way and pay the equivalent of about 40 pence for a small token, which either touches on a pad or is inserted like a coin at the turnstile. I drop a ten rupee coin at the desk and the huddle of men quickly stand over it, not allowing me to bend down and reach it. I sigh a heavy sigh and head towards the security scanners. The Indian metro has metal detectors and bag xrays similar to those in an airport that you must go through before you can get to a platform. I unload my rucksack, my day pack, my handbag and firmly grasp my phone and my wallet as I am ushered in to a “Women Only” line for a frisking.  I am waved into a curtained room, to stand on a small square platform, arms out, feet apart. The female guard in her beige camo ignores all the alarms as she waves her wand over my clothes; my belt, my lighter and my phone all triggering the beep. She touches my tattoos and runs a finger over my lip piercings without batting an eyelid, and motions me through the curtain. I find my bags all on the conveyer belt, having successfully found their way through the xray machines. I load up again, and head for platform 3. There are a few more people on the platform, it doesn’t feel quite so eerie and deserted, but it stills seems very empty,and I can’t see any women anywhere. I’ve read that the first two carriage spaces on the platform are  for women only and so I head that way, towards some sparkly pink “Women Only” signs, but I wind up boarding a pretty empty carriage about mid way as I spot a young Indian woman sat in it, alone. If she’s comfortable there, then so I am. The carriage is spacious, clean and cool, not at all how I had envisaged it. I wonder what other preconceptions I would have blown away and what else I may be surprised by as my journey went on. Little could I have known what was in store.

As the train makes it’s way towards my destination, we pass over a motorway and I see the chaos below. Cycle rickshaws, auto rickshaws, bikes, scooters, tractors, vans, cars, buses, just PEOPLE. Fucking loads of ’em. Sleeping in their rickshaws, sleeping on the kerb, sitting on the roadside, children, animals, adults walking along the bit where I would normally expect to see a central reservation. Donkeys, goats, cows, oh god the cows. As we pull into New Delhi station I start feeling a bit queasy. I alight, and have a sudden moment of absolute fear that I am now almost as far away from my comfortable home life in the pub as I have ever been, and I am completely alone in a huge, densely populated country I know very little about. And I’ve barely slept. And I quite clearly have just landed. I may as well have a t-shirt on that says “I’M NEW HERE”.

I decide not to tell the three rickshaw drivers that surround me outside the station where exactly I am going, partly because Nagesh’s advice (from the plane, see previous blog post!) is ringing in my ears, and partly because, as I understand, it could be a bit of a difficult find. Many drivers don’t know new buildings, hidden away buildings or small businesses as there are just SO many roads and shops and businesses around, I ask how much to the nearest landmark, Delite Cinema. It’s a 5 minute walk to my hostel and I’ve got an offline map downloaded on to my phone (maps.me ..a life saver of an app for when you’ve got not data or signal). I’m told it’s 150 rupees which is a good 3 to 4 times what the hostel had told me to pay for a 4km journey.  I walk away from them all, and light a cigarette to catch my nerve and calm myself. It’s hot, I’m exhausted and 150 rupees is about £2. I can’t really argue over £1, can I? (Oh I can, and I will, on many other days…) I take the guy who says he’ll do it for 80.

The next ten minutes are an absolute blur. An assault on my senses, an overload of noise, of incessant, and I mean INCESSANT beeping, of screeching tyres, of shouting, of speeding through traffic, of cutting corners, of narrowly avoiding head on collisions every ten seconds, of bumping into other rickshaws… It’s basically like being on a bumper car with a couple of hundred bumper cars of varying sizes (but many much much larger than yours) all around, and people just strewn about willy nilly in any bit of space that they can fit in to with their cargo..and their cargo maybe other people, plants, trees, metal, wood, food, boxes of..god knows, just stuff. SO. MUCH. STUFF. As we arrive at my destination, I jump out into this melting pot of a place, load up for what I am praying is a short walk, and stomp off in the direction my hostel should be.

I trudge along the makeshift pavement (one of many things I take for granted in the UK- pavements for pedestrians) squeezing through scores of men sat with typewriters doing what can only be very important work, a plethora of small food stands wafting out the most amazing food smells, aromas of cinnamon, saffron, garlic, butter, cumin, incense; interject those mouthwatering smells with stomach-churning wafts of raw sewage and rotting garbage, and by the time I see my hostel doors, I’m not sure if i’m hungry or nauseous or both.

My hostel has another big body scanner, and I’m greeted at the front desk by a short man exclaiming “THERE’S NO ROOM FOR YOU”. As my heart begins to sink, he smirks and laughs warmly, waving me in. I fill in the first of about a million official forms that I will come to fill in during my time in India, I get a quick tour of the common areas, the smoking terrace and I’m shown to my 8 bed dorm. It’s empty, so I grab that opportunity to shower. I unpack, repack, distribute my cash cleverly so as to be okay should I lose some of it out and about, and have a nap for an hour. When I wake, I head to the terrace to sit in a swinging hammock chair, staring at a sparkly red rickshaw, brightly coloured metal steps leading up to the roof, a table with a couple of ashtrays, luminous stools and chairs and three dogs totter about as the night draws in. A huge monkey darts overhead and the dogs bark, and I wonder how I can even begin to get accustomed to the noise, the ever-present, unrelenting sounds of so much vibrant life going on around me.

I check in on the wi-fi, let everyone at home know I’m safe and well, and after about an hour a group of Italian girls come out for a cigarette. I say hello, and they nod. I attempt to talk to them but they aren’t particularly receptive.I ask where I can get some food and they tell me there is a market nearby but not to go outside alone now as it is dark, and it wouldn’t be safe. I start to wonder what on earth I have let myself in for, and resign myself to bed, hungry and acutely aware that I am very much out on my own now.

 

 

 

 

Taking flight; establishing a coping mechanism for solo travel, and getting a green light.

After what seemed like an eternity waiting, saving, working and researching, the day of my flight finally arrived. I worked a late shift on the Wednesday in the pub which meant several gins and shots before bed, so I woke up early on Thursday 1st September, unsure if the sickness in my belly was due to alcohol or nerves, or both. After a shaky goodbye with Aimee, I jump in my taxi to the station to catch the train to Birmingham. My flight isn’t until 9pm, but I give myself the whole day to travel there, allowing about 5 hours in the airport to begin getting used to feeling alone in the world. Once I’ve checked in my backpack, I head to the airport bar and smoking area to drink a pint of cider and eat a cheese sandwich. I call my mum and my dad, and flick through my Rough Guide, attempting a bit more research into what exactly I will do upon landing in Delhi.

Now, I don’t really consider myself as a sufferer of anxiety or nerves, but I do worry, of course I do. It is perfectly normal to worry about things occasionally, especially pretty big life-changing leaps into an unknown world. I don’t tend to vocalise my concerns all that often, at least not the real ones, but I had been outwardly concerned about where to go first, how to get around, and whether or not I could survive and enjoy a trip out on my own. I remember sitting in the airport lounge with a wave of nausea washing over me, a niggling doubt inside my gut regarding the solo journey I was about to undertake. What if I was on my own the whole time? What if I didn’t make any friends? What if nobody could speak any English and I couldn’t grasp any Hindi or Tamil or Urdu or any of the other 20-something official languages? I know I’m certainly not afraid of being alone, or of flying, or of going somewhere new. I have done all these things a hundred times over, and I would do them a hundred times more, but… when you’re sat in an airport lounge, alone with your life in your bag and nothing or no-one putting any expectations or demands on your time for the forseeable future, with no-one waiting to make sure you’ve arrived safe and sound, with nothing except my own back to think about…all of these things plus a dollop of last night’s beer fear creeping in, it’s no surprise I wound up having little flutters of panic in the hours leading up to my flight.

The best way for me to combat these anxious feelings was to break them up into sections of “bitesize” stress. I’d travelled on a plane before alone. Easy. That’s what I was about to do again. So I can swallow that. Got some previous there, that makes that one easier to cope with. Once on the plane, I’d have 9 hours to panic about where I was going next or how I was going to get there or what it was going to feel like or smell like or sound like..or ..WAIT. NO. Let’s tackle the fear of what to do when we land. I have landed in an alien city before, alone and unsure of where to go, so I know I can do that. I will get through airport security, customs, and then take on the next task.  Brick by brick, little by little. A weird sort of calm began to take hold, one that would be invaluable during my time travelling. Take each little fear bit by bit, block the anxieties in to sections, piece by piece, journey by journey, rather than thinking about them all at once. I soon found I’d conquered ten little fears without even breaking a sweat! Well, not an emotionally driven sweat anyway. The heat, well, that was a whole other level of perspiration there is no preparing for. We’ll come to that soon.

So, armed with my calm demeanor, my little red rucksack (packed to last me a week in the event my backpack got mislaid), my travel purse (a lovely gift from my friend Emma, with clever little compartments for my passport, emergency cards, insurance and medical details) and my genius idea to arrive super early at the airport, I board my flight, with my window seat near the front of the plane.

HERE WE GO! She’s off! A quick text to my loved ones and I’m up in the sky, admiring the lights of late night Birmingham as we soar into the dark. My seat is next to an elderly Indian couple, Seema and Nagesh. An hour into the flight and we get our dinner; paneer and vegetables, lentils, curd and kheer, an Indian rice pudding. Seema watches as I pick at my food, and we strike up a conversation about Indian cuisine, something I thought I was perhaps somewhat familiar with, but I soon learned I knew pretty much nothing about. At all. We share my mints as our ears pop, and she tells me of her time in Europe visiting her son in Germany, her daughter in England and spending time in Austria, Switzerland and Belgium. Nagesh side-eyes me the majority of the conversation. He is frail, and I wonder perhaps if his English isn’t so good or if he is just used to letting his wife do all the talking. 🙂

As the trays are cleared away, the cabin is plunged into darkness and I realise that being 4 1/2 hours ahead, it’s now about 3 am Indian time, so dozing off seems the next logical move. Seema and Nagesh snore away, and I flick through the in-flight entertainment,not particularly interested in anything. I nod off for about 2 hours, until I’m awoken by a sudden burst of blinding light shining through my window. At first I thought there was a green light on the wing of the plane, and then, as I start to rouse, I realise I’m staring at the most beautiful moon. The sky is clear, not a cloud to be seen, and the light from the moon bathes the plane in this ethereal brilliant green, blue and turquoise hue. Green is my favourite colour, it brings me calm and, emotionally, I associate it with safety. Needless to say, I am calm, collected and smiling from ear to ear at what felt like getting a personal green light, a go ahead from the universe as everyone else slept soundly. It wasn’t so easy to capture through the window as I’d hoped but these pictures, not filtered or edited in any way, still bring me calm.

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We’re woken up at about 8am Indian time by a small breakfast of fruit and an egg free banana muffin. Seema and I talk about my trip and my plans in Delhi. She looks shocked when I say I am travelling completely alone and I have nobody to meet when I land. Nagesh, having not said a word to me the entire flight, stares me dead in the eye and whispers hoarsely “don’t trust anybody. ANYBODY”. I laugh nervously, and turn to watch our descent into Delhi out of the window; the sky no longer a blueish green ocean of calm, but a cloudy grey haze. It’s murky and stuffy as I step off the plane and head to collect my bag.

I spend roughly an hour in the airport, getting changed, then collecting currency and breaking the large notes (at that time 500 and 1000 rupee notes) into smaller notes, buying water and cigarettes. (I soon regret not buying snacks) I dabble with the idea of a prepaid taxi to my hostel but figure I might as well chuck myself in at the deep end and learn to get around as cheaply as possible. I’d booked my first 3 nights in a hostel in New Delhi (or so I thought…) called Stops. Like many hostels and hotels, they had emailed to suggest the easiest way to travel to them from the city’s main transport hubs. From the airport, I understand, I can take a dedicated airport metro line right into the centre of New Delhi, and then take a rickshaw to the hostel. Easy peasy! Maybe. Again, I’ve done a metro, and a rickshaw and a taxi before, I’ve carried my huge rucksack through bustling cities and dingey underpasses and I’ve lugged my whole life in a bag on London Underground Central Line during rush hour, so I know about crowds and stifling air in a metal tube in a tunnel below the surface of the earth. I’ve got this.

Haven’t I?

:-/

Oh what to do, when the world insists on turning unequivocally, with little regard for my longing for it to stop?

December is upon us, and this morning I awoke, wondering if there would be a better time to document my experiences of 2016 than this day. Is there ever a better time than today? Like many of us, I am a fan of tomorrow. Diet? Tomorrow. Travel? Tomorrow. Self improvement? Why today? The schedule for the day that follows is just as barren! I love ya, tomorrow, you’re only a day away.

This year, more so than the 30 previous in my life, feels somewhat worthy of ennobling. It has been a little different in many ways, almost every moment of it has seen me more present and more involved in just living than ever before, and I’m petrified that I’m going to forget every detail as the days go by so let’s jump straight in at the bit where I did the thing so many of us dream of doing but never really get around to.

I’d been having one of those years. The early months of 2016 had been a sort of gloopy trickle of bad luck and disappointment. Some of these ill feelings I had likely encouraged, some I didn’t deserve, some I tried to stave off and some I wholly facilitated. March came around. It’s early in the year to be thinking “this year is terrible”, but, then it is also quarter of the year been and gone. Another winter is on the way out, another summer on the horizon. All I could see as I looked forward were my days falling away in much the same way as they had always done, a miasma of mostly comfortable routine, of work, of study, of commuting and small talk. I was restless. I was unhappy. Truly glum. Stuck.

Routine had been and always is, thankfully, punctuated with wonderful friends, with beautiful days, joy, happiness, laughter. Whether shared or alone, I do partake in these blissful days often, I really do. Around this time though, Spring 2016, these joyful days felt as though they had been getting further and further apart, the time between smiling felt almost eternal. There were little adventures to the city, late nights with the dearest friends discussing life and love, delicious food with delicious people, walks in the fields, library days…but all the while, like most people I expect, I had this bubbling sensation in my gut that…well, maybe time is running out? Maybe I am wasting my life? Maybe I could or should be doing something more than I do, things that I wanted to do, for myself or for others? My mood, accompanying the English weather with its frivolous disregard for my wellbeing, had spiralled into a consuming hopelessness and self-doubt. My days were increasingly an exercise in complaining and self-pity. I was looking up from my indulgent pit feeling like the sides of the rut were unconquerable. The world I spent hours gazing at from my kitchen window seemed bland and unforgiving, turning unequivocally, not at all heeding my longing for it to just pause for one brief moment to allow me to catch my breath.

“I just need some time” I thought. Every single day.

“But time is relative” I would retort. (Battling my own thoughts daily was just another surefire sign that it was time for a change or a rest). “Time’s a concept I impose on myself, we impose on ourselves as humans”. I had a dream one night that time was a tangerine, every day I peeled it and gave the segments to those around me in the morning, I squeezed it, juiced it, and before breakfast time, I’m left with just the pith and the rind of my own tangerine, which someone wants to grate for a cake.

I often feel I don’t have enough of time, and yet I tell myself it is abundant. There are many days left in which I can fall in love, I can call my mother, I can get a real job, I can see the world…

Many days. I have plenty of time. Don’t I? Hmm.

“Time is a funny thing. Time is a very peculiar item. You see, when you’re young, you’re a kid, you’ve got time. You got nothing but time. Throw away a couple of years here, a couple of years there, it doesn’t matter, you know. The older you get, you say “Jesus, how much I got? I got 35 summers left.” Think about it. 35 summers….”.

With my ever-decreasing number of summers in mind, the overwhelming urge to escape everything and everyone I know finally took hold, and I just let it happen. After several years of suppressing the urge to run away, of flitting between jobs, people and studying, trying to fill the gap in my soul with gin, late nights and pursuing aspirations that weren’t actually my own, I booked a one-way flight.

I’d been looking at train tickets, to travel from Oxfordshire to Cumbria to visit my loved ones, train tickets to take me about 250 miles north. As always, I resent the expense. At over £100 for a return, I often find myself delaying my visits home, I certainly don’t visit as often as I’d like. £100 is a lot of money. I found myself looking to see if it would be cheaper to fly to Manchester, and whilst browsing domestic flights on Skyscanner I playfully clicked the option to show me flights from London to “Everywhere”. How far I could fly for £100? Certainly to Europe and back, probably two or three times. Turkey, Tunisia, oh Dubai, only £160! Thailand? £280 one way.. I’ve already been there.  New Delhi. £270. All that way. To India. I’d daydreamed of India many a time. Of bustling cities, of beaches and markets, of rickshaws and street food, of Bollywood, of camel safaris, snake charmers and overcrowded trains.

So, it happened. A couple of clicks and it was booked.  Thursday 1st September 2016, one way from Birmingham to New Delhi. I submitted my payment and awaited an email to confirm my ticket. I’d given myself 6 months or so to save up some money for what would undoubtedly be the trip of a lifetime. On the morning of the flight, I awoke, a bag of nerves, packed, repacked… I hopped in a taxi after some emotional phone calls and boarded my flight, having nowhere specific to go, no-one awaiting me, no need to be anywhere at all for the coming 12 weeks.

 

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Over a series of posts in the next few months or so, I’ll try to convey a little of how it all unfolded, from biking in the Kullu Valley, waking up in the Himalayas, hunting for a grave of a long-lost relative in Dalhousie, to cremation at the burning ghats in Varanasi, tears at the Taj Mahal, cocktails, cows and crows on beaches of Goa and the tea plantations of Munnar, and everything in between. Perhaps you’ll read my tales, perhaps you won’t. If I’ve learned anything from my travel experiences, this time around and in the past, it’s that I travel for me and I tell stories for me, no-one else.

It sure is fun if someone else comes along for the ride, though.

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Love is Love. If Only Our Differences Would Unite Us.

I haven’t used my blog to talk about current events before but sometimes I write a whole bunch of words and I have nowhere to put them, so here is as good as place as any to get some things off my chest.

The subsequent anti Muslim rhetoric after yesterday’s appalling events has just as great a potential to be harmful to the everyday tolerance and understanding we work so hard to instill in our communities when it comes to living side by side with those who live their lives differently to ours. The world is a bigger place than it’s ever been, but it’s growing smaller each day as we find ways to travel, to communicate and to explore like never before. We are integrating like never before, like it or not, it is inevitable, as the wind blows seeds to other shores, as the birds fly south seeking preferable climates, as the trees grow taller to reach the sun.

I come across people everyday that are filled with hate, for women, for homosexuality, for men, for foreigners, for the Royal Family, for chavs, for cats, for the weather.. and i thank my lucky stars that these people can’t get their hands on a deadly weapon with the ease that it seems you can in the US.

My heart breaks for the LGBTQ community, and for all humanity again. For the fact that the mainstream media can still only seek to point the finger at the western world’s largest perceived opposite when any act of senseless violence in the western world in this day and age occurs. For the fact that these acts of violence are painted so as to highlight our differences and divide us, when we have worked so tirelessly to unite ourselves. A white guy, whose religious beliefs have gone largely unspecified, was arrested yesterday with a tonne of intention to harm those at LA Pride. Should he have been initially branded as a terrorist? Should we have speculated over his links with ISIS too? Or perhaps drawn similarities to Anders Brevik? Maybe some affinity to the iIdeology of, oh, Voldemort? I don’t know.

The plight of the LGBTQ community for acceptance and equality is still a very real struggle, the world over, as is the plight of women, of the black community, of the underprivileged, to name but a few ways in which society segregates itself. The plight of the DIFFERENT is ongoing, even in “the land of the free”.

I don’t know what the answer is to learning to live together. In an ever changing fast paced world it is unlikely there is just one easy solution. But I know that I could not point the finger at the so called “tyranny of Islam” for the acts of aggression, violence, war and hatred perpetrated in the world today. Religion may seem like an outdated or misguided concept to many, but it also brings peace, love and comfort to many, including something in the region of 2 billion people on this planet who practice Islam and don’t feel the need to pick up a gun and kill people for their sexuality or their colour or race or clothes or whatever. Those who are fasting during this holy month of Ramadan who have chosen to share their food with me at sundown, even when I say I don’t believe in a God,  they don’t hate our differences.  Those who are out but hiding from their families aren’t all plotting to kill. Those who are going to gay-friendly nightclubs to dance and make friends because they don’t feel comfortable in pubs and bars in town that aren’t openly welcoming aren’t planting bombs in Wetherspoons. Those who are piling into boats risking certain death to flee war aren’t coming looking for the people supplying weapons. Those men who hold hands with other men as a sign of friendship in Turkey, India, Thailand… These people arent rampaging killers shooting people in clubs because men holding hands incited a hatred in them they could not contain.

When you’re done chastising Islam, the black community, the Latinos, the immigrants, the poor, the queer, the dykes, the Polish, the young, the Catholic, the old etc, when you find a way to lay the blame for all that is wrong in your community on specific groups of people, and perhaps you get your restrictive legislature on people’s freedom to live the lives they choose, people will still persecute those they perceive as different, be it a ginger kid in school, a transvestite, a disabled person, a Christian, a woman. The freedom to own a gun is not freedom to live as you choose. It’s choosing to accept that you live in fear.

Even if you could take away all those that are different to you, toddlers will still be shooting you dead in your home because gun laws are outdated and the ability to responsibly bear and distribute arms is severely lacking, with repeated devastating consequences.

You, I, we will not change the lifelong beliefs of those we disagree with overnight, we can not eliminate hate and anger the world over by getting angrier and hating. Never give up doing what little you can to promote understanding and tolerance of each other, no matter what religion, colour, creed or preference, and most of all, do no harm. Look to the love and happiness in the world, to our common ground, to our ability to unite and express solidarity in times of hardship. Please.

#LoveIsLove 
xxx

Milkshakes and making friends

Another gorgeous, slightly more organised boat trip with plenty of sunscreen applied this time, and we arrive suitably baked and exhausted on Koh Tao. We expect the hoards of taxi drivers approaching now, so we walk a few minutes up from the rickety wooden pier into a maze of alleyways, just as packed with shops and stalls, only this time every other shop is a dive centre. From my understanding, Koh Tao has some of Thailand’s most beautiful dive sites and if i were a braver girl and didn’t look so horrendous in a wet suit I’d give it a go.
We approach a few taxi drivers asking for a lift to our hostel and to our disappointment and increasing panic, no one knows where it is.. and the address is local to the pier too. We’re once again sweltering and we collapse on the side of a busy road, outside a massage parlour, opposite a tattooist and try to find a map.
I wander off up the hill, and luckily notice the building numbers, ours is a small alleyway between The Jolly Roger and another tattoo parlour, and after some loud talking and hand signals through a window, a woman gives me a key and a guy leads us up some stairs round the back of a scuba shop and into THE HOTTEST ROOM ON THE PLANET. we have a tv and I do love my background noise, so we grab our showers, watch a bit of Dexter (end of season one, just before Deb nearly gets sliced and diced) and head off for a wander back the way we came.
Each building off the alleyway has a terrace on the beach, we pick the cheap one and order the seafood again (i could blog about everything I’ve eaten here but you’d just get jealous..) I opt for a banana and chocolate shake too, I’ve had a long day so I can treat myself, then we head into the bar playing Fleetwood Mac to watch the sunset.
This will be our first Thai sunset, as we’ve been facing the wrong side of the planet so far.. we pull up some cushions and hit the cocktails. And beers. And spirits. By just 10pm, we are suitably shitfaced, have made friends with the aussie and the american behind the bar and they’re letting us take pics behind the counter. We dream out loud of owning a bar on the beach, and harass the customers the way only drunken barmaids do 🙂
On the way home, we remember we can get hot sandwiches from the 7/11.. and I buy crabsticks and wasabi. We make a plan to head to Sairee beach the following day, as recommended by an old australian couple, and try to sleep again, watching Josie and The Pussycats in Thai. It’s damn hot. And there’s a duvet. Ridiculous!
Love and long island iced teas
xx

Ban Tai & lunacy

After our first night in Ban Tai in our little bungalow, we wake up and fancy a wander on the beach again. Well, why not? It’s right there.. I’m sunburnt on pretty much just my knees after the boat trip, so I chuck on a tonne of suncream and we have a little swim, and grab a taxi back to the pier to do some shopping.. yes, shopping. I can do it and I can enjoy it apparently!
We browse the stalls, each one an Aladdin’s Cave of junk and tat, and oh god the neon.. I despise neon, it makes me.. angry. I’m a firm believer that if it ain’t for safety, you ain’t landing a plane then you have no right to wear it. Still, its pretty much the in thing here.. if its a cultural thing.. I can sorta kinda tolerate it I guess.. huff.
After a few cheap purchases of swimwear, sarongs, bags and more suncream we head back to our bungalow for yet another shower and hitch a lift to Haad Rin, home of the Full Moon party.. and the half moon party, black moon party,Shiva moon party etc etc.. These people just party all the time.
This time the alleyways are lined with women selling buckets BUCKETS of alcohol. ‘Me best fuck bucket!’ ‘you want my bucket, bucket fucks you’ usw usw..200baht (about 4 quid) gets you a bucket of ice, a bottle of vodka/whiskey and a mixture of your choice.. this ranges from sprite, coke to lychee juice, mango ice tea and whatever else they drop into it.
The night of the full moon, after a quick beer we brave a bucket.. 400baht each and they whack one of those red bull type concentrate shots things in.. and yep, the bucket fucks you.
We’re followed around by some Indian guys, we dance, we get neon body paint.. (I’m fucking shameless after a fuck bucket..clearly. “hates neon” she says…) and we dance some more. Oh and buy pizza. And more buckets. Platforms are erected along the beach for dancing, different djs every few metres.. ooh one was in a massive clam shell next to an illuminated boat. There is a large area cordoned off on the beach for sleeping, like an adult play pen.
The moon rises and some men clamber up a 30ft wooden structure and set fire to it, the words ‘Welcome To Thailand’ burning into the night sky. I swear, when I looked up at the moon I saw it shift in the sky, not slowly, but like the earth took a jolt and suddenly everything was a few thousand miles aside of where it was seconds before, but no-one else noticed because of the partying.
Some stuff happened after that, but its fuzzy.. and I didn’t take a camera as I am grown up and afraid of losing things. I know a boy kissed me, in a sort of holiday frenzy. Time passed erratically.
We sat with a few gay Israelis in the taxi on the way home, one threw up out the window on to a passing neon girl. Ha.
For some reason, we decided going swimming at 4am in our clothes back at the hut was a good idea? After about an hour in the sea I remind myself that this is how shark movies start and head back to photograph the remnants of the evening and pass out.
Not too hung over the following day, we found a nice little bar called the Fishermans, chilled out and soaked up some more sun, booked a hostel in Koh Tao for Monday night and waved goodbye to our hosts, hoping the boats trying to get off the island weren’t TOO full..
WE’RE GONNA NEED A BIGGER BOAT..
love and luna madness
Xxx

Koh Phangan, Sailing On A Boat

Where was I? I’ve just got off the boat yeah? I’m on Koh Phangnan (i’m not going to lie, its spelt 6 different ways by the locals so I have no idea of the correct spelling).. we eventually get off the boat, amongst much scrambling and confusion, and walking a gangway that moves a metre forward and back with every wave. We’re immediately greeted with a hundred Thai men and women in their jog pants, with their hardknock-life feet all out to play, and crudely hand written signs.. “taxi lady? boat? taxi boat? where you going?”
We dig out our accommodation details and hop in an open back truck. Our driver, a short thai female john candy lookalike in crocs, hoists our rucksacks up on top of the cab without breaking a sweat, as we sit pondering where exactly the seatbelts are, soaked from the 35degree heat (I am near death at 20, you know me..)
We speed off from the dock at Thongsala Pier (where there’s a navy boat, just chilling out..) through typical tourist trap villages, spattered neon in souvenir t-shirts, sarongs, hats, wacky pants and glow sticks, every 20ft a roadside barbeque.
I think I’ve mentioned the roads previously, but I’m not sure I mentioned the lack of a pavement.. everyone, EVERYONE is on the road, walking, most on scooters and motorbikes, some crawling. Families travel on a scooter. I’m talking one adult driving, a baby between her legs and 2 kids sat side saddle behind her. It’s insane, the Brit in me can think of a million road safety regulations these people have NO regard for! but hey ho, everyone’s happy 🙂
After some small confusion, a bit of back tracking and some hanging on for dear life to a bar on the roof of the taxi, home to a hammock for those long shifts I guess, we ascend and descend and wind and meander almost vertical roads and arrive at our resort, Liberty Bungalows. Oooooohhh.
Now, in my head ‘on the beach’ means ‘you can see the beach from your window.. if you’re lucky enough to have a window’.. but jeesy creesy, we are literally ON THE BEACH. we have a bathroom hosting a family of small geckos, two hideous pink flowery single beds, a terrace with a table, a bench and a washing line and ALL THE SEA AND SAND WE COULD WISH FOR. amazing. This place is like a fiver a night, surrounded by coconut trees, a kite surfing centre, a 7/11 and school just round the corner (kids on motorbikes) There IS the small matter of a cow just hanging out on the walk up to the street.. I could have nearly cried…Kat has to walk ahead and nearest to it 🙂
We have some dinner on the beach, a few gins and watch some guys play beach volley ball. Too tired to do anything else, we turn in, sleeping to the whistles of a bird that’s perfectly mastered the ‘car alarm’ squawk, and the wheezing of me, a 27 year old smoker in 35 degree heat.
Love and lime in the coconut
Xxx