When mid-hitchhike snack invitations go bad

It all started when his car shuddered to a halt at the side of the highway on the southern fringes of Yerevan. I hadn’t expected anyone to pull over here. There was nowhere to pull over. No shoulder, too dangerous. But then we were in Armenia. Hitchhiking here is incredibly easy and the driving is far from safe.

A few hours later, the kind driver, who’d picked us up from our less-than-stellar hitchhiking spot on the edge of a construction zone on Armenia’s main north-south thoroughfare would be force feeding us Russian Vodka and fierce quantities of barbecued meat; our plans to reach Tatev Monastary in the south of the country by days end completely out of the window.

Jora was an easy going fellow with a sparkle in his eye and a permanent grin on his face. I’d say he was in his mid-60s and the opportunity to pick up two foreign hitchhikers on his way home seemed too perfect an opportunity to pass up. As we drove down the highway, Armenian pop music blasting out of the open windows of his aging Vauxhall, he asked us if we’d like to join him and his wife for a snack at their home in Ararat village. After that he’d drop us back on the highway. Why not, we answered. We’d taken a few spare days to hitchhike and camp around Armenia. There was no real plan, other than to have as much fun as possible. This seemed like a good place to start.

A few minutes later we pulled into the driveway of Jora’s house, a short drive from the highway in a typically rustic Armenian village. An expansive yard, grapevines sagging under the weight of a summers growth, an old barn, and the distinct smell of my childhood – growing up in rural England so close to many farmyards.

Jora sounded the horn triumphantly. A sign that we have guests, he explained. Jora’s wife, right on cue, came out of the house to inspect the new arrivals. She smiled and welcomed us into their home – a spacious, single-story house that was home to eight, including the couples two grown sons, one of their wives, and multiple children.

After Armenian coffee and introductions, a tour of the large orchard showcased delicious peaches, plums, apples and tomatoes. A calf named Valig, who was very happy to receive some affectionate face rubs from the guests, grazed there too.

Settling down, Jora explained we’d now have a snack – and then we’d go and buy some meat, for a barbecue lunch. Vodka was also mentioned. It was then I first started to wonder if we’d be leaving this house before the following day.

Sure enough, a vodka bottle was produced shortly after. A few welcoming shots were poured. I was first privy to this tradition, which seems to be a common thread running through the former Soviet Union, back at a similarly styled country home of a university friend in Estonia back in 2007. Remembering that late summers day, sitting on a picnic table outside the house getting utterly plastered, I realised what the next few hours would hold. It would be a case of eat or be eaten (by vodka, gradually). A huge plate of Dolma appeared – ample enough to soak up the impending onslaught of alcohol.

A few minutes, endless shots, and a face stuffed with Dolma later, I fought my way through the haze of vodka to the car. Jora, that glint in his eye growing stronger by the minute, drove vaguely in the direction of the local store. More vodka, beers, meat, some herbs. We were in trouble now.

We got back to the house. Jora set about piling enough wood on the stone driveway to create a huge blaze for the barbecue. I set about drinking enough water to create the illusion that I wouldn’t be horrendously hungover the following morning.

Soon, the smell of grilled meat, eggplant and tomato filled the air. Despite his drunken state, Jora sure knew how to barbecue. “I don’t drink often”, he told us, as he necked another shot. The previous year he’d had heart surgery – showing us the impressive looking scar down his chest. But today was a special occasion – a Wednesday – so we were drinking. Meat was served, more shots were poured, beer bottles were popped open. Jora’s wife gave her husband a disapproving look. I tried to hide my vodka glass.

The night was capped off with a second drunken driving incident. Jora, fresh from devouring an entire bottle of Russia’s finest clear-liquid-that-definitely-isn’t-water, suddenly announced that we should go night swimming. Taking no for an answer was not an option. It would be a great sadness to Jora if we weren’t to join him. Reluctantly, we got back in the car and spent the next hour weaving along the potholed backroads of the local area in the pitch dark, searching for this mythical lake where we could swim. Alas, after multiple U-turns, forays down dirt roads, and the occasional drunken slur at other folks out in the countryside at night who didn’t want to join us, Jora admitted defeat. Within five minutes of arriving home, our kind host had passed out at the dinner table, vodka glass still in hand, leaving us finally free to sneak off to get some sleep.

The following morning, stomach churning with the sheer quantity of food consumption, but a surprisingly clear head, we vowed never to accept invitations of “a snack” from anyone who was that overjoyed to pick us up off the highway. At midday, twenty four hours later than planned, we were back on the highway, packed lunches courtesy of Jora’s wife loaded on top of our belongings, and an aim to finally reach Tatev that day. Who knows who’d pick us up next.

The magical music monster of Syria

Clearly, the mighty rumble of Beirut’s jam packed highway wasn’t enough. Neither was the regular maelstrom of shelling providing the soundtrack to the dark hours in Damascus. Oh no, nothing could awaken me from my slumber until the morning light. That was, of course, until I came across some guy with a microphone and a terrible case of verbal diarrhea on a beach in Latakia. Then it became glaringly obvious that I was no match for this juggernaut of sound.

I can only assume he was paid per word. Either that, or the guy just enjoyed spouting continuous, unfathomable gibberish for five hours nightly on an otherwise quiet beach in Latakia on the Syrian coast with a musical accompaniment that followed his every word. Yes, this orchestral explosion of utter twaddle began every night at 12 and continued unrelenting into the night, until the dark gave up and made way for dawn. Generally, things would end at around 5am and perhaps by then myself and the rest of the summer beach dwellers were allowed some sleep.

I don’t know if it was because my Arabic is so terrible that I found the whole experience so enraging. I don’t know if the guy was telling a nightly story backed by music or if he was just the local crazy person and this was the sole way of keeping him in check during the day. But the amount this dude ranted on, the monotony of his tone, the mimicking of it by the music. It made me consider joining the war raging just a few miles to the northeast.

But I didn’t. As Pink Floyd once so brilliantly put fifty years ago, I lay there in quiet desperation, night after night as crazed singer man frothed at the mouth until the cows came home. I don’t even know if he had an audience for his shenanigans.

As I type, it’s 4:32am. I finally gave up trying to sleep half an hour ago. I’m actually considering going to the hotel fifteen minutes stroll away, to use their free wifi and have a drink. I probably won’t go that far though – after I’m done writing I’ll put the kettle on here instead, then go outside and murder Mr Musical Haemorrhage in a flurry of blows not seen since Julius Caeser pissed off the Roman senate one too many times.

Oh, and now the musical tone has turned. It’s moved on from Arabic dance, to bass-heavy western style house, with a hint of violin thrown in for good measure. Mr Music Man just shouted something inane and is now quiet for a few moments – probably taking his diarrhea medication or something.

What is even more frustrating about the whole situation is that this is by far the most comfortable, spacious bed I’ve had to sleep in over the past six weeks of floating around Lebanon and Syria. Huge, a good firm mattress, otherwise quiet neighbourhood, working air conditioning, no Mosquitos. All the pieces of the puzzle are here. But this guy just took a bloody great dump all over that puzzle, just as I was about to place the final piece and get some decent shut-eye.

He’s still ranting. As am I. I’d love to know what he can possibly talk about for five hours nightly. Perhaps he’s reading out the entire contents of the local daily newspaper for a plethora of adoring fans holding hands and swaying back and forth as they sit cross-legged around him in a circle on the beach, with flowers in their hair. Or perhaps he’s just another one-man-show massaging his ego to the few dudes who sleep on the beach every night and spend their days screwing around on jetskis, trying to convince girls to take rides around the bay with them in exchange for clinging on to their manly bodies as they maneuver their way through groups of swimmers at Mach Three, just yards from shore. But I’ll never know for certain.

It’s 4:42 now. He hasn’t stopped to take a breath – music now some rhymical crap that would fit well with a documentary about an army of dwarfs advancing across a moonlit plain. I’m off to make that tea.

The valley of my childhood

I flicked the switch on the kettle, gazed out of the kitchen window for a moment, and immediately flicked the kettle back off again. Coffee could wait. This was more important.

Since I left my native Northamptonshire, England, for the distant shores of Canada, I’ve barely been back for more than a few days. “I’ll be back in a year”, is what I told my friends. Next month, six years will have passed.

Life got in the way of coming back. A year in Canada ultimately became permanent immigration, and various other trips to far flung parts of the world rendered my sleepy little village in rural England little more than a distant memory. Aside from three weeks in summer of 2011, I’ve seldom set foot in the place I called home for my formative years.

But now, standing barefoot and bleary eyed in the kitchen of my parents house, a jet-lag induced 5:30am coffee break about to commence, I looked out of the window of the expanse of the Welland Valley. Dawn had broken. The rains forecast the previous day had not come, the sky was clear, the fog being burned off the valley floor between trees in the distance, and more important than a caffeinated beverage was the short-lived opportunity to rediscover the green and pleasant countryside during this latest fleeting visit to Middleton. I had a few hours to kill, and two days until a plane took me onward. I grabbed the nearest fleece, put on my boots, and headed off into the dawn, to see where the Northamptonshire countryside would take me,

Just another day in Shatila

There was a huge bang. Twenty metres to my left, the guy cleaning an AK-47 outside his shop had accidentally set it off. Again. He’d produced the same dramatic punctuation mark to our day a few minutes earlier, and obviously wasn’t taking too much care whilst cleaning his rifle, sitting in the middle of the street. The guy sitting to my right shrugged, and carried on playing with his pistol, whilst the toddler standing next to his dad toyed with a gun too. I think it was his father’s, and apparently it wasn’t working. Evidently, this was a regular day in Shatila.

I’m not suicidal, but I do like to take a risk or two. Doing something left of the field, or going against the grain is fun. It makes one feel alive. I enjoy it. From the crazy world that is the no rules insanity of Lebanese driving, to simply crossing the street without getting run over, to negotiating a fair price for a taxi, there’s plenty of opportunity for fun in Lebanon.

Shatila began life in 1949 as a refugee camp for Palestinians fleeing persecution to the south. Originally a temporary shelter for a few hundred people, the camp has now become seamlessly incorporated into the sprawl of Beirut, and now plays host to more than 10,000 people residing there. Shatila only covers roughly a square kilometre, so the population density is through the roof. The ramshackle building efforts are, by western standards, slightly dangerous. New floor after new floor has been delicately balanced on top of the existing structures. The exposed breeze blocks (or cinder blocks) one can see on many a building is a showcase of how badly built the homes here are. I’d fully expect them to fall down at any moment.

Given the history of Shatila, there is a huge amount of Palestinian and Hezbollah imagery in evidence. Huge banners, depicting former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat adorn many a building, and there are many signs of UN projects in the area.

Having been invited for an Arabic coffee with some of the residents there, we were told about life in Shatila. Taped to the fridge of the place we were drinking were photos of three young men. They’d all recently died, we were told. Upon further questioning it transpired that death from blind bullets – shots fired aimlessly into the sky somewhere, and coming down in another area and hitting someone, is not an uncommon way to go. That’s how these guys had lost their lives. I don’t think Shatila is the safest place to live.

We wandered further, met Palestinians, Lebanese, Syrians all living there. Beirut always feels like a hive of energy and activity, but in Shatila it was even more evident. The narrow labyrinth of streets was fascinating to explore. The stench of poorly irrigated sewage hung in the air, and the feeling of any personal space was left far behind. We were told, by the guys who’d invited us for coffee, that everyone in Shatila knew we were there. How? A Whatsapp group, made up of thousands of Shatila residents, was the early warning system for anything out of the ordinary. Two ajnabis (foreigners) entering the market place at the edge of Shatila was fairly noticeable, and the guys were waiting for us, armed with freshly brewed coffee, to welcome us to the neighbourhood.

We sat with them for an hour. We talked about each others lives in Lebanon, they showed us video of their make shift music group – made up of not one person who could actually play an instrument, and drunk more strong coffee. Whilst kids chased after each other in the narrow alleyways, a nargile was produced, another past-time that is fundamental to Lebanese social situations.

Another hour passed. We bid goodbye to our new friends, vowing to return one day, to watch their weekly musical cacophony one Saturday evening. Life in Shatila seemed laid back, relaxed, and simple. If only there was a working sewage system and no reckless gun firing to worry about it would be great.

No home, no warmth, no end in sight. Syrian Refugees in Lebanon

“There’s a lady here who has ten children aged under 18, and she’s widowed, and living in a tent,” we were told. The thought of that existence, in the cold of the Bekaa Valley winter, was difficult to fathom.

Having grown up in middle class England, and having had a very comfortable life there, and in Canada, I never had many challenges in life, until I began to explore the world. My eyes were truly opened first, when I began renting a ramshackle apartment in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia. Having taken for granted always having enough money, enough food, enough warmth,  and generally the ability to buy or do what I want, afford healthcare, and swan around the world without a second thought, I had never had any appreciation for how most of the world live. There’s a reason you rarely meet travelers of the backpacker variety from “developing” world countries. There’s too many barriers to do anything – both financial, and bureaucratic. Our world is locked down with tight controls, which mean the likes of myself can go anywhere, but for those less fortunate with their place of birth, being able to move anywhere in this world of ours is extremely difficult.

It’s sad but true. I can hold down a job doing practically anything in the UK or Canada, and know that in a few short months of thrifty living, I can afford to take months off at a time, to explore the world. The friends I’ve met from less fortunate backgrounds these past couple of years cannot.

And so, this really came to a head, when my life became intertwined with the ongoing Syrian civil war. This conflict has been called the worst humanitarian disaster since the Rwandan genocide, more than 130,000 people have been killed – a figure that is decidedly conservative, and more than five million people have been forced to flee their homes. If I had to leave my home I’d have plenty of options, and always somewhere warm, dry, and safe to sleep. For the majority of these five million people – that’s more than half of the population of the city of London by the way – they don’t have that luxury.

Eventually, I wanted to do something – anything – to help people who were suffering. It’s impossible for one English dude with a laptop and an SLR to change the world, or stop a war, but I at least wanted to do something to help some people in need, somewhere.

And so Blankets4Syrians was born. Coined by my university friend, Roshina, we set about raising funds for Syrian refugees living in the less-than-stellar conditions of Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley.

So we did. Through a combination of friends, family, social media, and downright annoying harrying of people, we ended up raising $5,000, purely through donations. Two weeks ago, arranged by a Syrian friend who works with refugees in Lebanon, we made our trip to Bekaa.

It was both heartwarming, and extremely sad to visit the camp. In this expansive, spectacular valley that runs 120 kilometres through Lebanon, sandwiched between two mountain ranges, were camp after camp after camp. Inside those camps live families from all over Syria. Farmers, drivers, office workers. Mothers, daughters, sons. You name it, they were there. Drive up the main highway from Chtoura toward the ancient Roman ruins of Baalbek, and look either side of the highway. There is the unmissable sight of thousands of hastily erected tents, draped with plastic sheeting, and with old car tyres hurled on top, to keep the ceilings in place. Homely, this is not.

At the camp we visited, we were greeted with smiles, handshakes, and strong Turkish coffee. We sat in the tent of the man who was leader of the camp, and talked about their experiences. Most people in that camp had been there between one and two years – some of them longer. And there was no sign of them being able to go back to their homes any time soon. One question that hung with me: would they still have homes to go back to?

We were shown around the camp, all the time being shadowed by crowds of children – most of them under the age of five, all smiles and laughter. It’s amazing how children seem to be able to cope with such situations. I guess, in some ways, life is all a game at that age. However, in quiet moments I saw the looks of anguish, the short tempers, and the signs of a difficult life etched upon the faces of some of the children. I’ve seen some horrific videos and images of the Syrian war. Things I will never forget. But I can barely imagine what some of these children have had to endure.

Our time at the camp was short and sweet. We distributed what we could to the families we had been put in contact with. We had some extra clothes, and blankets to go around. These were snapped up in an instant. It was shocking to see the conditions, the situations people were living in. Huge families, many mouths to feed, and little or nothing to do it with. I will never forget the thought of being a single mother with ten children to raise. In a tent. As the sun went down, we felt the temperature drop sharply. With the day almost done, some of the kids wanted to show me their play area – a huge hill rising sharply up from the flat valley, next to the tents.

We climbed the hill, twenty children in tow. From the top, we could see the whole camp, the Bekaa Valley bathed in the golden light of the final moments of sun light. We could see other camps, dotted around the landscape, as far as the eye could see. The sun had now set behind the mountains leading to Beirut, and the Mediterranean. On our left we could see the mountains to the east – behind which lay Syria. Home for all of these people. The children slid down a trench, scored into the hill. This was their playground. The trench was so well-defined, having been used for months – and years – before. I wondered for how many more years Syrian kids would slide down this hill, reducing the few clothes they had to wear to rags, before they could return home, and resume their lives.

 For more images of my visits to see those suffering from the Syrian war, and other images from my travels, visit my Flickr page.

A nargile store in Borj Hammoud

Smoking nargile is all the rage in Lebanon. In cafes, restaurants, down on the beach, or in the comfort of the place you call home – you’re never far away from a beautifully ornate waterpipe. I’m not a cigarette smoker, but the sweet taste of apple flavour tobacco, or mint, or even grape, is a relaxing sensation during an evening in a cafe with some mezze, or sitting down at Beirut’s waterfront. As well as that, they’re a stunning bit of kit, as this store in Lebanon’s “little Armenia” – Borj Hammoud,  will show you.

You can buy a nargile in a ready-to-go kit, or, for the waterpipe smoking connoisseur, you can put together your own, custom made contraption to meet both your artistic, and smoke inhalation, requirements.

Memories of Syria, five years ago

“Nowhere else on Earth have I so often been physically restrained from leaving the homes of complete strangers in order to stay for yet another meal or another night.” This was the response from Tom, my brother, when I asked him of his experiences cycling through Syria.

In 2009, from it’s northern frontier with Turkey, to the southerly reaches of the country and on into Jordan, Tom pedalled through one of the most ancient civilisations on our planet, on a bicycling journey lasting three and a half years. Syria was just a snippet of his voyage, but it was a memorable one. With the ongoing conflict in the country almost in its forth year, and the much maligned “Geneva II” piece talks beginning in earnest this week, I thought what better a time to share some of Tom’s stunning photography to showcase a beautiful land that is much more than the chaos that currently consumes it, and to hope that Syria will soon start to recover from three years of bitter struggle and more than 130,000 deaths.

Tom Allen set off from rural England on a heavily loaded bicycle in 2007. He came home a few years later with a second citizenship – and a wedding ring on his finger, having cycled across more than 30 countries on four continents. He runs a popular cycle touring website, tomsbiketrip.com, and is also co-producer of the award-winning documentary feature film of his story, Janapar.