Saturday, May 23, 2015

Enkuto Eratukura #5: When The Road Rises To Meet You

Pretending to write something in my journal and getting a dusty backside for it.
Friday 3rd April 2015 - 11.45pm

This was the day of the big road journey. After some careful consideration involving an emergency meeting with Kevin and Raj at WMSF, it was decided that that we should push on to Kabale as soon as possible due to the terror threat warning issued by the US Embassy in Kampala and the subsequent assassination of Judge Kagezi. 

Despite arranging for breakfast at 7.45am, we only managed to depart Entebbe Backpackers at 9.30am. Some expert faffing around was one of the principle reasons for our tardiness, but the cooking and eating seeming to be a slow process exacerbated this.

Whilst the final faffing was going on, Jas organised the repacking of the back two rows of Brian’s Coaster bus with our luggage and we headed off in the direction of Kabale via Kampala.

As always on the Entebbe-Kampala road, wherever there was the most minute confluence of roads the traffic ground to a halt. Larger traffic and more patient drivers waited in line whilst matatu buses tried going around the outside, the inside and would probably have tried going over the roofs of other vehicles if they could. All this just added to our slow progress.

After passing over the mothballed railway line in the middle of Kampala, where small market traders have long since replaced trains, we turned left onto the Masaka road.

As we slogged our way through further traffic, a siren came from behind. We pulled over to the side of the road as a convoy of government cars, tooled-up paramilitary police and motorcycle outriders passed by.

“Who was that?” I asked. “A government official?”

“Sure,” Brian replied. “It was the Prime Minister.”

“Really?”

“Yes. I saw him in the third vehicle.”

Once we were clear of the suburbs, the road opened up a little and the settlements became sparser and less built-up; the three-storied buildings of the city traded for the smaller single-storied structures of the country.

Our first proper stop was on the Equator. Here we allowed the students to stretch their legs a little; some went shopping for crafts and gifts for those back home. I took the opportunity to pose for a picture on the Equator roundel – sat facing southwards with my journal in my hands, much to Suweyda’s bemusement. 

With some food and drink supplies on board, we departed after an hour of respite from a bus seat.

Not long after bypassing Masaka, we stopped for a toilet break. A public toilet in a village is clearly a potentially lucrative business and I’m pursued by the caretaker for 200 shillings whilst I’m in the middle of my own business. I pointed the slightly over-zealous man in the direction of Tash who paid for everyone. 

In the meantime, an ever-increasing crowd of children had emerged to witness the bus full of bazungu, bahindi and Somalis using the toilet. With the hyperactivity of the local children reaching silly levels we boarded the bus to cheers as if we were a visiting football team.


The journey progressed smoothly along the road as we headed towards Jas’ old family home in Mbarara. Here we picked up Brian’s son and nephew from the rain-soaked high street, surrounded by the buzzing of boda-bodas fitted with special umbrellas.

After Mbarara the road was in a major state of disrepair, and, because of the intensifying rain, the going was very slow.

The bus banged and bounced its way along the road, occasionally slowing as the tarmac came and went.

We cleared a narrow section of the road and started to make some faster progress over the potholed, but as yet unsurfaced new road when Brian pulled over to the side of the road.

He got out of the bus and looked under the nearside wheel-arch. After a few minutes he came back around to the driver’s seat.

“Everything okay? All Good?” I asked, sensing the inevitable.

“It’s not good,” he replied. “We have lost the air filter.”

I’m no expert, but I guessed correctly that this was something connected to the exhaust system.

Brian hopped back out of the driver’s seat and hailed the first boda-boda he saw.

Time passed slowly as a murky dusk started to fall over this bit of anonymous road in the middle of nowhere in particular. The inevitable requests for a trip to the toilet, a cigarette, chocolate and all manner of other things started to appear.

After just under an hour, he returned.

“Did you find it?” I inquired.

“No, but I have a solution,” Brian responded, and, armed with some form of black builders tarpaulin and two bits of rubber tubing, he set about fixing the gap in the exhaust.

After a relatively short time, we were ready to move once more. By now it was dark but our pain wasn’t over yet.

Not much further down the road we noticed a stationary queue of traffic in the distance; a snake of red tail lights in damp blackness. A figure outside on the road muttered, in Luganda, to Brian that a truck had slipped on the wet mud and was now blocking both carriageways.

It took around 45 minutes for a group of guys with shovels and torches to dig the truck out of the hole, but this still left it floundering on one side of the road, sinking ever lower in the mud as its wheels tried to find purchase. The oncoming queue of traffic saw its chance and like a predatory anaconda started weaving truculently through the gap. We could only sit and wait as an unending stream of headlights came towards us.


When we got to Ntungamo we stopped at a petrol station for a toilet break and a morale-boosting pile of Cadbury’s chocolate.

Ntungamo was our last major hurdle. The time was now 8.30pm and we had plenty of travelling left to do, but the roads were smooth and peaceful; our only company seemed to be Congolese trucks and the occasional car.

Not far outside of the town, the road became akin to the inspiration for The Beatles’ song about a ‘Long and Winding Road’. Jas made the joke; the audience were too young to laugh.

Morale stayed amazingly high, all things considered, and the group continued to sing all the way to Kabale, with Khadija showcasing her hidden vocal skills and latent potential to become Algeria’s first country music superstar.

At the sight of Taufiq Islamic School on the edge of Kabale, we knew we’d made it at last. The clock read 11.00pm. This indicated a late dinner, but at least a comfy bed to lie down in.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Matchsticks on the Shore

Grey skies and fishing boats, Bognor Regis in West Sussex.
On a field trip to Bognor Regis with Year 9 I was tasked with the job of leading a session on coastal poetry. After reading the poem 'The Sea' by James Reeves, we embarked on seeking inspiration by walking over the shingle and out into the sea.

Here's the sum total of my efforts, written into my red Uganda Moleskine, whilst standing in the cold English Channel under grey skies.
In the grey they are
Dancing dots
On a shingle dance floor;
Walking out
Matchsticks on the shore. 
Softer sand awaits
them as they spark into a
brief flame of laughter
as a wave breaks sleepily; 
Before, extinguished and
exhausted, they return to
their stones,
their homes, 
But never to be put back into their old box
Again.

Saturday, May 09, 2015

Enkuto Eratukura #4: On The Beach

When lakes in Wales are your only point of reference, Lake Victoria is an ocean.
Thursday 2nd April 2015 - 8pm

After we’d settled into Entebbe Backpackers Hostel, Tash and I went off to change money – not a simple process when the bank clerks don’t seem to like explaining the procedure.

Upon returning to the hostel there was just enough time for a shower before getting back on board Brian’s bus and setting off for Lake Victoria.

Once en route, I told Brian to head to ‘Imperial Beach’ and so he drove us the short distance to Imperial Beach Resort. When we arrived, something wasn’t quite right. If you ever ask me to remember something useful like a phone number I cannot do it; ask me to recall something visual and I usually can.

After a brief chat with an unimpressed female security guard we performed a rapid u-turn, trying to avoid letting anyone know about the mix-up, and proceeded to the different, yet remarkably similarly named Imperial Resort Beach. As soon as we arrived we knew we were where we should be. Brian and I looked at each other and laughed. We were supposed to be the experts in this scenario.

By the time we arrived the sun had done most of its setting and was covering just a small part of the beach. With Entebbe being on the north-western edge of Lake Victoria, it faces out eastwards and thus the sunset was behind us.

All along the beach there were a number of people playing with volleyballs and footballs, almost all of them local. Further in the distance, along the beach, young Ugandans were walking gingerly alongside each other, away from the gaze of adults or other prying eyes, but still not holding hands.

Our group settled on the seats near the water’s edge and immediately started dipping their feet into the lake – despite dispensing with Grigorios’ advice not to. 

I ordered drinks for everyone from a sleepy waiter and there was a sense of collective relief that we were in Uganda, with food and beds waiting for us far away from airports and aeroplane food.

Amongst the people, seemingly patrolling the beach, were flocks of awkward looking marabou storks. These birds are the complete antithesis of Uganda’s national bird, the grey crested crane. They look like a cross between vultures and sunburnt old men, and caused excitement and fear in equal measure amongst the group of students.

As I went to check on the status of the drinks order, I saw the form of a woman hiding behind a large pair of geek glasses. It was my long-time Twitter contact Evelyn Masaba who I’d had to call upon to chase the manager of our accommodation after they’d taken too long responding to my emails.

As I walked closer I saw that she was deep in discussion, to put it politely, with the security guard at the gate. She clearly wasn’t in the mood to hand over her ID card when she’d never been asked to before. Although she is shorter than both the security guard and me, she struck a certain degree of fear into both of us as she made her case.

Once the group’s drinks were finally sorted, Evelyn and I headed to the bar away from the main group and ordered Tonic water – the sense of which only dawned on me later when I remembered that a key ingredient in it is quinine, a chemical used to treat malaria.

There’s always the risk when you first meet someone in person that after the initial phatic talk and general jibber-jabber calms down, the awkwardness will creep in. Luckily this wasn’t the case.

She was an amusing character and took the time to enquire about my life in the UK, to translate the Ugandan news for me and to punctuate all of this with gentle mockery of me and my mzungu ways.

The only element of awkwardness came when she pointed out that the staff would likely compare us to all of the black women with white men sat around the grounds of the resort.

Sure enough, in various parts of the gardens and corners of the bar there were middle-aged white men sat with young Ugandan women; wine flowing and food being ignored in favour of tactile demonstrations of mutual affection. It was hard not to make certain assumptions, but equally none of my business.

After what amounted to just a brief hour, the group started to congregate ready to take the bus back to the hostel.

I walked Evelyn to her boda-boda and asked, “Surely you’re not going to take that all the way back, are you?”

“No,” she replied. This time she chose to travel back to Kampala in the relative luxury of a matatu.

I waved goodbye, boarded the bus and Brian drove us back for a much-needed night of food, Sister Act 2 and sleep.

Saturday, May 02, 2015

Enkuto Eratukura #3: Hurry Up and Wait

Behind schedule and back down to earth in Entebbe.
Thursday 2nd April 2015 - 3pm

For the second year running the connecting Ethiopian Airlines plane was late leaving Addis Ababa. This year the delay occurred as a result of Yemeni airspace being closed because of Saudi Arabian airstrikes against Houthi rebel positions.

Having been lured into a false sense of security, sat around drinking buna with Jas in a haze of frankincense smoke, a call went out: “could all passengers for flight ET330 to Entebbe please board the plane.”

Gripped by a sudden sense of panic, we rushed to get through security and onto the plane, gathering students as we went, only to find we were not the last to reach the plane. After around fifteen minutes sat on the tarmac, a swathe of Ugandan passengers boarded. 

I was sat writing in my journal, all the time being rhythmically elbowed by the woman in the seat next to me, when the man the other side of me started shouting, “Why haven’t you taken that man’s walking stick? It is a potential weapon!”

The old man in question hardly looked physically able enough to cause any real trouble with his stick and the Ethiopian air stewardess stood looking nonplussed. The man repeated himself a little louder and finally the stewardess acquiesced and took it away from the old man.

I understood his sentiments. I think.

After a few more minutes of writing, the man next to me took hold of his sick bag and wrote on it, “Where are you from?”

“London,” I replied audibly, not wanting to get into a strange written exchange. “And you?”

“I am a Ugandan,” he said proudly, “but I am travelling from Sudan.”

“South Sudan?”

“No, from Khartoum. I am working for the United Nations there. I am a trained engineer in water and irrigation projects, and I’ve been working for the UN for seven years.”

The whole time that he was talking, he wrote down key facts like “Sudan” and “7 years” on to the sick bag; a strange form of subtitling. 

I asked him where in Sudan he works.

“Darfur,” he answered. It is a name that for many months back in 2003 filled news bulletins because of vicious attacks by the Janjaweed militia and the resulting rise in internally displaced people. 

As with so many other stories the media seemed to forget about it and moved on to new stories, taking the spotlight of attention away whilst people in the region continued to suffer.

I asked him what Darfur is like now.

“It is in a state of relative peace,” he answered, “but it is unpredictable. You can never be sure what will happen. I work there for six weeks at a time, protected by guards, then have a week off. You are never really sure how stable things will remain while you are there.”

I enquired about whether he has a family.

“I have a wife and two young boys,” he said, showing me some pictures of two cheeky-looking little boys posing next to a shiny new motorbike.

“Do they not worry for you?”

“Sure, but the pay is good and means that I will always be able to afford the best for them. If I worked in Uganda doing a similar job, it would not be the same.”

Eric, as I discovered his name was when I saw his official UN passport, is a good travelling companion. He waxed lyrical on topics ranging from corruption, to infrastructure and small businesses, often punctuating the conversation with critiques of the pilot’s flying style.

In no time at all, albeit one hour late, we arrived in Entebbe.

Upon disembarkation there was a new form to fill; the Ebola screening form. We then moved on to have our temperatures checked by what looked like a small white handgun before heading to immigration.

Here, almost as expected, two students were selected to be ‘screened’. Huda and Idil, both girls of Somali descent, were asked to wait in a separate area.

Armed with a full range of documents, I went with them to wait. Tash joined us and we presented the relevant documents to prove that the two girls are A level students, under-18 and that we were legally obliged to stay with them.

Our friendly yet truculent manner panicked the guards and immigration officers. They argued that they were just doing their jobs and then argued with each other over who could fill the forms in the quickest.

Their supervisor came over and said, “Get it done and get them out of here.”

He was clearly worried that our being there might expose something that the immigration service weren’t keen about us knowing, or simply that it might look bad.

When we were done, Tash asked, “What is the criteria for selection? Age? Place of birth? Name?”

One man answered, “Just understand it is a procedure. It is random. You don’t have to worry.”

I pointed out that I’d been to Uganda seven times and by the law of averages I should have been selected for screening by now.

A second man smiled. He knew what we were getting at.

“Sometimes it is best not to ask,” he said. “Different people have different profiles.”

That said it all really.

We proceeded to baggage reclaim, explaining to the girls that their first experience of being racially-profiled should be considered a learning experience. I think they understood this, even if it wasn't the perfect way to arrive.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Enkuto Eratukura #2: The Way Home

Pictures of aeroplanes aren't fun, so here's some fabric in Kabale Market.
Wednesday 1st April 2015 - 11.30pm

With the plane finally in the air around 9.30pm, the opportunity to relax finally came about. I was sat in the middle aisle of seats on a row with Raman and Fabio; behind me were Suweyda, Hannah and Idil.

It was interesting to talk to Suweyda and hear about how she is currently getting on at college. She made quite an impression on my student teacher, Nimah, and I last year. She had a most impressive aptitude for being late to lessons on a Monday morning and somehow getting away with it by using ‘Puss-in-Boots’ eyes in the style of the character from Shrek.

Aside from her school life, she couldn’t help but talk about recent events in the news concerning aviation, namely the crash of the German Wings flight over the Alps.

As she was going through the amateur dramatics of ‘what if it happens to us’ scenarios, a white woman with a Southern African cut in with, “you’ve just about as much chance of being hit whilst crossing the road.” 

Of course the woman was right, but there is nothing quite like a bit of Crucible-style hysteria to spark a teenager into life from time to time.

I got talking to the woman who, it turns out, was Zimbabwean. I go into my usual preamble about never having been, but that my father had lived as a boy in Zambia and had visited the country then known as Rhodesia.

After being raised in Zimbabwe and then having kids there she eventually decided to follow in her daughter’s footsteps and move to the UK. She has now been living in the Scotland for 10 years.

Dozing against the woman was a youngish child. Her grandson. For the duration of our conversation the boy didn’t move once, despite him using his grandmother’s side as a pillow. 

They were travelling for a visit to family members who the little one had yet to meet. She was, for the most part, positive about her return and the Zimbabwe that was awaited her.

“When you’re in the town, Kwekwe, it could be like you are in any other town in Southern Africa,” she started. “It’s just when you head out into the countryside that the situation can become more dangerous or edgy. But, in many ways, that is like anywhere in the world.”

I asked her how stable the economy was now for your average Zimbabwean and whether the Zimbabwean dollar was coming back soon.

“Well, we have some dollar bills for use just in Zimbabwe,” she replies, “but it’s still effectively the US dollar. 

“As for the economy, let’s put it this way: if you want a whole 200 box of cigarettes you’re talking about paying the same price as a single pack in the UK, but something like a flat-screen TV is up to $1000 at times.”

“Really?” I ask a little shocked. “Isn’t it typical that, despite the state of the economy, you can still kill yourself by smoking yourself to oblivion?”

“Yes, but at least there aren’t queues for bread any more,” she says.

I’m enjoying our chat about Zimbabwe when the drinks trolley comes along and blocks our conversation. When the trolley finally disappears, she goes back to reading her book and I contemplate getting some sleep, if only Suweyda would stop trying to discuss aviation disasters.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Enkuto Eratukura #1: Running for Departures

A focused approach to packing is the foundation of a good trip.
Wednesday 1st April 2015 - 9.30pm

Having Parents’ Evening for the toughest year group isn’t the ideal preparation for flying out anywhere let alone Uganda. Only my relative experience in making this journey allowed me to be as calm as I was.

At 6.05pm I finished talking to the last parent only for my lift, a science teacher at my new workplace, to get drawn into discussion with another parent. I took this opportunity to change out of my work clothes and pack her car ready for the trip to the airport.

By 6.15pm we were on the road and making moderate progress over the Hammersmith flyover and through the west London evening traffic. As a newcomer to Fulham Cross, it was nice talking to a member of staff who’d been there for twenty or so years. Having just switched workplace, twenty years’ service seems a long way off, and a rather unrealistic target.

The rest of the group had gone through the check-in procedure by the time that I arrived at Heathrow and check-in was closing within the hour. Give or take the ‘streamlining’ of Terminal 2, whereby you do most of the work yourself – printing baggage labels and scanning passports – before you queue up and someone sends your bags off to the plane, the process was smooth, if a little edgy time-wise.

I finally caught up with the group near the gate after spotting the golden glint of Jen’s hair. They’d all had the time to eat and amble through the duty free; I arrived at the gate a little flustered, out of breath and hungry, having had just enough time to purchase two Fantas, a new Moleskine notebook and a packet of crisps.

The group were all there; familiar faces and newer ones. Former students of mine: Khadija, Amal and Suweyda; new William Morris students: Abirna, Sina, Idil, Huda, Hannah and Molly. Making up the staff contingent were: Tash, Jas, Jen, Raman, Fabio, Tamera and friend of [the All Our Children chairperson] Liz’s called Sarah.

Getting to the airport on time for the 9pm flight was a job in itself, but having successfully got this far the enkuto eratukura or ‘red roads’ of Uganda seemed so much closer.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

The Voyage of Sir Francis Drake Around the Whole Globe by Richard Hakluyt

Cover image © Penguin.
To celebrate the 80th Anniversary of Penguin books, the publisher has released a selection of 80 ‘Little Black Classics’ for a tiny 80p each. After being greeted by a wall of them in the Islington Green branch of Waterstones, I was sold on the concept and bought a load.

The first book to catch my attention was The Voyage of Sir Francis Drake Around the Whole Globe by Richard Hakluyt. The book contains two narratives of maritime journeys.

The eponymous account tells the story of Sir Francis Drake’s circumnavigation of the world between 1577 and 1580. The story that is told, in many respects, is void of any great detail, but it is apparent that what you’re in fact reading is a form of propaganda extolling the virtues of English maritime exploration and belittling the Spanish at every opportunity. 

Ultimately, the whole circumnavigation of the globe takes meagre twenty or so pages, and, other than providing a few interesting details about coconuts and the colonisation of Nova Albion (a settlement in modern-day California), it is over too soon.

Perhaps more interesting, mainly for the extra detail it affords the modern reader, is the snappily titled Prosperous voyage of the worshipful Thomas Candish of Trimley in the County of Suffolk Esquire, into the South Sea, and thence round about the circumference of the whole earth, begun in the year of our Lord 1586, and finished 1588.

Thomas Cavendish was a privateer, a sort of state-approved pirate, who was granted permission by the Crown to attack enemy ships and colonies. His voyage was the first to purposefully try and follow the  earlier journey of Drake.

Hakluyt’s accounts of his captain's interactions with various indigenous peoples in South America, skirmishes with Spanish colonists and then trading during a stay in Java are perhaps the most engaging moments in what is another whirlwind story of round the world travel.

The detailed moments of description do evoke a sense of excitement for the maritime and global discovery of the past; descriptions such as: 
“There are also in this garden fig-trees which bear continually, also pompions, melons, cucumbers, radishes, rosemary, and thyme, with many other herbs and fruits. At the other end of the house there is also another orchard, where grow oranges sweet and sour, lemons, pomegranates, and limes, with divers other fruits.”
It is hard to imagine a time where there were genuinely parts of the earth that were only partially discovered and barely understood, and what Hakluyt does, albeit with great brevity, is bring that moment to life.

For more information about Richard Hakluyt visit: http://www.hakluyt.com/

Saturday, January 24, 2015

When Saturday Comes: Leyton Orient

Match ticket and programme from Leyton Orient.
The professionals make falling off their bikes look so easy. The reality is hours of pain, blood and tears in Accident and Emergency, being told that you've fractured your cheekbone, need stitches and might have knackered your already knackered wrist. 

It’s Saturday 10th February and, clearly sensing I needed to get out, my friend and fellow cyclist Jonesy has made his way over to E17. As a complete spur of the moment thing, we decide to head down to the Matchroom Stadium on Brisbane Road in Leyton to watch Orient take on Fleetwood Town.

It's been a while since I last saw a live match in a ground (the last time possibly being Aston Villa vs. Charlton) and so I assumed that all teams, regardless of position in the English football league pyramid, require some form of advanced booking. I spend around twenty minutes on the ticket hotline listening to a pre-recorded East End woman telling me my call is important to her before I give up. 

We hop on the 158 bus for a few stops, wander down a few residential streets and find what would likely be non-existent at a premier league ground: a cash turnstile! For a princely £25, and a bit of manual effort getting through the vintage turnstiles, we've managed to bag two seats next to each other in the East Stand, just about on the halfway line.

Leyton Orient was originally founded in 1881 as Eagle Cricket Club, becoming Orient Football Club in 1888. Various permutations of the Orient name have been used over the years and it was only as late as 1987 that the name Leyton Orient was finally settled upon.

View towards the South Stand at Brisbane Road.
Despite being one of the oldest clubs in England, Orient's successes have been modest. They managed just one season in the top flight in 1962-63 and their furthest progress in the FA Cup is a semi-final defeat to Arsenal in 1978.

Orient's stadium at Brisbane Road has largely been rebuilt over recent years, with the exception of the East Stand. The East Stand was initially opened in 1957 and had some extra work done 1962 to extend the capacity further.

The moment you've fought with the rusty-looking old-fashioned turnstile you step back into a world that existed before all football stadia became a heap of soulless glass, plastic and concrete. The floor is wooden, there are roof supports in the way of some views of the pitch and there's only one tiny bar in the stand – but I love it.

The match itself was a reasonably tense affair, with small flurries of end-to-end action in the washed-out wintry sunshine. In reality, Fleetwood Town had the best of the chances in the first half and both Jonesy and myself began to feel the frustration of the regular Orient fans.

At half-time there was a bit of a scrum to get to the bar and the net result of it was missing the first few minutes of the second half – and subsequently the only goal of the game. Fleetwood Town’s Gareth Evans scored straight from the restart securing a 1-0 away victory for his side. Orient had a bucket load of chances in the second half, but all to no avail.

In the words of Orient’s defender, Scott Cuthbert, “We switched off and it was an easy goal for them and that's disappointing for us. It was one of those days – it was massively frustrating.”

So we may have missed the only goal of the game, but when the final whistle went, it was easy to make an escape onto a 158 bus and get home to the warmth once more.

Brisbane Road is well worth a visit. The intimacy of the setting and the seating’s proximity to pitch is simply something you wouldn’t get in a good many football grounds these days. I’ll hopefully be back again before too long.

For more information about Leyton Orient visit: http://www.leytonorient.com/

Thursday, January 01, 2015

2014 Cycling Year in Review


Those who know me well, or who follow me on Twitter, will know that 2014 has been a tough year for me in cycling terms.

It started well, completing the March Strava Gran Fondo by cycling overnight from Warwick to Walthamstow with my old schoolmate Jonesy, written up as 'In the Dead of Night' on this blog. As well as being a tough physical and mental challenge for a pair of relatively new road cyclists, it was also a good way to raise around £600 for the charity All Our Children.

Also, just for the sheer fun of it, I finished the May Strava Gran Fondo. This route entailed riding from Walthamstow to Box Hill and completing a reasonably-sized loop, before cycling back into the City. It was my first time riding around Surrey, and Leith Hill and Whitedowns are the toughest hills I have climbed thus far.

Coming to a bit of a fitness peak around about June, just in time for the Wiggle French Revolution, was a highlight. There is no better feeling than zipping up hills on a simple £650 road bike knowing that you weigh a good 90kg and dropping a load of people in the process. A rolling course all based in the Pas de Calais area of northern France with a few tough climbs, mixed with a stiff head wind for the last 25km, put last years' efforts in the New Forest to shame.

A slightly mangled, but very painful wrist.
Infamously, though, I came a cropper on my way from the ferry back to the car park in Dover, when another cyclist decided to stop suddenly at a green traffic light. Cue a fractured wrist and a saga that lasted from the 15th June until finally being given the all clear on 22nd December following a few CT scans.

My 'comeback' sportive on 15th August, after a couple of months of on-off training on the turbo trainer, was the intriguing and unique 'White Roads Classic'. A much smaller affair than a Wiggle sportive, but much more personal.

In reality, the comeback was far from smooth. The train from Paddington to Streatley was delayed meaning that a group of five of us arrived around 45 minutes after the majority of riders had departed. All being of different riding abilities, we cycled off at different rates meaning the majority of the first third of the ride was cycled in a showery solitude.

With the help of a small group of riders, all willing to take a bit of a turn at the front, I managed to save some energy and by the last third of the event I had started to catch some of the main group of starters. Once more, Sasha's reliability meant that I was able to navigate sections of rough chalk road without any mechanical trouble. Thankfully, with my weakened wrist, a friendly follow cyclist helped me to patch up the one slow puncture I did have. Overall, it wasn't the fastest ride, but I managed to complete it.

Starting a new job in September, but still on the other side of London, it meant that I was able to continue to build stamina and burn off the last of the blubber gained during my injury. Although unable to fit in another big really big ride, the year ended with me getting back to a much better state of fitness, albeit with a dull ache in my left wrist.

Let's hope that 2015 means more kilometres and hopefully staying upright on the bike.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Het Withstraat Dagboek: Herinnering aan Holland

Inside the Africa room at Bizar, Rotterdam.
Thinking of Holland, I see broad rivers ever-flowing towards the sea. I hear the low rumble of a Humber barge beating a hasty retreat to the sea, or the rattle of a tram trundling over the points at a junction. I feel the brisk February air tingling against my frozen white skin.

It's October 2013 and I find myself in Rotterdam, without any students. My girlfriend, perhaps seeing that I need to practice my Dutch, decided to book a semi-surprise trip to Rotterdam, a place she's heard a lot about, but never actually visited.

After a brief stop in Brussels to switch from the Eurostar to the Thalys train, discovering in the process a lovely health food shop selling Belgian-style gluten free chocolate biscuits, my first major input into the trip was to book a room at the Bazar Rotterdam.

In typical fashion, and without any encouragement from me, the hotel have placed me in one of their 'Africa' rooms, much to the annoyance of my proudly Caribbean girlfriend who doesn't want everyone to put two and two together and get 'African'.

The room is brightly decorated and the bed, set into a recess in the raised floor, is big enough to fit extras - although thats not my kind of holiday! Being used to the arty nature of Witte de Withstraat is perhaps little preparation for the very kitsch nature of the Bazar's accommodation, but after a quick midday nap and watching Streetcrime UK with a Dutch voiceover, the refulgent colour scheme grows on you.

A mid-afternoon shower hits Rotterdam and the streets clear of people and quickly darken. The small glimmers of autumnal light get lost in the raindrops as we walk to Loos on Westplein opposite Veerhaven. 

In amongst the throng of after-work drinkers we find a table adjacent to a reading table where three middle-aged men study every last word in the day's papers. Remembering my faux pas of saying 'ik wil [I want]' instead of the more polite 'mag ik [may I]' last time I was in Loos, I stumble through an order of a bottle of wine and a plate of eyeball-tickling cheese served with mustard.

After an hour or so the rain has lifted slightly, and after a loop around towards the Nieuwe Maas, we walk along a sodden Scheepstimmermanslaan, over the junction to Eendrachtsweg, before turning back up into the trendiness that is Witte de Withstraat. With very little deliberation, we head into Bazar for a massive sharing platter of food before retiring upstairs for sleep.

❦ 

Ships moored in the Havenmuseum, Rotterdam.
The next morning, the rain has kept itself locked up in the heavens. After the healthy option breakfast of fruits and thick set Turkish yoghurt, we head out walking towards the city centre. With it being a quiet Wednesday morning, the city seems really sleepy, and we eventually start walking in the direction of Erasmusbrug.

The light is cutting through the sky at an angle that is typical for this time of year, resulting in a faint haze filling the air. From beneath the mists appears a range of old working ships moored at the Havenmuseum in Leuvehaven, displaying a good deal of Rotterdam's old maritime history. In the quiet of the morning, only the sounds of two old men tinkering with bits of old engine can be heard. 

A walk along the side of Scheepmakershaven brings us to the small Wijnbrug, which is slowly rising to let a small maintenance boat pass by. Passing under the road, but remaining alongside Wijnhaven, eventually we reach Oudehaven.

Here you are momentarily taken away from the spacious modernity of Rotterdam and a fusion of old and new takes place in a small, cosy space similar to parts of Amsterdam. Although, it is worth saying, that the Kubuswoningen [lit: cube houses], give the area the unmistakably feel of Rotterdam.

Later that evening, after getting a call from Ilse, one of the partner teachers from the WMSF-Einstein Lyceum Project, we head over to Charlois at the end of the number 2 tramline. By now the autumnal evening has drawn in and darkness has fallen over the grassy Kromme Zandweg tram stop. In one direction the outline of an illuminated windmoelen; from the other direction, out of the darkness, appear Ilse and her partner Jaap.

We discover that the accommodation that Jaap has arranged for us that evening is in one of his artists’ spaces. In this instance it is a small, prefabricated building dating from after World War II, adjacent to the tram stop. The house is one of many lined up in uniform lines almost like squat little soldiers standing to attention on a military parade.

After dropping our possessions off, and bringing the ancient heater to life, we head out along Boergoensevliet. Jaap, in his distinctly un-Rotterdam accent, tells us about the diversity of people living in Charlois and it reminds me of a more sedate Walthamstow. Turning at left onto Wolphaertsbocht, we find the quiet Spanish/Portuguese restaurant called Quinta.

Here, we chat and eat mountain of food. We discuss the differences between rents, work and everyday life in Walthamstow and Charlois, and, although our hosts can be occasionally a little derisory about their area, I feel that I quite like it here. I am also acutely aware of the fact that I fall in love with nearly everywhere I go. 

In amongst the courses, we chat to the waitress who is too shy to speak in English. 'Mijn Engels is heel slecht,' she points out. Ilse manages to convince her that the reason my Dutch replies sound so strange is because I’m really only fluent in Afrikaans and therefore my grammar is different.

This sets the tone for the rest of the night as we are joined by two of Ilse and Jaap’s friends, and, after paying the bill and confessing about not being an Afrikaner, we head round the corner for a little more wine and conversation until late.


Rotterdam, simply put, is perhaps never going to match Venice or Paris as a holiday destination, but for a short break it is a great little getaway. Furthermore, if you are desperately in need of expanding your Dutch vocabulary and testing it out on unwitting members of the public, it’s the perfect environment in which to do so, made all the better by great company.

Thinking back, now I realise that I just need to convince my new boss to let me bring a group of Year 11s here in 2015.


Denkend aan Holland
zie ik breede rivieren
traag door oneindig
laagland gaan...

Saturday, November 08, 2014

Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong by David Walsh

Cover image © Simon & Schuster UK.
Being on holiday on a Caribbean island for four weeks provides ample time for getting some reading in. Anse des Sables in Saint Lucia provided a great backdrop for reading about one man’s manipulation of Le Tour de France for so many years.

In Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong, David Walsh introduces us to the depths of Lance Armstrong’s cheating in various races and chiefly his record-breaking seven Tour de France wins. Furthermore, he demonstrates that despite Armstrong’s name becoming synonymous with cheating in cycling recently, he cheated with plenty of help from others.

Seven Deadly Sins is as much the story of Walsh as it is of Armstrong’s deception, especially as the two stories seemingly become more enmeshed as time goes on. 

The book doesn’t just take aim at Armstrong; Irish cycling heros Sean Kelly and Stephan Roche also come in for criticism. Walsh talks about the rattling of pills in the back pocket of Kelly’s jersey in his early days as a sports writers and purposefully downplaying the incident as he’d been hired as Kelly’s biographer.

What plays out in the book is a complex chess game between a number of protagonists and antagonists. Walsh, Pierre Ballester, disgruntled former members of the US Postal team and an increasingly small number of journalists on one side, and the might of Armstrong, his collaborators and the believers of his miracle comeback on the other side.

Cue countless tales of lawsuits, threats, clandestine meetings and the majority of the sporting world deceived. It is testament to Walsh’s bloody-mindedness that he didn’t give up the chase and even managed to find time to challenge Roche’s ‘cleanliness’ as a former Grand Tour winner.

Ultimately, we know how this story ends; in a pretty unapologetic interview conducted by Oprah Winfrey in which Armstrong’s primary defence seems to be that, ‘well, everyone else was at it, but we just did it better.’

Well worth a read for cycling fanatics, people who love a little real-life sporting drama, or those who love investigative journalism. One thing's for sure, Walsh is a good writer and is able to tell what could be quite a dry tale in a very exciting way.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

On the Beach in East Tilbury, Essex

A view up the "beach" at East Tilbury, near to Coalhouse Fort.
The best thing about road cycling as a pastime is that you can literally put a pin into a map and cycle to most places - within obvious limitations

I had little else to do on warm but hazy Saturday 17th May and so I decided I was going to ride to a 'beach' somewhere towards the Thames estuary. It was a month or two after returning from Uganda and I hadn't done any 'big rides' since riding overnight from Walthamstow to Warwick in March.

The conditions were: as I was riding alone, I needed ready access to a station should I have a breakdown; there had to be something of at least mediocre interest at my destination; and that I should be able to cycle there primarily on B roads.

Sasha, the radar station and the marshy foreshore in East Tilbury.
As things turned out, with the magic of Strava and Garmin, I ended up in East Tilbury, Essex. Granted, the village is pretty with a few pubs, and plenty of clapboard buildings, but the highlight was Coalhouse Fort and an old radar installation down on the shoreline.

The fort, in its current incarnation, was built as paranoia over a potential invasion from the French was reaching new levels in the government. It also played a role during both World Wars before closing in the 1950s. Now it is run by volunteers and sits at the end of a surprisingly pretty riverside path which heads towards Grays.

One word of warning though. As I was down on the beach with Sasha, my Specialized Allez, watching a large ship go by, I thought all was calm. Around two minutes later, however, the bow-wave from the ship finally reached the shore, and the water quickly became ferocious. Fortunately, only one water bottle was lost in the watery escapade.

For more about Coalhouse Fort visit: http://www.coalhousefort.co.uk/

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Het Withstraat Dagboek: Keuken Sessie II

Quiet before/after the storm: A morning stroll around Veerhaven, Rotterdam.
The clock is ticking. The airport transfer bus is clearly not going to arrive. The students are beginning to suspect that something is amiss. What do you do? You call the first four taxis you can… so what if one of them is a six-door funeral limousine.

It is Sunday 16th February and we’re racing to Amsterdam Schipol, spread across four cars, all for €150 a go. It was just last night that I was considering how well we’d done to come in nearly €600 under budget for the trip.

The previous evening, in my efforts to ensure that the students who hadn’t broken curfew were rewarded for their good behaviour, I not only allowed them to go all out on food, but took some of them on the water taxi across the Nieuwe Maas.

The Kop van Zuid being as quiet as it is on a Sunday night and as self-contained as it is, meant that it was perfect for a post-dinner evening stroll, admiring the multitudinous lights reflecting on the calm surface of the Rijnhaven. For every drop of silence, the students were more than able to make up for it in volume.

Pia, dreading the prospect of the walk back from the opposite bank of the river, has retired to bed, evidently still traumatised by the alleged drunken passenger experience on the rail replacement bus earlier in Gouda.

As we finish walking past the wine bars, the four students, none of whom have ever drank alcohol, stare in through the large glass windows, puzzled by the attraction of spending your time and money on such things. I don’t really offer much by way of explantion, and leave them to their own musings on the subject.

When we reach the small riverside area opposite Wilheminaplein tram stop, the students stop to take pictures. Out of nowhere, a woman declaring herself to be a half-Dutch and half-Italian artist stops and asks to take our picture. Curiously she also starts talking about eggs, before getting rather stroppy when the request for a photograph is politely declined by the students. 

Following her surly departure, the students, with the exception of the Dutch-Somali girl, moan all of the way over Erasmusbrug, declaring that they thought I was going to allow our artist friend to abduct them and hold them hostage. Such active imaginations.

We arrive back to the hostel to discover that World War III has broken out between The Couple and The Twins. It is clear that sometimes on school trips, three days is the limit that most students can tolerate each other for. After wading my way through the expletive-laden prelude to the story, I am still really none the wiser about the cause of the strife. With everyone awake, except for the miraculous sleeping Georgian girl and Pia, there is a risk that everyone will get involved and wind the situation up.

There is clearly only one thing for it: the guitar. 

After about an hour, in which most of the belligerents and their allies have had their truth and reconciliation discussion in the privacy of one of the dorms, with both parties agreeing to disagree, but also to shut up and give everyone a bit of peace, the majority of the students congregate in the communal kitchen. 

The Nigerian boy brings down his laptop to look up guitar chords and lyrics. Others make tea. Some are in PJs and others looking like they’re heading out clubbing. In no time at all the group are singing, shouting and forgetting any of the issues from earlier.

From time to time other guests from the hostel come and marvel at the sight of this diverse group of youngsters singing like there’s no tomorrow, all drunk on nothing more than herbal tea and Chocomel. Some guests join in and others make a cheese sandwich and make for the exit pretty sharpish.

Punctuating the singing with funny stories and reflections of the past few days, the time runs quickly by. The teacher in me decides that at 4am the party needs to be broken up, although the teenager within has been happy to let the students have their fun.

 

The next morning, Sunday morning, there is a very slow start to the day. Unaware of the panicked dash for the airport that is yet to come later this afternoon, I wander around Veerhaven before breakfast.

As one by one the students trickle down the stairs and into the common room, something hits me – and it’s not Pia for a change.

Even though I’ve not filled in any application forms as yet, I know that in my heart of hearts I won’t be these students’ teacher next year. Some will have left to start University, but I am sure that I will have left as well. 

The only question is whether I’ll still be Hammersmith and Fulham, or whether I will have moved to a school in East London. One thing that is definite though is that, for now, from hijabis gone wild to Julian's dancing, Jas' late night arrival and Pia's fictional acrobatics, one of the most enjoyable chapters of my career so far has come to an end.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Het Withstraat Dagboek: Waar Zijn Jullie?

Westersingel: one direct road to the station and easy to get lost on... apparently.
The wonderful thing about Rotterdam is that so much of the city centre, from the Nieuwe Maas to Centraal station, and beyond, is built on a grid system. This, to most mortals, makes navigating the streets a breeze, but to students? 

It is Saturday 15th April, the sun is shining and feels warm, but we’re all waiting on a street corner. Amazingly, in the half a mile walk from Albert Heijn by the Vaasteland tram stop to Rotterdam Centraal, The Couple have gone missing – building on the curfew-breaking performance of the previous evening.

In my inimitable style, and channelling my inner Julian, I am remaining calm about things. I attempt to call both halves of The Couple, but to no avail. I’ll be honest, although it destroys my idealised version of Rotterdam being permanently covered in snow, I am enjoying the sunshine.

Unfortunately, Pia isn’t quite as polite about the situation. The fuse was lit following the reporting of last night’s curfew breaking at breakfast time. The fuse had half burned as a result of being invited to walk to Centraal station, rather then getting The Twins' favourite #7 tram. This disappearing act by The Couple has tipped her over the edge.

Before her string of [mild] expletives threatens to get the sixteen survivors of the walk arrested for the Dutch equivalent of a Section 5 public order offence, I hand over the train tickets to her and ask the Eritrean and Grenadian to escort her on to the next train to Amsterdam. I ring ahead and let Kevin and Dennis know that Pia is arriving in thirty minutes and to have a fire extinguisher at hand – failing that a coffee will do.

I get a #7 tram back in the general direction of Hostel Room. As I near the Witte de Withstraat stop my phone rings. It’s The Couple. Managing to sustain my sunny disposition I tell them to wait there, using my journey to plot something harsh and evil to say, but I don’t have it in me.

When I find them, their version of events seems to hinge firstly on taking too long in Albert Heijn, not realising that everyone was wandering in the general direction of the main station. They then seem to have gone underground at Eendrachtsplein, realised they don’t know how to buy a ticket, so walked to the Beurs Metro station, and then back to Eendrachstplein once more for good measure, before finally returning to the hostel.

We eventually end up catching a train one hour after the rest of the group and when we arrive in Amsterdam, the rest of the group have gone hunting for lunch and ended up at KFC... as usual. Pia has given them all the slip and headed to ‘t Nieuwe Kafé on Dam Square.

After her second koffie it is clear that Pia’s blood pressure has returned to normal. She disappears off in search of plants of a legal variety, the curfew breakers head off towards the shops, the Twins head off to presumably ride on a few trams, and Kevin, Dennis and I lead a small group for a ‘cultural walking tour.’

We head along Damstraat, crossing one canal, before turning left onto Oudezijds Achterburgwal, passing a number of dens of ill repute – in my students’ eyes at least. As ever, the realities of the sex trade and the cannabis cafés, or ‘coffee shops’, come as a shock when compared with the myths that surround both aspects of Amsterdam life in the eyes of your average British 17-year-old.

Our group of students, consisting of some of the better-behaved students, huddle closely together as we pass women in the windows. As we cross onto Molensteeg and head along Zeedijk towards the Nieuwmarkt, they want to stop and talk. As a group of young females it is hard for them to understand why it is that a sex trade of any sorts can actually be allowed to happen so openly. Kevin and Dennis explain a little about how, with it being regulated the way it is, at least it appears to be superficially safer, however much they may agree with the girls’ sentiments.

Reclining on an afternoon boat ride in Amsterdam.
We continue away from the red light district and towards Waterloopleinmarkt. It is a classified by FourSquare as a flea market and is full of interesting artefacts and trinkets, from swords, to cameras, to clothes. Kevin, Dennis and I can only stand back and watch as the girls look at and scrutinise every stall, engage every stallholder in conversation and start throwing their Euros around.

With stomachs beginning to rumble once more, we stop off for some vlaamse frite on our way back to Dam Square where we meet Pia in possession of some Class A tulip bulbs for her mother.

When the group is together once more, we go on a boat tour of the canals. The students are clearly suffering after last night’s antics and take the opportunity to sleep for the vast majority of the trip – much to the delight of the other customers who seemed unimpressed with our loud arrival on the 5pm sailing.

Dinner is booked for 9pm at the Indian restaurant, Lulu, next door to our hostel, so Pia and I decide we should get going as soon as our tour is over, much to the dismay of The Couple who want to go shopping. We stop, look at each other, shake our heads and turn towards the station.

It transpires that this decision to leave straight away was wise. After realising that our tickets are only valid on the slow train, and after some dancing from platform to platform, we board the double-decker train, only for it to terminate some 25 minutes later in nowheresville. 

With my Dutch being tested to the limit, I just about work out that there are engineering works, but have no idea what to do next. Luckily for all of us, some of our Muslim girls have struck up a conversation with a Dutch hijabi who guides us in the vague direction of a rail replacement bus. At this point I get separated from the rest of the group and onto a different bus.

When we arrive in Gouda, around twenty minutes later, angry Pia is back. Apparently a racist drunkard has been running amok on their bus, talking about Nazis and the like. Fortunately, Pia is a blue belt in karate and so was able to use some of her special moves to repel his racism, but, in doing so, her sense of humour had taken a massive hit. The students seemed to have found the whole episode rather exciting though.

When we roll into Rotterdam Centraal, hideously late for dinner, I grant The Twins their wish and we all take the tram back towards the hostel. After some careful negotiation, the restaurateur lets us in, by this time an hour late for our booking, but has to split us over three tables. 

I look at our remaining money for the trip. Our finances are looking good and so we go all out for dinner, diving into three courses of excellent food at Lulu and the party is only just getting started.
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