Some advice for Piers Morgan on organising his Men’s March

On January 21, hundreds of thousands of people marched through cities on every continent in a global campaign for women’s rights and equality.

Journalist slash TV presenter slash twitter feud-haver Piers Morgan was unhappy about this turn of events that didn’t seem to be about him in any way and so tweeted a plan – a plan to hold a men’s march against encroaching feminism and the emasculation of his ENTIRE GENDER as a result of people thinking maybe it isn’t fair that not everyone has equal rights.

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It was a tweet akin to the angry clamours that arise most years on International Women’s Day demanding to know the date of International Men’s Day (November 19th). This is rarely followed by an upsurge of action from the same people on Men’s day itself, almost as if they are more concerned about tearing down a bid for equality than actually campaigning for the rights of vulnerable men.

To be fair, Piers only came up with this plan on January 21, possibly inspired by the Women’s March rather than intimidated by it, so he might appreciate some advice in these early planning stages on whose rights his march should be trying to protect.

LGBTQ Men

According to a 2015 UN report, there were 1,612 murders, across 62 countries, of transgender persons between 2008 and 2014. In the US alone in 2013, there were a reported 1,402 hate crime offences (the actual figure may be higher) based on sexual-orientation, 60 percent of which were aimed at men. A recent Human Rights Watch report highlighted the bullying homosexual youths face in US schools.

The rate of suicide is also four times higher for gay youths than it is for straight youths.

Anecdotally, gay youths around the world still face the risk of being kicked out of their homes, or ostracised from their peers.

Men of Colour

The University of California released a studyfound “evidence of a significant bias in the killing of unarmed black Americans relative to unarmed white Americans, in that the probability of being black, unarmed, and shot by police is about 3.49 times the probability of being white, unarmed, and shot by police on average.”The American Civil Liberties Union released a report in 2014 which showed black men, on average, received longer sentences than white men for comparable crimes.

Male Victims of Sexual Assault

Male rape is both under-reported and under-researched, making definitive data difficult to come by. The FBI’s definition of rapewas not updated to include male victims until 2012 and in 2015, a study of discrepancies between assaults on male victims that were formally reported and the numbers of victim self-referrals for counselling indicated that more than 90 percent of assaults in the UK were going unreported.

Male Victims of Domestic Abuse

In the UK there are about 500,000 men living in abusive situations, but only 78 spaces available to men, and only 20 of those are for men only. Male victims are also far less likely to report abuse or feel they can even confide in non-formal sources such as friends and family.

 

These are just a few statistics, a few links from about an hour’s work, and it isn’t meant to be comprehensive. It doesn’t take into account the men who don’t fit the general idea of “masculinity,” or the boys who are bullied and beaten up because they like cooking, or dancing, or pink, and their peers have been taught from a young age that anything “girly” is inherently inferior and should be mocked. It doesn’t take into account the fact that boys are told not to cry, and to man up, and that emotions are a sign of weakness.

If half the people who sarcastically asked “when is International Men’s Day” on International Women’s Day actually did something to help men, to reduce toxic masculinity, even just to let their friends know they won’t be judged for being a victim, the rate of suicide in men might fall (it is currently about 3.5 times higher in men than in women.)

So if Piers organises a march for these men, this rabid feminist would be happy to march alongside them.

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I am a doughnut…

…visiting Berlin then and now.

Trust me, if you’re a fan of Eddie Izzard that subject line is hilarious.

Anyway, in September as part of my jolly back to Europe while I waited for my visa and new contract, I went to Berlin for a week and roamed around having a lovely time with Asad:

These defensive camera moves happened a lot.

These defensive camera moves happened a lot.

It was a very different experience to the first time I made it to Germany’s capital which, while still lovely, was rather more impoverished and involved a lot more very sketch situations, all brushed off as good fun by 18-year-old me.

It was the tail-end of my gap year (darling) when I arrived in Berlin, bleary eyed and incredibly poor.

I had been on a sleeper train from somewhere in eastern Europe (where my rail pass was valid) to Germany (where it was not but hey ho, I got away with it.) I took sleepers a lot during that trip as it meant I got transport and accommodation in one.

By that point I had beach bummed and sofa-surfed my way around the Greek islands, had a minor heart attack at how expensive Italy was (we camped to save money, even in Venice. VENICE. It was damp), and mooched my way through eastern Europe, largely pretending to be Australian as it was the football world cup.

Battered by boats, trains and random bongo-playing Russians (that’s a different story), by the time I got to Berlin I was living on about €15-€20 a day, including accommodation.

This had been a trip when I had slept on beaches so I could afford to go to historical monuments and my diet consisted of bread and things people from whatever country I was in dipped bread into. And peanut butter.

So I arrived, an 18-year-old with a pack, a smaller pack, and shoes that were nearly worn through after nine months of walking everywhere that was less than a few miles away.

Walking past me on that platform in Berlin were three glorious-looking men in stilettos and sequinned dresses. Oh yeah, I accidentally arrived during Berlin Pride. An eye opener for a Yorkshire girl who had never travelled by herself before.

The Heart of Gold did not disappoint, also, I can't find my version of this picture so this one is from their website.

The Heart of Gold did not disappoint, also, I can’t find my version of this picture so this one is from their website.

A tallied forth to the Heart of Gold youth hostel (a place I chose purely for the name, aided by the fact it was a snip at €8 a night and there was HOT WATER you guys) lugging my bags with me and making sure my hand-drawn map, copied from the screen of a computer in a dingy internet cafe was to hand.

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Fast-forward ten years (and get over the fact that was a decade ago – I find alcohol helps with this) and we landed at a civilised hour after flying BA (something I never did for European flights ever – who needs food when your flight is less than four hours??) we took a taxi from the airport, using googlemaps and the guy’s satnav to make sure we ended up at our delightful, airy flat in Mitte.

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We had found the place on air BnB and chosen it for its amazing decor, central location, good reviews and the fact that it had all this while still not topping what we were willing to spend – a sum reached in about 5 minutes without the use of a calculator and copies of our bank statements.

There were no transvestites (I was a bit sad about this) and our suitcases had wheels.

After a leisurely breakfast with the guy renting us the flat, I napped in a comfortable bed before preparing to see the sites, DSLR in tow.

Berlin wall

Berlin wall

Day one was spent walking and walking, we walked along the remains of the Berlin Wall, and around the old Stasi headquarters and the Hamburger Bahnhof museum, accidentally seeing some Andy Warhols on the way round. (Also a giant gold statue of Michael Jackson and Bubbles the monkey, which was weird.)

This totally makes sense. Totally.

This totally makes sense. Totally.

We walked across bridges and down side streets and watched the sun set and then walked to find somewhere to eat before realising it was getting really and we live in the desert. Then we got a metro home.

Not having to worry obsessively over how much I am spending on holiday is a liberating and relatively new experience. I know that, as long as I don’t stay in ridiculously expensive places, or eat at excessively pricey restaurants, I will pretty much be okay.

It is a good feeling, but it is made better by the fact that I know I can, and have, done it on practically nothing, having to count as I go, and sometimes choosing between food and culture.

Obligatory lovely sunset picture.

Obligatory lovely sunset picture.

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From what I remember of my first visit to Berlin there was a lot of walking then as well, and considerably less metro. As in none. If I couldn’t walk it I didn’t go.

It turned out to be a very fun experience, made all the better as those months often were by the weird and the wonderful folk you meet at places that charge you €8 a night.

In this instance it was two Northern Irish boys who I can remember very little about, including their names, although the main thing you need to know is that they didn’t steal anything or hit on me so they are better than 70% of people in the universe.

They also had a tendency to go “Oh, that looks interesting” and wander off in a random direction.

By this method of zen navigation (I am very much channelling the late, great Douglas Adams in this post) we found a super dodgy bar that was on the top floor of a derelict building, the other floors of which were being used as a kind of urban art gallery, with graffiti and bits of wall missing where people had literally knocked the bit of art they wanted out of the plaster and taken it home.

The outer wall of the bar was missing and art-house films were projected across a vacant square and on to the side of the building opposite. Drinks were cheap, strong, and quite possibly moonshine.

Unfortunately at that point in my life my camera was the film one my mum had bought me when I was about 12, so the pictures I did take came out as nothing more than blurs. Although that might not have been entirely the camera’s fault.

My first time in Berlin, then, was essentially one big walking tour, just looking at things that were out in the open and, more importantly, free. Brandendurg Gate? Check. Checkpoint Charlie? Check. Reichstag dome? Check. Berlin wall? Check. Bunch of other stuff I don’t really remember? Check. Lots of very friendly, possibly high homosexuals? Double check.

Brandenburg Gate, still there.

Brandenburg Gate, still there.

I walked through parks and round woodlands and into what used to be East Berlin and peaked in to the windows of things I wanted to visit but couldn’t afford.

I didn’t, on that visit, reflect much on the identity of the city or its cultural memory. The Jewish Museum had only been open a few years and was prohibitively expensive by my standards and the holocaust memorial was not yet complete.

I knew as much about the world as any average 18-year-old knows, basically nothing, and somehow didn’t connect the things I learnt about in history with the city I was in and the windows I was peaking through.

I was out in the real world on my own for the first time. I was on a self-involved voyage of discovery (read, being a slightly pretentious wannabe writer who was attempting to go through a phase of ‘not liking shoes’ but in reality didn’t like having dirty and sore feet more.)

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This time around I am pleased to say my awareness of the world has extended beyond my own bubble and I spent a lot more time reflecting on the city, and the fact that many of the things we think of as ancient history, the division of the city, the poverty and austerity and spying, were actually within living memory.

Asad and I went to the Jewish museum, which is beautiful and stunning and thought-provoking and you should go there. Now.

I read letters from concentration camps, but also letters from people who survived and were leaving for Israel and that opened up another floodgate of emotion. I looked at those pages from history, full of hope, and felt a sinking sorrow for what was to come.

Hindsight is not always a wonderful thing.

Something that struck me is that Berlin’s cultural memory is still very much in the negative. We walked through the Topographie of Terror exhibition about the rise of the Nazis, and on the way out I saw a sign for a new installation. I forget the exact name but it may as well have said “Coming soon: Another look at all the terrible things we did.”

I know it is important not to forget. It is important for every country to remember its mistakes so it does not repeat them. I especially appreciate the Soviet War memorial, built in 1949, and one of the only memorials I have seen the properly manages to convey the sheer number of fatalities suffered by the Russians.

Imposing is the word.

Imposing is the word.

But I also think it is time for the people of Berlin to start the bit where they move on and don’t repeat them.

We met up with a few German friends, and they were all young and smart and dynamic and doing good work and I look forward to visiting Berlin in another decade, when they are the ones in charge.

It wasn’t all doom and gloom and Stasi museums. Anish Kapoor was exhibiting and we spent a glorious few hours wandering around the installations being perplexed at how they worked.

At this point, the number of modern art selfless I took was faintly ludicrous.

Anish Kapoor: At this point, the number of modern art selfless I took was faintly ludicrous.

The Modern Art Museum was a glory of colour, and our hunt for the best currywurst in Berlin (which turned out to be at Curry36) was a glory of slightly oddly flavoured tomato sauce.

We ate the best burger (at The Bird) and drank the best cocktails (which definitely were not moonshine or cheap, but they were strong.)

One afternoon we went with friends to a flea market in Mauerpark and watched karaoke from the bear pit, along with about 500 other people.

Breakfast. With flowers in vases. Fancy.

Breakfast. With flowers in vases. Fancy.

One of the last things we did was have breakfast in the Reichstag. The tours book up months in advance but you can book breakfast or lunch about a week ahead of time outside of tourist season, and once you are in the dome you can wander around at will.

It was that breakfast that made me realise how different my two visits had been. I have a memory of standing in the rain, looking up at the dome, and thinking “Holy crap that’s expensive to visit, I need to find a tree to shelter under or something.” (I was profound.)

This time it was still raining, but I was on the inside looking out.

It isn’t just about having disposable income. Eighteen-year-old me would probably have hated this trip, and somehow felt staying in a nice place was cheating. Twentyeight-year-old me (urgh) however, has stayed in enough crap holes to know that when a clean comfy bed with a bakery downstairs is available, you take it, because you don’t know when the next one is going to come along.

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The time I attacked Sandy with an eagle…

…and other stories from the Mongolian steppes.

I haven’t done a travel post for a while. I have, however, done a fair bit of travelling.

An excellent thing about Doha is that from there you can get pretty much anywhere with relative ease.

So, naturally, with the whole world to choose from, I chose Mongolia.

It is hard to imagine a place that offers a greater contrast to Qatar then the one I arrived in after two plane transfers, a minor heart attack in Seoul when no-one seemed to know where I got my next boarding card, an excessively long line at immigration, and a scrum at baggage claim that made me grateful that I’m tall enough to see over the heads of most people.

Sandy, who I originally met in Doha and who has since moved to Ulaanbaatar as a teacher, picked me up from the airport and we drove back to his school on deceptively smooth roads that lulled me into a false sense of security about what our impending tour of Mongolia would entail.

Day one: In which two humps are better than one…

After an evening of curry and catch-ups and an unexpectedly long film (The View Beyond the Pines is excellent, by the way) we hit the road at a very reasonable 9am, having been introduced to our guide Khaliunaa, her husband Aba (our driver) and their three-year-old son, Tamulin, who would be coming on our trip with us.

Any trepidation I might have felt about spending the next several days with a three-year-old evaporated when Tamulin gave us a cheery thumbs up before settling into his car seat. He quickly became our trip’s mascot, and the instigator of many driving break games. And a stealer of hats.

This kid. This kid is awesome.

This kid. This kid is awesome.

The first day offered a tiny insight into what awaited us a few sleeps in the future when the road randomly stopped and Aba casually turned his heavily laden two-wheel-drive Hyundai people  carrier off road and continued as if everything was normal.

Which, as it turns out, it was.

We had lunch in this little girl's home...

We had lunch in this little girl’s home…

We stopped for lunch at a collection of gers (what we would normally call yurts) and the four of us were offered a camel ride.

Living and travelling in the Middle Easy means that camel rides quickly lose their appeal. Camels are bumpy, uncomfortable, stubborn and have massive teeth.

Also, it was raining. Which we were assured was very unusual in the ‘land of the blue skies.’

Sandy discovering that two humps are better than one...

Sandy discovering that two humps are better than one…

However, in a bid not to offend we agreed to the ride, and quickly found that the Mongolian bactrian (two-humped camel) is vastly more comfortable than its one-humped cousin (probably cousin, I’m not really sure how camel genetics work.)

We also realised that it wasn’t entirely normal that we were all in a position to compare relative comfort levels of camels.

That first day, as the Mongolian steppes rolled past the car window, and an occasional lurch jolted me out of my revere as I watched some of the world’s most beautiful scenery slide past me (when the windows weren’t steamed up by condensation from the rain on the outside and too many bodies on the inside,) I felt slightly disjointed from the country.

It’s beauty seemed alien and prehistoric, like at any moment raptors would rove down the hillside towards us, and scaled beasts would wing their way towards the distant treetops. The people were so friendly, and smiling and hospitable, but I was aware that I knew nothing of the culture other than what I had read, nothing of the language at all, and nothing of the hardships these nomadic families endured as the seasons shifted.

I had come to Mongolia fairly blind, with no guide book and few expectations. The extent of the wide open plains, punctuated by rolling hills, and the intensity of the culture, steeped in symbols of nature, caught me off guard.

On that first night I embraced the particular silence that comes from a total absence of a noise one is used to hearing, and bedded down for my first ever night in a ger and my first night for several months free from the humming background noise of construction and air-conditioning.

Oh yeah, we also got to see a rock that looks like a penis. Good times.

Day two: In which eagle attacks are the best kind of attacks…

It turns out that if you are going to spend a night in a ger it is better if you’re not travelling with someone who needs to pee a lot.

Despite the occasional disturbance due to nature calling someone else, and a nearby dog that didn’t seem to realise none of the other dogs were talking to it, I found my first ger experience remarkably comfortable.

The night-time urinator (who shall remain nameless for the purposes of this blog) redeemed themselves by providing life-giving coffee before we hit the road again and headed to Mongolia’s ancient capital and associated temple.

Sandy at Karakorum

Sandy at Karakorum

Chengis (apparently Ghengis is wrong, who knew?) (well, the Mongolians, I guess) Khan founded the ancient city of Karakorum in 1220 (it wasn’t ancient then, it was all new and the centre of a massive empire and stuff.) The city has been destroyed and rebuilt and razed and resurrected under various occupations since the time of the Khan, but it is still a very important part of Mongolia.

We roamed around the site of the capital and Erdene Zuu, the Buddhist monastery while Khaliunaa taught us about the symbols of Buddhism, showed us the spinning prayer wheel, and told us stories about the eight protectors of Buddhism.

Sandy and Morritz spinning a prayer wheel.

Sandy and Morritz spinning a prayer wheel.

While I love the theory and stories behind faiths, I also find being in buildings of worship to be uncomfortable and claustrophobic, so while people walked around an active part of the site, where monks prayed and incense burned, I stayed outside in the sun and marvelled at the existence of a sky so blue.

Lunch came and we sat with ancient walls on one side and horses on the other in a peaceful field off soft grass.

There is nothing about this I don't love...

There is nothing about this I don’t love…

 

Shortly before lunch I accidentally attacked Sandy with an eagle, which is as much fun as it sounds. I would like to claim that it was all part of a plan, but the thing just launched itself off my arm straight at Sandy’s face.

It was spectacular.

After lunch it was a ‘short’ 120km to our camp, and our first real understanding that people view distances with a different eye in Mongolia, which either has the fewest or the most roads in the world. Depending on your definition of the word ‘road.’

It became standard to ask two questions each morning:

“How far are we driving today?”

“How much of that is paved?”

We could well have added “how much of it involves Aba selecting a mountain and driving over it?”

The man was a miracle driver and thought nothing of navigating mountain paths, pathless valleys and small rivers in his van. I think someone forgot to tell him it wasn’t 4×4. As the days progressed, we all became aware that our journey, in many places, would not have been possible without Aba at the wheel.

The rain of the first day was burned out by the sun, and I began to feel an affinity for Mongolia as I watched the distant hills, shimmering with a blue haze.

We stopped for the night and stayed in a ger owned by a Mongolian family, many of whom have one or two extras to rent out to tourists and travellers.

I sat on a hillside watching as a seven-year-old who looked like he had been born in a saddle road past while an older boy skillfully herded cattle towards their pens.

After a trip to the hot springs, a blissful shower, and the even more blissful use of a lavatory with a seat, we fell asleep in our ger, disturbed only by the nearby huffing of yaks, and the occasional night-time pee-er.

Day three: In which I hit my head. A lot.

It turns out that gers are not built with height in mind. Particularly the doorframes.

You would think that once this lesson had been learnt once, it would not have to be repeated.

You would think incorrectly.

I’m pretty convinced I gave myself a mild concussion during the course of the day.

My general ineptitude aside, day three saw sporadic rain showers,the beginnings of carsickness an some of the most incredible landscapes I have ever had the fortune to lay eyes on. Rather making up for the rest of it.

Cross legged, eating delicious food prepared by our guide, watching eagles swoop past the rocky walls of a ravine, I realised I hadn’t looked at a phone, or a laptop, or a TV since we had left UB. It was a remarkably liberating feeling when my normal days were spent tied to the news cycle.

A Mongolian lunch stop...

A Mongolian lunch stop…

Mongolia is what they mean when they say ‘get away from it all’ and by this stage in the journey I was playing Elliot Smith’s ‘Let’s get lost’ almost on loop as we drove through Mongolia’s seemingly never-ending lands, sandwiched between the earth and a sky so blue it seemed unnaturally vibrant, like nature was trying to show you that it could do more than the washed out blue of its normal skies.

Also, there were more eagles.

Also, there were more eagles.

Because no trip is complete without pretending you’re a Bond villain, we climbed a (fairly) dormant volcano that afternoon, finishing just as the heavens opened and the rains began in earnest.

We made it to our ger for the night and piled inside.

I drifted into unconsciousness to the sound of rain on the roof, bouncing off the round walls of our hut, while wood burned in the stove, hissing and crackling as it dried on the flames.

Day four: In which misery has a new face…

And that face is Mongolia’s road network.

A 12-hour drive took us 280km further in our journey.

Teresa managed to pass the journey happily, seemingly immune to the gut-churning, unending rocking of the van as we bridged a path of rocks with the walls and were pushed from side to side.

Vaguely flat road which temporarily didn't make me want to die.

Vaguely flat road which temporarily didn’t make me want to die.

Occasionally the path would flatten out, and a track might temporarily appear, and I would stop wishing for oblivion long enough to stare at the scene around me, the eagles, the ubiquitous ox, the disappointing piles of rubbish that dot the countryside.

Having just finished The Long Earth, I couldn’t shake the feeling we had someone stepped sideways, into another earth, another time, another part of space that humans hadn’t quite taken hold of yet.

We skipped stones over a river at lunch, and my misery subsided as I watched the jumps and ripples. It is hard to stay angry at a place for its lack of comforts, when it is exactly that which is filling you with contentment.

You can’t pick the parts of humanity you want, and leave the rest behind. I wish you could.

Day five: In which we learn what three-year-olds dream of…

We spent the night in our guide’s cousin’s (or some other relative, it was difficult to be sure) house.

It was odd to be inside, and see how the more permanent homes were put together.

Sandy had said at the start of the journey that many of the houses would look fancy from the outside, but none would have indoor plumbing, and that was the case here.

We all slept on the floor of the living/TV/probably also someone’s bed – room, along with Khaluna and her family.

In the middle of the night, Tamulin woke us up as he started wailing in his sleep until Aba calmed him down.

The next morning it turned out he had a nightmare, specifically that his favourite ball had fallen into the outhouse pit of human matter (and maggots) and could only be calmed down by being shown the ball. I think i would have cried as well.

We left late and drove to Khuvusgul lake, where we were looking forward to spending two nights and having a day of no driving.

We avoided the tourist camp and stayed further out of the way. But headed back to the tourist facilities and shelled out for a freezing cold shower in the dark and a close encounter with a nail that left me wishing I knew the symptoms of tetanus. (Spoiler: I don’t have tetanus, but I did have an awesome scar for a while.)

After our shower the rain started in earnest. I also realised that the outhouse was slightly more exposed to the elements than was ideal. Once the rain abated I explored the gloriously peaceful lakeside and skipped stones until a curious herd of sheep wandered slightly too close for comfort.

The vast expanse of the Mongolian landscape is definitely an aid to clearing the mind, and just looking at the skyline had a calming effect that meant it really didn’t matter that I had no internet, no phone signal, no awareness of any possible impending nuclear holocaust.

Clinging on for dear life as the van bounced its merry way along imaginary roads the day before meant my right bicep was aching so it was back to our snug ger and a roaring fire in the wood burning stove, and the sound of rain pattering off stretched cloth.

Day six – In which riding becomes a rainy day activity

At this stage, my notes say “land of the blue sky my ass.” I think the rain was beginning to lose its charm.

Not to be deterred by a light downpour, we upped tools after lunch (is upped tools an expression? Did I just make that up?) and swung onto some deeply uncomfortable saddles, were mildly perturbed by the fact one horse seemed to be branded with a swastika (I know the buddhist symbol came first, but that one is the other way round normally, this one was the swastika way round) and set off through some woods and over some rivers and generally felt very intrepid until we realised our guide was about 13.

Horsies in the woods in the rain.

Horsies in the woods in the rain.

Anyway, it was ace. Having not ridden for years, it was still gratifying to dismount after 10km or so and be the most upright and least bandy legged among the lot of us (not including the Mongolians, obviously.)

Given the option of climbing a mountain in the rain for two hours to not see the view because of said rain, and going home in a car, we all unanimously, and almost wordlessly, plumped for the wussy option, went home, and played chess by torchlight.

We also discussed the obligation of travel (whether, when in a new country, you do things you feel obliged to do, in order to say you have done them, rather than because they are enjoyable at the time) and whether it would be possible to live in a ger for a ear (yes, if there was some kind of family unit or community to share up the wood-cutting, ger repairing, horse looking aftering tasks.)

Day seven – In which there was lots of driving and we saw a naked child in the middle of the road.

Um. There was a shed-ton of driving. Although about 20km of it was on a paved rad that hadn’t existed a week ago and so surprised everyone when it appeared.

And our guides seemed unconcerned by the naked child and seemed to assume her parents were around somewhere, casually watching their child run around buttock-naked.

Also, Sandy stood on a spikey thing.

And the rain meant we had to help a bunch of people who had less awesome drivers than Aba and who got stuck in the mud on mountainsides driving tiny little city hatchbacks. Because that is totally normal.

And there was a lot of driving.

Days eight and nine – In which I was unconscious.

I don’t remember much of this day and my notes have the unmistakable scrawl of me losing the ability to see straight.

We picked up some extra people to drive them in to town.

I slept a lot.

Then my headache went away at some point in the evening of day nine.

Day ten – In which I purchase the greatest hat in the history of the world.

Seriously. It’s a trilby made out of baby camel wool. What else do you need to know.

We went to the gobi cashmere shop and got very over excited and bought lots of stuff (including a hat.) Then we did some lovely genteel hitch-hiking back in to town with a busload of German tourists in order to watch a cultural show.

The show was pretty impressive, although the dancing women had terrifying smiles and the painted heads of the prancing horses were the stuff of nightmares.

Day eleven – In which I fly to Korea

I flew to Korea.

Also, this blog is nearly 3,000 words. Whoopsies.

So, Mongolia, awesome right?

When I grow I want to be this guy.

When I grow I want to be this guy.

EAAAAAGGGGGLE

EAAAAAGGGGGLE.

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The things I miss…

… when I leave Qatar.

Ha! Weren’t expecting that, were you?

Most expats who haven’t brought their lives and families with them perpetually have half their brain at home, thinking about pub quizzes and jelly babies (although that could just be me) and fields and trees. And cricket. *Pauses to check scores.*

Oh yeah, and my family, obviously, goes without saying, ahem.

Moving on.

When I eventually do get back to all these they are just as wonderful as I remember them being, but being away from Qatar is also the time that I realise what I love about the place and what is keeping me here.

Within a few weeks of flying back in to Doha, though, I start pining for the things Doha can’t offer once again and it all goes round in a big loop that sees my always wanting to be somewhere I’m not.

Which is ridiculous because everywhere I have been/lived/visited has amazing things that you should focus on while you’re there rather than when you’ve left and it is too late to appreciate them.

So here are the things I miss about Qatar when I am in the UK, being thought about, for once, while I am in Doha.

1) People.

My friends in the UK are amazing and I miss them every day, but by virtue of the fact we have either grown up together, or had our formative university years together, or generally were drawn to each other, we are all more or less similar as far as upbringing, education and opinions are concerned.

The people here hit such a diverse range of nationalities, opinions, jobs, ages, opinions, upbringing and experience that I feel as though my understanding of the wider world as grown exponentially since I moved here.

Of course, you have the few that fit into the typical expat cliche of being here for the money and not much else, but it is easy enough to steer clear of them and seek out people that will add something to your life, either as a passing acquaintance or a close friend.

Having people to share Doha with makes Doha so much more full of joy than it seems when you first find your feet here.

2) Balloo.

I mean, look at the little guy:

I'm sorry, you seem to be under the impression that this bed belongs to you...

I’m sorry, you seem to be under the impression that this bed belongs to you…

He’s just a fluffy, vaguely sadistic, ball of adorable psychosis.

3) Work.

Yes, shut up, I miss my job.

I am still in the heady stage of loving my job and the opportunities I hope it will bring me.

I might have managed to and the same job if I had stayed in the UK, but it seems unlikely, and I will be forever grateful that Doha gave me the opportunity to do something I love to do.

4) The hidden joys.

Okay, a while ago I wrote a piece about how Doha isn’t boring, but that you just need to make more of and effort to find stuff to do.

The other thing is that, once you find something like the mangroves in Al Khor, or the random exhibits at Katara, or a cool display of swords at the MIA that your friend curated (go Bill), it means so much more because you found it and are able to share it with people.

Qatar is increasingly bringing in things to the country that might surprise people on the outside. Cirque de Soleil was here a while ago, today I am off to see Stomp, and there is a modern art gallery that is slowly becoming a pretty good place to be.

While I don’t specifically miss these things, when I’m in the UK there is less desire to do stuff I wouldn’t normally do, because I am doing the things I used to do all the time and now can’t.

Qatar is a place that encourages trying new things, because you’re old things don’t exist.

5) The down time.

When my mum visited at Christmas she observed “your weekends are real weekends”.

And it’s true (although now I’m doing shifts ‘weekend’ is any point I have more than one day off at a time). When we all have time off together we go and do things. Weekend things like shisha at the souq, or visiting the inland sea, or red bucket beach can just happen. No excessive planning, no worrying about the weather (most of the time) and no stresses.

Also, the head-clearing space and tranquility when you get there kind of makes you forget the construction noises the rest of the time.

The contrast almost makes the noise worthwhile.

Red Bucket Beach. I would tell you where to find it, but I don't want to...

Red Bucket Beach. I would tell you where to find it, but I don’t want to…

6) The inside spaces.

Green outside space does exist, don’t get me wrong, but it is getting to the time of year that Qatar’s five months of perfect weather are ending and the humidity and heat is beginning to kick, so being outside isn’t that fun.

When it is perfect for being out and about, everyone heads to the same parks and greenery, so Aspire Park and the MIA park both tend to be full of kids, as they should be, because they are parks, but it makes sitting out under a tree and writing kind of difficult.

However, some of the architecture in Doha is frankly amazing. The Museum of Islamic Art has one of the best foyers I have seen, and the QNCC looks like a frigging tree, so that’s awesome.

Also, it contains this.

Also, it contains this.

A celebration…

…even if it is on the wrong day

Happy Mothers’ Day America! You might get this wrong along with a load of other things (use of the letter ‘u’, pronunciation of lieutenant, etc etc) but that doesn’t make it a less important version of the holiday than the British one. (It kind of does.)

On a serious note, a special very first Mother’s Day to the wonderful Carolina who gave birth to Julia Marie a mere eight days ago and who is basically amazing and one of the only people I know who can rock the hospital gown look.

Because this is fake Mothers’ Day, I have decided to repost something I wrote for my mum last year, but which got lost in the great blog disaster of 2012.

This has the added bonus of meaning I don’t actually have to think of anything to write today.

So here it is:

“My mum… and just a few of the things that make her my mum.” (First published March 18 2012)

1) She once forgot I was in the back seat of the car and drove all the way to college only to have to turn around and drop me at my grandma’s house.

2) She made me wear a blue, knitted jacket with a bell on the hood so she didn’t lose me in shops. It made me look like Noddy. (For this I have always blamed my brother who used to hide from her in clothes racks.)

3) She once forgot where she left me and was fairly surprised when she walked into her friend’s house to find me there. She later admitted this on BBC’s Woman’s Hour to the hilarity of all concerned.

4) When I forget to get in touch, she thinks it is a good thing because I must be having fun.

5) She was always right when she told me to take a jacket and I would never admit that I regretted not listening to her.

6) When we went on ferries she dressed my siblings and I in the same outfit so she could show people in case one of us got lost. (Again, this is totally my brother’s fault.)

7) She definitely isn’t eccentric.

8) When having a bad hair day she drives wearing a woolly hat to flatten her hair.

9) In recent years she has been on more jaunts, adventures and trips than I have managed to fit into my entire life. (2013 UPDATE: She will be spending Christmas and New Year hiking to the Everest base camp. Obviously.)

10) When we were growing up, she kept our baby teeth and now has no idea what to do with them.

11) She’s always right, even when she’s not.

12) Sometimes, when she is laughing at something, she sounds exactly like Eeyore.

13) One year, when asked what she wanted for her birthday, she said ‘An Indiana Jones pinball machine’ (we’re still working on it.)

14) She plays the drums.

15) If she pays for things on her credit card, and then doesn’t open the bill, it doesn’t count.

16) She really definitely doesn’t snore.

17) When I was 18, she bought me a plane ticket and packed me off Greek island hopping. In the months I was away she only called me once because she thought something felt wrong. My purse had been stolen an hour earlier.

18) She has absolutely no frown lines, or wrinkles at all really.

19) If people take the time to listen, her life stories are some of the best they will ever hear.

20) She’s a journalist who would rather stay silent than tell a lie.

21) I miss being small enough to curl up in her lap.

22) Every night, she would read to us for half an hour. When we got older we all wanted different books, so she had to read out loud for ninety minutes every night. I used to follow her around and listen to the other stories as well.

23) When she read, she did all the voices.

24) She strives constantly to make me more organised and less of a procrastinator despite the fact that this has been a losing battle since the day I was born.

25) She came on our school trip to Cadbury World and so I wasn’t restricted by the spending money limit the school set.

26) She once made bread and butter pudding without the butter.

27) When my dad was on a teacher-training course, she set the fish fingers on fire and he came home to find her putting out the flames in the back garden.

28) She won’t be called grandma, but my brother’s and sister’s kids don’t know how lucky they are to have her as their not-grandma. They will one day though.

29) Sometimes, she doesn’t know what country she’s flying to until she gets to the airport. Sometimes not even then.

30) She doesn’t want me to grow up, come home, or settle down.

31) When we speak on Skype, I can only see the top half of her face and her collection of model cars. They aren’t toys, they’re models.

32) She used to sing ‘You are my sunshine’ to me until I fell asleep.

33) She introduced me to The Beatles and, at five, I would bounce up and down on her bed singing all the words Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

34) We’re undeniably similar, and I long ago gave up fighting turning in to her. There are far worse people to be.

35) For more about my mum, visit www.notdeadyettravel.com – says it all really.

Doing all the voices for a whole new generation.

Doing all the voices for a whole new generation.

PS, I already did the discussion of where the apostrophe should go in my real Mother’s Day piece.

Falling in love…

…with a city of contradictions.

Beirut is: beautiful, chaotic, ugly, relaxed, noisy, chilled, destroyed, under construction, full, thriving, soulful, bombed out, loving and loved, misunderstood.

Beirut is real.

Beirut smells of petrol, and coffee, and food, and alcohol, and cigarettes, and people.

Beirut is alive.

Live love Beirut

Live love Beirut. Stencil art is everywhere.

One can only do so many visa runs to Dubai while work visas are lost, and sent to the wrong places, and set on fire or whatever has happened to my paperwork.

After a while, hopping back and forth between cities in the Gulf begins to get to you. The Gulf is easy, clean, clinical, and largely soul-less.

In Doha and Dubai the people make the cities, in Beirut the city makes the people.

The early morning flight out of Doha meant that I was able to stretch out across a row of three seats and sleep my way into the chaotic wonderfulness of Lebanon.

My first impression of Beirut was that it was an ugly city, but it only took a few hours for me to realise how wrong I was to think that the bombed out buildings, the windowless shells,the faded facades and French colonnades, were anything but majestic.

Every bullet mark, every pile of crumbling masonry that used to be a building, adds to the soul of the city.

After the pristine building and lifeless streets of West Bay, the thriving, shouting city filled me. As did the excessive amount of food I ate during my 4.5 days there.

Seriously, I think I ate twice my body weight in meat and carbs, hummus and moutabal, bacon and more bacon.

We spent the first afternoon exploring Hamra, one of the main neighbourhoods, and generally getting used to the city and its sounds. A visit to the American University of Beirut campus reawakened my thoughts about going back to university as we explored the lush green grounds. Then I saw some students, all of whom looked about 12, and felt indescribably old.

The main findings on the first day were: realising that there was no such thing as a metered taxi, and that everyone was happy to take Lebanese pounds, American dollars, or a combination of the two. Often change came back in a mix of currencies and we ended up doing unnecessarily complicated maths to work out if what we had in our hands was correct.

Our first evening out was in Gemmazeh, the big bar area where small bars run either side of the street and slowly fill up with a mix of students, tourists, and locals until each one is a mess of noise and laughter.

Being able to drink outside, in the street, for less than 60QR a drink resulted in us both going slightly mad and the evening became a blur of rum, whiskey, and at some point free shots from various happy barmen.

The bars have also adopted either a no smoking inside policy or had clearly defined smoking areas, meaning that when we eventually rolled home, although we probably smelt like a brewery, we didn’t smell like a smoke house as well.

The next morning we headed out to guidebook-recommended ‘Le Chef’ on the same

Waiting for our restorative breakfast in Le Chef.

Waiting for our restorative breakfast in Le Chef.

street that had caused our need for a lot of food and coffee in the first place. It ended up being a simple and inexpensive breakfast of Middle Eastern staples; hummus with meat, moutabal, and fatteh. With coffee and juice. This marked the start of our adventure through Lebanese meal times. The food was good and there was a lot of it and we ploughed through while I attempted to get into the groove of speaking French for the first time in years.

Fully restored and ready to face the day we headed to the National Museum and encountered a lovely but mildly insane taxi driver along the way. Had I been in Beirut alone, I would have found the fact that taxi drivers often seemed to have someone else in the front of the car with them fairly intimidating. There are recognised firms which didn’t do this, so if you’re heading by yourself ask your hotel who to use.

The National Museum wasn’t massive, but it is very well curated, with a range of artifacts that nicely embodies the wide-ranging history of Lebanon through the ages.

A quick coffee, a huge plate of shawarma, salad, and fries, an iced tea and a food-coma/nap  depending on your point of view and it was off out to the Corniche to see the Pigeon Rocks, the naturally-formed arches just off the coast.

The Pigeon Rocks, Beirut.

The Pigeon Rocks, Beirut.

A night out in Hamra was a lot more relaxing than our previous evening and after dinner (or in my case mint tea and Shisha) we took a stroll around the bars until we accidentally ran into an old friend of mine.

The rest of the evening was spent learning about Lebanon from the people who live there. My friend chatted freely about the fact that once they got their qualifications, the best educated Lebanese would leave, and only rarely return.

Most people, we were told, were struggling to find work, the economy was shit and Lebanon barely existed as a country, but when we asked about the influx of refugees that come to the country seeking safety from, first Armenia, and more recently Syria there were shrugs and smiles rather than resentment.

“This whole area is full of Syrians now, a lot stay by the borders but a lot of the richer people come here. We don’t mind, it makes the city better. There are more people to party with.”

More food, an early night (12.30) and up the next day to head to Mleeta, ‘Where the land speaks to the heavens,’ acquiring a friend of Dane’s from home along the way.

About a 90 minute ride from Beirut (coaches and cars depart from the Kuwaiti

Art installation reconstructing the destruction of Israeli tanks.

Art installation reconstructing the destruction of Israeli tanks.

embassy, or if you luck out and find a good driver like we did, go with him,) Mleeta is home to the Resistance Tourist Landmark, a museum slash installation art gallery that tells the story of Hezbollah.

The site was chosen because it was where the resistance fighters positioned themselves against the Israelis. The museum itself is well put together and, while obviously not impartial, it is not as in-your-face one-sided as you might expect. Instead a free guide, a 15 minute introductory film that phrases things in ways that would not fly in history books, and various well-written signs around the place allow the Hezbollah message to sink in without any

There was one room dedicated to weapons taken from Israeli soldiers during the conflict.

There was one room dedicated to weapons taken from Israeli soldiers during the conflict.

fist-shaking or banner waving (metaphorical or otherwise.)

I wasn’t really sure what to expect from this museum. You can see outposts that had previously been occupied by Israeli forces and you are bombarded with military imagery and political messages, but at the same time, they put across their message in a very sophisticated way, and the site itself is like an art installation nestled in mountains that have previously been ripped apart by shells and bullets.

A dedication to the Lebanese martrys who died on the site.

A dedication to the Lebanese martrys who died on the site.

Art played a strong role throughout our trip and after getting back to Beirut (having eaten excessively large chicken taouk on the road) we headed to the Beirut Art Centre to check out some of the modern art on display. The current exhibitions were largely video installations, some of which were interesting while others were close to being pretentious.

Put a bird on it...

Put a bird on it…

The upper level of the gallery had a display of birds depicted through various mediums and any fans of Portlandia will be happy to know that we were able to put a bird on it.

Some of the graffiti outside the Beirut Art Centre

Some of the graffiti outside the Beirut Art Centre

The main attraction, however, was the graffiti on the wall outside. Left over from a previous exhibition, the owners of the neighbouring building had asked the centre to use its walls for the displays and leave the work there afterwards.

Another big night out, this time the three of us were back in Gemmazeh and, at my behest, re-visiting a bar that had previously contained a very attractive man behind it. Alas, he was not there, but we still had another evening of excellent drinks in some excellent bars followed by a (probably) excellent burger and a brief argument in which Dane tried to convince me that 10am was too early to leave for Baalbek the next day.

I won, and it was with mild hangovers that the three of us hit the winding road the next morning. I fought sleep and was treated to some stunning views of Lebanon as we wound our way up through the mountains to the ancient site so I could geek out about classics and the boys could revert to being five-year-olds and climb all over the ruins.

After lunch, obviously.

Baalbek looking ominous.

Baalbek looking ominous.

The site includes various temples dedicated to various deities as well as some additional fortifications when it was used as a citadel during the crusader period.

The area was originally settled by the Phoenicians because of its access to water and its position on two major trade routes.

Also it’s super fun to get stuck on top of some of the rocks.

Having been to sites around Italy and Greece, this was one of the best, not least because you don’t have the sterilisation that comes with a fear of law suits so you are free to roam around the ruins as much as you like.

Back to Beirut, playing the alphabet game along the way, and a nap that turned into a two-hour sleep and we were back out in Hamra for dinner and to meet up with another friend of mine.

The next morning was a rush of packing, bacon, losing my passport at the airport, having a mild heart attack, coffee, and back on the plane (this time full of screaming children and not nearly as fun) and back to Doha in time for the rugby.

So that was Beirut (and some surrounding culture.) The choice between Byblos and Baalbek was a tough one and I definitely want to return to see more of the country and learn more about the people that party their way through war and refugees and elections.

Now I’m off to eat steamed vegetables and run until my waistline returns to normal.

Me at the Beirut Art Centre. Promise.

Me at the Beirut Art Centre. Promise.