Life Skills Unlocked: Surviving the Strip Club

 

What immediately springs to mind when you think of strip clubs?

I’m not asking those of you who have frequented these places. I’m asking those of you who have always wondered about what goes on behind the black door.

Before I’d ever gone to a strip club, here’s what I pictured: Sticky floors. Girls with blank faces and bad posture. Terrible music and worse clientele. Large groups of men gee-eyed with drink, laughing and roaring unfunny jokes at each over the music.

Which is all to say that I wasn’t expecting a whole lot.

A few years ago, one Monday after work, I sat having a drink with colleagues at 4am. Having decided to try my hand at working in a bar, I had just spent a long night delivering shots of tequila and glasses of whisky with complicated names. One of the regulars had stayed behind with us as we cashed out, and somehow the conversation had turned to Frankfurt’s wealth of strip clubs.

“I’ve heard there’s a whole red light district,” breathed one of my friends, eyes wide and twinkling with mischief.

Our regular drained the end of his pint and leaned back in his chair.

“It’s true,” He said. “I’ve been.”

The whole table leaned towards him, as if he’d just disclosed he’d found hidden treasure.

“What’s it like?”

“Where did you go?”

“Are there really red lights?”

“Is it as seedy as it sounds?”

“Are women allowed?”

The questions came from all angles, and he smiled benevolently at our rapt attention before spreading his palms out on the wooden table.

“Alright then. One at a time. What do you want to know?”

It turned out our regular was quite the connoisseur. Tipsy from post-work alcohol and energised by his unexpected wealth of knowledge, we peppered him with questions. He answered them all competently, as if every visit to a strip-club had been a reconnaisance mission leading up to this precise moment. Eventually, the interrogation died down until the only other girl at the table and I were the only ones still talking. We sat with our feet up on the chairs beside us, running our fingers around the rims of our glasses, staring into space.

“I’ve always wondered what they’re like,” I said, thinking out loud.

My friend leaned over the table, her eyes half-focused.

“We should go sometime!”

I nodded in the international language for, ‘Yeah, sure, sometime, maybe, probably never…’

The strip club specialist leaned back in his chair. Very casually – deceptively casually – as if he were suggesting we all go for a coffee, he said, “We could go now…?”

The table erupted into laughter followed by a fast and furious discussion about how ridiculous it would be to visit a strip club on a Monday night after work.

“With no money!”

“Delirious from lack of sleep!”

“Not even nearly drunk enough!”

“On a MONDAY!”

We howled. As our giggles died away, our strip club guru looked around the table at each of us, gasping from laughter.

“I’ll pay. I’ll pay your entry fee,” he said.

We snorted with derision. As if! No need to be ridiculous. We started to get up, ready to disband.

“Seriously.” He said. “I’ll pay if we go now.”

There was a momentary stillness. I looked around the table. I could feel the zip of sudden energy that sparked around the room; that tiny spark that often leads to spontaneous – and not always wise – decisions to embark on adventure.

Which is exactly what happened.

I asked them to wait while I ran home to change my shoes, and rang Scrubs as I kicked off my runners and pulled on a pair of UGGs.

“I’m going to go to a strip club,” I said. “Is that alright? The curiosity is killing me and there’s a nice man here who is offering to pay for all of us. Realistically if I don’t go now I never will, because there’s not a hope I would spend my own money to go to one, and when is this likely to ever happen again? Someone is basically going to pay for me to go to a strip club. So I think I’m going to go.”

“Right now?” Scrubs asked in alarm.

“Yeah. Is that okay with you?”

There was a pause – which I interpreted as a shocked silence – while Scrubs considered this 4am excursion.

“I don’t know if you should…” He said slowly.

My face fell. Obviously I would never go if Scrubs felt uncomfortable with the idea.

“… I mean, they’re hardly going to have their best looking strippers working on a Monday. Why don’t you go at the weekend?”

Thus it came to pass that at half four in the morning, hyped up on post-work drinks and sleep deprivation, my friends and I grabbed orange juice and a bottle of vodka for the road and piled into the strip club guru’s car. I didn’t drink, but watched as my friends passed around the bottle and wondered whether I should have changed out of my round-necked white knit jumper and jeans*.

When we reached the club, our guru paid a not insubstantial amount of money and handed us each our tokens, which came in the form of strip club dollars. They looked like board game money, with the silhouette of a stripper on them instead of the round, jovial face of Mr. Monopoly. They came in denominations of ones and fives. He then paid our entry fee and the large imposing bouncer waved us into the club.

I’m not sure what I was expecting really but this… wasn’t it. It looked like a nightclub. A long bar ran down the right side of the room, with a man polishing glasses under the pink and blue club lights. It was dark, with loud music and plush velvet booths. Sure there was a stage with a pole, but other than that it didn’t look too different from a nightclub when you’re there too early. It wasn’t wall-to-wall sleaze. I couldn’t see a single pair of breasts. All it was missing from the usual nightclub experience was the tight scrum of bodies pressing up against me from all sides, and the floors that stick to your shoes from the thick lacquer of stale beer that has built up over the years.

So really, for the most part, the experience was proving to be more pleasant than a typical nightclub.

I sat with my friends in a booth near the stage and ordered drinks. Or rather, they did. I asked for water. I wanted all my faculties intact for this experience. This was likely to be my one and only visit to a strip club. I wanted my eyes wide on the night and my memories intact the next day. A girl walked past our table and I frowned; she was astonishingly beautiful. She looked as if she had stepped off the pages of a Victoria’s Secret catalogue to join us for the night. So much for Scrubs’ theory about Monday’s girls.

Another girl made her way over and asked to sit next to us. She was petite and blonde and made charming small talk with us until the boys asked for private dances. Two brunettes appeared to lead them away, and the only other girl and I were left with the pretty, pixie-like blonde. We talked a bit about college life, and then she called over her Amazon angel of a friend to join us. I was almost starstruck by the two of them. I had been expecting regular girls like me, not these glittery bombshells.

Just then, our kindly patron returned from his (second) private dance of the evening. He watched the four of us chat for a moment and then leaned towards us.

“You guys should get one,” he said.

I side-eyed him in warning. I didn’t want to get the girls’ hopes up and there was no way I was paying for a private dance.

“No seriously,” he insisted. “How much is it for a double private dance for these two?”

The corner of the pixie’s mouth turned up and she looked us up and down. She named a price and he nodded encouragingly.

“Go for it!” He said, shuffling over in his seat and stuffing money in my hand. “Go on!”

Guys, I tried to say no. I honestly did.

I balked. I tried to hand it back. I told him to keep it, but he just got up and called his girl over for a third dance. As she led him away by the hand he yelled that he didn’t care what I did with it but it was meant for a dance so I might as well get one.

I turned back to face the two blonde babes and looked at my friend, who was riding both the buzz from the vodka and the sugar high from the soft drinks she was mixing it with. I shrugged, and the two girls laughed and clapped delightedly before leading us to the private room.

The private dances took place in a U-shaped booth with velvet curtains that were pulled closed behind us. My friend and I sat on opposite sides of the room. I pulled at the edge of my sleeve nervously, trying to remind myself of the only thing I know about stripclubs, which is that you should never touch the dancers**.

A song started – I couldn’t tell you which one – and the pixie stepped in front of me started to writhe and take off her clothes. She straddled my thigh and ground against my leg. I chewed the inside of my cheek and wished I’d worn something less chafing for her than denim.

My palms were splayed flat against the velvet couch. She was so close to me. Her body glitter sparkled under the lights and she smelled of something outrageously sweet and fruity. Her hands roamed over my knit jumper, making me feel slightly ridiculous. I wondered how many people had worn white loose-knit jumpers to this booth.

She unhooked her bra and dropped it, revealing a perfect pair of gravity-defying breasts. She leaned in for a kiss and I awkwardly turned my face away. I was pretty sure Scrubs might have something to say about me making out with an anonymous Nordic stripper.

She kissed her way down my neck, and I started to feel slightly rude.

Should I touch her? Seems almost offensive to keep my hands on the couch. Should I awkwardly place my hands on her hips? Is she going to think I’m not enjoying it?

She expertly slid her thong down her legs and kicked it off.

No, no. Better to just stay as I am, I thought, mentally nodding to myself.

The pixie pulled my knees apart and turned to grind against my lap. I distractedly examined her tattoos. I had never (and still to this day have never) had somebody’s tattoos quite so close to my eyeballs before. She bent over at the waist, giving me an unexpectedly detailed look at her clitoral piercing. I eyed it and wondered how much it had hurt. I felt strangely detached from my body. Not a single part of me felt aroused. Instead, my brain was busy clinically observing everything as if I were a scientist running some bizarre experiment with a very attractive and very naked subject. I kept waiting to feel something, some tingle or particle of pleasure that I could grab onto that would explain why people found these places so alluring. Instead I just felt… bemused.

I marvelled at the way every inch of the pixie’s now-entirely-naked body was coated in this sheen of fruity body glitter. That can’t be hygienic, I mused sympathetically. I idly speculated whether or not it was likely to be compulsory for strippers to walk through some sort of spray mist before starting their shift.

The pixie knelt on the couch beside me and stuck her tongue in my ear. She sucked on my earlobe and I sat, stiff as a board, suppressing a shudder. There is something almost overwhelmingly odd about a complete stranger sucking on your earlobe for payment. She leaned towards me slowly in a second attempt to kiss me, and I turned my head to the left to dodge her lips a second time. Across the room I saw the Amazon straddling my friend, kissing her with her hands tangled in her hair. I looked back at the pixie and smiled nervously, anxious not to offend. Was I supposed to be okay with this? Was this normal? She smiled back, lifted a perfectly drawn eyebrow and bent across my lap. She arched her back and tossed her fringe out of her eyes as she wiggled her butt playfully.

Am I supposed to spank her? What are the rules here? Are there rules? What is happening?

She pulled one leg to the other side of me and bent over, sliding her upper body to the floor, leaving her bottom half spread-eagled in my lap. I felt like I was in an extremely graphic Sex Ed class. If I had leaned forward I could have touched her clit with my nose, she was that close. The jewel in her piercing twinkled at me.

She switched out with the Amazon for a bit and I enjoyed the novelty of watching legs as long as my entire body bend and flex in front of me. The Amazon ran her fingertips under the hem of my jumper, stroking my skin, making me flinch. My palms were pressed so hard into the seat that I was half afraid my handprints would be forever immortalised in the deep pile velvet.

They switched back and the pixie grinned at me before pulling me forward. She straddled me and rolled my jumper up, kissing her way up my torso. I sat, stone-faced with confusion, as she pulled it all the way up to my neck.

Thoughts ping-ponged around in my head.

Do I still not touch her? She’s undressing me! Should I say something? This is unexpected. If I object will she be offended? What if she tries to kiss me again? Is it rude to say no thank you? Why is there no manual when you first walk in? Why are there no notices with Dos and Don’ts? 

She kissed my collarbone and I felt my knuckles whiten from digging my fingers into the couch. I fixed my gaze on the brass curtain rings as I felt her drag her fingernails up my torso, and then, with startling abruptness, pull off my bra.

I was caught completely off guard.

The cool air hit my chest and gave me a momentary form of brain freeze. For a moment I felt as if my the top of my head had been opened and a steady stream of exclamation marks had been poured in. As I opened my mouth to make a joke about not having applied for a job, I felt her climb off me. She took a couple of steps back, stood in front of me, and tilted her head.

“Are they your own breasts?”

My brow furrowed. What part of the dance was this?

“Yes?” I said, confused.

“They are real?” She was still standing in front of me, no longer on her tiptoes arching every muscle in her body. Now she was simply studying my body. The cool air passed over me and I wondered if a private dance had ever been less enjoyable. I nodded.

“You have really great breasts,” the pixie said, appraisingly.

I blinked and wondered whether somebody had spiked my drink earlier.

“Your breasts, they are really beautiful!” She was eyeing my chest as if it were a painting. She leaned forward and ran her finger along the outside curve of one of my breasts. The sultry, sexy-dancer act had been completely switched off. We seeemed to have reached an interval. I willed my face to stay passive.

“Thanks,” I said, after a stunned pause.

There was silence as she continued to eyeball my breasts admiringly. I cleared my throat.

“Yours too.”

She met my gaze.

“I mean, your breasts are also…” I paused, searching my blank brain for an adjective. “…Lovely,” I finished lamely.

She made a face and looked down at her breasts, cupping them in her hands.

“Yes,” she said, as if contemplating them for the first time in a long time. “They are nice too.” She looked at me and the corner of her mouth twisted downward.

“These are not real though,” she sighed sorrowfully.

I looked around the room, fingernails still digging into the seat. It felt truly surreal to have been stripped by a stripper who now stood holding her breasts and reflecting upon her implants.

Can I pull my jumper back down? Would that be rude?

The pixie crossed the room to tug on the Amazon’s arm.

“Look, look at her breasts,” she said, gesturing towards me.

I closed my eyes briefly. Maybe I could pretend this wasn’t happening.

The Amazon came over and both of them – one gigantuan, one tiny – stood side-by-side, cocked their heads and stared at my chest.

“Are they real?” The Amazon asked.

“Y-yes,” I stuttered, feeling like a watermelon being weighed up at Whole Foods.

The Amazon nodded curtly. “They are beautiful,” she said, matter-of-factly.

“Thank you…?” My voice rose at the end in tandem with my level of anxiety. The Amazon returned to her dance with my friend. I wished I’d had some vodka in the car. I wished I’d had some vodka twenty minutes before to soften the edges of this experience and make it less mind-bendingly weird.

Stone cold sober probably hadn’t been the best way to approach this, in hindsight…

I crossed my UGG-encased ankles, still exposed. I felt my eyebrows rise as I let out a deep breath and considered the fact that this precise moment (in a strip club, in front of two very pretty, very naked women) was easily one of the least sexy experiences of my entire life.

The pixie gave me a giddy smile, as if we had just had a bonding session about our awful ex-boyfriends. She leaned forward, kissed the arch of my breast, and stood up on her tiptoes before resuming her dancing. No more was said between us. At the end, unsure of the correct procedure, I clapped and somewhat hysterically thrust the money as well as a hefty tip into her hand.

“Thank you, thank you, thank you, that was so nice!” I gushed, desperate to leave.

She rubbed my back as I tugged at the hem of my jumper. She had pulled a black figure-hugging minidress with strategic slits over her head as soon as the dance had ended.

“Really, it was so lovely. You’re a great dancer.” I was babbling now. She grinned shyly and looked up at me from under her fringe. Impulsively she gave me a quick hug. I looked her in the eye and smiled.

You have a clitoral piercing, I thought. I’ve seen it. In extreme close-up.

I awkwardly patted her on the shoulder.

Once we escaped the private dance booth I grabbed my friend by the wrist and made a beeline for our table, where the rest of the gang whooped as we sat down. Our guru smiled at us. “How was it?”

“It was good!” I smiled. “So now that’s done and we should go.”

“Now?”

“Now.”

I waved at the pixie and the Amazon as we left the club, and spent the car ride home looking out the window trying to process the experience.

Pros:

  • I had been to a strip club and now my curiosity was well and truly assuaged and I never had to do it again.
  • I’d had my breasts complimented by two girls who should know their good breasts from their bad.
  • I hadn’t had to spend a cent of my own money.

Cons:

  • I had to have a shower when I got home to get the sickly scent of fruity body glitter off me.
  • I had realised that as far as I’m concerned, there’s nothing actually sexy about strippers.
  • I can never again watch a movie or tv show featuring a strip club without feeling my fingers unwittingly dig into the seat in raw discomfort.

Overall, a perplexing but illuminating experience.

 Would you call having done this trial by private dance a life skill? Probably not, but after having survived the bone-deep awkwardness of the whole ordeal without mortally offending any strippers, I think it qualifies.

 

 

*But what is appropriate clothing for a strip club? You don’t want to be mistaken for one of the staff, after all… A complicated-to-take-off romper? Apple-bottom jeans and boots with the fur? I’m still unclear.

**Thank you Closer for your lessons on strip-club etiquette.

 

Going Off The Grid on Gili Air

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If Ubud is the place you go to join an ashram for five months to find yourself, then the Gili islands are where you go to leave the real world behind and step into an alternate reality where time is but a human construct of no importance.

There are three Gili islands: Gili Trewangan (also known as Gili T), Gili Air, and Gili Meno. Gili T is the most popular island, known for full moon parties full of backpacking bros in highlighter yellow sunglasses and sleeveless vests. Gili Meno is ‘The Honeymoon Island,’ where people go to lie on the sand and read their beach lit… partly because there is nothing else to do there. Gili Air is the piggy-in-the-middle lovechild of the two. It has the relaxed vibe of Gili Meno, with enough of the restaurants and bars of Gili T to keep things interesting.

And of course, plenty of mushroom shakes.

 

 

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We traveled straight to Gili Air with a brief pause in the middle of the sea brought on by getting something tangled in one of the propellors. Apparently this happens often enough that it warranted a laminated explanation in the pocket of the seat in front of us, so we were forewarned but thoroughly unprepared by how quickly the lack of a simple breeze (or any air conditioning) would turn us into melting human popsicles. Five minutes after the engines had been shut off, we were dripping into puddles on the leather seats with alarming speed. In a misguided but desperate effort to escape the microwave formerly known as the cabin, we climbed up a set of rungs to the roof of the boat, where I promptly bashed my head hard against a steel bar and lay panting in the equatorial sun until the engines started up again.

By the time we reached Gili Air, my two driving forces were 1. shade and 2. water, and they basically propelled me and my rolling case onto the beach and up the dusty unpaved road without pause. This despite the fact that my rolling suitcase does not possess the sort of all-terrain wheels you would hope for when traversing a remote sandy island in the Bali Sea. Upon reaching our rented bungalow I flopped on the bed like a dying fish, mouth open, trying to suck the moisture out of the air around me. A smiling lady with a slender build knocked on the door to welcome us with pineapple, orange, and banana juice. I drank it down like a shot, waited for her to leave, and then peeled off my clothes to stand, hyperventilating, on the coldest flagstone.

It is HOT on Gili Air.

In Ubud the air was heavy and the weather was warm, but it was nothing compared to Gili Air. Gili Air had an oppressive heat that seemed to congeal the blood in your body until your legs felt too heavy to lift. Late nights were almost impossible, since by that time the sun had scorched away any energy, leaving us warm and heavy and sometimes burned. The island was full of yoga retreats and organic food places and scuba schools, giving employment to a wide range of lean, tanned humans who looked like they had been stretched and starved for a prolonged period of time. They all had gleaming white teeth, sun-bleached hair, and that slighly manic look in their eyes that suggests they would struggle to slot themselves back into the regimented timetable of normal society.

There are no cars or scooters or motorbikes on Gili Air. People travel by foot, or by bicycle, or by horse and cart. It takes about two hours to walk the circumference of the island, leaving time for compulsory photos of the sunset and necessary submergences in the sea. The east of the island is littered with restaurants and bars, and the west side of the island is quieter, but starting to catch up. The sunsets are vivid and beautiful – apparently even more so after one of the proferred magic mushroom shakes – and if you think the temperatures will drop after dark, you’re wrong. The temperatures do not drop; they stay threateningly high, trapped by the humidity in the air, and can only be defeated by the judicious use of air conditioning.

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The water around the island is clear. The reef looks bleached and unhealthy from years of dynamite fishing, but the fish living there are bright-eyed and flashy. Every morning I would grab my fins and wade out into the sea for a look around this world that wasn’t my own. If I was lucky, I would turn slowly to find a large sea turtle eyeing me languidly, large flippers of its own slowly scything through the water. We would swim side by side, my eyes the size of saucers (his distinctly less impressed), until my new turtle friend decided to dive down to depths beyond my abilities. I examined clams, skirted sea urchins, and followed a mantis shrimp marching imperiously over rocks and coral until he disappeared under a slab of concrete.

I emerged from the water only long enough to dry off before my next swim.

When it comes to snorkeling – or, I guess, whatever you call snorkeling without a tube – I am a water baby. I get in, and I never want to come out. Under the water I never feel like my eyes are large enough to take in everything there is to see. I never feel like I am moving fast enough to find every area I want to explore. I can’t hold my breath for long enough to keep myself anchored in the underwater world, and it both frustrates and elates me. I stay in the water until my chest is heaving with exertion from my amateur free diving, jump out and dry off while rehydrating with a smoothie, then run back in for more.

We spent six days on Gili Air. I swam with three large sea turtles. I traipsed through coconut farms and yoga retreats. I followed unsuspecting shoals of fish, and drank countless banana lassis. I enjoyed myself immensely, and for a week I completely forgot about the real world, what time was, or why it was necessary.

The only thing I didn’t do was try a mushroom shake.

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Being Thankful in Bali, Indonesia

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In the early hours of the morning, if you walk the streets of Ubud, you will find people sitting on the stoops of their houses or stores, nimbly weaving dried palm leaves together into little containers.  The first day I saw this, I watched them do it and wondered about their silent, skilled work. These containers were then set in front of their places of work, in front of their shrines, in front of their houses, and filled with different items. I asked a local about these and she smiled, nodding.

“Yes. Canang sari.”

“Are they for a festival?” I asked, eyeing the brightly coloured little baskets.

“No, no. Daily offering.”

“I’m sorry, did you say daily? Like, every day?” I said, incredulously.

“Yes. Daily offering. Every morning!” She replied, cheerfully.

I looked at them in a different light after that, these little ritualised baskets of colour. Set out with such care in the morning, those that lined the footpath were often trampled underfoot, leaving them bruised and sorry looking by the end of the day.

From what I understand, these are meant to be offerings of gratitude for peace to the Hindu gods, as well as a way to keep evil spirits at bay. These beautiful baskets brought me a sense of peace at the same time that they unsettled me; after all, who has time to do that every day? Every day! Imagine having to set them out every day, and sweep them away every night. Imagine the commitment and effort and time and dedication to detail involved. These are physical prayers, pleated by familiar fingers.

I like to feel for common threads between different religions. The Muslim call to prayer reminds me of the ringing bells of the churches near my home, while Hindu mala beads are similar to rosary beads. I can’t think of a Christian equivalent for these canang sari, however. There is nothing that I do every day to give thanks for everything that I have. There is nothing that I can think of in Catholicism that is physical in nature – unless lighting a candle counts? – with such ritual meaning.

I like the idea of doing something each day to show gratitude. I probably won’t start weaving palm leaves together anytime soon, but I might use the memory of the offerings as a reminder to be thankful. I might try to keep it in the front of my mind a little more often. I know the news these days can get a bit bleak, and the saying “no news is good news” is really coming into its own lately, but there’s a lot to be thankful for. There really is.

Sometimes, I could do with a daily reminder of my own.

BRB From Bali

Thanks to the distractions of sun, sea, sand and patchy internet, I have been on an impromptu blog pause while I’ve been traipsing in and around Bali. I photographed monkeys and ate nasi goreng and read books and swam with sea turtles and watched sun sets and pet stray cats and drank banana lassis and spent a lot of time with my toes dug deep into the sand, feeling extremely lucky.

There are awful things happening back home in Europe. I can feel the ripple of fear from half a world away, however hard we try to mask it. When will it stop? How can we put an end to attacks that are seemingly so random? It feels frustrating. It feels like something nestling close to despair.

Then I grab my mask and I dive underwater, where all I can hear is the sound of bubbles leaving my mouth. I kick my fins and swim into a shoal of silvery fish, who scatter wide-eyed as if I’ve interrupted a secret meeting. A large blue starfish with arms the size and shape of bananas drapes itself over a rock. A moray eel bobs out from under a rock to stare at me, his trademark slackjawed grin making me feel like an amusing bit of entertainment he’ll tell his friends about later.

I watch a batfish waft with the current, cleverly concealed next to a submerged piece of rope. I kick to propel myself down deeper and feel the cold undercurrent close over me as I follow a mantis shrimp hurriedly scurrying across the coral.

I think about how insulated we are under the water. I feel totally removed from real life. It’s just me and my fins and my breath, visiting this blue world that doesn’t know or care about wifi or worries or world news. I stay in the water until my skin has softened and wrinkled in protest. I stay until my lungs burn from holding my breath.

Then I swim back towards the shore and come to the surface just in time to hear the familiar strains of reggae music.

Don’t worry … about a thing.

Every little thing … is gonna be alright….”

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I’ll be back on Monday.

Joining in in Jaipur, India

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After the maelstrom of Delhi, Scrubs and I were glad to escape to the relative serenity of Jaipur. The famously pink buildings seemed to glow a warm welcome in the sun as we dragged our battered and dusty bags through the streets of the city. We had finally arrived after a long train journey and, despite feeling a little rough around the edges, I was unspeakably relieved to be out of the capital. From the moment we set foot inside its walls, Jaipur felt utterly different. My shoulders lowered themselves from their protective position up around my ears and I relaxed for the first time in days. If Delhi had felt like a strangling, knotted tangle of a city, Jaipur felt like a long, fluttering length of ribbon. I had a long list of places I wanted to see – The Amer Fort, the Hawa Mahal, Jantar Mantar, Galtaji – and I kept the list clutched in my fist like a prayer.

The first couple of days flew by as we checked places off the list. The Taj Mahal – despite its fame – had left me cold, but I was moved by the intricate beauty, majesty, and ingenuity of the Amer Fort. It had spectacular views, carefully tended courtyards, a glittering hall of mirrors, and a stream of water designed to run through the palace to cool the rooms. Really it had everything you could want and more from a palace built in 1592. Jantar Mantar and the Hawa Mahal deserve posts all of their own, but I’ll have to write about those another day, because this piece is not about them; this is about Galtaji, or as it’s more commonly known to tourists, The Monkey Temple.

Now, I could call myself an animal lover, but that really doesn’t begin to cover it. If I said that, you might infer that I enjoy playing fetch with my dog and finding cat memes online. I mean, I do, don’t get me wrong… but my love of animals extends much further than Grumpy Cat, my black labrador Lia, and Lia’s deep and abiding passion for tennis balls. For lack of a better word, I am enthusiastic about animals. Not just cute animals, but all animals. Where others might recoil in disgust, I lean in with unabashed interest.

Maybe this lively preoccupation stems from the lack of exciting wildlife in Ireland; the glimpse of a red fox is about as exciting as it gets, and the damage they can do is more or less limited to tipping over wheelie bins in their search for food. In Ireland there are no bears, no wolves, and (allegedly thanks to St. Patrick), no snakes. Not only that, but unless you’re a masochist of the highest order, you’re unlikely to set foot in the sea. Even if you are a masochist and choose to embrace the feeling of icy water stripping you of every nerve ending you possess, you’re unlikely to catch a glimpse of anything too thrilling in the murky water.

A seal, maybe.

A confused seal wondering why there’s a human visiting their icy home.

Anyway, with this in mind, you can imagine how much I was enjoying Jaipur. There were camels and cows and elephants and donkeys and stray dogs on practically every street. Days exploring the city turned to evenings eating delicious dinners at the Peacock Rooftop Restaurant, and then we would roll home, stuffed to the gills, ready for a good night of sleep at the Vinayak Guesthouse.

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Even before we had left for India, Galtaji was high on my list of places to go. I had read articles describing it as an abandoned temple teeming with monkeys, and the reviews on Tripadvisor definitely seemed to back this up. People had written sentences like, ‘It reminded me of a lost city found in a clearing of a long lost jungle’ and, ‘Please be aware that not many people know about this place,’ and honestly, to me this sounded magical. In my mind, the temple was a deserted ruin with monkeys on every available surface, and I intended to spend an entire afternoon observing and photographing them in quiet tranquility.

Just me and the monkeys.

Well, just me and Scrubs and the monkeys, but I had a feeling he wouldn’t be as enthralled by the idea of monkey-mayhem for hours on end. Still, I was undeterred. In preparation for our visit I had bought a large hand of bananas. I felt well prepared. Jane Goodall would have nothing on me!

The day we had planned to visit the temple finally arrived. We hopped into an auto rickshaw and asked the driver in garbled, phrasebook Hindi to take us to Galtaji. Since neither of us actually speak Hindi, this was not at all helpful and our driver only understood where we wanted to go after a combined effort to find it on his trusty paper map. A mercifully short (but bracingly death-defying) hurtle through the streets later, he stopped the rickshaw in the middle of a side road and gestured roughly to the left.

“Up there?” I asked, dreading the answer.

He nodded.

We looked at each other. Scrubs’s eyebrows lifted so much they almost disappeared. We paid the man and hopped out. Clutching at the straps of my backpack, I examined the path that cut a sharp zig-zag up the side of an extremely large hill. It looked suspiciously busy for a path that supposedly led to an abandoned temple.

“Are we sure this is it?” Scrubs asked sceptically. “It’s very… populated.”

I shrugged. “I don’t know. We might as well go up and have a look,” I said, anxious to see what I had now come to think of as ‘my monkeys’.

Unsure but optimistic, we set off up the hill. We quickly overtook a group of women in traditional saris, laughing and chattering to each other. They smiled at us as we passed, and we nodded and smiled in reply. Our comparitively drab clothing made us stand out against their bright flowing fabrics, and as we caught up with more Indians walking the same way we began to feel self-conscious. Where were these people going?

The first surprise lay just around the bend.

Scarves of different shades and hues lined both sides of the path. I stared at them out of the corner of my eye, trying not to look fazed. There was something scattered on them – seeds, maybe? – and every so often people walking up the path would throw some more on the scarves as they walked by. Since I had only bananas in my backpack, we continued on, confused. I hadn’t thought to bring seeds.

Around the next bend, things only got more confusing.

On this stretch, a cow lay on one of the scarves. An extremely fancy blanket covered its rump, and its wet eyes gazed placidly at us with an air of resigned boredom. As we walked past, I noticed with some surprise that a fifth leg dangled uselessly from the cow’s back.

I say ‘some surprise’ but what I really mean is that I tugged on Scrubs’ sleeve and, practically bug-eyed with astonishment, hissed, “Look! Look! A fifth leg! Did you see that? That cow had a LEG coming out of its SPINE!”

We continued up the hill, and as we walked we met with more lavishly decorated, curiously configured cows. Cows with six legs, cows with seven legs, cows with two tails, or three ears. After a while it started to seem almost normal. It got to the point where it would have felt strange to see a four-legged, two-eared, one-tailed, regular cow. Not only that, but as we got closer to the top, we met more and more people all walking in the same direction.

We still hadn’t seen a single monkey.

I was starting to think we must be in the wrong place. Scrubs and I discussed theories about the sacred, slightly irregular cows as we traipsed along. We passed more scarves, more seeds, and more cows until, after what felt like a climb up the steep side of Kilimanjaro, we made it to the top of the hill. I was expecting to see the temple laid out before me, but instead there was just a small clearing with people milling about, taking a break. Then I looked over my shoulder and there, sitting in the shade of a tree, was a monkey.

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In a move so smooth you would think I’d practiced it, I swung my bag off my back and pulled out both my camera and a banana with one hand. The gimlet-eyed monkey approached me with a swagger befitting a thirteen year old boy with something to prove, and waited with an air of indulgence as I peeled it. I offered him half the banana and he eyed it with scorn, flicking a knowing glance at my bag. Slowly, as if he was doing me a favour, he took the piece of banana from my outstretched hand and began pulling it apart with his long, slender fingers. I walked around and found a few more monkeys. They indulged me by posing for some photos, and I paid them in banana pieces. It was a fair trade. I had almost forgotten about the temple by the time Scrubs tapped my elbow to get my attention.

“Will we keep going?” He asked.

“Oh. I suppose so,” I said, somewhat reluctantly.

“There’ll be more monkeys,” Scrubs said. “It’s called Monkey Temple for a reason.”

I nodded and we rejoined the string of people heading for the next stretch of the path. There were definitely more people now. Indians of all ages surrounded us as we started down the other side of the hill. On this side there were no cows, but the sunken pathway was narrower and it was easier to lose your footing in the fine gravel.

About twenty minutes later a bottleneck up ahead hindered progress, and in our attempts to see why we had stopped we finally got our first glimpse of where we were going. Nestled in snugly, looking like it had been there for at least as long as the hills themselves, sat the temple complex of Galtaji.

The temple did not look lost. It did not look abandoned. Instead, it was absolutely heaving with activity. As we approached, the path narrowed until it was only wide enough for two people to walk abreast. Steps appeared, carved deep into the hillside to ease the steep descent.  Hands pressed briefly on our backs and shoulders as people steadied themselves. An elderly woman placed a gnarled hand on Scrubs’ shoulder without so much as a word and used Scrubs as a crutch the whole way down the steps. I was hemmed in on all sides by women in beautiful clothes and shining nose piercings. They smiled at us as we pressed together, giggling and talking to each other as they flicked curious glances at us, the only two tourists for miles; conspicuous t-shirt wearers in a sea of saris and robes.

As we reached the bottom of the steps, the cause of the bottleneck was clear; a narrow stile led into the temple, just big enough for one person to squeeze through. The eagerness of the crowd around us waiting to get in led to impatient shoving that was less pragmatic than it was perilous, and as I shimmied between the stone blocks and jumped down to the courtyard on the far side, I recalled the news stories about deadly stampedes during festivals in India. ‘I’m not surprised,‘ I thought. ‘That stile is a health and safety officer’s worst nightmare.’

Once Scrubs had safely joined me on the stone slabs of the courtyard floor, we looked around us in awe. It felt like we had walked straight into a copy of National Geographic. The courtyards were a riot of colour. Hundreds of people milled around, laughing and singing and dancing. A square, sunken pool (kund) was filled with women pouring the alarmingly green water over their topless bodies. A smiling woman missing most of her teeth stopped in front of us and said something we couldn’t understand before dipping her finger in a copper bowl filled with vermilion powder and pressing a tilaka onto each of our foreheads with surprising force. She disappeared into the throng as quickly as she had appeared, and we looked at each other and laughed. A lady pressed a flower into my hand as she swept past in an emerald green sari embroidered with gold thread. We stood there for many minutes, just absorbing the mood around us.

It had been claustrophobically crowded at times in Delhi, and while the multicoloured masses at the temple were not dissimilar in density, the atmosphere was entirely different. In Delhi I had felt intimidated, threatened and sometimes downright scared. People – mostly men – had stared, stony-faced, until it felt like their pupils were scorching my soul. Some had used their phones to video or photograph us as we made our way down the street. A crawling dread had crept over me every time we moved through the crowded city, and it had coloured my opinion of it; instead of my usual keen interest in exploring a new place, I had become emotionally shuttered and focused solely on making myself as invisible as possible.

While the pavilions at this elaborately carved temple complex were packed with people, at no point did I feel intimidated or vulnerable. Nobody stared. Some people threw curious glances our way, but nobody took our photograph. Nobody videoed us. Nobody there was interested in us at all. The many, many people who had made the pilgrimage to Galtaji that day hadn’t made it to stand gawking at two ignorant tourists. They were there to celebrate, and meet with friends and family. They were there to scatter seeds, and bathe in the kunds. Their interaction with us was limited to fleeting moments of warm welcome. The old lady wordlessly leaning on Scrubs as a fellow pilgrim. The tilakas. The flower. The smiles.

Out of respect, I didn’t take a single photo at Galtaji. The time spent at the festival felt too precious and otherworldly to capture with a camera. The colours, the people, and the feeling of standing in that deep nook surrounded by hills will live on only in our memories. As we left to return to our guesthouse, our legs aching, I pulled a couple of the forgotten bananas from my bag and silently handed one to Scrubs, hoping the potassium boost would prevent muscle cramps.

I may not have seen my monkeys, but that no longer mattered. We had seen something better; we had stumbled on an unforgettable experience.

 

Chasing UFOs at Chichibu National Park, Japan

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I had been in Japan only a few days when my brother suggested visiting Chichibu.

“It’s beautiful,” he said. “You’ll love it!”

I was happy to go along with his suggestion, seeing as he 1.) is my brother and b.) was living in Japan at the time, so I cheerfully agreed, and the following morning I found myself on a little bus destined for Chichibu National Park.

This post isn’t really about the national park, however.

As we wandered up the hill from the entrance, I munched on my matcha-flavoured pocky sticks and looked around me. It was a sunny day and my brother was right, the park was beautiful. Granite rocks and large volcanic stone slabs reached into the sky and spindly trees dotted the landscape like escapees from a Bob Ross painting. Every so often I would find a sign in Japanese with a picture of a bear and the phrase “PLEASE BE CAREFUL TO BEARS!” neatly printed underneath in English. I think they were going for ‘Please be careful of bears’ but I have to admit their translation was much better. Not only was it unintentionally hilarious, but I feel like it had the potential to dramatically slash visitor numbers.

Not that the place was packed, exactly. We passed about five other visitors on our way in, and as we walked, we talked. Over the past few days I had visited shrines and cherry blossoms, and I had started to get a feel for the place. I hadn’t yet visited Tokyo, so the more extreme aspects of culture clash were yet to come, but I was enjoying myself immensely pointing out the cultural idiosyncrasies that my brother had assimilated after three years of living in the country.

I was also taking a great deal of interest in my surroundings. Small, chubby stone statues peeked at us from hiding places in the landscape. I pointed out every statue I saw until my brother finally rolled his eyes to the sky and slowly let out a long breath.

“If you do that for every single one of them we’ll be here until next month.”

I side-eyed him and snapped a quick photo. We continued on until we reached a shrine.

The thing you must understand about shrines in Japan is that they are everywhere. Before you visit Japan, you see a photo of them online or in a travel guide and you think, ‘That’s amazing!‘ What you don’t realise is that there are Buddhist shrines, and Shinto shrines, and although they are amazing, they are also innumerable and omnipresent. I really cannot stress this enough. There are shrines around every corner, in every city, up every hill.

We had already visited about five shrines in the past two days when I spotted this shiny red shrine in Chichibu. I pointed up at it eagerly. My brother sighed.

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“Really? Another one?”

I nodded. The novelty hadn’t yet worn off for me. I snapped a quick photo and bounded off towards the steps with my brother trailing behind me in a decidedly less enthusiastic fashion. At the entryway to the shrine, I circled an arm around a red pillar and admired the carvings as I waited for the sound of my brother’s reluctant footsteps to reach my side.

Suddenly a short, thin, bald Japanese man wearing what looked like white house slippers appeared out of nowhere. He said something in rapid-fire Japanese and I cocked my head like a confused spaniel. I felt my eyes widen in panic and I turned to look for my brother, whose foot had only just reached the last step.

“He minds the shrine” my brother muttered to me, joining me in the doorway.

The man turned his attention to him, and asked him a question. My brother explained in simple Japanese that we were Irish, and the man’s face wrinkled into an enormous smile.

“Air-ris-shu!” He exclaimed, beaming. “You come visit?”

“Yes!” I said, glad to be able to communicate.

“First Air-ris-shu here! Why?”

I pointed at my brother and said, “This is my brother. He lives here. I came to visit him.”

“Ahhh,” the man sighed. He muttered something in Japanese then to my brother, and I caught the word “sakura.” Having already had this conversation a few times since arriving in Japan, I nodded my head pre-emptively as my brother translated.

“He says you’re just in time for the cherry-blossoms.”

“I gathered,” I said dryly.

Each and every Japanese person I had spoken to since I had arrived in the country had made some mention of how fortunate I was to have arrived in time to see the cherry blossom trees. I was starting to think it was a bit of an unhealthy obsession. I mean, who gets that excited about a tree?*

I was still rolling my eyes internally at this national obsession with a flower when the man said something that snapped my attention back to him with laser precision.

“Are you here for UFOs?”

I felt my eyes slide to my brother’s face, trying to follow his lead. Was it another lost-in-translation moment? Did UFOs mean something different here?

My brother was staring blankly at the man. He blinked twice.

“UFOs?” I prompted.

“Yes!” The man bobbed his head up and down so vigorously I started to worry it might fall off. “Many people come for UFOs.”

I flicked a glance at my brother again just to double check that he was as blindsided by this conversation topic as I was. His face hadn’t moved a single muscle, but his eyes had the pained expression of someone struggling with the decision of whether or not to laugh.

“Do you mean… flying saucers?” I asked, haltingly.

“Yes, YES!” The head bobbing increased in speed. “Flying saucer!”

I briefly considered trying to catch my brother’s eye but then decided that it would be a monstrous lack of decorum to laugh in this eager man’s face, so I bit the inside of my cheek instead.

“There are UFOs here? In the park?” I asked.

“Yes, yes.” The man shuffled closer and pointed up at the sky. “They come. They come often. Here.”

“Oh.” I said.

We stood there for a moment in silence, the three of us looking up at a brilliantly blue, cloudless patch of sky. The man, reverently looking up at where he obviously thought a UFO might appear at any moment, and my brother and I following his gaze, rendered completely speechless. In the quiet the moment seemed to stretch, but for the life of me I couldn’t think of a single thing to say.

And then the silence was broken.

“I have photo!”

I turned to face him. “Sorry?”

“I have photo! One moment please.” The man shuffled into the temple and out of sight.

My brother and I stood motionless. Then the side of my brother’s mouth moved.

“He’s serious. He’s actually serious.”

Laughter bubbled up my throat and I coughed in an attempt to disguise it.

“You didn’t mention Yamanashi was a UFO hotspot,” I said in a casual tone of voice.

My brother snorted.

The man reappeared with a point-and-shoot camera that was at least a decade old. He positioned himself between us and turned the camera over to show us the small screen on the back. He flicked through various photos until he found the one he was looking for and held it up.

“See?”

I peered at the screen. It showed the patch of sky we had just been closely examining, only in this photo there was a small blob in the upper right corner. He jabbed the blob with his finger. “There!” He said, triumphantly.

It looked like a bird to me. Possibly an eagle.

“Mmmm” I murmured, noncommittal.

He flicked ahead to another photo of the same scene. This one had a couple of orbs, the kind you get from using the flash when dust particles get in the way.

“See!” He pointed, excited.

“Yes,” I said. “I see.”

He flicked through, showing us more photos with orbs hanging in the middle distance, and a couple more photos of blurry blotches in the sky.

“People come from all over,” he said. “They come for UFOs.”

“Tourists?” I asked.

“Yes, yes. French. Many French. Some American.”

“French and American people come here to watch for UFOs?”

“Yes, yes. UFOs here many times. French, American… They know. Many times here.”

“Like… Every month, or….?”

“No, no. Sometimes three times one day. Sometimes two times one week. Many times here. Some days better. Afternoon best time.”

“Afternoon? Not… at night?”

“No, no. 4pm. 4pm best time here.” He pointed at the patch of sky again. “Here,” he reminded us solemnly.

“Why here?” I asked.

“Area of activity,” he said, nodding sagely. “Governments come to study.”

“Governments? Really?”

“Yes, yes. American. Japanese. Governments come.” He looked out at the horizon, then stared into my eyes. “Area of activity,” he repeated.

“Ahh, of course.”

My brother clapped his hands together, his patience spent. “Well!” He bowed his head to our new friend. “Thank you, we will be sure to keep an eye on the sky for these UFOs.”

The man put his hands together and bowed his bald head low.

I put my hands together and bowed my head in return. Then I smiled at him, a genuine, happy smile. He legitimately believed in UFOs and I admired that faith and interest and passion, even if I couldn’t understand it. I had enjoyed seeing his world through his eyes for a moment, even if I had to squint a little to see eagles as flying saucers, and dust particles as spaceships.

As we made our way down the steps, my brother’s shoulders started to shake with laughter. By the time we reached the main path, tears were streaming down his face. After a quick look over my shoulder to make sure our friend wasn’t watching us, I joined him. I laughed because that was the last possible conversation I had expected to have at a Japanese shrine (or anywhere really). I laughed because it was sunny, and I was happy, and it seemed absurd to climb the steps to an ancient shrine only to wind up talking about flying saucers. Then I saw another sign for “PLEASE BE CAREFUL TO THE BEARS!” and started laughing again.

We finally wiped our eyes and refilled our water bottles for the hike ahead before setting off for Nanatsugama-godan Falls, and as we trudged up the next hill, I looked back at the blue, cloudless, birdless patch of sky.

Just in case.

*As I said, I hadn’t been to Tokyo yet at this point in the trip, and so I had no idea what was in store.

 

 

 

 

 

Barely Surviving Bansko, Bulgaria

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Well.

As I stood thigh-high in snow, looking around me for any sign of civilisation, I patted my pockets for my phone and marveled at my own stupidity.

Let me backtrack for a moment and explain that this happened in 2007, and that I want to tell this story because I wouldn’t want you to expect my travel stories to be in any way aspirational. In fact, many of my stories are of situations to be avoided, whether that’s due to the holy mortifying shame of them, or just a general lack of critical thinking skills displayed at the time. With that said, this is definitely one of the latter.

I’d arrived in Bulgaria three days earlier with a group of family and friends who had planned the New Year’s ski trip on a whim. At the time I was in a mindmelting relationship, so naturally I’d jumped at the chance for a break. An excessively enthusiastic shopping spree had made me the proud owner of a neon orange ski suit (from the children’s section) that made me look less like a professional skiier and more like an anthropomorphised traffic cone. I had also purchased gloves (from the children’s section), thermals, socks, boots, and matching goggles, so I felt very high-tech and athletic. My suit even had RECCO reflectors, which are supposed to help locate you in the unfortunate event that you get lost in the snow*. I was probably the most prepared I’ve ever been for a holiday in my entire life.

Our arrival in Bulgaria coincided with the run-up to the country officially becoming part of the European Union, and it seemed like the country was just about making ends meet with sellotape and bits of string. Our small plane landed on an icy runway outside of what looked like a large, corrugated iron shed masquerading as Plovdiv Airport**, and when we got inside we found a single luggage carousel that may or may not have served any practical use. I wouldn’t know; there were so few of us the airport staff just dumped our suitcases in the middle of the baggage hall instead of bothering with the charade of passing them through the hole in the wall. I don’t remember much about the journey from the airport to our hotel except that it was dark, it was snowing, and I was dog tired.

The next morning, I was dressed and ready to go by 7am. Feeling very prepared (and possibly overly-optimistic about my skiing abilities), I bounced excitedly from foot to foot as I waited to be picked up from the hotel lobby. A rickety minibus made the treacherous trip up the mountain every hour for four hours, picking people up at different hotels and depositing them at the top. In the evening, the minibus would meander back down the same way. Other than that, there was no way to get to or from the slopes, so I was always obnoxiously early for a seat on the bus.

My first day of skiing consisted of a lot of snowploughing – and if I’m honest it didn’t really pick up from there over the course of the week – but I had a great time. Just focusing on getting down the mountain in one piece was a nice reprieve from the drama that was eating me alive back home, and I was a huge fan of the little stops for hot chocolate every twenty minutes. My more athletically-gifted cousins quickly left me for the excitement of the red and black slopes, but I was content to slowly snowplough my day away in my kiddie ski suit, one green slope at a time. At the end of each day I would stumble back onto the rickety minibus, feeling extremely pleased with myself. Another day without breaking any bones! Another day of successfully avoiding trees! I was a star skier in my own mind. I would chatter excitedly until someone tugged on my sleeve to let me know we had reached the hotel, and then I would tumble off the bus ready for shots of tequila.

Skiing; it’s so much fun!

So three days into the trip, around dusk, I found myself on the last minibus of the day. Putting my trust in the courageous driver and the fact that this was my third round-trip on this deathtrap and we hadn’t yet plunged sideways down a cliff, I turned my attention to my friend Darcy and his younger brother Bing. They were staying at a hotel further along the route from mine, but everyone we knew staying at my hotel had left early that day so it was just the three of us. As the bus finally pulled in beside my hotel, I waved a cheerful goodbye and jumped down, alone.

The bus pulled away.

I stood, staring at the hotel.

I’d never noticed the blue window frames before. Come to think of it, I hadn’t noticed the popcorn plaster exterior either. I was almost sure my hotel had four floors… Why did it now only have three? I walked up to the building and pushed open the double doors.

The lobby looked entirely unfamiliar.

A large, surly-looking doorman appeared out of the gloom and said something to me in Bulgarian. I shook my head. He repeated himself and I smiled apologetically. “English?” I asked, with a hopeful voice. He shook his head and frowned at me. I looked around for someone – anyone – who might tell me where I now found myself, but the place was deserted.

I backed up, letting the double doors swing shut in my face. Then I turned around, and with an optimism that managed to completely blinker me from the red flags of my idiocy, decided it couldn’t possibly be too much of a walk to my hotel. In an ill-advised move that really sets the tone for the rest of this story, I set off down the road (if you’re keeping score as to how many moronic decisions I made on this day, we’re probably already up to about three).

Now keep in mind that although I used the word ‘road’ before, I was being extremely generous. What I am referring to as a road was merely a wide dirt track that looped its way back and forth down the unlit mountain. There were no cars to be seen, and I could tell that up ahead the path curved in a long arc before doubling back further down, so naturally I decided to take a short-cut through the trees (four).

Stepping off the road and hopping down into the forest, my feet plunged straight down into the snow until it reached my knees. I briefly considered turning back, but looking up at the embankment I had just jumped from I decided it would be easier to just press on (five). At first, I high-stepped like a pudgy pony doing dressage, but slowly the snow got deeper and deeper, and soon I was half-wading, half-shuffling through the snow. After fifteen minutes, night had well and truly fallen and I was only halfway through the trees to the next patch of road.

I started giggling to myself as I assessed the situation. Patting my pockets, I pulled out my Nokia with absolutely no roaming capabilities, and shone its paltry light around me. I was lost. I didn’t know where I was. If I kept walking, I was pretty sure I would eventually reach someone, but not necessarily someone who spoke English. I didn’t speak a word of Bulgarian. I didn’t know the name of my hotel, or whether it was up or down the mountain. I apparently didn’t even know what it looked like.

I slipped my phone into the neck of my jacket and slapped the snow with my palms as I considered my predicament. Then I returned to my slow snow-shuffle, giggling every so often at my own ineptitude. Every single step was an exercise in trust; I would inch my toes forward and hope against hope that the sole of my boot would meet something solid before the snow reached my waist. I started to feel nervous that I would fall down a hole camouflaged by the snow. I  wondered how useful my ROCCO reflectors would really be if I got caught on something. I wondered how much colder it would get overnight.

As I neared the road, I saw lights approaching from the distance and threw all caution to the wind. In all likelihood, you have never had occasion to watch a small, cushioned, neon-orange starfish-shaped person waddle quickly through excessively deep snow, but if you had been there that night that is exactly what you would have seen, and I think you would have been impressed by my speed.

You know, for a starfish.

I reached the edge of the road as a car came around the bend, and put out my hand… only to realise it was stopping of its own accord. I blinked in the harsh light of the headlights as an angry silhouette stomped towards me and grabbed my arm. It was Darcy. He and his brother had reached their hotel and somehow realised I had alighted at the wrong stop. They had retraced the minibus route in a taxi searching for me and my radioactive-looking ski suit.

Without a word, he half-pushed, half-dragged me to the taxi and bundled me in, where I was glad to see his brother (whose face wore a far less intimidating expression) and even more glad to give my extremities the chance to thaw. Darcy got in beside me and slammed the door of the taxi shut with a tight-lipped expression of barely restrained fury. He didn’t speak to me for hours.

Giddy with relief at being rescued from an ignominious death in a frozen forest, I was happy to ignore the waves of anger radiating from his body the entire drive back to the hotel.

I’ll tell you something, though…

He made damn sure I got out at the right one this time.

*Foreshadowing

**Apparently Plovdiv Airport has since undergone extensive renovations, and from the sound of things it no longer resembles a shed and now looks more like an actual airport.

Sporadically Nomadic

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I love to travel.

I have been traveling since I was born. My mother is Spanish and my father is Irish, so in order to meet half of my extended family I had to be put on a plane as early as possible*.

Since then, I’ve been busy trying to visit as many new places as I can.

Unfortunately, I’m not one of those golden-haired, anklet-wearing, hostel-loving free spirits who go traveling barefoot for months on end and post pictures on instagram that make you want to claw your eyes out with jealousy. I’m more of a Dora the Explorer type. Not the new stylised version with the pearl earrings who looks like she owns a Burn Book. No, I’m the OG short dumpy Dora with the bowl haircut that looks like she’d be annoyingly upbeat about everything.

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That’s me! I keep a Canon 60D in that backpack. Una cámara!

I love everything about the actual verb part of traveling. I have no fear of flying – I actually enjoy turbulence – and even when it’s exhausting, arriving in a place where everything is a blank slate gives me the sort of rush people usually get from drinking five double espressos back-to-back. The usual annoyances of long-distance travel (limited legroom, for example) don’t really apply, since I am like human origami; I can stiffly crease myself into an astonishingly small arrangement of limbs when necessary.

My only real travel struggle is my ongoing difficulty with packing. Despite many years of practice, every suitcase successfully checked in continues to be a Pyrrhic victory. I rarely remember everything I need and, since the first items to be flung into my suitcase are usually things like my fins or my inflatable donut, it’s difficult to find space for more practical items.

Packing for the return leg of the journey is no less onerous. After finally stuffing my suitcase to the brim with non-essential essentials, I run into real problems on the way back when I want to bring home every kind of portable food. Trust me when I say that it is a true challenge to fit five boxes of tea, a 50oz bag of peanut butter M&Ms and a bear-shaped honey container into a suitcase that is already bursting at the seams; some sock sacrifices often have to be made.

Priorities!

Anything I think is delicious that I can’t find at home goes in the bag. I collect all sorts of delicious edible items when I travel; rainbow sprinkles, pastries, fried tomato sauce, tea, aniseed tortas, rice… I also collect other things. I collect tiny pebbles that catch my eye. I collect business cards from restaurants. I collect train tickets and hotel keycards and cinema stubs and pack all of these things away in my travel box.

… And I collect experiences. I collect memories.

I watched goat brains boil in their skulls in Marrakech, Morocco, and steered a horse-drawn carriage over the cobblestoned streets of Vienna, Austria. I unwittingly joined a pilgrimage in Jaipur, India, and reluctantly visited an onsen in Yamanakako, Japan. I discovered the limitations of air conditioning in Death Valley, USA, and did a drunken good deed in Paris, France. I got lost in thigh-high snow in Bansko, Bulgaria, and galloped past the pyramids in Cairo, Egypt. I’d like to write all of these memories down somewhere, and what better place than here?

This is basically my Pensieve, after all.

So I just wanted to check in with you, see how you would feel about occasionally odd, mildly mortifying stories from my pitter-pattering across continents. I even made a poll!

Thanks! Now go. Have a great weekend. Yes, you. You deserve it.

Even you with the heart of stone.

See you on Monday!

*I’m sure the rest of the poor unfortunate souls on that flight were delighted to have a two month old companion.