I have wanted to come to Africa for many years, but my travels have taken me frequently to South Asia. So, when I had clear opportunity to visit Kenya in East Africa, proverbial wild horses could not have stopped me.
Having been a frequent visitor to the Indian subcontinent, there was something familiar with the climate, vegetation, roadside stalls and shops and just the feel of the country. However, culturally, Africa is very different from India. Of course these differences only served to heighten my enjoyment of my new environment, if only for the sake of variety.
Kenya is without doubt a beautiful country, and one week in, I was really loving it. Staying with a family initially in Oyugis, we had met plenty of locals which is a fantastic way to begin to understand a nation and its culture. And culture of course is everything – the way a nation feels, thinks, reacts, behaves and basically does life is all part and parcel of what we call culture.
For me, travel has always been about the people you meet and not just the places you visit. Having said that, Kenya is massively replete with adventures and amazing places to see. Whether you love the coast, want to visit mountains, go on safari, explore a tea plantation, Kenya will keep producing the goods, again and again.
And without doubt, I will be returning to Kenya. I mean, why wouldn’t you? Admittedly, there were some security concerns with the current elections going on, and a potential terrorism threat mainly in the North East from Al Shabaab (a result of the Kenyan military intervention in Somalia), but the draw of East Africa is simply magnetic. So yes, I will definitely be coming back, and what is more, I would encourage you to do the same. Just be careful and vigilant, but more than anything, enjoy it…
So our host decided to drive us around Homa Bay County and show us his home turf. We went straight to Kendu Bay where the bright sunlight was reminiscent of a previous holiday in the Bahamas. Simply outstanding. Fresh fish, diverse birdlife and a gorgeous Kenyan blue sky, which was guaranteed to sweep away the winter and possibly, COVID blues. We sat in a cafe by the lake shore and drank bitter lemon, mango juice and and beer.
Actually, the birdlife really is amazing. In a few short minutes, I had spotted Little Egret, Cattle Egret, Great White Egret, Pied Kingfisher, Hamerkop, Cormorants and others. If that lot doesn’t get your ornithological juices running, nothing will.
In terms of birding, the whole of the Kenya trip was pretty much like that; one awe inspiring sight after another. Leaving Kendu Bay, we travelled a short distance to Simbi Lake where I witnessed a great wash of pink gathered at one end of the shoreline, iridescent in the bright African sunshine. It was my very first flock of Lesser Flamingos, and what a beautiful sight it was too.
Moving on, we eventually arrived at Homa Bay situated at the bottom end of the Winam Gulf, that feeds into Lake Victoria. This time, the birdwatching went up several more notches as the avian world blended seamlessly with the human one.
Two words: Marabou Storks. These large, and to be completely honest, somewhat ugly birds were everywhere. On the roofs of houses, on the shoreline, in the sky above us. In fact, they are so big, it felt like a scene out of Jurassic World when the beleaguered tourists were being dive-bombed by pterodactyls.
I don’t think Homa Bay is really a tourist town, from what I could see anyway. Down near the shoreline, it was just full of fishermen, birds (waiting for titbits from the fishermen no doubt), locals selling fish cooked and uncooked, and families enjoying the breezy sunshine down near the water. The whole place had a busy, but relaxed and laid back feel.
It may well be off the beaten track and not an obvious tourist destination, but I really recommend a visit to this remote part of Western Kenya – you won’t be disappointed!
“You have to decide the kind of life that you want to live, or the person that you want to be.” Those were the words, or something similar to them that my taxi driver said to me, as I sat in the back, en route to Athens International Airport. The story he told me during the short 30 minute night-time journey left me with a feeling of incredulity.
He lived and worked in Athens as a taxi driver but also owned a holiday home on a Greek island, which provided a valuable source of income. He told a tale of oil rich Arabs from the Middle East that had arrived on the island with literally holdalls full of euros, and my driver had provided transport for these visitors to the island. They would offer him 10,000 Euros to go and get drugs, girls or whatever they wanted. Money was no object whatsoever.
My taxi driver was clearly an ethical and righteous man and refused their generous, but outrageous offer. As we parted company at departures, I pondered his account of the corrupting influence of money and the Aristotle-like wisdom he had offered me – all included in the price of taxi fare! Later, before I caught my flight back to Thessaloniki, I encountered Miss Mykonos 2018 with a small child in tow, which was a salutary reminder that however glamourous your day job may be, we have all got mouths to feed and bills to pay.
In the preceding days, I had spent three enjoyable nights at the superbly appointed Hotel Sir Athens in Greece’s ancient, political and philosophical capital, having joined my friends, Emmanouil and Antigoni in the city whilst they attended a conference. Eleni, the boutique hotel’s part-owner really looked after me and made me feel very welcome. Sir Athens was modern, comfortable, well equipped and conveniently situated.
I really loved Athens, or at least parts of it. I wasn’t so enamoured with the endless, uniform rows of air conditioned accommodation blocks sprawled out across the city marching towards the horizon, but if ancient culture and civilisations are your thing, Athens has it by the bucket load. And understandably, it has tourists by the bucket load too, and whilst not on the same scale as Venice in terms of visitor numbers, be prepared to rub shoulders with crowds of adoring travellers from all over the globe.
The Acropolis pretty much stands at the top of the list, including the Theatre of Dionysus, Odeon of Herodes Atticus, the Temple of Athena Nike and of course, it’s crowning glory: The Parthenon. Don’t forget the Acropolis museum just across the way though – it is superb. Three main floors of ancient antiquity to keep you endlessly fascinated, and it is not to be missed. The Areopagus is nearby and the fascinating Temple of Zeus is located in a different part of the city.
Having suitably feasted on the sights and sounds of both ancient and modern Greece, I decided it was time to return to my hotel. However, I soon discovered that I was having trouble explaining to the Greek taxi driver where my hotel was, so I phoned Eleni and gave the phone to the driver. After a fairly animated discussion between the two of them in their mother tongue, the location of the hotel was identified, but having seen her WhatsApp profile picture on my mobile, the taxi driver then exclaimed in English to her, “You’re beautiful!”
Well, that’s the Greeks for you, and as an Englishman, I suddenly felt very dull and inhibited although I couldn’t argue with his conclusion about my host. That eclectic mix and splash of local culture and colour is surely what travel is all about, and I love it. Greece and her people will always have a special place in my heart, and I’m sure to return.
And if you haven’t yet sampled the delights of this enchanting country ringed by the sparkling Ionian, Aegean & Mediterranean Seas, then as soon as you are able, I encourage you to book your flight and go and see, not just things and places, but meet the people that make it so unique. I had the distinct feeling that this short trip to Greece was going to live long in my memory. Kalinikta Hellas.
Mount Rainier appeared like a mirage in the distance, summoning and calling us to ascend her snowy mantle. At last, my father, my brother and I set off towards her majestic peak beckoning to us for supreme adventure – and we were ready for that.
As we drove on and on, its icy cap filled the horizon with increasing dominance. Ascending higher and higher – we were heading for the Southern Cascades; that vast range of mountains that bisects Washington – reaching from the Canadian border down to the State of Oregon. We had arrived in the Olympic National Park, and our goal, the focus of our desire lay in front of us.
The excitement built and reached a crescendo as Rainier now loomed large in our field of view. Snowy vistas beckoned as we began our upward climb. Up and up through the snow we trudged, icy tentacles wrapping around our feet. The air was clear, still, and rarefied as we left civilization below us. The snowy peak was calling us, daring and challenging us to come up higher. Overcoming tiredness, aching limbs, and with a steely determination, Jonathan and I persevered and pushed on up the mountain.
This time with my brother was precious; bonding, shaping, and connecting. Separated by so much distance and so many years, at last we were together. Climbing, ascending with the Southern Cascades as our back drop, mighty rocky promontories reaching into the still, blue sky announcing their majestic and undeniable presence.
We reached 7000 feet, meeting triumphant and satisfied climbers who were descending from a much higher altitude. We were now up in the land of the gods: glaciers, snow fields, mountain goats and marmots.
Finding the source of the Nisqually River, I drank from its sacred spring. Clean, clear, cold and unimaginably refreshing, I allowed the water to invigorate and refresh my tired body. The glare of the snow continued to shine and dazzle in the afternoon sun. Photo opportunities abounded; I felt overwhelmed by the sheer beauty of our new environment.
Satisfied, and having gone as far as time, energy and the now waning sun would allow, we began our descent even pausing to engage with a Mountain Marmot who was very curious about what we were doing. Maybe posturing for confrontation or seeking food – we shall never know. But as we descended, we met more explorers, climbers and hikers who were also enjoying the icy delights of this snowy arena.
Regrouping down below and eventually drifting homeward, I reflected that it had been a day like no other. We had come and conquered, and now felt fulfilled, contented, and grateful for this time together enjoying the sheer magnificence that is Mount Rainier.
I have been travelling to India for almost 25 years now, and it is fair to say that I have seen a few changes over the years. I have seen this country dynamically shift in some ways, and in other ways not. I mean India still has masses of terribly poor people eking out a living from day to day, and admittedly, the very-poor have always existed alongside the super-rich. If you go to any major city like Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, or Chennai, you will see the slums and the skyscrapers together.
However, what is different now here in the 21st Century, is the emerging middle class, the young, ICT literate and upwardly mobile – that generation of Millennials that have reached adulthood. This was never more evidenced than when I was riding the Metro in Delhi last year. Smartly dressed young men and women absorbed with their smartphones, as interconnected and aware as the rest of us on planet earth.
Delhi’s Metro is ever expanding and easy to use. Colour coded footprints on the walkways help direct you to the right lines; it really is a thing of beauty and an enormous asset for all city dwellers. Sprawling out like a spider’s web across the nation’s capital it transports the young and beautiful, and the not so young and beautiful to wherever they so choose.
My friend Varun, from Varanasi but now living in Delhi with his family, remarked that once you’re inside the Metro system, it’s like being in the UK. However, the moment you emerge, you are back in India again. I knew exactly what he meant; the metro is relatively new and modern and yet when you come out it’s almost like you have been in a time warp, because you are back to the rickshaw wallahs, the roadside vendors, the noise, heat, and pollution. But this is always the way that India has been – rich and poor living side by side.
This is a vastly different story from when I first arrived in India back in November 1995. There was certainly no metro and the preferred method of transport was nearly always an auto-rickshaw, or an old ambassador taxi. But I guess now in this age of climate change, something had to give, because as you will know if you have ever visited Delhi, the smog there is fairly legendary. In fact, at times, it will bring the whole city to a halt because the visibility becomes so poor.
I always knew that air pollution was going to be a challenge for this emerging economic giant. The moment our 400 ton 747 landed with a heavy thud at Indira Gandhi International at Delhi, and its tyres screeched and smoked along the runway tarmac, I could smell the definite bitter, poisonous tang of heavy smog in the air. I cannot say that the air quality has massively improved since then, but with initiatives like greener, less polluting auto-rickshaws and the Delhi’s dazzling metro, things are sure to improve over time.
Thirty years of age, from Tyre in Lebanon, Jabira had luxuriant, thick, tightly curled hair which contrasted with a complexion that was paler than what I would have imagined for someone from the Middle East. Faultlessly dressed in her pastel-coloured airline uniform, Jabira wore vivid red lipstick like a movie star.
Perching on the crew seat, at the rear of the aircraft by the galley, she told me that she loved to travel, and even travels on her day off. The conversation then moved in a more personal direction when Jabira told me that she was marrying a guy sixteen years her senior and that this was a good thing.
She preferred more mature men, and her rationale behind this thinking was that older guys are more experienced, they have seen lots of interesting things in life, were stable and are not always looking at other girls.
I immediately began to relax, because up until that point, I was going to be writing a stiffly worded letter of complaint to the airline head office. I was travelling to India once again full of anticipation and excitement, but I had just suffered the worst airline food and service in years of flying.
Feeling restless, I had torn myself away from the irresistible view of distant, foreign shores below me, and a vast, unending range of jagged, white-topped mountains interspersed with glacial lakes. Heading to the rear of the aircraft, I needed to do what every passenger must do after a few hours in their seat. That is when I came face to face with Jabira.
I interrupted her lunch break by remarking on the healthy and nutritious tuna salad that she was eating. Graciously, she then engaged in meaningful conversation with me and willingly surrendered up some personal and fascinating details about her life.
With an impending summer marriage, Jabira was trying to lose weight for her husband-to-be. She declared that at the age of 30 she was now old, and the older you get the more difficult it becomes to lose weight. Of course, I reassured her that she was neither old nor needed to lose weight.
Eventually, the Bursar came and interrupted our conversation, telling the crew it was time to attend to the needs of the passengers. I said goodbye to Jabira for now, and I wished her all the love and luck in the world.
Sitting down in my habitual window seat, now gazing out over a different landscape passing below like a geographical conveyor belt, I contemplated what had just taken place.
I had met Jabira and she had shared her life, hopes, and aspirations with me. My pent-up disappointment with the airline had all but evaporated because, at this moment, it simply did not matter anymore.
Later, she strode past my seat and gave me a knowing smile. I relaxed again knowing that I had been touched by the kindness of a stranger, and I was infinitely richer for it.
Rain, lots and lots of it. In fact, it was endless, and Sigra Road outside our hotel was rapidly becoming a river. It was September, and we were in Varanasi, North India, in the back end of the monsoon season. Clearly, all the locals were not bothered by it as everybody just carried on, even though by this time the street outside was under 1-2 feet of water.
Big, thick, deafening rain just kept falling out of the sky; heavily, incessantly, and persistently as we watched from the relative shelter of the Hotel Padmini, just around the corner from my friend’s house. I had never seen weather like it in the UK, and I was at once filled with excitement, awe and wonder at nature’s power to bring everything to a grinding halt.
The drainage along the road just could not cope. Too much water, too quickly with no let up. People were getting off motorbikes and pushing. Auto-rickshaws also could not withstand the deluge, and their beleaguered drivers had to dismount and physically force their vehicles through the dirty, brown water.
Cars broke down and again had to be propelled by human effort. But no one gave up, they just got out, got off and put their backs into it because that is what you do in this part of the world. You don’t let something simple like a massive weather system stop you from going about your daily business here.
Well here’s a thing. How about sitting by the river, drinking in the local vibe and enjoying some scrumptious food to boot? If that appeals, then I advise you to head for Hickory’s Smokehouse sat on the banks of the serene River Dee in historic Chester.
So, new to the city and feeling hungry, I left my hotel and followed the signs down to the river, and duly discovered Hickory’s. And for a Tuesday night, the place was buzzing with young and old alike; which is always a good sign methinks.
The menu is varied, interesting and quite frankly – very appetising. Yeah they have ribs, pulled pork (of course), Texas Style Brisket, steaks, skewers, waffles, burgers and if you’re feeling really hungry – the truly awesome Smokehouse Platter. This dish cleverly enables you to try all their classics in one go. I however, went for the XXXL burger.
Inside the 2 creaking halves of your burger bun (skewered to keep everything together), you will find the following: 2 burgers, pulled pork, streaky bacon, gherkins, cajun onion rings, lettuce, tomato, their rather tasty house sauce and American cheese. This fullsome tribute to some kind of American culinary dream is accompanied by fries served in a mug and their very own coleslaw. This of course can be washed down with a refreshing chilled beer. Perfect.
Not content with dinner, I returned the following morning for breakfast and swerved around the usual temptation to go for the full English (I was still full from the night before), and choose instead the pancakes. Not just any pancakes though, but the Hickory Pancake Stack complete with Blueberry compote and cream.
This comes with a pot of maple sauce, the contents of which I used to saturate and envelop my pancakes with a sweet, sticky sheen. Anyway, the result was absolute deliciousness, and since they are served all day, there is no excuse not to try them. Of course you can always come back later and go for the lunch menu which advertises 2 courses for £10.
So, if haven’t cottoned on yet, I’m recommending you come here when you’re next in Chester, or anywhere nearby for that matter. The location is great and the staff are real friendly too, which all adds up to a winning combination. Great for the food scene and great for Chester.
As much as I love the fascinating city of Kathmandu in Nepal, I wanted to get out of the urban maze and explore some of the surrounding natural beauty. Somehow, I had heard about Gokarna Forest and my interest was aroused. Arrangements were made and transport was laid on.
I remember that day well. June in Nepal was uncomfortably hot and beads of sweat were running down my forehead aplenty. Upon arrival at Gokarna, we stopped off to inspect the temple dedicated to a popular Hindu deity, Ganesh. Pausing only briefly, we began our ascent of the leafy hills of Gokarna Forest, leaving the noise of Kathmandu in the valley far below us.
Through the trees
The pre-monsoon heat and humidity made for a sweaty hike up through the woods, as the sun climbed high above us and reached its zenith. Looking across the valley, the outskirts of the city were sharply defined in the intense midday glare. The earth was dry and baked hard from weeks of relentless calefaction. We continued on unabated, moving through patches of shade and light and absorbing the grandeur of the forest around us.
We didn’t talk much, but in the midst of the peace and quiet, the natural world was constantly proclaiming its magnificence. Mesmerisingly beautiful and enchanting, I just couldn’t put my camera down. Every step seemed to present countless, breathtaking landscapes worthy of capture.
Nearing the top…
Having now returned from the summit and the panoramic views afforded by our lofty aspect, we made the return journey. Through the course of our descent, we met a couple of friendly locals and enjoyed that typical Nepali warmth and welcome. This land of the Himalaya, of stunning vistas and superlatives, is also a nation with a big heart and open arms.
We listened to our Nepali guide, Nema, as he spoke excitedly on the phone. Then I heard the phrase ‘Car Bundh’ and my heart sank. Bundh meant a political strike and in this part of the world, Car Bundh was a road blockade – and probably one fuelled by violence too. Years of experience in Nepal had taught me that strikes here were anything but peaceful.
My two friends and I needed to get to our hotel in Birgunj. It was June, and in the pre-monsoon heat of the Southern Terai, I wiped my brow free of sweat, once again. A difficult and troubled passage lay ahead. Climbing back into the vehicle, we reluctantly proceeded down the road.
Evidence of a disturbance began to mount as we witnessed one discarded truck after another. Drivers preferring not to go any further and risk danger to themselves or their vehicles had parked up and left. You don’t mess around in this part of the world. Soon enough, a seething mass of people came into vision with trucks drawn raggedly across the road to form an impenetrable barrier.
Our driver slowed and began the turn off the main road to evade the approaching flashpoint. Then out of nowhere, a protester appeared running towards us. His face contorted with aggression and anger, he launched at us with a lathi raised high in violent intent and threatened to smash in the window. This was it, now we were really in the thick of it.
As the animated exchange then took full flight between dissenter and driver, every means of escape was cut off. Young men hurriedly pulled a makeshift barrier across the track to our left, whilst others dropped large rocks on the road behind our vehicle preventing us from reversing. We were completely trapped.
Without warning, our driver exited the vehicle and vanished into the crowd. All we could do was remain calm and still. We waited and waited, trying not to succumb to the mounting tide of tension. Surrounded by a powder keg of unrest which was liable to explode at any time, I was beginning to regret being in this beautiful country I had loved for so many years.
Then as quickly as he had disappeared, our trusty driver returned. The barriers were removed and we were on our way. Later it emerged that he knew the leader of the mob and after discussion and payment no doubt, we were released.
Arriving at our hotel in Birgunj at last, we headed for the bar glad to be feeling safe again. We laughed and as I sank my first cold beer, it had never tasted so good as right there and right then.