Love, life and Lebanon.

Blog, Destinations, India, Travel

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.

(Name changed to protect identity).

Rain, rain, rain.

Blog, Destinations, India, Travel

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.

Photo by Rahul Dogra

Hickory’s Smokehouse, Chester

Blog, Destinations, Food, UK

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.

Gokarna.

Blog, Nepal, Travel

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Hindu Pagoda Temple, Kathmandu Valley

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Kathmandu Valley

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Baked earth

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Grassy Knoll

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

Car Bundh

Nepal, Travel

My entry for the World Nomads / Lonely Planet Travel Writing Competition 2016.

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA