My Colombian listicle got published on Matador Network! Check it out here:
I’ve been in Colombia for three months now, and I broke my main resolution that I had coming here almost straight away. I was supposed to write every day. And post regularly. Well I kind of kept to the writing part, but most of it is the kind of stuff that I’d only feel comfortable publishing once I’m dead and famous.
So to spare you the rollercoaster of ups and downs (mostly ups!) I decided to do a quick round up. (edit: I tried to make it quick, I promise)
I’ve been obsessed with coming to South America for years, but I really wanted to make sure I did it properly. I didn’t want to just blow loads of money drinking with gringos on different beaches (although that is still one of my favourite things…)
After an underwhelming experience in south-east Asia, I wanted something more authentic. I wanted to live and work and learn the language. Preferably on a beach.
I stumbled upon Heart for Change’s program on an EFL cafe online, and applied there and then through a recruiting company called ESL starter. I was thrilled to have finally found a volunteer programme that didn’t sound massively douchy or ask for a huge lump sum up- front. And most importantly, genuinely seemed to be about sustainable change.
The programme is an English teaching fellowship funded by the Colombian government, who aim to get Colombia bilingual by 2020. The government has a bigger budget for education than defense this year, which is pretty bloody impressive at the best of times, never mind the fact that the country is only really at the beginning of a peace process.
After around 50 years of civil conflict (seriously, Narcos barely scratches the surface!) a peace treaty was finally signed last year. But everyone is aware that it is very much a process, and a delicate one at that. Many members of FARC have never known another life, especially the children, who are slowly coming out of the mountains to integrate into Colombian life.
…And Colombian life means Colombian state school. Which should have been obvious I suppose, but didn’t occur to me until it was brought up in training, and kind of blew my mind. We were told how we are not just witnessing a crucial part of the countries history, but playing an active role in it. No pressure.
I’m sorry I haven’t posted in a while. Sometimes the best part of traveling is just taking a step back and not doing anything at all. Well, except maybe snowboarding.
And the not-so-catchily named Chalet Pierra Menta 2 in La Plagne was the perfect place to do just that.
Having worked the last two ski seasons, enviously watching guests suited and booted before 9am when I was about to go up and start cleaning their rooms, I was determined to finally make the most of being a punter.
I rolled out of bed to cooked breakfasts, dragged my sleepy arse out onto first lifts and spent my days knee-deep in powder. Stopping occasionally for Tartiflette or Irish coffee.
By the time I made it back to the chalet at the end of the day (via the most deliciously powdery tree run) I barely had the energy to tuck into the lovely homemade cakes left out by our host, Holly. (I say barely, on the first day I definitely had three slices…)
Throw in a quick sauna before dinner, plus unlimited chalet wine and it soon became obvious that I would struggle to even see eleven o’ clock, never mind actually leave the chalet…
But the great thing about Chalet holidays is that you don’t even need to leave the chalet in order to socialize. Chalet set up means you have a little ready made squad just waiting for you around the dinner table. Ten-ish strangers from all walks life, who feel like family by the end of the week.
And I know this is a traveling cliché, but I think in a chalet even more so than in a hostel, you meet people that you wouldn’t otherwise encounter. I mean when would I ever meet a financial adviser? Even though geographically we come from the same place, I definitely feel like I have more common ground with the random hippies that populate most dorm rooms.
Yet sitting around the table with a group of men who on first impressions I had very little in common with, it was surprising to see how quickly we all clicked. Well, most of the time anyway. I made a conscious effort to avoid talking politics…
On that note, although it didn’t seem like it at the time, I actually chose the perfect week to lose my phone. Being cut off from civilization (i.e. the internet) meant that I was able to switch off from the world, and remain blissfully unaware of all the horrible things that were going on in the world (AKA Trump)
Having said that, losing a phone off piste is no picnic. While I knew the chances of getting it back were slim to none, and the chances of it actually working were even slimmer, I couldn’t help but try and comb the patch of powder in between the lift and the restaurant where I’d lost it…
If you’ve ever tried looking for a needle in a haystack, I can assure you, this was far, far worse. Picture a frozen haystack. Made of quicksand. On a hill. And then imagine you’ve just snowboarded for over five hours without a snack (ok maybe there was one snack.)
Needless to say there is probably a marmot somewhere with a very shiny new toy.
Anyway despite that minor set-back I actually had a really perfect week. I only wore real shoes twice. And one of those times was to have a go on the Olympic bob-sleigh track!
I’ve always thought of chalet holidays as something that posh people do, and kind of scorned the whole idea of having everything arranged and done for you…But the truth is, it turned out to be a lot cheaper and a hell of a lot easier than organising it all ourselves.
Skibeat have some unbelievably cheap deals, especially if you book last minute during quiet weeks…I’m not great at planning ahead but I’m already trying to pencil in a few weeks next January!
(Get it? A-Zerbaijan? Yeah I thought it was clever and original. Turns out someone else has already done it (http://www.atoz.az/) Anyway, mine is in no way based on this official tourist propaganda site, so read on for an honest breakdown of the country…
A is for…Architecture
Beyond acknowledging that the Shard is pretty cool, architecture isn’t something that I tend to focus on when I’m visiting a city. This was definitely not the case in Baku.
The Flame Towers
The Flame Towers are Baku’s answer to the Eiffel Tower, iconic and inspiring. Housing offices, apartments and a hotel (the Fairmont) the sky-scrapers also double up as giant LED screens, showing flames or the Azeri flag at night. Not too shabby.
Look up from almost anywhere in Baku and you can see them, flames rising up over the old town.
From the boulevard you can take the funicular, or walk up the steps to the towers, enjoying a view of the city and the Caspian.I wouldn’t recommend walking during the summer, but in early November the climb warmed us up nicely. Look out for the distorted reflection of the city in the glass.
At least 60% of my photo album consists of the towers from a different angle, in different light, or with a different contrast. Juxtaposed against the mosque. Mirrored glass reflecting yellow sandstone. Sweeping curves over soviet blocks…
Heydar Aliyev Cultural Center
I could go on, but Zaha Hadid’s design for the Heydar Aliyev Cultural Center is even more breathtaking. A big white bubble plonked in the middle of a busy junction, a beacon of calm among the beeping and fumes. Its flowing curves are proof that a building does not have to be phallic to be impressive. Go Zaha.
Walking here from the Old Town seemed like a good idea in order to see some less touristy parts of the city, but I wouldn’t recommend it. Trying to find safe places to cross the tangle of motorway surrounding the center was pretty traumatic (but ultimately worth it!)
While the building is home to various exhibitions, including a collection of late leader Heydar Aliyev’s cars, the building itself is definitely the main attraction. Space-ship, skate-park, futuristic sex-toy or even giant cat head, every angle brings a new perspective. The front of the building is also a perfect vantage point for admiring the rest of Baku’s skyline, especially at sunset.
Azerbaijan Carpet Museum
In a competition for Baku’s most creative building, the carpet museum may be the underdog, but it’s definitely up there. Designed to look like a rolled up carpet, I’d have loved to have been a fly on the wall at the designers’ brainstorming session.
While it definitely draws attention to a museum that conventionally wouldn’t bring in the crowds, its curved walls aren’t exactly well thought out as far as the exhibition is concerned. Nevertheless the museum is interesting and also has a great restaurant (Xalca)…With a red carpet entrance!
B is for…Baku
It’s a cliché but Baku is definitely a blend of East and West. Not like the vibrant chaos of Istanbul, a more subtle blend. Balconies and boutiques lining the boulevard are distinctly Parisian (Dior, Delloyau and even Bistrot du Paris) while the smell of oil wafts off the Caspian.
Maiden’s tower, or Qiz Qalasi marks the beginning of the old town from the boulevard. From this point glass and marble fade into sandstone. Carpet shops and cats dominate here. The tower and the palace of the Shirvanshah’s (Azerbaijan’s old dynasty)are the main attractions and they have impressive interactive exhibitions and a Game of Thrones vibe.
Despite the rise in tourism it is refreshing to see an ‘old town’ retain authenticity and not become too gimmicky. Vendors are nowhere near as pushy as in other eastern countries. Expect random locals to stop and chat, and maybe even offer you tea!
Moving out of the old town, the National History museum tells you everything you need to know about the country (from their side, of course) and is housed in the former mansion of an oligarch. Their living quarters are exquisite, and give you an idea of the kind of wealth that oil brought the country.
In a similar vein, Port Baku lies to the east. And is definitely not a port. A complex of tower blocks including apartments and offices, a luxury shopping mall and restaurants…In short a little bubble in which expats can go about their lives whilst forgetting that they are actually in Azerbaijan.
Maybe this is why the city seems so empty. While its modern streets are spotless and orderly, they lack the bustle of a capital city. Starbucks is probably the most ambient spot during the day. I don’t want to use the word soulless, but I had the feeling that Baku was missing something. It seems like modernisation has pushed the city’s soul out of its heart.
C is for… Corruption
Despite signing the UN Convention against Corruption, it is still a big problem in a country where political opponents are routinely imprisoned. When Baku hosted the European Games in 2015, hoping it would raise their international profile, critics of the government seized the opportunity to voice their troubles. Most international media coverage focused on the country’s dirty little secrets. If they even covered the Games at all.
Amnesty international has reported several cases of journalists who are critical of the government being locked up on tenuous charges. The most high profile case of this kind was that of Khadija Ismayilova. The investigative journalist was incarcerated because she was about to spill the beans on the first family’s infamous use of the national oil company (SOCAR’s) superyachts. Their use costed an estimated 12$ million a year.
Agil Khalil was less fortunate still when investigating illegal land clearing by authorities. He was harassed and then stabbed by two men who were eventually identified as agents from the Ministry of National Security (So 1984!)
It comes as no surprise then that almost half of the country perceive the judiciary and the police force to be corrupt. It is well known that judges accept bribes or ‘facilitation payments’
On the surface efforts are being made to clean up the country, however like in most of the region, the culture of bribes or patronage is too deeply ingrained.The main problem is that there is no legal framework in place to protect employees who dare to report corruption. I actually heard about someone who works in procurement having a client complain to their boss because they refused to take a bribe!
On a darker note I also heard expats lamenting that it is far more difficult to bribe police officers these days. While this remark was probably tongue in cheek, it points to the fact that cleaning up the country is not in everyone’s best interests. The government have actually postponed negotiations to enter the World Trade Organisation in order to protect the interests of local oligarchs.
D is for…Driving
Ok so D should definitely stand for Dolma, but since I’ve already waxed lyrical about them in my post on Azeri food (link) you’re going to have to make do with Dangerous Drivers…
I’ve driven in a lot of places. Being half Greek, I’ve always thought of myself as having pretty thick skin when it comes to keeping my cool on foreign roads. I’ve kept it together on a moped in Ho Chi Minh, and even managed to fall asleep on Laotian mountain passes. But Baku is different.
Driving out of Baku in a hired car was one of the most stressful experiences of my life (and I was only the passenger /navigator!) Cars merge continuously, from all directions without indicating or even beeping. It’s like LA on acid. They double (or even triple) park on main boulevards causing hold- ups, if they’re lucky, and pile-ups if they’re not.
When we finally saw the open road we started cheering. However our spirits were soon dampened when the car rental clerk’s warnings started to sink in and we realised that there is actually a police car for almost every mile of road. Having heard horror stories of police corruption and hefty fines we played it safe and stuck to the speed limit for the whole 3 hour journey. Even when we were overtaken by Ladas that looked like scenes from Borat.
While driving was a great way to see a bit more of the country, with taxis/ drivers being so cheap, it’s almost not worth the stress. We paid around 30$ a day to rent a car (from Azcar at the Hilton) but took it back a day early and instead booked a taxi to visit Gobustan. The taxi cost 60 Manats (around 35$) and our English speaking driver doubled up as a very knowledgeable guide, even braving the treacherous road up to the mud volcanoes…
Stay tuned for E-Z! (Take it E-Z 😉 )
As is often the case in my life, before coming to Azerbaijan one of the main things I was excited about was the food. While I will always bitch about the Turks for putting mint in my Tzatziki, I can no longer deny my love of Eastern cuisine.
Staying in Baku and being sucked into the expat bubble, I was getting a little bit frustrated eating steak and sushi every night with all these undiscovered culinary delights on my doorstep (first world problems, I know.) Luckily, over the last few days I’ve had the opportunity to branch out a bit more and sample some local gems.
Here is a guide to some of my favourite Azeri treats.
Don’t tell the Greeks, but Azeri dolma is my new favourite thing. Vine-leaves stuffed with lamb, but with less rice than the Greek ones (or none at all) They’re so subtly aromatic and juicy and the natural (slightly ripe tasting) yoghurt goes perfectly with them. They’re often served in a little pot with a lid on, and dipping fresh bread into said pot is my new second favourite thing.
Even if this leaf-based omelette thing tasted like crap, I’d have to love it with a name like that. Luckily, it tastes amazing and is actually really good for you. More herby than a western omelette, Kuku is traditionally Iranian, and can also be made with potatoes or chicken. You’d have to be kükü not to love it!
Qutab are like little tacos, either filled with meat, greens, cheese or pumpkin. I first tried them from a little doorway vendor in the old town, and they are still my absolute favourite. People say there is camel meat in them, I’m pretty sure this is like an Australian drop-bear thing, but even if I have been eating camel all along, if this is what it tastes like then I’m OK with it.
Probably one of the most unappealingly named dishes in the history of the world (I think lobscouse may just about beat it to the post, go Wales!) I didn’t have high hopes for plov. Expecting some kind of gruely slop I was pleasantly surprised to be presented with a plate of rice cooked with apricots and lamb. The oil from the lamb and apricots stops the rice being too dry and the sweetness of the fruit really compliments the lamb. In Azerbaijan they have a special breed of sheep which has a big fatty sack (sounds fit, right?) and they traditionally put chunks of this fat in dishes to make them extra yummy. It may help to not think about what you’re eating. Alternatively, man up and accept that if you’re eating a dead animal in the first place you might as well be hung for a sheep as for a lamb.
I’m definitely not going to start debating the origins of baklava, but the Azeris spell it with a P and seem to eat quite a lot of it. For those of you unfamiliar with this eastern delight, it consists of layers of nuts and pastry drizzled in syrup, and unfortunately for my waist-line, it can be bought by the kilo…
Chai and jam
While I was doing my research for this trip, I read a famous Azeri saying ‘When you drink tea, you don’t count how many cups.’ While I didn’t really catch the proverbial element of the saying, I was sure that it meant I would feel right at home here.
As most Azeris are Muslim, even if they don’t practice, chai houses are far more popular than bars among locals . Traditional chai houses, like the kafeneion of Greece, are typically the male domain, and excepting the touristic cafes in Baku, women would not be allowed to enter.
Chai is served with sweet homemade jams, and often with a selection of paklava, dried fruit and nuts. I was intrigued by the little chocolate cubes we were served in a cafe on the boulevard, only to find that they were in fact portions of Mars bar!
Where to eat:
Cizz-Bizz in Baku’s old town ticks all the boxes. Squeezed in among tacky tourist restaurants, Cizz-Bizz is surprisingly cheap, and most importantly attracts a local crowd. The plov was incredible, and the service was not as bad as most places we visited. Order a variety of dishes and eat meze style.
Xalca is part of Baku’s new carpet museum and has a trendy bar vibe. I popped in for a glass of water and ended up staying for a feast. I did not regret it. Best dolma of the trip and great views of the boulevard. Funky Azeri mugham music was a little bit too loud, but definitely better than the Abba megamix that they changed it too, probably for our benefit!
Reigning down on lesser villages from an actual elevation of 1747, it seems the so called Courchevel 1850 is falling short of more than just 103m…
Atmosphere for a start…
While France is hardly renowned for the charm of its ski resorts, I have to say that I expected more from the ‘playground of the rich and famous’ than the grey, tired, purpose built blocks that greeted me upon my arrival to 1850. Arriving a week before the start of the season, I could have been forgiven for thinking that things would liven up in due course, however I soon came to realise that empty streets, and the feeling that something must be going on somewhere else, were the norm in what seemed to be more of a cemetery than a playground.
Having spent the previous winter in Alpe d’Huez, a smaller but infinitely livelier resort, the eerie calm on returning from the slopes after my first ride struck me as bizarre. Where were all the people? More importantly, where was the après?! For the first few days I searched in vain, roaming the town on a quest for wonderwall covers and pitchers of Mutzig. I quickly realised that all I was gaining for my efforts were dodgy looks and the dawning realisation that I’d just signed myself up for four months in purgatory.
After spending a few evenings nursing a glass of happy hour wine in the lovely- but- not-exactly- pounding Joe’s bar, I decided to bite the bullet and try the London-priced French bar l’Equipe. While I didn’t balk as much as my northern friend did at the prospect of 10€ for a spirit without a mixer, we certainly agreed that despite it being the liveliest place we’d discovered so far, this could not become a regular thing. Next on the trail was the Luge, a much more down to earth bar, bordering on normal if it weren’t for the fact that it was bizarrely placed in a shopping mall. It turned out that this placing wasn’t that strange after all, as the bar is marketed as ‘concept store, social life’ and is actually part of a shop selling everything you need to look like a try-hard on the slopes. While the staff were friendly and the dingy décor and ski videos made it almost feel like a seasonnaire bar, the fact that even the snowboards decorating the bar were for sale served as a constant reminder that everything in Courchevel 1850 has a price…
In one last desperate attempt to make a night of it, we decided to head to La Grange, the first nightclub to open for the season. While the posters plastered in the alley outside my room promised a seasonnaires welcome soirée, the bouncer’s expression suggested otherwise. As he gave me the once over with more sass than a high-school girl, he lingered disdainfully on my ski jacket and snow-boots before telling me that the club was full. By this point I was adamant that I wasn’t going anywhere, and proceeded to make his life difficult for the next twenty minutes as I slowly progressed from incredulous to enraged that I, as part of a group of young, not unattractive girls, was left to wait out in the cold, as a constant stream of middle aged and unsightly men were let into the apparently ‘full’ club. What was this parallel universe we found ourselves in? Eventually I think the bouncer either got sick of my shit, or realised that I was more of an eyesore in the entrance to the club than I would be hidden deep within its bowels and conceded defeat. We were in.
Having made it off the red carpet and into the club I had two instant realisations. The first was that there were more people in this room than I had seen so far in the whole of Courchevel. The second was that I was neither drunk enough nor rich enough to be there. There was not a scrap of ski gear in sight, and I was not about to pay the equivalent of a day’s wages to sip a drink under the withering gaze of girls with eating disorders. I had seen enough.
Time to branch out…
As well as the inauspicious greeting on the wall of my staff accommodation, (Welcom to hell, 666) my predecessor had also left me a clue in the form of a Funky Fox sticker left on my light fitting. After a quick google I learnt that the Fox was one the last bastions of seasonnaire life, promising cheap drinks, and fiiiiinally, live music. The only drawback was that the Fox, and as far as I could tell, anywhere else worth going, was down in 1650, or even lower. I also learnt that Courchevel 1850 used to have a great seasonnaire scene a few years ago, but pretty much all the reasonably priced bars had since been priced out by the arrival of the Russians and their luxury boutiques. While this did explain the disproportionate number of estate agents, I still struggled to grasp how this could have been allowed to happen, or more precisely, why.
Having quickly conceded that Courchevel was not even slightly my scene, (quelle surprise…) I resigned myself quite happily to what I thought would be a quiet season to focus on my writing and fitness. However, it wasn’t the prospect of an underwhelming social life that bugged me (and in fact, that wasn’t even slightly the case) but rather the fact that my hatred for everything Courchevel stood for grew by the day.
I don’t just mean the ridiculous wealth and lavishness. I obviously expected that. What really disturbed me were the attitudes held by the clients of our own infinitely more modest hotel (one of the only two stars’ in resort.) It actually broke my heart to see people eating pot noodles in their room just so they could say that they went to the same ski resort as Wills and Kate. People paying through their noses for a dingy room with no amenities when they could have been relaxing in a spa hotel in another resort for the same price. And what were they getting for their money? If they were expecting to be rubbing shoulders with the stars then they must have been bitterly disappointed. When people say Courchevel is exclusive they mean it, pretty much the only glimpse you get of the rich is when they totter out of Chanel straight into their chauffeured cars. And if you make it past the bouncers to have a cheeky browse then you’re far braver than I am.
I just couldn’t get my head around why anyone would want to come to Courchevel 1850. Yes, the mountains are amazing, but you can access them from any of the other villages in the Three Valleys, all of which are infinitely more ambient and far prettier. I can’t help but think that in going to Courchevel people aren’t paying over the odds for a special experience, but rather like in the designer boutiques that dominate its streets, they’re paying for the concept.
For our island-hopping escapade this summer, we decided to make the most of cheap Ryanair flights, and use Rhodes as a base for exploring the Dodecanese islands. Unfortunately for us however, that’s about as far as our trip planning went. With everyone being too busy with work/exams/life we just assumed everything would all fall into place, and ended up being thwarted big time by Greek ferry timetables…
Still, there are worse places to be stranded, right?
After walking around the crowded city for a whole afternoon, becoming borderline offensive with pushy restaurant touts, and finally conceding windswept defeat and leaving the underwhelming beach, we agreed that we could not stay put in Rhodes for another three days. Feeling the drop in morale and sensing the inevitable tensions that it would bring, I quickly suggested that we hire a car to explore the island.Being twenty-five didn’t seem so bad any more once I realised I could now hire a car for 30€ a the day…And after spending a few days blindly following people around Athens, I relished the freedom of literally being in the driver’s seat.
Making our way down the east coast we began to ask ourselves whether we had gone from the firepan into the fire, as the ugly towering blocks and seedy looking clubs of Faliraki prompted choruses and variations of ‘who on earth would come here on purpose?? Instead of the beautiful, winding sea road that Corfu has taught me to expect, we were on a highway to a very specific kind of hell, where a full English comes with a free shot of Sambuca and a side of chlamydia. (unfortunately for this post I wasn’t inspired to get my camera out)
Having persevered for about 50km, we were soon rewarded with the unique view of Lindos, a pretty impressive town/archaological site towering over a cluster of African looking white houses against a backdrop of blue sea. While it wasn’t exactly the island paradise we were searching for, it was certainly worth a frappé stop.
After heading a bit further down the coast, we decided to take a mountain road over to the other side of the island, which we were promised was undeveloped and a tourist free zone. We finally started to see the Rhodes that we had craved, the wild craggy mountains, olive groves, and the thick island air that you can almost taste. The landscape is semi African, with barren rivers and dusty rolling hill-sides, none of the verdure of the Ionian islands.
After dropping over to the west coast I took the first little dirt track down to the beach, a fairly anti-climactic stretch of greyish littered sand, but one of the most beautiful seas I’ve ever seen. I stripped off, not even waiting to change, and ran straight into the waves. I didn’t have time to feel the cold as I was thrown around, jumping in elation. The others waited on the beach, probably wondering what the hell I was doing, but I can’t describe how happy a rough sea makes me. It’s almost as if the energy of the waves recharges me.
It wasn’t really a place to hang out though, not without a bit of planning (which we’ve already established, is not our forté) so we decided to head to the most southernly part of the island, a little peninsla called Prasonisi. Here we finally found our paradise. A massive expanse of two bays, one for windsurfers and a rougher one for kite-boarders, linked by a little hill for hiking. While it was too windy to sit comfortably on the beach and perve, the hike to the top of the hill was well worth the view, and after scrambling back down the other side for about twenty minutes we were finally rewarded with the secluded beach paradise we’d been dreaming of…
Unfortunately for us, having spent most of the day trying to find our island paradise, we now had to head back to civilisation, and more worryingly, I had a Skype interview. I’ve always been inclined to consider no WiFi a plus when it comes to island paradises, but when it came to dragging everyone away from the beach I wasn’t so sure any more…
Anyway, the moral of this story (actually, this whole trip) is plan,plan,plan,plan,plan! I know it sucks the joy out of exploring, but with an island as big (and as charmless) as Rhodes, it definitely helps to do your research and to head straight for where you want to be, especially if you have a time limit. In this case I would have loved to have spent more time on Prasonisi, which also had a campsite and a few bars, and just a generally nice atmosphere. It all turned out well in the end though, I got the job in Colombia, and we ended the day with a terribly british night out in Rhodes…