Category Archives: travel

176. Ashtead Common 2 – a winter’s trail to spring

winter-dawn-epsom-downs-surrey-england-by-chilsta-flickr.jpgWinter drags in February. The lengthening evenings seem to pack a scary sharpness in their chill, and there’s an unexpected bleakness in these brightening days which makes me yearn for spring.

But it’s not the weather really. It’s my lack of patience for this place, which palls now with every passing week.

The soulless office above the shopping mall entombs me on shivering days like these. Days when inertia sucks the lifeblood of enthusiasm out from in me. Hours spent waiting for the gloom to lift and fall. Days when I don’t feel like running, and I wonder how I ever did.

epsom-crocus-by-osde-info-flickr.jpgThe crocuses in Epsom Park smile indulgently as I pass on my winter’s route towards the dry Chalk hills above the town. They remind me.
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174. The hidden history of Texas – on Buffalo Bayou, Houston, USA

texas-street-houston-usa-by-roadsofstone.jpgTexas.

So reads the street sign, and everything they say is true. The sky, the buildings, the cars, the winter weather – they all seem so much bigger here.

Downtown, early morning. A fading twilight was lifting above the Astrodome when I peered out through the curtains five minutes ago, and now it’s nearly daybreak.

The eastern horizon is promising cool and blue and cloudless – a perfect Texas dawn is calling. For now, Houston has a sleepy air, the metropolis still dappled and drowsy and awaiting the day.

If you want to know a city, just run through it streets, and look up and all around you. Breathe its atmosphere and history, and immerse your soul in the rush before your eyes.

Live a different life, for a few brief footsteps, and surrender your mind to the wanderings of your feet. Lose yourself.
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172. Kenya 5: on corruption and a crooked election

beach-crafts-kenya-august-2007.jpg‘Say No to Corruption,’ read the badge on the immigration officer’s sleeve at Mombasa airport. Drawing our attention to the issue, right from the moment when we entered the country.

Kenya’s president from 1978 to 2002, Daniel arap Moi, was widely detested for corruption and political oppression. During his term, Kenya slipped from the 133rd to the 155th country in the world in economic prosperity. There might not be that many more countries.

Moi’s successor, Mwai Kibaki, was elected on an anti-corruption ticket – hence the badge campaign in Mombasa. But when I asked Kenyans during our visit what they thought of Kibaki – they were unanimous. ‘He’s the same as all the others,’ they said. ‘Corrupt, just like the rest of them.’

Yesterday’s declaration of Kibaki as victor in the Kenyan elections, despite a string of exit polls indicating firmly that he had lost to Raila Odinga, serves only to confirm that view.

Corruption. It might be Africa’s biggest problem. Certainly it’s the one trotted out by people who don’t want to help the continent. ‘There’s no point giving money, or aid,’ they say. ‘It’s unlikely to end up with those who need it.’

But this trip, I began to understand corruption, just a little. Not the kind of barefaced electoral swindle which threatens the whole practice of democracy, but rather the day-to-day variety. The siphoning off the top of just a little, and then more and more goods and money, so that finally they don’t arrive at all.

Why do people do it, and how can they so mindlessly deprive the needy ? That’s something I’d never come close to comprehending before.
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171. A splash of Burgundy in winter

blue-sky-through-the-trees-epsom-december-by-i-am-jae-at-flickrdotcom.jpgThe sun is wan and thin today, struggling weakly to light the path around the park as I lope my way through the winter afternoon on this, the shortest day.

Christmas is just around the corner.

In Ashtead Woods, near the famous Epsom Wells, my footsteps fall silent among the leaves. The track is lined here with silver birch trees, stripped bare to show glimpses of greyed out sky behind. A still and unforgiving air is rushing past my face. I hear the rhythm of my breathing, and nothing more.

I let my mind fall empty. And dream of a frozen hillside, in another season.

* * * * *

The frost is on the ground – shining sheaves of white splashed on the grass beside the road. It’s late October, dawn. With chilly hands stuffed inside my sleeves, I’m fighting up a steeply rising lane.

At this early hour, my stiff legs are unexcited about the slope. My heavy stomach and a thickened head recall a feast of French food and wine consumed in happier hours just a thirsty, restless sleep behind me.

burgundy-france-hillside-dawn-october-2007.jpgA curve sweeps ahead atop the climb, and I strive to meet it, counting out each breath and gasping in my exertion.

Twenty, thirty – forty – my feet keep turning, and at last I crest the ridge to greet an unexpected dazzling sunlight where yellow leaves are exploding from the vines.
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169. Down tracks and cracks in Paris and London – Tate Modern and the 1812 from Waterloo

waterloo-eurostar-station-by-jan-hanford-on-flickrdotcom.jpgRain. River. November. On the long-awaited day that Paris came closer to London.

As I step on to the platform under a damp grey sky, there’s a farewell party in full swing around the station.

After thirteen years, the last Eurostar will depart here in a few hours’ time. And in the morning, when the first train arrives at a gleaming new St Pancras across the Thames, Paris will be just two hours and fifteen rail minutes from London.

Fog in the Channel – Continent Isolated’. So read the famous newspaper headline of yore. Not any more. This rapprochement is almost complete.
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168. Kenya 4: on the orphanage, and AIDS

village-kids-kenya-2007-by-roadsofstone.jpgThe loss of one parent is traumatic enough, for any child. The loss of both must be almost unbearable.

At home, it happens rarely. But in Kenya, it happens a whole lot more.

The reasons ? Simple enough. There isn’t enough food to go round. There’s little medical care to speak of. Just about everyone has to battle with malaria, and malnutrition. Sickness and diarrhoea from unclean water dispatch thousands more, every year.

But that’s only the surface of the problem. Because there’s a huge medical problem in Africa. AIDS. It’s killing millions here.
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