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Home from home

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“When are you going home?” asked a friend. They meant Guyana not London. I was temporarily back in the UK after six months in South America. Up until I’d left in February – apart from holidays and a few longer stays – I’d lived my whole life in the UK. So how is this now home? But I got what they meant.

Growing up with a parent from overseas, especially when that country is foremost in their mind, a part of you is forever somewhere else.

For some people, that’s somewhere else is concrete and real. They regularly travel there (and not just for funerals). They speak the language (or can at least understand when they’re being bad-mouthed). They know the landscape (or as far as their protective family will allow). They can describe their favourite local dishes (and maybe even make them).

For others, like me, it’s a bit more abstract. I first came to Guyana at the ripe old age of 26. And then it was just for a week or so – part of a wider trip through Suriname and French Guiana to Brazil, then briefly back to GT.

My knowledge of Guyana had been cobbled together from stories my dad and aunts used to tell; rare visits to Queen’s College alumni events; discovering the works of Martin Carter, Edgar Mittleholzer, Grace Nichols et al; the occasional titbit at a Guyanese food stall in Brixton or a ‘cultural’ festival (ginips, sugar cane and watery shave ice, usually).

When someone asked: “Where are you from? No, where are you really from?” (i.e. You’re clearly not white. Explain) I would say, “My father is Guyanese and my mother is English”. But beyond explaining where Guyana is (or correcting them when they suddenly started talking about West Africa) there wasn’t much I could add.

So coming to Guyana for an indefinite period was daunting. What was I letting myself in for? Would I just feel out of place? Would I be the weird oddball for choosing a freelance, nomadic existence over being married with children by 30? Would I miss the hectic London pace of life? Would I feel lonely? Would people ask, why are you here?

Yes, at times. But I’ve also been able to discover Guyana on my own terms, in my own way. And having moved so many times in my life, ‘home’ is quite a fluid concept for me. Throw a few pictures on the wall, put on some music, brew a pot of coffee, and it feels like home.

When my sister came to visit, she said: “I couldn’t picture where you were before, now I can… and I understand why you stayed”. Some people assume it’s the sun (and rum) that draws me back. Others (far too many) assume it’s a mystery man. I tell them, ‘It’s true, I’ve fallen in love… with Guyana.” [Cue eye roll from any Guyanese readers who’ve made it this far].

On the plane back to GT, I watched the film Brooklyn, which is about an Irish girl relocating to New York in the 1920s. I picked it purely because I’d read somewhere that Saoirse Ronan, as well as having an amazing name, is fantastic in the lead role. But it turned out to be the perfect choice.

Within about five minutes I had tears running down my cheeks, as Eilis (Ronan) stood on a ship bound for America, waving goodbye to her sister and mum. I couldn’t help but think about the day before: waving goodbye to my parents as their bus left the stop. Giving my nephew one last hug before dropping him at school. Seeing my sisters and friends and brightly saying, “See you next year!” It’s not quite the same as waving goodbye forever, like in Brooklyn, but parting is always bittersweet. Even when you have WhatsApp.

So now I’m back ‘home’. This other home. I don’t know if this ting I’ve got going with Guyana is a fling. Are we dating? Are we in a relationship? Where is this going?

STOP!

Enough with the over analysing. Guyana is not a man – thank goodness. But right now, it’s where I lay my hat. So I guess it must be home.

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Five ways to do Iwokrama on a (kind of) budget

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Located right in the heart of Guyana’s vast rainforest, Iwokrama River Lodge is not a cheap holiday destination. In fact ‘Your prices seem expensive’ even makes the Frequently Asked Questions list on the resort/scientific research centre’s website.

Recently I heard of someone being quoted US$2,000 for a visit, which is far, far more than what I paid on a recent visit with my sister. So how can you do Iwokrama on a budget? Here are a few money-saving tips:

      1. Go by bus. You can get to Iwokrama by plane (then car), private vehicle or bus. Unsurprisingly the latter is the cheapest option. Single minibus trips from Georgetown to Lethem cost in the region of Gy$10,000, but if you shop around you may be able to find cheaper. Try to bargain the price down too on the grounds you’re only going as far as the Iwokrama Ranger Station, just over the Kurupukari Crossing. (Read more in my other blog on taking the bus to Lethem.)

 

  • Don’t stay in a cabin. Unless you read the blurb carefully, you may not realise that Iwokrama’s cute but pricey riverside cabins are not the only accommodation on offer. There’s also the Research Building and Training Rooms. And the prices are considerably less:

 

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So what is the cheaper accommodation like? My sister and I stayed in the Training Rooms, and found them to be basic but comfortable and clean – with mosquito netting on the windows. See my very poor camera pics below for a rough idea:

3. Pick and choose your meals carefully…
Breakfast, lunch and dinner are all available at Iwokrama – but as they’re charged for separately you don’t have to have them all. Breakfast is $12, which seems a bit steep for what we had: some slightly chewy toast and egg. What I’d recommend is coming with some fruit, a bag of tennis rolls and a jar of peanut butter, having this for your breakfast (and maybe lunch too, which is $18) and enjoying the much more satisfying $20 dinner.

4. …and your activities
As with your meals, you can ‘order’ whatever tour activities you like, from a boat ride on the rapids to a walk up Turtle Mountain. Note: the prices are based on two people taking part in the activity, so if you’re going on your own you’ll end up paying more (unless you can find another traveller to buddy up with and share the cost).

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Because you can design your own schedule, you can choose the activities that fit within your budget. One thing to consider is the time of year you’re visiting and if the price will be value for money. If it’s rainy season, for example, the river will be high so you may not see the petroglyphs. Or if you’re arriving at Iwokrama on the bus from Lethem at 6am, once you’ve offloaded your stuff and driven the 1.5 hour journey it may be too late to do the Canopy Walkway – dawn or dusk seems to be the optimum time to catch the birds, monkeys and other wildlife. Also be warned: the Canopy Walkway rate in the table above doesn’t include transportation to the site, which is hefty $125.

5. Ask about special offers
Iwokrama’s explanation of its high prices (follow link at top of blog) mentions different offers available to visitors: discounted rates for Guyanese nationals and a “30% off season discount to all guests”. So make sure you ask about these discounts before confirming your booking.

One final (and slightly contradictory) point to make is: if you can afford it, pay it. Don’t be cheap just for the sake of it. Iwokrama is a unique, vital project that is increasing the world’s knowledge of rainforest biodiversity, and seems to be proving that you can manage a rainforest, converse wildlife and support local people in a sustainable way. Your visit (and dough) is keeping that going. How many holidays are that rewarding for everyone concerned? Plus it’s not everyday you get to hang out in the middle of a rainforest, so try to fit in as much as your time and pocket allows while you’re there.

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What to know before you take the bus to Lethem

 

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When you’re planning a trip into the interior of Guyana, the number one question is often: bus or plane? Money plays a big part – but there’s the whole ‘experience’ factor to think about too. And time.

In a bid to show off the jewels of Guyana’s interior to my visiting sister, I took her last week to Lethem and Iwokrama – by bus.

Telling people of our plans, a few asked: what’s the bus journey actually like? So I thought I’d share my experiences and tips. Because, as I found out during the trip: if you don’t ask, no one is going to tell you.

Think about what season you’re going in

When I went to Lethem in March for the Rupununi Rodeo, the journey was long and bumpy but not unbearably so. Travelling last week, in early August, the road was a nightmare – covered in potholes, ditches of water and muddy red clay. The drivers had to skilfully weave their way around these obstacles, so we were swerving and bumping the entire journey (well, from the second we came off the smooth asphalt road in Linden). At one point the driver actually got out and waded through a puddle to see if it was passable.

So, if you have a choice about when to visit the interior, think about whether you want to go in wet or dry season. And not just in terms of the bus journey. For example, during the dry season the waterfalls of Lethem (Moca Moca etc) may well be dried out. While during the wet season many animals and birds may prefer sheltering from the rain than parading round for you to admire and photograph them.

The Easter-time rodeo is definitely worth a visit – either the main Rupununi Rodeo or the lesser-known one in Sand Creek, which apparently is smaller but a bit wilder. September is also a good month to venture into the interior as it’s Amerindian Heritage Month in Guyana, so there should be lots of activities going on and more opportunities to visit Amerindian villages. September is also fruiting month (or something like that) according to one of the staff at Iwokrama, so a popular time for hardcore birders to visit.

Don’t expect to stick to your schedule

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When I went into the interior in March, we left Georgetown around 6.30pm and were in Lethem by about 8am – if memory serves correctly. A journey of about 13.5 hours – including a bit of waiting time at Kurupukari (the pontoon river crossing by Iwokrama River Lodge). But when we went to Lethem last week, it took 18 hours to get to Lethem – this time with two hours before the Kurupukari crossing. This was mostly due to the state of the roads (see video above), made almost impassable by rain, buses, logging lorries and poor maintenance.

There are various other factors that can affect your journey time too: when you leave Georgetown (there might be traffic, late passengers, lots of bags to pack onto the bus); how fast the driver goes (one girl on the bus was complaining about a slow driver who she now avoids going with); how long you stay at the rest stops; and if anything happens to the bus (on the way back we had a puncture and another stop when a tree branch got caught under the bus).

The Kurupukari crossing is also a bit of a scheduling roadblock. Because it doesn’t open till 6am, you have to wait on the other side of the river until the pontoon is in action. The crossing also caught us out on the way back from Lethem. My plan was to leave Lethem on Wednesday late afternoon and arrive at Iwokrama by nightfall. I told this plan to the booking agent at Iwokrama. I repeated it to the bus agents. No one mentioned anything was wrong with it.

Then on the night before we were due to leave, we invited our GT-Lethem bus driver for a drink and he happened to mention that our plan wasn’t going to work. Huh? Turns out, because the bus leaves at 5pm it doesn’t make it to the Kurupukari crossing before the 6pm closure. So everyone has to spend the night at a roadside bus stopping near to Surama, where you can hire a hammock for Gy$500 and hang it up next to some heavily snoring men for a few hours of restless sleep (I think rooms are available too, but we were trying to be cheap).

I don’t know if other bus companies leave before 5pm (we went with P&A on Church Street), but it could be worth checking if you’re planning on going from Lethem to Iwokrama by bus.

Check the cost of travel carefully

A flight from Ogle to Lethem is Gy$25,000 (one way). Going by bus is generally $10,000 – more than half the cost, making it the cheapest option. Although do factor in the cost of all those snack stops, hammock rentals… it can add up. Though not quite to the Gy$15,000 difference between plane and bus, obviously.

I thought P&A’s Gy$10,000 one-way fare was standard, but en route I saw two other companies advertising cheaper return fares. There was Carly’s Bus Service, whose poster boasted ‘Lethem to G/Town cost low as $18,000 return. And BD Express (apologies for the poor photo), which topped that: offering return trips for Gy$17,000 – including ‘free refreshment at Kurupukari’. Lovely.

Another thing to mention here is the cost of going the shorter distance from Lethem to Iwokrama. We were given a bus ticket ‘from Lethem to Georgetown’ and assumed we could jump off the bus at Iwokrama, then resume the journey on another bus a few days later. Not so. This is where the: ‘if you don’t ask, we’re not going to tell you’ bit comes in. So apparently because we didn’t ask, we had to pay Gy$10,000 to go from Lethem to Iwokrama and then the same again to go from Iwokrama to GT. The bus service rep was unapologetic on the phone: the money we’d paid had gone to the first driver, now we had to pay the second driver. And what could we do? We were stuck in the middle of the rainforest. We had no choice but to pay.

Talking to some other drivers on the way back, I figured out that we could have bargained a lower price. One suggested Gy$7,000 from Lethem to Iwokrama – which might have been an overestimate estimate, but was still considerably cheaper. From Iwokrama to Georgetown, you could again try to negotiate a price in advance – or just turn up at the Iwokrama police checkpoint at 6am when the buses arrive, ready to cross on the pontoon, and see if any of the buses have a spare seat.

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Pack wisely

I don’t know if there’s an added cost for extra baggage on the bus, but some people travel with a lot. I saw suitcases, a bicycle, trays of chirping chicks, cardboard boxes… Most belongings can be stored behind the last row of seats at the back of the bus, with the bulkier items going on top of the bus, with the spare gas and tyres. A tarpaulin is put over everything in case it should rain.

In terms of your carry-on bag, you just need the basics:

  1. Passport/ID card: You’ll need it handy for the police checks en route.
  2. Water + snacks: There are stop-offs on the way, but it’s cheaper, easier and more environmentally friendly to bring your own re-useable bottle and pre-made/bought food. It’s also quite nice to bring something like sweets or biscuits to share with your fellow passengers. I’ve found Brazilian travellers in particular like to hand round whatever they have, so you might want to bring something to offer in return.
  3. Sweater/cardigan: The minibuses to Lethem rely on open windows for fresh-air and coolness – though there was a promise of AC on my bus to Lethem in March (in the end it didn’t really work). I found myself feeling a little chilly at one point, so it might be worth keeping a warmer layer handy.
  4. Neck support: On the journey to Lethem, my sister later told me she was in hysterics watching my head jerk and flop around as I attempted to sleep through the minibus road aerobics. Waking up at one point with a start, I thought I’d given myself whiplash for a second. I’ve never actually tried an airplane-style neck support but Ir reckon it’s worth a try. If you try to lean your head on the side of the bus you’ll probably get concussion. And accidentally resting your head on your neighbours shoulder may not always get the polite shove I got from my new Brazilian friend in March.

Choose a good seat

In preparation for this blog, which I started thinking about doing en route, I tried to make a theatre-seating-style assessment of the best seats in the house. I didn’t try all seats so this is a bit unscientific, but just my preference of where to settle your behind for the long ride ahead:

First prize goes to… the front seat. There are lots of reasons why it’s good to ride shotgun. You’re next to the driver, so have plenty of time to gaff – as well as the potential of being able to influence his music choice (I say ‘his’ as I didn’t see one female GT-Lethem driver, but could be wrong…). You’re also in prime position to see the forest as you ride through, and are likely to spot birds, the odd agouti, maybe even an ant-eater or (if you’re really lucky) a jaguar. You’re not squashed by anyone next to you (unless it’s a three-seat row) and have relatively good leg room.

Second prize goes to… The far-left seat, two rows back from the front. Why? Three reasons: You’re not in the middle seat; you have a bit of extra leg room because of the way the floor drops by the door; and you can control how open the window is (unlike with the ‘conductor’ seat in front)

Third prize goes to… The far-right seat, two rows back from the front. For the same reasons above – apart from the extra leg room bit.

In my opinion the middle seat doesn’t give you enough support and leaves you open to the risk of sleeping on your neighbour’s shoulder. Front front-row seats have that weird high and low flooring, which kind of gives you different options to put your feet but can be a bit annoying. I didn’t try the back seats but they look cramped and claustrophobic.

The worst seat in the house goes to… the middle seat in the front row. As well as being a middle seat, there’s a bit annoying lump on the floor, which means you have very little leg room.

So all in all, taking the bus from Georgetown into the interior is something of an endurance feat, and definitely worth doing – if only for the stories. If you can afford to, you might want to take the bus in and fly back, in case you’re too traumatised on the way down. But really, it’s not that bad. And as they say about life, it’s all about the journey – not the destination.

Do you have any tips from your GT-Lethem journey? Or know of any other companies running this bus route? Feel free to add your comments in the box below.

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11 Things to Know Before Coming to Guyana for the Golden Jubilee

Image courtesy Government of Guyana
2016 Republic Day celebrations (image courtesy Government of Guyana)

Dear impending visitor to Guyana,

Congratulations!

You have been accepted to be one of the thousands… hundreds… tens… (who knows) of people touching down in Guyana for our Golden Jubilee celebrations. This joyous occasion marks 50 years since we kicked the colonisers out with a flea in their ear (and potfuls of gold and sugar in their pockets. Probably).

But there are a few things you should know before you disembark at Cheddi Jagan International Airport (and not just that bids are open for a restaurant/bar at the terminal. Personally I’m hoping for a gourmet egg ball and pine tart stand, with rum on tap).

1. Not everyone is as excited about the celebrations as you are: You’re thrilled to be in Guyana for its historic 50th anniversary. The bunting! The flag raising! The lengthy speeches! You can’t wait. But remember everyone in Guyana has been hearing all about the ‘Jubilee Celebrations’ for months and months, and while many are looking forward to the party – a lot are sick of the whole damn thing. One journalist is even advocating boycotting the whole thing. Market traders are pissed off at being shunted around at short notice for the big clean up, so it all looks pretty for when you arrive. Budgets have been diverted from other much-needed projects. And, according to one outraged minibus conductor, “chineyman now charging $300 for a flag”. So if you see someone rolling their eyes as you rave about this historic occasion, don’t take it personally.

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Improvement works at Stabroek Market last week

2. Everyone’s banking on a Jubilee bonus – from you: Whether it’s buying a $500,000 bottle of 50-year El Dorado from DDL Diamond Distillers or a Golden Arrowhead hat from a souvenir stand, a lot of business people are hoping you’ll be feeling in a spending mood on this visit. And your contributions matter. So patronise local shops, restaurants and bars; buy locally produced produce and crafts; stock up on gifts for your family back home (Guyana-themed Christmas anyone?), go to shows and other events on the official calendar, and put a few smiles on people’s faces (and dollars in their pockets).

3. Be safe, not sorry: You don’t need to be warned twice about security in Guyana… but you will be. Many, many times. Crime is the number one topic of conversation for Guyanese in the diaspora and here in Guyana. Be sensible and heed the warnings. Book your cab rather than flag one down; don’t wear expensive or flashy jewellery; put your wallet away before leaving the shop or bank; don’t wave your phone or gadgets around in public; don’t walk alone at night; wipe the top of your bottle of beer before downing it… you know the drill. But don’t be so paralysed by fear you don’t do anything. Leave the valuables at home, walk confidently and explore. Otherwise you may as well have stayed at home and watched it on TV.

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4. Know what NOT to wear: If you’re not very familiar with Guyana, you may think: South America + coast + sunshine = flipflops, shorts and vests. That’s fine, but be prepared to be turned away if that’s all you pack. Because Georgetown likes nothing better than a dress code. No short sleeves, no shorts, no short skirts… The first time I visited Guyana I was turned away from the National Library twice – once for inappropriately short sleeves, another time for wearing shorts. I’ve been known to walk with a cardigan and leggings to whip on, just in case… At least those trousers and long-sleeved tops will come in handy of an evening when mosquitoes are in full attack mode.

5. No one has change: You’ve been the the ATM, have a wallet of crisp $5,000 notes, and voila you’re sorted for the rest of your stay. Except you won’t get far. Few people, in my experience, have change for such a sum – from taxi drivers to market traders. So whenever you’re in a supermarket, restaurant or bar, take the opportunity to get some smaller $20, $100, $500 and $1000 bills.

6. Guyana does not end at Georgetown: If you have the time and money, do yourself a favour and bugger off. Guyana is not GT. There are so many other places to discover and things to do: lime on Parika beach, watch the boats on Bartica, spot caiman at Irokrama, encounter real-life cowboys in Lethem, fly over Kaiteur Falls, practise your Portuguese at the Brazil-Guyana border, speed up the Essenquibo… see the beauty of Guyana. Then go home and tell everyone about it.

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On the way to the blue lake in Linden

7. Photography is a privilege not a right: Visitors taking photos is a bit of a thorny issue for some Guyanese attractions – the National Museum, for example – in that they don’t let you snap a thing. Maybe there’s something to be said for visiting a museum of gallery and engaging with the works instead of just snapping them, but sometimes there’s an image or detail you really want to remember – or would love to share with others – but can’t. I’m not sure what the thinking is behind it. There are endless photos of most of the world’s biggest tourist destinations, but you don’t see anyone saying, “Well, I’m not going to the Taj Mahal/London Eye/Louvre because I’ve seen a photo of it.”

8. Sometimes it’s best to listen and nod: In Guyana, one of the main things people like to talk about is race. About their racial heritage. About yours. About the differences between the races in Guyana. “You’ll find Afro-Guyanese are more friendly,” a taxi driver told me on my last visit, the instant we drove away from the airport. “Indians are more likely to save their money.” “Light-skinned is seen as beautiful.” (I’m selecting the milder comments). But don’t be too offended or shocked. Despite this racial consciousness and stereotyping, Guyanese people also seem proud to call themselves the land of six peoples, and look into many people’s family albums here and you’ll probably find a mixture of Indian, African, European and Amerindian ancestors.

9. The sun is hot: No kidding, I hear you say. But I’m serious. This is no average summer’s day in London or New York, the sun will scorch you if you insist in wandering around in a vest top and shorts. And this is not just for the white visitors prone to going red quicker than you can say ‘lobster’. I’ve done it myself: exploring on foot, under the blazing sun. I still do sometimes. But now I bring an umbrella, try to remember to slap on some sunscreen, or just don’t venture out in the high sun. Keep hydrated (you’re never far from a water vendor or a coconut stall). And remember, it’s rainy season now too so that umbrella has a dual purpose.

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10. Zika is more common than you think: “There have been seven confirmed cases of Zika,” I heard a TV news anchor announce the other night. And then the rest, I thought. Guyana doesn’t actually have the facilities to check for Zika, so samples must be sent to Trinidad and Tobago – and I hear there’s a serious backlog. I know a handful of people who’ve probably had Zika – myself included – and just did the recommended thing: rest, drink a lot of water and wait for the symptoms to pass. Maybe this is being far too blasé about it, but when you’re in Zika-territory somehow it seems less of a scary monster (unless you’re pregnant, I can imagine). And I think with Dengue, Chikungunya, Malaria and more all up for grabs, Zika is the least of your worries. So pack your mosquito spray and hope for the best. Sorry.

11. Don’t tell a single story: “You think everything about Guyana is nice!” I’m probably the only person who’s been accused of this. Everyone loves to put Guyana down. Especially Guyanese people themselves, I’ve found. It’s true, there’s a lot to fix. But focusing only on the bad parts isn’t motivating. So for every bad thing you tell your friends back home about Guyana, try to say one positive thing too. “The crime is out of control… but there’s now 4G so we can upload photos of our robbed house so much faster.” Then maybe more people will want to invest in Guyana, trade with Guyana, come live in Guyana and help Guyana. Be the change you want to see, as they say. Donate to a charity doing good works. Raise money to buy equipment for Guyana’s hospitals. Fund a student through university. Send books. Start companies to employ people. Import Guyanese-made products.  Support sustainable projects to protect Guyana’s rainforests. Adopt a jaguar. Whatever. Just do something, so at least you can say: well, I tried.

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Do you speak foreigner?

Foreigner English ˈfȯr-ə-nər ˈiŋ-glish

n. When an English person mimics the accent or grammatical structure of another language to help them connect with its native speakers (or to hide the fact that they don’t know the language).

Case in point: footballer Joey Barton and manager Steve McLaren (yes, they are both English – not French and Dutch):

Listening to the recording of one of the interviews for my oral-history project, Guyana50.org, I heard myself asking the interviewee: ‘So yuh mudda would sell tings [at the market]?” The lady in question was struggling to understand me, so I subconsciously shifted my way of speaking in an attempt to make myself better understood.

It’s not the first time I’ve done it. After a while dating a guy from Spain, my good friend informed me that I appeared to be speaking “Foreigner English“. At the extreme, saying things like “We go shop?” – or just adding “no?” to the end of sentences. Ironically it was only when I went away to Brazil for a month and was speaking Portuguese most of the time that I regained my fluency in my mother tongue. I forgot all about Foreigner English and reverted to plain old English. When I got back, they were both amazed that I was so chatty. “You’re like a different person!”

Thinking about it now, I’d attribute this rediscovery of my own voice to the fact that in Brazil I was distinguishing between English and Portuguese, two very different languages – whereas at home it was between English and English-as-a-Spanish-language. My Foreigner English has come back in Guyana because once again the languages (Guyanese Creole and Standard English) have many words in common and so are harder to compartmentalise.

There is, I learned in an interesting seminar at the University of Guyana (UG) the other day, a sliding scale between the basiltect (the rural, ‘deep’ version of Guyanese Creolese) and the acrolect (the urban, version of Creolese – more aligned to Standard English).

Some researchers have even mapped this scale. Below is the phrase ‘I gave him one‘ (UK readers, please get your minds out of the gutter) rendered in 18 different variations (from Bell 1976, via Wikipedia). I don’t really understand phonetic spelling but it’s pretty interesting.

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Anyhow, point is, instead of switching between two distinct languages, people move across the scale depending on who they’re talking to and where. So when people in Guyana are talking to me, someone from England, they will move as close as they can to the acrolect. For some people this is no problem at all – perhaps those who grew up in a Standard English-speaking home or who have studied overseas. For others it’s unnatural and something they have to do consciously, even with serious concentration.

The other day, I heard a Guyanese academic recounting the difficulties of making small talk in England. The effort to not speak Creolese made the conversation feel unnatural. Another friend recently spoke apologetically of “mixing up my Creolese” when speaking to me. Even the President, before giving his speech at a press conference the other day, apologised in advance for his pedantic language: “I learned that medium is singular and media is plural, so excuse me when I say ‘The media are’ rather than ‘the media is’.” (I paraphrase, didn’t note his exact words). Was he trying to show off his grasp of the intricacies of Standard English or pre-emptively quash any sense that he’s being a linguistic snob and grammar Nazi?

As far as I know, Guyanese people don’t expect English visitors to speak Creole, because we both speak ‘English’ right? So why does the Guyanese speaker not understand everything the English speaker says, and visa versa? Because they’re not necessarily both speaking Standard English – the Guyanese person may actually be speaking Creolese.

Guyana, we’re told, is an English-speaking country – the only one on the continent. Yet, depending on their social or family background, someone in Guyana may easily have grown up speaking only Creolese at home, with friends and even in the classroom. They may rarely have heard or engaged in speaking Standard English while growing up (beyond films, music etc). Yet they’re expected to suddenly talk Standard English when they meet a speaker of that language, and to the same proficiency? I’ve been speaking Standard English my whole life, but who expects me to suddenly speak Creole on entering the country?

I’d like to be able to. Put me in the middle of a conversation with two people speaking Creolese and I won’t understand everything. Sometimes anything. So I’m missing out on a huge part of the Guyanese experience and conversation. It’s a definite loss, both for me and for the Guyanese people who don’t speak Creolese either (they exist). Because the language seems so expressive and lively.

So for now, until I am more familiar with Creolese, I find myself trying to make myself understood in certain situations by changing my accent slightly, adopting new Guyanese words like ‘gaff’ (a great word meaning to chat, gossip, catch jokes with someone) or ‘high’ (instead of drunk), and sometimes shifting the order of my words. My sisters have also noticed Guyanese noises of assent and agreement creeping in my voice when I speak on the phone. I say ‘morning’ with an exaggerated ‘r’. When I call out a bus stop, I try to change how I speak to sound less conspicuous. “NEXT CORNER!” I shout. I tried it out on some friends. “You sound Jamaican” they chuckled. Goodness knows what the other passengers think. I imagine them collapsing into fits of laughter the minute the minibus drives off. Should I stop trying to meet people halfway? Is it more authentic to speak in your own voice or in a way that people around you understand?

When you hear someone changing their way of speaking to match another’s, I have to admit it comes across as a bit patronising. But I think chameleoning (I’ve just make that up) and switching between languages shows sensitivity. You just have to be careful to distinguish between the different languages you’re using, or you could end up losing or colouring your natural speech or mother tongue.

At the same UG seminar, one participant reflected on hearing a teacher in Jamaica switch between Jamaican Creole and Standard English. “It was beautiful to see,” he said, several times, in awe of the woman’s ability to seemlessly slide between the languages as the occasion or situation demanded.

I think that’s a pretty good goal. Who wants to see Creolese die out and be replaced by Standard English alone? Maybe some Guyanese do. But I don’t think you have to kill one to preserve and elevate the other. No?

[Featured image: Roland Tanglao, via Flickr/Creative Commons]

blog · Uncategorized

The only white person for miles

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At the blue lake in Linden, Guyana

You’ve probably heard it. You may have even said it yourself, breathless with excitement after a trip to an ‘exotic’ travel destination: “I was the only white person for miles!” It’s always niggled for me because I think:

  1. Why is that an achievement?
  2. Do you really mean to say: you were the only foreigner?
  3. If it’s number 2, how do you know? Maybe there was someone from the same town as you back home but they just happen to look like a local.

I thought about this again when travelling to Lethem for the Rupununi Rodeo. A friendly (white, European) couchsurfer invited me to join her and her friends. “Just look for two pickups full of white people!” she joked in her text. I laughed. And it was true – that’s exactly what I found. But once I joined them, what were they then? Two pickups full of white people – and one brown girl? Later one of the group joked about how the “whiteys” should take on the locals in a game of tug-of-war, and I guessed they’d either forgotten I was there, or white was being used interchangeably to mean foreigner.

It’s a curious phenomenon to observe. When a white, European traveller lands into a place where he/she is no longer in the majority, and is suddenly confronted by and super-aware of their colour – something they probably take for granted as the norm most of the time. And it is. In the UK, for instance, 87.2% of the population is White British.

It always makes me think back to the time I went to a club in the UK and my group of friends wanted to leave because they felt out of place, being the only white people is a crowd of black and Asian faces. Never mind that I was one of those non-white faces, or that I frequently found myself in the reverse situation.

Of course being non-white is the norm elsewhere. I once met a poet from Botswana who remembered being stopped at an airport with a friend from the US. This friend was fuming, assuming they’d been pulled over for being black. The poet was amused because she’d assumed it was because they were cute and the security guard was hitting on them. Being black wasn’t her first identifier, because it was the norm in her country.

For me, being of mixed English-Guyanese heritage, identification is often taken out of my hands and is open to interpretation depending on where I am. “Red woman” called a random man in the street in Guyana the other day (I discovered later this means a mix of African and European heritage). “Obruni!” (or ‘white person’) some children used to shout in greeting in Ghana. In Brazil, Spain and countless other places I’ve taken to be a local. Yet in England (even London) I’m assumed to be foreign and constantly asked ‘Where are you from?’

To be honest, I’m over this foreigner/local distinction. The world is not that black-and-white any more. We travel prodigiously, live abroad, eat food from around the globe, watch films in other languages… So I’m always uncomfortable when I run into signs of the old divisions and hierachies. Like when people in Guyana tell me, “You’ll be ok because you’re a foreigner”, “I think so-and-so was trying to show you off as their English friend!” Or when I see young, white travellers decked (non-ironically) in khaki shorts, white shirt and panama hat – looking for all the world like new-age colonialists and all-too quickly slipping into the old dynamic as they unquestioningly lap up the deference and privileges they’re still given in some countries.

And, as much as I protest, I guess I enjoy the benefits too. Probably without even realising it a lot of the time. The other day I walked into a hotel here in Georgetown, asked to use the wifi and was directed to the business centre area where I proceeded to get on with some work in peace. Would I have been welcomed so readily if I didn’t have a British accent? Or was it more to do with what I was wearing? My skin colour? The ‘right’ attitude?

I was discussing these issues recently with friend from the UK who is living elsewhere in the Caribbean. She told me how people there still haven’t quite got their head around the fact that she’s there to stay. “You’re from London? Why would you come here?!” As if, she said, there’s nothing valuable here, nothing that might attract someone with no ties. I can imagine I’d get a similar response from some quarters if I decided to stay on in Guyana: That’s nice, but why?!

The other day I was kindly given a copy of poet Fred d’Aguiar’s 1998 speech ‘Made in Guyana’, and finally got round to reading it today. In it, he highlights the efforts of Guyanese writers such as Edgar Mittleholzer to “answer back” the colonisers and define their world. But in order to do so, says d’Aguiar: “The outside world, the surroundings had to be claimed before there could be the luxury of an inward glance and the self-purging of a centuries-old implanted ideology of inferiority.”

I would expand on this and say that people of coloniser regions, such as myself, must now go on the same journey. Not to claim the world as our own once more, we’ve already had that luxury, but to open that inward eye and gradually self-purge that centuries-old propogated ideology of superiority.

 

blog · Uncategorized

Is wah yuh sayin’?

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“Yu wahn i hot up?” asked the woman behind the till when I returned my cold dhal and roti to the counter at Giftland Mall. I paused for a second, deciphering, then agreed. Yes I wanted it heated up, please.

Guyana’s official language is English. A hangover from its days as a British colony. But sit on the bus, walk down the street, go into a shop and what you’ll hear is something richer, more melodic than anything the Queen could come up with.

“It’s bad English,” Adam Harris, Editor-in-Chief of Kaieteur News, put it when I went to record him for my oral-history project, Guyana 50: Memories of Life in British Guiana.

I wanted to argue back, all fired up as I was from a workshop I went to earlier in the week at the University of Guyana: Writing Creolese the Creolese Way. The session was led by the fiesty and funny Charlene Wilkinson, a lecturer in the Department of Languages and Cultural Studies, who took no time to pull me up on my quiet, mumbling voice. “The British don’t like to open their mouths when they talk!”

The workshop was part lecture, part practical exercise. We took dictation in creolese, read aloud from the transcript of an interview with a Guyanese rice farmer, and shared our reasons for being there. One participant was a poet already using her own version of written creolese. Another was a US aid worker wanting to learn to speak the lingo. There were teachers, lecturers and representatives from the education ministry, one who was somewhat rounded on at the end when she attempted to defend the lack of specific ‘English’ lessons on the curriculum.

It’s a strange situation. A country where the mother tongue of most of the population is not the official language. Where some children learn English for the first time at school. Where teachers (depending on the school) speak to their pupils in creolese, but demand they write their essays and reports in British English. Where a room full of mostly Guyanese people, some of whom grew up speaking only creole, struggle to read a line of written ‘Guyanese’.

Why? Because the creole they know is oral. Some prestigious Guyanese writers, as was noted in the workshop, use the language to good effect – and are complimented for the authenticity and vibrancy this adds. Like Wordsworth McAndrew’s classic poem Ol’ Higue:

Ol’ woman wid de wrinkled skin,

 Leh de ol’ higue wuk begin.

Put on you fiery disguise,

Ol’ woman wid de weary eyes

Shed you swizzly skin.

But should creolese remain a preserve of academia or fiction? In a letter in the Stabroek News earlier this year, Ms Wilkinson put a convincing argument forward for “bilingual and multilingual education” – where speakers of Guyanese are given the right (and respect) to speak their first language, as well as English.

The many responses in the comments box below her letter give some sense of the heatedness of this long-running debate. One that I am only newly aware of. Perhaps Ms Wilkinson should have responded by giving out the questionnaire we were asked to fill in during the workshop, asking us to honestly assess how we would view an English speaker vs a Guyanese speaker: Which do you think is most friendly? Which do you think is most intelligent? Which is more honest? Which is more helpful? Which is better educated? Which has more money? When you start to examine your own prejudices and pre-conceptions, that’s when you realise change is needed.

Or at least a Creole School for Small-Mouthed Brits. Any offers?

Misc · Travel

Escaping from Devil’s Island

La Guyane

[Real Travel] Carinya Sharples journeys to French Guiana’s Salvation Islands to explore the empty cells of one of the world’s most notorious ex-prisons…

The most eerie part of Île Royale was the children’s cemetery. It was deathly silent apart from the rustle of monkeys in the trees and the loud chirping of crickets. The epitaphs on the crumbling gravestones were pitifully simple: ‘Jean Girault. Décédé à l’âge de 9 mois. Le 18 Janviers 1915. Regrets’. Suddenly the grim history of this strange, James Bond-esque island – with its shark-filled waters, picturesque ruins and wild nature – became uncomfortably real.

Together, Île Royale, Île du Diable and Île Saint-Joseph form the Îles du Salut (Salvation Islands), also known as the Devil’s Islands because of their treacherous surrounding rocks. This triangular archipelago lies 15km off the coast of French Guiana, or La Guyane to locals – a French overseas département perched on the top of South America. Once a refuge for 18th-century French colonists escaping malaria and mosquitoes on the mainland, the islands later became a notoriously brutal penal colony and the setting for one of the darkest ever periods in French history.

Today, the little-known islands are overgrown with lush, green vegetation and dotted with tall palm trees. On Île Royale, guinea pig-like agoutis scurry between the crumbling ruins, carrying chunks of coconut shells in their teeth, while Île du Diable has its own population of iguanas and even a few wild goats. Instead of prisoners, there are small groups of travellers, peering into abandoned cells and dodging the warning signs of ‘INTERDIT!’ placed liberally along the rocky coastal path.

I’d vowed to visit the Îles du Salut some months earlier when a friend – hearing I was off to French Guiana – mentioned Île du Diable. How could I resist a place called Devil’s Island? As it turned out, exceptionally sharp rocks prevent boats from docking on Île du Diable itself, so I settled for a two-day trip to nearby Île Royale instead. One-day trips are available but it’s worth staying overnight if you can.

LAUNCH PAD

Île Royale is a short 50-minute boat ride from Kourou, a coastal town best known for its Centre Spatial Guyanais. This state-of-the-art international space centre attracts many French professionals to the country, who live, somewhat uneasily, alongside the rest of the population – a fascinating mix of Maroon (the descendants of escaped slaves), Creole, East Indian, Chinese, Amerindian and Laotian, to name but a few.

I stopped off in Kourou for a few days towards the end of January, when the weather alternates between beautiful sunshine and heavy downpours. A savvy French traveller had recommended staying in the Amerindian Village at Chez Taliko, a residential house with a carbet out back. A carbet is essentially a shack where you can sling your hammock (and mosquito net) – a common concept in French Guiana and a popular option for adventurous travellers, plus those, like me, scandalised by the ridiculous Paris-style hotel prices. The carbet at Chez Taliko cost just €8 a night and was a simple structure of wood with flimsy metal sheets as low walls. It was also right on the beach.

I arrived in Kourou just as dusk was settling, with no booking – in fact, no idea where Chez Taliko was. Luckily the minibus driver knew, and when Taliko himself appeared at the door he was unfazed by my unexpected appearance, although a bit surprised I was travelling alone. Not being able to properly suss out my surroundings in the dark, I spent the night on edge. Every crash of the waves, swish of leaves and clank of the metal sheets had me imagining someone was approaching. In the morning – after little, if any, sleep – I woke to find someone had been there after all and was still perched nearby, staring at me intently… Then it squawked, and I realised my intruder was a parrot.

The next few days were spent visiting the space centre on a fascinating tour, walking along the beach and visiting a local market on Avenue de France, which sizzled with the delicious smell of rotisserie chicken and offered up a tantalising array of food, representative of the diverse populace. There was everything from fresh Vietnamese summer rolls and local honey to fresh fruit and accras de morue (a fried snack I remember from Accra in Ghana – hence the name, presumably). Another day, I wandered through Saramaca Village – a newly urbanised area populated by Saramaca (a group of Maroon people) with a strange mix of cabin-style terraced houses and roads with names like ‘Rue Rosa Parks’ – only to be warned later not to go there alone.

THE HARD CELL

On the day of my trip to Île Royale, I left the Amerindian Village at the same time as Taliko and his wife, so they offered to drop me on Avenue Général de Gaulle, a popular street lined with restaurants and bars, at the end of which is the Ponton des Pêcheurs or fisherman’s dock – my point of departure. Public transport in French Guiana is practically non-existent, other than expensive cabs and the odd minibus or taxi collectif, so I was glad for the ride. Later in my trip – when travelling through the wild nature reserves of Kaw and Tresor, the capital city of Cayenne, and Cacao, home to a farming community of Hmong refugees from Laos – I was to discover another money-saving custom of the country: hitchhiking.

I’d already booked my €39 return ticket at the Guyanespace Voyage travel agents in Kourou, opting to travel by Royal Ti’Punch’s sleek catamaran. As the departure time inched closer, its smooth, white seats were filled by a lively mix of soldiers on leave, young couples and older travellers. Everyone was French – bar the friendly crew who were Guianese. British visitors, I soon discovered, were something of a rarity in French Guiana. The ride was choppy and the military troupe, whose members had immediately stripped down to their bikinis and trunks to lie on the trampoline-like net, squealed in delight as the waves splashed over them.

From the Île Royale jetty, it was a steep, sweaty climb to the hotel with my backpack. It wasn’t until the next day, when I was leaving, that I discovered the pick-up truck that carries guests’ luggage. There are three different types of accommodation to choose from on Île Royale: the well-restored prison administration building that now serves as a hotel, where prices start at €166 (including two lunches, dinner and breakfast); the more basic former guards’ block (from €60); and the carbets, costing just €10. I’d opted for the final option, not realising that I’d be staying in one of the original prisoners’ quarters. When I peered through the heavy door, I found row upon row of army-style hammocks identical to my own – except these were actual military hammocks, owned by the 30 or so French soldiers stationed on the island at the time. Bunking down in a room full of French squaddies? Not tonight, Napoleon!

I marched back to the reception desk, explained the situation and was relieved to be given a key to my own ‘cell’. After the near al-fresco carbet in Kourou, this long building with faded pink paint and a fully tiled bathroom felt like the presidential suite. I tied my hammock to the metal hooks embedded in the wall – trying to forget that they had once held prisoners’ chains – and enjoyed a long shower, sidestepping the seed husks or insect wings (I couldn’t figure out which) that littered the bathroom floor. Maybe ‘presidential suite’ was a slight overstatement.

GRIM FINDINGS

Île Royale covers just 21 hectares so you don’t need a guide, although tours are available. One of the boat crew had promised to show me around but then disappeared as soon as we docked (for lunch, I later found out), so I set off alone. Luckily when I’d booked my tickets, I’d picked up a leaflet with a map of the island, which proved indispensable and helped me identify all the different buildings. After happening on the disturbing children’s cemetery, I retraced my steps past my ‘bedroom’ and headed towards the picturesquely ruined former military hospital and the new-looking red brick chapel – part of the restoration project of the French government’s space agency, Centre National d’Études Spatiales (CNES), which took over ownership of the islands in 1965.

Just reading the names of the buildings as I passed them was chilling – ‘le pénitencier’ (the condemned prisoners’ quarters), ‘la maison des fous’ (the mad house) and the ‘asile d’alienes’ (lunatic asylum). In 1923, journalist Albert Londres visited Île Royale and was taken to this asylum by the island’s doctor. In a later report, he would recall encountering an inmate who threw stones into the sea from the same point on the island every day. His plan, Londres explained; to build a bridge from South America to France so he could walk home. The more I read about the prisoners’ inhumane existence on the islands, the more I understood the wild desperation the man must have felt.

The first prison ship docked on 10 May 1852 and by the end of that year there were some 1,000 inmates on the islands. Between 1852 and 1862, an incredible 12,780 convicts (including 329 political prisoners) were sent from France. Soon other penitentiary units took precedence, including ones in New Caledonia, Saint-Jean du Maroni and Saint-Laurent du Maroni, a small town on the Maroni River at the French Guiana/Suriname border.

Then in 1887, the passage from France to the Îles du Salut was revived and new waves of prisoners, condemned for crimes ranging from espionage and treason to desertion and forging currency, flooded in – troublemakers and escapees were sent to Île St Joseph; common-law convicts to the colony’s administrative heart, Île Royale; and the rest to Île du Diable, the smallest but most feared of the three islands. And so it continued until 1947, when the penal colony finally closed.

BASE CAMP

While I was in French Guiana, I visited the sleepy town of Saint-Laurent du Maroni, just three hours from Kourou by minibus. Most of French Guiana’s main attractions lie on or near the 350km coastal strip, so travelling from one town to the next rarely takes longer than a couple of hours.

As the main processing point of the penal colonies, Saint-Laurent du Maroni is best known for its Camp de la Transportation (Transportation Camp). Although you can enter for free, you don’t get access to all areas unless you go on one of the guided tours – and for €5 a pop, it’s worth it.

The camp contains a chapel, clothing store, court and even an anthropological room, where prison doctors once studied inmates to put together a ‘criminal profile’. Some of the former administration buildings have been restored and, somewhat bizarrely, now serve as a public library and theatre.

But it’s the prisoners’ quarters that proved the most fascinating – and disturbing. The long blockhouses, which officially housed around 40 men (although often held double), are lined with long stone ‘benches’, each with iron bars embedded on top. While the individual cells drip with water and decay, the wooden planks that once served as beds still fixed with feet shackles. After years of abandonment, the walls are black with mould, sprouting with moss and missing their doors – though conditions probably weren’t much better when they were in use.

Cell number 47 caused everyone the most excitement, as it is believed to be where Papillon (see boxout) had been detained at one point. Clearly a highlight of the trip – I hadn’t known who Papillon was until about five minutes before – the rest of the group snapped away. Inside, we took turns to see where the name ‘Papillon’ had been scratched into the stone floor. I dutifully photographed it – fully aware that the chances of it being an authentic ‘tag’ of the infamous escapee were pretty low.

At the far end of the complex, our Amerindian guide led us to a stone circle flanked by cells. This was, he told us, where the guillotine once stood – a constant, visible reminder to all the convicts that their lives hung in the balance. The kitchen, he pointed towards a building nearby, was where their final meals would have been prepared. We looked on solemnly. I tried to stop picturing what my final meal would have been.

LIGHTS OUT

Back on Île Royale, I continued down the coastal path – strewn with coconut shells and palms – to a square pool formed by rocks, which turned out to be the prisoners’ swimming pool. The next turning took me to a rocky cove scattered with sunbathing tourists and soldiers with regulation haircuts and tropical tans. I’d already been warned that the rocks were slippery but still managed to lose my footing and end up sitting down rather forcefully with a wet thud. Still sitting, I gradually edged my way forward until just my head bobbed above the powerful waves. After a while, I slid my way back up to dry off in the sunshine and look out for the sea turtles that live off the coast.

Later that evening, as I was sitting in my hammock eating the rations I’d bought in Kourou – baguette and butter, bananas, papaya and biscuits – there was a knock at the door. It was one of the soldiers from the first ‘salle de hamacs’ inviting me to a birthday do they were holding. I’d already planned to visit the hotel restaurant, but watching other people tuck into fresh fish, grilled chicken and mouthwatering desserts while drinking a €2,60 can of peach iced tea turned out not to be much fun, so I headed back towards my room and on the way got sucked into the party.

A barbeque had been set up, the smell of sizzling sausages filled the air and a long table of drinks was being steadily consumed by the chattering troops. I was plied with fruit juice, sausages and breadfruit, before being joined by a welcoming party wanting to find out why I was on the island and keen to list everything they knew about England – which mostly seemed to consist of Mr Bean. Turned out they weren’t soldiers after all, rather the French equivalent of the Royal Marines who had recently finished a tour in Afghanistan. After their questions and my French had been exhausted, I decided to turn in – not entirely reassured by their parting promise to shoot any monkeys that came to my room.

The next day, I continued to explore the island, escaping a sudden burst of rain by taking refuge in the museum located in the former Director’s House, where I discovered a series of fascinating displays (in English and French) about the history of the islands and their most famous prisoners.

I emerged after the rain had subsided to find everything looking even more lush and green than before and headed back to browse the hotel gift shop before joining some of my new military friends for a final lunch of fish soup. On the way down to the shoreline I got chatting to a Chinese-French woman travelling with her boyfriend and another couple, only to discover I’d missed a morning expedition to Île Saint- Joseph. She described it as even more wild and rundown than Île Royale, and I was gutted to have missed out. At 4.30pm, the catamaran pulled away from the jetty and we began the return trip to Kourou, sipping complimentary glasses of red punch and watching the islands until they sank back into a sea of memories. ■

[BOXOUT] Devil’s Island’s famous inmates

PAPILLON

Convicted murderer Henry Charrière’s autobiography chronicling his daring escape from Île du Diable captured the attention of the world. The book, entitled Papillon after his nickname (meaning ‘butterfly’), was later adapted in the 1973 film starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman. Although now thought to have incorporated experiences of other prisoners, Papillon’s adventures continue to fascinate, and a remake of the film is said to be in the pipeline, with Robert Downey Jr. and Philip Seymour Hoffman tipped to play the lead roles.

DREYFUS

In 1895, France was captivated by the trial of Captain Alfred Dreyfus who was condemned of treason and sentenced to life on Île du Diable. He was kept in solitary confinement, confined in the day and shackled at night, for four brutal years before finally being found innocent in 1899.

View PDF: Escaping Devil’s Island

London culture

Spotlight On: Greenwich (Visit London Blog)

Mercedes tall ship. Photo credit: Royal Borough of Greenwich

You’ve probably heard of Greenwich for its rich maritime history, World Heritage status and great time-keeping (this is the home of Greenwich Mean Time, no less). But there’s plenty more to discover across this Royal Borough, from sky-high cable cars to an Art Deco mansion. Here are just five things to do while you’re staying in the area:

1. See Tall Ships and Nelson’s Uniform

Nelson's Trafalgar Uniform. © National Maritime Museum

If you’re visiting London this September, don’t miss the Royal Greenwich Tall Ships Regatta. Over five days (from 5 to 9 September), some 50 majestic tall ships will be arriving from the coast of Cornwall. But don’t worry if you miss out, one ship that’s not going anywhere is Cutty Sark – the last surviving tea clipper and the fastest and greatest of its time – now permanently docked in Greenwich. Don’t forget to pop into the nearby National Maritime Museum too to hear more fantastic sea tales – and see the coat Admiral Nelson wore at the Battle of Trafalgar (complete with bullet hole).
While you’re there… Eat lunch at The Trafalgar Tavern, a historic 19th century pub overlooking the River Thames.

2. See Time and Space at the Royal Observatory and Planetarium

Royal Observatory. Courtesy of Visit Greenwich

Sitting high above Greenwich town centre is the Royal Observatory, home of not only Greenwich Mean Time, but also the Prime Meridian of the world (the zero point of longitude), London’s only planetarium and the UK’s largest refracting telescope. Take in a show at the planetarium, marvel at Harrison’s timekeepers and stand astride the Prime Meridian line – with one foot in the east, the other in the west. Look out for new exhibitions too, such as Longitude Punk’d – featuring modern-day versions of the weird, wonderful and somewhat wacky inventions submitted during the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
While you’re there… Go on a ramble around Greenwich Park. This rolling green space is popular with locals and tourists alike for picnics, team games, strolls, boating-lake rides and squirrel spotting.

3. Soak up the view from a cable car or on top of The O2

Emirates Air Line

Get a bird’s eye view of Greenwich and across London from on top of The O2. How do you get up there? You climb of course. It’s all part of the Up At The O2 experience, a 90-minute journey to a 360-degree viewing platform atop the famous domed venue. Alternatively head to the nearby south terminal of the Emirates Air Line and take a cable car across the river to the north stop, Emirates Royal Docks. Or if you prefer to have your head in the clouds but your feet firmly on the ground, don’t miss the new Emirates Aviation Experience, where you can get a feel for life in the skies with the help of flight simulators and interactive aviation displays.
While you’re there… Experience another unusual form of London transport and travel back to Central London by boat with City Cruises or Thames Clippers.

4. Visit A Royal Residence

Queen's House. Courtesy of Visit Greenwich

Picturesquely located along the river, Queen’s House has ironically not housed many queens. Queen Anne (wife of James I) died before the building she commissioned was completed, and Henrietta Maria (wife of Charles I) spent little time there before the Civil War forced her to exile to France. It’s since fared better as an orphanage and then fine-art gallery – which it remains today. For something more off the beaten track, jump on the train to Eltham and visit the childhood home of Henry VIII, Eltham Palace – and the 1930s Art Deco mansion built next to the remains of this medieval royal palace.
While you’re there… Sample one of the homegrown, limited-edition beers at The Old Brewery, a working brewery with a restaurant/cafe and bar on the grounds of the Old Royal Naval College.

5.  Browse Greenwich Market

Greenwich Market stall

You don’t need to leave Greenwich to find great treasures, like maritime explorers of past, there are plenty of gems to uncover at Greenwich Market. Here, artists and craftspeople from the local area and beyond gather to sell their creations – from fashion to gifts, homemade candles and jewellery. There’s also a food section that’s always packed full of stalls selling street snacks from around the world. Head down on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays for antiques and collectibles, and on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and weekends for arts and crafts.

While you’re there… If it’s the weekend (or a bank holiday) don’t forget to pay a visit to Greenwich’s other market, the Greenwich Clocktower Market, where you’ll find quirky antique and vintage pieces.

http://blog.visitlondon.com/2014/04/top-5-things-to-do-in-the-london-borough-of-greenwich/

African arts, culture + politics · Travel

I Love… Gaborone

zeus
Detail from illustration by Jim Spencer

(ARISE magazine, issue 17) Hip hop artist and Channel O awards nominee Zeus tells us where it’s at in Botswana’s chilled-out capital, from the coolest club to the unofficial business hub

Mokolodi Nature Reserve
Most people come to Africa expecting to see wild animals everywhere, which is just silly! There are areas in Botswana with freely roaming wildlife but not usually in cities, towns or villages. There is, however, a small game reserve in Gaborone where you can enjoy a game drive or a braai in the picnic area.

BotswanaCraft
This amazing place connects aspects of Setswana culture and lifestyle. They sell art, sculpture and other ornaments made by Batswana artists. Its courtyard restaurant specialises in local cuisine served in the traditional manner – down to how the waiting staff assist you in washing your hands before a meal. It’s also a popular live music venue and has hosted some first-class acts, including Oliver Mtukudzi, Salif Keita and yours truly!
Plot 20716, Magochanyama

Mafia Soul
For a more urban shopping experience visit one of the five Mafia Soul stores. The branch in Riverwalk Mall is the place to go if you live the hip hop lifestyle. Check out latest hip hop fashion trends, flick through magazines, buy music or debate the latest song, beef or your favourite MC with owner Molf and manager Prince. They man the floor, giving first-class service.
Riverwalk Shopping Mall, Unit 25/27

National Museum
Located next to the old mall in the city centre (formerly known as the Main Mall), the museum gives travellers an appreciation of the history of the relatively young city and the country as a whole. It brings back memories of primary-school field trips for me, and is captivating for all ages.
331 Independence Ave

Thapong Arts Centre
Located in the charmingly lazy, residential area of Village, this centre exhibits works by local visual artists. It’s testament to the resilience of Batswana artists, who haven’t received the support they deserve but still manage to produce breathtaking works.
Plot 21965, The Village

Pop-Inn
There is a local snack served with tea or coffee – or alongside chips, fish and Russians (a type of sausage) – which is known as magwinya or fat cakes. They are an oily, unhealthy but delightful [fried dough] treat one should enjoy every so often. Stop by here for one and some snoek fish – you can work it off later.
1873/4 Kgopo Close Ext 4

Dot Com
Formerly known for hosting business executives and political hotshots, this popular ‘beer after work with the guys’ spot mixes professionals, socialites and entrepreneurs in a melting pot of boyish mischief. Talk ranges from football, cars and ladies to business. If you want to bypass a lot of gatekeepers and meet key influencers and decision-makers, this place might serve you better than the business district.
Matima Crescent, off Maputo Drive

Khwest Cafe
For sundowners, Khwest is where it’s at. A very sociable joint smack in the middle of the oldest mall in the city with a lovely balcony, it’s a setting for soulful house music sessions, poetry recitals and stand-up comedy.
Queens Road, Ext 2

Sanitas Tea Garden
A nursery that houses more than plants and ornaments, Sanitas Tea Garden has a chilled restaurant with a great homestyle menu – complete with homemade lemonade and ice-cream. Perfect for a lazy afternoon or mid-morning when you want to escape from the routine of a dull day.
Gaborone Dam

Fusion Entertainment
Fusion Entertainent caters to a house and hip hop market. I’ve hosted some great parties there, including the debut of my Champagne Music video and my birthday. It attracts an ‘I wanna party, no BS’ crowd and on the right night it’s electric inside – with the balcony serving as a half-time rest stop for the city’s party rockers.
Mowana Park, Phakalane

African arts, culture + politics · Travel

I Love… Casablanca

simo

(ARISE magazine, issue 16) TV presenter Simo Benbachir guides us around Morocco’s largest city, from where to eat the tastiest couscous to the best view in town

Squala
Located in an 18th-century bastion, Squala has a rustic interior and a delightful garden, surrounded by flower-draped trellises. Their traditional Moroccan breakfast is mouthwatering; the fresh fruit juices are wonderful and the tagines are fabulous, especially the lamb. I go at teatime to escape the stress of Casablanca and on Fridays for its legendary “couscous time”!
Boulevard des Almohades

SkyBar
Skybar is classic and very elegant. When it’s hot I have a drink at the lounge by the pool or at the bar. It’s home to Casablanca’s jet set – locals and tourists stay there until 2am having fun. The music’s great, from hip hop to house.
Boulevard de la Corniche

Le Carré
After a drink at Skybar, if I want to stay out I go down to Le Carré: a club with good music and good vibes. It’s better to go midweek as it’s packed on the weekend. On Wednesdays the DJ plays hip hop remixes – I can dance all night. It’s a bling-bling place, so be sure to have plenty of cash in your wallet.
Boulevard de la Corniche

La Suite
La Suite isn’t far from Twin Center, Casablanca’s new downtown. I go there for after-work parties and happy hour. As the owner and chef are French, the menu is too, and it’s delicious. Although I also like their hamburger. It’s a good place to meet your friends for a quiet dinner or to dance in the mojito bar. I give it two thumbs up.
Rue Jean Jaurès, Quartier Gauthier

Lizarran
My best friend is Spanish but has lived in Morocco since she was a kid, and she introduced me to Spanish culture. I go to Lizarran because I love the tapas bar with great sangrias and wines. The selection is extensive and a waiter comes around every so often to offer tapas fresh from the oven as well. I like dining downstairs then ending with the DJ upstairs.
Boulevard d’Anfa

Relais de Paris
I go here for lunch. There’s an elegant terrace, with a view of La Corniche, the beachside promenade. The food is excellent – modern brasserie style, with superb desserts. At midday the cream of Morocco’s business world arrive for lunch. It’s great for a romantic evening too or a night with friends or colleagues.
Boulevard de la Corniche

SKY 28
If you’re in town for a visit, Sky 28 is a must for the view alone. It’s located in the Kenzi Tower Hotel in the heart of Casablanca, with a breathtaking view of the skyline. It’s a wonderful location for afternoon tea and pre- and post-dinner drinks in the bar, listening to live piano music, before the DJ takes over.
Boulevard Mohamed Zerktouni

Rick’s Cafe
Rick’s Cafe, the mythical saloon from the 1942 film Casablanca, is set in a mansion with a courtyard in the Old Medina of Casablanca. The restaurant is intimate, with a view of the fishing port, and it has an international menu that specialises in Casablanca’s fresh fish, vegetables and fruit.
Boulevard Sour Jdid

Le Cabestan
I’d recommend this place for couples, as the atmosphere is quite intimate. If you’re seated by the huge windows overlooking the ocean I’m not sure you’ll ever want to leave. The bathrooms are one of a kind, very spacious with a big couch. It has excellent service, great food, a fine wine list and is open all afternoon – perfect for a business lunch after an interminable meeting.
Boulevard de la Corniche

Saveurs du Palais
Saveurs du Palais is an authentic Moroccan restaurant. Here the chef pays attention to detail: the couscous is done as it should be, the pastries are fresh and tasty and the mint tea is homemade. The owner is such
a nice person and takes care of you personally.
Rue Jallal Eddine Essayouti

African arts, culture + politics · London culture · Travel

Land of my father

richard

(ARISE magazine, issue 16) Richard E Grant lives in two timezones: “I wear my late father’s watch on the left, set to Swazi time, and one my wife gave me set to GMT on my right. It’s both sentimental and practical.” It’s also a sign of the strong hold Africa still has over the actor, who spent his formative years on the continent.

Born Richard Esterhuysen to a South African mother and his education minister father, Grant grew up in the British Protectorate of Swaziland, which became independent in 1968. In 1982, after studying at the University Of Cape Town (UCT), Grant came to the UK and five years later made his name as Withnail – the narcissistic, acerbic, out-of-work thespian of Withnail & I.

He’s gone on to play many more scathing anti-heroes; from George in Gosford Park to Larry Lefferts in Martin Scorcese’s The Age of Innocence. But while he does a good line in English toff, Swaziland still looms large in his life. He documented his childhood in the 2005 film biopic Wah-Wah and returns every year. Despite a reputation for satirising Hollywood – his book With Nails: The Film Diaries Of Richard E Grant is full of candid anecdotes – Grant is always in demand. He voiced Cecil in new South African 3D animation Zambezia, and joins comedy duo Kath & Kim in the upcoming Kath & Kimderella.

How did you get involved in Zambezia?
I was in Johannesburg for a couple of days finishing a BBC documentary about the history of safari and was asked to record the voice for this cartoon character. The bonus of doing a voiceover role is that it gets done quickly, doesn’t require costume or make-up and is very enjoyable to record. Playing an ugly marabou [stork] was a good laugh.

You have retained a strong connection to Swaziland, what draws you back?
I usually go once a year as my father is buried there and I still have many friends from my childhood. I was last in the country for the Bushfire Festival [in May], which was a real pleasure. I was good friends with Jenny Thorne, whose sons Jiggs and Sholto created the House On Fire open-air theatre in Malkerns, and they asked me to be a patron. It was my first taste of the festival – and unforgettable.

After graduating, you co-founded the Troupe Theatre Company, described as ‘multi-racial’ and ‘avant-garde’. Was it unique for the time?
We founded the company in 1980 at the People’s Space theatre [now The Space Theatre] in Cape Town. The opening production was David Hare’s Fanshen; about the Chinese communist revolution. This prompted the censors to fly down from Pretoria to decide whether we were legally allowed to perform. It put us on the theatrical map. Working with actors I really trusted was an incredibly important grounding for me.

How vibrant is the film industry and theatre world in Swaziland now?  
Since the advent of TV and the exodus of British expats the once-thriving amateur scene is a destitute shell of what it once was.The House On Fire is now the epicentre for all things artistic in the kingdom.

You directed Wah-Wah in Swaziland. What was the country like as a film location?
No film had ever been made there before so everything had to be imported. We had crew and cast from England, France and South Africa, as well as trainees and crowd extras from Mbabane. We had full co-operation from the government and police departments, which made it possible to complete the film on schedule and on budget.

Media coverage of Swaziland tends to focus on King Mswati III’s wives, the Reed Dance and its high HIV rate. What do you make of it?
The politics of Swaziland are very troubling. How the king can justify buying a private plane and amassing an army in the smallest country in the southern hemisphere – and purportedly be worth £150million – while asking for more loans from world banks I find very depressing. Hopefully the Jasmine Revolution will filter south and the decades of dictatorship and despots holding their countries to ransom, while amassing fortunes stashed away in Switzerland, are numbered.

What are you working on at the moment?
I’m making a documentary about French impressionists for the BBC, then start filming in London this October on Dom Hemingway, with Jude Law.

[Boxout] R.E.G.’s 5 Swaziland must-do’s

1 Take a drive through the mountains of Piggs Peak past the Maguga dam
2 Buy anything you can afford from Coral Stephens handweaving shop
3 Climb Sibebe mountain in Pine Valley
4 Swim in the hot springs in the Ezulwini valley, called the Cuddle Puddle
5 Visit the House On Fire venue for music and food at Malandela’s restaurant and spend some nights at Mkhaya game reserve

African arts, culture + politics · Travel

I Love… Blantyre

lomwe

(ARISE magazine, issue 15) DJ, rapper and Big Brother Africa 2011 contestant Lomwe gives us a whistlestop tour of the hottest spots in and around Malawi’s largest city

Mustang Sally
This is a really nice club on the way to town. It’s got a tropical garden, two bars and a swimming pool – you can’t use it but when it’s lit up at night it looks really cool. During the week they sometimes have a live band but I don’t go then – that’s for the mature crowd, the older folks!
CI

TJs
This sports bar is about five minutes’ drive from Mustang Sally. People usually go there to watch the Premiership games; anywhere you sit you can see a screen. They have good snacks as well – I particularly like the grilled beef strips called linunda. They come with this amazing hot sauce, which they make themselves. I don’t know what ingredients they use but it tastes real good.
Mahatma Gandhi Road

Club Makokola
This holiday resort, north of Blantyre and next to Lake Malawi, is a really popular place to go to get away from town. I last went there with Zeus [who Lomwe collaborated with on hit single Double Wowza] for a photo shoot and we went snorkelling – there are hundreds of different fish to see. You can also take a boat to Bird Island and see fish eagles in action. I’d suggest going on a Friday and coming back on Sunday – and if you go, you have to try chambo. It’s the most popular fish and only found in Lake Malawi. You can eat it in lots of ways; stewed, or served with nsima, which is made of maize.
Mangochi

Chichiri shopping mall
This is probably the main mall in Blantyre. It’s a good spot to meet someone: there are so many things at a short distance from each other – internet cafés, fast food places, restaurants. There’s a place called Café Rouge, which
is pretty cool, a sports shop, some clothing stores and a supermarket – a chain from South Africa called Shoprite – where you can get your groceries.
Chichiri

Casa MIA
This restaurant is in a nice, leafy area called Sunnyside. It’s got a cosy atmosphere and great food. The owner is English and there’s a mix of European food on the menu. I’m not really into wine otherwise I could tell you all the good wines they have. I’m more of a beer person, and if it’s not a beer then it’s probably a gin or a brandy.
Kabula Hill Road

Robin’s Park
This theatre recently opened and has only had a few shows so far. It has a capacity of around 2,000 with an arena that has the stage in the middle. I’m thinking of doing the launch show for my mixtape or another of my projects there.
Njamba

Protea Hotel Ryalls
I usually go to Ryalls to use the wifi. It’s a big, comfortable, modern hotel in the heart of town, with a small bar where you can use the internet. A lot of people go there and it’s a nice place to have a coffee or business meeting.
Hanover Avenue

The Blue Elephant
This bar has been in Blantyre ever since I can remember. It has a mini dance floor and a DJ every Friday, Saturday and Wednesday – on Wednesday they have a band and a DJ who take it in turns to play. During
the weekend lots of people go there – sometimes too many. They play a lot of African and international house music – a lot of people in Malawi like house music. The dance that goes with it is kwasa kwasa.
Kidney Crescent

Kamuzu Stadium
The stadium is named after the first president of Malawi, Kamuzu Banda. I go there with friends when there’s a big international game on – I don’t really follow the local league. It’s a good, fun day out and everyone really gets
into the football.
Near Mudi Estate

Lomwe’s new mixtape, License To Kill, is available now on http://www.lomwe.com

African arts, culture + politics · Travel

I Love… Kinshasa

Detail from illustration by Christina K
Detail from illustration by Christina K

(ARISE magazine, issue 14) Director of Congolese thriller Viva Riva!, Djo Tunda Wa Munga zooms in on the top hangouts in his native city – including locations from his award-winning film

Chez Ntemba
What I like about this nightclub is that it has a really African identity. Of course you have Congolese music but you also have South African music and music from West Africa… At the same time, Chez Ntemba is modern and contemporary. I think they’ve opened something like 10 of these clubs in Africa. I go there to hang out, stop for
a drink and watch the dancing.
Rond-point Forescom, Gombe

Chez Maman Colonel
This restaurant is known for its chicken – especially the chicken and plantain, which is very good. It’s my favourite place to go for something to eat. Kinshasa has a lot of restaurants but you don’t have many new places like this, where someone has said “we’re going to make chicken and it’s going to be delicious”, and that’s exactly what you get.
Avenue Bayaka, Kimbondo

Place Commercial
My office is right next door to Place Commercial and at the end of the day it’s nice to go out, sit there and have a beer or walk around. It’s in the suburb of Ma Campagne, where we shot many of the scenes from my film Viva Riva! It’s a cool and relaxed place with a lot of trees, but at the same time urban.
Ma Campagne, Ngaliema

Grand Hotel
The Grand Hotel is this old, old hotel. Everybody knows it, everybody goes there – they go for drinking, showing off… making sport! All the city likes hanging around there. Located in the residential Gombe area, the hotel also has great views of the river and the city.
Avenue Batetela, Gombe

Le Bloc
You’ll find Le Bloc in a neighbourhood called Bandal. It’s like a long terrace with lots of bars where you can sit and drink beer. I love stopping by here. It’s pretty noisy any day of the week but at the same time it gives you a real flavour of Kinshasa.
Bandal

The Congo River
Kinshasa is built right on the Congo, which is the second longest river in Africa after the Nile. If you look across
it, directly opposite you can see the city of Brazzaville, capital of the Republic of the Congo. For the best views
over the Congo I’d always suggest a visit to National Museum of Kinshasa.

Place du 30 Juin
This new area in front of Kinshasa’s Central Station is a bit of a people magnet. It’s under construction at the moment – on one side you have a Chinese building, on the other a piece of Arabic architecture and then there’s the old Place de la Gare. The space has a nice atmosphere and I often go there with my daughter in the morning.
Central Station, Gombe

Travel

Time travel

henley

(Escape, Jan/April 2009) Carinya Sharples steps into the past at Acton Scott in the South Shropshire hills, discovering the charms of a unique Victorian holiday cottage, the subject of a new BBC television series

The closest most of us come to time travel is jetting over time zones on holiday. But amid the rolling green hills of South Shropshire, visitors can turn back time and live like a Victorian farm labourer. Forget widescreen TVs, microwaves and radiators; in fact, forget electricity and plumbing – guests at Henley Cottage cook and heat their water on a Victorian coal-fired kitchen range, store food in a pantry and take hip baths by a roaring fire. This unique project is the work of Rupert Acton, who manages the estate, and his wife, Louise.

Rupert says: “Henley Cottage aims to appeal to those who would like an adventure. If you are searching for a simpler way of life – water hand-pumped from a well instead of turning on a tap and light from candles and oil lamps as opposed to flicking a switch – then this is for you.”

Stepping back in time

Set in the picturesque landscape of Acton Scott, Henley Cottage is one of a pair of 19th-century farm labourers’ cottages. Because it was never modernised and then left abandoned in the 1950s, it remains a rare example of authentic Victorian life – walk through the aged front door, and it’s like stepping back 150 years. It has its original quarry tiles, worn oak floor boards and sturdy beamed ceilings and, at the heart of the cottage, the coal-fired range. As well as being used for cooking the meals, the range is a great source of heat and all the rooms are surprisingly toasty. Oil lamps, sitting in sconces on the walls, provide lighting, and upstairs the two bedrooms (one double, one twin, and an extra single, if needed) have wrought-iron bedsteads and traditional linen sheets and are warmed by open fires in a coal grate or wood-burning stove.

The attention to detail is fantastic and includes period furnishings, a jug-and-bowl set for washing and even a commode should you get caught short in the night. On arrival, guests receive instructions on how to use all the cottage’s domestic bygones. In fact, the only compromise to authenticity is the addition of a modern toilet and shower, tucked out of sight in the garden next to the original earth closet loo.

Available from April, Henley Cottage is about to find fame in a prime time BBC2 television series, Victorian Farm, which was filmed at Acton Scott and is due to be screened from January.

Around the houses

As well as Henley Cottage, Acton Scott currently offers two other properties: Henley Farmhouse (ref: RJJ3) and The Shooting Lodge (ref: RNP). The Actons originally let out only the 18th-century stone-walled section of the farmhouse, before deciding to extend and renovate the 16th-century timber framed and brick side. The property now offers 10 bedrooms and nine bathrooms, most of which are en suite. “Already we’re getting repeat bookings,” says Rupert. “It’s so satisfying, especially as it was such a risk to take.”

Rupert’s passion for careful restoration is obvious as we tour the estate and he is supported by a team of artisan craftsmen. “I believe strongly in the need to keep alive traditional skills, conserve historic buildings and preserve the natural landscape,” explains Rupert. “These are the principles that I have been brought up with. It can be expensive and it can be time consuming, but the results are worth it.”

The Shooting Lodge was carefully restored and refurbished eight years ago. Today, guests come to enjoy the rural isolation with all modcons and make the most of the entertaining opportunities provided by the banqueting room (a former cow shed with a large open fireplace), which can seat up to 18.

Set in a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, in the South Shropshire hills, the Acton Scott estate has been owned by the Acton family for over 800 years. Its 1200 acres hold a number of small farmsteads, stone and timber-framed cottages, ancient woodland and open pasture. At its centre is Acton Scott Hall, a Grade II* listed, Elizabethan mansion of 1580, that is the Acton family’s residence.

The local area has twice received the royal seal of approval. Prince Rupert, King Charles I’s nephew, is believed to have stayed at Acton Scott Hall during a skirmish in the Civil War and HM Queen Elizabeth II spent a night on the Royal Train stationed on the railway line at Henley, during a visit to the area, shortly after her coronation. The historical significance does not end there – an archaeological dig of Acton Scott’s Roman villa, an Ancient Scheduled Monument, is currently in progress nearby.

At home on the farm

Acton Scott is also the location for the Historic Working Farm, a favourite visitor attraction for families. The original concept of keeping the farming practices of 1900 alive was conceived by Rupert’s father, Tom Acton, in the 1970s. Open to the public from April to October, it provides a fascinating insight into life on a working 19th-century country estate.

Traditional breeds of animals are stocked while the surrounding land is worked with heavy horses. Milking by hand and butter making are demonstrated daily in the dairy and there are weekly visits from the Wheelwright, Farrier and Blacksmith. Young animals, such as the Tamworth piglets and the farmyard poultry, are hits with children.

Getting involved

The Historic Working Farm has a souvenir shop, café and educational centre and children can lose themselves in the willow maze or dress up in 19th-century clothing for a photo. Acton Scott is also starting courses in rural skills, such as animal husbandry and hedge laying, using the facilities of the Historic Working Farm and the estate at large. Participants can stay at any one of Acton Scott’s holiday houses or book Henley Cottage. “Acton Scott is uniquely placed to offer the experience of learning about 19th century country life while also being able to live as a Victorian might have done, by staying at Henley Cottage,” says Rupert.

Visitors to Acton Scott can ramble over the estate’s green hills, parkland and woods, and there are walks suitable for all ages and abilities. The historic market towns of Ludlow and Shrewsbury are a short drive away. As the properties are self-catering, guests can stock up on provisions in nearby Church Stretton and Craven Arms while the local Strefford Hall Farm Shop delivers meat and seasonal supplies.

It may seem like the Actons have more than enough on their plate, but they already have a new project in the pipeline – turning The Old Smithy, once used by blacksmiths and still in possession of an old forge, into new holiday accommodation. Time may have stood still on the Acton Scott Estate, but there’s no stopping this pair.

Time travel PDF

Travel

Valencia Walk

valencia

(Escape, July/September 2008) Spain’s third largest city has seen an exciting revival in recent years. Our Valencia city walk will guide you through the colourful streets between the two towers of Torres de Serranos and Torres de Quart

Whether you’re an avid walker or prefer a gentle amble, a stroll through Valencia is a great way to soak up the city’s vibrant atmosphere. Our Valencia walk is a fun way to see the sights and you can do as much, or as
little, of it as you fancy. Allowing ample time for sightseeing, and a spot of lunch this walk should take you around half a day.

Along the Jardines del Turia (A) near Puente de Serranos (B) in the Casco Antiguo North, is your starting point – the 14th century Torres de Serranos (1), thought to be the largest Gothic city gateway in Europe. Follow the gardens to your right before turning into Calle Muro de Santa Ana (C), passing Palacio de Benicarló, the seat
of the Valencian Parliament, on your left. The road turns into Calle Navellos, where you’ll find the Plaza de la Virgen, home to La Basílica Nuestra Señora de los Desamparados (2). People flock here to see the statue of the
Virgin, known affectionately as la cheperudeta (‘the hunchback’).

By the plaza is the Catedral (3), founded in the 13th century on the site of the old main mosque – you can still find the Moorish influence in some local architecture and food. Walk ahead to the Plaza de la Reina (D) for a rest in the garden or head to the southwest corner for a drink of horchata at Horchateria El Siglo (5) on Plaza Santa Catalina. Made from tiger nuts, horchata is served chilled, usually with a cake called fartons.

From the plaza, follow Calle Paz before turning right towards the decadent 16th-century Palacio del Marqués de
Dos Aguas (6). Heading westwards across Calle San Vicente Mártir to Avenida Maria Cristina (E) will take you to the huge iron structure of Mercado Central (7) – a Modernist creation of 1928 and one of Europe’s largest covered markets. Pick up some ham, cheese, olives… whatever catches your eye (and nose). Just don’t forget to look up to see the incredible mosaics, stained glass and glass dome above you.

Past the market on your right is the 15-16th-century Gothicstyle La Lonja (8), a former silk exchange and now UNESCO World Heritage site. Twisting pillars that look like spun sugar are worth a stop inside, while rude gargoyles can be spotted on the outside walls. For lunch, try the Tasca Angel (9), near La Lonja where you just
shout your order from outside.Fully refreshed, it’s time to finish your walk. Stroll up Calle Bolserías until you reach Plaza Tossai (F), turn left onto Calle Quart and there your walk ends at the Torres de Quart (10).

Valencia Walk PDF

Travel

A Real Barnstormer

barn

(Escape, April/June 2009) Laura and Steve Martin have pulled off an exceptional conversion project at Biddenden Green Farm. Carinya Sharples travels to Kent to marvel at their grand re-designs

It’s not every day that you wake up in a four-poster bed in the turret of an old oast house – unless you’re at Biddenden Green Farm (Property reference: PBBY) in Kent that is, where the distinctive curved wall, exposed brickwork and tall, conical ceiling have been given a new lease of life as an unusual rural retreat.

The transformation from hop-drying farm building to impressive barn conversion began when Laura and Steve Martin decided to move away from London with their two children. Following the train line from Orpington, where they lived at the time, they found a quirky house in the Kent village of Smarden. The only hitch was that the house came as part of a larger package and so the Martin family found themselves taking on a dilapidated 16th-century barn and former oast house to boot. “I wasn’t even sure how I’d feel living in the countryside,” admits Laura, “but houses speak to me – it’s a feeling rather than a logical decision.”

Thankfully the gamble has paid off and today, four years on, the renovated barn and oast guest houses of Lewd Lane have a steady stream of visitors, won over by the combination of tranquil surroundings, homely rooms and quirky, original fixtures. The couple’s determination to keep as many of the original features as possible has proved central to their success. “When you’re doing a conversion like this,” explains Laura, “you’re a custodian. We want to leave our mark without taking away anyone else’s.”

Treading carefully

The Grade-II listing of the Martins’ home and the thatched barn (under which the oast also falls) gave the pair another reason to tread especially carefully. Yet with the buildings in such disrepair, this was no easy task. The barn may have been in active use on the farm just 70 years ago, but it was derelict for many years and the wood was starting to decay. So, as well as enlisting the help of English Heritage, the Martins recruited a specialist timber expert. “He was a great help and keen to preserve as much of the original timber as possible,” says Laura. “When he first came to the barn he was like a kid in a toyshop!”

Willow hurdles

Thanks to this motto of “repair not replace”, the two buildings are full of fascinating historic insights. In the oak-framed barn, built between 1590 and 1610, the original threshing bays are still in place and Laura points out the faint outlines of several circles, carved into the wood. Far from being accidental scratches, they are old ‘witching’ or ‘ritual’ marks, used to protect the superstitious occupants from what the handy visitor’s guide calls the ‘plague and pestilence of witches’.

Other elements of the barn’s previous existence are less noticeable – and probably just as well since what is now the smart kitchen area was once used to make willow hurdles for sheep fields; while the spacious living area stored hay and the second bedroom was a piggery. Today, the invasion of farmyard life is restricted to a complimentary basket of fresh, free-range eggs from the family’s own chickens, while the rooms are filled with sturdy, dark wood furnishings rather than troughs.

Timeless decor

Designing the interiors and sourcing the furniture was Laura’s favourite part of the restoration. “Some pieces came from abroad, the internet, even eBay – but what I loved most of all was going to local antique auctions, like the one in Cranbrook.” The resulting blend of original beams and antique furniture with dramatic fittings and cosy sofas works well, creating a feel that’s homely yet historic – the four-poster beds, dark wood chests and traditional low ceilings adding a real sense of timelessness.

The barn’s spacious living area, sizeable tables, three double rooms (two ensuite), twin room and mezzanine floor (with sofa bed and games) have made it particularly popular among those planning large family get-togethers, friends’ holidays and hen parties. And although history is important to the design and mood of both the barn and oast, Laura is aware of the importance of comfort and quality modern conveniences, especially for self-catered accommodation: “Before moving to Kent, we used to go away on holiday every year to places like this. So we knew the good and bad points and remembered the crucial things to get right, like a shower that doesn’t just trickle on your head. Good beds and kitchen equipment are also very important.”

Drying the hops

The Oast House is a smaller, cosier affair, with a living room at the bottom of the curved tower where once a fire would have been lit to dry out the hops above, the smoke escaping through the roof vents. These days, under-floor heating keeps the place toasty. Above, a four-poster bed sits in the rounded main bedroom, and across the sunlit landing are another two further bedrooms. Back downstairs, the walls of the warm kitchen are dotted with old black and white photos of a farmer in front of the working oast, diagrams of the process of hop drying and other sketches of farm life.

Even though the Oast House has only been up and running for two years – and The Thatched Barn open since just last September – Laura and Steve have already had a number of returning guests and welcomed visitors from as far afield as the US, Israel, Germany and Singapore. The visitors’ books in the barn and oast house are full of praise for an “amazing building, lovely homely feel”. Even local people don’t seem to be able to resist the buildings’ allure. “We’ve had people from Bluebell Hill and Sittingbourne, which are only half an hour away,” says Laura, “But then you never explore what’s on your own doorstep.”

Frogs, ducks and lily pads

And there’s plenty to explore – most guests take advantage of the many attractions to be found across Kent, whether going on a day trip to Leeds Castle, Canterbury Cathedral or Camber Sands beach, walking the wartime tunnels of Dover Castle or Sissinghurst Castle Gardens, or taking the kids to the Rare Breeds Centre or Kent & East Sussex Steam Railway. And with Paris less than two hours away via Eurostar from nearby Ashford International, it’s easy to pop over the Channel for the day to see the sights and stock up on French delicacies. Though with a pond full of frogs, ducks and picturesque lily pads, the chirpy twitter of blackbirds, sparrows and jackdaws, not to mention the impressive sight of hunting horses chomping on grass in the next field, some guests don’t feel the need to venture far from Biddenden Green Farm. And when the sun is shining, there’s nothing better than a stroll through the local fields followed by a hearty lunch at one of Smarden’s three
welcoming pubs.

So after four busy years – and a lot of ironing – has Laura been put off life in the countryside? “I wouldn’t go back to London for anything!”

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