Monday, May 18, 2015

Dreadlock Holiday: Jamaica

From Margate to Montego Bay. Well, not quite, I didn't actually make it out of capital city Kingston during my short week in the Caribbean earlier this year.

There primarily to undertake a long-planned Bob Marley pilgrimage on the eve of what would have been his 70th birthday, my trip concluded with the massive outdoor celebratory concert on Kingston Waterfront which saw Jamaica's reggae royalty performing alongside a few of Marley's own sons.

I have to say it was an almost religious experience watching that show from the front row and feeling the love for the national hero who catapulted his genre onto a global stage in the 1970s.

Capleton at Bob Marley 70th birthday concert
        Damian Marley  both © Kris Griffiths

The week leading up to the gig had seen me traverse the city in Bob's footsteps, taking in the neighbourhood he grew up in (Trenchtown), the studio he recorded in (Tuff Gong) and the mountainside retreat he escaped to following the attempt on his life (Strawberry Hill, below).

While so many Western tourists in Jamaica gravitate to coastal resorts like the aforementioned Montego Bay, it was gratifying to 'keep it real' in the city and soak up the local positive vibrations around the annual week of celebration.

It was also fascinating to find out more about the national Rastafari religion that pervades the city and island. There is always a waft of ganja on the breeze but not much in the way of the heavy drinking culture more prevalent on these shores.

I would earnestly recommend to any fans of Marley and reggae music that they make the pilgrimage at least once in their lifetime, to see exactly where the genre's riddims originate from and experience the peace and one love promoted by its leader, struck down way before his time.

My Rough Guides feature on Kingston pilgrimage. 
And review of 70th bday concert for Huffington Post.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Coasting on a Sunny Halloween: Margate

From Zimbabwe to the Kent coast. Last week I visited Margate for the second time this year, the first instance in June to review the locally famous Ambrette for an Esquire piece on Britain's best Indian restaurants, and the second to spend a bit more time in the town after that previous eye-opening visit.

For me, The Ambrette epitomises Margate's transformation from faded seaside town to arty heavyweight, which was a joy to walk around following an absence of around 25 years since last visiting as a boy. From the new Turner Contemporary Gallery to the Banksy-style wall murals around the Old Town, Margate has much more of an edge to it these days, which is pleasing to see after the evidence of its decline in the last couple of decades.

Was just as pleasing to see the plans of the imminent return of Dreamland, the iconic amusement park I'd visited twice as a boy, which has lain dormant for the last ten years. Was quite poignant during my previous visit to see it for the first time in its sorry state through the railings of the car park it currently dwells within.Will definitely be back for its resurrection next year as the world's first heritage amusement park.

While on the subject of that scene, as I mentioned to the Dreamland representative over afternoon tea at the Sands Hotel, I wish the council would do something with that tower block, and I don't mean knock it down - just paint it or give it some kind of arty cladding, in keeping with the rest of the town's new aesthetic. Many local residents and workers don't seem to mind it, but you can see why it's regarded by many others as a bit of an eyesore.

The view over the sea from the Sands Hotel balcony was my parting shot - not quite a Turner sunset but pleasant enough to see what this coastal spot's still got going for it.

And so concluded my Turner's Margate tour. The hotels I stayed in on each visit are also indicative of what the town has to offer on the accommodation front, from the Edwardian charm of Walpole Bay Hotel to the more contemporary stylings of the newer Crescent Victoria, and both at highly reasonable tariffs.

And as the post title mentions, this visit was blessed by the warmest weather seen on record for Halloween, which made the beach strolls around Botany Bay even better, sans the summer crowds.
So yeah, see you next year Margate.

My latest feature on Margate will appear in Waitrose Weekend magazine in January.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Zimbabwe - the Forgotten Land

It's been another lively year so far for getting about - return visits to Liguria, Czech Republic & Lake District - but all of it blanches in comparison to a 10-day tour in spring of the forgotten land of Zimbabwe in southern Africa, which is starting to bang the tourism drum again after years in the doldrums.

The intro to my recent Rough Guides feature sums up the situation:
"It’s been a tragedy for the people of Zimbabwe that the country has garnered so much unfavourable publicity over the last 10 years, with headlines ranging from its controversial land redistribution programme to the ensuing collapsed economy. In the last few years, however, it's made a steady recovery following a new currency, a fairer power-sharing government, international airlines returning to its capital and the EU having long lifted its travel warnings, helping sow seeds of a tourist renaissance..."

Hwange National Park © Kris Griffiths 2014

As the article goes on to explain there are a host of reasons to visit the now-safe nation, from the remotest of wild safaris to the world's largest waterfall in Victoria Falls, where I foolhardily bungee-jumped 110m into its gorge (YouTube link).

Other highlights include ancient ruined cities like Great Zimbabwe in Masvingo, after which the country was named, and cave paintings in Matobo more than 10,000 years old. Photo opportunities were never-ending.

There was a bleaker side to it all though. So many of the people here are still destitute, as journeys through townships in Harare and Bulawayo made clear. 

They're crying out for the tourist dollar, especially after years of absurd hyperinflation, and your money goes into their hands, not to Mugabe's enduring regime. Unfortunately there were only so many mini bongos I could buy from the market stalls, so did my best to sample as many local brews at bars and hotels as I could outside meal times – all helps.

Hopefully Mugabe will be history sooner rather than later as it's certainly off-putting seeing his framed mug everywhere you look, not to mention his people on the streets while he commissions giant statues of himself with their money.

Bulawayo street dwellers © Kris Griffiths 2014

The good outweighs the bad though, and hope springs eternal.
Give Zim a chance.

(More city & safari photos at my Flickr gallery.
Full Rough Guides feature on reasons to visit Zimbabwe.)

Monday, December 16, 2013

Krakow and Auschwitz

So I finally made it to Poland last month, to the medieval city of Krakow and nearby Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Not only was it a particularly memorable weekend thanks to visiting the latter, Krakow itself was memorable for being a great ancient city with a lot more going for it than most non-capitals in this part of the continent.

For a start it has Europe's biggest medieval market square at its heart, with the landmark St Mary's Basilica in one corner and rows of decent-quality restaurants and bars on all sides.

The best waterholes though were in the streets snaking off from the square, a lot of them subterranean spaces hewn out from the under-
lying bedrock so it was almost like drinking in decorated caves – have not seen many such bars anywhere else.

And I've not witnessed a drinking culture so 'spirited' since visiting Dublin, with the big exception that Polish booze is about 3x cheaper so it could get perilous if you're that way inclined (no surprise it's popular with stag parties here).

Away from the square is Wawel Castle and Cathedral on a fortress-like hill overlooking the city. And shortly away from the city is a UNESCO World Heritage attraction, the Wieliczka Salt Mine, which was once one of the world's largest and most profitable industrial sites when salt was the medieval equivalent of today's oil.

There are 200km of passages to walk through (some of), created by 900 years of mining, and at least 2,000 caverns hewn out, as well as some impressive artistic wall carvings.

The most unforgettable part of the weekend though was always
going to be the journey through one of history's darker chapters at Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp complex (have written a separate, more substantial blog piece on my experience there at my other website). 

It was an aptly grey day weather-wise when I visited but here's a gallery of some of the better photos that came out of the camp buildings and piles of bi-products from its victims.

A sombre note to end the year on, but I'd robustly recommend anyone reading to visit both these places in 2014.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Frenetic in Grenoble

Ok, it's not 'proper mileage' by Tokyo/Calcutta standards but I thought I'd post about a French media trip I went on last month as my personal travels won't be extending beyond Europe until next year at least – time and funds allocated to a pair of stag weekends and weddings as two more mates call time.

When I was invited on a trip to Grenoble and the French Alps by Rhône-Alpes Tourism I accepted only because the programme was full of mountain-based activities of the more enlivening variety than the usual strolling around vineyards and villages itinerary I've seen too many times before.

On the first day was zipwiring from great heights between a mountain and the Bastille hill fortress:

The next day was mountain-biking – proper mountain-biking – at breakneck speeds down some of the steeper slopes of a nearby Alpine mountain, sensibly padded out in full body protection:

On the third and final day, it was up another mountain in the Les Deux Alpes range where we at first watched some paragliders descend through the clouds (sadly paragliding wasn't on the itinerary):

But then we ascended even higher to the glacier at the summit – Europe's largest skiable glacier – where you can snowboard even in the height of summer. Here's me carving out a turn:

Not really. I didn't take my SLR on the piste because it's too clunky, and anyway on only the second run I caught an edge, smacked my head on an icy part of the slope and had to limp back down with a nosebleed, double vision and an instant killer headache. 

It wasn't bad concussion or anything but that was the end of my weekend! Luckily we were flying home that evening anyway, although the flight certainly didn't help the throbbing. Lesson learned: wear a helmet, even if experienced.

The other overarching lesson though was that Grenoble is a great city, classically French and with a wealth of frenetic active options to get involved with in the surrounding mountains – perfect for a stag do, which I'd seriously consider now if I ever get hitched.

My full article will be appearing in two London publications at the end of the month. For a fuller gallery of SLR shots taken check out my Flickr page

Saturday, February 16, 2013

A Painful Passage to India - Part 2

So there we both were at the packed departure lounge for Calcutta at Dubai Airport, spaced out and drained from the first leg and six-hour linger, having then searched for a wheelchair for less-mobile mum and now waiting for the first boarding announcement.

Usually the airline lets those in wheelchairs and carrying babies board first but a major hindrance had materialised: a large number of passengers had decided to not so much as queue before the gate as form an impenetrable crowd of bodies and baggage blocking the way for whoever was called first.

Now I could understand the thinking behind this approach if we were about to board a Ryanair short-hop with unallocated seating, when many flyers customarily want first dibs on seats to the extent that they'll start queuing long before boarding, and if you want to guarantee a seat next to your partner then you have join the line.

However, on a long-haul flight with pre-allocated seats, when they call you on incrementally in specific row sections, there is actually zero point in queuing early unless you somehow knew they were calling your seats first. Just standing blank-faced like cows waiting for milking, and then of course refusing to budge when the announcement arrives for rows A to C to please begin boarding.

easy boarding - not realistic

Naturally, those holding the correct tickets can’t get past the unmoving mass, some of whom at the front have the cheek to try walking through anyway, then look affronted when told it’s not their turn by the gate attendant.

And then, to make matters nicely worse, instead of sensibly rectifying the situation with a polite yet firm announcement for everyone to just back away from the gate until your section's been called, the airline then announces for rows D to G to begin boarding, after the previous rows have very visibly been unable to get through.

Hell breaks loose as a mini stampede piles through, Bengali curses and exclamations ringing out as people get shunted. All mum and I can do is hang back shaking our heads at the sheer needless idiocy of it all - I regret not recording the scene with my camera to create a realistic anti-advert for the airline and air travel in general.

flight welcome - not realistic

Once we’d finally scrambled onto the jumbo the bad luck continued. The only thing that had kept me alert and sane on the previous flight was the entertainment screen with games and movies on demand. On this one the screen was too small and hazy and you could only watch what they had chosen at the times they choose. Stuck with an obscure film I could barely see or hear on a much noisier flight, I wasn’t a happy camper.

The only thing that could alleviate the situation was a semi-decent in-flight meal as the extended wakefulness and previous missions had triggered some major rumbles. A dragged-out feed could also kill the best part of an hour too, but it would have to be something soft-ish as my swollen jaw couldn’t handle anything harder than a banana. At long last it arrived.

Lamb medallions - the airline version, ie. having sat around for so long their consistency was closer to pencil erasers than meat. Unable to chew them without wincing and clasping my face, that was the moment I hit rock bottom, 30,000 feet above the Arabian Sea. All my options had dried up. Nothing left could lighten my spirits while trapped in that seat – I couldn’t even drink alcohol as I was on so many antibiotics and feeling rough as fuck. I did try though, and funnily enough it didn’t help.

After managing to scrape together a mini-meal from the limp side vegetables, condiment sachets and mum's donations I had to ride out the rest of the flight playing a primitive version of Battleships on a tiny fuzzy screen that kept freezing, broken up only by an old Bollywood flick with no subtitles.


I spent the last two hours sat motionless with my eyes closed, praying for the release of sleep that wouldn’t arrive until we’d landed and made it out of the airport and back to the hotel. Needless to say that part didn’t go particularly smoothly either but that’s a different story to recount another time, along with the more positive sides to India that weren’t mired in chaos.

In that first jerky hour-long cab ride through central Calcutta however, what should've been an entertaining eye-opening welcome to the city’s bustle seemed like the shrieking road to hell, a ceaseless barrage of noise, fumes and gridlock traffic, emaciated figures looming up at the window at every standstill, mutely begging us captive passengers for currency we didn’t yet possess.

It put things into perspective though – my immediate problems of oral pain, hunger and sleep deprivation would have receded by the next day, the jaw a little longer, although that would be superseded by the affliction cursing most Western visitors here, of which I won’t need to go into much detail.

My hardy mum also needed to dialyse every other day at local hospitals while experiencing the same, struggling with the nature of the beast of a modern-day urban India completely at odds with the more serene memories of her childhood here.

Kris Griffiths BBC link  Kris Griffiths website  Kris Griffiths recent disaster story

Friday, February 15, 2013

A Painful Passage to India: Part 1

I’ve had some great luck on flights over the years. For my very first long-haul, to LA in the mid-90s, my fam and I were jammily upgraded to business class after my dad’s winning banter with the check-in clerk.

Then in early 2011 I hit it off with a ginger girl sat beside me on a budget flight to Marrakech, telling her she reminded me of Catherine Tate with her Easyjet-orange hair, a bold negging gambit that paid off as we're still together (and she looks nothing like Catherine Tate).

It's not all been good though. A domestic flight to Inverness in 2004 was interrupted halfway by the pilot announcing that due to an “engine fault” we had to turn back to London immediately. Not only was that return descent as trepidatious as can be, we had to wait hours to get back into the air and no one was compensated.

Finally, a night-flight to Tokyo in 2009 turned into a bizarre battle of endurance with the paranoid Japanese man next to me, which ended worse for him than it did for me.

All of them were blown out of the sky though by my Emirates flight to Calcutta last month, during which I reached a nadir of despair that was to become a harbinger of my stay in India.

The prologue to it all is that I’d actually been looking forward to the trip for months, to be finally visiting my Anglo-Indian mum's hometown (she'd not returned since childhood) and to meet at the triennial global reunion in Calcutta hundreds of fellow Anglo-Indians whose dying community I’d just featured for the BBC.

The first major spanner in the works was that a long-dormant wisdom tooth had suddenly chosen to unleash a siren-wailing level of pain in the months leading up to the trip. My dentist told me it had to come out and booked me in for the extraction – five days before the flight.

The op wasn't that bad, the only truly grim moment a preliminary injection penetrating my gum almost to the jawbone, but it was nothing compared to the ensuing days of swelling, inability to eat and ultimately a rank infection necessitating further injections back into the wound.

dentist website photo - a bit unrealistic

By the time I’d arrived at Gatwick with my mum I’d taken over 50 painkillers in five days as well as a triple-course of antibiotics and now a long stretch of anti-malaria pills which, as many will affirm, can make you feel nauseous for hours.

My final problem was that as I can’t sleep on planes the first seven-hour night-leg was spent awake and aware of a new development – altitude pressure causing extraction-wound throbbing. Then after landing in Dubai there were six hours to kill before the connecting flight, so into the bright morning we traipsed, looking for a taxi we could haggle with a handful of old dollars and a five-pound note to drive us round the sights and keep us alert 'til check-in.

classic brave face

Funnily enough we found an Indian driver seduced by the fiver of all things who agreed to take us on a whistle-stop tour of the Burj al-Arab and Khalifa. It was trippy enough beholding these behemoths jet-lagged in blazing sunshine having left freezing dark England ten hours previously, but by the time the next busy departure lounge swam into view five hours later, that’s when things really, really started to get shit.

Continued in part 2: Dubai to Calcutta