Amy Guy

Raw Blog

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Interdisciplinary Memories

tl;dr - My MSc group made an art installation. Me? Art? Shocking, right. I've formed some new ideas and opinions, and had lots of fun in the meantime. Photos coming soon.

This semester I have been one fifth of the brains behind the ICP Group Project. Our brief was essentially to make something between us by December. There's quite a lot of scope there. The fact that we're working out of the College of Art probably also leant a few assumptions to what the final outcome should be.

When we started this adventure, I was still coming to terms with the notion that not everything needed a distinct purpose to be a valid contribution to society. What I mean is, whilst I understood the concept of art in principle, I still couldn't quite align the idea of art for art's sake with my view of the world. During the seminars, research and discussions of the past few months, things like the value of play; the possibilities opened by beginning research without a clear goal; the emergence of new ideas by unfocussed exploration; have all started to round out an initially biased view of the area in which I am now studying.

Don't get me wrong. I'm still not going to look at an unadorned mirror on a wall, labelled 'Untitled', and nod my head and make thoughtful noises about the meaning of identity. Some 'art' is just plain silly.

But I'm willing to take a little more time to think about the methods and thought processes that went into creating something, and what might be the end result in addition to the physical outcome. It's likely that I'll still be more of a fan of art that was created to raise awareness, to provoke thought, or to explore innovative uses of new media or technology. But art that was created 'just because' will get more of a chance in my books now than it might have done three or four months ago.

Being part of this kind of creative process no doubt influenced my altered perspective. We started the semester as five strangers: Katherine, literature; Tina, video editing and broadcast; Agnese, musical theory and graphic design; Liz, sociology and prettyful artsy things; and myself, that new fangled Interweb nonesense, and writing. We have grown into unit, mish-mashed our skills, learnt a whole lot from each other, and been fed extensively by Liz. It has been noted on a number of occasions how well we all gelled from the start. Thus the 'group' part of the group project produced no problems at all. That just leaves the 'project' part...

So at the start, when notions of an 'installation' or 'performance' were thrown around, I was almost horrified. The open nature of the project left us so much scope, we could pool our skills to do something truly useful or revolutionary. I didn't want to just 'make art'. My head was still in the computing world where the goal is always to make something that people will use, or that will be informative, or influential; that will reach people.

I wasn't completely close-minded, obviously. I went with the flow, as I am wont to do. And in doing so, I learnt much.

It was swiftly decided that 'memory' would be a suitable topic to explore for the group project. We start taking photos of our group meetings in case we could incorporate a super-meta aspect but we forgot quite quickly to keep this up.

Our goal became an installation, which was exhibited at Inspace on the 13th of December. Photos coming soon! This consisted of four boxes, metaphors for memory, and a wall hanging, each intended to explore a different aspect of the elusive theme. We ended up with Woven Memories (Liz's beautiful wall hanging), Spatial Memories (Katherine look at historical memory stores), Digital Memories (guess who), Tidal Memories (Tina's view on the insubstantial nature of memory) and Fluid Memories (Agnese's investigation of social nostalgia). Upon opening each the four boxes, projections trigger onto surrounding walls, enveloping the visitor in the work.

Although I had an idea of wanting to use social media as part of the project, it was Katherine's idea of physical records of memory (memory spaces) that particularly inspired my approach; this prompted me to think of how in the present day a subset of this is virtual memory spaces. An initial idea was to join Katherine on one of her photo taking expeditions around Glasgow and whilst she took photos of physical memory spaces, I would check-in to them using Foursquare, creating a connection between the historical physical and the contemporary virtual. Other commitments meant I was unable to go to Glasgow on the date planned, unfortunately, and this idea wasn't pursued.

Having decided that we would each dedicate something physical to the aspect we had chosen to consider, I sourced a box, RAM and old maps and was pleased to entrust the decoration to Liz who is far more proficient at making things pretty than me. (I absolutely loved the outcome).

Tina and I applied our technical abilities to learning the basics of Max/MSP and how to use Arduino boards. I am particularly pleased about our decision to make the installation interactive; I learnt a lot and a door that I didn't previously know the location of has now been opened to me. The use of Arduino stuff is something I will definitely investigate further in the not-too-distant future.

I knew not to be too prescriptive from the outset, as what I was building would evolve as I discovered things I could and couldn't do. I dropped Foursquare for the final outcome because the output wasn't that interesting, and concentrated instead on Flickr and Twitter. I went through several iterations using different methods to try to get around various limitations of the Google Maps API. Eventually I settled on the jQuery plugin GMap3; although I still hit a few stumbling blocks at the last minute that I had to botch around because of time pressure (using an AppleScript to refresh the page was not the most elegant of solutions, but the JavaScript just wouldn't work. It didn't make sense, I swear. It did, however, introduce me to AppleScript for the first time, and the power that lays behind that...).

The aesthetics of the thing could have done with a bit more work, but the amount of time I had to spend getting the script to technically work meant I was left with much less time and energy to focus on the appearance than I would have liked.

Last minute problems with hardware meant that we had to lose the interactive element of my box (mine was the last one we were due to wire up). This is in part what encouraged the change of location of my projection, however, and I think it was far more effective beamed on the floor than it would have been projected onto a wall. Plus, having it triggered and hidden by the opening and closing of a box seems unnecessary, and perhaps counter intuitive in hindsight, as during the exhibition people would watch the activity on the map for extended periods of time.

I enjoyed working on a project where artistic intention was more important than code quality, and a final outcome was not strictly defined. This gave me flexibility to explore and work outside of the scope of computer science boundaries that I'm used to. Though obviously creative thinking and outside-of-the-box solutions are highly encouraged in software development fields, there is certainly an underlying rigidity or 'way of doing things' that is absent when applying such technology in an artistic context. And if I do end up back in the 'official' computing world, I'm certain that the kinds of experiences I gain during ICP will massively enhance my skillset as a creative developer.

You can check out what I projected here. This has only been tested in Chrome - I cannot be held responsible for irregularities that may occur using other browsers :)

It's worth noting that there are some truly wonderful people who gave up their time, resources, advice and patience to help us out during the project. Couldn't have done it without them!

Et, voila:

Remember When..?

I'll link some more photos asap...

Monday, October 31, 2011

Nanowrimo: Pre-madness

I've never sat up and counted down to the first of November before.

In 2007 I used Nanowrimo as an opportunity to kick myself into writing some more of a novel I started many years ago (reaching 35k new words by the end of the month) and in 2008 I took part in earnest, came up with a totally fresh idea the night before and hit the fifty thousand, two hundred and twenty ninth word of Milo's World before midnight on the 30th. It was, quite simply, the best feeling.

In both 2009 and 2010, my degree objected strongly, and I didn't even try.

This year, I know what being too busy to take part feels like, and I know what missing out feels like. But I also know what taking part feels like, and I know what winning feels like.

This year, I'm writing an old idea in a new way. A short story from around 2007 sparked novel scribblings in 2009, which got left to fester. Looking at these scribblings with eyes two years older, I plan to take the core concept and solidify it into something readable.

That's the theory, at least.

I'm terribly excited about creating some new lives. Then destroying one of those lives, and watching the effects cascade.

I'm mostly nervous because I've never written anything set truly in this universe before. Fifty percent of Milo's World was, and that fifty percent was from the point of view of a child with an enormously vivid imagination, so that doesn't really count.

A good chunk of Currently Untitled will be set inside the main character's head; a head which is subject to the physics and realities of this universe regardless of how much her mind tries rebel against them.

Her name is Harriet, by the way, and her little daughter is Rosy. I'll probably tweet about them as real people, because for the next 30 days, they might as well be. Rosy's dad is called Zeke, and Harriet's inconsequential boyfriend's name is Paul, as far as I know. I'm also aware of the existence of Patrice, a panda with an eye patch, and Arthur, a tiny penguin.

I'll probably post some extracts here. But I can't post daily progress, because of various linearity issues that I may or may not elaborate on in time.

But now, I'm going to stare at the counter on the front page of the Nanowrimo site, and try to figure out that first line...

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Spells wear out

One of the first lessons Turald learned during his time at Castle Qythe was that spells wear out. They weaken, they lose their power, the more they are used. They were all taught this, he and his classmates, probably in their very first week of study. But few eight year olds take this kind of wisdom to heart. Most are keen to crack on with casting, and nobody thought to question why some of their oldest tutors never demonstrated even the simplest of enchantments.

For as long as he could remember, Turald had loved to explore dark places. He loved to see what was out of sight; to make known the unknown. When he was fifteen, he discovered a whole section of the castle's cellars that had been lost for centuries. To the delight of his wizened mentors, the expanse he found was filled with age-old liquor which had been promptly and enthusiastically excavated. It was from then that his freedom had been unofficially granted to roam and explore the castle grounds as extensively as he saw fit. Recognising his gift for discovery, Turald's studymaster, the ancient but sprightly Professor Chalmak, quietly overlooked Turald's disregard for out-of-hours and restricted-area rules that were strictly imposed upon the other students.

In a broom cupboard, Turald once found a mousehole that lead two hundred metres north and seventy four years into the past. One of the seniors had been able to use this to make peace with a long-dead, estranged father who had been in that classroom, all those years ago.

In the shadowy corner of the library marked 'secret', Turald had found the headmaster's daughter, missing for over forty years.

In a tunnel that he had found through crawling into a large oak chest, Turald uncovered a delicate glass vial containing the last breath of the first philosopher.

When Turald realised that his elders thought him special for his findings, he began to keep a diary of them. Through his diary entries, he noticed patterns in his actions. Or rather, repetitions. The shedding of light was the key. Illumination was all he needed to do to bring something once hidden out into the open. His ability to conjure just the right incandescence became his greatest gift. Thus, he practised with vigour.

Caves, caverns, abandoned ruins: Turald devoured their secrets, consumed their stories. He exhausted the castle grounds, graduated from the Qythe Academy, and ventured forth into the Olde Lande, searching without hesitation for doors to throw open. Eyes aglow with his own special kind of vision, he absorbed the mysteries of a world in shadow.

But spells wear out.

He recalled this first in a forest, under a bristling canopy so thick that the blackened foliage groping at his legs had long since found ways to sustain itself that did not rely on the land's pale sun. He could see the trinkets that had been stowed away by blind magpies in treetrunk nests; the hoards of stolen food secreted into the undergrowth by milky-eyed squirrels. And then, he couldn't.

The flicker in his vision was fleeting, but enough to panic Turald, just for a moment. Enough to make that first ever lesson come rushing back. Still young, still adventurous, Turald shook his concern aside.

Deeper in the forest, he found a well; a man-made hole into the earth, darker even than woods entombing it.

Why had man built such a thing so far into the shade? Turald could not resist.

He descended, uncovering a concealed tunnel with his brilliant sight. Time having vacated entirely, Turald followed the route that stretched before him. No magic nor mystery, nor hidden treasure presented itself, and the rhythm of his steps lulled him into a trance. He walked blind for many hours before he realised he was doing so.

A droplet of water striking the tip of his nose roused him enough for him to realise he saw nothing. Turald stopped. The sudden lack of motion was jarring, dizzying. Turald sat. Water seeped into the hem of his robes, and he sat. Years of advice, words of warning, from teachers, mentors, elders, echoed through his mind.

Spells wear out.

Spells lose their power. Lose their potency. Lose their meaning.

Save the important spells for when you need them the most. Best to leave this world with a spell in your heart, than to leave it because your spells have run out.

Turald's light had run out, so he sat.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Interactive-Bliction: > Investigate door.

> Investigate door.

Your eyes are drawn again to the marks on the small door, and you squint, taking a tentative step forward. A small cloud of powder rises around your foot, and a floorboard creaks. The creak is low, and to you, sounds welcoming. Like the house is inviting you in.

Encouraged by this, you continue. You have to watch out for the things cluttering the floor, and step carefully around an upturned plastic chair. That obviously wasn't part of the original d├ęcor, and despite the heavy coating of dust, you assume it must have been left by the documentary crew. Your foot clacks against something heavy.

> Look at floor.

The dust makes everything the same dark grey, but there are distinct shapes that you can see. Several small plastic chairs are visible, laying on their sides or with their legs pointing into the air. A standing lamp with a wide shade has fallen over at the foot of the stairs, to your left. There's a knee-hight rectangular box against a wall to your right, with what looks like a padlock hanging from the front, and beside it lie pieces of a large and once-ornate vase. At your feet is something long and narrow, and a glimmer of metal peeks through the dust. When your foot made contact, it felt pretty solid. You kick it again to roll it over, and dust peels away to reveal a brassy candlestick holder.

> Take candlestick holder.

You pick up the object, about half the length of your forearm. The metal is cool, but surprisingly not cold. Feeling like you need a souvenir, you tuck it into your coat pocket, and continue to pick your way across the hall.

> Inventory.

In your coat pockets you have the candlestick holder, half a bar of Dairy Milk, and the keys to your flat. In your trouser pocket is your mobile phone, which is turned off so your friends won't disturb you, and some change.

> Investigate door.

The small door is in front of you, and to your left is the sturdy looking bannister that runs up the side of the staircase. You could touch the bannister and the wall to your right at the same time, if you stretched out your arms. It's harder to see because you're no longer in direct line of the light from the entrance (which you left open), but you lean to inspect the front of the door. Cobweb trails curl around your finger tips as you run your hand down the dark wood. You can feel carvings on the surface, and blow and swipe at the dusty layer until the patterns are no longer so obscured.

You suppress a splutter at the thick and itchy air you're breathing. Some of the shapes carved into the door feel like cogs, but there's something else as well. Something winding, with a shape more organic. You only wish you could see all of the details.

Your wandering hand finds a wooden protrusion at waist height, and you try to turn the handle. It moves stiffly, but the door itself doesn't budge. Carefully, you lean your shoulder against it and push harder, but to no avail.

> _

[What do you do next? Comment!]

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Fiction: The Hero of Monarar

[February 2009]

“Ours is but a small existence. We are but simple people. On this planet of ours, superheroes were but stories. Until today. We are gathered here to give thanks to the new Hero of Monarar, the almighty Ora. No-one knows from whence he came or where he goes. No-one knows how it comes that he moves so fast, predicts events with such precision. No-one knows why he has no tail, why his skin is dark, why his ears are sideways on his head. But it is to him we owe our utmost gratitude. It is he who freed us – who will continue to free us – from those that seek to imprison and enslave.

“We must support him as he travels our planet, rescuing villages, saving families.

“Here is to Ora the tailless, Ora the Hero of Monarar!”

The applause was deafening.

“Why didn’t I take the gloves?” Ora mumbled to himself. The rock was grazing his palms as he scrambled up the near-vertical cliff face.

“Because you’re a moron,” replied his subconscious. “Oh, I won’t need gloves. It’s not like I’ll be going anywhere cold, or, or doing any climbing. Moron.”

“Shuddup,” Ora spat. “Either shuddup or get out of my head and help, why dontcha? Huh?”

“Hows about you keep climbing, how about that? Oh, watch out.”

The blast of a laser smacked into the rock an arm’s reach above his head, and Ora ducked in time to dodge the heap of dislodged stone that tumbled down onto him.

“Oh some sixth sense you are. Warn me about a laser blast that’s already hit the rock. Nice work.”

“I warned you! It didn’t hit you, did it?”

“Waste of good coin you were. ‘Revolutionise your life’ my rear end. Just a pity you don’t come with a mute function,” Ora continued to grumble as he climbed. His subconscious reluctantly helped guide his limbs, warning him before he put his weight on unsteady outcrops, or grasped at stones that were not well attached to the surface, and occasionally to hesitate in time to avoid the lasers of those that were targeting him.

In the village, children were crying for their mothers. Mothers they could see, but not reach. A wall of men with guns divided the room into three sections; one for the mothers, one for the boys and one for the girls.

The men had once been fathers, husbands, sons, but now were faceless, armoured robots, unrecognizable to the ones they had once loved. They were hardly men at all.

Two days ago, Millsy and her brother had been collecting berries on the outskirts of the village. Her brother had paused for a rest, falling asleep by a bush beneath the warm, afternoon sun, and Millsy had wandered off alone, in search of adventure.

As she skipped further and further from the village boundaries, her mother’s words had begun to echo through her mind.

“Stay together when you’re out now. When you’re on the edge of the village, always keep one eye on the horizon. Keep a lookout, and if you see them coming, you run back and warn us all so we can get ourselves hidden, you understand?”

No-one had bothered to explain to Millsy exactly who them was, but she had caught enough glimpses of the news over the past few weeks that she knew that village after village on her tiny planet were disappearing off the map.

Her brother said it was invaders from outer space, and that had scared her until he had pulled her tail and run away, giggling “no such thing! No such thing! Millsy believes in aliens, there’s no such thing!”

And so despite her mother’s warnings, Millsy wandered away from the village, encouraged by her childish confidence that there were no alien invaders, and so nothing could be coming that was a danger.

When she saw the lights on the horizon, she stopped to watch. Darting, flashing beams. Bright colours, sparkling, glimmering, dashing through the sky and across the ground. Her neck craned farther and farther back as she watched those in the sky. Soon they were above her and surrounding her. There were straight flashes, like lightning; curling spirals of colour; pulsating circles and tiny pinpricks in the sky.

They overtook her, and Millsy spun around at once, chasing them back towards the village, not wanting to miss out on the display.

“You still haven’t justified why I paid so much for you,”

“Duck – incoming, eleven o’clock. Because I’m the best. There are no other warning systems like a sixth sense.”

“So far you’ve just been an annoyance.”

“Oh, and all those laser blasts, you could have dodged without my help?”

“I wouldn’t be here at all if it wasn’t for you. I’d still be enjoying myself on the Fourth Moon of Rasta.”

“You’re blaming me for your insatiable need to try new, mind-altering technologies? It’s my fault that you got me installed in the first place? And where… Not that one, it’s loose. And where did you get me installed, again?”

Ora mumbled.

“What was that? A back alley in Rasta’s infamous Flea Market? I’m certain you only have yourself to blame if I’m not what you expected.”

Ora growled. “Look, are we nearly at the top yet?”

“Not too far now.”

Then the device attached to his belt began to beep slowly, and Ora smiled. “Right you are.”

The beeps became more high pitched and more frequent as he continued to ascend. The relief was enormous when he could finally see the top of the cliff.

Millsy was whimpering alongside the others. She could see her mother across the room, but her brother was not to be found, and this upset her more.

A small arm snaked around her shoulders. Her best friend, Lella.

“Don’t cry Mills. You believe in the Hero of Monarar, don’t you? You know he will come to rescue us. He’ll set us free and put the men right again, just like he did in the other villages. It was on the news, my Mummy said. You’ll see.”

“How many more do I need?”

“Just one.”


“Yes, really. But what am I, your secretary? You shouldn’t rely on me to know these things for you, I’m an extra sense not more memory.”

“Well you might have to start learning to be memory, it’s a damn sight more useful than whatever else you do, and I’ve already gone over the maximum safe number of extra memory installations I can have.”

Ora heaved himself the last few inches of the climb and rolled over the ground at the top, breathing heavily.

“Move a foot to the left.”

He obeyed at once, rolling out of the way of yet another laser blast.

“Haven’t they given up yet,” he grumbled.

“Apparently not,” replied his mind. “Maybe you should find some shelter while you work out where the next device is.”

He pulled out his frantically beeping scanner. “Whatever, it can’t be far.”

Ora stood up, trusting his sixth sense to warn him of any more incoming lasers, and scanned the landscape. He could see buildings in the distance.

“Looks like they’ve got a fireworks show or something going on over there like at the last place. For a backward developing planet, they sure are celebrating a lot.”

“You should run,” suggested his subconscious, and Ora complied.

“Of all the planets to crash on, I not only hit a backward one, but a backward one that keep their nuclear cells inside yooge great fireworks machines.”

“Did it occur to you that the cells might be powering the fireworks machines?”

Ora was lying flat on his belly beneath what appeared to be a carpenters workbench. The workshop had apparently been cleared out – equipment heaped carelessly against the walls – to make room for the enormous multi-faceted machine in the centre. It was shooting out streak after streak of light in every direction. The beams rebounded off walls and furniture until they escaped through windows, or through the increasing number of holes in the walls.

The machine was slightly translucent, and Ora could see the power source he needed behind a series of hinged flaps leading to the heart of the thing.

“Here we go again.”

“You shouldn’t steal.”

There was a pause.

“Sorry,” said his subconscious. “Still a bit of official programming in me. I’ll work on it.”

Ora rolled his eyes and began to creep forwards. He had ordered a fully stripped down version of the sixth sense; it was all very well programming morals into mindware, but it didn’t half screw them up in conflicting situations.

A number of the women leapt to their feet, squealing and crying as the not-men moved to surround the small huddle of boys. The terrified lads were ushered to stand and guided slowly out of the room. The mothers wailed, pushing against the unmoving wall of men as they tried to reach their children. The boys themselves were silent, too terrified even to cry, panicked eyes staring back for one last time at their mothers and sisters before they were lead across a courtyard to the carpenters workshop.

“There are people coming.”

Ora froze. He had got through two of the compartment doors – there were just two more layers between his hand and the nuclear cell. His fingers brushed the third door, searching for the minuscule lock.

“I can do this. I can’t stop now.”

“It’s too late for you to hide now. But they won’t see you from the doorway. Just hurry.”

The first boy was pushed in front of the machine. He stood there, trembling, staring up at the dark, hulking construction. It was spewing sheets of light from every surface. Ora could roughly make the lad out through the semi-transparent innards of the machine. Nothing else seemed to be happening as Ora scrabbled frantically with the third lock, breaking it, reaching further in to move on to the fourth.

The boy flinched as a rebounding streak of light hit him in the chest. Ora did not see the child crumple to the ground, or begin to twitch as plates of armour appeared from nowhere, sliding themselves over the small limbs. The boy became upright as the armour covered him. He was standing by the time a helmet grew over his head. Then he walked stiffly, as if controlled by strings, to join the ranks of the other not-men.

The next terrified child was pushed into position.

Ora had missed the entire transformation, squinting upwards with his tongue sticking out as he worked the fourth and final lock.

The lock broke, the door swung in, and he pushed his arm further into the machine, straining to wrap his fingers around the cell.

The second boy, hands over his mouth as he awaited his fate, caught sight of movement through the machine. He saw the hand in the centre, followed the arm back to a face wrought with concentration.

His eyes widened. “Ora, Hero of Monarar,” he breathed. The stories were true. The legendary hero was here, was going to save him, as he had saved so many others. The lad watched in awe as Ora’s hand closed around the heart of the lightning beast, and wrenched it directly from its body. The beast shuddered and died, spitting out a final few shards of light as it did so. The not-men crumpled to the floor, armour plates dissolving into nothing as they retransformed.

The boy cried in relief and turned to the others to tell them what he had seen – who he had seen.

“Leggit!” Shouted Ora’s both conscious and subconscious simultaneously, and the hero bolted out of the workshop, back in the direction of his ship.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Interactive-Bliction: > Start

You find yourself in the house, because you have been drawn to it. Not like others, who went because they'd heard tales of haunting and wanted to prove their worth, or those who blazed in with tape measures and calculators and felt a right to value and analyse. Your friends are not of the type to make or take dares, and they stay away from the looming building. They didn't know of your fascination. And they would have done their best to distract you, had they. You don't want distraction. You want to follow your instinct. It has taken several years, and so much staring from afar, so much day-dreaming.

> Cross the threshold

Floorboards creak as you take that first tentative step onto the porch. Dry leaves and partially disintegrated police tape crackle underfoot. A wrinkled, yellowed sign had been stuck to the door, and now hangs from one corner only. It warns of falling masonry and unsafe walls, but you know the house is as sturdy as the day it had been built. You feel it in your gut.

The place hasn't been properly sealed off for years. A rusted chain is thrust around one of the oversize brassy door knobs, but there's no padlock in sight. You have distant memories of the doors being nailed shut with enormous planks of wood, but they are long gone.

> Enter

Your fingers touch the rough wood of the door, and immediately become one with it. That is, a small splinter embeds itself within you, and you grimace. Then, one deep breath later, you push.

You're expecting a creak, but none comes. The door swings smoothly, as if recently oiled (but you know that's not the case. You just know). There light within comes only from the doorway, your silhouette looks blankly up at you from the floor. You can make out the shapes of broken furniture, clutter, in this hallway with no windows. As your eyes adjust, both they and your nose pick up the layers of dust that coat everything. There were people in here just last week - you'd seen the van outside, ghost hunters, filming a 'documentary' - and yet nothing was disturbed. Yours were the only footprints in the grime on the floor.

Gradually, your eyes adjust to the gloom, and a broad staircase has materialised in front of you. It looks grand, far grander than you expected from everything else you knew - felt - about the house. It, too, is coated with dust, and the steps are broad in width, but look narrow in breadth. Like you might have to climb them on tiptoe. In the wall to your left, a door hangs off its hinges, and beyond the frame you can see only darkness. To the right of the staircase, in the dim distance, you can make out another door. It's smaller, and firmly closed. It's hard to tell from where you stand, but you think you can make out intricate patterns carved into the wood. Or maybe it's just cobwebs.

You snuffle involuntarily as the dust tickles your nose. You've come this far; not much point in standing around in the doorway all day.

> _

[So now you decide what I write next. Comment or tweet at me, and I'll go with a majority. If no-one is reading this, I'll go with what I feel like when the time comes. For the unfamiliar, reasonable commands would be things like 'go forwards', 'go left', 'go right'. Nothing too taxing there.]

Saturday, September 17, 2011

University 2.0: first impressions of a new world

I'm excited.

I'm scared.

I'm filled with anticipation.

My feet are tired, my brain is in overdrive, and my imagination is on fire.

And classes haven't even started yet.

I'm inspired by the city. It's beautiful; wet and green and cobbled. Each and every one of the University buildings I've seen has a character all of its own. I've walked many miles further than necessary, over the past seven days, mostly due to map-related incompetencies. I can't wait to hit the multitude of museums and delve into the vibrant history embedded within these streets.

I'm inspired by the University. Tours of the facilities this week have blown my mind and stripped limitations from my imagination. In my leap from science to art, it suddenly seems okay to break all the rules, okay to experiment, and - though I have not quite come to terms with this idea yet - okay to consider form over function.

I'm inspired by the people. Somewhat unexpectedly (perhaps I didn't do enough background research before I came), University staff involved with my course have histories, projects and research in areas that directly map to my interests and passions, some of which I'd almost forgotten I had. My coursemates are a diverse bunch, with backgrounds in literature, music, film, art and social sciences, and there is not a doubt in my mind that our skills will complement each other perfectly as we collaborate on projects over the year ahead.

I'm inspired by freshers week. I've gone along to meetings and events organised by a ton of different societies, mostly food related. I've met some great people whose names I've already forgotten. I've picked up plenty of free stuff, and I've talked to plenty of strangers in that way that is only really socially acceptable during freshers week.

I'm daunted by age and by time. I've hung out with first years, and felt horrendously old upon realising I'm no longer eighteen. I've been to postgraduate events, and become tiny in a room full of people who are all older, wiser, and have far more idea of why they're here and what they're going to do. Most of them don't, of course, but I feel inexperienced and lost nonetheless. And I am suddenly conscious of every passing second, terrified that a year will not be enough for me to dream of everything I want to accomplish here, let alone accomplish it.

I'm fed up of people asking me what I'm studying. I always have to say it twice, and I have the standard blank-look face emblazoned on my subconscious. I really need to come up with an elevator pitch a Twitter pitch summary of what the course is about. By that, I mean what the course is about for me. Because everybody's interpretation will be entirely different.

So, this semester, in the all new Interdisciplinary Creative Practices...

I have a core course of Postgraduate Research Methods, attendable by all postgraduate students, and in the case of masters students, a chance to kick start a PhD, should we choose to do one in the future.

I have a core module called ICP1, which is a series of seminars lead by representatives from a variety of disciplines, covering a wide landscape of interesting topics.

I'll be part of a collaborative effort for a pretty hefty looking group project, which is as yet undiscussed.

I am now a member of CIRCLE, and will be attending seminars and conferences lead by those smart people.

And I have 20 credits worth of option, which I have elected to fill with the Advanced Natural Language Processing course from the School of Informatics. That's right. I'm doing a course about something I've never studied before, with the word 'advanced' in the title. Deep end alert. (Those Who Know seem to think I'll be able to manage it, so here we go).

Naturally with all of this inspiration floating around, I've started brainstorming for projects. My recent forays into the world of interactive fiction turned out to have been perfectly timed and entirely relevant. Since I'm not particularly talented with regards to the visual or aural arts, the textual ones are likely to be come a primary focus of mine. Team this up with technology, and I'm bursting with ideas. Not to mention overflowing with joy, as I revisit my writing roots and childhood dreams in earnest. And, hopefully, also in a way that is socially relevant. Because if I end up doing research that doesn't in some way impact upon the human condition, I won't quite forgive myself. I am getting the impression that in the art world, everything can be socially relevant. I still view this as a potential slippery slope, and am determined to ensure I don't get too wrapped up in my own little art cloud that I forget about the rest of the world. It's all very well exploring and speculating, and hypothesising and dreaming. But I think it rather important that that lead to action.

And doesn't this relate quite nicely to this week's ICP1 reading? I'm half way through Two Cultures by CP Snow, and I swear that there is a small metaphorical possibility that this guy jumped into the future, into my head, gathered a mess of thoughts from the past three to five years, made them coherent and put them into the context of his own decade, then published the essay. How cheeky. I haven't finished it yet, but it is so far an entertaining and relevant read; I will likely offer further analysis upon completion. And probably after the seminar in which we discuss it.

All in all, I'm pretty damn sure I'm in the right place. This move was a last minute and unexpected (even on my part) decision, and I'm pleased I made it. I'm more aware than ever of the idea that has always lurked in the back of my mind: that I have a scientist's mind, but the soul of an artist. And this interdisciplinary adventure offers me an unrivaled opportunity to explore the potential offered by that combination.

PS. If anyone can come up with ANY reason for me to NEED to use the 3D printer here in the next year, PLEASE get in touch.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Fiction and more fiction!

I wrote two stories today! Without even the random words. I'm on fire. One was inspired by old people at the bus stop (maybe getting out of the house helped?) and I titled it An Inconvenient Youth. I'm still in debates with myself about this. The second was a ten minute jobby that I started two paragraphs before I finished the first (indeed, on the same document) and I called Whut is Lurve Anyhaw?. It similarly takes place on a bus, but is a primarily a monologue in what I hope is a southern US accent.

Both of these stories are currently on an adventure along with the conspicuously absent Ethel and Jake, which should take no longer than two months or so to complete. Depending on the outcome of the adventure, they may arrive here.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Forced fiction 3: bottom, cabbage, concealing, promotion, strip

(What is forced fiction?)

[This one was tough. Two two-hundred-word false starts, at least twenty four hours of unproductivity and a session on 750words to force extraction of every thought that drifted through my mind, however insignificant, later...]

[Disclaimer: All persons and scenarios portrayed her are fictional, and any resemblance to real people and places is entirely coincidental.]

Life circumstances twisted and turned, times changed, redundancies occurred, and one way or another, I found myself living with my mother again. I'd been back in the family home for two whole weeks before I became suspicious. The house routine had changed little in the years I'd been away. My mother worked her way through consistent mountains of laundry and ironing, courtesy of my siblings. She cooked and cleaned and tended the garden. She complained that the house was always a mess and that she never had time to read or play the piano. She claimed to relish rainy days because she could resist the allure of the outside world, and do chores in the house.

She incorporated my laundry into the household cycle and it was easy to let her take over. She ironed clothes of mine that I hadn't ironed in years, insisting it was necessary. She was critical in conversations with neighbours and family friends about having to 'look after' me again now I was home, but wouldn't let me cook for myself and swore she loved having me around the house.

She was at home all the time during the summer. She had a job change to look forward to at the beginning of the next school year. It involved fewer hours and less responsibility. To her, this was a promotion, and she frequently mentioned how much she anticipated creating a new routine around her work, finishing chores in the afternoons and having weekends free for gardening and baking.

Her hobbies truly were the household tasks, and she was always engaged with them. But she was right. The house was always a mess. Not dirty, just untidy. Disorganised, cluttered, in a way that is entirely excusable for a family with toddlers, for example. It had been in this state for my entire life, so it took a while for me to notice. I confined my own mess to my bedroom, and my slothful brother and workaholic sister had organised their lifestyles to create barely a ripple in our mother's day-to-day running of the home. So as a lifelong and proud homemaker with near-enough grown up children... why wasn't every room spotless? I'm not just criticising. She regularly bemoaned this fact. She had time and inclination and no-one to hinder her. In addition, the hours she spent in the garden resulted in fresh vegetables and endless fresh floral arrangements in the kitchen. Yet the garden was in a similar state of disarray to the house. There were weeds; vine plants spreading well beyond their allocated area; paving slabs misaligned; borders overflowing onto footpaths.

I reiterate that I never had a problem with this habitat. The place was homely rather than cold and inhuman as an immaculate room can be, and the garden had character. I was simply baffled by her unexplainable inability to control this entirely normal environment, despite an obvious desire to do so.

That's when I started to wonder if my mother was not all she appeared to be. The more I thought about it, the more I became convinced that she was concealing something.

From my bedroom window one morning, I watched her make her way slowly down the garden path, stopping every now and again to turn the head of a flower, or pull up a weed. She made it to the vegetable patch at the bottom of the garden and spent five minutes hunched over the cabbages; I assumed, picking off the caterpillars.

Then she vanished.

I blinked, and squinted at the spot where she had been kneeling. There was no corner for her to have disappeared round, and no mysterious hole in the earth through which she could have fallen. I figured if I was ever going to find out what was going on, now was the time.

I noticed nothing unusual as I approached the vegetable patch. Crouching down in the same place my mother had been, I peered at the leaves of the first cabbage, mostly shredded to lace by the caterpillars that were creeping over the surface. I remember thinking how big some of the caterpillars seemed to be. Then how big the cabbage was, then all at once the ground beneath me had transformed from soil to some kind of soft, green, fibrous fabric.

I froze as I realised I had materialised in the midst of a hub of bustling activity. People... creatures... flurried around me, mostly carrying things, sometimes dragging things. Seconds passed, and my presence didn't appear to have altered anyone's course so I relaxed a little.

Ahead of me, the green expanse stretched out for perhaps a mile before the ground started to curve upwards, becoming almost vertical before disappearing from view into a tangle of vine-like tendrils. The surface itself was divided into sections by smooth, pale green elevations that looked a bit like really long, curving speed bumps, and it was between - never over - these divisions that the residents of this populous land scurried. And as for those residents... My first assumption had been that they were oversized bugs, but surreptitious closer inspection made apparent various more humanoid features, exaggerated into insect-like shapes. Human hands on the end of an elongated arm with a backward elbow joint; an extra pair of otherwise perfectly ordinary jean-clad legs; shining organic body armour; curling antennae; uncomfortable looking food pipes replacing noses and mouths. I observed all of this as an aside, however, as my primary focus at that moment was locating my mother, who I assumed had to be here somewhere. Seeing nothing in the immediate vicinity, I rotated one-hundred-and-eighty degrees and was confronted by an infinitely more explorable landscape. I appeared to be at the end of an enormous driveway, lined on either side by slim, but unsymmetrical, strips of partially polished tree bark. Each strip was about twelve feet tall (twelve feet, that is, relative to my current scale) and angled a little outwards. At the end of this driveway stood a grand, turreted structure; immense, green, and in places, shimmering. It was a palace for sure, and it was in that direction I headed.

Surrounding the entrance there were no guards, just an increase in the density of busy looking individuals. I crept through easily, taking care not to bump anyone, and entered through an open archway. This entrance hall was at least the size of a football field and had a floor of polished tiles which contained animated patterns of swirling green and white. Matching flights of similarly extravagant stairs to my left and right spiralled upward to meet a balcony above the doorway, and above my head. A small and oddly proportioned crowd was gathered at the other side of the hall, and in the centre of them I could see the back of a familiar head. I darted left and climbed a little, both to hide behind stair railings and to gain a better vantage point from which to watch the scene before me unfold.

My mother was flapping and flustering and apparently issuing instructions to those around her, as every few seconds a creature would stand to attention and scuttle off purposefully, and mum would relax for a moment. I wanted to hear what was being said before I made my presence known. At the top of the stairs it became apparent that the balcony continued inside the walls of the room, and was connected to an opening at the top of another flight of stairs I could see further in, almost above my mother and her entourage. This passageway was unlit, and I encountered no opposition. I stuck my head out of the final, smaller, doorway, and was able to hear everything. But by this time, only five insect-men remained, and she appeared to have finished her list of commands. She had had a list, as well. I saw her tucking it into her apron's front pocket, before sighing, placing her hands on her hips, and surveying the room.

"I wish that mess was cleaned up," she tutted, frowning at a vase in the corner. The vase had been upturned, and shards of porcelain poked out from a heap of soil and scattered petals. Muddy water was starting to pool across the glossy floor.

Nothing's different then, I started to think; she still hates untidiness here, but still can't find the time to cl... But it was clean. My mum was leaving the chamber, entourage in tow, through a small doorway nearby, and the vase was intact again, back in place upon its table. Jaw still hanging, I scrambled down from my hiding place and crossed the now deserted chamber to peer through after her.

Her pace was fast, and she was almost at the far end of a dimly lit corridor by the time I got there. Her posse and she turned a corner and the light disappeared completely; I ran on tip-toes to catch up, and realised that the green glow illuminating the area around her was provided by the bulbous rear end of one of her minions. Keeping my distance, I followed the now silent party through corridors for a few more minutes. They stopped, and I couldn't see why until I heard the turning of a key in a lock, and a heavy sounding door creaked open. They entered swiftly and the door clicked closed; there was no way I could have manoeuvred through it in that time without being seen. I contented myself with peering through the amply sized keyhole.

The room beyond was high-ceilinged and decorated with luxurious red upholstery. Several of the squishiest looking armchairs I have ever seen were arranged around an empty fireplace, and a huge and intricate tapestry adorned one wall.

"I wish someone had arranged my cushions for me," I heard my mother whine. Nobody in the room moved, but a satisfied smile appeared on her face, so I could only presume the cushions had just arranged themselves. She slumped into one of the chairs and groaned "there's a whole stack of old books that need sorting out and getting rid of, that bookshelf is just overflowing with junk."

The bookshelf in question was also out of my sight line, but three bin liners appeared behind my mother's chair, packed full of angular objects that looked suspiciously like books. One was labelled 'Charity Shop', one 'Car Boot Sale' and one 'Recycling'. One of the insect-men who had been on standby reached for them all with three of his six arms, and heaved them over three of his six shoulders.

I leapt back from the door as he approached and spun around, backing against the wall and holding my breath. If he saw me, he gave no indication, and continued down the corridor, back the way they had entered.

I pressed my face to the keyhole once again, in time to hear my mother complain that a fire had not been prepared nor lit, and to see one spring into life in the fireplace. She leaned back into the chair and reached around to a coffee table by her side. Her hand met with a bare glass surface and she moaned. "Oh, no-one fetched the post in!"

A stack of unopened mail materialised on the table, and she flicked through, extracting a magazine sealed in plastic wrap. The wrap was removed, tossed aside, and taken care of by a plea for her floor to be litter-free. I heard her slowly turning the pages of the magazine, and decided I'd seen enough.

That explains everything, then.

Friday, August 26, 2011

A story about being trapped, which presently has no end.

[13th August 2011]

The grazes on Kip's palms stung, pressed tightly against the icy cold rock. Water seeped into the belly of his tshirt and front of his tattered pants as he scraped his body along the unforgiving stone. Though the crevasse through which he crawled was getting smaller, he continued to inch onward.

Kip had an inkling that his father's life depended on his progress, and the several tonnes of grey rock closing in on him from every direction did nothing to persuade him to give in. For the tenth time in as many minutes, the boy swallowed his fear and crept forward another arms length.

His breaths became shallower as space in which to expand his lungs decreased; cheek pressed against stone, a single tear merged with the veins of water already tracing the surface.

He tried to move again, an inch, a millimetre. He squeezed his eyes closed and pushed his head until his temples groaned, but the barrier would not yield.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Forced fiction 2: billfold, circuitry, macintosh, reaction, usual

(What is forced fiction?)

[Words were generated randomly. I swear I didn't expect them to be this topical.]

Little Steve poked at the pile of circuitry in front of him with a screwdriver the length of his forearm. His nose wrinkled with concentration as he carefully extracted a string of spaghetti. His father would not be pleased.

As usual, the aliens had come whilst his parents were sleeping. Last time it had only been the TV remote that they'd abducted. The time before that it was a standing lamp. This time, it was his father's brand new Macintosh computer. Steve did not want to be around for his dad's reaction, but being four-years-and-seven-months old, he struggled to find excuses to be absent from the house. So he would have to face the consequences.

They always blamed him of course; not when things went missing, but when they came back. Because most of the time, things came back having been partially transformed into something tasty. The lamp had been embedded with chocolate chips. The insides of the remote, filled with ice cream. They never believed him when he explained about the aliens and their faulty teleporter. His mother just eyed him with suspicious terror, and his father talked in a stern voice about respecting peoples' things, and the cost of psychological counselling.

Steve reached for tweezers in an attempt to extract flecks of bolognese. The machine had been quite literally turned inside out before being dosed with a hearty Italian meal. It may well be beyond salvation.

He sighed, rolling his eyes at the spot in the night sky in which he knew their mothership resided. If their pattern of taking increasingly sophisticated devices was to continue, something must be done.

Steve crept through the dark house and reached a tiny hand onto the desk in the study. The hand withdrew with his father's billfold clutched firmly inside. He extracted all of the notes, and returned the wallet to its previous position. Tiptoeing through the kitchen, tiles chilling his bare feet, Steve tucked the money between his lips and shrunk to all fours to squeeze through the dog-flap in the back door.

The plantpot where he made his offerings was beside the door; Steve squashed the cash into the mud, making sure it was covered, then popped a marble on top so they'd know.

"Fix your teleporter," he hissed into the darkness.

Steve returned to bed, hoping sincerely that the aliens would deal with their technical problems before it was his turn.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Forced fiction: amidst, gangway, feasibility, jiffy, surefooted

(What is forced fiction?)


Forced Fiction: a definition

A quick explanation in advance of future posts.

The concept of forced fiction is well known and popular, but I've never heard it called that before.  I think it's an appropriate name.  Normally I write because I have an idea.  When I don't have many ideas, or I'm preoccupied with other things, I go for enormous stretches of time without a word of fiction leaving my pen.  Recent events have made me realise that there exists an upward spiral; writing often both improves the quality of prose, and the frequency of ideas generated.  But ideas from nowhere are a blessing, and not to be taken for granted.

Thus, forced fiction.  A minimum of every two days, if I haven't written anything idea-based, I will generate five random words using this, for example, and not move until I've written a piece of flash (or longer, if the mood takes me) containing them all.

And in a crazy and unforeseen turn of events, I'm going to post them on here.  Unless I really like them, then I'm going to keep them to myself.

So now you know.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Day Twenty Two: Cairo

We got up early on the final morning with the intention of cramming as much of Cairo in before our flight as possible. No-one would take us to Tahrir Square, and the Metro wasn't running. Taxis claimed to drop us off at the famous market, but we struggled to find anything much... We wandered many backstreets, and concluded that it was just early (for Ramadan) and everyone was probably not quite up yet. Cairo streets are covered in gunk and litter and smelly things, and they're tight and winding. I love them. The high walls and narrow paths created an effect the closest to being hugged by a city I have ever felt.

We visited a couple of churches that we were ushered into by locals, before stumbling across the Mohammed Ali Sibel and learnt about its history. We climbed down a ten metre shaft too, and wandered around in the dark beneath the building. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

Heather and I had to head back for midday, and we enjoyed a whirlwind taxi ride. Our driver stopped to ask directions from pizza delivery boys, other taxis, policemen, passers by... We saw a huge amount of the city in the hour it took us to find the hotel, with criss-crossing, elevated main roads providing the perfect viewing platform.

Cairo has perhaps the best cityscape I have ever seen. Sprawling and uneven and huge. Bright colours, haphazard shapes, buildings that are jostling for attention. Windows that churn out flapping bedsheets, streamers of electrical wires; low roofs beside high walls, supporting slouching heaps of sand, bricks and mud. The feeling that everything is always moving and the overriding sensation that something is always happening in your peripherals.

Needless to say, a half day was not enough. I will be back.

Our predicted hour-and-a-half journey to the aiport took barely half an hour. Free wifi at Cairo International could sure teach Heathrow a thing or two... The airport was near enough a ghost town during the late afternoon. Staff were laid back and friendly, and most of the queues we stood in were probably unnecessary. I walked the wrong way down a conveyor. I had THE BEST TIME. One lifetime ambition fulfilled.

The flight, which left a bit after 5pm, was uneventful and we landed at 2125 in Heathrow, to 15 degrees, or what the pilot described as 'a standard British summer evening'.

I am counting down to my next adventure.

It's not planned yet. Donations welcome. Watch this space.

Day Twenty One: Giza

We had plenty of space on the train; big seats and air conditioning. I was woken often by jolting starts and slamming doors, but all in all it wasn't too bad.

Carrying all of our stuff, we stumbled out of the station and onto a minibus in Giza. Dave left us in the hands of a new guide, who was distinctly more interested in getting us to the pyramids than letting us eat or use the loo. We comprimised with pastries and juice from a fuel station shop and recovered enough to be on our way.

We wandered around the pyramids, and then the Sphinx. Underwhelming, all things considered, and the Valley of the Kings is far more impressive. Also, definitely aliens.

Most people did the cheesy holding-the-pyramids photo thing. I took pictures from the wrong angles of people posing these. This is far more entertaining.

We had streetside falafel for lunch before visiting the enormous Egyptian Museum. There's
some cool stuff in here, again with the giant walls of heiroglyphics, and I lost everyone
else for a while.

We were dropped at the Havannah Hotel. We thought there must be some mistake. This place was SHINY. Huge rooms, clean, functioning bathroom facilities... (for about £10pppn) A classy end to the trip. I passed out for a couple of hours before we all met downstairs again at 6. The place Dave wanted to take us for dinner was absolutely packed, but we were directed to another restaurant a few doors down who promised to serve us food from the first place. Interesting business technique, but it did the job. I had the vegetarian version of f.... I can't remember what it was called but it definitely began with f. Might have been fattah. Someone help me out please, the Internet isn't doing yet. It was an extremely filling rice yogurty dish with fried flat bread and peas in it. Suuuper tasty, and almost equal to kushari. The non-vegetarian versions had liberal amounts of shredded beef or chicken on top.

After hanging out at the hotel for a bit, thus concluded the final night in Egypt.

Days Eighteen, Nineteen and Twenty: Felucca sailin', then back to Luxor

Our felucca was a small boat covered in a foam matress, a few cushions and little else. There was a cabin at the front for the guys who were both sailing the thing, and cooking our food.

Thus, we lounged around.

That is all.

The toilet was amongst riverbank bushes, and the shower was the Nile. The Nile is exceptionally refreshing, by the way. We moored for breakfast, lunch and dinner; local food, prepared and cooked by the felucca crew, was among the best we'd had on the trip.

Lounging, for those wanting more detail, consisted of reading, writing, sleeping, playing cards, listening to music, sleeping, reading, playing cards and sleeping. This challenging routine was broken up by jumping into the Nile and holding onto a rope that trailed behind the boat. Then climbing back onto the boat to dry off in the sun and resume the lounging.

The morning after the second night on the felucca, we had arrived about an hour's drive away from Aswan. Nev picked us up with the truck, and we drove all the way back to Luxor. En route, we stopped at Edfu Temple for an hour. This quickly ranked as my favourite one. It was huge, plenty of places to get lost in, and enormous walls covered in heiroglyphics.

After lunch in Luxor, we spent a few hours at Rezeiky Camp (where we stayed previously) thoroughly cleaning the truck. When that was done we headed into town for dinner - more kushari! Without getting lost, this time.

Back at the camp we jumped in the pool for a bit (the pool which is distinctly more of a funny colour than the Nile, and into which you cannot see further than a few inches). we cleaned up, packed everything, and headed to Luxor train station, saying goodbye to Nev and the truck for the last time.

An hour later than scheduled, the eight-hour overnight train journey commenced.

Day Seventeen: Philae Temple, Elephantine Island

We were all excited by massive the lie in we got for a 9am start that morning. We saw Philae Temple, with Hatshepsut's cool obelisk. Another place where those darn Christians ruined a lot of carvings.

After lunch on the waterfront, I slept for a few hours. It was good.

We regrouped at 4 and took a boat to a beach on Elephantine Island. Took a dip in the Nile and survived. It's clean and clear around Aswan, contrary to popular rumour. We had a tour of a family home in the Nubian village, and Mona, lady of the house, cooked us a fantastic dinner. The houses are made of mud brick, but painted brightly and strategically in yellows, blues and greens to maximise heat and light potential year round. The house we saw was also enormous, even for a family of five. During the summer months, they all sleep on the roof, but there are an excess of indoor bedrooms for guests, and two huge reception areas. In the village, there are no locks on doors, and the sense of community is such that friends can wander in and out of each others' homes at leisure. While we were there we had a few drop-ins from neighbors and local kids, including a woman who henna'd up everyone except me. Even Al got a hardcore eye-pyramid thing on his arm. Manly :)

An enjoyable and stress free day, in preparation for the next few days of uber-chilling on a felucca...

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Day Sixteen: Abu Simbel and Elephantine Island

SOMEONE* ordered a wakeup call for everyone without telling us. At 4am, a phone you don't recognise ringing next to your head from a table of all of your charging electricals is one of the most confusing phenomena known to man.

*It was Dave.

We drove three hours to Abu Simbel and marvelled at giant representations of Ramses II and his cohorts. The whole lot had been moved to save it from the rising Nile a few decades ago, which is pretty impressive. At quarter to ten we regrouped to join the return convoy (they don't trust tourists driving alone in the desert).

Lunch was even shadier than last night's dinner. There was no written menu so the guy reeled off what he had. Not feeling particularly hungry, Kathryn and I ordered spinach soup. It had the texture of dried spinach, herbs and garlic in oil. Our resident professional chef (Al, for those of you not keeping up) whisked it for a bit and concluded it was egg white. It tasted sort of okay with bread dipped in. But I wouldn't recommend it.

At 4, a local gave us a tour of Elephantine Island. The place is so chilled out. There is an enormous sense of community and 'the simple life' amoung the Nubian people.

After dinner on the waterfront we went for an aimless wander that turned into getting lost in the winding streets of Aswan. It was nice to see some entirely tourist free areas, but we were also knackered. Eventual collapse at the hotel.

Day Fifteen: Birthday! (Luxor and Aswan)

We started our day at 4am by catching a hot air balloon from the other side of the Nile. On the boat across, we were unexpectadly supplied with coffee and Twinkys. We shared the balloon with Japanese tourists and a pilot with a sense of humour. I hadn't expected the fire part of the balloon to be so close to our heads, nor so loud.

The wind took us away from the Valley of the Kings and across the Nile. We upped and downed a bit, with the pilot explaining that flying close to things (the Nile, tops of trees...) is more fun. We saw the sunrise, and lots of Luxor from above. We almost landed in someone's field but a disgruntled looking chap on a donkey waved us away. So we landed in the next field, with a ground crew of local kids, who had been chasing the balloon's progress for the past ten minutes. The pilot warned us not to tip the kids or we'd have to pay them all, and to keep hold of our bags. We stayed in the basket whilst the balloon was haphazardly bundled away before traipsing through mud to the waiting minibus. An experience of a lifetime. I got some cool photos.

Back at the hotel we slept for an hour before digging in to the remaining birthday cake and heading out to Karnak Temple by horse and carriage. Karnak is huuuuge. Afterwards we went back to bed again before lunch.

Al and I set out on a hunt for the kushari shop, which should have been a couple of minutes walk from where everyone else went for lunch. En route we encountered a young man desperate to sell his shoe cleaning services to Al, who had jut stepped in something disgusting. This proved to be at a crucial point in the journey as the distraction meant we missed the turning we were looking for. Next we met the infamous Christian Mike, a toothless carriage driver wwho misdirected us and we walked for a further forty minutes or so into a distinctly tourist free area. Fortunately we didn't get charged for this pleasure.

Eventually we circled back and found an enormous tourist information centre. The friendly staff directed us around the corner where finally! Kushari. A big takeaway tub for 10LE. That's about a quid. As expected, finding our way back to the cafe where the girls' were took two minutes and we all returned to the truck.

Cue: four hour drive to Aswan.

We checked into the Orchida St George Hotel, where they welcomed us with cold karkarde. Score.

That evening we ventured into Aswan town. The tourist stuff is mixed in with the locals' stuff and veryone is much more laid back. We still got about the smae number of 'hello!', 'where from?', 'welcome!', 'spice girls!', and Al got plenty of 'lucky man, five wives!', but people seemed marginally less desperate to sell us things.

We did struggle to find somewhere to eat though. Eventually we went into a dogy looking cafe which we decided was definitely a front for a secret mafia related organisation. It was run by a stoney-faced fellow who didn't seem as thrilld about having customers as other places have been. The food arrived incredibly fast and there was definitely evidence of it being fetched from down the street. It was hella cheap too though, and by the end the guy running the joint seemed to have cheered up. Out of nowhere his mate arrived with something sweet on a fork and inserted it into Lizzie's mouth. He had a small selection of apparently complimentary sweet coconutty things which he insisted we finish off. They were tasty.

And thus ended the longest birthday ever. I was starting to get depressed about the impending end to the trip, especially with all of the UK riots news that was trickling through. Everyone we had encountered in Egypt was friendly and welcoming, providing contrast to what at the time felt like the country full of thugs to which I belonged. But let's not dwell. We went to bed early for yet another 4am wake up.

Day Fourteen: The Valley of the Kings

A 6am start for the Valley of the Kings, where a ticket allows entry to three tombs. We saw those of Ramses third, fifth, and ninth. Pro tip: EVERYTHING is half price with an international NUS card.

The quality of the preserved colours and carvings in the tomb is stunning, especially upon remembering that they are thousands of years old. Colours in the tombs in the Valley of the Workers were even more intense - the workers had one day off a month to work on their own family tombs, and put much more effort into the art.

After napping for a couple of hours we regrouped for lunch at a cafe in town. My growing karkade addiction (did I mention this yet?) was satisfied and more shopping commenced. We spent a while in a no-haggle statue shop and learnt how to tell machine- or Chinese-made from handcrafted Egyptian wares, as well as getting a demo on holding a naked flame to the black statues to prove they are plastic and not the stone they are sold as on the street. We hung out in the jewellers again, and were given more karkade. I then bought a ton of dried hibiscus so I can make my own every day for the next year.

Later that afternoon, H, Lizzie and I joined Dave on a visit to the SunShine Orphanage, a charity sponsored by Oasis. Wewere covered in adorable drooling toddlers for a couple of hours before our return.

We all ate dinner at a restaurant overlooking the Nile. At the end of the meal, an enormous chocolate cream birthday cake appeared bearing the message 'HAPPY BIRTDAY AMY' (sic). Thanks everyone! The best surprise. We ate about a third of it then stored it in the hotel's freezer.

To bed ready for an exciting 4am start...

Friday, August 12, 2011

Day Thirteen: Luxor

After our sandy night, we had another drive day. We were all pretty grimy. We spent a majority of this journey learning interesting and enthralling 'facts' from a quiz book we found on the truck. This consumed hours.

We stopped for lunch and supplies at La Senza Mall; made up for some great purchases at a super cheap Carrefour by spending the same amount on a single coffee at an overpriced chain. Totally worth it.

We arrived at Rezieky Camp in Luxor late afternoon. First things first, we all upgraded to hotel rooms instead of the campsite. Secondly, we got in the swimming pool. Slightly disturbing that we couldn't see deeper than a few inches into the cloudy water, but we were all so filthy ourselves we were well beyond caring. After showering and cleaning up properly, Dave took us into town.

Luxor may be the hassle capital of Egypt (reserving judgement on Cairo for now). In a jewellers shop, the owner of which was known to the crew, we were brought kushari and cold hibiscus (karkade). This may be my new favourite meal in the world, and sparked the beginning of a slight addiction to karkade from this point onwards. Unfortunately we were told that the ability to make kushari well is a rare skill indeed. But I'm going to damn well try.

Later we met our Luxor guide who took us that evening to Luxor temple. The temple sits in the middle of the city, integrated with the local surroundings like no other. A lot of Luxor is currently being demolished by the government to make way for new excavations, as there is still apparently plenty left to be found.

Luxor temple at night was stunning, particularly due to the distinct lack of other tourists in an area that we were told would usually be packed. Notably we learnt about Hatshepsut, the only female Pharaoh, and why lots of her likenesses have been erased in various temples. (Hint: her stepson hated her).

Afterwards we walked back through the market and did some shopping. We got no end of attention from sellers and locals alike. As we haggled here, we quietly realised how royally ripped off we had all been in Dahab.

Intermission: Life on the Oasis truck

Overlanding means lots of driving, and driving means a vehicle. A vehice means a confined space, which in turn means patience and cooperation. The Oasis trucks are built to house 24 people, plus a tour leader and driver. We are fortunate in that there have been only eight to nine of us in total on this trip. We've been able to spread out,sleep across the seats and have had plenty of storage space to ourselves.

Storage is in an overhead rack and in space below which we access by removing our seats. Seats are along the edge of the truck facing inwards. Beneath the floor in the central walkway, food and various communal things are stored. There is also a selection of books and games. The truck is air oinditioned by means of entirely open windows. Plastic sheets roll down the side in the event that it does need sealing. In our current location, these have a serious greenhouse effect.

When we tire of sitting or lying on the regular seats, there's the beach. This is an open space behind and just above the truck's cab. It is usually both really hot and windy up there and is a great spot for a view. It can get violently bouncy up there on desert roads; of course we are strictly not allowed up there whilst we're moving..

When the truck stops, the kitchen unfolds. Sheets of metal surround a blackened, gas-powwered hob, and cooking is generally done in a series of enormous saucepans. The kettle is usually boiled over an open campfire for tea and coffee. Stuff is prepared on a foldup table, and three washing up bowls are ritualistically laid out (water, bubbles, disinfectant). Food is brought locally or taken from the stash of tins or dried food on the truck. Cook groups (pairs in our case) were assigned at the start and everyone pitches in with their own washing up, which operates a lot like a production line and is extremely efficient. Travellers may often be seen waving plates and pans and cutlery around for minutes at a time. This is a highly sophisticated pot drying technique known as 'flapping'.

So far we've managed to not get in each others' way and have clicked wonderfully. It doesn't take long to adapt to living like this and I think adjusting back to 'normal' life may be harder.

This trip, and my new friends, have opened my eyes to a world of new travelling possibilities and cemented my desire to explore. When the time comes, I won't be ready to come home; but when I do, I'll start planning my next adventure.

Days Eleven and Twelve: More Dahab and Mount Sinai

An idle day.

I sat around the hotel writing a lot.

H returned from her kitesurfing course mid-afternoon and we had a mosey around town. We regrouped with everyone else for dinner in a nice sea-front restaurant that was a lot like all of the other nice sea-front restaurants we had eaten at. Apple moussaka was good.

Then we drove to Sinai. About an hour from Dahab.

And we climbed the mountain.

Our local guide consitently told us to take it easy. We were all already exhaisted, so the climb was slow and steady and probably took about two hours. The night was hot and thirsty and our way was was lit only by our torches. The trail consited mostly of a gentle slope with steeper parts being roughly stepped. There are a number of huts selling cold drinks at gradually escalating prices en route.

At the top, our guide reccommended to us his favourite rock and we settled for a bit. Sitting still in a high place became chilly but we al fell asleep for an hour or so. Based on what we had learnt was possible in Israel, we decided that we were napping in the EXACT spot that Moses recieved the Ten Commandments.

The sunrise took ages, and by this time a massive group of Australian and Italian pilgrims had arrived at the top, singing and praying obnoxiously (in my opinion) and somewhat disrupting the notion of a nice peaceful sunrise.. Many also seemed to be intrigued by the fact we were camped out on a ledge below the peak, to the extent that they started taking photos.

Once the sun was firmly above the horizon our guide summoned us and we opted for the 3000 steps route to the bottom. This meant no other annoying tourists, and plenty of shade. Not to mention some awesome views of heaps of rocks.

We got back to the truck around 7am where Dave and Nev had French toast and beans waiting for us. Then, we drove. And almost exclusively slept.

We stopped for lunch at Pizza Hut (vastly superiour food and prices compared to the UK) as next to nothing was open because of Ramadan.

We camped in the desert that night. I opted to sleep outside again although it was particularly windy. Heather and Kathryn made a concoction with soya mince and vegetables and pasta. Worse things have happened.

The night was disrupted firstly when a potentially crazy Bedouin chap appeared and shook all of our hands enthusiastically and, we think, tried to invite us to sleep in his hut. We politely declined.

Much later I was woken by Lizzie dragging all of her belongings back into the truck. It emerged that the Bedouin man and his friend had decided that outside the girls' tents would be a great place for a lengthy chat. After some persuasion by Dave, they ledt eventually. In hindsight this incident was hilarious.

I woke up with sand ingrained in my skin. Mmm. But so did everyone who had been in a tent. So I had been no worse off.

Day Ten: Israel

We drove to the Israel border on a coach full of Russians, two Italian-Romanians,two Italians and a French-Moroccan family with two impossibly well behaved knee high children. Us Europeans teamed up and were delivered approximately one tenth of the information that the Russian-speakers recieved. Being in the language minority was definitely a unique experience.

At the border, after queuing for an age, we queued some more, then did some queuing. We made it through eventually, with only the minor incident of Alan's passport being temporarily confiscated.

We continued to drive, until we were suddenly unloaded at the Dead Sea. We sat around blearily whilst other tourists set to work covering themselves in mud they had just bought from a shop. This Dead Sea beach was long and white, with showers and seating and shops. From the people in it, the water appeaered less buoyant than we had seen in Jordan; we could see pipes pumping in fresh waste water from the showers, and there was a whole section signposted for no swimming, with the implication that they were polluting that specific bit. All in all, I think we preferred our off the beaten track, clamboring down a cliffside, Jordanian experience.

Back on the coach, our English-speaking guide arrived. He was friendly and knowledgable, if less talkative than the Russian one. He also had some weird affliction of the skin that caused random patches on his arms and then head to bleed unprovoked. He seemed fine, though.

We stopped at a high place to see all of Jerusalem before visiting the Wailing Wall (pro tip: you don't turn your back on it, evem whilst walking away). We spied on some praying Jewish people for a while, before moving on.

We followed a Jesus-related trail of locations, conveniently sequenced for the maximum touristic experience, in both Jerusalem and Bethlehem. These included the slab on which Jesus was lain after crucifixion, his tomb, and the patch of mud on which he was born. I may have become even more skeptical about certain aspects of Christianity as a result of this tour. What was far more interesting and inspiring were our walks through the streets, seeing markets and people, and such a crossover of cultures and religions side by side. At one point our guide mentioned how tolerant and accepting the people of Bethlehem are. When cultures coexist it seems understanding is crucial; disputes spring from ignorance and an inability to empathise with beliefs and people that are not your own.

Despite having not yet been provided with a promised lunch by 4pm (the Russians were becoming cranky) we entertained ourselves at a horrendously tacky souvenir shop, where our fellow tourists spent a small fortune on bizarre crap. Finally we were ushered into a restaurant and consumed a mediocre buffet that didn't sit right with anyone. Falafel off the street is probably a much better bet in future.

And thus we returned. After, of course, losing a number of Russians in the duty free at the border crossing for far longer than was polite. We got back to Dahab around midnight and a few of us checked out the pizza shop opposite the hotel. The guy had to go buy most of his ingredients fresh as he was about to pack up shop and visit his parents in Cairo for a month. But he as glad of the custom, and showed us how he makes Egyptian style pizza - superior to Italian in my opinion. Not to mention vastly cheaper. Sweet pizza was on the menu and I enjoyed a peanut one with sugar and milk. Curious.

I woke up in the early hours of the morning with a gecko on me.

Saturday, August 06, 2011

Day Nine: The Blue Hole

Another fantastically lazy day, with everyone doing their own thing. H went to learn to kitesurf, and Al, Lizzie and I caught camels for half an hour to The Blue Hole, a prime scuba diving and snorkling spot.

My camel was distinctly tetchy and easily distracted,but overall highly entertaining.

I snorkled for a bit, but had a dodgy mask so it wasn't nearly as enjoyable as last time. I think we were all a little underwhelmed by the Blue Hole. It can't have helped that it was brimming with tourists.

H joined us later and we lazed about, eating, drinking and sleeping until we were collected at 5. For anyone still reading this because Chris pointed you here, he was diving all day. You'll have to ask him about that.

We regrouped for dinner at a classy looking Indian/Thai/Chinese place.

At ten, six of us were picked up from the hotel on a minibus for our next grand adventure...

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Days Seven and Eight: Dahab

We spent our first day in Dahab chilling out in restaurants by the beach, splashing about by the Red Sea and recovering from the ferry. Contrary to first impression, Dahab turned out to be fantastic. Locals are friendly and welcoming, food is incredibly cheap and the sea is warm and salty.

We're staying at Bishbishi hotel with clean and comfortable grounds and excessively friendly thoughtful staff. There are cats everywhere. Breakfast is good. Aircon costs extra and H initially refused to contribute. She changed her mind after waking up at 4am melted to the bed. (Only about £1.50 per day). It's been around 47 degrees here during the day, but a continuous breeze has made it entirely bearable.

In the evenings we enjoyed copious amounts of food (and shisha for those who chose to partake) with massive discounts due to the highly competitive atmosphere. We then hit the cocktail bars and drinking and dancing commenced. More than one person ended the night a little worse for the wear.

During day eight we were driven to the Three Pools for snorkling which I really enjoyed. Many many colourful fish and not-quite-healthy reef. Plus a good amount of lazing about in the sun was indulged in.

We're making the most out of not living on the road while we can.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Day Six: Wadi Rum and Aqaba

Helen, Chris and I made scrambled eggs and beans for breakfast before we packed up camp and drove the short distance to the Wadi Rum visitor centre. It was the first day of Ramadan, but one shop and the restaurant were still open to sell food and drink to tourists.

We enjoyed the air conditioning, drinks and sandwiches for a couple of hours before a local guide arrived in a 4x4 to show us round the most famous sights in the Wadi Rum desert. We stopped at some choice climbing spots - heads up: desert rocks are hot!

We also investigated Lawrence of Arabia's old hangout, some water control he helped the locals build,and many ancient inscriptions in rock. We stopped at a Bedouin camp where we were guided through a small sheltered gorge by an enthusiastic nine year old, who presented each of us individually and at carefully chosen moments with gifts of small pebbles. On our return to his tent, his family made us a delicious herby tea and showed great hospitality.

We drove to the port town of Aqaba which looks pretty modern and appears to be constantly under construction. There was a nice beach but it was far too conservative a place for us to enjoy properly that afternoon. We chose a Syrian restaurant for a drink (about fifty percent of places were closed because of Ramadan) and ended up eating there as well. Portions in the Middle East are huge and we all ended up bloated. Good food and great juices.

We borrowed MacDonalds wifi for a little while before preparing to board the ferry. Our access to the ferry consisted of one deck of seating and two levels of outdoor decks. Most people attempted to sleep,with varying success. I didnt even try.

We reached land ahead of schedule but made up for that by waiting outside the immigration office for a few hours whilst staff did everything but their jobs. We were sitting in pretty grimy sand; a lucky few passed out and awoke when the sun came up. Nuweiba in the daylight was a sight for sore eyes. I may even go so far as to eloquently describe the place as an absolute shithole. Pro tip: the public toilets there are great - approaching them has the effect that you suddenly realise you can actually hold it for another two and a half hours after all.

So my first impressions of Egypt weren't the best as we travelled to Dahab. Again, most people used this journey for sleeping but I neglected to.

Continued on day seven...

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Day Five: Wadi Rum Desert

The day started with a nice easy morning of packing and chilling out by the pool. This was followed by an exhaustingly violent match of water polo, at which Al and I were proven the indisputable champions. (We won nine-two against H and Chris).

We hit Wadi Moussa for a cheap (1JOD) and tasty falafel lunch. I have decided that fresh lemon with mint is my drink of choice for the Middle East.

A couple of hours drive took us to the Wadi Rum desert. The truck got slightly stuck en route which is always exciting. Eventually we found a good spot and pitched our tents. Al, H and I climbed to the highest rock we could physically get to. It took a while. The view was awesome but getting bak down was a minor disaster. Mostly for Heather. We made it eventually.

After dinner and sunset we relaxed in the gradually cooling surroundings. Speculation abot what was coming through the desert to get us definitely didn't freak anyone out. Shortly after settling for the night, screams erupted as Kath and Helen found a spider THIS big in their tent.

I slept under the stars that night,and was still unaffected by this apparently mythical 'cold' I have heard mentioned. I woke up with tiny little crabby spiders everywhere, but with no additional bites. Which is always a sign of a succesful camp.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Day Four: Petra

A mega early start to Dave's porridge, and the day was set in motion with a drive to the ancient (once lost) city of Petra. Entrance was a steep 50JOD but the stunning sights occupied us for about five to six hours.

After entering through the gorge we walked along the cobbled pathway that lead to the treasury. Being 7am, other tourists were scarce and we got some good photos. We then began the inordinately long trek and climb in the increasing heat to the monestary, admiring the homes, tombs and other structures carved directly into the towering, naturally patterned red coloured rock faces.

From the monestary we followed a trail to 'the end of the earth' where we sat to take in a huge and humbling view whilst our friends back home were still sleeping soundly. We got sidetracked on our return journey by the promise of a spring in which we couls swim. We ventured well off the beaten track and eventually found a trickle. We followed this a little way and enjoyed the cool clear water (probably the same as we'd been drinking all day from bottles). Some clambering and relaxing later we made our way back. Midday heat was intensifying and the return to the town took its toll (on little old me at least). We crashed in a pub for an hour or so to recouperate before catching a taxi back to the hotel.


Dave invented killer frisbee which involved standing around the edges of the pool and exchanging frisbee tosses, with the aim of catching them no matter what. So lots of stylish (occasionally unnecessary) leaping into the water.

We chilled out and redied ourselves for a buffet dinner at the hotel. I spent the rest of the evening on the tenth floor roof of the hotel spying fireworks.

Day Three: The Dead Sea and Karak

We awoke on a mountainside at around 7. So far nighttime has proved to be uncomfortably hot, at least within a tent. Breakfast was french toast by Heather and Kath. We packed up and set off,driving for ages to find a secluded spot by the Dead Sea. We avoided the usual areas as the were populated by local tourists. We changed into swimwear and scrambled down to experience the 30% salt water and apparently rejuvinating mud.

The buoying sensation of the dense water was the perfect, effortless suspension. The water was not as painful as I'd been lead to believe it might be and I managed to avoid getting any in my eyes or mouth. Salt deposits around the edge were pretty stunning and I would have happily stayed in the warm water for longer than the time we had.

Next stop was a town called Karak; apparently not the least nightmareish place out there, particularly for navigating with a truck the size of ours. We had a lengthy lunch (falafel pitta for me) and went to look for supplies for the evening meal. Food was massively overpriced (we were probably lied to). We visited an ancienr Crusader castle which turned out to be enormous and very underrated. Entry was 1JOD which did not include the services of an unavoidable local guide.

We were off again, destined for our final stop of the day the Al-Alanbat hotel. We were sweaty and tired and so delighted when the first thing we saw upon dismounting the coach was a shadey pool.

Everyone elso took a dip, whilst Helen, Al and I made no nonesense chilli with beans, vegetables and soya mince. Twas tasty.

Finally I had chance to JUMP IN THE POOL. It was dark by this time and the pool was freezing to start with but the swim was heavenly. Although normal water is somewhat disappointing after the Dead Sea experience.

We hit the sack early in our makeshift dorm in what may be a hotel outhouse. Insects and strange noises abound through the night. Always good for the night before a 6am start..

Day Two:Amman to Mt Nebo

We spent a relaxing morning at the hotel before driving to Amman's City Mall where we saw the Oasis truck for the first time. It's pretty damn awesome.

City Mall is a large shopping complex and one of the most Westernised places I've seen so far, for the most part with no dress code observed by either locals or tourists. If you're in Amman and missing home, a taxi will take you there from the centre for 3JOD. After enjoying their version of Subway, we hit the massive Carrefour on the bottom level to buy supplies for the evening meal.

An hour drive from here took us to Madaba where we briefly visited a church filled with intricate mosaics, the most promient being a map of the holy land. We explored the small town and the guys hunted for beer (with success).

Further driving through winding steep mountain roads eventually took us to our campsite for the evening, on the side of Mt Nebo. We pitched our tents and admired the incredible view over the Dead Sea and Israel. We watched the sunset from this perspective too and Israel became an unearthly spectacle of glittering lights. We saw plenty of shooting stars, and cooking duties were gained and lost in wagers about the solar system (resolved by flaky 3G access and texts home).

Eventually we slept, woken periodically by the haunting call to prayer, all the more beautiful for not being artificially amplified. A great introduction forme into the world of bush camping.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Day one: Amman

We got to the Farah Hotel at around 11pm last night (after a great flight with unexpected free food) and met Al, one of our Oasis trip companions, en route.

The hotel ( is great; clean, cheap, and friendly.  Breakfast (because anyone who read my India blog will know describing food when I'm travelling is a priority) was flat bread, hard boiled eggs and soft cheese.  This set us up for a day of exploring the city (with Al and Chris who we met at breakfast).

We started by climbing to the Amman Citadel and wandering around the grounds and museum. A spectacular view of the city and a cooling breeze from being high up, along with helpful and enthusiastic tourist police made for a fantastic morning. We learnt about the history of the area dating back to the stone age in the citadel museum.

On our way out we were talked into letting a tour guide called Basam drive us to a restaurant for a fantastic local lunch, a visit to the black and white mosque which overlooks the city and the blue mosque. They let H and I in once we were covered in black robes, nd we spent a few minutes wandering through this beautiful, tranquil place. Young lads approached us to chat and welcome us warmly. Well, the guys were welcomed. H and I were largly ignored, so we kept quiet. One of the boys sang verses of the Qu'ran for us, and I have never seen a more pure delight in anyone's eyes. The other told us that he was visiting his family in Jordan; he studies medicine in Turkey in term time.

Despite feeling a bit opressed, this was nonetheless incredible.

During the drive, Basam impartedlots of local knoledge. Like that there are more Palestinians residing in Jordan than Jordinians, particularly in Amman. Jordan is also the health capital of the Middle East with govenment funded hospitals, world renowned doctors and people travelling from miles around for care.

Promising us better quality materials and better prices than the tourist areas, Basam took us to a bazaar frequented by visitors from other Arabian nations. The place was stunning and devoid of other shoppers so we had the assistant's full attention. We were welcomed with rich bitter sweet Jordinian coffee, and dressed up in traditional Bedouin garb, apparently more for his amusement than anything else. Don't worry, we have photos.

We made some small purchases,and Basam returned us to the hotel; we each gave him 10JOD for what had been a wonderfully informative afternoon which we certainly could not have managed alone.

That evening we met Dave and Nev, ur Oasis tour leader and driver, ad Helen, Catheine, and Lizzie our fellow travellers.

We spent a relaxing evening in a restaurant/cofee shop then saw the brightly lit cityscape from the citadel at midnight.

Today we drive and camp on Mt Nebo overlooking Israel. No wifi for a while!

To summerise, Amman is a stunning and welcoming city with a varied history and tolerant friendly people. I will definitely be back.