Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Weekend in Happy Land

No, I didn't just spend my weekend in a field in Somerset passed out after having consumed too much green stuff...  In recent years I have many read newspaper articles which try, as humanity always does, to categorise things. One that caught my eye was 10 of the world's Happiest cities, which to my own surprise suggested that Copenhagen was the happiest place on earth. My immediate thought was why?! Copenhagen is in the chilly north, enjoys mild summers but dark and miserable winters which bear much resemblance to those found in Scotland. Just as I felt the impulse to go seek out the so-called happiest place on earth in Japan (an island infested with friendly bunny did sound promising), I thought I would check this place out.

With less than 72 hours in the city I hardly felt as though I would come to understand why Copenhagen does so well in such polls, but there are a few clear indications both observable by the visitor and armchair traveller. The city is very pretty, small, walkable, and the not too far from great beaches and nature. The historical centre and parliament are within easy walking distance of Free State Christiania, testiment of Danish tolerance. The bike lanes are comparable with those in the Netherlands and thus a vast number of people use these for their daily commute, a way of keeping active and reducing one's carbon footprint. University is free in Denmark, a country which values its welfare system like its Scandinavian neighbours. Add to that the high prices of getting a coffee and one might presume that Danish people have a pretty good starting salary.

My friend and I spent a nice few days in Copenhagen, couchsurfing with a lovely host, taking a boat trip around the canals, hanging out with locals, eating good food, exploring Christiania and the Danish capital's art scene. It is a good place to go for a weekend city break as it is easy to get around and most of the interesting sites are close to each other.

Boat trip for 40 Kroner, Nyhavn, that place you always see in the postcards...

The wee mermaid tribute to Hans Christian Anderson

Christiania is a weird but interesting place. Upon arrival you are reminded that you are leaving the EU. Most things are tolerated in this semi-free state but hard drugs are not recommended, and you can't take photos on pusher's street (what kind of anarchist would I be without breaking this rule though?)

Once out of the so-called pusher street where marijuana is sold in little camouflage tents, Christiana becomes a pretty little hippy comune characterised by architecture without architects, colour and a Camdenesque vibe. Indiidual frames of the city range from picturesque to seemingly post-apocalyptic. The nicest part of Christiana is by the side of a canal. Most food in Christiana seems to be vegetarian and from sustainable sources, it is much cheaper than the rest of Copenhagen.

Just swinging

Christiania is one of those interesting places to visit when you want to see something different. It shows that people can defy the system if they have enough determination and is apparently a quite desirable place to live, but it does have its downsides... Increased crime rate in recent years and difficulty in decision making. We spoke to a local inhabitant who expressed his frustration at how slow it was to build a new public toilet in this free state, as full agreement across the community is required and just one "no" can halt any sort of progress.

Copenhagen is definitely way up there alongside London, Amsterdam and Berlin as one of the coolest cities in Europe. I would like to come back sometime, but perhaps when I have more money (£5 for a coffee is a little steep). Travelling this semester is a little difficult what with it being the final and perhaps most intense semester of my MA. That said, my next trip is to Portugal in February, and I have just booked a post-exams pre-graduation trip to Thailand and Indonesia for May and June, which will primarily be a diving, climbing and hiking trip.

In other news I have some exciting ideas for the near future, for which I just need to get some investors and funding, but here's a hint: it involves my favourite country of all time, India. 2015 is the year it all comes together, apparently...

Friday, 9 January 2015

Southward bound

Though not a believer in destiny, I do see some beautiful and interesting coincidences in my day-to-day life which join together to give the idea of some kind of meaning in life/direction. 2014 was a year defined by change and drama, but a darker period in human history also somewhat gave it structure. Towards the end of 2013 I read The Help, a novel which follows the life of a black lady in Jackson Mississippi who is living in a society where blacks and whites are segregated. In January I was in the Gambia and Senegal, my main aim was to be exposed to the French language though a side trip from Dakar took me to Gorée island, a beautiful place with a harrowing history. It served as one of the outposts for the Atlantic slave trade (the mouth of the Gambia river, which I crossed, was actually amongst the main processing sites). The 18th century Maison des Esclaves has been converted into a small but informative museum exposing the horrors of the Atlantic slave trade. Shortly after I had an argument with a rude waitress who put salt in my food rather than sugar and refused to change it or give me a refund, and ended up cursing me voodoo-style. A few weeks later and I was in Germany watching 12 years a Slave in an independent cinema in English with German subtitles. It was an incredibly moving film which had me on edge, especially considering that 10 minutes prior to seeing the film I witnessed a man getting knocked off his bike and killed. January was interesting and at times an adventure but had me considering the hostility of both nature and mankind.

Remember this? Gorée island, near Dakar, Senegal.

Little did I know that towards the end of the year I would be heading to other side of the Altantic ocean to revisit the second part of the story. I flew to Atlanta just before Christmas to spend time with my brother, sister-in-law and nephew. We drove down to Alabama on Christmas Eve and crossed Selma, famous for being the starting place of the 1965 Selma to Montgomery marches which led to the passage of the 1965 voting act, part of the 1960s American civil rights movement fighting segregationist repression. On the 26th I headed down to New Orleans where I saw plantations and witnessed both the voices of ignorant racists and progressive liberals with hopes for more equality amongst all human beings. My trip ends here in Atlanta, where the Martin Luther King National Historic Site remembers his legacy as a leader of the American civil rights movement. Though disheartened by the suffering caused by people and discrimination, the determination of dreamers such as Martin Luther King to fight against an unfair system is quite inspiring. Mankind is a long way from being perfect, there are many others areas where discrimination and cruelty still manifest themselves, but there are signs of progress.

Walking around the Martin Luther King Historic site I heard the voice of what seemed to be a great orator reading a sermon and followed it, it turned out to be a recording of the famous speech made by Martin Luther King in Washington, constantly on loop emanating from this eternal flame speaking of liberation and equality. I cried.

This was my fifth trip to the USA, but my first trip to the deep south. The day I arrived I met my lovely nephew, with whom I visited the illuminated botanical garden in Atlanta. On Christmas Eve we had a roadtrip down a rural part of Alabama near Selma, where we spent Christmas, staying with my sister-in-law's parents by the lake. I had a cool but very different day, eating Korean food, boating on the lake, driving the "gator" around the surrounding fields and playing a Korean game in the evening.


I started the new year with much optimism in sunny New Orleans, complete with 22 degrees celcius weather, first staying in India Hostel then being hosted (via couchsurfing) by a lovely artist from Jackson Mississippi and hanging out with other couchsurfers. Though taken with a pinch of salt from a none-believer, I had my voodoo curse removed by some sage and salt ;). New Orleans is a really beautiful city, as you notice immediately as you initially get lost in the French quarter, and later when you make it to the Garden district. It is also incredibly lively thanks to the vivid jazz scene and the influx of partygoers, musicians and artists.

India Hostel
My couchsurf host's pad in an arts loft

Street music in the French Quarter

Bourbon street bar

Jazz at Chickie Wah Wah
Exploring the French Quarter

Vegan sloppy joe on raw flaxseed bread at Seed

Vegan beignets, Seed

Vegan spicy hot dog at Dreamy Weenies

Tofu, sweet potato and black bean scramble with a "calcium injection" green juice at Satsuma

Vegan chocolate cake, Seed

City park

trusty folding bike

Sculptural park in city park

Lafayette Cemetary

Steamboat on the Mississippi

Garden district

 As a European walking in the United States be prepared for lots of demotivating responses to questions about directions such as "it's 10 blocks away, it's a really long walk, you should catch a cab" or "I recommend you catch the street car, that's a dang long walk". Our friends on the other side of the pond rely heavily on their big cars to go everywhere. Riding the folding bike my host lent me through the colourful Garden district and along Magazine street, I felt a sense of relief. Dressed as David Bowie with a Venetian mask with new friends, I welcomed in 2015 watching fireworks on the Mississippi river. Sure, there are some assholes out there and shit happens, but along the way there are dreamers and idealists who change things and expose the atrocities of mankind, and the so-called trivial problems of everyday life. I have changed a few of my own ideas on life whilst reflecting during this trip.

Poor camera phone picture of the fireworks over the river

I took a 9 hour megabus back up to Georgia on New Years day where I joined my brother back in Atlanta, from which we visited Stone Mountain, the aquarium (the largest in the world), went climbing, and I took a few mini trips to visit the Martin Luther King historic site, the alternative district (little five points) and explore the veggie/vegan scene (vegan bakeries galore!) A new year, a new exotic spa treatment. Whilst last year saw me in mixed gender German saunas and split sex nude Japanese onsens, my sister-in-law and her mum took me to a Korean spa where I got the full body scrub experience. I also wandered around the so-called dangerous suburbs and found some curiosities alongside wary glances. The day I left the temperature dropped to minus 10..

Georgia Aquarium

Little five points

Tubing at Stone Mountain, Floridians flock to Georgia to see some "real snow"

Korean sauna

Oakland cemetary

Delicious cinnamon bun, Dulce Vegan bakery, Atlanta

Maple and pecan scone, chai latte, Dulce Vegan bakery, Atlanta

Daiya cheese pizza, wholefoods

Raw kale nori wrap, Tassili's raw reality, Atlanta

Rose and Cardamom almond chai latte and vegan apple fritter, Revolution donuts, Atlanta
Vegan gingerbread donut, same place.

A slightly strange experience... Veggie dining in the bible belt
Wandering around where I probably shouldn't venture