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Camino, two weeks in

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Rest day in Burgos, because it is also my birthday and some sort of festival here, which has involved teams of marching bands roaming through the town and people parading in giant costumes and huge explosions of confetti in the main square. My friends have dubbed it Jesstival and it is therefore the best.

As of yesterday’s arrival in Burgos, I had walked 286km, with 492.5km to go, and I am officially 36.74% of the way through. (Yes, I have a spreadsheet, because I am a colossal nerd.) I hadn’t planned to take a rest day here but checked into a reasonably decent hotel  as a pre-birthday treat and promptly washed all my clothes in the bathtub before realising that they weren’t going to be dry in time for a 6am departure. And then I went for a little wander around Burgos and it turned out to be absolutely lovely; I had been inwardly bracing myself for an unpleasant re-entry into urban life after a week or so of village to village walking post Logroño, but it’s been much more pleasant than I had expected. Had to do a bit of work to repress my internal sergeant major, which was bellowing at me the REST IS FOR THE WEAK, YOU MUST MARCH 31K INTO THE MESETA AT DAWN, but I managed to wrestle it into submission and thus here I am. And I will march 31k into the Meseta at dawn tomorrow, instead.

I am – obviously – not quite halfway through; I’m estimating another three weeks to go, and will obviously need to pick up the pace somewhat, but I’m feeling stronger by the day and more able to go longer and longer distances. I’ve also had a couple of mishaps in the past couple of weeks that have required me to do shorter days – one possibly-infected blister in Logroño that caused my foot to swell up so much I could barely put my shoe on; and one twisted ankle (and skinned knee) after literally falling out of a bar in Grañon. As long as I avoid such mishaps in future, I should still be on track to arrive in Santiago somewhere around the 13th or 14th of July.

Camino thoughts, two weeks in:

  • Here is a piece of advice I have not seen anywhere else: be careful in choosing what shoes you bring to change into once you’re done walking for the day. I chose to bring a trusty (OR SO I THOUGHT) pair of Ipanema flipflops which I’ve had for years, and which promptly gave me blisters between my toes, which were then exacerbated by the walking and caused me to be hobbled in Logroño. I’d never had any trouble with them before but assume that the skin on my feet is more sensitive after I’ve walked 25km than it would normally be.
  • I may have said this before, but oh my god silicone earplugs are an absolute GODSEND and I couldn’t do without them. They block out street noise as effectively as they block snoring, and helped me to sleep until the grand old hour of 9am this morning.
  • Choosing the right listening material is an art. I find myself a little too emotionally raw while walking for all but the most austere music, and as such have been listening to a lot of Tallis and Palestrina and their ilk. I’ve also finally – FINALLY  – been getting into podcasts – mostly The Moth, and various Guardian podcasts, including the books podcast, which caused me to squat down under a tree in the middle of an industrial area yesterday afternoon and immediately purchase about £30-worth of ebooks. So there is danger here, too.
  • I am finding the social aspect of the Camino, frankly, a little hard to handle. This walk is an essentially solitary experience for me, as for many others; for some, however, it seems to be very social, and I have seen a number of tight groups springing up along the way as people band together to walk. I would, honestly, be quite happy with my own decision to walk alone, socialise in albergues, form fleeting connections with people I spend a couple of hours with and never see again, and so on, if I didn’t have the creeping sensation that I am Doing It Wrong and should be fully bonded into a Camino Family by now. ‘Twas ever thus.

Written by Jess

June 24, 2017 at 1:23 pm

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Camino de Santiago: Six days in

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I didn’t intend to take a rest day this early on, but I have a massive backlog of freelance work and wasn’t making immense amounts of progress while typing frantically in dim dorm rooms surrounded by people napping, so I decided this morning to stay in Puente la Reina, where I have a very comfortable single room, and lock myself in until my To Do list is decimated (in the figurative rather than literal sense – a 10% reduction would not be great progress). Which means that I may end up sleeping remarkably little tonight, but then tomorrow all I have to do is walk 22km or so to Estella in the morning, and once I am there I can nap with an easy heart because I will have nothing hanging over me. Which sounds blissful. And at least in Navarra there is a regular supply of coffee vendors along the route.

Anyway! I am six days into the Camino de Santiago; the day of the UK election (and what a farrago that has been) I got up early to vote, taxi’d to Glasgow airport, flew to Paris, got the bus to Montparnasse and the train to Bayonne through flickering lightning (six days ago – feels like about six months), and the next day I got the train to St Jean Pied de Port and started walking. So far I have walked 91.5km, shortly under 160,000 steps; I have crossed one mountain range and one national border; I have slept in five different places (Orisson, Roncesvalles, Larranoaña, Pamplona and here) and drunk bucketloads of coffee and red table wine. So far I have only lost two items: a hat, in a forest between Linzoain and Zubiri; and a fleece, yesterday, because I neglected to consider that something that is very securely strapped to one’s pack when said pack contains a Platypus with 3l of water becomes much less secure when said you’ve drunk pretty much all your water. Going to have to buy a replacement hat because it is scorchio; the fleece feels much less necessary right now but no doubt in a week or two I will be chilled to the bone and bemoaning its lack. The loss of two items is not bad going by my standards, though when considered as a proportion of the items I have with me it is … less good.

According to my semi-obsessive spreadsheet I am only 11.75% done, so it is very early days, but some observations so far:

  • My body is coping much, much better than I thought it would. I had been expecting problems with my right ankle*, right knee and hips, as they’re the bits that generally start to feel creaky after a strenuous hike, but they’ve all been absolutely fine. Likewise my feet – gallingly enough, I only have a single blister, and it’s from the flipflops I brought to change into once my walking is done for the day. Ipanemas, how can you betray me like this?!
  • I’m also coping much better than expected with having to carry my pack. It’s somewhere between 8 and 9kg I think, so more or less 10% of my body weight, as advised, but I still thought I would struggle. But no! I have had occasionally achy shoulders at the end of a day’s walk, and sporadically twingey back muscles, but otherwise I’m totally fine. (Famous last words, probably.)
  • I am coping about as well as expected (i.e. not at all) with the heat. The temperature up until about midday is pretty perfect, but afternoons can be brutal, peaking around 3pm when the earth feels like it’s radiating all the heat it’s been absorbing right back up at you. Yesterday’s walk from Pamplona to Puente la Reina was almost exactly the opposite to how I’d expected in terms of difficulty: I normally hate relentless uphill slogs, and so had expected to find the stretch from Pamplona to Alto del Pérdon really tough; instead, it was a breeze – I strode up to the top of the hill much faster and more happily than I would have dreamed, and then really suffered through the downhill stretch – 8km or so, should have taken me two hours, but ended up being more like three and a half because I had to stop and lie down and recover from the heat at every given opportunity. It’s supposed to be cooler tomorrow for a couple of days, but I’m getting up earlier and earlier to try and beat hte heat, and may end up entirely nocturnal at this rate.
  • I’m not reading nearly as much as I thought I would, which is a bit sad; I blame my prolific journalling (which isn’t going to change) and my backlog of work (which hopefully is). In Bayonne I started reading The Ethical Carnivore by Louise Grey, on a friend’s recommendation, which I then put aside in Orisson in favour of Obabakoak by Bernardo Atxaga, on the basis that I should really read a Basque author in the Basque country, which I then put aside in Pamplona in favour of Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, because obviously. All three are great and I should (and will) finish them, but right now I’ve been distracted by VE Schwab’s Our Dark Duet, which came out yesterday.
  • Items that I am most thankful for so far: Smartwool socks; my new 25l Berghaus backpack; my Platypus hydration system; the John Brierley Camino guide.

Highlights so far:

  • Waking up to a valley full of mist in Orisson, and hiking across the Pyrenees (Day 2).

P1010057 View from Orisson

  • Early morning walk through the witchwoods between Roncesvalles and Buergete (Day 3)…

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  • Walking out of Pamplona yesterday morning (Day 5) under a stunning dawn sky, followed by…

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  • Breakfast at Zariquiegui, after an uphill hike, sat on the side of the road under a wall of roses, followed by…

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  • The pilgrim monument at Alto del Pérdon, set amidst wind turbines (one of my all-time favourite things), and then…

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  • Honestly I just really like this photo, taken somewhere between Uterga and Óbanos yesterday afternoon, while I was dying of heat.

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*Sprained in ten years ago when, while emotionally elevated, I fell off a step in a nightclub and continued to dance for hours, and it’s returned to trouble me in my old age. The follies of youth.

Written by Jess

June 14, 2017 at 3:44 pm

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Another election eve post…

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…but I don’t have anything particularly profound to say, having had my heart repeatedly smashed to pieces by first the 2015 General Election, then Brexit, then the US Election over the past two and a bit years. The other day I permitted myself about five minutes of roseate fantasy of May defeated and the left victorious, and was surprised by how wistful it made me feel. Perhaps I have a tiny vestige of hope remaining inside me after all?

But irrespective of tomorrow’s results, today marks the end of a small, personal era, as my last day of full-time work with the company I’ve been working for over the past three years. It has been truly brilliant, and has given me many, many amazing opportunities – but I am constitutionally unsuited to full-time employment, and it is more than time for a break. So a break I am having, followed by a change. I hope both will be revitalising.

More soon. In the meantime:

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(From Porto, where I was a month ago.)

Written by Jess

June 7, 2017 at 11:25 pm

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o hai

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I’ve been in a lot of places and read a lot of things lately but to try and get back in the swing of writing blog posts I’m just going to blat on about YA books I’ve loved lately, and YA books I’m excited about. There’s no need to recap my rant about why adults reading YA books is totally effing normal and doesn’t make us emotionally or intellectually stunted, right? Right! Besides, what with the impending apocalypse and all, we may as well just read as our hearts tell us to, and leave joyless, worthy reading for the afterlife.

  • Obviously anyone with even the most tangential interest in YA lit and who is not a complete asshole will have already read Angie Thomas‘s The Hate U Give, but in case you have been in a coma for the last several months or possibly held captive by militants, allow me to urge you to READ THIS BOOK IMMEDIATELY. I first heard about it when Leigh Bardugo reblogged this tumblr post, which accurately points out the lie that is often peddled by the publishing industry that there just isn’t a market for literature by minority voices. Plenty of people more eloquent than me have pointed out what makes The Hate U Give so incredible, but I will say that for me, the most intense and transformative part of the reading experience was that the book made no concessions to my whiteness. It’s a book by a black woman, steeped in black (American) cultural references, about what is, tragically, an essentially black experience, and there’s no attempt to soften or tone anything down for a casual white reader. It’s telling of how pervasive whiteness is in the dominant cultural narrative that I can’t actually remember if I’ve ever experienced that in a book before – certainly not in YA. 12/10, would recommend x 100000.
  • Laini Taylor‘s new book, Strange the Dreamer, could hardly have been more different, but it was another book that grabbed me by the heart lately. I read Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone books in a big breathless gulp in late 2014, while driving through Armenia and Nagorno Karabakh and finally on a random layover in Sharjah, and I adored the books for what they were but also, and perhaps more so, for the utter delight in the world that Taylor infuses throughout them. Strange the Dreamer is more otherwordly in scope, not even touching on our world, but Taylor has crafted something truly exquisite in her worldbuilding, notwithstanding its brutality. Cannot wait for the next in the series.

And now for some YA books that I am eagerly anticipating:

  • VE Schwab‘s Our Dark Duet is out in a couple of weeks! It’s the sequel to This Savage Song which I bought on a whim and read in Entebbe last year. Sadly I think this is the second and last in the series but Schwab is astoundingly prolific and will probably have ten more books out by Christmas. IF THERE IS A CHRISTMAS, see: apocalypse, see: covfefe.
  • Maggie’s Stiefvater‘s All the Crooked Saints is out in October! (In the US, anyway; not sure about the UK.) There is an excerpt here and it makes me happy.

In unrelated conclusion, here is a very pleasing photo of me from a couple of weeks ago, after I arrived at Conoco airstrip and was driving into Garowe the morning after it had rained heavily for the first time in years, thus alleviating the drought. There were great shallow lakes by the side of the road and when he saw me taking photos my driver Abdifatah insisted we get out so he could take a photo of me in front of one of them. Full disclosure: said photos were so grotesquely unflattering that I deleted them instantly, but this delighted selfie of Abdifatah with me in the background makes me smile. (Shortly afterwards we drove through two feet of water flowing with alarming speed from one side of the road to the other, and although we made it safely to the other side, I had to use a different car for the rest of the trip because the electricity fused.)

Much excitement in Garowe after a huge fall of rain last night.

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Written by Jess

May 31, 2017 at 5:50 pm

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DRC Easter

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HURRAH IMPROMPTU TRIPS. A few weeks back one of my Nairobi-based friends mentioned that she had a six-month multi-entry visa from a work trip to Kinshasa and Kisangani, and did anyone want to help her make use of it by climbing Nyiragongo Volcano? Some friends of mine did the same trip last year and the pictures looked AMAZING so I was like HELL YES and then (quietly, secretly) started fretting, because as you may recall, last year I tried and failed to mount an assault on Karthala, a volcano in Comoros, and so what if I tried again and failed again but this time in front of friends thus a) embarrassing myself, and b) inconveniencing them when I inevitably had to be stretchered off the mountainside? But then the trip took on a life of its own, with three more friends / friends-of-friends committing, and then we set dates and applied for visas and booked tours and I borrowed a bagworth of hiking gear off a friend (who was much more sensibly going to Istanbul for Easter weekend) and I was borne along by the momentum. And so on Easter Friday, the day after I came back from Watamu, we flew to Kigali, and the next day we piled into a car and were driven to Goma.

Kigali!

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Goma was fascinating and I wish we’d had the chance to spend more time there. We stayed at the Caritas Guesthouse, right on Lake Kivu, which I’d last seen from Gisenyi in 2015. Goma’s main claim to fame, aside from its regular bouts of M23-related insecurity, is the fact that it was nearly swallowed by lava when Nyiragongo last erupted, in 2002. Relatively few people were killed (according to our fixer, Emmanuel, those who died were mostly either holed up in a church that promised to pray the lava away, or looting a fuel station that then exploded), and the volcano is now, apparently, much better monitored so there will be early warning for the next eruption. But volcano remnants are still very much in evidence, in the form of pitted lava rocks piled up by the side of the road, or used in construction.

Goma roadside.

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The volcano had been our main aim, but despite how short our time was, various logistical arrangements meant that we ended up with a day in hand, and Virunga was offering half-price gorilla trekking for Easter (didn’t know gorillas cared), so we took advantage of that and on Sunday spent a couple of hours bouncing about through achingly picturesque countryside (conical volcanoes hidden in the mists; exquisitely-kept terraced farms in the foothills) en route to Bukima. This was something that I’d been wanting to do for years and years, and it was absolutely incredible – and, as we agreed at the time, intermittently terrifying. Unlike what I’ve heard about gorilla “trekking” elsewhere, this was a proper, strenuous hike through the rainforest, two hours of slogging uphill, with our guides hacking through the bush for the last ten or fifteen minutes before we were encouraged through a gap in the greenery and suddenly there was a gorilla RIGHT THERE OH MY ACTUAL GOD. We got to hang out with a family group of nine gorillas – including three silverbacks – for an hour, and it felt like an immense and unwarranted privilege, interspersed with periods of intense terror when one of the silverbacks would lumber to his feet, fix us with a stern eye and lurch in our direction. We had been assured that in these cases our guides would know what to do, and were particularly adept at identifying when the gorillas were just playing (oh god) and when they were actually angry (OHGODOHGOD); Frederic, our main dude, generally responded to any potential gorilla aggression with pas de probleme, pas de probleme, and then: prend un photo! which we mostly did, when our hands weren’t shaking too much.

Entering the rainforest…

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AAAAAAAAAH!

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Gorilla selfie

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And then Monday was VOLCANO DAY. I had spent the previous few days silently performing my affirmations (you failed at Karthala because you were trying to do a two-day hike in one day! It’s only 8km (albeit with a 1500m elevation climb)! It’s all psychological!), and with my friends giving me very useful encouragement and tough love. In the event, I would by no means say it was easy (my thighs still ache slightly, four days after coming down), but it could not have been more worth it. This blog post gives an excellent description of the route (I may have read it slightly obsessively before departure), and the trek is planned incredibly well, in terms of the way that it’s broken up. I found it reasonably tough but OK right up to the second half of the penultimate stretch, when a very heavy rainstorm and the unrelenting steepness really began to get to me – but by that point I was a good three-quarters of the way there, and so there was no way I was going to give up. I was encouraged to the end of that stretch by one of my friends waiting uphill from me with a bite of Snickers in her hand, which she smashed into my mouth as soon as I reached her, before hustling into a hut to shelter from the rain. And then onwards to the summit once the rain had let up a little, which was physically difficult (probably the steepest and most perilous stretch of all) but psychologically straightforward, as by that point the end is literally in sight.

And then a night on the rim of a volcano, allegedly the world’s largest (or maybe second-largest) lava lake, drinking wine and whisky out of plastic cups and eating a surprisingly delicious meal, made by our stalwart cook, Janvier; the lights of Goma and Gisenyi spread out on one side; the crater on the other; shreds of clouds beneath, and Mount Mikeno poking its way through them. The whole thing shot instantly to one of my top five ever travel experiences.

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Volcano + wine

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Written by Jess

April 22, 2017 at 3:35 pm

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Fly-by: Watamu

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Final remote office location.

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In Nairobi after a few days on the Kenyan coast, at Watamu. My companion and I took advantage of a delayed trip to Puntland on my part, booked last minute flights and an airbnb, and took ourselves away for three days of whatever the opposite of a staycation is.* Much to the surprise of both of us, we got a startling amount of work done: never underestimate the motivating factors of a) all your friends thinking you’re just off on a jolly, and having to prove them wrong, and b) having pool, beach and dawas within easy reach, to act as regular rewards.

Things that the trip involved:

  • So much good food. We lunched at Pilipan once (marinated calamari, shrimp and mango noodle salad, salted caramel chocolate tart), at Papa Remo once (fish carpaccio, crab linguini), and dined at the Crab Shack twice (highlights being the crab – obviously – and the jumbo prawns, but also the whole atmosphere, the dawas – made by the “dawa doctor” – and watching the sun go down). Highly recommended.

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  • Possibly too many dawas, despite attempting to impose limits upon ourselves.
  • Delicious gelato, bought en route to the airport, having made a gelato-specific detour because it was apparently good enough to be worth missing your flight for (accurate) – and then eaten messily in a tuktuk.
  • One of the best massages of my life at Lakshmi Spa, followed by re-enacting the Timotei advert between work emails in their tiny outdoor jacuzzi.

I am back in Nairobi just in time to have dinner with friends in Karen, go for a run while dodging warthogs, throw a lot of filthy clothes into the wash, repack, and then head off to the airport again for the next thing. Of which more later, once it’s actually happened.

Morning run companion.

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*By which I mean going somewhere lovely, specifically to work. Facebook consensus was that the most appropriate term was Remote Office or Mobile Office, though one friend did suggest the excellent “Holi-job”.

Written by Jess

April 14, 2017 at 9:32 am

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Somalia/Somaliland, last week

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I have been trying to write this post for two days now, about my recent trip to Somalia and Somaliland (which was, from my perspective, great), and how I’m now reading Nadifa Mohamed’s Orchard of Lost Souls, which is set in Hargeisa in the late 1980s, and how the Horn of Africa is currently experiencing the worst drought in several years and a boat full of Somali refugees was recently fired upon by a helicopter in the Gulf of Aden and and and, but I can’t stitch it together into a coherent narrative. So I’m just going to post some pictures instead.

View from the tea shack

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The view from the tea shack at Conoco Airstrip, where flights land for Garowe as they’ve been upgrading their airport for about nine months now. Garowe was hot and windy and bright, and I very much missed the swank sunglasses I bought last year and then lost in the workings of my seat the one time I was upgraded on Kenya Airways.

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I think I have said before that one of my favourite things about Somalia and Somaliland is the paintings you find on shops and hotels and restaurants, usually advertising their wares, but in this case exhorting people to comply with security restrictions. (This was at the City Plaza Hotel in Burao, where we also met – briefly – eminent Somali poet Hadrawi.)

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The road between Berbera and Burao starts out flat and dusty, and then suddenly you are coiling up into the Golis Mountains and the temperature drops and you get vistas like this.

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The beach at Berbera is beautiful and I wanted to swim but the sea was rough and the sand turns to rock as soon as you’re up to your ankles and women swimming in Somaliland is a vexed issue anyway and as such I was fully covered and had nonetheless sparked consternation and mild alarm among the hotel staff when I walked down to the beach, so I had to content myself with an aggressive paddle.

Misty morning between Berbera and Hargeisa

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We left early from Berbera to head back to Hargeisa in time for our flight, and were very surprised to find the road covered in heavy mist rising off the desert and clinging to the base of the mountains.

Written by Jess

March 25, 2017 at 4:36 pm

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