travel

where the waters match the skies

The twinkling lights of Scarborough now hidden behind the hills, we’re guided solely by a thousand stars above and the torch on Brett’s paddleboard ahead. We’ve been paddling the kayaks for about twenty minutes, and now beach up on No Man’s Land. Right now, it’s a sandbank, but it’s so-called because it’s so frequently underwater that construction is forbidden. The sand is thick, and it swallows up your toes. We haul the kayaks over the sandbank and enter Bon Accord Lagoon. If you look closely when your hands touch the water, you can see tiny points of light darting from them, so small they could be the reflections of stars on the waves. Brett shines his torch over the surface, and suddenly it’s alive with a hundred bats flying low, hoping for dinner. The silhouettes of the see-saw paddles rise and fall, there’s the sound of blades entering still water and the occasional hollow thud of fiberglass. Besides that there’s nothing. The lagoon is flanked on three sides by mangroves, forming little sheltered bays that Brett directs us into.
“Now put your hands in the water,” he says, and as we do, there’s gasps as it lights up in tiny sparks. They emanate from fingers outwards, like sparklers, every move accompanied by underwater meteors. The stars above our heads are suddenly outnumbered by those beneath the surface.

“Now climb in,” comes Brett’s voice. “Swim far away from anyone else.”
And suddenly I’m a plasma ball, shooting photons from every part of my body, tiny glow-worms emanating from my skin, again and again and again, every time I move. It’s like I’m on some drug enabling me to see my energy overlap into that of Mother Nature. Superlatives don’t do the trick anymore: it’s magical, fantastical, outrageous – I can’t take my eyes off the starry movement of my own body. I am all-powerful, I am a creator, I am swimming through the depths of the universe, the constellations constantly shifting, dancing, evolving, lighting up, burning out and then being reborn through my movement.

I’m out of breath from exhilaration when I finally re-enter the kayak. I lean back, watching the stars, the slow-burn bioluminescence of the skies, and gently, gently start paddling back to No Man’s Land. Brett picks up sea urchins, a sea cucumber, points out lobster, shrimp and starfish lurking among the turtle grass, then shines his light on footlong fish with needlepoint noses that dart and jump ahead of us. Back at the surf shack, we pull the kayaks up the beach and Brett gives six of us a ride in the back of his pickup. We’re crouched down, clutching onto whatever we can, as he ferries us off the beach and back to civilisation. At the Crown Point junction, we jump ship, our feet still sandy, our minds still spinning, and with soca music from the island’s bar strip reaching our ears.


This piece won The Telegraph’s Just Back travel writing competition in April 2019.

dubai

by day

Once you see one Palestinian flag, you start to see them all. From my window I can see eight without even looking too hard, stretched across buildings finished and unfinished. I am too far distanced from that situation to comment, but their presence strikes me. I did not notice them six months previously. There’s no flag on the world’s tallest building. The Burj Khalifa, like an iPhone X alongside older models, sends everything around it into crashing obsolescence. And yet it’s funny how the world’s most celebrated building is the one that looks most likely to leave us for outer space. I guess we all aspire to the stars, because we’ve already conquered everything on Earth. There is nothing very far away anymore, nothing too crazy: weekend trips to Dubai are, for some, perfectly normal. Building high-rise and ski slopes in the desert, perfectly normal. Sixteen-lane motorways, perfectly normal.
So of course, when that’s all so mundane, we need a new fix. 

by night

The city’s highways never sleep, its high-rise never stops winking. There is no city closer to the pinnacle of human ingenuity, no city further removed from human roots. Why was this necessary? For what it demonstrates is that progress can only come with consumerism, with waste, with haves and have-nots. A city so at the cutting edge of our prowess as a species that it blunts everything else – a candy-cane of a city that nowhere else can live up to, because other cities have to be grounded in reality, at least sometimes. Except maybe Vegas and Cancun, there’s no cities with its head in the clouds and feet off the ground as much as Dubai.

And yet, it’s cool. People wouldn’t entertain the dream if it wasn’t. The opulence, the theatre, the improbability, the incredulity – that’s cool. The lights, the architecture, the fact anything is possible if you have enough money, even that’s cool. But the whole place is sprinting – to stay shiny, to stay hyper-relevant, to stay candy-sweet. 

And you can cover a huge distance in a short time if you sprint. But how long can you keep it up?

Going back to London feels like stepping off a cloud, pressing the Home button to leave the Instagram feed and go back into the real world: colours duller, buildings smaller, everything altogether less opulent. But at least it’s real. 

Sicily

This is not a journal. These are the scraped-together writings as they came to me on that hot island in the Mediterranean. Make of them what you will.

7 August - London
At least it’s cool on this train. The green scene wobbles serene past the window; the sky is as a newborn’s eye. Earlier, I’d watched the light roll off the escalators: hundreds of lapping waves on the ceiling of the station. A trip was calling, revealing itself to me by the lapping of my subconscious on the shores of my mind. I am both sweating and the coldest I will be in a week. The seven days that lie ahead now stretch their arms, lazily wake up, enjoy the feeling of clear air on skin. Soon that clear air will thin, and all that will remain will be the blue and white truth of the clouds, and a can of cold, golden promise.

7 August - Catania from above
Sicily appears as if burning under a thick blanket of smoke. The barren hills have burnt first, the pools of water that still stand from the firefighters reflect the flames as they’re echoed in the clouds. Wind turbines signal SOS in semaphore. Nothing lives here.
And then, the red rooves of a settlement, a farmhouse on a hill surrounded by pines, the remnants of green snaking through a dry valley. Etna stands guard over all she has scorched.

8 August - Palermo
Vast arched courtyards through doorways, a priest reading Bukowski hidden in a magazine, black medicine sipped on ice.

12 August - Castelbuono
The cafe only opened at five am – though the owner sat outside looking as bored as we were for a good hour before that – so we dwelled in our wine haze with our new friends with whom we’d run out of conversation. We are homeless, we are the scraped-together, we are the festival gods of our own fate, and we are here, together, in our sleeping bags and everyone in their own mental world, waiting for 5:40am.

12 August - Palermo
Two more hours to kill. This waiting room: Palermo. The bus rattled along the coastal road past Céfalu, the sun rising and scattering itself over the sea. Inside the bus, I tossed and turned on a single seat, my mind willing sleep to come but my body never comfortable enough to allow it. What a festi-dip this promises to be.

12 August - London
The time has come to prick the bubble on the dream and return myself to reality. When the light flicks off, so too does Sicily. The immediate Sicily, anyway. I have no doubt that its effects will be felt in months and years to come.

Goodnight world.
Goodnight dream.
Goodnight Sicily.

in transit

faces raised to screens
eyes glazed at a hundred ways to leave,
and everywhere voices
with no bodies
and no souls.

and delays and layovers
that just go to show
that the waiting game has no rules
and not even really any players -
just waiters,
the bored, sick of their job ones,
who'll spit in your food
just to pass the time.

thoughts on a journey

Around Lewknor, finally, the thick trees parted and the green opened up ahead of us. Cows grazed the rapeseed fields beside the road. 

Around Oxford, trees crowded the road again. A wild boar lay squashing the daisies. We pull off the A road and turn onto a cycle path. “Keep to the roads,” the sat nav reminds us. In the suburbs of Oxford I smell England again. 

Nowhere in Oxford has money. When we finally got change, none of the meters worked. I sat on a bench and sipped black coffee. 

Around Burford we saw what we’d come to see. Green stretching and punctuated by dots of villages. A single church stuck above the tree line. Entering the village we realised we were not alone. Cars stretched down the high street as flags fluttered from lamp posts.

Stow on the Wold. Passed through.

Approaching Chipping Campden I smell woodsmoke on pine breeze. The hills rolled up, broken by age-old dry walls. Sheep picked their way along grassy cliffs, their bleats echoing across the valley. Wool clung in smoky clumps to barbed wire. I watched Joost, tiny against the vast landscape. Chipping Campden was beige. The sandstone of Oxford had followed us here.

A dropped plate was the day’s biggest disturbance for a sleepy town. We stopped in a pub garden for lunch. I ate too much beef and too many potatoes. I washed it down with too much beer. Then I felt drowsy.

First drops of rain on the car.

Stroud is a forgotten suburb of inner London, sprawling grey and unlovely. We spend 10 minutes driving round, then looked for where to go next. Three inns were full. Each recommended two further fully booked.

We fell on our feet and found the Egypt Mill. It had roaring fires and lakes, good beer and hot food. So I sit, beer in hand, fire on my back, listening to the birds. We drank ale as ducks swam nonchalantly in the rain. The Cotswolds could be a different world. The rain that was forecast was droplets and had minimal effect on our plans.

I dreamed that night of an underground city, a blaze of life in disused sewers. I lay underneath the world and looked up at it through those little squares of glass in the pavements. A film played on a projector. I met Keith Richards and a face-shifting man. 

A single bird on a telegraph wire waits for a message in nameless countryside. The distance is thick with drizzle. Fields extend to hills over the horizon. 

The serenity of green squares. Along a damp path by the church. Clouds hang like sheep’s wool in the valley.

Road trip dip.