Author Archives: Hazel Hedge

An Epic Journey

I’ve been on two Epic Journeys recently. The first, which I’m not yet ready to write about, was the journey through leukaemia with my partner and soulmate, Dave. It ended with him dying, in June 2019.

This blog is about my second journey, fulfilling a lifelong dream to travel overland to Asia and helping me square the circle of wanting to visit family living in Thailand without flying there and back. Because climate emergency. It’s not just me, there’s a whole No-Fly Movement now and it’s making travel adventurous and romantic again!

Yorkshire to a Thai Island, Overland

21 December, Winter Solstice

Yorkshire to London

22 December

London to Vienna, Austria

The folks in charge of Vienna let coca-cola put massive banners on the screened scaffolding around the gothic cathedral in Stephansplatz, in the centre of the city. Somewhat spoiling the charm of Christmas markets and horsedrawn carriage rides. Beneath the coke ads I eat potato fritter with sour cream washed down with a mug of bio-gluhwein.

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For twenty hours, from London to Prague, I’m seated next to an annoying smelly man. I make the transfer in Prague with just two minutes to spare, after the Czech polizei drag a guy off the bus at the border and we wait until they let him back on.

23 December

Vienna to Kiev, Ukraine

Snail train through Ukraine in the rain. A tiny 3-berth compartment, bunks stacked on top of each other with barely space to turn around alongside them and a ladder that only reaches partway to the ground from my top bunk which is terribly close to the ceiling. My cabin mates aren’t great at co-operation.

Kiev

I have two hours to change some cash, buy water and tea and fruit, rehydrate, find the ticket office, swap my Polrail confirmation slip for a printed ticket, and find my train.

Everything seems very strange, uniformed men are herding people out of the station, the area directly in front is cordoned off, and I can’t work out how or where to do the things I need to do. I have a headache. The people I approach for help don’t speak any English and seem pretty cross. Finally a guard with a twinkle in his eye and a smattering of English explains there’s a bomb scare. He gestures towards another nearby station where I can get my ticket, and across the road to a money exchange place. He can’t tell me whether my train is likely to leave on time, or at all.

After 90 or so fraught minutes I’ve done all the things and after a few false leads have even found the platform my train will leave from. The bomb scare, if it’s still on, isn’t affecting this part of the station. I board; this is a better train, bunks only two-up and all open plan – no compartments, so no claustrophobia.

As we pull out of Kiev, I’m welcomed like a long-lost exotic sister by Peter, a 60 year old Kazakh philosopher, and Sergei, a young Russian geek; both are keen to practice their English and discover what an English woman is doing on their train. When I explain to the Kazakh I’m travelling overland because flying is bad for the environment he says “Ah! The Swedish girl!” He got his start learning English by listening to The Beatles and Rolling Stones as a youth, and believes doing things that are hard makes you stronger.

The border guards here have guns and dogs.

24 December, Christmas Eve

Moscow

The metro is confusing. Also palatial, ornate, and lit by chandeliers. Russians so far seem friendly; a young guy notices my perplexity and sets me going in the right direction for Yaroslavskaya Railway Station, where I stash my rucksack in the baggage store. The Information Point staff don’t speak English and are under the impression that if they speak Russian loudly and slowly enough, I’ll understand.

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Back into the metro system to Red Square and St Basil’s Cathedral, Zaradye Park, the Kremlin, a Stalin-era skyscraper and a whole chain of gorgeously decorated sparkling winter gardens and Christmas markets. After six hours in the city I’ve stopped feeling like a scared rabbit, I’m smiling and I’ve managed to buy a hot chocolate and cherry pastry. Then it’s back to Yaroslavskaya for Russian salad and yogurt and to gorge on a fat Stephen King novel while waiting for my 11.45pm Trans-Siberian Express, hoping reality lives up to the romance of my imagination.

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I have a 4-berth compartment to myself. I’m in a top berth, there’s plenty of head room, hooks and rails to hang things from, and a big luggage store at the foot of the bed. I make up my bunk with clean white sheets and coarse wool blankets, use surgical tape to stick Christmas cards to the wall, and toast the epic journey with a swig of fine brandy from Dave’s hipflask as the clock passes midnight on Christmas Eve, then I sleep.

25 December, Christmas Day

Trans-Mongolian Express, through Siberia

Christmas Day. It’s snowing.

Every sleeper train seems to be designed slightly differently but each of the last three has been carpeted with blue or red patterned rugs. This one is dirtier and shabbier than I expected, with harder bunks and is lacking a shower, but there’s space to partially unpack and to sit at a table observing Russia go by. I’m alone, peaceful, smiling, quietly excited. Outside, silver birch and fir trees. A wide frozen river. A 1960’s car.

At the end of the corridor, a stove with back boiler heats the carriages and provides free hot water in an urn for tea and soup and couscous.

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Through the window I see small houses with steep pitched roofs, slightly bigger houses with roofs shaped like old-fashioned canvas house tents. It’s icy underfoot; I see people sliding as they walk.

Down the corridor, Chinese train guards squabble and steam wonton. The world outside is monochrome, a black-and-white landscape with peach-pink backdrop. As the sun sets over Siberia I have a slice of mum’s miniature Christmas cake washed down with brandy and breathe deeply. For two years, while Dave was ill, I rarely breathed deeply; was always holding my breath in hope. Ever since he was diagnosed with leukaemia in December 2017, my primary concern was him. Now, I miss him and whisper to him, feel as though I’m doing this journey for him too, but I’m also free to breathe and spend the day reading and relaxing. I’m on holiday!

The dining car is cleaner and newer than the sleeping carriages. It’s almost empty. There’s a small Christmas tree in the bar, tinsel and baubles at the windows. I treat myself to a Christmas dinner of fried potatoes with mushrooms.

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26 December

Trans-Mongolian Express, through Siberia

I think of the book and film The Long Walk, of prisoners escaping a Siberian prison and walking to safety, through forests and deserts, to India. I think of permafrost, of climate change melting permafrost and gases bubbling up, long-frozen bodies rising up and decomposing. I think of Communism stretching right across Russia to China, heading down into Asia and jumping across oceans to parts of South America. Vast territories. I wonder how and why it grew so big and went so wrong.

A billion Christmas trees outside my window, boughs laden with snow. The snow is deeper now. Big flakes are falling. At stations people pull their luggage along the platforms on sledges. At Ishim we stop for 10 minutes, time enough to wrap up and climb out, to trample in the snow. There’s little to see: bundled up passengers, turquoise station buildings, grey-white sky, snow, guards wearing furry hats with earflaps turned up and pinned on top, drab buildings in the background.

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Later, as we pass through another station at dusk, the clock reads 4.55pm, three hours later than I thought. We’ve been passing through time-zones, unannounced and un-noticed. Cars, trucks and buses make their way along iced roads.

My carriage is mostly empty, save one quiet Japanese passenger, occupying his time with books and simple food, like me. We smile, cautiously. I’m in no hurry for company.

27 December

Trans-Mongolian Express, through Siberia

Sunshine on snow. I can feel the warmth of the sun, faintly, through the double-glazed window which today has ice crystals between its panes. The fir trees are big to the north, where the land undulates gently. Elsewhere skinny silver birch shimmer under a sky of pale, snow-washed blue. In larger settlements there are a few big, brick-built houses but mostly the dwellings are of wood, small cabins with chimneys; some are painted bright turquoise or pink, or yellow, or blue and green; I want to live in one. Many have garden plots and greenhouses, all snow-covered now but ready for spring cultivation.

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Krasnoyarsk is a big city. Mile after mile of scattered cabins give way to denser housing, factories and warehouses, mean tower blocks, cranes, HGVs, apartments, industrial chimney stacks. Traffic lights, petrol stations, graffiti on railway hoardings. Ordinary urban things out here in Siberia. On the platform cold stings my cheeks, makes my eyes water, takes my breath away. It’s minus 21 degrees. The train guards take up tools and chip away the ice from our undercarriage. I jump back on board, skin tingling, eyes streaming, invigorated, glad I don’t have to be out there for long. There’s a sharp breeze blowing fine snow-dust. It looks like glitter streaming past the window as we pick up speed. There are snow ploughs on the roads, coal-laden cargo trains on the tracks. Rose-gold snow in late afternoon sunlight.

I eat well with the aid of the hot water samovar: oats with raisins and sunflower seeds and honey for breakfast, miso soup and oatcakes for lunch, spiced-veg couscous with rehydrated seaweed for dinner. Tea and Christmas cake mid-afternoon. Hot chocolate with brandy before bed.

We’ve gained another couple of hours. I’m experiencing jetlag in slow motion.

28 December

Trans-Mongolian Express, Irkutsk to the Mongolian border

At 7.30am I’m woken from a deep sleep by the arrival of three Australians in my compartment. They’ve just embarked, in Irkutsk. They are loud, and take up a lot of space. We have introductory conversation consisting of who, where, when and why? I explain that my dad and sister are in Thailand, an overland journey to Asia is a long-held dream, and I don’t want to fly for environmental reasons.

Ah, climate change!” exclaims Viv. “We’ve travelled through South America and Europe, and everywhere we go people tell us how their place has been affected. Glaciers retreating. Landscapes changing. Wildlife disappearing. From Peru to Sweden, and now you!”

The Aussies crash out after strewing their belongings around and parking an enormous suitcase in the centre of the compartment. My palace suddenly feels extraordinarily cramped. I dress on my bunk, make a mug of sweet coffee, use one of the fold-down seats in the corridor to drink it, then head to the dining car. The unheated ante-chambers between carriages are deep freezes, choked with snow. I choose toast-with-jam from the menu, it has the taste and texture of eggy bread; I like it. The dining car is way too warm, over-heated and stuffy, so I escape back to the corridor.

Irkutsk! I’m in a game of Risk.

My corridor seat is perfectly placed for viewing Lake Baikal, the deepest freshwater lake in the world. It stretches on and on, and on and on. Every so often we reach a promontory and I think it’s the end of the lake, but no, we pass through a tunnel or top a rise, and there the lake is again. It’s mostly water, choppy in places, mist rising from it in others, with some frozen sections, ice on ripples, miniature icebergs along its bank. It doesn’t freeze over until January. Ellie Weirdigan walked across Lake Baikal, camping on the groaning ice, a couple of years ago. A fisherman strides by, well-muffled. A small blue car speeds along an icy lane. Horses graze on frozen clumps of coarse grass poking through snow.

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In the afternoon I meet Dave, semi-retired John Lewis manager, and Jayne, primary school teacher. They pass along my corridor between the dining car and their first-class carriage. They have a twin berth compartment, in fake mahogany, with a shower that doesn’t work, and red rather than blue carpets. Their beds are soft. It’s Dave’s 60th birthday in a couple of days; he lends me his Trans-Siberian Trailblazer handbook and invites me to join them for birthday cake on the 30th.

We arrive in Naushki, the Russian border town, sometime around midnight. Border guards and customs officials board the train, wake us, demand passports, order us out of bed, give us forms to fill, study our visas then let us sleep again. An hour or so later we’re at the Mongolian border town of Suhbaatar and it all happens again, through a haze of sleep.

29 December

Trans-Mongolian Express

I wake up in Mongolia. Mongolia! That place I decided I must visit 27 years ago while watching a surreal film in a Sydney arthouse cinema featuring Mongolian nomads galloping across the steppes and living in round tents called gers (the surreal bit involved a tv and satellite dish with nowhere to plug it in).

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Low, snow-covered hills, bright sun in a blue sky. A scattering of small houses in the valley through which the rail tracks run. Where the buildings are painted they’re mostly red, white and green. Each house surrounded by a fence enclosing a rectangular piece of land. In some plots, gers sit in front of the buildings with smoke rising from chimneys. The herdsfolk are off the steppes for winter but still living in their traditional, well-insulated yurt-homes. Just once, a circle of gers on the edge of a settlement, away from the bricks and fences.

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We pass small farmsteads. Snow-covered haystacks. Big dogs with thick fluffy coats. Horses. Cattle. People, bundled in hoods, headscarves and long coats, unloading coal from an open-topped wagon. There are vast coal reserves beneath Mongolia along with other valuable resources to be mined; Russia and China are moving in.

In Ulaanbaatar, capital of Mongolia, I wave goodbye to the Aussies and the Japanese guy. There’s time enough in the station to walk along the platform. My nose hairs freeze, a peculiar sensation. Dave and Jayne dart around the station building, taking photos from all angles while I chat with Dean, from Cardiff. He’s also heading for Thailand, armed with a recently acquired TEFL certificate and no need to return. Back on the train I realise the Australians must’ve scooped up my super-comfortable sandals with their belongings. They’re long gone. A pair of fake-fur-lined snow boots is now my only footwear. Fine until I get to the tropics.

I spend an hour or so pining for my sandals then meet Dave and Jayne in the Mongolian dining car which was joined to the train at the border, the Russian restaurant returning to Moscow. It’s a gloriously ornate carriage, with carved wood and golden tablecloths, and it’s full. Lots of people embarked in Ulaanbaatar – people from Canada, Ireland, Scotland, Italy and Germany as well as Mongolians – joining the English, Welsh, Chinese and Swedish travellers already aboard. Jayne has brought along a fruitcake for Dave’s 60th, a Waitrose Christmas cake posing as birthday cake. Dave slices it into crumbly lumps, offers it around on serviettes begged from the dining car attendants. Jayne whips everyone up to sing Happy Birthday, and then because the beers are flowing we have Happy Birthday in Swedish, German, Italian and Glaswegian too.

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From the train tracks Ulaanbaatar was an ugly blot of grey and beige concrete and towerblocks on a pristine white plain. Beyond, there are herds of ponies. Wild, or just roaming free until needed? We’re skimming the Gobi Desert and the landscape’s flatter, emptier. I’m beginning to think this bit of the journey isn’t long enough. I could live on this train for a few more days, easily.

There are flocks of small birds, the occasional larger bird of prey. Silhouettes in flight as the sun sinks. A gazelle, leaping through snow. Then, a whole herd of gazelles and a new moon rising, Venus clear beside it, in a violet sky over an apricot horizon.

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After dark, I return to the dining car at Dave and Jayne’s insistence, to share in a bottle of pink fizz. It’s been chilling between the carriages. I eat omelette, the only vegetarian dish on the menu. They eat goulash. Dave orders a second bottle of pink fizz and the whole dining car toasts him again. 

30 December

Trans-Mongolian Express, through China

We reach Erlyan on the Chinese border about 1am. We have to disembark to go through passport control and customs. One border policewoman has long false nails painted sparkling silver. Once all passengers are back on board the train is shunted into a huge shed for bogie-changing. The tracks in China are of a different gauge so the wheels have to be de-iced, taken off and replaced. This involves lots of banging and shaking. I try to doze through it. We cross into China around 5am and I sleep until 9.

In China there’s only a light dusting of snow but it’s still very cold. The landscape is mostly pale brown under a blue sky. A Mongolian guy tries to fight the Chinese train guard; his family pulls him back into their compartment. At train stations in Russia and Mongolia the guards disembarked and stood in clusters, casually chatting, or bashed ice from the undercarriage wearing furry hats and bomber jackets over their simple, indoor, blue cotton uniforms. In China they don smart greatcoats with golden badges and shoulder insignia, wear peaked caps with gold braid, and stand to attention at the doors. They’re the same guys though. The main guard in my carriage has become friendly towards me, thawing gradually over the six days we’ve been travelling, smiling occasionally now and trying out the odd word of English. I ask him to teach me the Chinese for thankyou: “shjee-ah-shja” I try, and he nods.

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Now there are solar farms and wind turbines, tree nurseries, reforestation. And then, the Great Wall of China, climbing hills a few kilometres away, looking just like it does in pictures. I doze, wake to fluted and jagged mountains above an iced-over lake, then a dam and deep river valley. The river is frozen, criss-crossed with bridges, lined with trees. Sunlight hits the peaks above, turning them amber and gold. Everything below is tones of grey and brown and white, but not dull. I wish I could paint this scenery, it’s subtly gorgeous.

All passengers have been given tickets for a free lunch in the new Chinese dining car which joined us in Erlyan. This is the most drab dining car of the three, and by far the coldest. There’s no menu, no choice. For vegetarians it’s steamed veg and rice. For meat-eaters the same plus meatballs. All the Westerners are crammed together on four tables. We discover there are four teachers and a surgeon amongst us. After lunch I chat with Dean, tell him about Dave dying. His best friend died of leukaemia three years ago.

I want to explore more: Mongolia in summer; the Silk Road through Kazakhstan, Kyrzgistan, Uzbekistan; I want to go from Thailand through Myanmar to India and Pakistan and Iran (probably a wish too far); I want to visit Kurdish Awraman; make my way back through Turkey. When I started this journey I wasn’t sure the travel-magic would work. Seems it is.

Now we’re heading into the outskirts of Beijing. Street lights, neon, billboards, tower blocks, wide highways, urban sprawl. Ejected into the capital of China as night falls. There’s no snow but it’s minus 20 degrees, bitingly cold. I’m lost, but a fellow traveller points towards the subway. Leo Hostel sent directions by email, I have them here printed out, they take me to Qianmen Square where I lose my way and walk around, cheeks stinging, nostrils freezing. Eventually get my bearings, follow my map past ornately tiled shopfronts with red lanterns, past Beijing Hutong Duck restaurants, along narrow streets where all the signs are in Chinese, where there are no cars but dozens of two-and-three-wheeled vehicles from bicycles to mopeds, scooters, auto rickshaws, cycle rickshaws and hybrid versions. The drivers and cyclists wear thick padded glove-and-cloak combinations, like open sleeping bags with arms. Many of the mopeds are electric and make no sound as they approach.

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I find Leo Hostel, fall into my bunk and sleep.

31 December, New Year’s Eve

Beijing

I go through security checks to enter Tianamen Square and again to visit the Forbidden City. I spend too long looking at the least interesting things and have to rush the best bits. There’s military pomp – soldiers in pristine uniforms standing to attention on platforms in front of statues. There are palaces that look like temples and outbuildings that look like palaces; terracotta tiled roofs, frozen moats, marble bridges, ancient trees and grottoes; a museum of Buddha statues, jars and vases, paintings and other artefacts; a walk along the wall around the Forbidden City with views across Beijing; trinket shops and a rare cafe with menu in English. I eat rice with egg and tomato washed down with sweet, fragrant milk-tea.

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As the sun sets everyone’s hustled out of the Forbidden City by the north gate and I’m miles from Leo Hostel. I explore further, making it to the Drum Tower and Bell Tower and the nearby waterfront hutongs (alleyways crammed with streetfood and trinket shops). I can’t face deciphering public transport so walk back to the hostel, must’ve walked 15 miles or more today, my knees are cold and though it’s New Year’s Eve it’s not Chinese New Year, so I fall into bed with hot chocolate and a book just before midnight.

I miss Dave. I still can’t believe he died.

I sleep, and am woken periodically by Happy New Year texts from friends in other parts of the world.

January 1, New Year’s Day

Beijing, and towards Nanning, China

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Milk tea and custard pastry from the corner of my street for breakfast. A stroll around the hostel’s neighbourhood, buying fruit and roasted broad beans for the onward journey, then by subway to Beijing West Railway Station. I’m starting to get the hang of things; I find my way, get on the train to Nanning. I’m in ‘hard sleeper’ class, which means six cramped bunks to a compartment. I’m sharing with a rowdy family from the countryside and a chemistry professor. The family speak no English so the professor complains to me about their behaviour. He also complains about the Chinese government, Muslims, America, the internet and smartphones. He’s slightly miserable, but quite personable.

It’s raining. The compartment’s too hot. But I sleep, some.

January 2

To Nanning, and onwards towards Hanoi, Vietnam

The landscape is limestone karst today. Dozens – hundreds – of striped-rock, green-clad hills. Below them, patchworks of cultivation, irrigated paddies, duck farms with free range birds around muddy pools, banana groves, corn stalks and palm trees.

At Nanning I have to change train. It’s much warmer than I expected, and humid. The station is teeming inside and out, there are people milling and sitting on steps and pavements and hall floors: city people in smart clothes with wheeled suitcases; countryfolk sitting on sacks and upturned buckets. There’s a hubbub of conversation. Everyone’s more animated here, away from the Beijing cold; it’s beginning to feel like South East Asia. The locals are wearing coats, but I’m down to a t-shirt.

I spend the last of my yuan on bananas, oranges, dried mango and iced green tea. The tea reminds me of Bangkok, and of Dave.

I’ve somehow ended up in ‘soft sleeper’ class for the Nanning to Hanoi leg of the journey. The bunks don’t feel any softer but there are only four of them to a compartment and the furnishings are frightening. A shiny white mattress is covered with a white sheet, on top of which sits a white quilt and two white pillows. There’s a table with white damask tablecloth, white lace curtains, a white lace antimacassar on the shiny white back rest, which matches the plump white satin coathanger. I feel grimy. Very, very grimy.

January 3

Hanoi, Vietnam

I follow an old hand, a French guy doing a visa run from China, to a public bus which takes us 6km for 10p. There’s a lake near the Old Quarter in Hanoi, Hoan Kiem Lake, an oasis in the heaving hooting city; I head for it, wander about, find a cheap room five flights up in a back alley guesthouse. I learn how to cross roads. It’s an art-form. No hesitation, no stopping, no running, don’t trust the traffic lights, don’t expect vehicles to obey rules, but don’t worry, no one wants to hit you. Then I buy a bus ticket and a new power adaptor. That might not sound very eventful but everything’s challenging and exhilarating the first day in a new country.

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It’s warm. Not hot, but t-shirt weather. I try to go to the Women’s Museum – “this excellent museum focuses on women’s role in Vietnamese society and culture, with objects superbly laid out and labelled in English and French – from wartime propaganda posters to tribal artefacts…” – but where it is supposed to be there’s a Starbucks instead. On my way back to the lake I find this cathedral with nativity scene outside.

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Evening. I’m still wearing snow boots, head to the night market to find a pair of flipflops. I learn how to buy food, then discover a swathe of blocked off road with music blasting and people dancing. Not just dancing but proper dancing – waltzes, flamenco, rumba, all kinds of intricate partner dancing. An audience is gathering as I arrive, I join it and spend the next hour completely rapt. Women are thrown in the air and caught before they land on their heads on the tarmac. Some couples dance exquisitely, some clumsily, one couple argues, one bloke is very bossy; it’s a soap opera in dance. What a fabulous thing to stumble across.

Armed with a new power adaptor and now in a land of wifi, I catch up on world news. The Middle East is in uproar because Trump, and Australia’s on fire. People in the media don’t seem to be talking much about tipping points and runaway climate change but vast, vast areas of forest going up in smoke and flame looks like it to me. Meanwhile Jakarta, just a hop away from Aus, has had the worst floods in living memory and they’re talking about moving the capital of Indonesia to a different island, permanently, because Jakarta will be under water soon.

January 4

Hanoi to the Laotian border

Hoan Kiem lake is the heart of this part of the city, or perhaps the lungs. Hanoi has visible air pollution, lots of face masks. People come to the lake to sit amongst greenery, doze on benches in the afternoon, practise Tai Chi at dawn. In the surrounding side streets people squat on tiny low stools around miniature braziers, brewing and drinking tea, cooking up noodle soup, taking lunch breaks on the crumpled pavement.

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I find a Vietnamese coffee house for breakfast (remarkable coffee, rich and sweet and strong, like dark chocolate) and a cheese baguette (French colonial legacy), then walk a couple of kilometres to the Temple of Literature, a complex of curly-roofed buildings, ornamental gardens and statues dedicated to learning and contemplation.

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Then to the bus station, to begin my 20-hour bus journey to Vientiane.

As midnight approaches, the roads grow quieter and narrower and the bus climbs towards the border – then breaks down. I disembark to see what’s happening. We’re on a steep, rough road through humid, forested mountains. The driver and his mate are jacking up the bus. One of them crawls underneath. Most passengers are still on the bus, sleeping. A part needs changing. I’m roped in to help (unskilled assistance – holding up a flap of metal). Two hours later it’s all done and we set off again, reaching the border at dawn. Mist rises from a steaming jungle. The roadsides are strewn with plastic rubbish.

January 5

To Vientiane, Laos

Stunning landscapes. Limestone karst, mountains all knobbly and jagged, lush vegetation, green rivers.

Vientiane is a small city, a lazy slow relaxed city full of temples and restaurants. I miss Dave, do some laundry, eat egg fried rice, retire early to a rather posh room that excited me on arrival but on closer examination lacks character.

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January 6

Vientiane to Nong Khai, Thailand

Across the Friendship Bridge. Over the Mekong River. Into Thailand.

I’ve dreamed of making this journey for 30 years.

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In Nong Khai I grab the last cheap room in a gorgeous guesthouse in gardens next to the Mekong.

Nong Khai has a lovely wide promenade beside the river, great for strolling except my replacement flipflops have given me blisters, hampering my yomping about.

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I catch up on emails in my room, beneath a lazy fan. It’s hot here.

January 7

Nong Khai, and on to Bangkok

I hire a bicycle. Visit Salakaewdoo, a surreal sculpture park created by Leua, a Laotian mystic, in the 70’s and 80’s. Giant Buddhas, Hindu gods and goddesses, demons and humans and animals sculpted from concrete, some towering eight stories high. Immense! Unbelievably huge!

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In the Wheel of Life enclosure I light a stick of incense and have a revelation.

I can stop saying sorry to Dave for all the things I did less than perfectly in our relationship. He doesn’t mind anymore, he’s moved on, he’s beyond being annoyed with me. I’m forgiven. I can still love him, but I don’t have to be sorry.

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Cycling back to my guesthouse I stop at the market and find a pair of comfortable sandals.

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Then it’s an overnight train to Bangkok.

January 8

Bangkok and beyond

A 14 hour bus journey and I’m on a southern Thai island with my family, being treated to delicious fresh food.

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The Epic Journey is complete.

I highly recommend The Man in Seat 61 for advice on overland travel: https://www.seat61.com/

#SaveDave

Em n D laughing

I haven’t blogged for a long time. It’s old hat in the days of instagram, isn’t it?

Also, I’ve been busy. Busy being in hospital. My partner has leukaemia, he’s been in hospital for most of the last seven months. I’ve been sleeping in a van in the carpark outside the hospital, working from a corner of his hospital room, adapting to this surreal and devastating situation because what else can you do?

Now I want you to help me #SaveDave. Yes, there’s a call to action coming (go straight to action without reading the rest if you like).

Save Dave? You might think – why bother?

He’s just another 50-something white guy, haven’t we got plenty of those?

But Dave Weirdigan (aka Dave Brooks) isn’t just any old bloke.

Dave is one of the most generous, supportive, open-minded, big-hearted, community-focused men I’ve come across.

If all the 50-something white guys in the world were like Dave we’d be living in a caring, co-operative, inclusive, diversity-welcoming utopia… with a great soundtrack and compulsory dancing.

Dave’s got leukaemia and needs a stem cell transplant to survive. Let’s help him find a donor so he can get on with building towards a better world.

Please, sign up with DKMS to be included on the international register of stem cell donors. Share this call to action. Help me #SaveDave.

For more info or to register as a stem cell donor, check out DKMS:

https://www.dkms.org.uk/en/register-now

If you’re not eligible to register (age limit is 18-55 and some other things disqualify people), you can still help spread the word… or donate £s to DKMS so they can keep processing the registrations.
DKMS have branches in Germany, the US and a few other countries; for people living in countries not covered by DKMS, you can look up your national registry here: https://share.wmda.info/display/WMDAREG/Database

(The NHS is brilliant by the way. We need to save that too. To the doctors, nurses and healthcare workers on Ward 88, Jimmy’s… words fail, but y’know, the biggest ever Thank You.)

A Calais Christmas

Liquid ball of red-gold rises over frosted fields. Day dawns. In the warehouse it’s cold. Feet cold, nose cold, core cold, Calais cold.

Peel onions, chop tomatoes, wash celery stalks in water so cold it burns. Slice leeks, dice cucumber, peel carrots, make cauliflower florets. Bag up rice, sugar, salt, tea, spices. Load the van.

Drive to Dunkirk.

Bonjour. L’Auberge des Migrants.”

We greet the security guards at the entrance to Grande Synthe refugee camp. I’m with Refugee Community Kitchen (RCK), a grassroots collective founded by UK-based activists and festival folk; at Grande Synthe we’re under the auspices of French charity L’Auberge, which provides us with insurance and the laminates of respectability required to get us through the gate.

First stop, the ‘German Kitchen’, run by independent volunteers with an anarchist ethos, based in a tumbledown brick building. Local boulangeries donate their day-old bread and we collect it from the storeroom here, cramming bin bags filled with baguettes into the van before driving to Community Kitchen One in the heart of the camp.

We unload the van’s contents into a shipping container with serving hatch which faces into a wooden shelter. The shelter’s walls are blankets and plastic sheets. Rough-built tables and benches create a horseshoe around a central wood burner. This is one of the camp’s community hubs; the attached shipping container is a ‘free shop’ run by RCK.

For the next five hours I whirl around my container.

Give me bread.”

This command is usually accompanied by a chopping gesture on the forearm. It refers to a half-length baguette, the most popular loaf in camp.

Nok, nok. Pias.”

Chickpeas, onions.

Please give me fassouli. Brinch, brinch.”

That’s kidney beans, and rice.

What else is usually in demand?

Patata? Um… tomato?” I offer, having used up my Kurdish vocab.

Most of the residents of the Grande Synthe camp are Kurds. There are quite a few Afghanis and Iranians too, some Yazidis. Most surprisingly, there are about 20 Vietnamese here. How… why…? A volunteer who has a few words of Vietnamese discovers they “ran out of money, so they’re taking the long route”. A newspaper reporter asks how they got here: “By bus and walking,” apparently. A Calais local suggests they were trafficked and escaped a slave labour basement in Paris. We don’t really know.

The Vietnamese ask for spaghetti, sweetcorn, sweet potatoes and carrots. The Kurds mostly choose tomatoes, pulses, rice and potatoes as their staples. Providing familiar ingredients, food that might actually be enjoyed rather than just staving off hunger, is the primary mission of RCK – within the constraints of being a self-funded, donation based outfit.

Sugar… tea… biskweet?”

Sorry, no biscuits today.”

We try to provide something special every day, although the definition of ‘treat’ is sometimes stretched. Today the delicacy is bananas. Tomorrow it’ll be tinned fruit. Yesterday it was washing-up liquid and dishwashing sponges, everyone asking for “shampoo” while making washing-up gestures. We’ve also got free-range eggs this week, sourced cheaply and transported in huge boxes from England – gently – by one of the RCK founders.

Fish, fish… circlee.”

Soon I understand that ‘circlee’ means ‘circular’ and circular fish is tuna rather than sardines or mackerel. Only the Vietnamese prefer rectangular fish.

Some of my customers are abrupt, rude, demanding. Abrupt is easier to deal with than sad and broken. I worry about the timid. The exhausted women, the kids, the damaged in body or spirit, the young men with their brittle bravado, the old men with their tired kind eyes. Everyone. Every one is human, fragile, hurting, enduring.

How come I can get a ferry back to a warm home in England when I’ve had enough?

I genuinely don’t get it. We are all humans, we live on this earth. I am no better, no more deserving, just because I happen to have been born on one particular island. Why do people believe that the country they were born in belongs to them? England’s relative wealth and stability is not of my making, why should I have the right to benefit from it while the people here are kept out? And if England is mine to benefit from, why shouldn’t I share my slice with some of the people here? Gah! I sound like a simpleton but really… Why? No one seems to be answering these most basic of questions. Or even asking them.

Some of my customers speak excellent English. Some speak English with regional accents. How? Because they travelled to the UK when they were young and lived there for years before being deported, usually back to Afghanistan where – with their Western ways – they’re easy prey for the Taliban. So, if they don’t get killed straight away, they set off back to the UK all over again. Why are we playing snakes and ladders with human lives?

These guys, the ones with Brummie or Cockney accents, ask for pasta twirls and want to know where in the UK I’m from.

Some of my customers speak no English at all, we gesture and mime and point. Some speak ein bischen Deutsch, having spent a few months in Germany before attempting to continue onwards to join family or friends in the UK. A few try tentative French, but learning French isn’t high priority for people who spend every night trying to climb into, onto or under trucks to get to England, the imagined land.

Why does everyone want to get to England? Maybe because they speak English, they know people there… or because they haven’t been there yet. They’re still able to dream about a happy future in the UK. England hasn’t treated them like shit yet, unlike pretty much every other place en route. Most of the solidarity volunteers in Calais and Dunkirk are English; perhaps they think everyone will be like us; it’s painful to know that if they do make it to Blighty, the welcome and choices on offer may be a disappointment.

Every night, the people of the camp are out ‘trying’. Trying to get onto trucks, to cross the channel, to escape this place and fulfil their dreams. Every morning, trying to grab some sleep in cramped shabby shelters in this bone-searing cold. There aren’t enough sleeping shelters and the authorities won’t let more be built, in fact they’re gradually demolishing those that exist and they aim to clear the camp by Spring. Clear it? Disappear the people? Like they did with the Calais Jungle, only the people didn’t disappear, they were just dispersed. Now, every day, ex residents of the Jungle are turning up at Grande Synthe and the meagre facilities here are stretched. Every day there are more and more huddled bodies trying to get some rest on the cold kitchen floor when we open the free shop. Officially, these bodies don’t exist.

At lunchtime Refugee Community Kitchen provides a hot meal; in the evening, the German Kitchen does the same. Between-times the free shops are open and we give out food for people to cook themselves over fires or small cooking stoves, or on the woodstoves in the community kitchens. Trying to provide some small possibilities of choice, autonomy, dignity. Small, small.

There’s a Women’s Centre, Children’s Centre, Adult Education Centre. Facilities are limited, volunteers in these centres are kind but often only here for the short-term. The Women’s Centre keeps getting wrecked and burned. I don’t know who by; I don’t think it’s the women.

There are power games in the camp, and there’s corruption. Politics, hostilities between refugees of different nationalities, tensions between volunteer groups, distrust between volunteers and the state authorities nominally running the camp. It’s peaceful here compared with the Jungle, but our camp training covers what to do in the event of fights, fire, tear gas and police violence.

It’s dark and I’m exhausted and dehydrated by the time we’re done. We drive back to the warehouse. It’s warm in the van, cold everywhere else.

I’m humbled. These weeks in Calais and Dunkirk are tough. It’s hard work, long days, in bleak surroundings, cold cold cold. I’m staying in a shared house with up to a dozen other volunteers; there’s no privacy, just one toilet and shower to share. On Christmas eve I come down with a headache and fever; I spend Christmas day shivering and sniffling on my mattress. I feel miserable and I want to go home.

Humbled. The people in the Grande Synthe camp are luckier than those on the streets of Paris or in the muddy ditches of Calais; luckier than those stuck in Moria detention camp on Lesvos; luckier than the families bombed out of Aleppo; luckier than the starving in Yemen, the imprisoned in Libya. Luckier than so many and yet still stuck, deprived of the freedom to be self-sufficient, to progress in their lives, deprived of warmth, deprived of humanity.

And here’s me, whining to myself about having a cold on Christmas day.

Humbled too by the volunteers who’ve been here for months, who’ve given up so much to provide co-ordination and continuity for the grassroots projects here. People who could be with their families at Christmas, who could be working and playing, travelling, progressing their own lives.

It’s not an obvious choice, to come here to chop veg, clean warehouses and serve unpaid in a tin shed shop; and so, if you do it, you become part of a quirky, collaborative community. Doing something, even just a little drop in the ocean of a something, is physically harder but psychologically easier than sitting at home with a sense of horror and disempowerment looking at pictures of dust-covered victims of bombings or people in tents collapsing beneath the weight of snow. It’s less depressing to meet some of the people of the migration, learn a few words of their language, smile and grimace and laugh with them while apologising that the half-length baguettes have run out… than it is to watch the news of Aleppo falling. It can be heart-rending to hear their stories, but less depressing than clicking sad-face social media emojis.

It’s amazing, what ordinary people can achieve, and how resilient humans are. How much compassion and empathy and humour and love still exists.

Go to Calais. Refugee Community Kitchen still needs you. Or go to Greece. Lighthouse Relief, Team Bananas and dozens of other independent, volunteer-led groups still need you.

If you can’t go, donate. Donate money if you can, because then it can be used to buy exactly what is needed and to help the local economies around the camps and borders.

Donate to Refugee Community Kitchen

Donate to Lighthouse Relief

Donate to Dirty Girls of Lesvos Island

Donate to Team Bananas

Do your own research online, donate to sea rescue organisations or medics in Syria or No Borders groups or MSF. Join in conversations, sign petitions, do what you can.

My fever only lasted two days. By the time I took my leave of the volunteer house, of RCK’s warehouse and my tin shed shop, I didn’t want to run away. A part of me wanted to stay in the frozen fields of Calais indefinitely.

I expect I’ll go back.

me-and-janie-mac

With RCK founder and friend Janie Mac, in the Calais warehouse

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Spring in Lesvos

The olive presses have stopped rolling. Orange season is over.

Lesvos has not been suspended in time since I was wrenched away on New Year’s Eve.

At Skala Sykamineas seafront the scent is no longer sharp cold salt spray but gently decaying seaweed.

Poppies are everywhere, deepest velvet ruby. Also cornflowers, clover, lavender, chamomile and a particularly fine variety of stinging nettle.

The people of Lesvos were running full pelt for months, running on adrenaline, running into a surging tide of needy humanity, plucking people from the waves and holding them by force of love and determination above the waterline.

Then politics happened.

One pivotal moment was that New Year’s Eve. As I flew home from Lesvos via Brussels, rushing to be at my loved ones hospital bedside by midnight, young women in Cologne were being groped and robbed on the streets. This was the counterpoint to the picture of little Alan Kurdi drowned on a Turkish beach; the pendulum of public opinion swung once more, this time against refugees. It’s highly unlikely that the assaults were perpetrated by recently arrived Syrians or Afghanis – by far the largest groups to be seeking protection in Europe – but you wouldn’t know that from the media furore. The right-wing pounced and we all felt the backlash.

Austria was the first northern European country to bar its gates, with a knock on effect across Eastern Europe. Scandanavian countries said they’d done their bit; Germans lost faith in Merkel’s open door policy; FYROM (Macedonia) razor-wired its border and over 50,000 refugees were trapped in Greece.

The humanitarian corridor was closed by default not design, heads of state flapped and squabbled, people from war-torn countries who’d risked everything to reach supposed safety suffered. Young refugees sewed their lips together in protest. Desperate families forded a river on the Greek-Macedonian border and were tear-gassed. Navy boats patrolled the Aegean sea, but still smugglers managed to send dangerously full dinghies to Lesvos.

Then the “EU-Turkey deal”.

No more refugee boats.

The hurtling, adrenaline-fuelled folk of Lesvos ran on, fell over, hit the dirt, collapsed. Mentally, emotionally, physically and financially exhausted.

Now they’re picking themselves up.

Locals are prepping their businesses for what they hope will be a tourist season. But many tour operators have cancelled flights and packages to Lesvos, on the assumption that an island associated with drowning and a dump full of fake life jackets won’t appeal to their clients. Never mind that Lesvos is a stunning island of lush hiking trails, abundant wildlife, endless coastline, exquisite villages, fabulous food and friendly people with huge hearts who don’t deserve to be economically crippled and abandoned.

Volunteers are scaling back rescue and support operations, furious that we had organically created a system based on solidarity, dignity and common humanity, only to have it brutally squashed by undemocratic EU power. Grassroots organisations dare not pull out completely, uncertain whether those detained in Moria’s registration centre will be released and need refuge while their asylum claims are processed. Plus, while Turkey’s Erdogan plays brinkmanship with the EU, the deal is perceived as super shaky. We’re half expecting the flimsy dinghies to be launched en masse from the Turkish coast once more before the month of May is out.

In the meantime, volunteers laboriously clean the coastline. Tourist beaches were first to be cleared, now we work on the less accessible coves. We pull dozens of torn dinghies from the rocks, slice them with diving knives into manageable sections and stack them (“lovely flat piles, like lasagne!” repeats Mexican Isabel, our team leader). Later, using a reclaimed smuggler’s dinghy towing a self-built raft of pallet wood and blue barrels, we transport the ‘lasagne’ to Skala Sykamineas, where volunteers attempt to reuse as much material as possible, making bags and fixing old chairs in weekly upcycling sessions.

We hand pick smaller rubbish: life jackets; inflatable rubber rings and water wings; pieces of polystyrene loose or packed into five litre water bottles, intended to be used as floats if (when) a dinghy’s engine died; discarded clothes stiff with salt and ripped to rags on the rocks; bubble wrap parcels used to protect mobile phones during the crossing; water-logged snacks; a doll’s head. On one small beach I fill 12 bin bags. Three days later, after a storm, more rubbish has washed up and I fill two more.

So we clean the beaches, and we sort clothes. Winter piles and summer piles; men, women, children, babies. Bagged and labelled and provisionally going to Moria, or perhaps the mainland. Somewhere is probably desperate for baby slings; we have four huge bags filled with them at Lighthouse camp, and no babies. We feel guilty because the lack of needy people here doesn’t mean there are no needy people out there. The people we came to help are just across the water in Turkey, scattered across Europe in makeshift camps, guarded by the army in mainland Greece, hiding in bushes near borders, living in squalor in Lebanon or dodging bombs and bullets in their own countries. We feel guilty and tell each other that cleaning the beaches is important and that on days when the weather is against us or our towing dinghy needs repairing, that it’s ok to rest a bit and even to enjoy ourselves.

I explore hillside villages with cobbled streets wide enough only for a donkey. In old growth forest high above the coast road I find ancient trees with 12 foot girth, hot springs and cold mountain fountains, meandering paths through waist high ferns. I startle fat fast brown snakes, frogs, lizards, huge spiders in thin black and furry grey varieties, bronze-backed beetles and a segmented centipede. There are dragonflies, butterflies large and small, there’s birdsong everywhere. A wild tortoise in an oak grove startles me.

By coralling people in detention centres and military camps, giving them too little of everything – information, clothes, food, blankets, places to sleep, human warmth – the EU instils anxiety, desperation and deprivation. European politicians make the refugees fleeing war and persecution into exactly the poor, craven, dirty, unhealthy people that it fears them to be. Which they weren’t, when they stepped off the boats on the shore of Lesvos earlier this year, shrugging off the fear of drowning as they were warmed by campfires, tea, blankets, soup and friendly welcomes courtesy of grassroots’ volunteers.

Turning courageous, determined, resourceful people into frightened beggars seems not only needlessly cruel but ridiculously counterproductive to me.

On my spring holiday I walk six trails, clean five beaches, take part in four sessions of sorting donated clothes, swim three times in the Aegean, enjoy two slap up Greek taverna meals, do one window cleaning stint and spend a morning in Piraeus port chopping vegetables to feed a thousand.

I travelled overland from the UK to Greece by bus and train; but that’s another story.

I recommend a holiday on Lesvos to anyone with a heart.

This is the situation currently in Greece, it is dire and it is unnecessary: http://www.doctorswithoutborders.org/article/refugees-greece-we-did-not-expect-live-life-europe

Not Only a Refugee Crisis

Adapted from a blog written by Aphrodite Vati Mariola (hotel proprietor, Lesvos)

It’s about the impact on the island and people of Lesvos of the ‘refugee crisis’. They’ve got it good, compared with those fleeing war zones, but the story of the Lesvos locals still deserves to be heard.

Half a million men, women and children arrived on the island of Lesvos in the last year. By the time they reach my doorstep, these people have survived war and terrorism, exploitation by traffickers, and a perilous journey across the Aegean. No photographs can depict the emotional seesaw experienced each time a boat reaches land.

Expressions of fear and relief on the boat people’s faces as they step onto our rocky shore turn to shame for having ‘burdened’ us, mixed with hope, resolving into gratitude. We give what small practical assistance we can, we offer a few brief moments of humanity. The journey is still long ahead of them. Often, as they leave the shore to continue that journey, we hear “Thank you, thank you. Sorry. Good luck!” We wish them luck too. Often now, as it sinks in that this crisis may have no end, a knot tightens in my stomach as I watch the flow of people arrive and go. I can’t help but wonder, who will need that luck more – them or us?

The majority of people on Lesvos make a living from tourism, farming or fishing. We hear that the refugee crisis has had a positive impact on our economy, because shops and hotels that would usually be closed in the winter now have volunteer and refugee customers. In fact, the businesses flourishing in the crisis – a handful of car rental firms, taxis, restaurants – are clustered into just a few corners of our island. The hoteliers providing rooms to volunteers at cut-price rates this winter won’t be able to sustain themselves for long on those deals, and the refugees are on the conveyor belt to get registered and onto a ferry towards the mainland and northern Europe, so those who do have money aren’t spending it here.

Many local people are questioning whether they will be able to keep their small businesses afloat if the early warning signs of a tourism collapse prove true. Those small businesses support whole families, enable us to eat and put roofs over our heads and maintain a healthy, independent existence. Holiday bookings are down 80% for the coming summer season. Tour operators are cancelling packages to Lesvos, they tell us media coverage of refugee boats and people dying means tourists don’t want to come on holiday here any more. Our island is scrambling to deal with this refugee crisis, the local people are caring and giving and saving lives, but we’re afraid there’s going to be a devastating impact on our own lives.

Our fishing industry has been seriously affected by the migration from Turkey. Fishermen are often unable to lay out their nets, for fear they might capsize the refugees’ dinghies. They worry about how the sea will be affected by this tremendous increase in traffic; about the pollution caused by sunken boats; about the petroleum leaking from the ships and the debris caused by shipwrecks. Mountains of detritus, including tens of thousands of fake ‘life jackets’, have been left on our coastlines. This is not only detrimental to the future of tourism and fishing; it threatens our quality of life, our health, our eco-systems.

My family lives on the north coast of Lesvos. We enjoy gorgeous views of the sea and the Turkish coastline; misty mountains rise above the shimmering Aegean in picture postcard scenes. Our personal lives are dictated by the schedules of Turkish traffickers, by the flimsy, overladen boats they send across six miles of surprisingly capricious sea. We spend countless hours on the beach in front of our hotel, providing clothes, snacks, water, medical aid and transportation. Then we clean up the trail of debris left behind, and then we prepare for the next arrivals. We must always be prepared, lest a life be lost on our watch.

For the last few years we Greeks have been coping with difficult political and economic situations in our country, suffering under austerity measures imposed by richer EU nations, watching our public services suffer while youth unemployment rises. This is the backdrop on which we’ve seen sewn inadequate responses from the Greek government and the EU to a refugee crisis that has left islanders to deal as best we can with a situation none of us have adequate preparation or resources for.

In the void left by government, independent volunteers from around the globe began appearing in our ports and airports towards the end of 2015. These volunteers came with such a variety of skills, languages and expectations that at times we feared the lack of control and co-ordination would lead to carnage. The dedication and compassion of these volunteers has been invaluable to refugees and local people alike, and yet there have been occasions when the volunteer invasion has felt more intrusive than the flow of refugees. Increased traffic, and fast driving on country roads, has put our free range sheep and goats (and our free range children) at risk, affecting farmers and countryfolk far from the sea.

Meanwhile, our fishermen continue to rescue people from death by drowning and our villagers quietly give: digging into their own kid’s closets to offer clothes to the children pulled from the sea (according to UNHCR figures, over 30% of recent arrivals have been children); donating merchandise that went unsold in summer; driving refugees from the coast to transit camps inland. Simultaneously, we try to run our businesses, raise our children, take care of our households and relationships. We’re not here on a month-long stint, we won’t be packing up and leaving once we have completed our ‘mission’; our daily reality has changed, we’re coping with death on an almost daily basis while reeling from the impact of lost livelihoods and fears for the future.

I don’t want to complain – my family has so much compared with those fleeing terror – but I would like the voices of local people to be heard and for our government, and the EU, to do their jobs rather than ignore us. I would like everyone on Lesvos to respect each other – the refugees, volunteers, NGOs, locals, local authorities – and to respect our land, our environment and our humanity. I would like procedures to be established which apply to everyone, aimed at protecting the future, safety and integrity of the refugees, and of the locals who will be left to deal with the aftermath when this crisis dissolves or evolves.

I often think about the people who have passed by our beach and wonder how they have fared on their journeys, whether they have found hope and new homes, and I think about the souls unjustly claimed by the Aegean. I feel we will be failing the new arrivals, our children and ourselves if we cannot find a humane solution to this human migration. Intolerance, power and greed must not win this battle. When I voice a cry for help for local businesses, I worry that greed is what people will hear, when in fact it’s the survival of our communities, of our generous natures, of our compassion that’s at stake.

Many of these fleeing human beings who stop momentarily on my doorstep are leaving behind memories so awful as to be almost unimaginable to us; they never wanted to leave their homes and are now in a state of limbo, without a country, without a safe haven, as the domino effect of borders closing resonates like the clanging of cell doors along the trail. Yes, on Lesvos we are luckier than many, but this crisis affects every community through which the refugees are forced to pass and we are all yearning and hoping for the same things: freedom, peace, education, work, dignity, safety, a home, love.

Unless the causes of this crisis can be solved, I fear a tsunami of human pain will build and sweep our island away, leaving in its wake a trail of economic, psychological, environmental and sociological disarray. Fractures appear when families are torn between self-preservation and generosity, when one village appears to benefit from the crisis while another’s businesses fail, when a neighbour fears that your helping hand will be their downfall.

While governments try to find solutions military and political, on Lesvos we say to the rest of Europe – don’t abandon us. We have an extraordinarily beautiful island with a remarkably long coastline; there’s room here for refugees to pass through, for volunteers to aid our rescue efforts, and for holidaymakers to support our economy while enjoying themselves too. We need everyone to recognise the precariousness of the situation and act accordingly.

A journalist asked me, soon after the attacks in Paris, whether I was afraid I might be helping terrorists. My answer: “If a person with hatred in their hearts steps from one of these boats, the only thing I can do to change their mind is show them kindness.”

If we can find a way to survive through this crisis, we can bring up our next generation as humanitarians rather than racists. If we are given the chance to keep being kind, we can avoid stoking terror.

I invite you to support our island.

A few notes from me:

On days when the weather is wild and few refugees arrive on Lesvos, local people, volunteers and NGO groups are busy cleaning the seas and beaches. Beauty is abundant on the island. You can sunbathe, hike, cycle, marvel at the petrified forest, feast in seaside tavernas, bathe in hot springs, visit the women’s co-operative in Molyvos, explore hill top castles and churches, buy local produce and have a laugh in friendly bars and coffee shops.

Lesvos is a really good place for a holiday.

You could holiday there without seeing anything of the refugee crisis if you chose, especially in the south-west of the island. Or you could combine your relaxation with joining an environmental team to help clean some hidden rocky coves where boat debris has washed ashore, and go home knowing you’ve left the place in better condition than when you arrived. Either way, you’ll have helped the local economy, which means helping local families and communities.

More about Lesvos, the holiday island: The Other Aegean

UNHCR reports and statistics

Greek Island to Halifax Hospital

A week ago I was working with the Dirty Girls of Lesvos Island, laundering refugees’ discarded clothes for redistribution.

Now I’m sitting in the back of a van in a hospital carpark in Yorkshire, UK. My breath is steam. There’s ice on the inside of the windows. The cold woke me frequently last night, even though I was wrapped in two sleeping bags. In fitful bouts of sleep I dreamed of the refugees in camp Moria on Lesvos, outside with barely a blanket per family as temperatures there also dropped below freezing.

I was in Lesvos when the text came. Someone I love is ill, very ill. How ill? Hospital ill. Hospital doesn’t know what’s wrong with them and starts a battery of scary tests – that kind of ill.

I wasn’t due back in the UK for a week. I don’t usually fly. For environmental reasons, I skip across Europe overland. Coach from Manchester to Budapest, sleeper trains across eastern Europe to Greece, then ferry to the islands. It costs £150-£250, Leeds to Lesvos; not bad for five days travel including ‘accommodation’ on board.

But someone I love is ill. How rigid are my principles? At 8pm I text back: “Let’s see what the doctor says tomorrow. I’ll decide then.” I receive no response. At 10pm I text again: “Shall I just book a flight?” I receive no response. At midnight: “I’ve booked a flight. I’ll be there 11pm tomorrow.”

‘Tomorrow’ is New Year’s Eve. It’s not a direct flight – I have to change planes in Brussels. My UK family tells me a terrorist attack is expected in Brussels on New Year’s Eve.

Opposite the airport in Mytilene in the south of Lesvos there’s a tiny church on the shore. I take a stroll while waiting to board, and try the church door. It opens. There are candles burning and candles unlit by the door. I put a couple of euros in the donation box, light a candle for my loved one, light another for Marwas and all the refugees fleeing war and terror.

As I board, the air stewardess hands me a pomegranate wrapped in cellophane. “Happy New Year,” she says. “In Greece, pomegranate, for luck.”

Good. I need luck.

In the airport in Brussels everyone has to take off their shoes to get through passport control.

I’m in the hospital in Yorkshire by the time fireworks explode to mark the turning of the year. I’ve never been that big on New Year’s Eve and right now it feels like a farce. What does it matter what numbers are on the calendar, if I’m going to lose the person I love? I can’t see the fireworks through the hospital window from where I’m sitting beside his bed, I can only hear them; they could be distant gunfire.

I think it was the right decision, to fly here. Sitting beside this bed is a bit like standing on the beach at Skala Sykamineas. I’m here to pour love and negate fear, and nothing feels more important than that right now.

I know the NHS is desperately strapped for cash, starved by politics, degraded by the Tories, short of staff. I know nurses are undervalued and underpaid, junior doctors are exhausted and ready to strike, hospitals are rundown.

I’m expecting unkempt wards, neglected patients, uncaring staff, skimpy inedible food.

I’m shocked.

This National Health Service, despite the battering it’s been given, is miraculous. The nurses are efficient yet gentle, and genuinely care about their patients. The food is reasonable, and regular. Every patient has a water jug, frequently replenished, and orange juice with meals; a tea trolley circulates several times a day. Each bed has a buzzer, and when a patient buzzes, a nurse nearly always appears within a minute.

All this is free, for every person rich or poor.

In a nearby bed lies a 93 year old Latvian who arrived in the UK as a refugee when he was a young man, having walked across Europe. He thanks the nurses profusely in a weak voice with a trace of eastern European accent, every time they take his blood pressure, stick a needle in his arm to test his blood or hold the urine bottle for him.

We must fight for this miraculous NHS. Don’t be conned into believing it’s so broken that only privatisation can save it.

If our health service wasn’t free, the person whose bed I’m sitting beside probably wouldn’t be here responding to treatment; they’d be dying at home instead.

Sometimes it’s obvious there aren’t enough staff, and for sure with a bit more investment the wards could be cleaner and the care even better and the staff could get properly rewarded for the truly amazing work they do. Surely this is where we want our taxes spent, not on bombs to Syria, not subsidising Parliament’s bar?

The sweet Latvian man died last night, but without the NHS he’d likely have died more suddenly, without chance to say goodbye to his daughter, in agony, alone. This way he was provided with end of life care, pain relief, dignity, and a nurse to tell him “everyone loves you, you know” as he slipped away at dawn.

If you are a nurse – thankyou, thankyou.

CHRISTMAS IN LESVOS

Skala Sykamineas hugs a tiny harbour. Aquamarine water laps the rocky shore and fishermen tend their nets watched by curious cats. Inland, it’s harvest time in the olive groves and orange orchards. Free range sheep lazily graze, waiting to be milked. The village shop sells fresh yogurt in unglazed terracotta pots.

Dolphins frolic around a small boat as it heads towards the narrow beach. The dinghy rides low in the water beneath the weight of 40 people seeking new, safe lives. A full moon illuminates the whitewashed Mermaid-Madonna church and Christmas tree lights twinkle in the village square.

Three nights ago a boy child lay blue-white and unconscious a hundred metres from the Christmas tree. He was brought ashore, half-drowned and hypothermic, stretchered to a cabin nearby and revived by volunteer medics. He lived.

Lesvos has seen tens of thousands of people arrive on boats barely seaworthy in recent years. This month, over a thousand people have been arriving almost every day – cold and wet, frightened and relieved, exuberant or distraught. Many of the people in these boats have travelled from Syria and Afghanistan. Others started their journeys in Iraq, Iran, Pakistan or Africa.

For many the dangerous journey has been a feat of physical and mental endurance, has cost their life savings, has cost the lives of travelling companions. For many, the journey was made because staying at home meant being terrorised on a daily basis – facing bombs and guns, being repressed by dictators and attacked by militias, fearing imprisonment, torture and death. People don’t leave their homes to risk their lives, and the lives of their children, unless staying at home is no choice at all.

A few months ago people making this journey were referred to as migrants. Media and politicians competed to give migrants a bad name. Compassion came late; so many had died, of all ages and nationalities, before a three year old Syrian boy was drowned off the Turkish coast and the western world woke up. People began to speak of refugees rather than migrants. Even newspapers made the switch. This was good… but ‘refugee’ conjures sympathy rather than empathy.

I’d rather call the new arrivals heroes. If I’d done what they did to get here, I’d consider myself a hero. Wouldn’t you? Escaping a war zone, sneaking across borders, walking through mountains and crossing a perilous sea to land on a strange continent – the people who do this are victims of war, politics and injustice but they’re not helpless. Admiration, solidarity and friendship seem more appropriate than pity.

From the north shore of Lesvos Turkey looks so close; I could jump on a passenger ferry and be there in an hour. It’s ludicrous that people fleeing persecution should have to risk their lives at great expense, making millionaires of people-traffickers in the process, to travel these few miles because of politics. Politics means safe passage is a dream, means fear instead of friendship. Politics reinforces borders with razor wire and tear gas. Politics means some people are free and others are not and bombs fall on people just like us and their children drown because they were born there not here.

I want to break down the borders.

An elderly Syrian man stumbles on the steep rocky footpath leading up from the beach. His shoes have fallen off and he can’t bend to put them back on. I steady him and kneel at his feet, lifting his cold swollen feet back into his shoes. He is pale and frightened and fragile, whispering “Tsank you, tsank you”.

On Lesvos, the local people are heroes too. Fishermen save lives when they should be casting their nets. Amalia, proprietor at Cafe Traverso on the waterfront, dispenses blankets, shoes and handwarmers. Restaurants, travel agents and minimarts in Mytilene have added Arabic to signs and menus. A journalist asks local hotelier Aphrodite Vati “aren’t you worried you might be helping terrorists?” She points out that if a person with a terrorist mission gets off a boat here, the only thing that could change his mind is kindness.

A young Afghan man shivers uncontrollably, his thin clothes soaked, hypothermia and shock setting in. His name is Marwas. One of his travelling companions has collapsed and he’s desperately worried about the child who fell into the water. While medics breathe life into the child, I wrap Marwas in emergency blankets with woollen blankets on top. Another volunteer hands him a cup of hot, sweet tea. I sit beside him, put my arm around him, reassure him, hold him until the shaking subsides as he tells me about his home town of Kunduz, his house that has been destroyed, his parents who’ve been killed and his two brothers who are missing. The Taliban took control of Kunduz in September this year. A friend said to Marwas “let’s go” and over 23 days they journeyed to Izmir in Turkey, then the friend decided to go back to Afghanistan and Marwas got on the boat alone. He has no passport. He wants to go to England but knows that’s probably a pipe dream. I apologise for my country.

I want to break down the borders.

What I actually do is pick up sea-soaked clothing, sort it and bag it and send it to the laundrette, then once it’s clean and dry, redistribute it. I’m working with The Dirty Girls of Lesvos Island, to stop tons of perfectly good clothing ending up littering beaches or in landfill. We spend up to 800 crowdfunded euros a day getting appropriate clean warm clothes to those in need, in the fastest and most ecologically-sound way possible.

The Dirty Girls spend Christmas Day sorting through 6000 discarded socks, pinning pairs and bagging by size. Socks with reindeer on, Santa Claus socks, socks sporting the stars and stripes of the American flag, socks embroidered with the French tricolor, Union Jack socks, small socks with frilly lace tops, tiny baby bootees and hand-knitted socks of thick, coarse wool. Every sock has a story to tell.

Skala Sykamineas has a co-operatively run olive press. The scent of freshly pressed olives is subtle and divine and helps neutralise the smell of socks worn on the march across the Middle East. Oil oozes from the olive press onto the cobbled street, where fake life jackets are stacked awaiting collection by the next garbage truck. We save some of these ‘life jackets’ to insulate the floor of the Dirty Girls HQ tent, stuffing pallets with them before laying a plank floor.

History is happening. There’s a huge human migration occurring.

I wonder where Marwas is now, on Christmas night; whether he managed to negotiate Moria, the inland camp where thousands of refugees wait, often for days outside in the cold and mud, to be registered. Registration papers are needed to travel, book a room or buy a ferry ticket. Without registration papers no more borders can be crossed.

Moria is sprawling and confused, dirty and in constant flux. People lie beside the road, wrapped in blankets if they’re lucky. Volunteers collect cardboard and offer it to refugees in place of mattresses. There are a few ‘dormitories’ in unheated, unfurnished concrete rooms behind barbed wire fences in what was once a detention centre. In the dormitories more than a hundred people may have to share a filthy bathroom. Only the most vulnerable can access the dormitories; everyone else is outside, with even less provision. Oxfam is belatedly building toilets but most of the assistance here is pure grassroots. There are tents, but not enough tents. Food is provided by humanitarian organisations, but there’s never enough for everyone. When it rains, it’s hell. Self-organised collectives such as Better Days for Moria offer information and compassion but can barely scrape the surface of the need.

A million refugees have arrived in Europe and politicians have no plan other than to keep bombing the countries people are fleeing from. NGOs and aid agencies seem hamstrung by bureaucracy. On the Croatian border, razor wire has been decorated with Christmas baubles by local activists. On the Macedonian border a pregnant woman is beaten because she hasn’t got the right papers.

Thanks to the crews at Lighthouse and Platanos, the No Borders Kitchen in Mytilene, Caring Lesvos, the Wild Lemon Tea Tent, Bristol Skipchen and like-minded collectives we have small oases of warmth and dignity on Lesvos. Without these groups, without the volunteer lifeguards and medics, without the generosity of the local people, the humanitarian crisis here would be unimaginably worse. I wish the world would replicate what’s happening in these oases on Lesvos.

There are beautiful moments of hope and relief here, when the weary travellers first set foot on European soil and are greeted as welcome guests. I hope that hope doesn’t get extinguished on the cold journey north.

I hope Marwas makes it to England.

pics by Alison Terry Evans

More stories from Lesvos:

Kim’s story, from the Lighthouse beach camp:
https://www.inverse.com/article/9564-these-groups-are-saving-refugee-lives-for-christmas-and-you-can-help

Brendan’s story, from Korakas: https://www.facebook.com/brendan.woodhouse.18/posts/10153329236677916

Thanks to my friends and family who answered the call and donated to The Dirty Girls to help us keep the washing machines turning. You raised over £400, which is enough to wash a lot of socks, and several bags of trousers and jackets too. Our crowdfund is here – https://www.youcaring.com/cold-hungry-and-wet-syrian-refugees-many-young-children-449591#.VkZnewI6seZ.mailto – or contact me directly to do a bank transfer and avoid the commission charges.

What part of NO don’t they understand?

There’s so many things to be outraged by at the moment, I’ve almost got outrage-fatigue (is that what the Tories are banking on?). This little story is a long, long way from being the worst of what’s going on in these speeded-up, hopefully end-days of corporate capitalism…

[I’m not sure what the worst is, the people drowning in overloaded boats in the Med, desperate men clinging to the underside of trucks to try and escape the migrant ghettoes of Calais, the subjugation of Gaza, horrific war and violence in Africa and the Middle East, greed-fuelled violation of planetary boundaries by frackers and chemical companies, native peoples being forced from their tribal lands, bankers still flying high while austerity bites and communities are broken up by the bedroom tax and gentrification, the brutal bullying of Greece by well-off European politicians and bureaucrats, or or or —]

So many stories, but this tiny little story is playing out in my own backyard, and feels like a microcosm of the whole.

Hebden Bridge.

This small town relies on its reputation of being one of the most un-cloned towns in Britain, a reputation that keeps its local economy strong and its streets vibrant. It has won plaudits “4th funkiest town in the world”; awards “most independent little shops”; and quirky labels “lesbian capital of Britain”. The town is full of smallscale entrepreneurs, people managing to scrape a living from what they love, people who don’t use many resources, who respect their environment and each other. People like the butcher, the baker, the grocer and the newsagent, as well as the artists and cafe proprietors and guesthouse owners and market traders.

We all spend money with each other, and the tourists come and spend money with us too, because our town is a bit special; it’s different from all those towns filled with chainstores and supermarkets. We have a Co-op. And a One-Stop shop. And an off licence that sells groceries. And that’s enough ‘convenience’ stores.

It works.

Despite local objections, Sainsbury’s put in a planning application. They were turned down by the town council and then by the borough council. They lodged an appeal. They were turned down by the planning inspectorate at government level. Now they want a judicial review…

I don’t like linking to facebook, but have a look at the #SOSHebdenBridge film on this page for a bit of guerilla community graffitti.

Of course, whether our lucky little town gets a supermarket forced onto it isn’t a deal in the big scheme of things. In other little towns across the world people are being forced out of their homes by poverty, or climate change, or people who will enslave or kill them.

But if ordinary people don’t begin to stand up to bullies, this planet may not be around much longer. If we let ourselves be walked over, so that the corporate bosses and elites can increase their profits by a magnitude that is really just noughts on a bank balance… Well, what then?

We have to stand up to the bullies.

UPDATE: We did stand up to Sainsbury’s and WE WON!!! This time, justice was on our side…

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Gone Green

I’ve offered to help raise £800 for the Calderdale Green Party.

In this blog, I’ll have a go at explaining why. If you haven’t time to read it all, have a quick peek at the indiegogo site where I’ve summarised the situation… And please, throw a few coins, a couple of quid, or a kindly folded note into the hat.

The first time I was old enough to vote in a General Election was in 1992. I didn’t vote. I wasn’t registered. If you registered to vote, the poll tax collectors knew where you were. Or maybe it was the bailiffs. I wasn’t quite sure, I just knew that everyone who wanted to change the system was defying the poll tax… and most of us weren’t registered and didn’t vote.

Still, I lay half-awake all night, squished next to my boyfriend in his single bed, listening to the radio between half-dreams. We were sure Labour would win. Everyone hated the Tories so much. Maggie Thatcher had snatched children’s milk and trashed the miners and smashed the peace convoy, and the poll tax was the last straw. Thatcher was gone, this John Major just needed a gentle boot and all would be well.

The next day our dreams were shattered. It was a Conservative win. We couldn’t believe it. But then, we hadn’t voted. Almost everyone we knew hadn’t voted. It was our fault!!!

At the next General Election, I was out of the country. I didn’t manage to do a postal vote, but this time the Tories’ time really was up. Hallelujah! Labour won. Everything would be ok now.

I’ll never forgive them for bombing Afghanistan and then, the Iraq war. I shouted at the TV, shouted at them not to do it, not to be so BLOODY STUPID. Not to be so cruel; and didn’t they know it would only make everything worse?

Not everything they did was awful – tax credits were quite helpful – but they let stupid things happen with the economy, dazzled by the mirage of perpetual growth (how bloody stupid?). They were charmed by the corporations and just loved being best mates with America. They privatised things and forgot to look after the planet, and the people.

In 2005 I didn’t vote. I’d given up on politics. No point, no one to vote for. Labour was a soul-destroying disappointment. I may have written None of The Above or scribbled on my ballot in protest. I can’t remember, it was all despondency.

By the last General Election, Labour was so unpopular it began to look as though the Tories might get in. They had to be stopped, but no way was I voting Labour, so what to vote? Green? Everyone said that’d be a wasted vote. Anyway, the Greens were a bit of a joke – sandal-wearing, yogurt-weaving, lentil-eating… They might have some very sound ideas about the environment but they didn’t have foreign or economic policies, did they?

In the end I voted Lib Dem, a friend I trusted told me it was the tactical thing to do, and I hadn’t a better idea.

Hah! Wrong again! Lib Dems shacked up with the Tories, threw away the chance to have a referendum on proportional representation, screwed over the students… and it was my fault!!!

This year, I’m not voting tactically. I’m voting Green. Caroline Lucas’ arrest at the Balcombe anti-fracking camp made me sit up and take notice, then I went to the Vote for Policies website and was impressed. (Check it out – Vote for Policies.)

The Green Party opposes austerity for the masses while the rich just get richer; opposes kamikaze fracking; and cares about the wonderful things that used to belong to and serve us all – like the NHS, the post office, public spaces and the railways.

The Green Party says it will put people and planet before profit. I’ll vote for that, even though I don’t think the current parliamentary system is fit for purpose. What I’d really like is a bloodless revolution; or to build the compassionate, consensual, co-operative world I want in the cracks of this system, until the cracks are so full of life and love and rich compost that they burst open and… Well, that might take a while, so I’ll adopt diversity of tactics.

If the Greens can get enough votes to influence the way things are run for the next five years, that’s something. Now they’ve teamed up with Plaid Cymru and the Scottish National Party, even a few MPs in parliament will give them the chance to make a difference. That’s something that feels achievable, and I can help to make it happen without giving up on the bigger picture and more radical dreams.

Which brings me to indiegogo.

Calderdale’s Green Party needs to raise £800 so that we can put a leaflet through every door in my area.

Without those leaflets, people may not know they have a Green candidate, may not know that the Green Party is proposing real alternatives to five more years of austerity, may not know that the yogurt-weaving stereotype is old hat and Green is the humanitarian future that most of us want.

Please, even if you don’t live in Calderdale, help me out if you can. All the parties have a chance to get their leaflets freeposted but there’s a tight deadline and we need to raise this money really fast. The big parties have rich backers; the Greens seek support from ordinary people. Every pound will help.

Thanks.

indiegogo

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Midwinter in Parliament Square with Occupy Democracy

#OccupyDemocracy returned to Parliament Square as planned this mid-winter weekend, with a focus on housing and homelessness.

The turnout wasn’t huge – it was cold, it was just a few days before Christmas – but the quality of debate, entertainment, knowledge-sharing, solidarity-building and the sense of an emerging community of creative and determined change-makers was… inspiring.

Contributors to a full programme of events in and around the Square included:

  • Speakers from the New Era Housing Estate (who this week won a huge victory over the US development firm which had planned to make them homeless), Focus E15 Mum’s housing campaign, Occupy Barnet and Our West Hendon, plus Phoenix Rainbow on squatters’ rights.
  • ‘Dying for Heat’ activists who stripped off outside Downing Street to protest the scandal of deaths due to fuel poverty.
  • Deputy leader of the Green Party Shahrar Ali, speaking about the UK’s democratic deficit.
  • A ‘Fossil Free Nativity Play’ and Shell Out Sounds choir.
  • Green & Black Cross with activist legal advice.
  • Fran Boait from Positive Money, Samir from Stop The War coalition, and Occupy activist George Barda on compassionate revolution.

The  schedule was interspersed with participative assemblies and debates, poetry, carol singing, sharing of food – and a blissfully warming impromptu late night ceilidh dance!

With the high heras fencing around Parliament Square replaced by less robust crowd barriers, an opportunity arose on Saturday evening for occupiers to move through a gap in the barrier and to occupy the centre of  the Square – for the first time since being dragged from the grass two months ago in the infamous Battle of the Tarpaulin.

Displaying a ‘Real Democracy Now!’ banner before continuing a discussion about how much interaction Occupy Democracy should have with party politics, occupiers continued to demonstrate genuine participatory debate and decision making as police vans made haste to the scene, disgorging columns of officers who proceeded to kettle those assembled. Police outnumbered activists and Occupy supporters approximately 4:1. Or maybe more.

Confusion ensued as to whether those in the Square were committing civil trespass, or were breaching a byelaw, or were somehow committing a crime by talking about politics and economics on the lawn outside Parliament.

The Occupy Democracy assembly wound up and a young woman began to talk about Positive Money, a non-profit initiative to make money work for people rather than enslaving us.

Eventually the unjust and draconian Criminal Justice Act was invoked, and those assembled were threatened with mass arrest on the basis that a cable tie on the fence had been broken, and someone had – allegedly – been rude to a Heritage Warden. For these ‘crimes’ the police were prepared to arrest thirty or so peaceful, politically-engaged citizens.

The dreadful absurdity of young people volunteering to listen to a lecture about economics on the Saturday night before Christmas, sitting stone cold sober on cold damp ground to do so, and being forced to move or face arrest… What kind of country, what kind of law, what kind of system, what kind of justice is this?

There was a stand-off during which occupiers asked the police to think again, to think of genuine justice, to uphold the right to peaceful protest and assembly. During this period Donnachadh McCarthy was arrested for peacefully holding a banner.

As the police closed in on the Positive Money discussion, occupiers reached consensus to withdraw from the central lawn of the Square and reconvene on the pavement at its edge. Sometimes the image of mass arrests can be powerful; other times arrests simply serve the purpose of the police in dispersing people and disrupting planned activities.

We chose to take control of events and be free for the night; the cells that had been made ready for us remained empty, save for Donnachadh, who returned to us around 1am.

After a long, cold mid-Winter night on the pavement, dawn saw Occupy Democracy supporters bleary-eyed but unbeaten, continuing to refine a unique but widely appealing list of ‘demands’ that put people, democracy and planet before profit.

Meanwhile, on Charing Cross Road near Trafalgar Square, a squat was opened in an old Nat West bank. On December 25th, Christmas dinner will be served for homeless and hungry people. Until then, it’s an activist networking and skillshare space.

Livestream of some of Saturday evening’s events: http://bambuser.com/channel/Bencavanna

More at occupydemocracy.org.uk

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