Palm Jumeirah, Dubai

It’s summer in Dubai and people have fled the inevitable heat, heading out in drips and drops through May, floods through June. By 6am, temperatures push 40 Celsius (104 Fahrenheit).

Those of us who stay, we work around the swelter and the sweat. Early mornings. Late nights. And quiet moments stolen on even quieter beaches.

Like this, here. A friend and I snuck out with sunrise to play at being photographers. Afterwards we hid inside her villa and sipped coffees.

They felt cooler than the air outside.

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Henry London watch via 1915 Seddiqi, Needle and Thread dress via Harvey Nichols Dubai

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Needle and Thread Dress (left), Self Portrait (right), both Harvey Nichols Dubai. Henry London watch via 1915 Seddiqi. 

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I’m not the best at researching a place before I go – an ironic trait for a travel journalist, but there we are.

I think part of me likes the idea of a place being a bit of a mystery, particularly in this age of information saturation. It’s like going to a movie; if I read a review first, I can’t help but think about those words while watching the film. It bleeds into my mind. Sometimes, travel can be the same.

And then sometimes I’m just really, really busy before a trip…

All this to explain Thessaloniki, Greece, and why the destination wasn’t quite the white-walled, blue-roofed island fading into the sea that I had packed for.

No, Thessaloniki is far more city grunge and sharp edge than that. It’s Greece’s second-largest city after Athens, with plenty of sea but more ports than beaches. The hard lines of buildings reminded me of Berlin: practical, industrial, productive.

Yet that’s not to say the city isn’t beautiful. It is. There’s astounding beauty in its history. Founded in 315 BC, Thessaloniki has played host to numerous religions and different ruling groups.

There are even 15 monuments deemed UNESCO World Heritage sites around Thessaloniki.

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The White Tower is certainly one of the most interesting. This monument sits on a beachfront promenade with a history spanning back to the Byzantine Empire. Previously it was used as a prison and a place of execution  – earning the name ‘The Red Tower’ for the blood that dripped from its walls.

Now the walls are clean, the prison replaced by a museum, and the history tangible.

Add to that churches and towers, and there’s plenty to see in this northern Greece city – particularly for history buffs.

Food here is massive. Think wedges of cheese, hefty bread, olives dripping in extra virgin olive oil and salads flavoured with the same. Meals can last several hours.

“Everything goes slower in Thessaloniki,” people said repeatedly. It’s about calming down, relaxing, unwinding.

Students and lovers stroll along the waterfront promenade. At night, you’ll catch street musicians playing songs for coins.

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I was only there for a few days, but I’d say that’s enough for this ancient, industrial place. It’s worth a short weekend getaway, one where you allow plenty of time for lengthy feasts and long walks by the water.

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Where to stay: The MET Hotel. This design hotel is all things edgy and trendy. Quirky modern art fills the walls (like eyes blinking or trees changing seasons). Rooms are minimal with floor-to-ceiling windows that let in plenty of natural light. From the rooftop you’ll get great 360 views of the city, plus there’s a pool that’s a nice spot to lounge during the day.

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In Mavele Swimsuit

Getting there: FlyDubai fly direct to Thessaloniki. The trip takes around 5 hours and 30 minutes, with minimal time in the small landing airport. Try Business Class for lounge access, blankets, larger seats, and one heck of a delicious French toast breakfast.

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Into the Sea

I am in a Middle East on the cusp of change.

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Two days ago, women in Saudi Arabia were allowed to drive for the first time. Here in Dubai, the country is trying to find ways to allow freelancers in and businesses to stay. Visas are being offered, extended, changed.

Visas are often on my mind these days. I’ve resigned from my full-time role at the magazines. While I’m still handling them, I’ve stepped back from my dream job. Now it’s all licenses, legalities, setting myself up as a professional content creator in a city that is still very much defining what it means to create.

It’s a terrifying shift, a painful one, but one that in a breath feels completely right.

And write.

I am here in the Middle East, on the cusp of a change.

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Wearing BASH Paris dress

I get overwhelmed in crowds. I prefer silent spaces, spots where I can narrate my own little story while strolling along. Which means, basically, I’m a bit of an odd duck in big cities.

Istanbul is no exception. This vibrant, picturesque spot (deemed the most ‘Instagramable city’ by quite a few blogs, because apparently that’s a thing) is teeming with people. There are crowds. Absolutely. Every. Where. Head to the 3,000 shops of the Grand Bazaar? Crowds. Walk to the historic Topkapi Palace? Crowds. And let’s not even get started on Istiklal Avenue, the famous boutique-lined street that heaves with bodies.

 

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Dress BASH Paris, pink bag Aigner

All the crowds are understandable — Istanbul is magnificent. It’s beautiful. It has a fabulous mix of history, of East and West, of mosques arching into the sky and tiny alleyways scented with spices. There’s a pulsing beauty here worth seeing.

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Dress Bash Paris, bag Mango by Namshi

Yet for quiet travellers like me, the real charm lies in branching away from the massive sites. I head to the side streets instead.

There are many of these. They snake up and down small cobblestone roads and steep hills. You can buy Simit (a traditional Turkish sesame bagel) for pennies from a street vendor, wandering with the city’s many stray cats at your feet. You won’t want for beauty — the city has mosques at nearly every corner, with a growing number of hipster shops tucked between spots to buy rugs or spices.

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Of course I’d recommend still doing the classic sites. The Travel Hub has done a great job of detailing where to go, what to see, how, all that grand stuff. To miss the Blue Mosque, to skip the Spice Bazaar, it would be a bit like heading to Paris and ignoring the Eiffel Tower.

Yet don’t let those things be your idea of the city.

Grab Istanbul Tourist Pass (an actually very clever pass that gives you hop-on-hop-off access; guided tours of famous sites, airport transfer and a wifi dongle) and head to the lesser known districts along the Bosphorus. In waterfront Emirgan you can grab a traditional Turkish breakfast at a spot just across the street from where the boat docks: tomatoes, olives, bread, cheese, all of it drenched in olive oil. Go for a wander across Galata Bridge and grab sardine sandwiches from boat cafes bobbing in the water. Let the city come to life.

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In a place this historic, that can be a magical thing indeed.

Getting there

FlyDubai does regular flights between Dubai and Istanbul. Business Class comes with lounge access, blankets, in-flight films, a meal and limited wallet strain. In my opinion, FlyDubai puts other ‘budget’ airlines to shame — even without Business Class.

Staying

Transparency note: We were at these hotels as complimentary guests, so there’s that. But honesty is still key. *insertshrugemoji*

Ajwa Hotel Sultanahmet

I loved this property. Opened in 2017, the venue has been crafted to positively drip with Ottoman art. Bathrooms are full of mosaics, while chandeliers and carved wood fill the lobby.

At breakfast you can sneak across to the private dining area to grab an amazing shot of the sun rising over Istanbul’s skyline. The Afiya Spa does a solid traditional Turkish Bath (bubbles and massages and all).

Were I to come again, I’d book into Ajwa’s new neighbourhood apartment. This nearby four-bedroom venue is separate from the hotel, great for friends. It stretches over multiple floors, has its own private winter garden and outdoor area, private hammam and kitchen.

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The private home in Ajwa. Dress BEBE.

Park Hyatt Istanbul – Macka Palas

While Ajwa was all things ancient and embellished, this Park Hyatt property was slick and minimal. It’s nestled just opposite a park and surrounded by plenty of luxury shops.

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Upstairs there’s an outdoor pool and trendy bar, although when we visited it wasn’t quite hot enough outside for swimming.

Credits

Photos by Andrew Marty of The Travel Hub.

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Note the ankle brace…

The first time I interviewed Charlotte Roach, I was in my bed, a hot water bottle burning my stomach, exhausted, wanting nothing more than to turn off the phone and the keyboard and close my eyes, my brain, close it all.

Instead I called a semi-stranger, a friend’s friend nicknamed Roach. The line kept breaking up. “I’m sorry,” she apologised from the start. “I’m on a train. Can you call me in a bit? An hour?”

It was late and I was tired. I wanted to interview her for a story I was doing for The Independent looking at athletes at Oxbridge. Someone had told me about Roach. Someone told me she was amazing.

“One hour,” I agreed, annoyed. Tired.

After that second call, I fell in love a bit. Sometimes, when interviewees fascinate me, when their stories wrap around my mind with words and sounds, I fall in love with them, the idea of them, the ideas of their worlds.

I emailed Roach the next day. “I want to pitch a story on you to the Guardian. Would you mind?”

“That’s fine.” I didn’t know it then, but that was the easy sort of genuine warmth which marked Roach’s character. She didn’t expect it of me. But when I came, asking, wanting something of her, she agreed.

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The editor liked the story. It went up on the Guardian.

A week later, maybe two, Nick Sidwell messaged me. “I read your story. I think it’s interesting. Would you consider a book?”

I have always considered a book. From the time I was six, seven, from the time I could push sentences across paper and sit in my closet writing stories about my cat, I considered a book.

“Do you think there’s more in the story?” He questioned on a call later that afternoon. “I mean, more to Charlotte, the experience?”

“Yes. She raised a lot of money for the air ambulance. She cycled from Beijing. Of course there’s more.”

“Then let’s talk about this book…”

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And now, months later, months and months later, it’s gone live. Here it is. The Roach book. Charlotte’s story. I feel grateful, terrified, humbled, but most of all blessed by this chance and the opportunity, and by all the amazing people who rallied around me to help make this possible.

So enjoy. 

All my royalties are going to the air ambulance that saved Charlotte’s life.

It only seemed fitting.

 

The beauty of Cambridge

Sometimes I wonder if I will ever get bored of Cambridge. Or if the charm will go away. If I’ll catch that train back and step off the platform and think finally, ultimately, that the wonder has gone.

It hasn’t yet.

It’s still one of the most beautiful places I have ever been to, one of the areas I love the most.

I visited last weekend for meetings and friends. Here are some snaps, taken from the glory of my iPhone.

The Backs at St. John's College

The Backs at St. John’s College

Bridge of Sighs at St. John's

Bridge of Sighs at St. John’s

Formal hall at St. John's College

Formal hall at St. John’s College

Cambridge blue and blue again

Cambridge blue and blue again

Posters for events

Posters for events

College gates, the view up Trinity

College gates, the view up Trinity

View from the backs

View from the backs

I’m in Scotland.

My brain is exhausted and I’m nodding off even though it’s not yet 5pm. I’ve been counting the sheep outside the window.

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The journey was painless and painful in the same breath. I love traveling, so being in motion makes me happy regardless. Yet I arrived too early and the town was asleep, meaning I sat shivering in the train station waiting for the sun to creep up and up. My taxi driver struggled to find the small nook off the edge of Perth where I’m staying. He argued with his satnav, yet didn’t turn it off.

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And now I’m here. The goal is to tackle the rest of this Guardian Shorts book. It’s nearly done, but there are maps and details to check, paragraphs to rewrite, quotes to shift. Then the editor will wiggle it all around again.

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I’ve got a wood-burning stove. Books. Tea. Cans of food and some boxes of cereal. A beautiful run for the morning. And finally, now that several interviews and numerous words are done, the promise of bed.

Hello, Scotland.

How to explain the splendor of a ball? The lights, the fireworks, the delicate press of feet against grass and under silk gowns, the swirling chaos of many stages, multiple stages, the temptation towards gluttony, the piles of food glistening under the stars, the way the college itself with all its old stone buildings sits lit up like a fatted calf, gleaming in reds and purples from the lights projected throughout it… how do you explain that?

What about the way students gather on the bridge, pressing together to look out over the river that is suddenly no longer filled with water, but punts? “You could walk across it,” said a friend of mine as we crushed together for a moment, staring out at the hundreds and hundreds of people below. They had come to watch the fireworks; they had come to watch the ball.

“I feel strange being here in my suit, like this, with everyone down there,” said N, holding his glass of wine and looking at me.

“Don’t. Just wave.”

How do you explain the nine stages, the 82 acts, the 300-something performers, scattered throughout St. John’s College like little forgotten gems? Comedy shows, silent discos, magic, a rave with neon colours and smoke machines casting the entire tent into the madness of a clown’s dream. How do you detail that?

“They want to make you feel almost frustrated,” a friend told me at one point. “There is so much to do. So many things. Performers. Acts. Games. Things to watch. But you can’t do it all. And that is the point of the ball…”

We tried though, rushing from the ponies that pranced delicately on their hind legs (“You don’t realize how -rare- it is to see this!” exclaimed Z as she remained stubbornly beside the horses) to the low-slung bean bag seats surrounding shisha pipes. We visited the silent disco. We considered the bumper cars. We wandered through the court that was covered in fake snow and smiling penguins, past the one draped in rich fabric, one representing the Victorian Era (“Look! You can get your hair done!” “…my hair is already done.”) and on and on. But we didn’t see nearly half of it.

And the food… how in the world do you explain the food and drink, the decadence so strong it makes heads reel and stomachs stretch? So many courses, so many niblets, from crepes and waffles as the sun rose to curries, pies, cupcakes, meats, cheeses, plates and plates of cheeses (“But where is the bread?” “Shhh. Just eat the cheese.”), fruits piled onto tabletops, mangos and apples and berries (“I found passion fruit!” “That is NOT meant to be a drinks mixer”), and all of it just waiting to be consumed? We wandered the entire night never really ceasing to eat. It was more of a challenge than the bumper cars, more tempting than lazer quest, to taste and sample what every tent had to offer.

The drinks were just as varied and just as available: mixed cocktails of vodka, wines, mead, beer, juice, freshly pressed berry drinks in bright pinks that tasted like melted popsicles but carried the punch of something potent, champagne, gin and tonics, whiskey, rum, tequila.

Z and I marked each other’s arms every time we had a drink. “It’s a challenge,” I stated. “To see who can last the longest.”

We both lasted the longest.

How can you capture the fireworks, the powerful explosions lurching into the sky, casting light over so many young faces and so many black-tied students? Together they stood like little soldiers, arms and elbows draped together, swaying with the music even as one firework after another exploded upwards. I caught Z’s elbow. “Wow.” I could only gasp over and over, at loss for words. “Wow.” The rolling green that is St. John’s Backs was full of viewers, all of them likewise gasping, likewise holding their breath to the timing of the music and the pulse.

“It is so much better than Trinity’s fireworks,” said M. “So much.”

“Of course.”

These things perhaps can’t be explained, not in a way that fully captures the splendor and champagne-haze hours of ball. For even my best descriptions won’t quite capture the poignant beauty of the scene, the delicate realization that it was all amazing and simultaneously all timed, a ticking clock of splendor. The ball lasts for fourteen hours. I saw the sun go down and rise again over black-tied students. Yet as it starts, so it must end – and this is what makes it bitterly sweet, one of those things that even as you grasp at it, trying to claim each minute back, each second back, it is escaping away.

“It’s light out again,” said Z as we sat sipping tea and wine. “It’s daylight.”

“Don’t let it be daylight. That means the ball is almost over.”

“Not yet. It’s the summer solstice. We still have time.”

She was right and wrong; for we had time, time enough to eat and drink, seeing friends and playing games – but not enough. The ball ended with the St. John’s Gents standing in blazing red serenading in the morning. Breakfast was served.

“Not yet…” I wanted to say. Don’t let it be over yet, for this was my last St. John’s May Ball. It was also the marking of what ended my time as a student, as a Johnian and a Creighton-kid, as someone tied to school books and school norms.

The ball has ended. I have finished.

And while I’m not quite sure I can explain it all, the hazes and colors and love, the way the fireworks caught the silk of dresses and the students gasped together in delight, I can say one thing for sure: the journey was amazing.The ball was amazing.

…and the ponies didn’t hurt.

Note: This is part one of a series that highlights my time in India. I travelled there solo in the summer of 2010. Things have changed a lot, as have I, but here we go… 

Rishikesh, located on the Gagnes River, is one of the Holy Cities of India. In the morning people bathe in the Gagnes, which is no simple feat. The river flows at a rapid, crushing pace. Yet somehow the old, the spindly, the delicate, manage to walk down slick marble and brick steps and into the grey water of the rushing river.

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Ashrams are everywhere. I am staying at the Sri Ved Niketan Ashram, which is just fantastic. It’s spartan in terms of room, intense in terms of yoga classes, and the food is spicy but simple.

 

At the Sri Ved Niketan Ashram, I’ve realised I’m no good at meditation. We chanted for an hour the other day and I kept telling myself not to get distracted.

“We are light beings,” said the man at front. Focus. Focus.

I’m better at yoga, although even that I’m doing a bit of a flop job with. Literally. We’ve been practicing headstands. I have the upper body strength of a five-year-old girl.

“Now stand on your hands, and bend your back. Release the neck. Push the buttock inside. Release the neck.” The pose looked like an inverted C against the wall when the teacher did it.Mine was more of an L. On the floor. “Focus?” I offered.

This is my life in the Holy City of Rishikesh. It’s a bit different from Cambridge.

 

Note: This is part one of a series that highlights my time in India. I travelled there solo in the summer of 2010. Things have changed a lot, as have I, but here we go… 

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“Do you like to play dance?” Asked the police officer next to me, before nudging me forward, forward, and then forward again.

“Dance! Dance!” Agreed the smiling faces of men and women. It was warm, joyful. Energetic.

Not knowing what else to do, I danced, flinging my arms and skipping my feet. It was all part of the six day party leading up to Lord Krishna’s birthday.

On Saturday, I made my way to Shimla, a hillside town known as the summer capital of India. I just happened to stumble upon a massive parade and festival celebrating Krishna’s birthday. School children and marching bands paraded through Shimla’s lower streets, winding around in no specific order, circling back and forth, up and down, making every inch one big party.

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The festival had every sort of entertainment. Singing troops of older men and women would edge forward, carrying what looked like a gramophone taped on a rusted bicycle. Men stood on each others shoulders, balancing and reaching to break a clay pot dangling from above, showering milk down their chests. Girls waved gold bands. Lights flashed. Neon machines blared past. Drummers drums and horns blared and red powder was flung through the air, right alongside rose petals.

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Vendors shoved food into my hands as I walked by: a sweet pancake, rice and dahl, apples, wafer cookies. It was like trick-or-treat on Halloween except everyone was playing. One old woman circled back around to get herself another pancake.

“I’ve seen you already!” Scolded the food-giver.

I kept trying to escape the crowd but never really succeeded. Every now and then someone would ask to take a picture with me.

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The festival was hectic and fascinating. I can’t wait for September 2nd, which is Krishna’s actual birthday. Now in Rishikesh, known as the ‘yoga capital of the world,’ the birthday promises to be interesting.