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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…

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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.

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… 

I’ve been at Menri Monastery for several weeks now, and it turns out the serene life is not for me. I need to do something. Anything. I have just polished off books four, five and six of Harry Potter. Any more and I will be running around by broomstick.

I need to go.

Enter Shimla, and Tattapani. Shimla, a hillside town known for its quaint British ways, is somewhere up on the map. I am leaving for Shimla at 10 (or 11. The bus never really comes at a certain time) tomorrow.

“It has monkeys. Very big, large monkeys,” warned a Russian model who is visiting Menri when I told her of my plans.

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Monkeys at the gate of the monkey temple

I have been advised to carry a stick and treats. I knew I should have gotten that rabies shot.

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After Shimla, I’m off to Tattapani, a city known for its hot springs. ((Writer’s note: reading back through these, I can say the hot springs were a total waste of time and effort. There was a long bus ride followed by a lack of natural springs. I found a bath in a small hotel, but it definitely wasn’t worth the hefty journey. Things might be different now.))

I’m not quite sure how I’m going to get to these places… not quite sure where I’ll stay, or what I’ll do when I get there. I just know I’m going.

 

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… 

I made it to Menri Monastery. Nine hours from Delhi, one from Solan, Menri is perched in the middle of green mountains that spread out and down in all directions. The nearest town is an hour away. Within Menri there are around 800 people, including monks, nuns, children, staff, and others.

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Two Menri monks in Geshe training, plus the motorcycle-riding librarian 

I wake to the sound of cows down in the valley, the monastery’s cows. They use the milk to make fresh chai tea and to give to the children. Breakfast is bread and jam. Lunch, a more lavish affair, involves vegetables, soup and rice. Dinner doesn’t exist, not really. It’s usually broth and steamed Tibetan bread.

My shower is a bucket. My bed is covered by a mosquito net, which is alright because at night I can look through it, out the window and up at the stars. There are unlimited stars here.

In the bathroom, there’s just a faucet, and a toilet, and sometimes a cup.

The monks are amazing. I had my first class yesterday, where we worked on introductions and pronunciations. It was in a room with wooden desks, wooden chairs, and curtains of burgundy.

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“Should we call you Madam?” Teased one of my ‘students,’ laughing because that’s what children call their school teachers. Now when they see me, it’s always ‘hello, madam. Hello! Cool!’

I met His Holiness the other day, the man who is the head Geshe of Bon faith. I gave him a white scarf and a book from Cambridge. He draped the scarf back around my neck. “This is our welcome. It means you’re welcome here,” he said.

So that is my life at the monastery. It is peaceful and quiet. I am reading a lot and running just as often. I’ve started doing yoga again twice a day.

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As soon as I make it to the postman’s house (as there is no post office in Dolanji) I will send out letters to some of you. I have been writing, but like me, these letters just keep traveling along.

Suffice to say I miss people. The monkeys are pretty, but really not very good company. Actually, they’re awful company. They attack dogs and things with sparkle.

I’m off now to go have tea with sugar and to sit on the balcony overlooking the mountains. Hopefully this will post before the internet kills over.

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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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“Denny. Denny is easy to say. It’s the name of a Bollywood star. But Danae?” The monk sitting behind me shakes his head, smiling and tsking a bit. “Different.”

We’re riding along one of Delhi’s rushed roads, where cars and bikes, rickshaws and three-wheelers, jostle one another for minimal space. Horns blare – as they should, considering the number of “Horns, Please!” signs on the back of bumpers. A couple lorries roll past, stacked with bags of grain and casually reclining dark skinned men.

In the car with me are two men, Geshes (a high level Bon monk) at the Menri Monastery where I’ll be heading tomorrow. They wear orange shirts and plum red skirts, shaved heads, smiles.

“Deeeeny.” Muses the quieter Geshe, Soonum, with a wrinkle of his brow. “Dennny?”

“Don’t worry about it. It’s a weird name even in English.”

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The Menri monks at study

So began my trip to Delhi. I’m staying with the Geshes at the Majnu Ka Tille Tibetan refugee center, perched in the northern edge of the city amid flies and old buildings.

My  room has air conditioning, provided by a noisy box blowing cold air through the window (“Good for keeping away mosquitos,” Geshe Samdup told me, prompting my non-Malaria-vaccinated self to deliberately freeze the entire night); and a shower consisting of a bucket. It works.

Leaving early this morning, I braved Delhi by traveling down to the Red Fort. The Red Fort, unfortunately, was closed. So I did the next best thing: I got lost.

This involved wandering through the city, past markets and street vendors. The flies are everywhere. Small booths offer crushed limes with ice, others dates, others still bits of meat covered in thin sheets of plastic and black flickering bugs. Every step brings a new smell: cumin, spice, sweet, dirt, garbage, rot. The heat pushes down oppressively, and bodies bumble past, always framed by the loud chaos of honking horns.

A young boy sprinted by on my left. Running beside him, about equal height, was a goat. He reached out and patted the goat’s neck as they hurried forward, quickly lost in the crowd. Then there are chickens in cages, their wings like bits of straw; and baby chicks, fluffy and yellow. Food, sounds, noise. Chaos.

“Hello, ma’am. Good day ma’am.” Mixing in with the sounds of horns and bartering were the charming calls of would-be suitors.

“Namaste, ma’am.”

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My accommodation in Delhi, at a Tibetan refugee colony, before heading to Menri Monastery.

Now, after barely a few hours, I have returned to the much quieter corner of Delhi that is the Tibetan refugee center. I will drink tea and probably eat dinner again with the Geshes (who help me pick from plates with foreign names, ordering steamed bread and spicy dishes of noodles and sauce).

Tomorrow we make the eight hour drive up to Menri. There is flooding in the Northern part of India right now, but hopefully all will go well.

Until then, I’m going to go enjoy the chaos of this big city – or at least the chai tea it has to offer.

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