Thursday, 18 August 2016

Mystery from Amman solved over Facebook

There are lots of things not to like about the social media age, but this is one of the things I love...
I took this photo of some Arabic writing painted onto a wall in Amman, Jordan and promised myself that I'd find out what it meant. Knowing my friend Natali has been learning the language, I asked for her help on Facebook. She enlisted the help of another Arabic speaker and within an hour of posting, I had a translation.

This is what it says:
The winds blow as our ship moves, we are the winds and we are the sea and the ships, he who goes after something with his will, finds it even if demons and constraints fight him, so aim at the highest of things and you get it, the wind blows the way the ships want it to.
- Translated by Lara El Mouallem

I'm so pleased to get the translation, as it's such a beautiful sentiment and expresses how I feel about travelling so perfectly. Amman was such a lovely, colourful and friendly city, which I would recommend to anyone wishing to explore a corner of the Middle East.

Thursday, 4 August 2016

Top tips for surviving La Tomatina

August is upon us, which can only mean one thing for the intrepid traveller looking to tick a major festival off their bucket list - La Tomatina. While this crazy Spanish festival in the small town of Buñol is incredible fun, it's worth working out all the logistics in advance to ensure you have the best possible time.

I'm aware that I sound like somebody's mother (possibly yours), but do the planning in advance and you'll have a much more relaxing time when you get there. After attending in 2015, these are my top tips for La Tomatina.

Don't take valuables with you

This is the most important piece of advice of all, as I have heard lots of reports of people having things stolen at La Tomatina and even some experience of my own. While standing in the crowd just out of the scrum where participants were trying to topple the ham, I saw an American guy who had been getting involved come out and put his hands in his pockets. "My wallet and phone are gone. They've taken my wallet and phone" was his shocked response. This was before a single tomato had even been thrown.

Later on, during the fight, I felt the GoPro that was strapped to my head being grabbed. Luckily, I managed to get it back, but it was pretty touch and go.

My advice is to take as little with you as possible. For me that meant no phone, no purse and no camera. I just had a few euros tucked into my bra to buy something to eat and drink. I brought the GoPro with me for work, but if you can avoid it all the better. Either attach a camera to yourself securely or opt for an old one that won't be expensive to replace, if capturing the moment for prosperity is important to you.

Take a tour

That leads me onto my next piece of advice. Taking a tour is a really great idea for La Tomatina, as it means that you don't have to worry about getting yourself to and from Buñol or take any extra money, train or bus tickets with you. It's also really handy to be able to leave items on the bus to keep them safe.

Choices in terms of tour operators are plentiful, but it depends on what you want to get out of it. Some companies, such as Busabout and Fanatics offer multi-day trips if you are looking to make new friends and explore more of Spain as part of a group. We went with Festivals All Around, as they do a single-day tour from Valencia, allowing us to plan the rest of our trip ourselves.

All of the tour companies seem to offer the basics, such as transport to and from Buñol, entry into the festival (it is now ticketed to restrict numbers), a T-shirt and some booze. It's a good idea to compare what's on offer and prices to get a deal you think will suit your needs.

Go down into Buñol town as early as possible

While there was an abundance of sangria on offer when we disembarked the bus in Buñol, we had a quick cup and then headed down the road to the centre of town quite early on. This proved to be a great move, as we could scope out a good spot and see the pre-fight shenanigans, which were already underway.

Traditionally, the tomato fight starts when the ham is toppled off the greasy pole that is set up in the town square. In reality, the fight begins at 11am regardless of whether the ham is still in place or not. It's a good job really, as those trying to bring it down in 2015 never quite managed to organise themselves into the structure required to reach the ham.

Don't drink too much

There are a whole load of reasons why drinking too much at La Tomatina is a bad idea. For a start, you want to be as in control of yourself as possible. It gets really squashed in the streets, so you want to be able to keep yourself upright. Secondly, it would be a shame not to remember this incredible experience. Thirdly, and most importantly, there are no public toilet facilities down in the town. Pee at the last portaloo you see before going into the battle area and don't expect to come back out until it's all over.

Buy cheap, enclosed shoes you don't care about

The decision of what to wear on my feet for La Tomatina was something I agonised about at length. I generally take a pair of flip flops and some walking shoes on my travels, which between them cover most eventualities. The problem with La Tomatina was that I thought enclosed shoes were a must, ruling out my flip flops, and didn't really want to stain my nice North Face walking shoes for the rest of their usable life.

So, once in Spain, we set off in search of one of those small shops that sells everything. Here we found pair of pumps for about €5 that could get as much smashed tomato on them as they liked without any worries. This approach had the added benefit of not having to fit them in my luggage. Win-win.

To goggle or not to goggle, that is the question

We each had a pair of goggles to wear at La Tomatina, but quite soon found they steamed up, so we took them off. As a result, we got plenty of tomato in ours eyes and found that a gungey yellow substance kept coming out of them for a few days. I'm not sure what the ideal solution is to this, but you may want to weigh up the options.

Know what to expect

The streets of Buñol are narrow and everyone is packed in tightly, so expect to be squashed. There are banners placed over the roads to indicate where the trucks loaded with tomatoes are due to stop and it's a good idea to be positioned near one of these in order to get first dibs on the ammunition. The fight lasts for one hour, but it's amazing how quickly it goes. The chances are La Tomatina will be like nothing you have ever experience before, so embrace it and have fun.

Allow yourself to be hosed down by the friendly locals

It's wonderful to see how the locals really embrace the crazy people who come to their town each year to throw tomatoes at each other. Many of them keep a safe distance and watch the drama unfold from their balconies. Others take to the streets after the battle has ended and help with the clear up operation. Many stand with hosepipes and will help to rinse you down. While this won't get you completely clean, it will help to get much of the excess tomato pulp off you.

Sit a while in the sun

Once you've been hosed down, find somewhere to sit in the sun and dry off. We opted for a lovely spot up by the castle. Not only did this make us a lot more attractive prospect for getting back on the bus, but it also gave us some time to reflect on the crazy experience we'd just had. We still got back to the bus in time for the return journey to Valencia.

Check out the footage I shot in this video on my company blog here