The Last Aurora

The wind is howling outside the window. Not a mild summery gale or bluster, mind, but proper banshee-style wailing winds. The ones where you hear shrieks and whispers in the fiercest squalls. Taken together with the dry hum of the lighting, the occasional click and whirr of the electrics and then the dull drone of the plumbing every few minutes, it’s a proper orchestra of silence up here in our Edinburgh flat. The perfect, saddening seal to what is, and perhaps what must be, the last glorious flight of one of the brighter stages of my life.

Everybody’s out or asleep. The post-handover drinks and DMC’ing lasted until the early hours of the morning, by which time yours truly and the usual handful had long since turned in for the night. With the last show over – and a resounding, successful six-in-a-row sellout show to boot – the fantastic fifteen are at their strength’s end. The Northern Lights now go their separate ways. Today was a new beginning for the youngsters, and a promising golden start it was too, but for five of us at least it was the last flight. The coming years may see many happy reunions and moments relived in coffee shops the world over, but somehow I do not think the same Lights will take the stage together again. Because whether we are the same crowd or not, we will all have changed. Time is the master of all things.

Were it not for Biff, loyal and enduring, I would never have known this world. I might never have met Luke, and shared a greater love for Luther Vandross. Or Sam, that most charismatic of leaders. Seb, the rockstar maestro. And though we crossed paths from time to time in the modern languages block, it was chiefly through the Lights that I found a loving friend in Aisha. My heart breaks a little more every time that I remember that I’m letting you go (like I said in Thursday’s Grapevine riff, even if it did fall flat on its face somewhat). But life is, when you think about it, one long string of goodbyes. And for a serial loner like me, I should be well-versed in saying goodbye. Perhaps that explains the lack of tears.

Sixteen hours later. Sam’s electric toothbrush is buzzing away in the bathroom. The fridge is steadily being emptied. Four Lights have taken their leave, eleven remain. The fade-out continues, only not quite as harrowing as yesterday’s yellow afternoon. There’ll be plenty of time for reflection on my next adventure, and right now I could do with getting my head screwed on straight vis-a-vis living arrangements for next year. That’s what the next few days are for – that, and a welcome break from a very, very intense fortnight.


It’s time I went in search of a new project. Something that will occupy my heart, mind and soul for the next few years. Books are the answer, and there’s no better place to start than Edinburgh, truly the city of books. A solid hour in a second-hand bookshop off Grassmarket set everything to rights. There’s a word for that feeling of being surrounded by the writings of ages in an old bookshop, though I can’t remember exactly what it is. That is my life, though. I am sure of it.


The morning sun has set on my time in the Lights. The whispering winds lead me forward. Waverley station awaits, the only station in the world named after a novel. There’s a symbolism there, and I’m shamelessly abusing that for a final word. BB x

The Big Graduation Post

It doesn’t happen like you think it will, graduation. I suppose the same can be said of all those grand rites of passage of life: like as not, you speculate a great deal about how it’s going to be, until the day itself is over before you know it, and a lot less grand an affair than you thought it was.

Certainly, when I tried to imagine what graduating from Durham would be like four years ago, I didn’t ever imagine that the cathedral tower would be under scaffolding. You win some, you lose some.

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One of the most difficult things about graduating is that it’s so very easy to use it as your last chance to say goodbye. It makes sense; for some, it might be the last time in a while you see the people who have been your friends through thick and thin for three or four years. Regrettably, for others it might even be the last time you see them at all. That’s a humbling thought. If I have any advice to give, it’s to say your farewells before the big day. Of course there is time for the odd one here or there on the day, but with everybody mingling with friends and family alike, it can be nigh-on impossible to track everybody down in time – especially if you end up on a time limit yourself.

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I’ve had a lot of time to think over the past few weeks, and a lot of things to think about. One of the most enlightening conclusions I’ve come to (and late in the realisation, too) is that, for all of my best efforts, I am not first and foremost a linguist. And if it took missing a First Class degree by less than one percent to realise that, it was a lesson well learned. Language tests, and perhaps grammar in general, have never been my forte, not that that’s ever stopped me from trying. Writing is, was and always will be my trump card. If I hadn’t been so pig-headed about not reading fiction back in Year 13, I might well have let my doubts get the better of me and gone for a degree in English Literature instead.

The fact remains that I didn’t. For all the disparity between my English marks and my marks in French and Spanish, I went for a degree in modern foreign languages. Why? Precisely because of that; because languages were not my strongest point. Talking to people was something I really struggled with. I had no opinions of my own, I felt hopelessly outclassed whenever I had to take part in any kind of intellectual discussion and I tended to avoid any unnecessary socialising.

And in my own particularly sadistic way, I threw myself headlong into the one degree that would give me no choice but to talk to people, to face my fears head-on. And when you’re getting yourself into an extra £9000 of debt per year, it makes no sense whatsoever to go on studying what you’re best at.

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My time as an undergraduate at Durham has been, without a shadow of a doubt, the best four years of my life so far. I might have been to some extraordinary places had I gone for my second choice, St. Andrews, but I most likely would not have found myself in a metro station in Münich with a portrait of Admiral Lord Nelson. I might well have had access to researchers in my primary field of interest, al-Andalus and the Maghreb, but I probably wouldn’t have written such a cracking essay on Spanish banditry. And I might have got involved in a musical, or a choir, or maybe even the funk band I longed for since my schooldays, but I almost certainly would not have found myself wrapped up heart and soul in the collegiate a cappella scene.

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Thanks to one last fling with the Northern Lights at the 70th Edinburgh Fringe Festival this summer, graduation was not as final an affair as it otherwise might have been. Knowing that I’d be back in Durham in just over a month took much of the sting out of the farewells, and I left the city dry-eyed and carefree – which is not how I imagined it, but just the way I wanted it. I find that written words often carry meaning a good deal further than the spoken word ever can, and so I made my fondest goodbyes in card form, in case I didn’t get the chance to say so in person. That, too, made the process a lot easier to deal with. In a way, I’d said everything that needed to be said. I could do no more.

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I didn’t have a great deal of say in the matter of coming to Durham. My own mother dropped the name of the place so often as I grew up that by the time UCAS came around, it seemed sacrilegious to even consider anywhere else. And that’s exactly how it panned out, after an initial rejection and a gap year to try again. Bother the prospectuses, there was simply something magical about Durham. I had to go there.

It’s been one long week of thank you’s. To all the friends that supported me, both at home, at university and abroad. To the staff who inspired my interests and discouraged my careless wanderings. To my college principal, who sowed the seed of interest in a PhD in me; to my first Arabic lecturer, who through discipline fashioned a mature love for the language out of nervous enthusiasm; to those who have lived with me these last four years, for putting up with the day-to-day trivial madnesses and misinformed ramblings of yours truly. And of course, to music, for adding so much more to my degree than just books.

The wide world awaits with, at least for now, a smiling, familiar face (and a very strong Villafranqués accent). The far future – the beyond – remains as elusive as ever, but perhaps it doesn’t do to look that far ahead. Three months remain, and then I leave this country for Spain, only this time it will be for a much longer stint than anything I’ve ever attempted before. I can hardly wait.

And you bet I’ll be back to blogging for the whole affair. Just you wait. BB x

Out of Control

I’ve described being an auxiliar as a pariah state before; a grey blur between staff and student, neither one nor the other. The disadvantages include discipline control, ambivalent reactions from the students and generally feeling like you don’t belong in either group. It’s also pretty hard work, depending on how much your school wants from you. So what’s the upshot?

Well, that depends entirely on how much party you’ve got in your soul.

Ok, disregard that last statement. What I meant to say is that it’s a massive boon to the auxiliar job if you’ve got more than a few party tricks up your sleeve. Having had two teaching jobs before, I’ve been wiser this year and doled them out over the course of the year rather than all in one insufferable first lesson. And boy, do I need every one of them… because it’s not easy living in one of the world’s premier footballing countries when you really can’t see the attraction in the sport whatsoever.

Kids like an entertainer – it’s why clowns exist – and as long as you can keep your head, there’s no harm in playing up to that every now and again. Since October I’ve drawn for them, I’ve sang for them, I’ve acted for them, told stories for them and cracked several bilingual jokes, usually at my own expense (the latter gets easier, or more effective, as you get to know your surroundings). Yesterday I rolled out another firecracker in the Día del Centro, our school’s annual celebration, in what I’m told saved the show (though I beg to differ – and if you could see the filmed results, you probably would too).

Where Thursday is usually my busiest day of the week, with a full ten hour shift from eight til eight, yesterday I didn’t have a single class in the morning. The day began instead with a free breakfast of churros con chocolate, which I must say is no bad start to the day. Anna and Tasha turned up, representing their schools, who seemed to have let them off for the day, too. I assumed that the other thirty schools in attendance would have brought their assistants with them, too, but with the exception of one giant blonde American who pulled a disappearing trick shortly a cameo appearance at the end of his school’s mini-production of Grease, there was no sign of any other guiris. That, or they were all so Hispanic that they evaded our searching eyes.

Not that I had all that much time to waste searching for fellow Anglophones. I was roped between two presentations to sing at both, for which I’d prepared a cover of Marvin Gaye’s I Heard It Through The Grapevine; my attempt at a social comment on the furious gossip culture in the Triángulo de Loro that is La Fuente del Maestre, Almendralejo and Villafranca de los Barros, a mildly humorous spin on India’s Golden Triangle. My cheerleaders had dashed out before me, as they too were needed in both productions, so I was left with an audience of the Mayor and three student representatives from each school. It was a fairly good show, but a relatively tame audience…

…which is more than can be said for the crowd over at José Rodriguez Cruz. Melendez Valdés’ resident dance troupe took their show across the road just before I got there, and then I had to re-run my Grapevine cover to a much warmer reception. The next act, however, was nowhere to be seen. Garci, our school’s magician-turned-technology teacher, was still only halfway through his magic show across the road, and we had to cover in his delay. That meant another number from yours truly, which, it hardly needs saying, was yet another solo rendition of Circle of Life. Unlike my cohorts back home, who were all too ready to drop the number along with the rest of the old repertoire – and who are currently doing exceedingly well – I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of it; and fortunately, I didn’t have to feel guilty for going over old ground, because this time it was my own students who requested it. So, despite having left the stage to pack my bags, I was launched back onto the stage with the kids chanting my name. I tell you, this job does no good for one’s ego. No good at all.

But the magician still hadn’t arrived. Then a professional choreographer, who was there for the day to lead various workshops after the presentation, stepped in to get the crowd dancing. If I mentioned before that Spaniards are none too keen on dancing – especially if it’s not Latin – then I forgot to mention that they have absolutely no problems with it if it’s fully choreographed. Think of the Macarena, for example. Give them a song where there’s a set routine and they’re off. MV’s dance troupe were the first to their feet, naturally, and after not even a minute, they relinquished the shadows of the back of the hall for the lights of the stage. Fired by the sheer enjoyment of it all, I could hardly help myself and found myself following them.

At least I had the sense to take a stand at the back, because to begin with, I had no idea what I was doing.

Dancing, however, if one of those few things I think I’m not that bad at, if only because I don’t give a damn what people think of me when there’s music playing (years of Michael Jackson and James Brown might also have helped along the way). We kept the show going for a full quarter of an hour until Garci finally arrived, which was pure laugh-a-minute, as I don’t think the dancers had any idea that I’d have gone up with them.

Oh boy, but it’s going to be tough going back to work on Monday.

But teaching, like so many arts, is on a stage. I used to go to pieces at the idea of speaking in public, but years of concerts, productions and musicals have worn down any stage-fright I might have had, and all this teaching’s done for the rest. One of these days I’ll grow up and learn to balance maturity with responsibility, but whilst I’m still young, I’ll dance and I’ll love every minute of it.

Enough of this reckless, youthful banter. I feel like it was necessary after the sobering social commentary of the previous post – if only to remind you that I’m still very much a work in progress. And long may that be so! BB x

A Step in the Right Direction

I love blackboards. They’re quirky, they’re the very definition of old-school and, more importantly, they’re reliable. Grab yourself some chalk and you’re good to go. The sad thing is, they’re on the way out.

Wait, what? I thought they were done away with years ago, I hear you say? I remember a grand total of two years of blackboards in primary school before whiteboards and whiteboard markers edged them out, to be replaced almost instantly by the firestorm that was the first wave of interactive whiteboards. Well, blackboards are still the status quo here – or rather, they were, until last week. The twenty-first century has arrived in Extremadura, it seems, and the herald is the interactive whiteboard.

It’s been highly interesting to watch the reactions, as my scope as a teacher covers kids from five to eighteen along with several seniors. Unsurprisingly the youngest are the most in awe, and I’ve had to play the fool and feign ignorance, living through the ‘brand new toy’ atmosphere along with the rest so as not to spoil it for them. How are they to know that I was no older than nine years old when I had my first encounter with an interactive whiteboard, some twelve years ago?

As such, I’m long since past the shock-and-awe stage, and I see them as more of a nuisance. Not only have you got to spend time mucking about with the computer and projector, but you’ve got to keep an extra eye open, because kids just love to touch the damn things (I’ve already banned its use in my two primary classes because they just won’t keep their hands off). On top of that, if you’ve planned a lesson that requires the technology and it decides, for whatever reason, to screw you over by playing up, that’s the entire lesson out of the window.

And that’s without mentioning the calibration nonsense. How does one even draw properly on one of those things? As such, I’m definitely in Camp Blackboard.

All I can say is that if my generation made the same fuss over this new technology, I’m truly sorry. The last two weeks have been comparable to trying to plug a burst water main with one’s hands.

So, apart from lapsing into his old Luddite ways, what else has yours truly been up to?

In a complete turn-around from the way things were at the beginning, my state school kids have been nothing less than complete angels of late. Our school hosted a charity event last Friday in aid of the Syrian Refugee crisis, which I agreed to sing for. When my backing singers bottled out, I ended up having to improvise a new number, which was a mish-mash of several of Tolkein’s walking songs set to music, half from the 1981 BBC Radio adaptation (my childhood, right there) and half from the 2003 Return of the King movie – specifically, Billy Boyd’s The Steward of Gondor. And what do you know, it worked! I’ve had people coming up to me all week telling me how it sent shivers up their spine (or the Spanish equivalent, piel de gallina), which has done my crushed ego a world of good.

Alicia of 4º ESO delivers a brilliant monologo

On top of that, I had a wonderful surprise yesterday when I turned up to a class to find four people missing: three students and, crucially, the teacher. Of course, nobody thought to tell me until that moment that she’d be on a school trip. As it turns out, I’d arrived just in time, as most of the kids were on the verge of following their three classmates’ example and doing an early runner. For reasons I still can’t fathom, instead of making a break for it – unwisely, I did give them the opportunity – they stuck around to see what I’d got in store for them, after giving me a demonstration of the songs they’d prepared for this year’s chirigotas (satirical songs, often covers with the lyrics rewritten to local effect).

It was halfway through the second when a cover teacher showed up and tried to take over. I managed to persuade him that I had the situation under control (Nixon never told a bigger lie) and let him have the afternoon off. From the moment he shut the door behind him I had the unwavering attention of the whole class for the presentation I’d prepared, and that in itself was nothing short of a miracle.

But better yet was when I got to school the following morning to be told by their teacher that not only had they enjoyed the lesson, but that they’d told her that they really learned a lot from it. It’s little moments like that that really make teaching worthwhile. It truly is a vocation and I can’t help but feel I was called a long time ago. And so what if it’s a family tradition? I’m a traditional sort of guy. I can handle that.

Not so nice was what came later, when I voluntarily took an hour out of my free time to pay a visit to the Upper Sixth class, which (for reasons beyond my understanding) is the one year group in the school which has no contact with me at all. Most of them were really keen to see me at last, but I also had the first example of hostility I’ve ever faced in a classroom when one of the students, pressed to ask me ‘a question, any question’ by the teacher, said in perfect English that he ‘quite honestly couldn’t care less about [me]’. He shut up pretty quick when I revealed that I was actually part-Spanish myself, but it did sting a little.

It didn’t hurt for long. I had a primary class right after which took my mind off the whole thing, to put it lightly, and for the rest of the afternoon I had my hands full trying to keep the restless upper tiers of my private school kids under control – which came to a head in one of the funnier instances of the year so far.

We were discussing Netflix, illegal downloads and streaming on the internet and, naturally, the subject of porn came up – what do you expect in a Catholic school? Now, one particularly chatty kid always gets that class’s goat and today one of them decided the kid had simply gone too far and brought him down to size royally, joking that he watched porn, but on his Smart Watch, ‘because it’s a lot more practical that way’.

He didn’t need to demonstrate. I couldn’t keep a straight face for ten minutes.

On the whole, there’s been lot of reasons to smile over the last two weeks; ever since I wrote that post on reasons to smile, in fact. Troublesome though they are, I still cherish the hugs I get from my primary kids on a Wednesday. It makes me feel appreciated. So too do I accept the hero worship I get from my cuarto class every time I pass their classroom, because it makes my heart soar when they scoff at my facts, laugh at my jokes and generally get so involved in my classes.

Oh, and the swallows and the martins are here. Already. In January, for Pete’s sake. I’m practically on tip-toes I’m so happy.

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Couldn’t grab the swallows, but the siskins that stopped by the park were pretty obliging

But perhaps the best thing that’s happened over the last two weeks has been the arrival on YouTube – at last – of last summer’s A Night at the Movies concert in Durham Cathedral. I wrote a blog post about it at the time, which you can read here to refresh your memory if you like, but needless to say it was the single best night of my life, and remains so to this day. To have the chance to watch it all over again has had my head spinning. I’ve put a link to the grand finale below. Listen carefully at 3:10 and you might just hear yours truly belting out the Zulu solo, despite having next to voice left by that stage of the night!

It’s been a love-filled few weeks, and I’ve needed it, all of it, as after what was supposed to be the date of the year became the friend-zoning of the century, I’ve not had the easiest start to 2016. As it is, I’m coming out fighting.

I’ll leave you with that Smart Watch image, I think. It stills gives me the giggles, in the most shameless, puerile fashion. But then, I am shameless. You know that. BB x

A Dearth of Music

I have to confess, the absence of YouTube in my life is doing me wonders. But it comes with a cost: the main reason I use it, for browsing music old and new, is sorely missed. Villafranca de los Barros is supposedly the ‘City of Music’. In all honesty, you’ll find more music variety in Lloyds’ Durham on a Wednesday night.

Ever since the sequence of events in February 2015 that saw my iPod disappear and reappear a month later, my laptop give out and the arrival of this highly portable but sadly much-desiring Chromebook – which is too feeble to support either my music library or even an iTunes account in the first place – my iPod’s music selection has been stuck on the stuff I had loaded onto it from January this year. All the music I’ve discovered since, from the Moroccan beach-town hostels to my music-concert escapades in Jordan, has to be consigned to memory instead. Which is fine, but as music is such an important part of my life, it’s a little tragic. I’m not umbilically attached to my iPod by any means, but on Mondays and Wednesdays when I’m faced with an hour of mutinous six-year old Spaniards, it really is an essential piece of my arsenal to go in armed with at least five minutes’ listening to my Africa playlist, or my Super-Hyper-Motivator playlist, or what-have-you. It keeps me smiling. It’s like a more short-range and portable form of meditation.

But I’m limited to what I knew in January 2015 – which is obviously the bulk of my music, that’s a given, but music’s a transitive thing; more often than not, it’s the more recent tunes that I want in my ears, and not the old classics – though they surprise me anew and anon with Shuffle on. The Rite of Spring came up this morning and I listened to the whole thing from start to finish for the first time in a while. I’d quite forgotten how masterful the whole thing is – personal prejudice from growing up with Fantasia aside.

But it’s not just the listening I miss. It’s the performing. Bowing to the occasional whims of my students as a performing monkey isn’t the same. I miss singing and I miss the stage. Teaching is always on a kind of stage with all the spotlights on you, and so’s the dancing I tend to go in for, but it’s not the same. And that’s where my personal vendetta against ukuleles and guitarists comes in. You guys have it far too easy, and open mics are the ultimate test of proof. Unaccompanied singing just doesn’t work. I’m a singer before anything else (we’ll forget that I wandered away from Grade Six violin several years ago for now) but singing alone is more of a shower affair than a stand-up thing. Armed with a uke in hand or a guitar across your lap, you’re good to go. Me, I just feel like a fish out of water without the backing of a band or a chorus.

As such, I’ve only ever done one open mic. Shake Your Tailfeather a cappella. Never again.

There’s a Christmas concert coming up in a couple of weeks (in November… go figure) for which the music teacher and a small group of girls have asked me to help conduct/choreograph All I Want for Christmas Is You… Predictable, much. It’s the best I’m going to get for a while so I’m throwing myself into it, naturally, but just you wait until the bilingual schools’ intercambio here in February, for which we’re supposed to put on a show. I’ll be pulling out all the stops with some classics then, for sure. The only question is, do I go with Northern Lights or do I throw them some easier African numbers? Either way, I win. And either way, I’m going to end up tear-stained, as I dearly miss both my old gang and the feeling I used to get in every African Singing and Drumming performance. Jimminy Christmas, but I miss having music in my life. It’s the only killer of living in Spain. They’re big on their reggaeton, and of course there’s flamenco, but they just don’t get music in the same way. Or maybe that’s just me growing up in a family where both my parents were music teachers, and thus spending almost all twenty-two years of my life involved in one way or another in choirs, bands, musicals and orchestras of all descriptions.

On a positive note I’ve just been paid by one of my two jobs, which is a welcome relief in a time when the rest of the world (myself including) is still waiting on the all-important paycheck from the Ministry of Education, which may or may not be with us in arrears until Christmas, or so the horror stories go. I’m currently dreaming of where to go with both the time and money next August, as I’m not used to having both at the same time. Having the latter at all is a novelty, but together with time is a very new thing for me. The painful memories of the longest gap year with no job, no desire to obtain one and consequently barely a penny to my name are still vivid in my mind.

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Hooked on Africa

I’m currently hooked on the idea of backpacking in South Africa, which I’ve been toying with on-and-off for years. The first girl I ever dated was half-Afrikaner, which I suppose is where the obsession began in earnest, but it’s the music that’s the real draw. My mum and dad are of the opinion that I would be better served waiting for the Soweto Gospel Choir to tour a little closer to home if it’s the music I’m after, but I don’t see it that way. I miss the joy of the open road, the terror of nor knowing where I’m going to end up, the awkward encounters and the divine, and the host of colourful characters you meet along the way. In short, I miss a decent bit of travelling. All I have to do before August 2016 is to find somebody bonkers enough to want to come with. Not that I wouldn’t go alone, but it’d be a lot more fun with a friend. If you’re reading, dear companions, give it some thought!

I’ll leave you with the latest pox upon my heart, which is (of course) a Soweto number. I tell you, if it weren’t for my job, my degree and a certain gaditana, I’d up sticks right away and go straight to South Africa every time I hear this. Yours truly really is a bleeding heart, and if I’m not careful, it’ll be more than just my heart bleeding one day. BB x

End of an Era

Racked up a grand total of five hours’ sleep last night. Not exactly great, but a lot better than it could have been, considering just how FRICKIN’ AWESOME yesterday was.

No more classes at Ali Baba, for a start. We’re finished. Khalass. Two months of study wrapped up and tossed aside, just like that. And doesn’t it feel like every day of it…! Nah, I’m just messing with you. In truth the last four weeks have flashed past in the blink of an eye. Wadi Rum feels like it was only a few days ago, and as for Dana and the others who were with us for first term… why, they could have been here yesterday (now somebody hit the cliché button and hit it fast). We’ve had a really good run of it and ended on a good high, with a certificate presentation, a few last rounds of Arabic language games and a talent show no less, which I won on votes with yet another dangerously one-man rendition of a song, this time the gypsy ballad Arrinconamela – chosen mostly because I’ve kind of done The Circle of Life to death out here and it’s not as fun without my Lights at hand. Hey, I got a double Snickers bar out of it, so I’m not complaining.

I digress. Ali Baba has been nothing short of brilliant in every way. I’ve learned so much out here and that has more to do with the intensity of my four-hour classes than anything else, so a great big shout-out to Wafiqa and the Ali Baba staff for a grand two months of Arabic teaching. I sure hope ALIF can match your level of commitment!

We scarcely had time to rush back to the apartment to start packing, Andrew and I, when I was whisked back to the internet range of Ali Baba’s fourth-floor cafe to book both of our hostels for the next week, in Aqaba and Amman. You see, unlike the homestay girls, whose hosts have graciously allowed them to stay on after their lease and then to take them as far as the airport, we’re being booted out on command and thus have to find – and pay for – somewhere else to stay for the next week. In fact, our cheery landlord wants us out of here by ten o’clock this morning. Worse, the chirpy chap even followed us to the main road yesterday asking over and over if we wanted to have left by eight instead. Words fail me; words did not fail Andrew. We’ve tidied up most of the place, but it’s still very much occupied for the time being. It’ll be a last minute rush down to the bus station when the clock strikes a quarter past ten, but it’ll be worth it to see the back of this little apartment. It’s been great having a pad so close to our school, as it were, and it’s been nothing short of the party nucleus for the last two months, both because of its proximity and because Andrew and I have been voluntarily phone-less, so the only way to contact us has been in person. A grand idea from the get-go.

That aside, I’m glad we’re leaving today; this place is simply not worth $1000 a month, even split between us. That’s double what I was paying in Durham, and that was for an entire house. Jeez. And for the gall of living in a city, no less! Ali Baba’s only flaw is the price it puts on student housing, whether they find you a flat or a homestay. Take my advice and find your own place, through AirB’n’B or from the friendly environment of a hostel. Because had I known how small a flat we’d be getting for $1000 – with a faulty kettle, nearly-headless tap and other inconsistencies too numerous to name – I’d never have been so quick to hand over the cash. Arabists, take heed!

With all of our hostels booked, Andreas and his language partner Abu Ahmad took us out into the country for a barbecue, and I might use this as an excuse to debunk a few myths that I started. It turns out that there are trees near Amman, and not the artificially-grown ones in the university grounds. If you can get as far as the neighbouring town of As-Salt, the countryside surrounding it is stunning, even in the last few days of August when it’s had the full force of the Arabian summer sun shining down on its back for three months and more. We cooked more meat than Andrew and I have had in our whole two months of egg-based existence and were stuffed to the gills within minutes. That we managed to gather our senses and box some for today’s journey stands testament to some last-minute quick-thinking, or else they’d have thrown the last home-made kebabs away. Ach, just thinking of it is making me hungry.

But seriously though: As-Salt. If you ever get tired of the noise of Amman, get yourself on one of the many buses bound for As-Salt (they pronounce it ‘salt’) and take a hike into the country. It’s so green, so quiet, and such a world away from the hustle-bustle of city living. There were wild birds there too: I saw a couple of jays, homely-sounding blackbirds and even an Arabian Babbler to top it off. If only we’d stumbled upon it sooner… No matter. We’ve had fun. More importantly this was also our last night with Andreas, who’s been such a rock in our time out here, both for Arabic queries and for good humour, not to mention strength of character. We’re all going to miss you, Andreas, our only and favourite Swede. Good luck in Cairo (you lucky thing) and I hope we meet again someday!

Our heartfelt farewells to Andreas were cut short because we needed to be back in Amman for seven to catch a taxi down to a place called The Dome, a party venue halfway between our pad and the airport – so quite a way out of town. Believe it or not, we had a stroke of luck in that – for once – the second taxi we asked was willing to take us there. Only, he had absolutely no idea where there was. So he got to driving south and rang up the venue for us, amongst other contacts, to divine the location, and in the end he not only got us there for eight o’clock but offered to pick us up in turn. What a charmer!

I should explain. We were bound for The Dome because the biggest name in the Arabic music world at the moment, Saad Lamjarred (the mu3allem guy), is in Amman and there was talk of a great big party on the grapevine. We had it from another taxi driver, as it happens, who let us in on the secret. He even called up his friend to get us tickets. At thirty dinar a head it wasn’t cheap, but any misgivings I had about the price were obliterated in the first hour – and Saad Lamjarred didn’t even show up until about twenty minutes past ten. No, our thanks go to none other than DJ Khaled.

Charged up on unholy slushie (I don’t even want to know what was in the stuff) and Kinder Bueno ice-cream (these Arabs have such great ideas when it comes to sweets) we – that is, Andrew, Eloise, Mackenzie and I – couldn’t help getting itchy feet every time a good song came on. About every five minutes, that is. And so what if nobody else was dancing? We were having fun. Sure, we must have looked a little crazy, just dancing alone as the four of us for about an hour, but when Khaled’s C’est la Vie came on and we realised that we knew it, we went wild. And before we knew it, there was a crowd gathered around us in a circle to watch us move. Andrew, Mack and I were milking it for all it was worth; Eloise had the sense to hang back a bit (and film it for last shaming opportunities). In the end it wasn’t just spectator sport either, as some of the men felt the vibe too and joined in, which is when the party really started. We met so many people our own age who had been waiting, it seemed, for somebody to bite the bullet in order to let loose. As for me, I haven’t danced so hard in months. Between the four of us, we got things going in the back row, and because of that it’s going down as one of the best nights of the whole shebang, if not of my life so far.

The craziness of it all is that the first, second and third class tickets counted for nothing, in the end. We’d gone for the cheapest option at thirty, the most sensible route by far, as next to nobody was in the £50 second class row, and the £70 first class row was a seated affair. That’s no fun! But it gets better (or worse, depending on how you look at it). The bouncers, some naturally built like gorillas, others just oddly proportioned with arms nearly three times the size of their legs, proved susceptible to the whims of Eloise and Mack and their charm and/or sheer determination to get ahead, because bit by bit, we found ourselves jumping from third class to second, and eventually even into first, right to the edge of the stage. How’s that for white guilt? It got to me just before the end and I hung back whilst the others rushed into first class, until I felt like a first-class muppet myself when it was just me, an old woman and a mother and child left in second-class towards the end of the night. As for the man of the hour, Master Saad Lamjarred himself, his show was nothing less than blitz-worthy; I mean that in a good way. He only really had four songs of his own, plus a few great covers, but he sure knew how to get the party going – and all the while with a great big grin on his face that was infectious at the sight. We had quite a rave at the back with our new friends.

I’d better leave it there. It was quite a night, and because of it we’re both knackered, Andrew and I. He was awake when I started writing this; he’s fast asleep now. We’ve got another long day ahead of us, but on the bright side, in a couple of hours we’ll be done with this apartment for good, and bound on a four-hour bus for Aqaba, where we can really let our hair down and chill. We’ve earned it. BB x

Zulu Dreams

We’re into the third day of recording this wedding present for Grace’s friend and that means the bedroom’s been turned into a makeshift recording studio once again. If that doesn’t raise a few eyebrows, try to picture it: we’ve opened the cupboard and rested the two mattresses against it, draping a duvet over the top as a mock-up boom and shut all the windows and doors. The result is actually pretty decent – as far as mattress-fort recording studios go. Grace is in the cupboard recording hers now so I’m in the next room with Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherezade in my ears, trying to quell my recurring bouts of city angst. Replacing one noise with another can only do so much good, but I think I found a better solution.

Bit by bit I’m building a clearer idea of where I want to make my next adventure, and funnily enough it’s not a remake of Archie’s enviously-exciting Central American backpacking adventure. That ship has sailed. If the chance arises again one day, I’ll take it of course, but somehow I doubt it will. Lightning never strikes twice. As for me, I have my eyes on somewhere else, a place I’ve been orbiting, as it were, for the last seven years: South Africa.

Did that come out of left field? Probably not. The more you know me, the more rational a conclusion it is. For starters, this Cairo to Cape Town jaunt I’m so obsessed with was always going to end there. The only stage I’ve ever really been able to envisage is the last leg, cresting the veld and staring, at last, at the crystal waters of the Indian Ocean after a year or so on the road. I see myself throwing off my rucksack and racing into the water to fall, knees first, in the sand. That would be worth all the mileage, border bullies and nightmarish bureaucrats that’ll plague me along the way. It’s a scene that’s been playing on-and-off in my mind’s eye for years. That’s one reason.

I’d like to say Haggard started this. I’ve been reading one book of his after the other and I’m hooked. But it goes further back than that. My first girlfriend was half-Afrikaner. That’s where it really all began, I guess. Yes, it must have been; I remember talking to her aunt about her time as a game driver and falling in love with the place through words alone. Sure, that didn’t all pan out so well in the end, but like a flower in the ashes, I stumbled upon Bryce Courtenay’s The Power of One (the film) a week after the breakup. No other film has ever affected me so strongly. It could have been the music, it could have been the red-haired heroine, or just as easily the people and the places. More likely than not, a combination of the lot – but especially the music. There’s something otherworldly about it. Amazulu – from the Heavens. How about Ukuthula, the Zulu spiritual that never fails to move me to tears? Or Miriam Makeba’s African Sunset, which is playing in my ears right now? Don’t forget the Circle of Life. I put so much of my heart and soul into the Zulu solo with the Northern Lights that I go weak at the knees whenever I hear that one, too. Fun fact: I was born just four days before The Lion King came out. It’s a sign, baby! At least, I’d like to think so.

I could point the finger at so many other reasons: a family connection to Steve Bloom; the film, Zulu; the Drakensberg; the Zulu language itself. Yeah, by this point I’m pretty damn-near decided. The main question is when and how. I reckon I should have saved up enough after next year’s teaching. If only I were going to Morocco and not Jordan next summer; I could save so much money towards it (quit complaining about Jordan and just deal with it, kid). It also means I can dedicate myself to learning Zulu on the side next year. I’ve always wanted to learn an African language. Arabic is just a means to an end. Zulu – now we’re talking. We’re talking Africa and talking Africa is the surest way to my heart. And it always will be. BB x