After getting lost in the myriad of containers in the Concord Business Centre, I finally find myself amongst a flurry of high-vis vests and bright green vans being loaded with overflowing crates of fresh fruit and vegetables. It was here that I approached Anne Elkin, The Felix Project’s main coordinator. I guessed she was the best point of contact for her commanding manner in the warehouse – also I recognised her face from the very photo on my JustGiving page.
“Oh you’re the Toby who’s running the marathon!” She was pleased to hear. I shirked this off a little, admitting to the fact that I was less than prepared for the upcoming Hackney Half, having struggled pathetically to fully live up to my New Year’s promise of transforming my body into an athletic powerhouse. Nevertheless, this became my identifier to the rest of the volunteers at Felix, who were all very supportive of my ‘heroic’ pursuit.
The regulars at The Felix Project are mostly retired men and women who joined soon after the Evening Standard’s big exposé back in September. One such man, Charles – with whom I spent the morning driving around Hanwell, navigating down poky suburban roads and awkward church driveways – said he spent the first part of his retirement not knowing what to do with himself.
“I still felt guilty playing mid-week golf. Turns out I actually know the Byam-Shaws through their niece, and when I saw them in the paper I thought I’d come here and help out.”
Travelling through London with the volunteer drivers and co-drivers is what makes the whole affair very localised. As it is in London, everyone has their own unique experience of the city’s landmarks – both physical and historical.
“I used to work for BHS in that building.” Remembers Allan, as we sail down the Marylebone road. “That was well before the Philip Green days.” Earlier, The Apprentice’s infamous Bridge Cafe on Westfields Road was pointed out to me as we left the depot.
Pension scandals and TV personalities aside, it was the City’s latest business ventures that got all the delivery guys’ tongues wagging most of the day. Specifically, Deliveroo, Uber, and the burgeoning ‘gig’ economy. “I just feel sorry for the guys”, “you know they earn only £3-something an hour, after tax?” Were some of the comments bandied about. It seemed fitting to have this discussion whilst delivering to refuge centres and food-banks. Perhaps some of the couriers and chauffers we were talking about would be the ones receiving our haul of unwanted supermarket fare.
Back at base, the warehouse team were all smiles as we dropped off more goods and restocked the vans ready for the afternoon teams. I get chatting to Kathy, an American who was one of the Project’s biggest fans. “My son came here when he visited from the States at Christmas, and that’s when the Standard turned up with all the cameras. He’s now on one of the adverts!”
The turn around of unloading vans and filling the empty crates was impressively quick, with deputy coordinator Sophie all but losing her head to ensure a smooth transition. It’s clear that this slick operation has got legs; it’s captured the interest of many supportive wholesalers, as well as a team of dedicated volunteers. But it will take a doubling of effort from everyone to expand – as they intend to – across the rest of London. For now, it’s fun to ride on the first wave of a new, and increasingly vital, service.
“They say the city is like an aeroplane,” said Joao, gesturing with one camp, aloof hand. “One neighbourhood here, one there and this road is like the body.” I’m in Brasilia on day nine of my trip. It’s quite a change of pace from Rio, where I have just spent the last week at Carnaval getting drunk on caipirinha and, as a result, confronted by ‘favelados’ – residents of the notorious slums in the mountain valleys.
I am in the second part of my holiday, visiting my friends Nayara and Pedro on the weekend of their wedding ceremony. Much as I have become used to as a solitary traveller in far-flung countries, I have been passed on to friends of friends and am spending the day meandering around shopping malls and plush lobbies in Brasilia’s hotel sector. Joao and his fiancé Vinny, along with the vivacious Barbara, are very accommodating and enjoy teaching me Portuguese phrases which they believe will help me to succeed romantically at tomorrow’s reception.
Brasilia has a reputation amongst the country’s youth as a corporate city, with not much to offer in terms of fun and frolics. Designed by famed communist architect Oscar Niemeyer, the city is beautifully mapped out and divided neatly into sections for banking, politics, shopping, etc. But, it is lacking a certain urban flavour for a national capital – especially a nation so reputed for its party lifestyle.
Nayara referred to it as an ‘artificial’ city before my arrival, and this certainly rings true of the residential areas. It seems everyone who lives in Brasilia does so in gated communities and compounds, guarded by electric fences and security personnel. Inside each one, I am reminded of the Truman Show; all modern housing and perfectly kempt gardens. Artifice is definitely the word. Nonetheless, the people here are still Brazilian, and I am not disappointed as the wedding celebrations commence.
A Brazilian wedding is very similar to those in the UK, with lengthy speeches; overzealous family members who drink too much; inappropriate posturing from youthful groomsmen. What made this ceremony particularly special was the combination of military tradition and Star Wars paraphernalia. Having met at Brasilia’s military academy as teenagers, Nay and Pepe fell in love over their mutual sci-fi fanaticism.
“That’s what I was saying in my speech.” Nayara explained to me the next day, “I was saying that the rebel alliance was a symbol of our personal beliefs, and that we fight prejudice together as a team.” This was quite a beautiful analogy. Lost on me, of course, because of the language barrier, and not least because of the open bar.
The day was held at a luxury hotel on the outskirts of the capital. Among those in attendance were civil servants, lawyers, senior army officers, and one staffer from the Brazilian embassy in London. “Last night you met, like, the 1% of Brazil.” One of the groomsmen told me the next morning. “They are not, like, millionaires but they have a lot of money. It was a very fancy wedding.” This seemed in line with the rest of my experiences in Brasilia.
The gated communities so typical in this part of the country appear, not so much as a deterrent for criminals, but in bated anticipation of incoming crime. On my last day, Nayara and I discuss the lack of public transport in the city. “Every mayor promises to build more. But I think if they do finally do it, then they will have nothing more to campaign about. So nothing gets done.”
I have many own theory; in Rio, public transport is plagued by muggers and gangs. Even so, I feel that if it had more social diversity, perhaps the artificial city would be less so.
After finding myself enchanted by the rustic setting and relaxed atmosphere of Bansko, Bulgaria, I thought I would study the historic rise of Balkan holidays in a bit more depth.
Sitting comfortably beneath Romania, and nervously sharing a boarder with Turkey, Bulgaria is quickly becoming the new Costa del Sol in terms of its appeal to penny-pinching Brits abroad. In fact, it’s been widely lauded by tourist operators that 2017 will be the year of Eastern Europe among UK holiday-makers.
After shedding the heavy cloak of of Soviet rule in 1989, Bulgaria started building up its capitalist economy in the early noughties. It currently boasts budget holiday destinations for all seasons, from notorious party resort Sunny Beach; to majestic ski slopes in the mountains of Borovets.
Much like their former-Eastern Bloc neighbours, Bulgarians have a steadily rising upper middle class, thanks to newly acquired disposable incomes from emerging, private sector technology markets. This flourish of new money also gives rise to the dirth of other Slavic nationals from Macedonia, Russia, and Croatia gracing the apres-ski lounges and portside champagne bars on weekend breaks.
Known as the Silicon Valley of Eastern Europe, Bulgaria has an impressive portfolio of computer tech companies. These wages, however, are only second to the still lucrative black market in terms of contributions to average household incomes. A hangover from its communist past, the country remains one of the most corrupt in the EU. The taste of which trickles down to the unsavoury sex shops and strip clubs found in family tourist towns.
But, as the threat of modern terrorism – coupled with the falling value of the British pound – increasingly impacts on UK travel policy, and the Eastern trio of Bulgaria, Croatia, and Poland offering 30% cheap package trips than French and Spanish equivalents, it seems like the Slavs really are leading the way in choice holidays in 2017.
According to that institution of all contemporary knowledge and global truth: Wikipedia, a New Year’s resolution is a resolve to change an “undesired trait or behaviour.” A common phenomena of the modern world, its traditions can be dated back to the days of Babylonia – quite fittingly – when people promised the gods to pay off their outstanding debts and return borrowed objects upon the dawn of each new year. Other historic connections to NYRs include medieval knights’ annual renewal of their vow of chivalry, known as the “peacock vow”, and the Roman ritual of prayer to Janus, the god for whom the month January is named.
In 21st century society, typical resolutions include becoming more socially responsible; improving one’s education; starting a new career; quitting smoking; and, of course, losing weight. Apparently, men and younger people in general are more likely to make career-focused resolutions, while women and older generations are committed to travel and taking up hobbies. It has also been found that only 12% of people achieve their NYR aims within the year, with 1 in 3 losing track of their progress and a quarter forgetting about their resolutions altogether. By the start of February, 44% of resolutionists have conceded failure already.
It is with this in mind that I renew my commitment to a healthier lifestyle. I could blame work-related fatigue for the decline of my initial excitement over exercise and health foods; I could say I was being unrealistic, and that I’m just not one of those people who cares about this stuff. But it is only human to become distracted or lose faith. Rachel Adams at the Mancunion says we need to ask ourselves why we have chosen these specific goals for ourselves, but mustn’t be afraid or ashamed to change the end target as we proceed. Forbes’ Maynard Webb says NYRs require thoughtfulness and dedication in the first place, and suggests actually stating our aims out loud leads to greater chances of achieving success.
The reality is, failure is a considered part of making resolutions in the first place – we know it’s a possibility, otherwise the whole thing wouldn’t be something we felt compelled to address. That’s why most people in the Western world don’t actually make New Year’s resolutions any more; committing to the challenge isn’t worth the prospect of losing against our own feeble-mindedness. But if I can turn my attention to carrying on, having wavered in the face of session IPA and office pizza, and learn to forgive my indescretions – maybe I just might make it into that 12%.
This week, as promised, I have been reporting live from Bulgaria.
I was skiing with family in the little-known resort of Bansko. It had been three years since I last fastened the clips on my boots and jumped into a pair of bindings, before falling with style down the side of a mountain, so I expected my return to the slopes to be hard on the legs. Not so. Thanks to all the hard work squatting; lunging; and – ironically – mountain climbing, I was actually pretty prepared to combat the pistes once again.
Because it is your legs that perform most of the work when skiing. Whether you are slide-slipping down an intimidatingly steep path, or arduously skating along a flat road, you are constantly putting pressure on your lower body to stop yourself from falling over – even when you are just standing around aimlessly.
But it is our lowly friend the foot that I want to dedicate this blog post to. Because where would our legs even be without feet?
When exercising, no piece of attire is more important than shoes. According to all-round foot boffin and Podiatrist at large, Mike O’Neill, around 65% of recreational sportspeople in Britain wear the wrong shoes. This can cause any degree of complications from shin splints and knee pain, to traumatised toes and crippling Sciatica.
So, your running shoes should not be worn for tennis, and your ten-year-old Adidas mid-tops were certainly not meant for sprinting on a treadmill (who knew!). It’s also worth noting that you shouldn’t hold on to exercise shoes for too long before throwing them out.
Running shoes need changing around every 400-500 miles; or when the soles start turning white where the material has started to wear off; or when the middle of the shoe becomes very thin and delicate; or all of the above.
How your shoes wear out can be an accurate indicator of problems with your gait. Pronation is the assessment of how people walk in relation to the angle of their foot. Underpronators land on their outer foot and don’t roll on to the balls of their feet, shocks then transmit up the lower leg causing shin splints. Overpronators roll past the balls of their feet and put excessive pressure on their foot arches, causing painful bunions and heel spurs. If you over-pronate you will wear out the arches of your shoes, and if you under-pronate the outer edges of your trainers will be more worn.
When running you can put as much as six times your body weight on each foot, depending on how fast you’re going; and the average pair of feet walks the equivalent of five times around the Earth in their lifetime. That’s a lot considering feet are less than 5% of total body mass. To give feet the attention they deserve, they should be washed after every bout of exercise, especially between the toes, and always kept as dry as possible. Get a ped-egg if you have to, and go to town on those bunions.
As someone who has always been body conscious and lazy in equal measure, I have given myself this year to make real improvements on my health and fitness regimen.
A casual smoker and non-casual eater of junk food, this is not the first time I have started the new year with the resolve to transform myself into an athletic powerhouse. But this will be my first attempt to blog about it as well.
Having begun with a new weekly schedule of yoga and body-weight exercises, I’m already sleeping better; have stopped getting short of breath when walking long distances or running for the bus etc.; and I genuinely look forward to doing each activity every day.
My diet has not changed as dramatically, which is something I need to address if I expect to see results. But I’ve made a good attempt at some simple recipes boiling/ grilling veg, experimenting with filo pastry, and snacking on nuts instead of crisps. Alas, pizza remains a weekly treat and shop-bought sandwiches are still my staple lunchtime meal.
After reading around the masses of online information about health and/or fitness, I’ve learned the first thing that happens when you take up exercise is you gain extra blood and capillaries to reach your growing muscles.
Because I have trained before, albeit over a year ago, I still have a lot of the strength I will have gained in that time – so my ability to squat, lunge, and jump won’t have degraded much. And all these healthy capillaries are still at my disposal.
As someone who has smoked regularly, my lungs were always going to take a long time to clear out the tar and other gunk. After a year off, I’ll still have 15% less of my stamina for cardio before taking up smoking – probably more. This is significant because fat molecules actually leave the body through respiration, as well as perspiration, urination, and masturbation.Muscle gain is a whole different ball game to fat loss. Muscle fibres tear when you push them to their limits; exercising until exhaustion is the fastest way to do this. As muscles repair themselves, they become stronger leaving you bigger and broader. As we all know well, protein speeds up this repairing process with fish being the best natural source of the body-building macronutrient.
According to everybody’s favourite personal trainer, Joe Wicks: The Body Coach, it takes a minimum of three months to fully realise progress in all these areas. I’m giving myself 12 months, so it should be a doddle!
There is a necessary discussion that needs to be had about drugs in the UK. While Britons often scold the US as being backwards in moving forwards, America has made leaps and bounds in their attitude towards the ‘war on drugs’ – that has resulted in prolific state legalisation and improved control in the trade of cannabis. Granted, there were some honest people who suffered because of these laws, but that is more than made up for by the amount of victims in common black markets.
The UK is ready for a similar drug reformation act. Our drug culture is huge, so we need to have an honest and mature approach towards regulating it. If the likes of Portugal, Uruguay, and Canada are all doing it, it’s time we ourselves reimbursed the cool chips that were cashed in some time after the sixties.
But there’s not even a voice for such a campaign. Until the recent general election, there was no organised strategy for bringing serious effective change, despite what people from all corners of society talk about daily while smoking a spliff or taking a bump.
I’m not condoning the specific use of any singular drug. But legalisation is the only way to responsibly manage the social, economic and medical effects of drug use. And anyone that agrees should think seriously about their involvement in what is an increasingly unstable criminal industry.
I wake up to the sound of the threateningly old fan swinging above my head with absolutely no assurance it will stay attached to the ceiling during my last four days in this hotel room. I can’t complain, sporadic national power cuts have recently led the Electricity Company of Ghana (ECG) to release a schedule of 12 hours of power out of 36 – a regimen that even parliament couldn’t pay its way out of -, so it’s actually a rare privilege to have the poor, rusty fan on to struggle on with me through the humid night. The early morning sun creeps through the leaves of abundant coconut trees silhouetted against the gaudy, Grandmother’s rejects curtains. The room, with its faux-antique furniture, rough wooden shutters and my backpack slung in the corner, makes me feel like a seasoned explorer; I could imagine a 19th Century game hunter rising to the dawn chorus in a similar fashion. Feeling in no other way like an intrepid adventurer, I check the time on my smartphone and think about calling my surf instructor to see if he’s not too hungover fora lesson later.
It’s six o’clock on a Friday in March, 2015. I have one really good stretch in bed and get up to throw open the stained drapes. Two red patas monkeys (one adult, one infant) remain locked in a cage outside, each with a scraggly length of rope around their waists. I need to ask the manager about this arrangement, as it’s not clear if they get fed or exactly whose pets they are. Monkeys are often domesticated to a degree but these conditions are enough to make anyone raise their eyebrows. The adult looks me in the eye and makes an ‘o’ with its mouth, a sign of aggression. Against my better instincts, I start to worry if the cage won’t hold them until the end of the weekend.
Friday night is party night in Kokrobite, a seaside town less than an hour outside the capital city. Wealthy young professionals flock here from their high-rise offices in Accra to spend the weekend, or even just a Sunday afternoon, sipping on rum cocktails and smoking shisha pipes to the weekly live reggae bands and late night hip-life discos. I have chosen it as my last stop before returning home because of its cultivated style of laid-back beach life mixed with wild nights alongside Ghana’s notorious party animals.
Kokrobite is also the first stopping point for most young volunteers, fresh from Europe and the Americas, looking to party hard before being sent to some obscure rural village in the North for two months where it’s twice as hot, dry as hell and the nightlife surmounts to a crackly speaker system drowning out any pleasant conversation in a local spot.
In Ghanaian-English slang, a ‘spot’ is a bar where cheap plastic chairs are arranged under a tarpaulin roof and a 625ml bottle of beer costs 80p to a pound, or you can pick up a 40ml sachet of whiskey for around 12 pence. Some spots can be very comfortable, run by the most hospitable proprietor and serving only the coldest Savanna Dry to its valued customers. Others are just loud and smelly, open to shady patrons who help themselves to your refreshments without asking.
There’s one in the northern capital of Tamale, on a rooftop overlooking the whole city. Serving relatively overpriced Chinese food, it offers one of the best sights in the country of thriving urban activity. Dominated by a mosque, the view from the Giddipass terrace is very distinct from that of any of the coastal towns. Hot and dry due to its proximity to the Sahara, sandstorms are frequent, termite hills litter the countryside and motorcycling makes up the primary transport.
Down south, I tend to frequent Big Milly’s Backyard; the Hilton of Kokrobite’s lodges and bars. The most popular (and probably the priciest) accommodation site in town, Big Milly’s has a longstanding reputation for its raucous weekend-long parties since it opened in 2000. I am guaranteed to bump into some friends there; either a familiar local face, or some newcomers who will no doubt be on to Ghana’s air of openness by now to enter a spirited dialogue about African poverty while taking advantage of the cheap alcohol.
A small portion of today’s conversation at breakfast is dedicated to political tensions in neighbouring Cote D’Ivoire. Just recovering after national riots during the 2010 presidential election, and never really settled after 2002’s civil war, the political referendum later this year could see more upheaval in the republic. My friend’s complaint is that, if this occurs, his Ivorian relatives will land on his doorstep, and when he’s just rid himself of a set of troublesome lodgers. “It’s not easy-oh!” is a common catchphrase in these times of disruption.
Having spent most of the morning dealing with the business end of my poor diet, I decide porridge and fruit salad combined will make a nutritious start to the day. Growing lazy towards the end of my six month post, I have given up on the sloppy dishes of fufu (plantain dumplings) and banku (maize dumplings) served with spicy fish soup. Instead, I choose to dine on pizza and burritos in the many many tourist diners.
Washing down my daily anti-malarial pill with a cup of Lipton’s Yellow Tea and Nestle’s powdered milk, the sea beckons. I shed my sun-bleached t-shirt and twisted cheap flip-flops and escape to the rolling waves of the Atlantic ocean for some inspiration.
Many life-sized thoughts go through your mind while suspended in a great expanse of water; there is something distinctly philosophical about being at the mercy of an unruly and unpredictable force. Nature is a great leveller when you consider how deep the sea and how dense the forest, and just how unknown all of it is to any individual scrabbling around the surface of the Earth trying to make sense of it all. My pensive mood is heightened by the accompaniment of whoever is blasting out Bob Marley at this time in the morning from their beachside spot. All along the shore around me tropical plant life weaves amongst fishermen’s corrugated iron shacks backing on to oil merchants’ holiday compounds; an urban jungle with its own unruly forces at play.
I begin to look back over my time in the Western Region at the primary surfing destination of Busua. It was there that I volunteered for half a year on the production of a music festival. Apart from now feeling slightly ignored, and even a little bit resented, by the production team due to the amount of disputes that come from organising such an event, I have made my peace with our troubled relationship and start to see that what we achieved in bringing a lot of attention to a deprived part of the world, and sharing so much of Busuan life and values in doing that, is exactly what any festival should aim for. Is it something that could be re-created, in somewhere like Kokrobite perhaps?
My one problem with this beach is the sea itself. Probably quite a major complaint for a holiday resort, but it is almost black in colour and coming out of the water leaves you feeling greasy. Someone once told me it’s because of all the offshore oil drilling, I don’t know about that but certainly, in Ghana, pollution is all too common. Children bathe in lagoons amongst clusters of dangerous, toxic materials while family livestock runs around in open sewers infested with black, bubbling gangrene. Home to the world’s largest electrical goods dumping ground, the Accra district of Agbogloshie was deemed too toxic for a group of environmental students I met when I first arrived.
A short walk along the beach and, sure enough, I haven’t gone far to find a big dump of litter washed up at the foot of a beautiful baobab tree. Someone else told me that the waste is only so offensive because it’s so visible; Western countries produce tons more than Africa, they just hide it well in refuse sites. I think I still prefer a progressive, if ignorant, attitude to littering over blatant disrespect for local greenery.
On turning round after taking a photo of the pile of rubbish, amongst the paused crowd of amused fishermen as to why the hell I wanted one, a man approaches me with a kind smile.
“You want me to take your picture?”
“Oh, no. Thank you though.”
Ghanaians, whatever their behaviour towards sanitation, are among the most genuinely friendly people in the world. West Africans in general can’t be beat for lively conversation, outbursts of humour, and warm greetings. It’s because of that hospitality what makes Ghana such a popular tourist destination, it’s incredibly safe here. Even during recent riots – aimed at ECG for its ridiculous electricity schedule – there has never been a threat of uprising like the rebels next-door.
When I was beaten and mugged on a night out, it wasn’t the robbers I deplored (it’s worth remembering that, outside the festival goers and fuel company execs, a quarter of Ghana’s people live below the poverty line and, with the ebola scare turning much needed investments away, times are desperate), it’s the failings of the government that’s to blame. Unsympathetic to the needs of the young and the poor, corruption is rife among political officials.
And it’s top-down too. After expressing disappointment about an apathetic police investigator, someone suggested to me that some ready cash would have helped my case. State bribery is a pretty standard part of life and bureaucracy out here; on crossing a manned traffic barrier, the driver must ‘dash’ one cedi if there is anything wrong with the car while speeding up civil paperwork will cost a lot more. On Wednesday, I expect to pay 200GHS for border control to overlook my missing visa updates in order to board the plane home. Anything to help the flagging economy.
In earnest, as long as global perceptions of this continent are of needy folk, dependent on foreign aid, its leaders will continue to line their pockets from those with an honest interest in realising Africa’s full potential of supporting itself. It will take great lengths to reverse this, and no amount of dancehall and cheap beer or self-interested charity was ever going to make any great shakes.
Large helpings of deep-fried carbohydrates and vegetables on-the-turn, one food industry mogul said of Ghanaians:
“They love quantity, not quality.”
Soup you eat with your hands and dumplings that could break your skull, Ghanaian dining has its own charm unappreciated by most Western stomachs. One palatable country meal, however, is very popular amongst visitors to Ghana; red beans in an oily tomato sauce, served with the sweeter of the two plantain types that gives its name to this dish – red red.
“The white people, they love the red red.”
And then there is West Africa’s darling in the staple food department; Jollof rice. Jamie Oliver recently landed himself in hot water on making the mistake of publishing his take on Joloff rice on his website. The online food community particularly did not like his use of on-the-vine tomatoes instead of the withered, mouldy ones you’ll find in any local Ghanaian kitchen. I have my own opinion on how much fuss is made over what is essentially red-coloured rice with peppers but, whether you like it or not, Jollof means much more than just food to people; it’s a national pride.