Fiesta: The Sun Also Rises

Pamplona. San Fermin. The Running Of The Bulls. Nowadays, almost everybody knows about this fiesta, probably the most famous annual celebration in Spain. Most years it makes the news because somebody has been horrifically injured, or worse, killed. It’s almost certainly been featured in a BuzzFeed “23 Essential Backpacker Experiences” list (I haven’t looked). It’s hard to miss. Given that, I’m still slightly surprised that I managed to get to the age of 21 without hearing about it. My first Pamplona experience was during my trip around Europe in 2002. Fellow backpackers would regularly tell exciting stories about Pamplona over dinner. It seemed like a magical place. There was no accommodation to be had, but that didn’t matter, because the parties, the drinking, THE PARTIES… It was a backpacker mecca. There were tales of no sleep for a week, and of levels of alcohol consumption that would be frowned upon by Oliver Reed. Neither of us were entirely sure how we felt about bullfighting, but we were persuaded by beer. We resolved to add it to our itinerary immediately, but for various reasons (amongst them, the fact that we were told that San Sebastian had incredible tapas), we never made it.

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The Beach

I first travelled outside of the UK on a school French exchange programme aged about 14. At the time, I thought this was ‘travelling’. Obviously it wasn’t. The next time that I thought I was ‘travelling’ was when I backpacked around Europe for over 3 months with my best friend. Halfway through the trip, we took a boat from Algeciras to Tangiers and spent a week in Morocco. We took a night train to Marrakech, haggled in the markets, slept on a hotel roof, went on a 3 day trip into the desert, slept in the Sahara under the stars, and one of us even had some ‘toiletry’ issues. We thought this was ‘travelling’. I’m not totally convinced. I’ve also visited the less touristy bits of Beijing and Australia, spending two months in the latter by myself. I’m not sure that these trips constitute ‘travelling’ either.

My confusion partly arises because I don’t really know what ‘travelling’ means. How far do you have to travel off the beaten track before you’re no longer just ‘on holiday’? Do you need to be staying with locals in a family home away from popular tourist destinations? Do you need to be staying in a tent in a jungle, one false step away from immediate death in any direction? Does every aspect of what you are doing whilst travelling need to be a truly original experience (if this is even possible anymore)? Or do you just need to step outside your comfort zone (and/or the comfort zone of the average tourist) and take a bit of time to properly get to know a country, its customs, and its people, learning a little about yourself in the process?

Of course, the bigger question is does any of this really matter?

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I live in a small country (the UK). I’ve always lived in a small country, and I like the fact that I live in a small country. It’s manageable: while I obviously haven’t visited every city and every hamlet, I can say that I’ve been to every corner, heard most local dialects, and tried a lot of local delicacies. It’s my country: I feel at ease here, comfortable even, and I could do a reasonable job as a tourist guide, I reckon.

Conversely, big countries unsettle me a bit. In the last ten years I’ve visited 3 big countries: the USA, China and Australia. As an eighties child I grew up watching a lot of American TV, which meant that I was already familiar with the USA before I visited. I’ve spent time in NYC, Florida, Texas, New Orleans and California but I don’t feel like I know the country at all well – I’m fully aware that there are effectively 50 countries, not 50 states.

I’ve spent time in a lot of Australia cities (Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Cairns, Alice Springs, Canberra, Brisbane) and several places on the direct routes between these cities, but I’m also well aware that there is a lot of Australia outside of these places (in terms of geography, more so than people). In fact, there is a lot of unexplored Australia in general: it’s a country with depth, and I’ve only scratched the surface.

To complete the trilogy, in 2009 I spent 10 days in Beijing, partly on a work trip. At the time I thought I was getting a taste of China. Since returning I’ve gradually realised that I barely got a taste of Beijing. More so than perhaps any other country, there is A LOT of China. It spans several time zones, several very different dialects and even the cuisine is very different from one end of the country to the other (this is something that UK diners are now realising: restaurants are starting to open up devoted to particular types of Chinese cuisine, especially in London).

So to summarise my experiences so far: small countries are good, big countries are bad. Continue reading

The Road To Oxiana

In my first post, I mentioned that for me, original perceptions of countries tend to persist over time. The Yugoslavia and USSR of 1969 will always exist in my head (and in my Dad’s atlas). This is partly because I know my Dad’s atlas like the back of my hand, but mainly because both countries qualified for Italia ’90 – the first football World Cup that I was aware of and watched from start to finish.

I was born in 1980, so most of my perceptions of countries were formed as a consequence of events that occurred in the 1990’s or later. For better or worse, for A LOT of countries, my perceptions are entirely based upon their performances in international football competitions. I have never been to Togo, and know nothing about the country, but I will always remember their dismal appearance in the 2006 World Cup in Germany. In certain cases, I can trace back my interest and awareness of a country to a particular date. September 11th 2001 was when I first became fully aware of Afghanistan. Continue reading


I grew up in a small town in the Midlands, leaving to go to university in 1999. Apart from a couple of (brief) periods between university courses, I’ve spent most of the last 13 years living in rented accommodation, firstly in Nottingham and latterly in Oxford. Rented accommodation presents many challenges – I could write a lengthy blog post on these alone. One of the most obvious (particularly in a place like Oxford where rent is expensive and value for money is difficult to find) is space. For the first 18 years of my life I accumulated books with no concerns about storage. When I left for university, I quickly realised that I could only take a handful of these books with me. Although I had to make many difficult decisions about which books to leave behind, there was one which was guaranteed to accompany me from one rented flat to the next: the atlas which my Dad was given as a prize in 1969 whilst attending secondary school. Continue reading