It is not news that USA and Canada are at loggerheads with anything from sports to syrup, but very few things come as close in subject and location as the Niagara Falls. Three waterfalls bordering Ontario, Canada and New York, America leave a legacy of the last ice age that receded in 11,000 BC. An arresting scene of natural beauty, the falls are one of the top attractions in both countries and are also used as a source of power. But instead of being asked about the scenery or overall visit, the most common question asked is “which side did you go from?”Having visited from both sides myself, I now plan to distinguish the difference.
In the autumn of 2009, a fresh-faced, 16 year old version of me equipped with a phrase book and an embarrassingly large backpack set of on the greatest adventure of her life to date – a 3 week tour of Japan. Travelling as part of a school group forming a link with a partner school in Oita, we travelled around the largest of the islands; Honshu, visiting a variety of cities including Hiroshima, Kyoto and of course, Tokyo. Japan is a fascinating mix of the futuristic and the ancient, a place where you can leave an 8 storey arcade, turn a corner and find yourself in an ancient Buddhist temple, a place where vending machines dispense boiling hot noodles, a place where people will stop you on the street to stroke your hair because they’ve never seen a natural red-head. A place that was, through my wide-eyed perspective, like nothing I had ever seen or experienced before.
We flew into Tokyo and after dropping our baggage at the very reasonable Sakura Hotel in Ikebukero, spent the afternoon exploring the city. My personal highlights of this city include Asakusa for traditional Japanese architecture and the electronic dazzle of Akihabara, both perfect examples of the stark contrast between tradition and development. Make sure to explore the bizarre fashion district, Harijuku, and for a break from the bustle; the tranquil Ueno Park. A real moment for me was experiencing the epic Shibuya crossing, a 3 way junction that is constantly crammed with thousands of commuters and tourists alike. The sheer volume of people amidst the screen-clad skyscrapers makes you feel both tiny and important simultaneously.
“Present for you, present for you”, a man says, pulling at my wrist and tying a piece of multi-coloured thread around it, whilst thrusting two roses into my hand. I smile. “That’s two euros.” Hmm. The word “present” has different connotations here, and I’m literally knotted to the exchange. I’m less than delighted at having to pay for my newly acquired ‘gifts’, but I suppose I’m not just getting a bracelet for my money. These men are ultimately selling one thing: romance. And it works.
I’m in a place that’s renowned for having an atmosphere of sizzling passion. Finding love in Rome is unavoidable. Influenced by what they’ve seen in well-known Hollywood romantic comedies such as “Roman Holiday” and “To Rome with Love”, many people visit the city with a hope of finding said romance, whether that falling in love with a person or the place itself. The Italian language, one famous for being a language of love, is enchanting: “ciao bella” appears to have an irresistible and unquestionable charm when spoken by a stranger, whereas the thought of hearing a “hello beautiful” from someone you bump into on a British street is likely to send us running.
I leave my flowers on a table outside gelateria for a passer-by and continue through the maze of streets. The crowds begin to thicken and I start to realise why: the Trevi Fountain stands centre-stage around the next corner. Although a little crowd has gathered, securing a photograph and a close-encounter with this magnificent marble and travertine piece is happily surprisingly easy. The statues glow incandescently, like mother of pearl in the sunlight, the carved bodies of men rippling as though real. Throw one coin over your shoulder into the fountain and you’ll return to Rome; two, you will find romance; three, you will marry. A couple hold each other close for a picture and I wonder whether they’re feeling superstitious.
Being from the north-east of the United States I have a very definite image of Christmas—a dark, snowy, sleety Christmas where you stay inside all day by a roaring fire. So naturally I was anxious when coming to New Zealand about celebrating Christmas in the southern hemisphere. Christmas in New Zealand is at the height of summer; would the holiday really be the same without snow?
It might seem a small point, all this fuss about the weather, but it does make a difference. For one thing, the origins of Christmas beyond Christianity lie at the celebration of the Winter Solstice. That suggests that coldness and darkness are natural aspects of this holiday. So what do you do when Christmas is completely taken out of its element?
Well, some people stubbornly do everything the same. It was the strangest thing driving down the summer streets of Christchurch and seeing Christmas lights and plastic Santas in full winter kit. It felt all wrong. The sun outshone the lights’ feeble glow; the poor Santas looked like they were about to melt. It felt anachronistic, even though it was the right time of year.
“Go to the beach and have a barbie” the Kiwis told my mother good-naturedly. So that is what we did. On Christmas morning, after gathering by our somewhat wilted Christmas tree for our round of presents, we headed for Sumner Beach.
Sumner Beach is a small inlet not far from Christchurch. From its white shores you can see not only the Pacific Ocean stretching for miles, but also volcanic rocks puckered with salt, and mountains so pale that they seem like whiffs of cloud. A small cave sits on the beach, like a giant discarded crab shell. This was a favourite place of ours to visit all throughout the summer.
That day still remains as something unreal. It is hazy to me, as many things are after they have been idealised, no longer a sequence of events but a scattering of details. The feeling of the sun and sand on my skin. The water sneaking closer as the tide came in, until there was almost no beach left. My sister splashing out of the water like a labrador, dripping with brine and bliss. My mother’s picnic which we munched on throughout the day, getting kernels of grit mixed in and stuck in our teeth.
In essence it was like any other day at the beach, but something about it makes my mother smile and ask me to this day “remember Christmas in New Zealand?” And yes, of course, I do. I remember the tranquillity of the day and the surroundings. Most of all I remember how even though we were on a crowded beach, we seemed to be the only ones there, as if we were not thinking of anything else except the joy of being together this one day. The spirit of Christmas was with us, even if the weather was not.
We may not have had snow but we had white sand. We may not have had decorative lights, but we had perpetual daylight. While it was not the Christmas I was used to, it was no less a Christmas than any other. Rather, I think it was a truer holiday, severed from its winter fripperies. It was one day of absolute peace across the world—a Christmas that proved to be beyond winter.
Finding the train station at Tangier was something of a tricky situation. There were few signs to direct us, and various people told us that it was in this direction or that. So we wandered down to the medina for an 80p lunch, and a delicious coffee with a game of cards under vines in the back garden of a market cafe. With a little chatting and foreplanning, the station was located, but on arrival, the ticket attendant was gruff. We wanted to travel third-class, overnight, to Marrakesh. We had packed sandwiches and other food, remnants from Barcelona, but we supplemented it with extra bits bought from street sellers; nut-filled cakes and cheesy pastries. We topped up our water-bottles for the long-haul – and then we waited.
We waited alongside the sea for a while, looking over at Europe, pinching ourselves at the difference we felt between here and there, but it’s less stark than I imagined. Cafés spilling out on to pavements and shops that alter depending on the area, and green spaces filled with workers eating and chatting. We heard from the locals, and from other travellers, that this city is wealthy in comparison to Marrakesh, and the divide that this can cause is talked of when we eventually arrive. We waited in an internet cafe for a while. I reluctantly reached back to British news, finding out the latest football transfers and checking emails. It is surprising how the mundanity of your previous everyday can, when in a different situation, be invited back so willingly, as a comfort.
This journey however, was enjoyed more for its movement away from that. We strived to find things that were not the same as home, to see the similarities and differences of another country and continent. However, we also kept a kind and reasonable attitude, not wishing to distance ourselves or mark ourselves as tourists. On boarding the train, at an already late hour, we settled ourselves on a nice four-seated berth. Soon however, more people piled onto the train, including lots of families. Recognising the habit of other travellers keeping their feet and belongings on seats, pretending to sleep, we instead nestled on a two-seater, putting our luggage above our heads. The family we gave our seats to were grateful, the young baby’s cries piercing as we left the platform. I settled into my brown leather seat, with its harsh metal armrests which got colder as the journey wore on. Old cigarettes and French newspapers were wedged in the crevice between the seat and the window.
The next nine hours were a haze. At intermittent points I slept, only to be awakened by the dark chill of the arid landscape outside the window (which at certain points was very much inside the train). The noise of the wind pressing through the carriage doors sounded rhythmically with the steady clatter of the wheels. The cries continued, but we did what we could to alleviate the baby’s pains: I helped the father lift his possessions and we offered food and liquid to the family. But we could not stave off the darkness, which ensured that all we saw out of the train windows was reflections of ourselves. And we could not stop the door, which let passengers into and out of the carriage, from becoming jammed. Comedy ensued, whereby I pushed beyond my tiredness to attempt to hoist open the door. Some people could get through the gap, some attempted to make it bigger, others chose to ignore. But eventually it became a running joke that whenever the train stopped at a station, the door would get beaten in frustration.
And there was smoke – burning rubber smells which fell upon the careful mother like a threat. She moved (out of a working door) to the carriage at the other end. Panic momentarily ensued, before the assurance of a train guard brought us to our senses. This was simply a burning rubber smell, nothing unexpected or dangerous here.
The morning broke onto eyes that had not expected to be closed. I did not realise I had slept so long, but the toil of the jarred door, and the previous 36 hour haul on a ferry had taken its toll on my body. Granted, this was not jungle-exploration, or endurance mountain climbing. But for precisely that reason, I was complacently desirous of decent sleep. Never mind. The morning broke onto eyes that had not expected to be closed, and stretching out they watched silently as the slightly green environ around Tangier evaporated into dark orange grit. Architecture changed with the more imposing sun, and Marrakesh was signposted not with writing but with buildings, noise and heat.