Tuesday, 31 August 2010

A National Let Down

It's 9pm, dark and the reading lights aren't working. In front of me two ladies loudly cackle after one of them screeches the odd lyric or tune from the head-phoned music they listen to. My own head is throbbing and my nose is sore from the constant blowing my cold demands. Having held a mobile phone screen to the newspaper I am attempting to read for the past two hours while cursing the lack of lighting, I'm attempting to get some sleep but the tuneless wailing sporadically continues and the kid across the aisle decides to play music from a mobile phone that reminds me of the accompaniment to a 90s' Nintendo game or a keyboard demo that seems to be on repeat. I am sure the sound of me fog-horning is grating on some nerves but if I am to breath, the noise is an unfortunate and painful necessity.

Up until now, I have generally been quite lucky with National Express journeys – aside from the one journey when we drove with a loud ear-splitting beeping noise for several hours before the driver finally announced we could no longer continue. After pulling into a service station and waiting for a mechanic for nearly an hour, our coach was deemed unroadworthy and we had to wait another half an hour for a coach with space to stop off and pick us up before being transferred onto yet another coach and taken to Leeds by a driver who had no idea where the coach station was and spent 20 minutes driving around Clarence Dock when we were already pretty annoyingly delayed. On that occasion I am thankful I wasn't hung-over or suffering from a headache!

I did my last NCTJ exams back in February and since then have been pretty jammy for the past seven months, still having a student card until September and as a result managing to get a Young Person's Railcard also until then. Unfortunately my time is up soon which will be pretty devastating as I seem to be doing some sort of long-distance haul virtually every weekend. Occasionally, despite the dramatic rail discounts I get, trains are still far too expensive and I find myself braving a four-five hour journey courtesy of National Express.

I have always been good at occupying myself and am lucky enough to be able to read without feeling sick while travelling. I know many people prefer listening to music, sleeping, day dreaming or staring out of the window but I view travel time as a chance to either finally catch-up on the news or progress further in my current read. During my year out I remember being annoyed on a few occasions during long night journeys that left in the early evening but failed to provide any form of individual down-lighting so passengers could read. I am not one for going to bed at seven when some of these coaches left so the prospect of hours spent in darkness didn't please me. On the few occasions this occurred, I was generally saved by the torch I always carried and the fact that we were travelling through much poorer countries easily excused this.

Despite many of these countries being much poorer than Blighty their transport was generally far more luxurious than National Express. Most journeys included film showings and some even provided a meal (sometimes three courses and hot!) and/or a pillow and blanket. Around South American countries different seat classes were available – Classico, Semi-Cama and Cama. Classico is the kind National Express offer, Semi-Cama are a regular reclining seat with the addition of a mechanism kind of resembling a foot-stool and Cama are virtually fully reclining beds and meals often came with whisky. In certain Asian countries coaches were filled with exceedingly short partially reclined bunk beds with troughs to put feet in and blankets supplied. Travelling on these buses involved removing footwear on entering the bus and were a rather surreal experience.

National Express and Mega Bus are pretty much the cheapest way to travel around the UK and if booked in advance almost match coaches I experienced around the world in price, but certainly not in quality or distance for your money. Arguably shorter travel times around the UK justify the lack of on-board entertainment but even some four hour journeys while travelling came with filmage. Trains in China provided a similar kind of class system as those in South America but as Laowai (foreigners) we were often the onboard entertainment, although I do remember a service offered allowing for the rental of laptops and films by the hour. The lowest class of Chinese train is “hard seat” and is as the name suggests – plastic moulded seats covered in a thin deceptively comfortable looking layer of material. From there, classes moved up to slightly padded and reclining “soft seats” to carriages of sets of six bunk beds with three facing another three (like the Indian “Sleepers”) and private doored cabins of four bunks.

Unfortunately, our transport system isn't so advanced or variable and trains are so expensive that without a railcard and an extremely well-planned diary, for me they will soon be unaffordable. Preempting future costs I report with dread that I've already got my next date with National Express - bring on the potpourri of human smells, wailing children and adults, dim-witted drivers stopping far too frequently, faulty coaches, inconsiderate passengers, stuffiness, stinky toilets, cramped conditions and solitary hours of boredom spent fretting in the darkness.

Monday, 23 August 2010

Finding A Space To Temporarily Call Home

Saturday night in Sheffield and I am sitting at a long table in a Vegetarian BYO Cafe, possibly celebrating almost the last 30th Birthday for the year. The view from the glass-fronted restaurant shows a street scene that transports me back to an age when I had time to kill and actually occasionally claimed I was bored.

The Boy has spotted a group of “youths” standing around a bin and their presence attracts attention from our table as we track their progress. I have to lean forward slightly but can see a group standing around and their pointless loitering prompts me to pose the question: “Did you have a street hang-out as a teenager or was there one other kids met up at?” My fellow dinners are animated when asked and tales of local shops, woodlands and even a favoured traffic isle are regaled, suggesting this phenomenon is shared universally.

Some time passes and eventually the chums are off. Their exciting probably nightly social foray reminds me of the old shop in Cranbrook – the legendary Circle C. Providing a modest covered walkway alongside the shop, it was the perfect place for track-suited smoking youths to hang-out, regardless of the weather. Its central location along the “high street” allowed for easy tracking of friends and an observation platform provided a vantage point to take in any daily excitement like a tractor passing through. The fact the shop was the latest open in the “town” and sold alcohol and cigarettes gave it an added appeal.

My mum would look on in disgust at the permanently positioned group of smokers. My sister and I had no chance of ever joining this elite team without being spotted and later reprimanded. It was only when we joined a local drama group meeting every Tuesday night at the Scout Hut, we gained a brief entry into the world of loiterers.

One night the group was canceled and being a warm sunny day, some of the Circle C Gang had moved to the benches in the valley running behind the local supermarket. Walking down the hill from the Scout Hut it was difficult not to make eye contact with the picnic benchers and we were soon part of a conversation. Away from the shop doors and covered walkway and in smaller numbers, these normally intimidating figures were actually quite approachable.

As the weeks passed and we got to know the boys better, Drama club seemed less appealing and little sis and I decided to join their club. I don't recall when we stopped meeting them or why but I remember on rainy days trying to find shelter away from Circle C and running to other exciting spots like the doctors' surgery or family planning clinic that both also had some kind of porch-way to seek refuge in.

Over the years, not much has changed – a gang still remain outside the same shop, despite it rebranding itself and being named after a sanitary towel. Nestled among twee shop fronts, old stone buildings, the parish church and the town's focal point, the windmill, Alldays proudly stands in the centre of the old historic market town of Cranbrook and is now the only late opening shop - closing sometime after 10pm, even at the weekend!

As a teenager, I always thought a youth club was in order to solve the loitering problem but now as an adult I realise this would have never worked. Any youth club would have acted merely as a meeting point and once individuals had formed friendship groups, emigration to less watchful points away from adult eyes would be inevitable. I'll still never understand why standing in such a public spot appealed but I guess I came from a different background where I had rules to follow, parents who could be shocked and punishments to receive. Finding a hidden place of my own was always important to me to get the space I needed and occasionally break some of those rules unseen.

Perhaps, our bin-side entertainers, lived equidistantly from the bin and were merely awaiting a final gang member before venturing to more exciting parts.... We'll never know but their very presence certainly got me thinking.

Monday, 16 August 2010

The Perils Of Drinking

A news piece in Metro (http://www.metro.co.uk/news/838356-nail-varnish-prank-lands-joker-ian-mahoney-in-jail-for-10-months) recently caught my attention and teleported me back in time. The story was about a man who had drunkenly decorated a young girl's face and had been given a ten month prison sentence. Back in my student days, facial decoration was a common pastime after a night out but we never went as far as this guy - gluing someone's eye lashes together with nail varnish sounds pretty foolish and dangerous. I have enough problems applying nail varnish to my finger and toe nails, let alone safely painting it around someone's eyes and the thought of putting nail varnish remover near eyeballs is frankly terrifying.

During the course of the many years I spent in the predominantly male phase of Stanmore Road there was always one game we never tired of playing – pile as many items as possible on top of the regularly slumbering housemate without him waking. This activity was made all the more amusing by trying to arrange the chosen objects in an entertaining fashion and ensuring there was photographic evidence of this achievement. Over the years so many pictures of this particular housemate were snapped while he slept that we were able to create a goodbye slide show when he moved out. One particular night stands out from any of these, although not because I remember it...

For much of my second year when Stanmore had an almost equal male/female split, I had some strange destructive interest in a young man affectionately and aptly named “Bastard Ben”. Despite apologising for his behaviour and promising never to treat me so appallingly again, he repeatedly lived up to his name. Bastard Ben's sidekick had his own destructive interest in me – despite knowing I continued to torture myself over his friend, he seemed to trail around after me. Rather typically it always seems to be the way that the ones we want aren't interested and the unseeable are desperately trying to be spotted. Anyway, this unwanted admirer/keen friend named after a certain chocolate bar aimed at men, attracted the attention he'd been craving one night – just not from me.

Returning from a club night one weekend, he shared a taxi with us and got out at good old Stanmore for a “drink”. A drink later and he clearly wasn't going anywhere so I pulled out the sofa bed and promptly passed out on it. Hours later, I woke up desperately needing the loo. Washing my hands I glanced in the mirror and spotted a smiley face painted on my neck. Too tired to muster any grooming energy, I clambered into my bed, noticing my unwanted admirer sprawled out dangerously close to where I had been lying.

In the morning, my “guest” left in a hurry mocking me for my new neck decor. I thought nothing of his rapid departure, keen to question my housemates about this mysterious face tattoo I seemed to have acquired. They were flabbergasted and in near hysterics when I mentioned it, revealing that angered by his slimy behaviour and retaliating against his attempts to take advantage of me, they had decorated my gentleman caller's face somewhat more thoroughly. Some time before my early hours loo excursion, my fellow sleeper had touched his face to find shaving cream on his cheeks, KY Jelly in his ears (not mine, honestly!) with tampons carefully rested on top like cherries on cup cakes and an array of rainbow coloured make-up brightening his countenance. There were other inventive decorative materials used but now as I recall this story years later, they have unfortunately slipped my mind.

The most poignant element of this tale is that shortly after discovering the array of products smeared across his face, he must have spent sometime thoroughly scrubbing them off using any creams or facial toners he could find in the bathroom. He then went back to bed snuggling close to me so that when I woke some time later, he was disturbingly near and clean faced. The audacity of him mocking me over one tiny smiley face before departing also stands out. It's lucky that his pride over-powered his outrage or my protective housemates might have faced assault charges!

Monday, 9 August 2010

The Problem Of That Pesky Premature Green Rinse

I have never been that keen on hair dye. In the past twenty-nine years I have only ever dyed my hair a few times and that was more to shut my mum and sister up - even then, I was dying my hair back to its original pre-teens colour, rather than a wacky new shade.

Aside from blonde, my hair has only ever been two other colours on different occasions and one of those was against my will. As a teenager I gave myself temporary black streaks much to my parents' horror. The black clumps didn't look too hot and gradually faded through the rainbow before turning a dull grey hue and finally disappearing. On the other occasion my hair decided itself it wanted a change and turned green after a swim. For some reason my hair has only ever revolted like this once, until recently that is...

One dreary day after returning from my travels and getting a hair cut, I still wasn't satisfied with “my look” so decided extreme measures needed taking. Having resisted the pleas of my sister and mum for years who both embraced dye possibly decades ago, I finally surrendered. The very blonde hair I had as a child got dramatically darker as I delved further into my teens and my roots suddenly got blacker. The ends were still very blonde but the roots so dark that people often asked me if my hair was dyed and if grown long, my hair almost resembled pond sludge.

Since becoming one of the dyed and as the summer drew nearer, my hair literally took on the seaweed look every time I returned Kentwards and swam. The first instance was right before a hen night but thankfully the bride-to-be introduced me to John Frieda's strangely purple coloured blonde shampoo and suggested using some lemon juice. Since my first “turning”, the green rinse straw effect has become such a predictable occurrence, I have had to get in stocks of the magical purple remedy and regularly squeeze lemons in preparation for apres-swim showers. Unfortunately the more times my hair has turned this ugly shade, the more stubborn the colour seems to be and the more brittle my hair becomes.

There have been various arguments about what is causing this phenomenon and why it seems to only affect me – at least in this particular pool. In order to settle the ongoing disagreements between my dad and I, I finally decided to google my problem and thought it only fair to share some of the science behind my infliction and some of the possible preventions and remedies so stop reading now if you are still persevering with this and are freaked out by the word "science".

The Real Cause

The popular belief is that the Chlorine is the villain turning hair that nasty green; This is apparently as untrue as a water additive changing colour whenever someone decides to pee in the pool and following the urinator around, damning them to discovery. Various websites all agree that there are four conditions needed for hair to “turn”, these are:

  1. The water must become aggressive (negative calcium-saturation-index numbers)

  2. The water must dissolve some metallic Copper

  3. The water must have sulphates in it

  4. Later high pH conditions must prevail (values above pH 8.3)

It is the oxidized metals in the water (most commonly, Copper, found in Algaecides) that bind to the protein in the hair shaft and deposit their colour. The process is the same as that which occurs with Copper used in architecture, Copper pots and pans, and pennies. Time and elements turn the Copper colour into a greenish turquoise as the mineral oxidizes. The bleach that is added to a pool may be responsible for oxidizing the metal and in after-swim showers using any normal shampoo with a typically high pH value will precipitate the reaction. Copper and Chlorine have a positive charge while skin and hair have a negative charge so the Copper bonds with the hair, staining it and when the hair dries, the Copper is precipitated out as Copper Sulphide.

All hair colours can be affected but the green tint is more visible on lighter hair so people with blonde, platinum, white or grey hair are most at risk. The more porous the hair, the easier it is for the strands to absorb the metals and turn green. Any chemical process applied to hair stripping the cuticles, weakening the hair's natural defences and making the hair cuticle and outer covering more porous, raises the likelihood of green tinges. Reading this settled part of the argument as it became clear that Chlorine and dyed hair definitely weren't the culprits, although they obviously played their own part in the process. But who was to blame? Where did the Copper come from?

Most modern swimming pools have very few Copper parts in their mechanical systems so likely Copper sources are either through the hose water used to fill the pool (Water evaporates, but Copper doesn't and over time, the level of Copper continues to rise, as more and more water is added), well water or from certain Algaecide products containing Copper.

Prevention And Cures

The obvious preventative measure is to wear a swimming hat but if you're virtually bald like me, you might prefer to avoid ripping out copious precious strands every time you remove that uncomfortable awkwardly worn unattractive swimwear accessory. So what else can you do to avoid looking like a Green Day groupie or premature green rinse granny?

  1. Only swim for short amounts of time so the Copper has less time to bind with the proteins in the hair shaft – the longer spent in the water, the greater the threat (So being a water-baby like me has its draw-backs).

  2. Become an annoying chatting swimmer, cruising along with your head fully above the water.

  3. Wet your hair before entering the pool - hair is porous so naturally absorbs water. If hair is saturated with tap/distilled water before swimming, it won't absorb as much pool water.

  4. Apply conditioner to your hair before swimming and go in the pool with it on to give hair a protective coating.

  5. Persevere with the swimming cap and apply conditioner before you even put it on to give your hair the added benefit of a heat-conditioning treatment.

  6. Rinse hair thoroughly immediately after each dip - Chlorine is a harsh chemical, and while it doesn't turn hair green, it does damage hair stripping the cuticles, leaving the hair shafts susceptible to colour change, causing split ends and leaving the hair dull, brittle and weak.

  7. Apply lemon juice to hair letting it set for several minutes to allow the citric acid to remove hard metal stains and then rinse the juice out to wash and condition as usual.

  8. Try diluting either a ¼ cup of baking soda or several aspirins in a glass of warm water (up to eight) to then pour on hair before shampooing or after shampooing and before conditioning. Leave the solution on hair for a few minutes (up to fifteen) before washing and conditioning hair.

  9. Try pouring about eight ounces of tomato juice into a plastic cup and taking it into the shower - like lemon juice, the acid in the tomatoes helps remove the undesirable colour. Saturate the hair with tomato juice, leave it on for several minutes before rinsing out the juice, and washing/conditioning hair.

10) Go consumer and buy a specialised shampoo that chelates the metal, such as my purple coloured John Frieda saviour (currently two for £7 in Boots).

Monday, 2 August 2010

A Year Home

This week marks a year of being back in good old Blighty since returning from my travels. As on the anniversary of my return I am jetting off less further-afield but nonetheless to unexplored land, I thought today good as any to reflect on a year of being on home soil. As a child I was warned time seems to speed up as you get older and now as a bigger kid, I can honestly say this is true. Without meaning to sound cliched, the last year has shot by but in that time very little seems to have really happened.

When you meet a friend after a long time apart, it's often hard to decide what information is worth sharing. Sure I have seen a hell of a lot of films; attended plenty of Birthdays (especially 30ths); made it to three weddings (nearly) and missed one; been to barbecues, parties etc but what life- changing events have occurred I am happy to impart on anyone happening to read this?

I spent the first month and a half back catching up with folk and stuffing my face with all the food I had so dearly missed - in doing so I also reacquainted myself with my huge “barrel chest”. I also spent yet more time at various magazines transcribing interviews, sorting the post and being a general skivvy before going back into education as a student.

After five and a half years as a teacher, a year on the road and eight years after leaving University (including my stint in teacher training), I was suddenly a student again and for the first time, in a college. I did my A levels in a school with a sixth form and previously had only experience of teaching in a college during my P.G.C.E. year.

My first college day was strange – both nerve-wracking and exciting. After the initial humiliating introductions, I discovered much to my relief I wasn't the oldest in the group. My magazine journalism group were a mixed bunch and generally younger than me but we all gelled so well, it didn't seem to matter.

As the weeks past, I faced an old enemy – the exam room. I have always been more of a coursework student and certainly not a natural brainbox. Whatever I have accomplished has been done through ceaseless hard-work and blind determination. As a G.C.S.E. pupil, my dad would often find me in bed asleep with course books pressed to my face - sleep wasn't going to hold me back so I moved my studies to the doorstep, sitting on hard tiles looking out onto chilling winter nights.

Later when I realised my history A level subject was poorly chosen, I turned to my GP for hypnosis to try and somehow get me interested enough in the subject to help me remember something. Thankfully media law and the business of magazines interested me which significantly aided my memory and after hours of preparation and revision I got the results I wanted. Sub-editing, shorthand and news-writing were more a case of continuous practise to master while feature writing was done through my favoured assessment technique – a portfolio of coursework.

Since finishing the course in February, I have tirelessly applied for jobs while keeping up supply teaching, living in three locations, pitching freelance ideas and writing for six websites. Juggling a million different things is certainly not new to me and in some ways a life I thrive on but there have been a few firsts this past year – going to Wimbledon, being a bridesmaid, becoming a “home owner”...

Living out of a bag, constantly unpacking and repacking and regularly moving around are all continuations of my travelling days, although I move around slightly less frequently and to less exotic locations. Looking back at the e-mail I sent out to friends/family once I'd been home a while, unsurprisingly staying put wasn't something I missed - a decent towel; a duvet; cider; washing machines; clean bathrooms; friends/family; not sweating constantly; not being a biter's banquet and being able to swim regularly/go on my pole were all things I did.

I can safely say since being home I have certainly taken advantage of all the quality cider brands readily available, haven't been bitten and have regularly utilised my parents' washing machine much to my mum's annoyance! After months of wearing a million layers suffering the shock of “England's coldest winter”, London's underground has reduced me to a sweating wreck again – although less dramatically than India managed. The downside of having three “homes” is my pole still remains in storage amid a whole array of other belongings and I don't swim as often as I'd like.

My travels taught me a few things about myself and confirmed some suspicions. I decided I was as materialistic as ever, actually a bit of an adrenaline junkie, can cope pretty effectively on my lonesome in most situations and adapt quickly. A year on and lack of money has actually slowed my buying and these days I seem to be a lot more selective about what I will spend my money on. I haven't done anymore skydives or anything as exciting since my return but certainly feel a lot more willing to give anything ago, even if it means trying it by myself.

I set a few personal goals when I returned like trying to always pack lighter but unfortunately still look like a human packhorse every weekend. I have, however, succeeded in living on a much tighter budget and I'm now less likely to complain about journey times – although, when you live somewhere and have set plans, time is more valuable and scarce than the flexibility of traveller's time. I managed to make more fresh banana milkshakes when I first returned but have since slowed and have barely eaten tuna or Peruvian style burgers with potato sticks inside. My India experience has persuaded me of the value of joining tour groups for select destinations and I am planning on booking an independent Eastern European tour, predominantly staying in hostels as I vowed.

A year home and some smaller less obvious things have certainly changed - travelling has clearly influenced my outlook in part. Who knows, perhaps in another year I'll have used the ridiculous flashing strap-on wheelies I brought in Beijing and actually have a job, instead of being “between careers”.