Monday, June 4, 2012

Wherever I lay my hat

Here are my top 5 favourite unusual places that I have stayed the night (pics are not my own):

1) A 100 year old cottage on an island, Finland

It was Juhannus, the longest night of the year, in the land of the midnight sun. I was in the lakes district of Finland, staying in a little complex of cottages owned by some family friends. Dogs and kids ran around, we ate salmon that had been caught and smoked that day. We gathered wildflowers for midsummer rituals and drank beer and ate pancakes until the sun dipped toward, but not beneath, the horizon. I went to sleep while it was still a dusky twilight outside at 4am.

2) On the sand in the Great Thar Desert, India

Travelling with friends in India, we went on an overnight camel trek into the desert. This sounds like we would have travelled for miles, peering into the distance like Lawrence of Arabia, squinting against the heat shimmers and hallucinating oasis, traversing great shifting dunes, before setting up camp in a bedouin style tent temple. The reality was quite different. A two hour drive from Jaiselmer, a three hour bumpy camel ride through a scrubby landscape. Not a dune to be seen for hours, until we finally ascended a sandy summit and looked out across the scrub-dotted landscape. There was enough sand for convincing photographs of camels silouhetted against the sun, but not much more. A small fire was lit and we ate a hastily prepared dhal and drank soft drinks bought from the 10 year old boy who had followed us on foot out into the desert. With not much to entertain us, we retired early amongst a nest of blankets that had been our saddles on the camel's backs. The desert was quiet, save for the quiet chatting of our tour guides on the other side of the 'dune' and the occasional jangle of a bell around the neck of a camel stirring. Huge black beetles circled us, occasionally I pulled one from the blankets and had covered my head with a sarong so I wouldn't wake with one in my hair. At around 3am I woke and lay staring at a massive moon, larger than I had ever seen, and I lay awake for a while, listening to the quiet wind gently shifting the tiny sand dune we were on.   

3) Middle-class carriage, overnight Indian train

I'm not going to say that I have slept overnight on a train full of chickens and goats, because I haven't. But I did catch a few overnight trains in India and I guess I just fall under the spell of travelling on a train overnight and waking up in a new place. I've always loved the romance of the experience. Even when it's hot and sweaty and there are middle-aged salesmen travelling on business trips who are leering and laying in the cot across from you. You just build a tent around you with the sheet supplied by the train service and fall asleep to the rocking motion of being swept along the tracks. It's just so 'other' that it's impossible to feel anything but lucky to have such experiences. I'm sure if I had to do it more often, the novelty would wear off, but I caught overnight trains from Varanasi to Jaipur, then Jodphur, then Jaiselmer, then Udaipur and I didn't grow tired of them.

4) Botanic Gardens, Pamplona, Spain

I arrived in Pamplona for 3 days of San Fermines fiesta (the running of the bulls), without having done any preparation, or having any supplies. We drank and danced through the night on the first night, resting only when the octagenarians out-danced us or we stopped for paella. The second night was not such a hedonistic story - I was tired, friends had bought a tent during the day and after they had run with the bulls, and we drank sangria in the streets, joined the locals for a siesta on the sun-warmed pavers in one of the town squares, visited the fun fair and got free rides in exchange for some of our sangria, watched a bullfight and ate yet more paella, it was time to find a place to sleep. So we set up our tent in what looked like a comfortable clearing amongst some trees in a park, and went to sleep. We were woken in the morning by the police shaking our tent, laughing as they pulled down the guy ropes so the tent collapsed around us. We rolled out of the tent to beat a hasty retreat to the bus station to travel back to San Sebastian. 

5) Swag in the outback, Red Centre, Australia

The stars in the desert night sky have to be seen to be believed. The night is so clear and just when you think you can turn away from how beautiful the sky is, you capture the glimpse of another constellation. A swag is like a cocoon made of drizabone type material. The one I stayed in had a mattress at the bottom, a little pillow and I had both a blanket and a sleeping bag to keep me warm. Once you're in, you're in. It's not easy to get out and undoing the zips in the stillness of the night as welcome to the people around you as a jackhammer at dawn. Turning is also not easy - you end up sleeping for hours in the same position. But it is all worth it for those stars.  

What were the favourite places you have stayed a night?

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