Tuesday, 27 February 2018

'Early Morning Run in... Gothenburg'

I’m sitting in a hotel bar. It's early evening in Sweden. I’m approached by someone wearing a leather flat cap and a knee length black leather coat and a red scarf. He looks just like Borat’s sidekick, the guy who drove the post van around the US. He’s squat and solidly built. He’s from Tbilisi, and his name is George. I’m glad of the company.

We’re in Gothenburg.

Me and my new shipmate, George from Georgia, are sharing a few yarns and clinking glasses a little too quickly. A tall blonde Swedish fellow, Erik, joins us. “Hei, what do you think of Swedish beer,” he asks enthusiastically. Swedish beer, well it’s similar to the bottom of a boat, both close to water. “Love it, just behind Belgium when it comes to beer”, I respond.

I’ve seen this movie before, and not referring to Borat. The script where one gets plastered with someone dressed in black leather who has an association with the Former Soviet Union. George must be an alcoholic; he’s now ordering vodka chasers with his beer. My definition of an alcoholic? Someone who drinks more than me.

We clink glasses... again. George proposes a toast, “To the Mothers of our children.” I glance at my watch; it’s nearly half past six. I’ve promised myself I’ll be in bed by 2100 hrs. I’m attending a conference tomorrow, and I’ll be doing the ‘Early Morning Run in... Gothenburg’ for this blog. George explains toasting in Georgia is a ritual. There’s toast number one to ten which are the formalities. He explains we can then go off-piste with toasting. At this rate, I’ll be half-piste before we get halfway through the formalities.

George stands, “To our families.”

I’m on a two-city European tour for work. Here and then Geneva. My instinct tells me Gothenburg is the better bet for the blog. It’s more real and down to earth. Switzerland is well, Switzerland. Mind you; the flag is a big plus.

I ask Erik about Gothenburg and a suitable route for the run tomorrow morning, somewhere that takes in the sights and places of interests. Erik kindly provides some information. I turn to thank him. Erik has done the old French exit.

George stands, “To our countries”. This fellow is a maniac. “Yep, our countries.”

I tell George a tale about visiting Tbilisi back in the late 90’s. I was in the army, and it wasn’t long after Georgia’s independence from Russia. Toasting with George is bringing it all back. “Mark, what did you think of our people?” I remember one person in every five had a beard, more if you included the women. “I tell you what I remember George; one word, spirit. An indomitable spirit.”

George stands, “To spirit.” Ouch, “Spirit.”

“George, tell me a story from Georgia?” George pauses, adjusts his leather cap.

“Well, there's a story about a man in my village near Tbilisi. This old man spent 40 years working in our village school. Do they call him ‘Giorgi the teacher’? Oh no. He fixes everyone’s bicycles when they break down. Do they call him ‘Giorgi the bicycle guy’? No. When the bridge was washed away in the floods, he rebuilt it with his own hands. Do they call him ‘Giorgi the bridge-builder’? Uh-uh. But he gets caught diddling a goat just ONE time…”

George stands, “To goats everywhere.” Blimey O’Reilly, “Billy Goats.”

Hey George, “Listen, I need to get to bed, it’s nearly quarter to eight. I’m, er, running in the morning. I can’t let my readers down.”

George stands, “Mark, a toast before you go, my friend.”

I can’t think straight; I go to the old standby as used in Tbilisi nearly 20 years ago and still going strong. Yep.

Mark stands, “George, to our wives and girlfriends... and... (pause)... may they never meet.” George laughs, “May they never meet.”

Fast forward to 0600 hrs. Reveille is playing on my smartphone. Not for long it isn’t.

Fast forward to 0730 hrs. Reveille is playing.

Fast forward to 0815 hrs. My head... why, never again. Right, get up and take breakfast before the conference, or grab another quick 30. Breakfast is overrated...

OK, so where’s the flipping run Ringo? We've read through this twaddle to learn about Gothenburg? OK, I feel bad, come with me, it’s late afternoon. I’ll walk around the city, grab some fresh air and take a couple of snaps for you...

Where to next? This year has started in a crazy way for travel. I’m busier than a Baghdad brickie.

Mark stands, “Long may it continue!”

So, where next? I’m now completing an extended 6-week road trip in East Africa, but to places, I’ve covered before. In fact, I’m on my way home from the last leg, in Jo’Burg, where I stayed with my old friend, ‘Lifeline’. This post is completed today on the Kenya Scareways flight. No retakes.

For long-term readers, ‘Lifeline’ is a 4-time guest runner (Harare, Bulawayo, Vic Falls & Jo’Burg) back in the summer of 2014 in the early days of the blog. The best road trip of my life. Great memories (photo after the Vic Falls half marathon).

Come on, for the love of Friday, where to next!?

Mark stands, clears throat, the big one, the one I’ve always wanted, raise your glasses, “LAGOS.” That’s right, Nigeria.

Thank you for reading this blog. I have a favour to ask, if you have enjoyed it, please add a comment below.

Saturday, 23 December 2017

'Early Morning Run in... Amsterdam (Christmas 2017 Greetings)

After four posts in Africa this year (Tunis, Casablanca, Gambia & Sierra Leone) the final outing comes from Europe.

I'm going Dutch this morning, no guest runner. Instead, you are all invited as my individual Christmas partner. We're in Holland. It's the festive season.

Visitors flock to Amsterdam for the outstanding museums and galleries (not me). Perhaps, to gaze wistfully at the miles of canals (not me). To ride antiquated ‘sit up and beg’ steel bikes with baskets (not me). To legally partake in high-quality Ganga (not me), or possibly to enjoy the historic red light district (er, not me). Others come for risk management conferences (c'est moi).

First, let's have the sad news out of the way. You'll have seen the recent events in Zimbabwe. Sadly, and due to the unexpected demise of 'Mad Bob' I have had to officially retire one of my favourite jokes. It's final outing...

Earlier this year I was sat on a bus at Lungi Airport, in Sierra Leone. A typical West African scene in many ways. Hot and steamy and noise everywhere. Hawkers were busily parading alongside the open bus windows selling sim cards, phone top-up, black market currency exchange, soft drinks, etc.

I engage two bright entrepreneurs trying to break into show business (long story).

"Here's a joke you can use," They look at me...

"Teresa May, Donald Trump & Robert Mugabe are in a lifeboat. Their ship has sunk, they are the only survivors."

I continued, "There's only one lifejacket. Teresa May says let's do the democratic thing and vote on who should have it. We'll all write a name on a piece of paper. We'll stuff the papers inside this coffee tin. Whoever receives the most votes has the jacket."

Several people on the bus are now listening.

I continue, "The results. Teresa May has 1 vote. Donald Trump has 1 vote." I pause for effect, "Robert Mugabe has... 7 votes."

I await their reaction. Nothing. The hawkers stare at me. They stare at each other. I repeat the punch line.

One of them says with no hint of irony, "Well, Mugabe wins the lifejacket." Then a woman's voice rings out from the back of the bus, "It's corruption you fools."

The joke has outlived several western leaders, but the central glue was always Robert Mugabe. No longer.

Today's jaunt around this beautiful city begins right outside my hotel. The Toren is well-known and highly rated on Tripe Advisor, I recommend it highly. Amongst the boutique luxury, the hotel has two advertised 'very small rooms', 11m squared. After booking a 'tiny room,' the hotel emailed me twice requiring confirmation I was aware I'd booked a 'tiny room' and reemphasised its limited dimensions.

Of course, a place like this doesn't have mice, if they did they'd be hunchbacked. It was tiny. Shall we get to it? Time and tide wait for no man…

Dark O clock. 0550 hrs. We need to be back, showered, and at brekkie by 0700. I have a conference at the W hotel to attend.

First stop is Anne Frank House. 200 yards from the hotel. Unfortunately, there’s no time to visit formally; this trip is an in and out affair. I’ll return I’m sure.

The streets of downtown Amsterdam are deserted; the only noise is an early morning tram or two. It’s bitterly cold at minus 5. I run alongside the tree-lined black inky canals. I zigzag over the bridges which are plentiful. I’ve read there are over 1200 bridges in Amsterdam. At one bridge a day it’d take a while to cross them all.

Apart from the trams, the other type of transport is bikes, even at this hour. Cars are few and far between. It might be the fact it costs up to 60 Euros a day to park in this area.

Let’s head over to Central Station and the harbour area. Nearby is the district I want. Wallen. 0615 hrs. There is culture everywhere, albeit a little different. I jog past the museums of Prostitution, Eroticism, and Cannabis. I should be jogging past the Van Gogh museum. I’ll return I’m sure.

The famous Red-Light District is in one of the oldest parts of the city. It’s been here since the 14th Century. Today Amsterdam is well-known for its liberal and tolerant attitude. Prostitution, soft drugs, pornography, all decriminalised.

The red neon lights above the establishments tell us where we are. There are apparently around 300 windows where women ‘work’. Some of these small rooms are smaller than my tiny room. Thankfully everyone is asleep now.

Right, let’s get back to town to find the W Hotel, so I’m ready for the conference.

Two days later... a quick shout-out to the CSO360 team for organising such a superb event. With special thanks to Sara, Clive & Sanna – well done all, great work. I’ll see you next year either in Vienna or Berlin. I understand they came top of the poll. So much for my choice, Norwich.

Last year I signed off with Santa Claus mirroring life. You believe in him, you are him, and finally, you look like him. My youngest had to be told this year which now means the end of phase two. Mind you, she is 27.

It's Christmas Eve 2017. I'll sign off with the Pogues and Kirsty McCall...

"And the bells were ringing out
For Christmas Day."

In closing; Merry Christmas, and may this New Year bring you all joy and laughter.

Ladies and gentlemen, you've been a fantastic audience this year. My name is Mark R. I'm here for the occasional blog. Please tip your waitresses (or better still, if you like the blog, write a comment below).

Monday, 20 November 2017

'Early Morning Run up... Leicester Peak, Sierra Leone'

We all have a rivalry? The person we like to beat above all others. Whether it's at school, work, the army, corporate, and I dare say it, a residential home.

A guest runner this morning. If 'Mavis' were a cartoon character, he'd be the German version of Andy Capp, who is Willi Wakker. If he were a movie character he'd be one of The Wet Season Bandits, from 'Home Alone'.

The race 'begins' in an Italian restaurant off Baker Street. London. Fine food, fine wine and bravado aplenty. Mavis, the two-trick pony, has become three drinks clever. Somehow, we end up talking tennis. Mavis thinks he can beat me. We've never played. 

Anyway, Mavis has one arm (his right) significantly shorter than the other. The side where he carries his wallet. He tells the table he'll win in straight sets. For my part, I'm planning to use a non-stick frying pan.

Mavis is throwing out challenges with all the randomness of a Freetown baggage handler - touch all the black ones, pick out the red one.

As the clock ticks towards midnight and the cocktails taste superb, we've switched to sprinting. This race could take place on the streets of London. In the words of Fat Boy Slim... 'right here, right now'. 100 yards? 200 yards? Perhaps from the restaurant to Baker Street Tube Station.

To have the last word, Mavis is happy for me to have a head start. For my part, I'm offering to carry a Corby Trouser Press as a handicap and win. I think Mavis has all the athletic abilities of the much-loved pressing device from the 80s; in fact, he resembles one.

How can he win? He has one leg shorter than the other, his left.

Common sense prevails. We'll race in a few weeks’ time, back in Freetown, Sierra Leone. The 'Leicester Peak Challenge'. We’ll run at 0600 hrs from the gates of the Country Lodge Hotel. First to the top of Hill Station. A 6.5 km climb to the summit. We clink glasses.

Mavis is confident. He has one key advantage. He's around 35 years old and at his peak. I'm giving him at least 20 years.

He's going to win by ten mins and doesn't need to train. I'm more worried about the Corby rubbing on my shoulders, and I'm doubly not training. So there... we touch glasses.

A race director is appointed, Launny. A WhatsApp group established...

One week later.

Bum, how could this happen, I have a rash. Bum, it's all over my bum and crown jewels. Agony. I can hardly walk, not alone secretly train. The only prep possible has been checking Amazon for said trouser press and frying pan.

I'm heading to Africa in four days, the rash is blistering and seeping and spreading. Still, good news, Mavis isn't training, he's too busy. Told me so himself.

I'm going to have to do something I never do. Yep, it's serious. Cancel the race? Delay my trip? Admit the trouser press was a foolish idea? Ask for a postponement? Never in a million years.

Even Baldrick would admire this plan. I know, I'll go to the docs. Though, not before I've consulted Dr Internet for three days... I take a selfie of my bum... I study it and think of Mavis...

The doc looks at my red, blistered rear end, prodding it with a green biro. The diagnosis takes 10 seconds. An old person ailment? I can't divulge, too embarrassing. However, rhymes with a well-known brand of crisps typically packaged in large cylindrical tubes with a plastic lid. 

Ten days of intense antibiotics. Marvellous...

I fly to Monrovia feeling pathetic. The race is in two weeks’ time. Word around the campfire is Mavis will dream up a face-saving excuse, I'll have the prize. The best trophy one can have, bragging rights.

Mavis is playing it cool. He's seemingly going ahead. At last, the rash eases, I can begin to move.

One week to get fit.

Race day. 0600 hrs. He's a no-show. Ha, knew it. A white land cruiser bobs down the hill. Out pops Mavis, he looks and sounds over-caffeinated, as always. His hair in a neat bun with an off colour red scrunchy. We shake hands. The handshake is as limp as, well, a soft Frenchman's handshake. We pose for a photo.

Hill Station is shrouded in a cold mist. Launny brings us to the start line. Gentlemen. Ready. 3. 2. 1. Go.

Let slip the dogs of war...

Mavis is from Toronto. His countryman Neil Young once sang, "It's better to burn out than to fade away." I live for days like this, win or lose. The banter, the build-up, the physical element.

So, what happened? Well, you didn't have to be a latter-day Nostradamus to see this one coming. The greatest certainty since you last wandered past your local council football pitch on a Sunday morning and the Dog and Duck were leading the Red Lion 12-0 with five mins to go.

Er... hello, who's this?

It's like watching a young army officer with an unfolded map, unfolding a deckchair at the same time, on a windy day.

Where have you been? The rugged fellow in the black and red shirt on the right completed the course nearly nine mins quicker than the shirtless fellow, the chap on the left, who incidentally needs work on his abby dabby dos.

In the words of Kipling and hanging above the changing rooms at Wimbledon;

"If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same"

Forget such nonsense, let's go and celebrate big time at the Hub Hotel. Kool and the Gang. Beer and Pringles. And, you should have seen the crease in my chinos.

Ah, yes tennis. Back to 1977. Guillermo Vilas had lost to Jimmy Conners 16 times straight and was the complete underdog in the US Open final. Guillermo was an Argentinian rock and roll tennis player of the era. Hair like yours Dave. He beat Conners in the final, against all the odds. At the press conference, he delivered this memorable line, as he touched his heart, "no-one beats Guillermo Vilas 17 times in a row." Mavis, be inspired.

Of course, there'll come a time when the baton is passed. Let's fast forward those 25+ years?

... a drafty residential home in Dorset, southern England. I'm boring the other elderly folk with my past exploits. There's a story of whipping Maureen's arse up Gloucester Peak in Guinea over 25 years ago. I apparently beat him by more than half an hour. No-one's listening. I tell them the last time Mavis beat me at anything Burger King was still a prince. They're distracted. They're playing dominoes. The nurse is tucking the blanket tight around my knees; I'm taking my medication. She closes the window; there's a breeze.

Mavis appears he's around my age now in 2017. He's come to gloat. I mean visit. Carol, the hottie, who's 83, bless her, loves his Canadian accent. He does look good. Plenty of grey hair, but seriously should a man of his age be sporting a bun? A yellow cashmere draped across those serpent-like shoulders. Deck shoes, no socks, still needs calf implants I see. I pretend to be asleep. Great to see him again... 

Doug is in his pomp; he only has ten mins to spare, his open-top sports car is double parked in front of my blue mobility scooter. Why can't it rain?

Mavis, it'll never happen! In any event, you'd better spare me more than ten minutes. Now then, where's my Neil Young LP...

See you in Amsterdam for the Christmas special.

Friday, 3 November 2017

'Early Morning Run in... Banjul'

'Cameo' is not here. I walk to the end of the road. I look back down the narrow strip. It's not exactly the south of France. This place is real and raw and sad. Music blares out from the nightspots still open. The wild dogs cry out in the night. As they grow restless, longing for some solitary company, I know that I must do what's right. As sure as Kilimanjaro rises like Olympus above the Serengeti. It's Africa... I guess. 

Our RV is the Senegambia Hotel, in Kolili, in Gambia, at 0600 hrs. I'm nervous. I have lined up a genuine celebrity for the guest runner slot this morning. I met him signing autographs and handling the Banjul paparazzi in a local casino five hours ago. Nothing much good happens after midnight. But on this occasion? A flamboyant entrepreneur. For blog purposes; code name, 'Cameo'.

Welcome to The Gamba, as President Trump might call it. My first impressions? Well, Banjul is completely whacky. Then again, so is London where I'm editing in a Starbucks off Baker Street. Ten minutes ago, a maniac sat at the next table to me. He had no smartphone, no iPad, no laptop. He just sat there, sipping his coffee. Complete madness...

Will Cameo show? I share banter with the local getaway drivers as a back-up. My chosen driver as a Plan B is Mr White. 

Whoa... 25 mins late, screeching to a halt, viola, the eponymous Cameo is here. Downtown Banjul is 20 km away. First light 40 mins away. Cameo smells of Old Spice. He says he's late. No sugar Sherlock. I jump in.

One of my life rules, don't talk shop unless you're an astronaut or a celebrity. I'm neither, and he is. He leads the small talk from behind his Aviator sunglasses. His large gold signet rings glisten off the top of the steering wheel, as we skirt the Atlantic, he could be signalling ships. Usual stuff at first; weather, politics, local news. Mr Cameo then tells me of his close uncle's Viagra regime. Somewhat surprised, and to keep the conversation going, I ask if he knows the medical name for Viagra. He doesn't; "Mycocksafloppin." We laugh and push on; we're running late.

We park outside his favourite lunch spot, 'King of Sharwamahs'. 

'Cameo' isn't a natural athlete. Legs like pipe cleaners. Shoulders of an aspirin bottle. He likes his carbs. He hails from Manchester, from prime Lebanese stock. He has considerable business interests here and in Freetown. Everyone wants a slice of him, including me.

Downtown Banjul is instantly shabby, unloved and filthy. It's 0700 hrs as we move north from Nelson Mandela Street. As always, Africa is on the move early. The poverty is plain to see. It's enough to make a Canadian lumberjack cry. No-one asks for anything. I take photos at will.

The plan is to jog around downtown Banjul; drive back to the Senegambia, park-up, hit the beach and jog along to the Coco Ocean Hotel, for brekkie overlooking the Atlantic.  

We set off at an alarming pace; it's difficult to run this slow. It doesn't feel natural at 5 km an hour. We might as well walk. As I'm about to say something, Cameo swings around, one of his heavy-duty gold chains nearly takes my head off, he gasps, "bro, let's walk bro."

I look back at the 250m we've covered and say, "OK bro." The conversation quickly turns to the most prominent 'bro' of the lot, the recently departed President. The one and only, President Jammeh. 

This despot had vowed to rule this tiny country for 1,000 years, at God's will. He declared a cure for aids. Gambia became the Islamic Republic. He took the country out of the Commonwealth. Thankfully, his term was cut short by 978 years. 22 years of this fool was enough. The great fixer couldn't fiddle the last election. Suddenly this wasn't FIFA; votes counted.

The other six parties managed to come together, stay together, and unite behind one candidate. This togetherness, the use of observers, and social media to get the vote out did for old Jammeh Dodger. But, would he leave office? He wouldn't. The people had voted with their marbles. He was going nowhere, citing voting irregularities. A hefty dose of Saxa time.

We’re moving northwest along Independence Drive. Cameo shows me the vanity projects and Jammeh's burnt out bakery. Talking of boondoggles, how corrupt is West Africa in real life? I usually recite this tale.

Once upon a time, a West African President visited President Suharto as Indonesia was collapsing around him. The year was 1998; it was the height of the Asian financial crisis. After finishing the first day of the state visit, the two presidents were alone in the splendour of Suharto's Presidential Palace. 

The West African President asked Suharto how he lived in such splendour when everything seemed so dire. He'd observed Suharto was a wealthy man and asked him the secret of his 'success'. Suharto paused and asked the West African to look out the window. Suharto pointed and said do you see the shopping centre? The African nodded. Suharto exclaimed, well, 10% to me. Suharto pointed and asked him to look out the second window, he asked, do you see the office block? Well, 10% to me. He asked him to look out the third window and pointed at a sports centre, and said, 10% to me.

Six months later Suharto visited West Africa. He was shocked by what he saw. Terrible roads, no electricity, no mains water, crumbling infrastructure and poor people everywhere he looked. Later the two presidents were secured in the opulence of the Presidential Lodge. Suharto asked the West African leader how he lived so well when the country was apparently so sick. He complimented the President on being powerful and successful and asked the secret of his success.

The West African leader paused, smiled and asked Suharto to look out the window. There was nothing there. The African laughed and said, 100% to me. He asked him to look out the second window, again nothing there. He roared with laughter and pounding his chest said, 100% to me. 

Back to Jammy Dodger. He's now living in opulence in Africa's equivalent of the Costa del Crime, Equatorial Guinea. His reign ended with a stand-off at the OK Coral. The OK Coral scenario being the Presidential Palace. ECOWAS finally decided Dodger was toast. Senegal, which surrounds Gambia, sent troops across the border and quickly closed on Dodger. 

Dodger then completed his version of the Great Train Robbery before flying into exile. You might say, the most significant rip-off since the invention of Velcro. He negotiated for his cars to accompany him (a Bentley and so on) and emptied the safe. Some say he took $15m; some say more. 

The tyrant, who ruled by fear, made the 'old French exit' (leaving quietly without even saying goodbye) and was gone. Poor Gamba was left penniless, at least the dictator was out. Hopefully, the new Gambia will emerge. Good luck to President Barrow. 

Cameo is telling me some great stories as we weave slowly around the sights in downtown Banjul.

We leave Banjul and head back to the beach. Cameo's a spent force...

We 'jog' along the beach to our breakfast spot.

I've enjoyed Banjul a lot. What's made the trip special is the road trip element. Travel and characters and memories, an excellent mix. You can travel by yourself (Casablanca, Tunis) or you can have someone special along; your spouse, a partner, a close friend, a wingman. Someone who's excellent company and funny. My close friend 'Cameo' is all these things and more. Elements of this post are true, and some edge into the caricature for fun.  

Thanks, Cameo. I know you've been nervous about this post. Stand the Lebanese hitman down, all good 'Bro'. Let's enjoy breakfast...

Only a few posts this year. Tunis, Casablanca, and Banjul. A Christmas special? Amsterdam in December. Should be fun...