See what is there, rather than what you want to see

It’d been a lifelong dream of mine to travel across Russia by train, and when I did, it wasn’t what I expected.

I had envisaged vodka fueled benders on board, performing glorious renditions of ‘Rasputin’ in karaoke bars, snow over Red Square and exciting misadventures running from and with gruff Russians.

In truth, the ‘Baikal’ vodka bottle at the bottom of my bag went almost untouched, they wouldn’t play Rasputin after I requested it, it didn’t snow in Moscow and the locals were far kinder than I had imagined.

We choose to go somewhere based on what we have read, heard and seen. It is impossible not to have some sort of expectation of what a travel experience will be like, as we wouldn’t go there in the first place otherwise.

I didn’t know anyone that had done the Trans-Siberian but I had read online about the sort of wild adventures that take place. For five or six years I was waiting for the chance to create my own extraordinary adventure along these lines. This proved enough of time to create in my mind the exact version of the trip I would have.

My bubble was burst slightly when on the first leg of the train, I was told by Anna, a 22 year old Russian mathematics student, that there had been a big crackdown on alcohol drinking due to violence in previous years, and that she’d be surprised to see any sort of alcohol on the train.

“Too many violences,” she said. “No more alcohols now”.

I found the Russians to be immediately exceptionally kind and curious, sharing food and helping me create the perfect living space for the long journeys. This might sound nice but it soon became clear that the out of control adventure I had envisaged was taking a much different form. Where were the hostile Russians? And what of their famously difficult barriers that I was supposed to break down en route to friendship? This was initially a fantastic disappointment to me.

At one of my stops I met a guy from New York, who had been travelling non-stop for 16 months. I was only with him  short period, during which he mentioned how he had expected a number of places on his trip to be vastly different, and that he had learned to let go of expectations for each location that he visited.

Appreciating each day as it were, and not trying to fully curate each experience became my motto. Once I left the bubble of expectation, I saw the way in which the trip was becoming memorable. Like a weight lifted off me, I became tight knit with my Russian friends on the train, cherishing 30 hour conversations via Google Translate, and non-vodka related activities like chess and sharing pictures of each other’s families.

When we expect certain things from travel, it is unlikely that we will enjoy it to the maximum extent possible. We see what we hope to see, rather than what is really there.

It is difficult sometimes to know in this day and age whether we want to visit a place because it is beautiful and interesting, or because it would look beautiful in an Instagram post. If this is something you feel, do not be alarmed; a study has shown that 86% of people became interested in a specific location after seeing user-generated content. It is important that people are aware of the full story when they see this content, and it’s up to all of us in this respect.

What you can do is tell the full story when you go on holiday. If there is a beautiful photo to be taken, let everyone know that you had to queue 30 minutes just for that one shot. Travel photographers should consider taking photos of the litter that surrounds hotspots, as well as the one action shot that will get them their paycheck. Travel writers too, must tell things as they are as much as they can, rather than adapting the story to editor’s needs. It might pay less, but at least you aren’t contributing to a world that doesn’t exist.

In essence, my journey across Russia was nothing like anticipated. It was a mild adventure that involved a lot of waiting around, a missed train, some of the most genuine and rewarding conversation I’ve ever had, a lot of vodka in the cities, some spectacular and unspectacular scenery and more games of chess than you can poke a stick at. And I’ll be back.

Separating the real Iran from Khamenei, mourning

Images of thousands of Iranians mourning General Qasem Soleimani’s death have made their way onto Western screens, with anti-USA chants prompting the rest of the world to fear what is next.

But as with seemingly most influential global nations these days, not all is as it seems at first glance. And as is especially important with nations like Iran, it is critical we separate the general public from the actions of their government.

It was only in November when civil unrest with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s government led to the biggest uprisings in Iran since 2009. Protesters targeted state-owned banks and petrol stations, burning down anything they could with links to the government. Soleimani’s military responded by killing at least 1500 of the protesters, while Khamenei shut down the internet for almost a week.

If it seems curious that the same people that were protesting against the government months ago are now mourning the death of one of it’s highest officials, that’s because it is.

When pro-government rallies were organized in the midst of the chaos in November, state-run media reported that thousands marched across the country in support of Khamenei. Many of these marchers were paid, or forced, into attending. If you worked in some description for the regime, be it even a bank teller or petrol station attendant, you were required to march.

It is considered the same again this time around, with many questioning the validity of the rallies.

“It is fake,” my taxi driver told me after picking me up outside a rally.

“Everybody know this. You work for the bank, you must march. You cannot resist”.

There can be no doubting that some of those mourning Soleimani are hardcore conservatives that support the regime, nor is there any doubt Trump’s rash actions will have helped stir anti-American sentiment in many corners of the Islamic Republic. There may well prove to be a groundswell of nationalist support if America continues to attack, but to believe this based on several news reports of chanting crowds is foolish.

Khamenei, aware that his popularity is at it’s lowest ebb, has recently turned once again to the time honoured practice of uniting his people through a hatred of the West. Anti-American billboards adorn the street and most metro stations in Tehran feature some sort of ‘Death to U.S.A’ propaganda. Yet the people on the streets don’t believe it anymore. As a white person in Iran from a country with such close ties to the U.S, prejudice is expected but is almost non-existent. Food, accommodation and tea is offered without hesitation.

So if Trump wanted to intimidate his main foreign rival, he may well be playing into his hands. A rash assassination of a major official is a great way to unite a disgruntled population. Continued aggression, which will surely follow, will give Khamenei someone to blame his country’s dire economic situation on. But the lack of reliability when it comes to Iran’s gatherings and official media outlets makes it difficult to gauge just how much Trump’s plan has actually backfired.

While we wait for a de-escalation of tensions it is important not to mistake the actions of a few for the actions of the masses. I had been in Iran for just over a week before being invited to, and attending, the wedding of a complete stranger, such is the generosity and hospitality of it’s people. Just as our country would not want to be judged by the actions of our Prime Minister in recent months, it is a non-negotiable that we don’t judge Iranians, or Americans for that matter, by the actions of their so-called leaders.

Review: Amidst the Clutter and Mess

Amidst the Clutter and Mess, the long awaited debut album from Green Buzzard,captures the collective confusion of Australia’s mid to late 20s population and delivers it into a meandering, rambling collection of acoustic anti-ballads.

The band were one of many bands to be thrown under the category of ‘Britpop revivial’ after bursting onto the scene a few years ago with the uber catchy ‘Zoo Fly’. Now consisting of just singer/songwriter Paddy Harrowsmith, the band’s dissolvement is just one of many heavy themes tackled on the record.

The album also chronicles fun topics such as existential crisis’ and a relationship breakup, and a melancholy undercurrent exists throughout as a result.  There are also moments where it sounds like a weight has been lifted from Harrowsmith’s shoulders, like a much needed, breakthrough wicket in a cricket match. Gloomy verses give way to sunny-sounding choruses in Forget You, giving hope to brighter days ahead.

The album rambles a little excessively in some parts, like on Wooden Dog, and probably features too much low-fi guitar fuzz that is especially prevalent on earlier releases.

Still, Harrowsmith achieves a sound that is more his own than many other bands could claim. Catchy, vulnerable lyrics are the highlight of the album, especially relevant to the legions of mid to late 20s experiencing similar across Australia.

Riots lead to internet shut-off as unrest grows in Iran


Internet returned to Tehran on Friday night, but outside the Iranian capital large parts of the country remain in the dark.

Major cities Isfahan and Shiraz have now gone around almost a full week without access to the web, following Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s internet crackdown in response to nation-wide demonstrations against increases to petrol prices.

Blackened, burnt out and destroyed banks and petrol stations are a common sight across the country, as protesters sought to demolish anything state-owned. Riot police are on guard at any stations left serving LPG gas, with queues to fill up cars stretching to over a kilometer long, causing chaos on the roads.

With the majority of the state-run major media outlets insisting that everything is running smoothly, Iranians have turned to word from friends and family for news. Wild rumours began to circulate in recent days, ranging from U.S President Donald Trump promising to provide internet for the entire country to conspiracy theories regarding hiding a nuclear missile accident being the real reason for the blackout. With no internet to refer to, many of these stories gained serious traction across the country.

Death tolls too, are the subject of much debate. The Iranian government insist the Amnesty International number of 106 is ‘fabricated’, but have admitted that several deaths have occurred. The number circulating on Wednesday in southern parts of the country was that 20 had perished in just Shiraz the day before; the figure for the rest of the week and country was thought to be much more.

Pro-Government parades were organized across the country on Thursday, which is the weekend in Iran. A large contingent of police and snipers from rooftops were on hand at the events, which were made up of pro-Khamanei supporters holding a variety of signs including many with anti-American slogans. But according to some in the Shiraz, those attending the parade included a large contingent of paid Government workers.

The current Government has been attempting to unite its disgruntled people with anti-American sentiments since Donald Trump pulled out of the landmark nuclear deal last year. Various depictions of the United States as an evil force can be found in billboards, posters and flyers across the country. This is especially the case in Tehran, where one subway station features a pop-up gallery of anti-American artwork.

While demonstrations aren’t exactly rare in the Islamic Republic, there is a feeling among Iranians that there is more noise this time around. The protests are the talk of the nation, with several groups of the usually politically independent nomads travelling down from the mountains to participate in demonstrations.

There is a growing feeling on the streets is that the current Government may not make it to the Persian New Year (March 31). What will happen after that, no-one seems to know.

“Whatever happens, it is better than this” said one Shirazi resident, who wished to remain anonymous.

“It has been bad before, but not this bad.

“We need a change, I hope it comes peacefully”.