Lights On, Eat Pizza: Parading Through Pula, Croatia

Anyone who woke up in Pula after a long journey would be forgiven for thinking they were somewhere else entirely. Every restaurant serves primarily pasta and pizza, locals say ‘ciao’ when they bid goodbye… oh, and there’s a great big Roman amphitheatre in the middle of town. Sitting just across the Adriatic Sea from Venice, Pula’s history of both Roman and Venetian influence shines through in its endless list of striking buildings and ancient ruins scattered all around the city.

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On our first night in town we were taken to an Italian restaurant down a quaint street on the edge of a pretty square, and it was here, the client’s restaurant of choice, that we would eat our own bodyweight in pizza and pasta for lunch and dinner for the next four days. The wine wasn’t complementary, but seemed a worthwhile investment. Well, when in Rome… wait, where were we? At some point we asked if there was anywhere we would be able to try some typical Croatian food: ‘no,’ was the response, ‘this is the food here.’

The following day, we plunged into an ice-cold pool at the hotel and walked down to the comparatively warm sea. I stood in the clear water among the rocks, happily gazing across the harbour in the sunshine, blissfully unaware, while bandmates endured the garrulous promotional chatter of a dodgy dealer selling boat rides.

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Ignorance of salesmen is bliss

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Ball games in the square

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Pula Cathedral mind control

After more pizza at our new favourite restaurant – from staff who didn’t seem as pleased to be there as we were – followed by a site walkthrough and a few verging-on-obnoxious ballgames in the square, we ate some takeaway pizza (yes, really), and then began preparations for the evening’s mammoth parade gig. By the time we left our dressing room in the town hall and entered the square, this time in full costume, it was completely packed with expectant people. Visualia, Pula’s annual light festival is evidently a very popular event among both tourists and locals, and once we got the parade going it was near-impossible to shake off the crowd, even as we took a scheduled water break halfway through. The parade covered a fair distance, from the town centre to the seafront and back again, down shopping streets, through parks and various light installations, including kaleidoscope-like projections on Pula Cathedral and a crane light show in the harbour. With a touch of heatstroke and dehydration following one day in the sun – which we’d long-forgotten about back home – it was exhausting, but as always the crowd (and a sip of water) kept our energy levels high, and by the time we returned to the dressing room we were hyped and ready to play again. Alas, time to pack up, finish the pizza, crack open a beer and relax.

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Our own little billboard in the square

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Over the following couple of days we: listened to the Alan Bennett-style ramblings of older holiday-makers and their accompanying flesh basking in the sun by the hotel pool; made the most of a nearby waterslide, ‘supervised’ by the most oblivious man in existence, who didn’t seem to notice four-person trains repeatedly descending into a pool of chaos; half-reluctantly swam and staggered around in the rocky sea among thousands of tiny jellyfish (fortunately non-stingers); and explored more of what Pula had to offer. This consisted of doing whatever we could for free: in other words, walking around the outside of numerous historical structures. The view of the city from the fort was worth the walk to the top, and gave us opportunity for an obligatory cannon photo shoot.

Saturday evening saw performances from the Lords of Lightning, another UK-based performance group, in the Pula Arena (the amphitheatre), finally granting us free entry to the city’s most impressive ancient site for a mind-boggling, electricity-mad show. Between watching shows we resided in the main square, quenching our thirst and observing runners in the annual 10K Night Run. As runners glided past us in our guilt-ridden drinking hats, we noticed a distinct lack of noise and support from other onlookers. Having recently been almost moved to tears by the heartening support shown by crowds watching the Great North Run, a well-renowned half-marathon in my home city, we couldn’t allow such apathy. So, for the next half-hour or so, we cheered, clapped, high-fived and provided a Mexican wave for every single runner who passed us. It soon got the rest of the crowd making more noise and doing much the same, and became a joyful experience for everyone involved. We’d like to think that in future years, the 10K Night Run in Pula will become known for its incredibly supportive crowds, all thanks to a few merry drummers who couldn’t stand to see people trying so hard with no glory. Well, when in Ro… Okay, enough of that.

Other activities involved accidents with beach balls, all-night card games, and various band members being either held captive or pushed out of the hotel casino, the last place to close each night. We spent many taxi rides, with our incredibly calm and hospitable driver, attempting to learn the Croatian for phrases such as ‘Two beers please’ and ‘This gentleman will pay for everything’ – top of several lists of helpful suggestions according to the Croatian tourist board. How convenient.

If you’ve been following this correctly, you might have worked out that our only day of actual work was at the beginning of the trip. It seems the mosquitos and weather gods heard this, too, because by the time we left our glorious refuge by the sea my face was covered in karma-indulging swollen insect bites and, due to a sudden electric storm on the final day, our flight was delayed by four hours. Here proves that in everything exists some sense of balance. On the one hand, the sea was lovely and the jellyfish didn’t sting; on the other, I’ve returned home to rainy England with a sore, sad, red face. Well, when not in Rome, you can’t have everything.

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A view I could get used to (if only I could still see out of my swollen left eye)

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The Street’s a Stage: Welcome to Bucharest

On a flight from Amsterdam to Bucharest, a few travelling musicians peered out the plane window to the ground below to see a familiar-looking lake – long and thin, containing memories from the previous week. I think I could even hear a distant thumping of beats reverberating from the earth around it. This summer sees five drummers return to Eastern Europe as many times as they’ll take us. Next stop: Romania.

We arrived in Bucharest’s Old Town for a vibrant street theatre festival, where we would play strenuous parades and street shows in front of cheerful, partially rain-soaked crowds for the next three days. Accompanying us throughout that time would be colourful stilt-walkers from Germany and a huge number of thundering Spanish samba drummers dressed as skeletal furry goat-men. Nothing unusual there, then.

On our first night in the city, we ventured out in search of food, through sleazy alleys and touristy haunts towards a highly-recommended and totally bizarre restaurant. As we entered the huge dining hall, we found ourselves interrupting a ballroom dance in front of the main bar. The dancing couple then invited various customers to dance, including one of our drummers, and while avoiding this invitation I turned around to find Charlie Chaplin wearing a stack of hats on his head and a real, bright-green parrot on his shoulder. It took us another half-hour to get to the bar, a circular array of gold taps with an overlooking gallery and stained glass window, and at no point before this did we get the impression any member of staff wanted us to eat there, as they abruptly rushed past us with plates of food and the entertainment – now causing a people pile-up by the entrance, a cumbersome wooden revolving door – continued. The place was busy and buzzing with families and tourists, and the waiters had no time to spare, or so it seemed. Eventually we found a table, ordered some local Romanian food, with no help from a lethargic waiter, and later tucked into stew, cheap wine and beef salad that contained neither beef nor salad. Our spirits were nonetheless high, and we enjoyed every last unpredictable bite.

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A right old mix: Bridal shop/night club/massage parlour

In the mornings we enjoyed outdoor breakfasts on the hotel’s terrace and wandered into the Old Town – Bucharest’s beautiful, historical centre, outlined by contrasting architecture both old and new, including a number of nineteen-sixties concrete apartment blocks that make you say, ‘Why?’. In the daytime the Old Town itself was the perfect quaint European tourist spot, a thriving hub of cafes, restaurants, antique fairs, churches and museums peppering its attractive narrow streets, and the occasional busker. By night, suddenly it seemed these same buildings were all home to at least one ‘gentlemen’s club’, and the neon signs offering massages and dancing girls came to the foreground. The nightlife was clearly a hit with backpackers from every corner of Europe and beyond, and Romanian seemed to be the last language we heard spoken, making way for French, German, Italian, Hungarian and English.

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It was on these streets that we met some characters we may never forget; real-life street theatre artists, if you will. First came Larry, the old Romanian English teacher, who chewed our ears off for around 30 minutes to prove his more-than-sufficient level of English, seemed surprised that we had heard of the Beatles’ White Album, and eventually asked the all important question, ‘Will you buy me a pint of beer?’. Larry had an incredible way with words that could only be admired, and he certainly had a creatively roundabout way of getting to the point, but sadly after discovering he was just another beer-fiend like the rest of us, we realised our conversation had come to an abrupt end. If he’d asked the same question after our day of work, and not at 11 o’clock in the morning, perhaps we would have ended up on a night out in Bucharest with a retired English teacher; I suppose we’ll never know.

Later that day we encountered Bucharest’s answer to Michael Jackson – still living and breathing, though perhaps only just. There he stood in the middle of a cobbled street, a tiny man in his sequinned purple hat, dark glasses and single glove, pulling a series of incredible dance moves, and a moonwalk to rival your grandpa. He didn’t speak, nor did he ask for money, and so we stared on while every other passerby pretended nothing was happening (I now understand they must have seen him before). We encountered this sparkly enigma again one night while sitting outside a bar in the same area, as he dance-battled with the drunks and whispered profanities into his jacket lapels. He was no less peculiar, but if one thing was clear, it was that he had won the battle fair and square.

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Jacko… reincarnated?

Following two mad and exhausting shows – including a huge parade through the city centre – on the Saturday night, we set out away from the sleazy clubs and in completely the wrong direction in search of a good bar. After what felt like hours of walking, we eventually came across Happy Pub, and delighted at the cosy atmosphere and never-ending list of beers. We sat outside in the warm night air, listening to recordings from a Pink Floyd concert, singing and sipping our ales, until suddenly we noticed the music had changed, and all we could hear was drums. After listening for a few moments, we soon realised the recording now coming from the pub’s speakers was from one of our own shows. One drummer leapt into action, beginning the choreography in front of the bar inside, gradually encouraging the involvement of every barmaid. We stared in bafflement, until realising that simple advertising – say, a hashtag on the back of a t-shirt – really does come in handy every now and then. Soon, we were all up on the metaphorical dancefloor, and it wasn’t long before I crashed head-first into a waitress coming through the door, but was met only by laughter and continued merriment. After our final impromptu set of the night, it was time to sit down and talk, drink beer, and watch a small group of cockroaches congregate around a spilt drink on the ground: it really was a party for everyone.

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‘Let’s do this all again later in a pub, yeah guys?’ (Photo by Chris Maines-Beasley)

 

The following day we went out with the sole intention of visiting the Kitsch Museum, which exceeded all of our expectations. Here, hidden in a small, unassuming building in the Old Town, we learned about vampire kitsch, religious kitsch, Communist kitsch, gypsy kitsch, art kitsch, and just about any other kind of kitsch you can imagine. There were bowls of fake fruit, garish rugs and pictures of the Virgin Mary, fake money for the specific purpose of ‘making it rain’, gold medallions, pink fishnets, glamour models, gypsy weddings, Dracula in all his guises, watermelon wallpaper, bad taxidermy and, a concept close to all of our hearts, a tribute to the Romanian kitsch tradition of clapping on aeroplanes. We had never felt more at home than in what can only be described as a mecca for the tacky and ironic.

The final night of shows was preceded by thunder and rain, and we were convinced there would be no crowd at all. Our audience that night, however, was committed, smiling and responsive, and had so many umbrellas that it seemed rude not to use them as props in just about every element of the show. The rain brings you crowds who really care, who won’t go home halfway through a performance, who will stay with you and laugh and dance right to the bitter end. They’re the last ones standing at the party, they’re the heroes of your big night out. Sunny days and warm nights are easy, but to stand in the rain for hours on end and then stay for pictures and autographs at the end is only for the hardy folk who you can guarantee will show up time and time again.

It’s been a couple of years since we were last in the picturesque town of Sibiu in central Romania, and I hadn’t forgotten how incredible a Romanian street theatre festival could be. What with this and the popularity of clapping on aeroplanes, I imagine this won’t be our last visit.

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Greetings from Bucharest – always check your side-door

Beats, Beats and Bigger Beats: Balaton Sound, Hungary

It’s day four of five at Balaton Sound in Zamárdi, about 70 miles outside of Budapest, and our ears are almost bleeding. We’ve endured days of relentless dance music being blasted from opposing stages in every direction, while scantily-clad, picture-perfect, bronzed bodies move and shake and gyrate in the 35-degree heat. All of this takes place on the edge of the beautiful Lake Balaton – fresh water, shallow enough to stand in almost all the way across, on squidgy, cushion-like sand perfect for barefoot exploring. Perhaps the only place to escape the intensity of the pounding beats – because let’s face it, even if you love it, everyone needs an ear-break – is out on the water, as far as you can go.

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The crowd and general atmosphere (immaculate toilet blocks included) is a contrast to Glastonbury, which I only recently left: instead of an eccentric and mixed age group, it’s basically Club 18-30, and while the chance to wear as little as possible in the summer heat is generally liberating, here it seems routed in a sense of competition, starting with ‘Who has the shiniest six-pack?’ The amount of flesh on show has got so extreme that my band mates have started to get excited by punters wearing more clothes due to the sense of mystery it provokes.

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Baywatch-tastic

Today I swam in the lake for the umpteenth time, played on some large inflatables, ate my bodyweight in free risotto, and lounged in the sun, temporarily forgetting what it was I came here to do, and tonight I will play another swelteringly fun 45-minute show for a somewhat rowdy yet responsive and loyal crowd. Between the six-packs and slim-line beer kegs there are many lovely souls and outrageous dancers, just the way we like it.

By day four, we’re sitting having lunch in the VIP (very inconveniently positioned) area, as we do every day, directly between Finlandia – a small and disproportionately loud stage dropping ear-splitting wob-wob-wobs all day long – and the main stage, which begins a soundcheck at precisely the moment we sit down to eat. It feels like we’ve heard these Coldplay and Ed Sheeran remixes a thousand times before – and, truth be told, we probably have. Today the earplugs are out and, like a bunch of disgruntled and exhausted pensioners, we’ve all had enough; talking isn’t an option as it’s simply too loud, so everyone looks down at their thumbs and electronic devices and gives up on real-life socialising. At night it seems to make more sense, but in the daytime we feel like decrepit geese sweating in a locked pen, yearning to be set free in the cool lake, away from it all.

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Main stage – prepare yourselves for another big drop to a beat you never expected (Photo by Alex Tustin)

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Ahhhh, much better

One 45-minute show a day by a glorious lake at 11PM doesn’t really feel like work – except when the mosquitoes are out in their thousands and drawn to our drum lights and sticky white faces – so we spend each day enjoying the sun, the lake, trying out a bit of experimental drumming, and, on the final day, scaling a climbing wall and descending on a giant zip wire, which propels us from one end of the site to the other, above a sea of tiny half-naked people. For the sky-high view of the lake alone, it’s worth every penny (and this is Hungary, so not many).

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Optional bungee jump by the main stage

Backstage we’re accompanied by various other street theatre companies in neighbouring makeshift dressing rooms: a stilt-walking group from Germany, a walkabout group from France, and a Samba Batucada group (complete with capoeira and samba dancers in bright, buttock-revealing costumes) from Budapest. We catch moments of these other shows throughout the day, and make our way over to dinner while casually samba-dancing along the main track.

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Samba Batucada – a pleasant walk to lunch (Photo by Alex Tustin)

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Cheeky

Highlights in the programming include Mija and a number of other artists on the Jäger stage, which we find ourselves drawn to each night, and Noisia’s set on the final night on a tiny stage at the far end of the site. The lowest low is Jason Derulo, who makes the main-stage crowd wait for 45 minutes before bringing on the world’s most awkward hype man for an embarrassing school disco, and then finally turns up just to repeatedly shout his own name over butchered remixes with his hands lingering conveniently down his pants while various women dance around him. Watching the young crowd’s enthusiastic reactions and hearing their screams, it feels as though we’re bearing witness to the birth of a new cult. Time to cover our grimacing faces in clown white and get back to work.

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Jäger Stage (Photo by Alex Tustin)

With our gigs here coming to an end, it’s not long before we’ll be missing the daily rituals of lake-swimming, predictable drops and endless bikini time. Our spritely, young coordinators have been organised to the point of perfection (nothing like a ravers festival back home), and despite the monumental levels of noise all over the site which completely drown out the sound of our drums, the gigs have been all sorts of fun. We even have a soft spot for our hotel, a strange but somehow homely place, 15 minutes’ drive from the festival site down a straight road in the middle of nowhere, with brightly-lit advertisements for a restaurant that doesn’t exist and a half-finished concrete roof covered in sun loungers. Here we’ve enjoyed a few bracing swims, ping pong games, bicycle rides to Tesco, hot nights with no air conditioning, and scrambling behind the reception desk for room keys in the dark only to discover the watchful owner sitting silently in a pitch-black corner. It’s been hilarious and eerie, and the breakfast pastries and selection of mystery meats have kept us going throughout the day. What more could we ask for?

 

Now, time to polish off this risotto and jump back in the lake, where we might just have another walking singalong to 90s dance classic ‘Freed From Desire’ as it echoes from some distant shore.

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Latvian Illusions: Raving Mad in Rēzekne

The official tourism website for Latvia describes the country as ‘Flat in landscape, quiet in temper, cold in temperature and small in size.’ Except for the temperature, which right now (summer) is a great deal warmer than the -25 degrees it can apparently drop to in winter,  I couldn’t come up with a more fitting description after spending a single weekend in the small eastern city of Rēzekne.

Rēzekne (Photo by Ashling McCann)

We flew into Riga airport over stunning scenes of shimmering sea water, thick forest, numerous lakes and expansive, flat farmland, the red roofs of quaint wooden houses, spread far apart, hiding between the trees. We were greeted on arrival by our host – the perfect Northern European embodiment with his quiet nature and flash of white blond hair – who would become our good friend and team member no. 7 throughout our stay.

The following information may be best read and understood as a kind of dream sequence, in which all events happen in a seamless fashion that made sense at the time but, in telling it back, now appear rather surreal and at times contradictory, perhaps even unlikely. While the art of good storytelling often benefits from obscuring or exaggerating the truth as opposed to offering an accurate and impartial portrayal of facts, as far as I’m aware, this is a weekend in Latvia as it actually happened, or at least as it was for six clowning drummers from north-east England.

“Hi there, taxi? Yeah, there’s literally nobody here.” (Photo by Ashling McCann)

At first glance, the city of Rēzekne, located in the Latgale region just 63km west of the Latvian-Russian border, appeared to be something of a ghost town. Having driven four hours east from Riga, the capital which houses a third of the country’s population, Rēzekne looked like a small town peppered with modest clapper-board houses accompanied by beautiful vegetable patches, and absolutely no people. That was, until the festival began, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Castle ruins on Castle Hill

In an attempt to explore the distinctly unbustling city centre before the gigs began, we headed down quiet roads past an assortment of charming churches towards the first hill we saw (one of seven in the region, though the whereabouts of the other six wasn’t immediately obvious) where there stood the Castle Ruins. Here, there stood a stone arch, the humble remains of a castle, at the top of the hill, perfectly framing a striking redbrick church in the city below. In a field beside the ruins we noticed an intriguing set-up taking place: various tents, neon flags and bizarre flying saucer-shaped objects began to appear as a few dreadlocked hippies prepared for some sort of rave. Moments later, after snapping a few shots of the Castle Ruins from various angles, we were ambushed by two terrifying six-year-olds with wooden swords, as if enacting a battle from medieval times. Brendan took the first hit, shortly followed by Adam, and soon the whole team was down on the ground pleading for mercy. But the youngsters refused to give in, and battle commenced for a good twenty minutes or so, while peaceful painters glanced disapprovingly over their easels and any parental adults remained blissfully unaware.

Tranquil haven on the hill

ATTACK!

Victorious soldiers

After being fought off the territory of two victorious six-year-olds, we descended towards the tourist gift shop and ogled woollen mittens, patterned winter socks and stuffed animals made from felt. Upon paying for one or two woolly luxuries we noticed by the window a strange hooded statue with no face, which prompted a local ghost story from the shop assistant, who told it with the utmost sincerity. Then, having lost half of our group following the Great Battle of Castle Hill, we wandered towards an intriguingly angular modern building nextdoor, which turned out to be hosting some sort of school concert to which our friends had already been personally invited. Shuffling into a crowded hall full of costumed kids and proud parents, we watched on in baffled fascination, at performances by classical guitarists, breakdancers, ballroom dancers, and everything in between. By the time certificates were being awarded, and we had eagerly applauded on ten or more occasions between Latvian speeches we had no chance of understanding, we decided it was time to leave and eat ice cream, which was conveniently served at a non-specific eatery nextdoor.

Mysterious angles, mysterious content

The evening brought three half-hour gigs of unexpectedly large proportions. Having been a drizzly ghost town by day, by night Rēzekne was transformed. Each gig got busier, and by the second night we were almost wondering where we would actually perform, as it seemed every inch of space around the main square and stage was taken. We still have no idea where all the people came from, but what we do know is that they seemed delighted to be there.

Daylight gigging (Photo by Ritvars Pujats)

After some lively and incredibly enjoyable performances amongst the crowds, we packed up and headed back towards Castle Hill, where the afternoon’s preparations had culminated into a full-blown UFO rave. The DJ was spinning discs inside a transparent, neon inflatable flying saucer, while computerised psychedelic visuals danced above him on an elevated screen, and techno pumped loudly through a PA while ravers enjoyed dancing between smoke machines and neon rags and miniature solar systems hanging from the trees. We danced and danced as if we hadn’t just danced for hours in front of large crowds moments earlier, and then decided to take a chance on the ‘hipster kebab house’ down the road, which the Latvian organisers had promised would provide the night of our lives.

UFO rave on the hill

The hipster kebab house, it turned out, wasn’t just a kebab house but a bar that happened to serve fancy kebabs as well as beer, and hosted DJs that played all night long; it was also the location of the festival’s artist after-party. Here we met with other performers from Latvia, Russia, Spain and Argentina, and continued dancing non-stop until the sun came up and we could no longer ignore the daylight. Perhaps the most telling part of a good night of dancing is when the sound system breaks and the party continues. In fact, the point at which the music packed in for half an hour or so was probably the most entertaining part of the night, as the celebrations erupted into full song and dance, including a rap battle and dance-off led by Spanish breakdancers, followed by an improvised song about Rēzekne, and then a conga line that involved the entire population of the venue and led outside before ultimately descending into the Macarena. Meanwhile sound technicians anxiously attempted to uncover the root of the problem, yet we were so far past needing anything but our own voices that barely a soul in the bar seemed to have noticed there was a problem at all.

Sunrise over hipster kebabs

Leaving the bar giddy and woozy from dancing, having forgotten to try a kebab, and with a hundred new and temporary best friends, we wandered across the barren planes of the town, stopping by a deserted play park on the way to get childlike thrills from jumping off a roundabout and rocking on an inappropriately squeaky seesaw. The neighbourhoods were simple and clean, organised by straight, wide roads and green gardens with dilapidated sheds and perfect flowerbeds. We walked back to our hotel in the fresh air and the early morning sun, the sincere words of kind yet intense strangers still ringing in our ears. We walked along empty roads, alongside the pavement, recalling being kindly told off by sensible teenagers for that very thing earlier in the day.

“Guys? Where is everybody?”

Not a bad find for this time in the morning

A quiet walk to the hotel

The following day we downed the Emergency Muesli and left the hotel in the early afternoon to get lunch at the cultural centre known as ‘Gors’, which stood at the centre of the festival site. Though a grand and beautiful modern building with a wide range of event listings, the venue itself was not used for the festival except for providing meals and a dressing room for us, and was otherwise almost completely deserted throughout the weekend, except for the odd school trip and a wedding. Lunch, like dinner, consisted of some kind of meat, mashed potato or rice, and shredded cabbage and carrot. It was always hearty and delicious: exactly what performers need between energetic shows where you lose half your body weight in sweat. We took the time over each meal to discuss other meals we’d eaten in various parts of the world, the good and the bad, the extravagant to the shocking. We asked our Latvian friends if the food we were eating was ‘typically Latvian’, but it seemed nobody knew. Well, you can’t expect to learn everything in one weekend.

Outside we were met with sunny weather and pleasant acoustic tones from the smaller stage by the river – the perfect antidote to the previous night’s escapades. Eating more ice cream, as holidaymakers do, we took a stroll by the river and eventually came across a huge lake, where novice wakeboarders splashed about in the freezing water and teams of twenty-somethings played volleyball in the sand. I took the opportunity to sprawl out on the grass and take a nap in the sunshine, being awoken at short intervals by the cries and whoops of watersports spectators as a wakeboarder took a particularly large jump, or as a sorry man took yet another fall in a Walking Water Ball that made him look like an especially clumsy, oversized hamster.

 

Wakeboarders and volleyballers at Lake Kovsu

The gigs that night were more strenuous again, and the sheer volume of the crowd even more monstrous. For the final show, we went out into swarms of mosquitoes, drawn to the lights in our drums and sticking to our whited faces, and waited patiently behind the main stage while the previous act – an incredibly popular Russian female singer who appeared to attract fans of every generation – came to a finish. In a final trick I’ve never seen played out so smoothly, the band continued playing as the glamorous singer left the stage and flitted past us before stealthily getting into a gleaming white 4×4 with blacked out windows which promptly disappeared seconds later. No chance of an autograph, then. A minute or two later, the music on stage came to an end, and the singer was already nowhere to be seen.

Our own final performance was one of the most exciting we’ve played, with merry festival-goers dancing and jiving from every direction, and a few hilarious clowning moments with overly-keen punters who lingered a little too long in the performance space. Getting right up in the grinning faces of content party-goers was the perfect way to finish an exceptional weekend, and the subsequent reviews from various festival-goers in the following days became the icing on the cake. One happy punter aptly nicknamed our low surdo player ‘The Destroyer’, describing him as ‘scary at first’ but, as the performance progressed, came to see him as a friend, someone he could trust. The show’s narrative had never felt so pivotal, the reviews alone so far-fetched and entertaining.

Another incredibly fun night of shows at the Seven Hills Festival (Photo by Chris Maines-Beasley)

The next morning we hopped back on a bus with all our gear, accompanied by a small number of the other artists we’d since danced and sung the night away with, and headed back down that long, straight road west towards Riga. After a few hours of chatting to Russian pop stars in between sporadic naps against drum cases, we dropped a couple of passengers off in Riga’s Old Town, making the rest of us envy their free time before flying home, which allowed them to explore what appeared to be a truly beautiful city. This, among many others, is a good reason to return to Latvia, and I sincerely hope that we do.

A Performer’s Passage to India: Three Days in New Delhi

India must be one of the few countries in the world that can leave such a strong impression on you in just a matter of days. When I was told we were flying to New Delhi for the weekend to play a wedding, I didn’t expect we’d see any of the ‘real’ Delhi, or any of the things most people might associate with travelling in India, typically a month-long excursion. Though the experience was brief, it was one of the most intense trips we’ve had to date, and certainly the most surreal. New Delhi provided an entirely new attack on the senses; some of these senses I wasn’t even aware I had.

We arrived at our hotel on Saturday morning, and a couple of hours later found ourselves on a bus heading straight to the venue, where we would spend the next ten hours or so. The journey there wasn’t exactly smooth, as we braced the crosstown traffic, roughly ten lanes-worth of cars, busses, rickshaws, tuk-tuks, bikes, mopeds, tractors and brave pedestrians attempting to squeeze down a dual carriageway with no actual lanes. This may have seemed like the perfect chance to catch up on some sleep, waiting in heavy traffic for an hour or two, but I quickly learned that there was simply too much to see and, in a more practical sense, the horns honking were so loud and constant from every single vehicle that peace and quiet was not a option.

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Queuing tuk-tuks

One journey seemed so remarkable that I felt compelled to make a list of things I saw as we passed them; the more we saw the more chaotic it seemed to get: masses of people, fruit vendors selling coconutswatermelonspapayabananas, new housing projects, old slums, cars ceaselessly beeping, old-fashioned steamrollers, tractors, skinny cows poking their noses through mammoth rubbish tips, stray dogs, men sleeping under trees or in wagons full of building materials, motorbikes, pushbikes, cute schoolboys enthusiastically waving, women carrying huge bags of grain on their heads, shopfronts completely submerged in advertisement signs, half-finished building sites already inhabited, men sitting on the roofs of moving trucks, tyres nesting in trees, bamboo ladders, pot sellers, more cows, men playing cards, barbers giving customers a shave by the side of the road, four children on a bike, five women on a scooter, more cows, dusty yards covered in temporary homes, a grand and incongruous Hindu temple, giant gods sitting happily amongst it all, piles of bricks, bicycles pulling bigger piles of bricks, men napping in a JCB, nuts for sale, rugs for sale, litter and cables among the plants, endless queues of rickshaws… All the while our coach driver and his friend indicated with flailing arms out of the front windows, presumably to replace the coach indicators which were either broken or ignored. Then, a right turn and a brief moment of calm: a young boy and his father resting together in a trailer full of coconuts. Just a stone’s throw from the slums, another right turn, and suddenly there were fewer people, sparser traffic, neater hedges on rural roads, and many more tall walls with grand gates, presumably housing huge properties, or ‘farms’, owned by the implausibly rich. Further down the road, a tree offering shade to another working man stopping for a rest in the oppressive midday sun. It was shocking to see a contrast so blatant.

And at night time, around 11PM, when an exhausted bunch of performers fell into a post-rehearsal slumber on the return journey, I managed to keep my eyes open for the exact moment that an elephant passed us in the street. I looked around inside the coach, searching for another conscious human to verify the experience. Fortunately, someone in the back, equally as delirious, piped up, ‘Can someone just confirm that was actually an elephant?’. All those who were awake let out a simultaneous sigh of relief and a stifled squeal of excitement as it was acknowledged, no, I’m not so tired that I’m having stereotypical hallucinations of things one might see in India, and yes, that was actually an elephant, something I’ve never seen before in real life. I grinned with delight, then stared at the sleeping performers around me and thought, they’re going to hate me in the morning.

Further down the road and still there was more to see; I didn’t dare close my eyes for a second after the elephant incident. At night, it seems, Delhi only gets busier; when the sun has disappeared and it’s easier to breathe. The moon was beaming bright in the black sky, outlining silhouettes of wild dogs feeding off mountains of rubbish, like the perfect backdrop to a film, and still there were people everywhere, some sleeping, others still working, others playing cards and out for the night.

 

Our stay was punctuated with delicious meals highlighting the best of India’s culinary delights: a huge variety of curries, with chicken, lamb, vegetables and paneer, the flavours of which seemed to get better every day; followed by tasty cardamon-based desserts and masala chai. Every exchange with the cooks, waiters and other Indian workers was interspersed with characteristic head wobbles: neither a nod nor a shake, but a general acknowledgement that initially leaves outsiders a bit confused about how the conversation was concluded.

All I can say of the gig itself was that it was surreal, monumentally huge, and like nothing I’ve ever seen before. Being a private event, there’s not much more I can put into detail, but please take this as an opportunity to ask if we happen to communicate in person. After a long and utterly bizarre night of performing, dancing, and gawking at the incredible absurdity of it all, we had one day off to explore New Delhi. After wandering around for some time we eventually found the metro station, marked by a single broken signpost on the side of a temporary fence, and paid the equivalent of 20 pence to hop on a plush train between stations that looked more like high-budget airports. The first train from the outskirts was relatively quiet, but nothing could have prepared us for the following connection, which was comparable only to rush hour on the London tube times a million, after a huge concert, when all the other lines are down. ‘Is it usually this busy?’ our friend innocently asked a stranger on the other end of his nose. ‘Yes, always.’ Still, a good service all the same.

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Room for one more? Cosy travelling on the DMRC

Stepping out of the station between security guards with large guns and stray dogs passed out in the afternoon sun, a stranger approached, affectionately shouting, ‘Welcome to India!’ as if we’d just arrived on a train directly from England, before continuing on his merry way. We walked cautiously through male stares from every direction towards a long line of tuk-tuks by the side of the road: these little green and yellow auto-rickshaws would become our primary form of transport for the rest of the day. With two tuk-tuks, three passengers squashed into the back of each, we were hauled to the centre of town in the most chaotic whirlwind fashion imaginable, the driver laughing maniacally as he swung the steering wheel left and right into oncoming traffic just for fun. Our shrieks and screams only encouraged him all the more.

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Arrival in the city

When we arrived at our mystery destination, flustered, exhilarated, amazed (at still being alive), we stepped out to see what must be the world’s largest Indian flag flapping in the wind in a large park in front of us. After a few moments the second tuk-tuk pulled up, now with an additional passenger: ‘Alright guys, this is John.’ John, or Uncle John as he later called himself, was a friendly old man from Punjab, who had decided (without anyone asking) that he would be our city guide for the day, and proceeded to show us around various parts of New Delhi, a place he may or may not have known very well. He was a gentle and garrulous character, who liked to shout on the telephone and then tell us random facts about his family and his cooking and places not in Delhi, before swiftly moving on to the next tourist attraction.

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Meet John, your new uncle (Photo by Ashling McCann)

On our way past a strange mix of colonial-style buildings, fruit sellers, beggars, an outdoor office with a ringing landline, and the United Colours of Benetton, we spotted a musical instrument shop and ran excitedly towards it. It was only a small shop, but somehow grandiose, decked out in shiny, dark wooden panelling, with hundreds of photos of famous Indian classical musicians lining the walls. There were glass cabinets all around, housing sitars, tablas, tanpuras, harmoniums and various tuned percussion instruments. The man at the counter stood tuning a sitar, and two other men stood by the entrance fixing up instruments, making new parts and carrying out repairs. We quickly learned that this was the instrument specialist in Delhi, a highly respected manufacturer of North Indian classical instruments, and a former contact of George Harrison and the Beatles, as shown off by the photographs of the band’s visit hanging by the door.

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Fruit seller

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Inside Rikhi Ram Musical Instrument Manufacturer

After eagerly quizzing the shop manager about local music and tentatively trying out one or two of the instruments, we headed back out into the streets, satisfied and grateful. John got us straight back on another couple of tuk-tuks to head to a Hindu temple three kilometres away. For less than 50 pence that seemed pretty reasonable. The temple itself was right on the roadside next to a flyover and a steady flow of insane traffic. Though parts of the building were ornate, with stone pillars carved in meticulous detail, I couldn’t help but notice the unbelievably enormous vermilion-red monkey-like deity standing up tall in the sky, the foundation upon which the whole building was constructed. And then there was the fact that, after removing one’s shoes, you entered the temple through the giant mouth of another monkey, whose head was positioned directly between the red deity’s legs. Inside the temple was a shock of colour in every corner, brightly painted statues of gods and paragraphs of information written in Hindi on the walls. Unfortunately this meant we couldn’t read it, and so we wandered around gazing at things and having our foreheads marked with dots (bindi/pottu) of kumkum (a turmeric-based paste) and our hands filled with holy water, partially wondering what it all meant and desperately craving an explanation. But there was no time to find out, as it seemed life in Delhi didn’t slow down even in a temple, and rather than the peaceful break from the mad metropolis that we’d been expecting, we were rushed through each room and eventually led down to a kind of cave, where we were briefly met with more deities of a darker, more deathly nature, before almost crawling through a low tunnel until we arrived back outside via the mouth of a lion. Surreal? Yes. At times I felt like an oversized ball on a crazy golf course, and at other times fascinated, though frustrated by my own ignorance. Next time, I’ll do the appropriate research in advance.

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Traders directly outside the temple

Our second to last stop was at an Indian fabric wholesale store, where the shop assistant generously offered to make us every possible item of clothing from the finest materials in a single day, but alas, we had not the money nor the time. Then it was one final exhilarating tuk-tuk ride (we’d grown fond of them by now) with the most flattering and mild-mannered driver, before we paid up – it was all a clever hustle after all – and wished him and our Uncle John a final farewell.

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All of the fabric you could want

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A rogue drummer takes a turn at navigating his own way around the city

To conclude the day we got back on the busiest yet most efficient metro and headed to Chandi Chowk. Here we walked through the bazaar, taking in the best and the worst of the sights and smells, from great temples and food stalls to limbless beggars, from the sweet scent of incense and cardamon to the lingering stench of urine. Walking through this lively nighttime playground was the most intense experience of the whole trip, as the crowds of fast-moving people seemed endless, the stares a little more intimidating, the beeping horns louder, and never a chance to stop and take a breath. There were so many photos I wanted to take of this incredible amount of life on a single street, but there was barely a chance to stand still, never mind get a reasonable shot of anything. With every turn it seemed ten people crashed into you, all in a hurry to get somewhere, though where I’m not so sure. It seemed there wasn’t a single empty space, and every parked rickshaw or wagon or space on the pavement was filled with someone either sleeping or selling something. We almost had ourselves another Uncle John outside one temple, a friendly old man who began talking in depth about the local tourist sites, until we informed him we weren’t looking for a guide at the time, to which he replied, ‘I’m not your guide, I’m your friend.’ Our friendship blossomed quickly but was sadly short-lived, as we were conveniently moved by the crowds via more fruit stalls, rickshaw jams and shouting tradesmen.

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Chandi Chowk at night

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Returning to the hotel provided the kind of respite one usually gets from escaping to the countryside. There was suddenly so much space, and it seemed so peaceful and simple by comparison. But in a way I missed the chaos, and still do. Arriving back in my suburb of Newcastle was like returning to a quiet country village, which is undoubtedly easier to live in but not nearly as exciting. Our tiny experience of India was exactly as we’d been warned yet nothing was as we could have expected. Surreal, overwhelming, beautiful and turbulent – I could definitely go back for more.

Caribbean Carnival, the Dominican Dream

A view from the field…

Lounging by the pool at our 27-storey hotel amongst the urban chaos of Santo Domingo, it’s difficult to remember just how we got here. It’s sunny and about 30 degrees Celsius; there’s cheesy pop music gently rippling from nearby speakers and an atmosphere of calm despite the cacophony of sirens and horns echoing from the streets below. Behind the city skyline on the horizon is a perfect blue stripe of ocean. I’m enjoying the sun for an extra hour between rehearsals, though to be honest there’ll be plenty more time for this, what with there being just two short gigs at either end of an endlessly sunny week in the Caribbean, and one rehearsal day – today – to prepare. ‘We’re not on holiday,’ we sensibly tell ourselves, though perhaps this time we almost are.

A couple of days ago I was at home in cold, wintry Newcastle, solemnly gazing at my diary, desperately wondering how best to fill the following week. Sometimes, as in this case, last-minute gigs come up just at the time you need them to, though they’re not usually quite this far-fetched.

Buenos días, Santo Domingo!

I’m suddenly attempting to pick up some Spanish again, in a vague attempt to interact with any number of the friendly locals. Fortunately they seem to speak slightly slower here than the way people speak in Spain (at a million miles an hour), and act incredibly appreciative whenever you utter a single word in the native language. This bodes well for us novices.

In this particular part of Santo Domingo there are few tourists, and most foreigners seem to be here on business, having travelled south from the States. We therefore encounter a lot of staring as we walk down the street, as locals unashamedly ogle these pale outsiders who rarely see the sun. The roads are fast and hectic, and most cars that pass seem to be lacking parts, like bumpers, doors and the like, and very few have license plates. Yet, from the perspective of a pedestrian, they are the most courteous drivers I’ve come across, and crossing these busy roads becomes a simple matter of confidently stepping out and making yourself known.

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Plenty more where that came from (Photo by Alex Tustin)

Yesterday we walked down the road from the hotel in search of food, passing all the American fast food chains – Wendy’s, McDonalds, KFC, Krispy Creme and the rest – until settling at a small sandwich place that looked more like an off-license with a few tables in the front. We ordered cervezas and sandwiches from a surly, matron-like Dominican woman, received the beers immediately and waited and waited and waited for the food, all the while listening to a loud, garrulous man in a cap, presumably a regular, who was prone to random outbursts of excitable shouting, but all in good spirits. The service in most places tends to be so hilariously slow that by the time you receive your meal you’ve forgotten what you ordered, making the whole experience full of brilliant surprises. There’s never any apology for how long it took, or for anything else, but time slows down and life seems that much easier simply for choosing not to care.

Later on we discovered ‘happy hour’ at the hotel bar – more like ‘ecstatic everything-is-free two-hours every-freaking-day’ – and exchanged our stories from the road of gigs been and gone over buckets of face-shakingly strong sangria and bar snacks. I got the feeling this might set the tone for an enjoyable week ahead.

 

And now for a little reflection…

The first gig turned out to be on the 27th floor of our hotel, with a panoramic view through glass walls. I remember entering a stage from the balcony outside and experiencing a flash of green lights and smart phones, a room full of cameras (presumably with faces behind them) and a backing track revealing what happens when samba meets pop. It was short and sweet, in contrast to our 10-hour rehearsal day, and followed by big-screen videos and a seemingly high-profile rap group. In the dressing room we learned the crucial pre-performance phrase ‘muchas muerdas!’ – like a cruder version of ‘break a leg’ – from a very amicable stage manager, and enjoyed the awe-inspiring view of the sun setting over Santo Domingo and its surrounding mountains. When you get used to putting on your gig make-up in a basement with no windows, this sort of thing feels pretty special.

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Sunset from the dressing room (Photo by Alex Tustin)

 

For our first day off we took a taxi to the city’s Colonial Zone, a historic neighbourhood famed for being the oldest permanent European settlement in the New World, and now a World Heritage Site. Our driver took the scenic route to get us there, by which I mean she drove us through an immense variety of neighbourhoods. We travelled down narrow streets, every humble home painted a different bright colour: splashes of red, orange, blue, green and yellow, a vibrant backdrop to the everyday activities of locals who sold fruit or took a break sitting on the bonnets of mashed-up cars and in deck chairs watching the world go by. Through open doorways we caught glimpses of everything from conga drums to fresh hanging meat, and the occasional siesta-taker. It was at once familiar and like nowhere I had ever seen.

Reaching the Colonial Zone the buildings suddenly got grander, the streets cleaner and the colours softer. We could have been somewhere in Europe (though I suppose that’s more or less the point). We headed via cigar and panama hat shops towards the Parque Colón, a grand square with restaurants on one side overlooking the stunning cathedral (Basilica Cathedral of Santa Maria la Menor) on the other, and a statue of Columbus in the centre. This was evidently the tourist trap we had expected it might be – if you go for a day trip to Santo Domingo, this is where you go, and we could see why. We sat at a restaurant on the square, gazing around at beautiful buildings, a mix of excitable tourists and laid-back locals, and a mass of pigeons to rival that in Trafalgar Square. Men sat in the shade playing checkers and draughts on large boards supported by their laps; groups of Dominican kids on school trips explored the historical buildings around them; and Merengue musicians played for everyone’s entertainment – except for the occasional timid tourist afraid of being hounded for money, people stopped to watch and dance and there was a general atmosphere of sunny festivities.

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Merengue musicians entertain the crowds

While we waited for our food (fortunately time flies when you’re having fun), two young Dominican men approached our table, armed with guitar and guiro (in this case a metal scraper played with an Afro comb). Luckily for them, we’re never timid tourists, and so, as they got started on a Merengue version of Justin Bieber’s ‘Love Yourself’, the forks and spoons came out and we got a rowdy percussive jam on the go, ropy vocals included. After putting up with us throughout their otherwise flawless performance, they deserved every peso we could offer them.

After filling our stomachs with pizza, pasta and all those other typically Dominican foods (we did attempt to find local dishes, it just wasn’t particularly easy), we decided the best way to explore was by the Chu Chu Colonial, otherwise known as a train for children, except that this was an adult-sized one, where they gave you sophisticated historical information about your surroundings. As the road train set off we soon realised the whole experience was something of an attack on the senses: with a Spanish-language audio tour coming through some loud speakers, an enthusiastic group of about fifty young locals making up all the remaining space after the five of us, an English-language audio tour happening solely for us through one very loud speaker interspersed with Latin music wherever possible, and all of the general city hubbub happening around us. It wasn’t even possible to see half of the buildings we were meant to be learning about beyond the low roof of the train, and so I resigned myself to simply enjoying the friendly greetings of locals as we passed them with a wave and an ‘Holá!’. It was amazing just how approachable everyone was – even those gazing into the abyss from chairs down alleyways or sitting alone in dark rooms – and how far a small greeting can go. Combine that with the sunshine and endless brightly coloured buildings and you’ve got yourself a recipe for contentment.

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Plaza de Espana

The following day we took a taxi to Juan Dolio, the beach paradise we’d naively expected to step out onto directly from the plane. Our driver told us it would be no better than the two other tourist-infested, litter-filled resorts he’d taken us to first, but fortunately he was wrong – it was everything we had imagined: white sand, turquoise sea perfect for swimming, palm trees, unspoiled views, and most importantly no other visitors. It was also not as far away from Santo Domingo as one might expect – Punta Cana on the eastern side of the island is better known for its stunning beaches, but is about a three-hour drive away. Here, about one hour from the capital city, the beach and the bar was all ours. So, it was 11am already and easily time for a Piña Colada. This was the most relaxing day I have ever had (and probably ever will) on a work trip. I will cherish every coconutty, rummy, sunburn-inducing moment.

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Unspoiled beach at Juan Dolio

A final day off before the next gig involved a visit to must-see natural wonderland, Los Tres Ojos National Park. The Three Eyes (Tres Ojos) are three underground lakes, hidden in enchanting caves laden with stalagmites, stalactites and immense vines – it’s no wonder both Tarzan and Jurassic Park were filmed there. These perfect azure lakes were enjoyed by local swimmers right up to 1972 when the site became a National Park. A Tarzan-like character still lingers in the cave’s shadows: having remained almost a permanent fixture since the sixties, the wizened (but presumably very fit), bearded, half-naked man climbs the rocks every time a large group of tourists approaches, and from a great height, as if out of nowhere, dives into the six-metre-deep Lago La Nevera to a roar of applause. After a short, quiet boat ride across this lake, this was perhaps the last thing we were expecting.

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On the other side there were more surprises: pillars as big as old trees, where stalagmites had met with stalactites over hundreds of thousands of years, running seamlessly from floor to ceiling. According to our guide it would take more than 100 years to grow one inch – that gave us a pretty good idea of how old and remarkable this place, which was once entirely immersed in sea water, actually is. After the three underground lakes, there was one more lake immersed in sunlight, surrounded by cliffs covered in trees and their elongated vines. The water here was teeming with fish, which we were given morsels of bread to feed, and there was a wooden platform which extended slightly further out towards the sunlight. If it wasn’t such a popular photo spot for the other tourists, we could have stood there and pondered for hours.

After all the hard work of being tourists for days on end, we deserved a proper night out. Things we discovered on a night out in the Zona Colonial include: cativias (also spelled catibias) filled with chorizo and cheese, a local and incredibly tasty street food dish; that sushi is surprisingly brilliant in the Dominican Republic (what with being so far from Japan) and available in most places; and that club nights playing Merengue are few and far between, but if you want hardcore house and techno from Swedish DJs you can go pretty much anywhere. All of our enjoyable antics that evening were due to the help of an incredibly kind and hospitable young woman who went to the ends of the earth to sort us out despite being under no obligation.

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Finally the day had arrived that Carnival was upon us. On Shrove Tuesday in the UK, we make pancakes. Here in the Caribbean, they throw the world’s most insane party, and apparently it goes on for pretty much a whole month. That funky pancake batter doesn’t seem so edgy now, eh? Our final day in the Dominican Republic was spent entertaining and subsequently being entertained by the party-goers at one of the biggest Carnival events on the island, in La Vega. We headed north in a mini bus with all our gear, on long stretches of road surrounded by mountains and lines of palms, a constant stream of Cuban Son and Bossa Nova on the stereo. We passed small villages full of life, pottery shops and long lines of vibrant rugs – or were they carnival capes? – catching brief flashes of fluorescent pink, blue, green and orange.

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En route to Carnival in La Vega

Carnival itself turned out to be one of the loudest events I’ve ever come across, as we discovered when we rocked up behind the main stage, sub-bass dance tunes blasting from one side and hoards of drummers bashing away at random on the other. The stage was enormous, about ten feet above the audience, and as we headed out there above the crowds for our first show of the day things went from surreal to crazy. At Carnival people drink and dance from the beginning of the day to the bitter end, so the atmosphere is lively all day long, to say the least. There were people in colourful matching t-shirts filling the backstage VIP area, with glitter on their faces and in their beards, and just when we were ready to go onstage for the second time, troupes of what looked like dragons in various team colours turned up. It turns out these represented the Diablo Cojuelo (Limping Devil), the mischievous main character of the carnival, who typically carries a ‘Vejiga’ (a faux animal bladder filled with air) with which he whips innocent bystanders. Fortunately the whipping must have been banned in the backstage area, but we learned about it the hard way the second we ventured out into the main arena after our gig.

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Time to eat – backstage before the showtime madness

Backstage, the Devils gathered around us, chanting ‘Gringo! Gringo!’ (a Latino term for white American or foreign folk), until we started up a spontaneous bossa groove, which seemed to make them dance with delight. Next minute, we were called to the stage and charged onto a catwalk to perform amongst ecstatic party-goers and confetti canons, and then charged back again to continue playing to our by-now admiring backstage audience. We gave all the energy we had, and it was worth every ounce of sweat and every lost breath. It’s not often you get to play drums at Carnival in the Caribbean, and after the incredible week we’d been given, we gave it everything.