TOTR Longread: Train Mail

Image: Mitwa AV via Flickr
Image: Mitwa AV via Flickr

Train journeys are the best place to find stories, especially in India. It might be because of the strangers you brush your teeth next to near the rattling toilet. Or perhaps it’s those lovely fat aunties who are kind enough to offer you their Tupperware full of ghar ka khana (homemade food) that they catch you ogling at from the corner of your eye. But there will always be a stronger intimacy with those you travel with by train than on any flight or bus trip.

I always looked forward to long train journeys as a kid. The whole family in one compartment – travelling, eating, sleeping and waking up together. Even the food reminded us of home as we bonded over rolls and pickle that had been lovingly packed by my mother in disposable boxes. My yearnings for chai (tea) every time the chaiwalla (tea seller) passed by, attracting easy bait like me with his shrill call.

But for over a decade, I haven’t had the pleasure of travelling as a pack. It’s always been just me, or perhaps a single companion, like my boyfriend who sleeps for hours in his own berth for most of the journey and hardly bothers me. That arrangement suits me just fine. There’s no better time to read or write – two activities that I enjoy in excess during these long periods in transit.

This particular story took place on one of my not-so-exciting solo travels. My mother always told me not to talk to strangers. But I’ve been a journalist for many years; I know a good story when I see one. So when the young man who was supposed to sleep on the berth above mine walked in and threw his knapsack over me onto the bunk, I was mildly afraid but mostly intrigued. This annoyed me, as I was just getting to the part in Gerald Durrell’s Menagerie Manor where a baby orangutan playfully attacks the zookeeper as a show of strength and affection.  

I examined my newfound distraction closely. Something seemed off about this not-so-tall man; his eyes made him look like he was either terribly sleep-deprived or completely stoned. I groaned to myself, disappointed that he was not the regular boring co-passenger that would spend the day looking out of the window. Nor was he one of those lovesick Romeos who spent the majority of the journey on his phone talking to some faraway girlfriend.

For the first twenty minutes, I refused to acknowledge his presence. Yet the minute he came and occupied the seat opposite me, I found myself saying hello.

“Hi,” he replied awkwardly. “I’m Prashant. And you?”

“I’m Rohini.”

“So what do you do, Rohini?”

“Well, I’m essentially a writer. A journalist, actually.”

“Nice to meet you. Are you from Calcutta?”

“I am, but I haven’t lived there for 8 years. I just went to visit my mother. What…”

He cut me off repeatedly, and after being interrogated for a good thirty minutes, I realised that there was no point in my asking about him.

Though I was growing tired of his inquisitive nature, I found myself opening up to Prashant. If that was even his real name. I told him that I was heading to a community farm in Kodaikanal for the next month. I would be locking myself in a cabin in the woods – a home that would be mine for a mere 300 rupees a night – to read excessively and write down every thought that passed through my mind.

I even mentioned that I was so uninspired of late that the only remotely interesting idea I had had for months was a mental typewriter.

“What’s that?” he cut me off yet again. I found myself explaining that this would be a chip implanted into my brain that transcribed every thought, every idea in my head. He was not particularly convinced, but did promise, albeit nervously, to contribute if there ever was a crowdfunding campaign for this imagined technology.

We sipped on some chai and I proudly declared that this was my fifth cup since morning. “That’s good. There’s nothing like a good conversation over a cup of tea and cigarettes,” he said.

I narrowed my eyes and replied, “For me, that perfect combination is actually coffee and cigarettes. Speaking of which, have you seen the film by that name?” He had, much to my surprise and delight, and we went on to debate whether the real star of the film had been Cate Blanchett or Iggy Pop.

It took Prashant quite a few rounds of small talk to get over his initial shyness. But an hour into the conversation, he had started to prolong his awkward smiles, turning them into occasional grins.

Prashant, as I soon discovered, had a much better story to tell than I did.  

He was going back home after a month of rehab, unfazed and eager to do more drugs. He had already scored his stash from one of the ward boys at the correctional facility, he informed me with a misplaced sense of pride. This should have been my first warning of the conversation to follow. But I paid no heed.

For whatever reason, I didn’t get a sense of danger or ill intentions from this stranger. Sure, he said unusual things like “all the fun lies in the grey areas” and made statements like “I buried my grandmother’s cat alive to see if cats really have nine lives”. But I found this turning into fodder for the empty pages of the notebook in my bag – an Andy Warhol-themed parting gift from a former lover.

It was then that Prashant told me that he was bipolar. And everything else fell into place.

“I remember being an innocent and ignorant kid,” he began, paving the way for a confession it seemed he had kept inside for too long. “But grief struck me at an early age. The loss of too many loved ones. Perhaps as a way of coping with this sudden loss, I shielded myself from society. Years later, when I’d finally overcome this grief, I realized I wasn’t as keen on returning to society, and that society wasn’t built to accept me either.” Each word seemed heavy as it left his mouth.

I couldn’t help but make mental notes of the changes in his body movements as he opened up to me. His hands were now moving closer to my side of the berth, his eyes now piercingly focused on mine, almost looking for pity. Was he making this up to impress me, hoping for a pity fuck? Could he tell that my limited knowledge about bipolarity made me even more curious about him?

He spoke to me like he had known me all his life, indifferent to any judgments I may have been passing about him. Surprisingly though, as much as I wanted to feel shocked, all I felt was awe, and perhaps even empathy. Probably just some deep unexplainable sense of camaraderie and understanding that all misfits of society bond over.

What really astonished me was that until the age of 21, nobody had bothered getting him checked by doctors or seen his anti-social ways as a problem. The journalist in me was dying to verify the facts. How had it taken him 21 years to understand that he had had an aversion to intimacy, a detachment from family and love and everything else that a ‘normal’ person wants for himself? I couldn’t get my head around it.

I found myself distracted for a moment, imagining myself in his place, with an unusual condition that only I could make sense of.

He snapped me out of my reverie and continued, “I spent a good few years away from intimacy. I was in crowds but I could always feel this disconnect. For the longest time, I didn’t feel a need or urge to interact with anyone.”

“Never?” I prodded.

“Never,” he said. “The whole idea of friendship and love seemed futile throughout my teens. And when I found out, I decided that it was time to move out of my parents’ house. Of course, they didn’t even bother trying to stop me.”

This broke my heart a little. Instead of kissing girls or climbing trees or being adored by his parents, he had spent most of his life daydreaming and observing things around him. I almost envied him. I had grown up without really gauging anything, let alone the definition of who I was or what was fucked up in the society that I had always assumed I wanted to belong to. But having stayed on the fringes of society for so long, Prashant knew exactly how the herd worked. He could read people quickly, and this often disappointed him. Especially when it came to love.

“I haven’t had the best of relationships. Most of the time, I lied to the girls I was with. And these relationships often overlapped with each other, leading to their eventual, predictable downfalls,” he went on. I wanted to stop him here, not being particularly keen on the subject of men getting away with two-timing. But there was no stopping him.

“I’m not on speaking terms with most of my ex-girlfriends. If things weren’t working out, I made them hate me and dump me. They might not understand why I did this. But in the long run, I know that I’m letting them live happier lives.”

This was the most off-putting thing I had heard in a while, and I had to let him know it. “So let me get this straight. You basically can’t stand the idea of being happy? Or do you just get off on being a creep?”

I had crossed the line; the frown on his brow made that pretty clear. Maybe it was the fact that I had just finished watching a documentary about a Japanese cannibal named Issei Sagawa, who often feasted on the thighs and bums of foreign women, but I was regretting having told this strange man my name and travel plans, and was almost ready to excuse myself and jump off at the next station, wherever that was.

“What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done to another human being?” I braved.

“I emotionally crippled an ex when I left her. To the point where’s she’s accepted defeat in life. She’s not going to kill herself. But she’s become totally numb. And I don’t feel any remorse about it,” he answered. “It makes me not want to analyze anybody I love anymore, because love can really cloud judgment.”

That wasn’t as bad as I thought. But of course, Prashant was the not the kind of man who could stop there.

“Deep down, I’ve always been a sadist. But I don’t wish ill for others. I’ve realized that I could pretty much snap one fine day and self-destruct. I could go on a killing spree. I have all the tools to do that. But I’m not a monster. I’m a dangerous person who is aware that he is dangerous. Society has rules I have to adhere to. And I’m fine with playing by those rules.”

“Really?”

“Well, yeah. But I like power. I know I can manipulate people by making them feel good about themselves. I crave a life where I am king. And I am prepared to convince every single buffoon on this planet into loving me so that they aid me in my quest for success!”

I laughed at this master plan of taking over the world, proud of myself for having trusted my instinct and come to this point of the conversation.

“I’m not one of those buffoons, you know,” I told him.

“That’s fine! You’re a friend. You get premium seats to the movie,” he grinned, turning his gaze to the lightning show being conducted for us outside the spit-stained window.

***

Six months later, I noticed a strange message in the ‘Other’ folder of my Facebook inbox. It read:

Hello!

I saw your face in a dream last night. Your face appeared like when you open your eyes in the morning and you’re suddenly blinded by white light. When you see a familiar face in a dream, you need to reflect on qualities that are common between the dreamer and the subject in the dream. Then, you are supposed to take that understanding and apply it to the emotions experienced at that point of the dream. Something like that would require much introspection. So I decided to let it be and write this message instead.

I know you probably don’t care about me nor give a shit about how I’m doing. But I’m actually doing better than ever before. The medicines I’ve been taking are working beautifully. My therapist thinks I’m on the right track and on some days, even the world at large seems bearable. I have cut down on smoking weed and started swimming regularly.

Three months ago, I bumped into a wonderful woman underwater when I was attempting to swim the full length in one breath but without goggles. I realize that that’s not the usual place to begin a love story but as you might remember, usual doesn’t quite cut it for me.

Her name is Janine and she is 4 feet 9 inches and doesn’t even reach my shoulder. She has the prettiest eyes and I trust her with myself. I haven’t been lying to her like the others. And apparently my bipolarity turns her on. I’ll never understand women.

I hope you are writing novels by now. And that no bison or ghost or drug overdose killed you in Kodaikanal. And that you’re still alive to be reading this email. I really hope you are, even though I had honestly forgotten your face until this morning’s dream.

Well, I just figured that I’d tell you about the dream and my life and Janine and go back to being just another weirdo you met on some train journey.

-O

Attached to the message was a photograph of Oliver and his tiny girlfriend. The caption below, screaming out in ugly Comic Sans, read “My buffoon and I”.

I smiled, lit myself a cigarette and hit ‘Reply’.

From Rushmore to Carhenge: Exploring the Cost of the American Spirit

Image: Susan Pi
Image: Susan Pi

For almost ten years, I lived in California as a guest—a green card resident from Canada. The only thing stopping me from applying for citizenship was the Oath of Allegiance. I balked at bearing true faith and allegiance to a country I didn’t know.

But a lot can change in ten years, and with every visit back home, it became clearer to me that I’d lost touch with the country that raised me. I was stuck between two places—a situation that applied to almost everything else in my life.

I got into a car and started to drive. The plan: see the country, do something new. Eventually, I found myself  parked beside a Dairy Queen on the edge of Alliance, Nebraska. The town has a population of about 8,500—the largest town I’d driven past in hours and the only one with strong enough cell signal to pull up a map on my phone.

I walk inside to grab a soda. As soon as my eyes adjust to the interior lighting, I see… staring. I am in a room filled with demure beige dresses and light-coloured hair. And here I am: red tank top and jeans, a head taller than even the men. Here in Alliance, I am very foreign, very Chinese.

I fell in love with America here.

Only twenty-four hours before, I was standing at The Avenue of Flags, a walkway leading to Mount Rushmore—a shrine to American democracy. I’d travelled 1,400 miles to visit this secular pilgrimage site. Nearly three million people visit every year, and yet, I’d never seen it in person until then. It was worth the wait. When the light of the sun hits the monument just so, the effect will stir even the most unpatriotic of hearts.

The American spirit—traipsing west into the unknown, recreating the wild in our own image through dynamite—is nothing short of audacious. We turn our leaders into gods and our system of government into a religion.

It is this same spirit that led Gutzon Borglum, a Danish-American sculptor and member of the Ku Klux Klan, to partner with the United Daughters of the Confederacy back in 1915. He was to carve a memorial to the Confederacy into Stone Mountain, Georgia, complete with a KKK altar. On June 23, 1923, the first cut began, but his memorial was never finished due to disputes between Borglum and the managing association.

After abandoning Stone Mountain, Borglum went on to oversee the carving of Mount Rushmore, but the site he chose was sacred to the Lakota Indians. For centuries, the Black Hills region had been rife with violent turmoil between the US government and Native Americans. Even today, there are still many who view America’s shrine of democracy as a controversial monstrosity.

But if Mount Rushmore is a shrine, complete with soaring flags and polished granite, then Crazy Horse Memorial is a testament to the enduring will of the people. Located less than twenty miles from Rushmore, the memorial is far from completed, but when finished, it will depict Crazy Horse; a legendary Lakota warrior, riding a horse and pointing into the distance. The final dimensions are planned to be 641 feet wide and 563 feet high, making it much larger than Mount Rushmore, and even dwarfing the Statue of Liberty.

The sculpture is a response to the double-edged sword that is the indomitable American spirit—the determination to forge a free nation even if it means crushing those left behind. In 1877, a white trader taunted Crazy Horse by asking what had become of his lands, and Crazy Horse replied, “My lands are where my dead lie buried.”

His words are emblazoned inside the museum at Crazy Horse Memorial, and it is those words that stay with me as I drive 150 miles south to Carhenge near the city of Alliance, Nebraska. It is a replica of England’s Stonehenge using cars salvaged from nearby dumps. All of them are spray-painted gray. For miles around, there is nothing but fields of golden wheat. I have the place all to myself. Its eerie, graveyard quality is heightened by the absence of throngs of tourists found at Rushmore and Crazy Horse.

Assembled in 1987, three foreign cars were originally a part of Carhenge but were torn down, buried, and replaced by American models. A 1962 Caddy – half-buried, head down –  marks their grave. Someone painted onto its roof: “Here lie three bones of foreign cars. They served our purpose while Detroit slept. Now Detroit is awake and America’s great!”

Patriotism is dead. America is dying. At least, that’s what media pundits are telling me. There are so many things wrong with our country: healthcare, education, the economy. But as I’m standing in line at Dairy Queen, feeling out of place, I can’t help but believe these are symptoms of a larger problem—one that we may never be able to solve.

We have forgotten what it means to be American, because liberty, equality, and justice have taken on a nuanced meaning in today’s world. The unspoken part: “At the expense of…” We are scrambling to figure out who we are, and in so doing, forget our place in the world.

But as I leave Dairy Queen with a drink in hand, my phone finally shows two bars—enough to tell where I am in relation to the country. The miles between Alliance and everywhere else are narrow, one-lane highways stretching to the horizon. The land is flat. The sky is an indomitable blue—the kind of color that must’ve stirred the hearts of our forefathers as they pioneered a new nation.

Fonio: Africa’s Ancient Grain is a True Superfood

Image: GLP Films
Image: GLP Films

Google ‘fonio’ and you’re confronted with an odd mix of results. Some British press coverage has presented the ancient African grain as the next superfood du jour or the “new quinoa”, which conjure up unfortunate images of Islingtonites called Mungo and Cosima crucifying the poor stuff in an overpriced claggy salad.

This, unsurprisingly, wasn’t the angle the team from GLP Films went for in their documentary The Most Nutritious Grain You’ve Never Heard Of. The film is the second in their series of web-based shorts produced in partnership with National Geographic, and was shot in Senegal – the heart of fonio country. The film focusses on the grain’s pivotal role in the West African nation’s cultural life (new mothers, for example, are massaged with it just after giving birth), as well as highlighting its huge potential as an extraordinary weapon in the fight against malnutrition.

“We were able to explore fonio’s health benefits and cultural importance through two unique characters,” GLP Production Manager Jenny Ersbak tells me. “Dr Wade [professor of physiology and human nutrition at the University of Dakar] and Aya Ndiaye [president of the fonio-producing Gie Koba Club Co-operative] both contributed incredible enthusiasm and knowledge of fonio, but from very opposite ends of the spectrum – academically and personally. It was a nice balance.”

Image: GLP Films
Image: GLP Films

The grain, we discover, is a staple of the Senegalese diet. It’s eaten as a porridge for breakfast, mixed with rice or yassa for lunch, or served with mafé – a spicy peanut and meat stew which became a favourite with the GLP crew.

Misleadingly nicknamed “hungry rice” by European settlers, who mistakenly thought locals were growing it out of necessity rather than for its nutty flavour and culinary versatility, gluten-free fonio is nutrient-packed – especially rich in amino acids missing from modern grains such as wheat, rice and barley. It also requires very little water, so is easy to grow in arid conditions, requires no pesticides, and can be ready to harvest only 6 – 8 weeks after planting.

Fonio could make a sizeable dent in Sub-Saharan Africa’s dismal hunger statistics, not to mention knocking over-farmed quinoa off its wholefood perch, so you can see why Western health nuts and malnutrition researchers alike are getting so excited about it.

Image: GLP Films
Image: GLP Films

It’s clearly prime subject matter for documentary makers too, though Senegal isn’t exactly the most well-trodden of locations – something the GLP crew discovered the hard way on their 450 mile cross-country drive to the co-operative from capital city Dakar. After suffering three burst tyres on the rough Senegalese roads, the team and their van packed full of equipment took a rather testing twenty hours rather than the expected seven to reach the women’s co-operative at Kedougou, meaning an exhausted crew had a far-reduced filming schedule.

“Moments like that bring the crew a lot closer. You’re forced to bond, embrace the chaos together, and run with it,” says Ersbak. “We now affectionately refer to everyone who had to undertake that journey as being part of ‘Crewdougou’ [after Kedougou – their eventual destination] .”

But at least they had the comfort of a super-nutritious meal when they did arrive. 

 

Follow Helena Haimes on Twitter.

 

Investment is transforming the Saharan town of Dakhla

Credit: Jesse Norton
Credit: Jesse Norton

Mohammed sparks his lighter and the blade in his hand erupts in flames. He draws his knife to my neck and pivots it square with my jawline. Lines of sweat coat my forehead. All I can think about are the scraggly clumps of his hair I can see escaping from the worn blue baseball cap on his head. I wonder, Does the barber cut his own hair? I’d ask him, but he doesn’t speak English, and I don’t speak French or Arabic.

An ancient Coca-Cola truck pulls up outside with empty glass bottles rattling with every cough and splutter from the engine. Hip young guys in Calvin Klein t-shirts periodically dip in to the barber’s shop to check for an appointment Their hair’s already immaculately trimmed, stuck back precisely with wax and gel. Seated in the 70s-style diner chair, a portrait of King Mohammed V gazing down at me, I watch Al Jazeera presenters lose their shit over an event I can’t quite figure out. With a flourish, Mohammed snaps the gown off me and proudly declares “Fini!”

I’m in Dakhla, a port town sitting on a narrow peninsula of 40 km that pokes out into the Atlantic Ocean. The rolling expanses of Saharan dunes are just about visible on the other side of the blue lagoon as I walk along the freshly paved boulevards. A cool sea breeze permeates the air, bringing a freshness despite the desert heat. Families meander through the streets in playful conversation, the kids alternating between chasing their parents and hiding behind lamp posts. They look a little bemused to see me strolling lost through their hometown.

Credit: Jesse Norton
Credit: Jesse Norton

On the surface, the town seems like an unlikely place to be promoted as Morocco’s newest tourist destination. Traders savour their mint tea while they gossip with other merchants, and guys decked out in djebella chill on benches and take in the sun. They seem unaware of how similar they look to the pointy-hatted desert guys in Star Wars. But under its gentle surface, Dakhla has an ambitious and hopeful eye on the future. Everywhere I look there’s development going on; colourful apartments popping up along the boulevard and construction workers busy repaving the souk.

Since it was announced as a host of Virgin’s annual kitesurfing world cup in 2009, along with destinations such as Isla de Coche in Venezuela and Costa Brava in Spain, fluorescent sails propelling water sports enthusiasts up and down the lagoon have become a familiar sight in Dakhla. It didn’t take long for tourists to embrace peaceful yoga retreats in the dunes and excursions into the untouched wilderness of the desert. This year’s investment in the region, courtesy of the Moroccan government, seeks to attract more travellers looking for an exotic, off-the-beaten-track sun break.

Dakhla CC Jesse Norton
Credit: Jesse Norton

For the land’s indigenous Sahrawi tribes people, the burgeoning tourist trade is providing the investment and development needed to overcome years of ongoing dispute. During a car ride into the desert I ask my Sahrawi driver, Sedati, whether he considers Dakhla to be part of Morocco. He shrugs. “This is still called an area in dispute, but we are both Moroccans and Sahrawis,” he tells me. “In Dakhla, we don’t have conflicts like everywhere else in the Sahara. We are relaxed.”

Back in the seventies, disagreements between the Moroccan and Algerian governments, as well as the Polisario Front rebel group, embroiled the Western Saharan territories in conflict and controversy. By 1991, a ceasefire had been negotiated, and the UN had established a mission for a referendum to be held on the future of the territory. The referendum has yet to happen, but as with most political disputes, life goes on unabated for the people living here.

I briefly worry that my blunt question has offended Sedati, but he smiles and continues telling me about his hometown. “Dakhla is special because it’s an open and safe area,” he says. “Ten years ago there was nothing here; Dakhla was just a name on a map. Now people come from all over the world to be here. The tourists bring jobs and people with jobs aren’t concerned with the old conflicts.”

Credit: Jesse Norton
Credit: Jesse Norton

This is a view seemingly shared by Crans Montana, an international NGO dedicated to political and economic reconstruction, who chose Dakhla’s newly-built conference centre to host their annual forum this year. Speaking to the press when this decision was announced, the president of the Forum called Dakhla “a model for the future of Morocco and Africa [with] an outstanding strategic position as a economic and commercial hub”, and said that their decision to host there was “an opportunity to promote peace and dialogue” in the region. It certainly feels like an open and peaceful place for a curious, wandering traveller like me.

Back on the streets, battered motorbikes and four-wheel drives whirl past as I search for somewhere I can get a mint tea. Making my way back to the souk, I think about the footfall these shiny new streets will see now that the shroud of territorial dispute has been lifted from the lives of people in Dakhla. The future is full of possibilities.

visitmorocco.com

The Extraordinary Power of Toilets in India

Image courtesy of GLP Films
Image courtesy of GLP Films

A shot of a scholarly-looking, older Indian man pushing the flush on a toy toilet isn’t exactly the introduction you’d expect to a documentary about the plight of Delhi’s ‘untouchable’ population. But as the crew from US-based production company GLP films discovered, Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak – founder of Delhi’s irreverent toilet museum – has developed his interest in all things latrine over many years.

Pathak, 72, and the work of the Sulabh  Foundation that he created over forty years ago, are the subject of the documentary A Toilet Fascination Leads To Social Change, a new short created in partnership with National Geographic. The film tells the story of the quietly determined doctor and his two central missions: to revolutionise the sanitation system in India, and to help some of the country’s most vulnerable people. These goals are inextricably linked.

Clearing the human waste produced by India’s 1.2 billion people is a job that has traditionally fallen to members of one of the lowest and most persecuted castes – the Balmiki. Done the old-fashioned way, “manual scavenging” involves crawling into latrines and collecting excrement by hand before carrying it away on the head in an (often leaking) basket for disposal.

The Sulabh Foundation, I discover, has made outstanding inroads into abolishing this status quo. They’ve come up with a viable alternative to traditional brick latrines, while providing vital retraining programmes for the people who had been forced to clean them. Sulabh has pioneered the design of a cost-effective, flushable lavatory that eliminates the need for such exhausting and hazardous labour. Over 55 million toilets based on this model have been installed nationally, and 640 towns are now completely “scavenger-free”.

 

So how did the team from GLP come upon such an extraordinary character? “We uncovered the story of the toilet museum first,” Jenny Ersbak, the company’s production manager, tells me. “It was known as one of those kooky, must-see attractions in Delhi. From there, the story of the Sulabh organisation came to light. We learned more about its creation and its purpose; then we were introduced to Dr. Pathak and learnt of his mission to improve sanitation across India.”

Rob Holmes, the film’s director, had visited India a number of times, but for the rest of the crew it was quite a culture shock. “The moments that I found to be the most memorable were the ones that were particularly moving,” says Ersbak. “Visiting the slum in Delhi – for a film crew from the West, the sight of that much poverty is really troubling. Being face to face with the issues you came to document is such an eye opener. You see people defecating on the streets and you think, ‘OK, this is real’.”

I wonder about the difficulties of filming in such an environment. “I think the biggest challenge was being able to capture those raw moments without being disrespectful to the people we were filming. It’s something that all filmmakers struggle with,” Ersbak tells me. “When you capture emotion on film, it can really breath life into a piece, but at what cost?”

The film was produced as a piece of bite-sized digital content that would tell a powerful, contemporary story within the space of a few minutes. Ersbak is enthusiastic about the potential influence this kind of documentary can have, particularly because of the demographic it’s likely to appeal to. “It’s the younger viewers, the millennials,” she says. “They’re the first generation to age in the digital world, so we hope that our films are going to reach people that we can truly inspire to bring about change.”

The Best of Luxury Boutique Hotels in UK Cities

Diverse, vibrant and unique, UK cities have a lot to offer to bright-eyed travellers who are keen to learn and explore. But when it comes to accommodation, a lot can go wrong. If you don’t have friends in the city you’re visiting, you might find yourself choosing a hotel blindly without really knowing it’s the right one for you.

We know all too well that where you choose to rest your head can really impact on your experience of a place. That’s why we’ve done all the hard work for you and put together our luxury boutique hotel picks in five of our favourite UK cities.

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Image via Landmark London

The Landmark, London

Dating back to 1899, this grand Victorian railway hotel is a 2-minute walk from Marylebone tube station and a 6-minute walk from Madame Tussauds. The rooms have tasteful, classic decor, and feature sitting areas and flat-screen TVs. Suites add Nespresso machines, Italian marble bathrooms and separate living areas, and suite guests get to use the hotel’s spa and health club for free.

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Image via Landmark London

The real treat at this property though is the restaurant’s incredible architecture. It’s set in an eight-storey atrium beneath a glass roof and has an enormous mirrored bar. Even if you don’t have time to dine for a full meal, breakfast, afternoon tea and aperitifs (included in some room rates) are served in this spectacular space. Just sitting here is luxury London at its best, and leaves no doubt as to why this hotel has been awarded Great Hotels of the World Luxury Collection status.

222 Marylebone Road, London NW1 6JQ | 020 7631 8000
landmarklondon.co.uk (or ghotw.com/hotel/home/landmark-london.htm)

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Image via Hotel Felix

Hotel Felix, Cambridge

Nestled on grounds that feel more country home than city lodging, Hotel Felix is that rare thing: a premium property with a real personal touch. This 52-bedroom independent hotel is stylish and friendly, and situated within easy reach of Cambridge city centre. The rooms feature laid-back, modern decor and offer flat-screen TVs, tea and coffeemaking equipment, and free WiFi.

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Image via Hotel Felix

Graffiti, the hotel’s award-winning fine dining restaurant, serves up sublime British cuisine in a contemporary dining room that’s brimming with distinctive and colourful artwork. As well as mouthwatering lunch and dinner menus of seasonal cuisine, freshly-made hot breakfasts and afternoon tea are also available in this vibrant space. Guest parking and full breakfast is included in most room rates.

Whitehouse Lane, Huntington Road, Cambridge CB3 0LX | 01223 277977
hotelfelix.co.uk | twitter.com/FelixCambridge

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Image via The Bristol Hotel

The Bristol Hotel, Bristol

This upscale quayside hotel is the ultimate accommodation option in Bristol, situated close to the Arnolfini Arts Centre and Bristol Hippodrome. A member of the premium Doyle Collection of Hotels, The Bristol hotel is a city centre property that offers great service and indulgent little touches without any of the fuss.

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Image via The Bristol Hotel

The contemporary guest rooms feature flat-screen TVs and free WiFi, as well as Nespresso machines and iPod docking stations. Most also have river views. The harbourside grill restaurant boasts floor-to-ceiling windows and serves up locally-sourced, seasonal cuisine. Guest parking is free in an adjacent car park.

Prince Street, Bristol BS1 4QF | 0117 923 0333
doylecollection.com/hotels/the-bristol-hotel

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Image via A Room With A View

A Room With A View, Brighton

Set in an elegant Georgian townhouse, A Room With A View offers a taste of luxury in an intimate, laid-back setting. This swanky guesthouse is a 10-minute walk from Brighton Pier and less than four miles from the Castle Hill National Nature Reserve.

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Image via A Room With A View

The stylish, modern guest rooms feature marble bathrooms, Nespresso machines and flat-screen TVs. Some rooms have private balconies, while most also offer sea views. With just 9 rooms available, options range from single to king-size. Freebies include full hot breakfast served in an airy dining room, WiFi access and guest parking.

41 Marine Parade, Brighton BN2 1PE | 01273 682885
aroomwithaviewbrighton.com

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Image via Hotel Gotham

Hotel Gotham, Manchester

Set in a historic building that was previously home to a bank, Hotel Gotham opened earlier this year and has since made a name for itself as one of the city’s finest accommodation options. Decorated in art-deco style, other hotel features include a Modern British restaurant with city views, and a bar/club with terraces on the top floor.

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Image via Hotel Gotham

The sophisticated, vintage-style guest rooms feature high ceilings, flat-screen TVs and Nespresso machines, as well as minibars and free WiFi. Suites include extras such as sitting areas, free-standing tubs and 60-inch flat-screen TVs. Full hot breakfast and 24-hour room service are available at additional cost.

100 King Street, Manchester M60 8HG | 0843 357 5555
hotelgotham.co.uk