A Series of Unfortunate Cambridge Summers

Two sociopathic goats, detainment in prison, forced circumcision and reincarnation as a Heian warrior… No, this is not the plot to the next instalment of Game of Thrones. This is a series of unfortunate Cambridge summers.

Ben Jones bolivia Congo France Gap Yah gap-year goats Japan oliver james prison Sophia Vahdati summer Uganda will heilpern

We’re a mobile, independent bunch, us Tabs. There’s really nothing we love more than to walk through Departures alone; the pinch of flight socks around our calves provoking the knowing grin akin to that of hidden sex-underwear, and we might just well treat ourselves to a copy of Le Monde.

We are however prone to mistakes. It’s not so rare, for example, that we accidentally mistake ourselves for Emile Hirsch in that film about him looking rosy-faced and interesting in an Alaskan caravan. More often still is that – and this is a problem with which we are all too familiar – we mistake work for fun. Below are five Cambridge Summers which, whilst having felt so right, were oh so wrong.

Oliver James is a land-ec abroad

After a year of liver-busting Land Economy, I headed to Japan to undertake an internship in a traditional Japanese inn along the quiet seaside. I should have realised something was amiss from the first day when the boss commented that my chakras were aligned but I just shrugged it off, made sure my fly was zipped and continued working. Such marked the beginning of my voyage into the bizarre world of Japanese mysticism and the occult. Aside from the compulsory sun worship and prayers to the nearby mountain, I was charged with devising a marketing campaign in which I struggled to integrate the owner’s obsession with ‘good vibrations’. I did get my cake and eat it too though as one day the boss had a revelation that I, the lanky A4-paper-white intern, was actually the reincarnation of a Heian period warrior from the local area and today was my birthday. So full of conviction, she immediately drove me to rival hotel and sent me straight to the dessert buffet with the company credit card. On one hand, the jokes about my next task being to complete the bridge (on the river Kwai) were a bit awkward. Equally though, most of the staff were convinced that the Jewish people are the divine, holy race and so they literally worshipped my shoes on the Sabbath. A case of ‘swings and roundabouts’ really.

I recently applied to a Deloitte program for next summer but was rejected off the cuff. Apparently they’re not too keen on an ‘insightful 3rd eye’ or a ‘blessed soul’.


The apparently sacred mountain. Looks more like a hill to me.

Ben Dalton grabs a goat-away in South France

The dissertation had nipped at my flesh until I finally cracked and booked myself onto one of those volunteer-at-a-goat-farm excursions. It promised a rustic farmhouse in the darkest depths of Le Gard, organic cheese and an outdoors shower with a selection of local soaps. Buoyed up with self-satisfaction at the achieved shoe-string budget, I threw Judith Butler and her gender trouble into a plastic bag, and boarded the first Ryanair.

Upon arrival I was met with the advertised idyll. A babbling brook ran past the outdoors shower. Bees clumsied around the hives, fat and baffled in the heat. Two goats swung their ample bosoms at me, ripe for the milking; one named Margot and the other named Fartulina. I decided that by the end of the fortnight, I might look like that broad, virile farmhand off Born And Bred, and picked up a shovel.

The old couple we were living with were an interesting pair. She was a hearty, axe-wielding, wiping-sweat-from-forehead-with-wrist powerhouse whilst he scurried around hives with a nervous tremor much akin to that of Jane’s father from Tarzan. She liked to drink all the wine at dinner, but he seemed to scan round the room in terror for his wife when offered a drop of rum. She thought that there was too much violence on television, and he didn’t have an opinion on the matter. She cried openly at the kitchen table when I mentioned I liked Quentin Tarrantino. She is the one who later slit two goats’ throats with a carving knife and curried their testicles for the evening meal.

It was soon realised things were going to be different than imagined. Fartulina and Margot proved less fun than I’d expected – walking them daily was like walking a hungry sociopath through a Cantonese buffet – and the isolation was soon too much to bare.


Goat’s Cheesey Grin

Ben Jones Gets In Trouble In The Congo

Last week I was detained in the Democratic Republic of Congo. My crime? Taking a photograph of a vegetable stall. Taking photos is officially illegal in Congo, though the law does not count for much here.

Firstly, I was asked for my passport and then for my invitation letter – both of which I had. Other bystanders present in the room went on to suggest other documents I should be asked to produce. Eventually, the suggestion was made that I produce my ‘Environmental Permit’. This is not an item I tend to bring with me when I go shopping. Indeed, this is not a document that exists, but in the theatre of Congolese corruption, it provided a perfect excuse for a spot of casual extortion. The guy in uniform burst into a rage, ranting on presumably about the audacity of a Westerner visiting his market without thinking to bring along his environmental permit. Meanwhile, some other guy was brought in. He started crying. All the cells behind us appeared to be full so he was locked in the toilet with another chap. It was all getting a bit heated.

This farce continued for another three hours. More and more ‘officials’ turned up, with their eyes on the prize of whatever they would manage to extort out of us. The commander explained to us that due to our proximity with the front line, they feared we were spies for the m23 rebels. I’m not sure how stupid they thought the rebels were, but I am pretty sure no rebel group would be dumb enough to employ a 6 foot 4 westerner and send him to an area where many people have never before seen a westerner for the purpose of taking photographs of vegetable stalls. Of course, the reason I was detained was not due to the illegality of photography, nor to my lack of an environmental permit, nor even to my employment as a rebel spy. It is all theatre; corruption has become part of the culture. And when state officials are not paid, as is the case in Congo, who can blame them?

I was eventually extorted of 20 dollars, and as I left the fighting began over how this money would be divided out commenced.


Ben with the least intimidating man holding an AK in the world?

Will Heilpern gets a facial in Uganda

Not fancying an entire summer of broken dreams and provincial clubbing in Kent, I agreed to go volunteering with a friend who’d found a place we could stay in Uganda via ‘Workaway.info’. Being a fairly distracted person, I hadn’t actually researched the exact town we were staying in until about a week before flying. Having finally googled ‘Mbale, Uganda’, I quickly found the headline ‘Indiscriminate circumcision: foreigners flee Mbale town’ from just last year. Being a foreigner with foreskin which I planned on keeping, I was nervous, but nevertheless made the trip in high spirits.

Our host, a man named Freddy, turned out to be a massive celebrity in the town, having his own comedy radio and TV show and being one of the kindest and funniest people I’ve met – despite his penchant for doing a massively offensive impression of the Chinese. Anyway, thanks to Freddy’s large network of people, things were going well, if a bit precariously. Having spent time volunteering for the Ugandan Red Cross, a local orphanage and another organisation that educated isolated villages on HIV prevention and why forced circumcision isn’t cool, as well spending some time shadowing a local TV reporter, who seemed set on taking me to various murder scenes, I felt like I was being a vaguely decent human being. We only got broken into once and we were never mugged or machete-d, unlike one volunteer who stayed at Freddy’s last year.

However, the night before my friend and I were meant to travel to Kenya to do some safari and climb a mountain, the moped taxi I was on skidded and swerved around a pot-hole, throwing me off, face-first, into the Ugandan tarmac. The driver just managed to stay on the bike, so he turned it around to observe his spilt cargo. Clearly he decided I was not worth saving and so sped off into the slums. I woke up the next morning with half my face ground into a great zombie costume, only held together by some incredibly amateur and absurdly thick stitching that was genuinely made out of cat’s guts. Having taken medical advice, I was forced to return home for re-constructive surgery to retain any hope of getting laid ever again.


Ugandan bandaging. Can’t blame the accident for the Miley Cyrus hair though

Sophie Vahdati becomes a banged-up Brit abroad

This summer my aim was not one that is held by very many Cambridge students: I wanted to go to prison.  Of course, getting into British or even an American prison would have been far too easy and not that interesting or rewarding; I wanted to get inside a South American prison.  Not just any old South American prison, I wanted to enter (and leave in one piece) the infamous San Pedro Prison found in La Paz Bolivia. After spending two weeks running around La Paz, nearly choking on the altitude and bureaucracy I encountered attempting to get a permit, I made it in three times.  I’ve felt more at risk in Fabric in London before: the internal security had my back, there were three year olds playing on scooters and men joking around in front of a large mural of Che Guevara on the wall.  This prison is run by the inmates. As soon as you enter, all outside influence and law has no meaning or power and yet the prison is seen to be relatively safe for the women and children who live there with their spouses and fathers.  I wrote an article about the games played in the prison for a local newspaper – The Bolivian Express, here’s a sneak preview:

On the southern side of the tranquil Plaza San Pedro, a couple of blocks from La Paz’s central artery, and a stone’s throw from the Sopocachi district, lies a huge concrete construction awash with uneven off-white paint. If it were not for a small red brick watchtower on the corner of the building and a scrum of police officers, the building would simply blend into the background of the square. But if you venture inside this brick fortress, you will find high-profile disgraced politicians, alleged terrorists, murderers, and minor thieves. This is the notorious San Pedro prison, made internationally famous by Rusty Young’s book, Marching Powder, about prison tour guide and drug trafficker Thomas McFadden’s time as an inmate. Inside, wives and children live with their convicted husbands and fathers. Behind the hype and the horror stories lie tight-knit communities and strong friendships in which a real-life game of Monopoly is part of the inmates’ everyday lives. Sophie has a blog here.

bolivian prison

May the above tales be of caution. If ever you feel it might be a good idea to ‘find yourself’ in any place more exotic than the UL, you were quite sadly mistaken.