Nomads. We are all nomads at heart. The first humans were hunter-gatherers, and that primal seed still lies somewhere deep inside us.
My own inner nomad started on a trip to Alaska, half a lifetime ago. From Vancouver, three nights atop an open ferry deck, stars above and whales in front (…magical, but bloody freezing…), took me to the old frontier towns of Alaska’s Pacific pan-handle. There, hitching the open road, the jaw-dropping wilderness, the quirky characters, and the exhilarating freedom opened up a can of Kerouac and a crate of Grateful Dead and I was never the same again.
I was lucky then to have the opportunity to travel. Each summer brought a different place, and each place brought a different theme. In Eastern Europe, it was my ancestral roots and the Latvian shtetl of great-grandmother Minnie. In Mexico, it was about sense of place, people, food and the spirit of travel. Next-up was India, intriguing but where mortality never appeared far away: not just the perpetual impoverishment around me, but dicing with death every time I took a bus. And once I was almost swept out to sea… In Bolivia, the ethereal landscapes. In Tonga, the sense of a society so far-removed from my own. Oh, and lovely beaches.
The world has changed since my travels deep in the heart of the 20th Century. Technology has made things much easier…
21st Century gap-yearer: Swift wave of contactless credit card and you’ve bought the little Buddha statue before you even know it.
20th Century teenage me: Having to lug a wad of traveller’s cheques ( – do they even still exist?) which you converted to cash at select banks. I have particularly fond memories of Indian bureaucracy, which involved queueing in a queue to determine which queue you need to queue in, only to be issued with a plastic token to present at the next queue for the counter which provides the cash, following which a final queue for a receipt and a little blessing…
21st Century gap-yearer: “Hi mum, you’re on Skype, cool! Oh wait a sec, I’m being WhatsApp’ed from my new friend I met in Bangkok…”
20th Century teenage me: Having to traipse around looking for a shop (yes, shop) whose sole function is to provide international phone calls. In the latter days of the 20th Century, when internet came into being, you instead traipsed around for internet cafes where you spent much of your holiday waiting on dial-up connections.
21st Century gap-yearer: Camera-phone out. Snap. Snap. Instagram selfie with new friend and tuk-tuk driver outside Taj Mahal. 623 likes per hour.
20th Century teenage me: Having to schlep a stash of camera film, only to have no idea what on earth you’ve photographed until several weeks later, only to find that ultimate shot of pristine Alaskan landscape at sunset was photo-bombed by your excitable travel buddy wearing fake moose-antlers. Some proper photographers may even still use film, but I haven’t seen it since 2002.
Oh well, it seems I’ve gone a bit off track… I haven’t even mentioned food yet, never mind a dish. But the blog is entitled 1-dish-4-the-road, and this is the road part. And the road is the whole point of the Roving Café.
Given the name, you won’t be surprised to hear that the Roving Café roves. It’s home is a pink mini-van, and from its pristine counters spill all manner of home-made delectable creations: cakes, breads, and a roving lunch menu. Its owner is Hayley, a friendly yet unassuming cook and baker passionate about food and community. It’s taken up residency at the Nomadic Community Gardens, which I happened across during a tour of East London street-art.
The gardens themselves are literally – excuse the pun – a grassroots project aimed to create horticultural communal spaces in disused urban corners. Just finding the place is part of the allure. Go east from the corporate cornucopia of the City and its sleek soaring skyscrapers. Go east from the curries and bagels of Brick Lane and its multi-layered history. Turn right down a hidden deserted alley. Then out onto an open plain, where there’s a tree literally lined with a hundred shoes and a sign that’s slightly defaced to read ‘Alien Gardens’. There you pass through a concrete portal and you find yourself in… well, punk Narnia.
Inside the gardens’ strange serene space, the city’s sounds fade far away and a carnival of colour erupts from street-art painted walls and ramshackle flower-festooned beds. Sculptures sprout from the ground and tyre-parts leap over tumbledown concrete like urban dolphins. If you are lucky, someone is performing music; last time, the singer-songwriter Luke Burnsright was busking outside. It’s a place where people meet, eat, drink, dance, sing, smoke, paint, play music, and grow produce.
It’s fair to say that one person’s urban oasis is another person’s post-apocalyptic nightmare. With the burning open fire, the derelict surroundings, and the strewn flotsam and jetsam of urban living – used tyres, cast-out upholstery, metal scraps – it’s faintly reminiscent of Mad Max, albeit with a touch of Alan Titchmarsh. The smattering of salad leaves protruding out from graffiti-ed plant-pots only adds to the sense of people eking out an end-of-the-world existence.
I guess what you think of the Nomadic Community Gardens may depend on where you sit on The Nomad Scale, a scientifically validated tool specifically developed for this blog:
1 – hunkered underground post-apocalypse with humanity’s last few cans of fava beans, frantically yelping eyes’a’blinkin’…“Bastards…you’re not gonna take me!”
2 – hermit in cave
3 – MI5 safe-house
4 – The Queen
5 – “I don’t care you’re HS2 and you’ve a bulldozer, we’re staying put!”
6 – family home
7 – junior doctor
8 – your forever-travelling hippy friend
9 – The Littlest Hobo (“There’s a voice that keeps on calling me…”)
10 – actual nomad.
The Roving Café meanwhile sits harmoniously in symbiotic relationship with the gardens, sharing its energy and ethos. At my last visit, Hayley had lovingly prepared a deliciously aromatic orange & almond cake, moist and radiant in the early-summer light. Perfect with a stove-top machinetta-made dark espresso. Dish in hand, you can sit out in the sunshine, on a bench or tire or even atop a dilapidated old boat (with a goat – well Spitalfields City Farm is just next door…)
I’ve shared a bit of myself in this post. But that’s the point of the RovingCafé and the Nomadic Community Gardens. It’s a place where you can sit. It’s a place where you can be. It’s a space where people bring their own story to a receptive horticultural canvas, and share it with-out or reflect within. It transports you out of the normal routine and into a world where you can connect with others or yourself, with the natural world or the distant throng of the city. For me, its spirit resonated with a different time and place in my life, but one I’m still fondly attached to.
Go, and find your own inner nomad…
Worthy community project and magical space? Or Mad Max meets Alan Titchmarsh? And where are you on the Nomad Scale… To find out more about my travels, here’s a piece I wrote about Mexico and its food.
Down a hidden alley, and find a tree lined with a hundred shoes…
Past a sign slightly defaced to read ‘Alien Gardens’…
Through a concrete portal…
And welcome to punk Narnia…
The Nomadic Community Gardens…
…Where you’ll find the Roving Cafe