Tuesday, 6 August 2019

*Do* go when Lonely Planet tells you not to!

Guidebooks seem to do this regularly; they advise you to miss out places during their festivals, because the hotels are booked up and there are too many people there. Don't go to Pachmarhi at Shivatri Mela, don't go to Pamplona for the Running of the Bulls, don't go to Palitana for the great mela. Don't go to Lalibela at Christmas, the hotels are too expensive and the churches are full of Ethiopians...

Oh come on! This is when these places are most alive!

I could have climbed Charaugarh any day. It's a half good mountain; a stiff climb, some good views, a cool forest beneath. But it's not that special - except at Shivatri Mela.

At Shivatri Mela, I was able to climb aboard a jeep full of Indian pilgrims singing bhajans, which delivered us to the huge car park at the bottom of the hill. I wedged myself between two fifty-year-old ladies who held me tight as the jeep swayed its way up the serpentine road, leaning into every curve and belting out a cloud of exhaust, dust, and incense behind it.

At Shivatri Mela, a little boy dressed as Shiva poked me with his trident because I didn't give him enough money. Another thrust a cobra in a basket at me, and sniggered when I flinched.

At Shivatri Mela, someone stole my Coke out of my backpack. At Shivatri Mela, five other people grabbed my bottle of Coke back and gave him a stern tongue-wagging for bad behaviour.

At Shivatri Mela, I hung out with a Hyderabad brass band. I was invited to tea in their camp, I sang with the band, I had fun with their kids, I bathed in the band leader's sunshine of a smile.

At Shivatri Mela the caves were full of the sound of coconuts being smashed in the courtyard. The air was full of incense.

At Shivatri Mela, thickset men were dancing in ecstasy with the huge, heavy iron tridents of the god on their shoulders. Men and women in trance sat on the ground, howling gently or swaying and singing, some with friends gently holding their shoulders. The fire blazed up, black smoke drifting into blue sky. Shy women and braggart men dressed in their Shivatri best came to ask me to take their photos.

All this I'd have missed if I'd done what the guidebooks told me. I would have found a genteel hill station where all the sights are too far apart to visit without a jeep, where there are no decent hiking trails, and the town seems asleep most of the time. I would have got very bored very quickly. And I'd never have met that brass band.

Tuesday, 9 April 2019

Relating tourism to the local economy

How much should you give a guide?

One party decided to give a guide who had devoted a few hours of his time to showing them round Harar 100 birr each. Total: 700 birr. "It's not much to us," one person said. "Less than four bucks."

That's a fair statement. However, let's look at the other side of that equation. What's 700 birr to the guide?

Some ideas of Ethiopian salaries come in handy. Systems administrator in a major bank: 5,000 birr a month ($173). So that tip equates to about two days' work for a qualified and expert worker. A factory worker might only make $45 a month; a teacher, just $38 a month. Bus drivers make even less.

So it would only take someone seven or eight days of reasonably generous tourists to equal or surpass a teacher's salary. They can do even better if they manage to get commissions from steering those tourists to particular guest houses, taxi drivers or shops.

And this is a problem. Why would you bother with a job, when you can do better by becoming a tour guide? There's no entry qualification, no licence, and you can get started just by hassling a tourist until they think it's easier to let you accompany them than to keep insisting they want to be left alone.

That is a huge problem for the Ethiopian economy. If tourists are too open-handed, they can end up destroying the underpinnings of the local economy. You're helping to create a situation in which no one wants to open a shop, run public transport, bake bread, be a butcher, work in an office - because that's not where the money is. You're also creating an unpleasant hothouse environment for tourism - but that's by the by.

On the other hand, when I stayed in a local hotel in Dire Dawa, I knew my money was going into the local economy. When I bought a basic meal in a cafe in Gondar, or took a local bus, my payments went to businesses that were there, 90% of the time, for other Ethiopians. Giving a beer or a cigarette to someone, or buying them a coffee, is the way to return small favours - not dumping a load of cash.

Always, always, check the average salary before you head for a country. Always, always, try to understand something about the local economy; because like it or not, your decisions and your flow of payments will have an impact on it.

Friday, 29 March 2019

Egypt is hard: some practicalities

Egypt is a country that either makes your life as a traveller too easy by half, or really quite difficult. That is, there are lots of day trips and cruises and all inclusive tours. And then there are places that are almost impossible to get to on public transport, where you'll end up with a police escort, that no one goes to...

So here are a few practicalities.

Darshur and Saqqara

Darshur has three pyramids. (Four if you include the small one appended to the 'bent pyramid'.) It's one of the most evocative sites, with views over the Nile Valley and its rich vegetation, all the way to the skyscrapers of modern Cairo.

From time to time a bus turns up with tourists. They stay for about 15 minutes. While I was there, one guy didn't even bother to get out of the bus, just took a photo from the door and sat back down again.

But you can get there by public transport and while it's a bit tricky, it's not all that difficult. First, the Metro to El Moneib. That's really easy.

At El Moneib, exit the metro and ask for a bus to El Badrasheen. This minibus will be on the same side of the road as the metro exit. It should cost 3 or 3 1/2 Egyptian pounds.

At El Badrasheen you get off near a little tea stand, on a road with the canal to your right. Keep on down the road to the crossing. Take a right turn; the road crosses over the canal. Once over the canal, take a left, and when this road reaches the flyovers, you'll see a load of minibuses under the flyovers. Ask there for Darshur village. From the village, find a tuktuk going to the entrance of the archaeological site (ask for al-haram, the pyramids).

Coming back, we didn't find a tuktuk at the entrance, but walked a couple of minutes along the road back to the village (it's a total of 2km), and one came along. 20 pounds should suffice to get to either Darshur or Saqqara village from the site, and 40 to get to Saqqara archaeological site's north entrance. (That's about one or two euros.)

The way to get to Saqqara is pretty much the same; just take a Saqqara bus from El Badrasheen. Again, that will get you into the village, and you then need Shanks's Pony or a tuktuk to get to the archaeological site entrance.

WARNING: no one knows how to get to the south entrance of the Saqqara site. We tried.


You're supposed to get your tickets in advance and only use certain trains. Don't bother. Get on the train; it costs 6 pounds extra to buy your ticket on the train, that's about 25 cents. The conductor may well look after you - I was told to join the conductors and police on board one train, offered smokes and tea, and even had my bag carried to the platform for me when I got off.


Abydos is a little way off the track. You need to get to Al Balyani station - most trains from Luxor (or in the other direction, from Cairo) stop there. From there, it's a short tuktuk or taxi trip to Abydos which will cost, probably, 40 Egyptian pounds on the way out but 100 back (because you have to reserve a car from Abydos, whereas there are loads of tuktuks waiting at the station).

I did get a little worried about things at Al Balyani. A riot broke out as tuktuk drivers fought each other for my business and tried to grab my bag off me. But c'est pas grave. I stepped back into the station, the stationmaster let me wait things out for ten minutes in his cool and spacious office, and a policeman sorted things out and organised my transport for me. And I got a cup of tea, too.

At Abydos, there is only one hotel that pops up on Tripadvisor, the expensive (60 euros a night) House of Life. But if you ask any of the guards at the temple, they all know Ameer Kareem, who runs a fine guesthouse called 'Flower of Life' near the Ramesses II temple. He charged me 500 EL for dinner (a very good piece of roast chicken with plenty of salad and veg and sauce) and breakfast (the best I had in Egypt) as well as a huge room with a choice of three beds. He also runs the Flower of Life shop opposite the temple entrance, so you can ask there.

You may be offered a police escort from the temple to the guesthouse. I suspect that's a bit over the top, but it does have the advantage of keeping the over-insistent baksheesh-seeking little boys away.

Kudos to the director of the archaeological site, by the way. This is one of the friendliest places I've visited in Egypt.

Kom Ombo and Edfu

Another pair of stunning temples that are relatively easy to get to by train from Luxor. Rather than looking for a tuktuk or taxi outside the station at Kom Ombo, go to the tea shop and ask the owner. That secured me a better price!

Don't bother having anyone wait for you. At Kom Ombo there are almost always tuktuks waiting at the exit. They'll quote you 100 EL for the trip to the station, but it should be 20-30; I walked, and after a hundred yards heard a tuktuk coming up behind me. Yes, he'd take me for 20. At Edfu, walk back into town (there's a cemetery wall on your left, the temple grounds on your right), and at the big crossroads, you'll find a minibus for the station.

I actually did rather well out of taking the minibus, as he decided to drop me at the microbus station and find me a bus going to Luxor, which left within five minutes, so I didn't have to wait an hour for the next train. The Microbus stand in Luxor is about a ten minute walk (if you walk briskly) from the level crossing that you need to cross to get to the railway station.

Friday, 15 March 2019

Should travel have an objective?

We're used to think of going somewhere as an end in itself. The travelling itself becomes its own objective.

But that's a consumerist idea. Livingstone, Stanley, Amundsen, Columbus didn't just set out to see what happened. They had objectives: find the source of the Nile, get to the Pole, find the Indies and the source of indescribable wealth. Marco Polo was a typical Venetian, looking for trade deals; Alexandra David-Neel sought the wisdom of Tibetan lamas; and Rimbaud.... well, he was really running away from something, not trying to find it.

Yet most of us go on a trip without an objective. (Of course, if you're off to the beach or the countryside just wanting to relax or recharge your batteries. that's an objective. But if you're just going somewhere to tick it off the bucket list, that's not.)

 I was thinking about this on the plane home from Egypt. I had a feeling that for once, I had met all my objectives. I had a whole list of things I hadn't done; I hadn't sailed on a felucca, visited Philae, gone to Dendera or the western desert or the White and Red Monasteries. But I didn't care; I had a feeling I'd achieved my objectives. A feeling of satisfaction.

I was intrigued that I felt so satisifed despite the huge gaps, the unvisited things. I decided I needed to unpack that a bit. What had I gone to Egypt to do?

Now: a bit of background. When I was young, I was really into Egyptology. I learned a few hieroglyphs (and I can still manage to distinguish User-maat-re, or Ramesses II, from his father Men-maat-re or Seti I, from their cartouches), I drew Tutankhamen's mask in every exercise book, I made pyramids out of cardboard. And then, later on, I drifted away from it, as we mainly do from our childhood crazes.

Then came a time when I discovered Islamic architecture. In Spain, in Oman, in Mughal India. I saw one great city, Istanbul, as full of mosques as of great Greek churches (most of which, of course, were turned into mosques). I discovered the Arab streetscapes of Muscat souk, and tried, and failed, to map it; later, I discovered that Seville was just as impenetrable, and just as typically Arab in its ground plan.

So my objectives in visiting Egypt were to get a feel for ancient Egypt - to orientate myself in it, to understand its context, to take it out of the museum, as it were, and see it in its original richness. And to see Islamic Cairo, which had been one of the great cities of the world in the middle ages.

Did I succeed? Yes, and sometimes in unexpected ways. For instance, rather than visiting the Valley of the Kings, I got my feel for ancient tombs in the Tombs of the Nobles at Aswan. Here I could wander about, spend time getting the feel of how these tombs were excavated, how they were decorated, how they related to the landscape. I probably wouldn't have got so much from just visiting one of the jewel box tombs, like Nefertari's or Tutankhamun's.

I had only three days to see Islamic Cairo. I was disappointed by Ibn Tulun's mosque. But I was intrigued to find Fatimid elements in Coptic Cairo - one of the churches is the tall, narrow main hall of a Fatimid era house, and the beautiful, complex carpentry of the screenwork in the shrines is exactly the same as work in the mosques and mausoleums. Again, an unexpected way to meet that objective. (I did later find the lovely Qalawun mausoleum, mosque and hospital, and the fine house of al-Harawi near al-Azhar mosque, and the immense and powerful Sultan Hassan mosque - all highly recommended for visitors.)

So in future, when I'm taking a trip, I'm going to think about my objectives. Which might be as simple as to walk from A to B. Or as tricky as investigating the traditional music scene. Or just to visit all the microbreweries I can.  It beats ticking off 'sights' in a copy of Lonely Planet.

Tuesday, 5 February 2019

How our choice of transport changes what we see

I would never have understood Ethiopia if it hadn't been for the planes.

Let me explain. Ethiopia is just too big and too mountainous to get around easily. And I only had three weeks to see the country; which I don't think is enough. Given my time again, I'd spend a whole week in Gondar, a week in Axum and a week in Lalibela.... but anyway, that combined with the fact that Ethiopian has advantageous domestic fares if you have an Ethiopian Airlines international ticket meant that I flew a lot more than I usually would.

Looking down, I saw the mountains on the way to Gondar. High, wrinkled, rough mountains. Mountains in brown and fawn and yellow, dry already.

But I also saw tiny round compounds. I saw precarious terraces carved into the slopes. I saw fields dotted by bright yellow roundels of haystack.

On the plane to Dire Dawa, I saw an immense slab of desert cut by braids of dry rivercourse. I saw high mesas carved out by fast rivers with cliffs falling away on every side. And on top of nearly every mesa was a village, small houses and fields doing their best to ignore the fact that their world is flat, and that a hundred metres from your house the bottom drops out of it.

I have no idea how people get to these villages, though the fact that one of my scouts in the Simien mountains walked just in his flipflops might be indicative. (Another walked in wellies, and shot up mountain trails like a goat on acid.)

I would never have seen this so clearly by any other form of transport. Ethiopia looks dry and scrubby and deserted; but what's striking is its fertility, and the intensive use that Ethiopian farmers make of the land.

Get on a bus, and you see something quite different. If you can see anything at all - because you're probably sandwiched in between a young professional with a big black laptop bag and her hair in tight braids, and a family with two babies clambering all over everyone in the bus. (Though at least no one will be standing up. That's a relief.)

You see school students dressed in bright shirts - burgundy, neon green, yellow and pink - streaming along the road in their hundreds as they come out of school in the late afternoon. You see Ethiopia's future in their satchels and their smiles. You see ox carts and bajajes and minibuses, and the occasional landcruiser, and savant donkeys who know their way home and trot with firewood on their backs and no apparent master.

(You see a minibus with drips of blood all over one door. Someone says "one man killed.")

You see long ribbons of bright grey road. Chinese made road. Very good road, but where you can't drive fast, because of the ox carts, donkeys, schoolchildren, cows.

This Ethiopia is different. Though equally interesting.

I wish I'd been on the train. Not the glitzy Chinese-run train that runs from Addis to Djibouti, stopping only in (well, 11 km out of) Dire Dawa, but the little local train that runs from Dire Dawa to the Djibouti border, through the bush, stopping in every tiny village.

But that was a train I didn't have time to take. I'm sure I would have seen another aspect of the country.

Choosing your mode of travel isn't a simple choice, as Rome2Rio suggests. It's a complex choice; because even if you don't actually believe that "to travel hopefully is better than to arrive", to travel in a particular way will give you a particular appreciation of your destination. Choose carefully, then. Choose well.

Sunday, 3 February 2019

Ethiopian trees

Many travel writers wax lyrical about forests. Fewer are the lovers of individual trees. But some of my best memories are of trees; a grove of cedars just outside Hemis-Shukpachan, in Ladakh, silent and sacred; the tilleuls de Sully in France, planted by Henri IV's great minister of state, four hundred year old sentinels; a great banyan tree in Phimai, Thailand, which shelters temples and tearooms under its spreading tendrils.

Ethiopia is full of great trees. In Harar, one Muslim shrine is almost entirely swallowed up by a huge tree, the pockmarked green plaster of the shrine held in gnarly root-claws. Almost all Harar's shrines are shaded by a tree; and that's something, I've been told, that applies in Somaliland, too. Trees here have immense power; they are not quite sacred, but they are certainly numinous.

In Gondar, a massive fig tree stands opposite the entrance to the castle. Under it, now, there's a bar, and a billiards table, and benches for sitting in the shade. It is immense, an entire eco-system to itself. It was, my friend informed me, the great tree of the town, the place of the court before the castle was ever built. I drank a beer under it and felt refreshed, inspired by the tree's long history and huge growth.

Later, someone told me it was also the Hanging Tree for Gondar's malefactors, and the first thing the emperor Fasilides did when he came to Gondar was to hang the town's rebellious nobles from its branches.

At both Debre Berhan Selassie church, and Qusquam monastery, the compounds surrounding the churches are full of ancient, high pine trees. The air seems cool and green under their shade, and while tall, turretted walls protect the interior, it's the trees, not the wall, which create the feeling of isolation from the world's busy concerns. At Debre Berhan Selassie, lammergeiers wheeled overhead, and settled in the swaying tops of the highest trees.

Axum has its own great trees, one in the Piazza, and one in Da'Ero Ela; huge, spreading fig trees with benches set out below them, that dominate the open spaces around them. In Piazza, a funeral stopped at the tree, while the priests circumambulated the coffin and chanted; meanwhile, the owner of a little coffee stand started up her brazier, blowing on the charcoal to get it going. In Da'Ero Ela, camels sneered as they passed at the boys playing football there.

But my favourite tree in Ethiopia was not one of these great ancient trees. It was an acacia, I think, thick of trunk but balding on top, overhanging a street in Dire Dawa. Under its stunted shade were two bright umbrellas, and under the umbrellas were bright plastic stools, and a little stove, and two charming ladies, and half the population of the street, or so it seemed; and I sat there, doubly shaded by tree and umbrella, and drank hot, sweet, cinnamon-laden tea.

Thursday, 17 January 2019

Dire Dawa: In Praise of the Boring - Nothing to See Here

I spent a miserable three days in Harar, "Islam's fourth holy city" according to locals, the first circle of Hell according to me.

Pursued by cries of "Faranjo! faranjo!", latched on to by guide after guide, harrassed by urchins, heckled, pinched, grabbed. The city is full of intriguing alleyways, tiny tree-shaded shrines, brightly painted houses - but I was almost afraid to go anywhere. My heart sank. My energy disappeared. I sat for long hours in the patio of my guesthouse, where a hog-tied sheep awaited the slaughter and cats crouched on the roofs avidly waited their chance of what they knew was coming.

And then I went to Dire Dawa.

Dire Dawa is boring. It's a town that owes its existence to the old Addis-Djibouti Railway, and now, it's been bypassed completely by the new Addis-Djibouti railway (the station is 11km out of town). The settlement is a bare hundred years old. There's nothing much to see here; some markets, old railway sidings. There are no cute guesthouses, though there's a street full of modern five star hotels.

But I loved Dire Dawa. Here I could wander round town, sit in a cafe, order mango juice, drink a few beers. Here I could sit at a local tea stall, chat with people, enjoy life. Here I could go shopping in the market, and as soon as people realised I was buying spice and coffee as well as looking around and taking photos, I'd made friends.

At the church, I found the Nativity Play, episode seven, about to start; the Wise Men visit Herod. Herod in his velvet robes and golden crown was an Ethiopian prince, a young Ras Tafari, a bass-baritone who stamped his part with authority and malice; his chancellor stammered in falsetto, limped, and cringed, and the congregation roared with laughter. (Later, when I met the young man who had played the chancellor, he turned out to have a melodious tenor voice and a firm handshake - nothing like his character.) I was invited to sit with the congregation and share bread, under a huge acacia, as evening shade approached.

Later, there were hymns - but this isn't Hymns Ancient and Modern, this is Hymns Dub and Bass. Out came the big drums, blam, blam, blam, Full-throated, raucous singing. A huge syncopation of the bass drum announced every chorus - ker-dum dum ker-dum. A girl slung one of the drums round her neck, started the beat again, and began to lead her friends round, dancing in a tight circle. Everyone was smiling, grinning, laughing. Their joy was palpable - a vibrant, active joy.

And then to the Samrat Hotel, where the chef prepares authentically Indian meals. For me, pure veg - chana masala, then the next night dal tarka, with curds and rice - in impressively large portions, for a total of about six quid. Authentic deshi food served up by charming Ethiopian waitresses, with iced tea. Happy and full I retired to bed in the rather ancient, but clean, Hotel Mekonnen, to the wails of its resident, very noisy cat.

Next day I found Dini Paradise, a lovely garden by the wadi where its friendly proprietoress mixed me up fresh durian juice and gave me the wifi password, and I watched little yellow birds, and blue starlings, and sacred ibises in the palm trees next door. "There's a pond," she told me, "where the birds fish," though I never got round to finding it.

On the road from the Kefira market running north past Mezjid Alezi, I found a tea stall with two gaily coloured umbrellas under a huge spreading tree, nicely shaded, with a dozen bright yellow and pink stools, half of them already taken by customers. I had tea, tasting of cloves and cinnamon and richly sugared, and when I got up to go, my neighbour had already paid for it. I became a regular at the tea stall; I paid for my own tea now, but the welcome was as warm as the first time.

All the houses here are brightly coloured; pink, lime green, purple, red. One was chequered in black and white; another with purple walls and a bright green door frame. There are buildings redolent of nineteenth century France, but in colours no French architect would ever countenance; one like a town hall, but with a star and crescent where the letters RF would normally be, and an arabic inscription instead of Liberté; Egalité, Fraternité. The streets are wide, shaded by trees; tiny shops like Al-Hashimi Sweets (2 slices of baklava and a Coke for less than half a euro) and Bashanfer Trading (big bags of Harar coffee) have dim interiors, where you think you're stepping back in time, even though in fact Al-Hashimi had a makeover five or six years back.

In Mekonnen Hotel, I was introduced to the proprietor, a slight and charming man who, it turned out, had worked in India for many years, in Delhi and in Agra. We traded stories of India over cups of tea in the corner of the Mekonnen Bar, and laughed at the cat's importuning the customers for scraps.

Dire Dawa brought me luck; I met a British train driver who was visiting the yards here, and tagged along. Huge metalworking lathes gleam in the dim train shed - they make all their own spares here - and the old locos with their wagons wait in the sidings. We saw the blueprints for all the locos back to 1901, saw the civil engineering diagrams for the bridges on the line, jumped in the carriages and cabs. French is still the working language of this railway, though nowadays Amharic is increasingly used; and the trains, discontinued in 2007, have started again, though they only run to the border, and not to Djibouti any longer.

At four in the morning, I heard the long sad moan of the train's klaxon from my hotel room and thought of the passengers setting out for their villages in the bush.

Dire Dawa then; move along now, nothing at all to see. Which is, perhaps, why I loved it so much.