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.

Friday, 21 December 2018

The Real Experience

The Guardian has a piece today on what to buy the super rich for Christmas. It turns out the answer is a luxury experience: a special trip to Antarctica, behind-the-scenes at Jimmy Choo's.

Well, I might put some money aside for a trip to Antarctica. But it won't be full-on luxury. And in fact, Antarctica will have to compete pretty hard with something I got for free: a walk along the shores of Iceland's Jokulsarlon, at midnight, completely alone, listening to the calls of wild geese and the crack and suck of breaking ice-calves in the lagoon. I'd pitched my coffin of a tent behind the little cafe, and after the tourists left, I had the place entirely to myself in the dim, strange light of the not-quite-night.

Which leads me on to where you get the real experience. I know I've rushed some countries. I was about to say I'd rushed Laos, really only seen it as a tourist, and only seen Luang Prabang and Vientiane - I had a motorcycle crash that put me out of action, and it was back to Bangkok for dental work and effective painkillers (not available in Laos, but hearty thanks to the villager who put me on the back of a truck and took to me hospital, and the excellent health team in Phonsavan who stitched me up). And yet just by dint of taking these cities gently and slowly, and walking everywhere,

  • I chatted to the young curator at the photo museum who showed me with great delight a photo of himself as a monk, taken a few years before;
  • I got invited to dance at a wedding in the suburb over the river;
  • I sat and watched a man make a cage for his rooster - he didn't speak English, but it didn't matter - and had a cup of tea with him afterwards;
  • I met pilots from all the different Asean countries who were visiting Pha That Luang after a two day conference;
  • and I was invited to share lunch in one of the temples on Buddha's birthday.
All of which things happened to me, just because I was taking things slowly, keeping my eyes open, and keeping my mind open, too. 

I've had a tour of Pago railway station in Myanmar by the second station-master; two days later I met Burma's sole Rastafarian and we gave an impromtpu performance of 'Get up, stand up' on the platform. 

Sometimes the guide books tell you to avoid great local festivals - it's difficult to get a hotel, there are crowds, it's not for tourists. I was about to take that kind of advice and jump on the bus at Palitana when I changed my mind, and stayed for the great mela,  walking 18 km with a few thousand Jains, cheered with cries of  'Jai Adinath!' and supplies of water and cool towels when things started to get tough. At Pachmarhi, I climbed Chauragarh with the pilgrims at Shivatri Mela and made friends with a brass band from Hyderabad, and ended up jamming with them back at their camp (I had no instrument, but I can carry a tune).

None of these experiences were really planned. None of them involved the mediation of a tour group of facilitator. And they sure as heck weren't super-luxury.

Sometimes you have to get up before sunrise. Sometimes you have to stay up late. Sometimes you have to put in some physical effort.

You might need to know how to read a map. You might need to put up with some discomfort, or with spartan living conditions. You might need to travel light.  You have to put up with buses that refuse to take you, or let you on and then sit there for two hours, or trains that are six hours late; and sometimes you crash in what looks like a great hotel, only to find that the temple or mosque next door starts broadcasting at four in the morning.

But the big luxury you need? It's not being super rich. It's affording the time. Whether, like me, you're lucky enough to be able to take six months off, or whether you have two weeks but apply them to getting to know one place, rather than whistle-stop-touring ten.

So if I had a super-rich friend, I'd give them one luxury. Three weeks of travelling light, and travelling rough, and just seeing what happens. The ultimate luxury.

Saturday, 19 May 2018

Visites protocolaires

I have just found a lovely phrase from writer Julien Gracq: les visites protocolaires, by which he means the 'obligatory' visit to the five-star attraction.

It's rather a wonderful phrase. It doesn't actually dismiss such sights, but it very nicely sums up the somewhat institutional nature of such visits - and the fact that we are not always (perhaps not often) free to choose how we see such places.

Contrast, for instance, Stonehenge, the visite protocolaire, and Stanton Drew, a pair of stone circles in the middle of nowhere, not even in the top ten megalithic monuments in the UK.

Stonehenge has to be experienced the way everyone sees it - through the visitor centre, into the fenced compound with the crowds. It's impressive, but unless you're there at midsummer (which I really must do some time, it's always going to be the same; crowded, something to gawp at.

At Stanton Drew some years ago, I wandered in, putting a pound in the honesty box, and found the circles delightfully inhabited by children playing a game of tag around the stones, and families picnicking. It wasn't till someone hailed me - "Blessed be!" - and offered me bread, cheese, and a cup of wine, that I realised it was Beltane.

My way of experiencing Stonehenge a bit differently was to walk away from it. It's part of a superb, huge-scale sacred site, stretching from Woodhenge (now with concrete discs where the post-holes were) to the Normanton Down Barrows and the great swath of the Cursus cut through the landscape. I walked all the sacred sites around Stonehenge in a huge circle; sometimes I could see Stonehenge, more often not, but I felt its presence. Instead of the claustrophobic confines of a fenced compound, I had the liberty of Salisbury Plain, the wide chalk landscape and the huge open sky.

Visites protocolaires have something to be said for them, even if, sometimes, it's just that you never have to do them again, that you'll never regret not seeing the Taj Mahal. And if you want to study Mughal architecture, you do need to see the Taj - but you also need to see Sikandra, and Agra Fort, and Itimad-ud-Daula, so you'll need a week in Agra to do things properly. Sites such as Chartres Cathedral, Avebury, or St Peter's, Rome, are on the list for a reason; so are Mount Bromo and the Pennine Way.

But it's the little things you see along the way that sometimes make the most impact; a fern-fringed fountain in a Breton forest, an orange-painted stone under a banyan tree.

The pity is that some people spend all their time chasing from one visite protocolaire to another, without noticing what's in between. Modern tourism is expressly laid out to enable you to do this; and modern tourists, only too often, are intolerant of the in-between. They're bored once they've seen the big sight; they get back on the bus, they chomp crisps or read or book or chat, and never look out of the windows.

Manners makyth man, but protocol does not make a traveller.

Monday, 5 February 2018

In praise of early morning

Walking round Gadisar before breakfast. After the ghats, it peters out to shallows and scrubland. The city-side banks of the lake are covered with temples and chattris, but out towards the country, there are only scattered memorials, single stones, small cenotaphs. A bittern sits hunched, looking miserable. A heron stalks the shallows.I hear doves cooing and a single crow guffaws loudly at his own joke.

Walking towards the Brahma temple I find the street of confectioners, the cauldrons of halwa already simmering, steam rising into the cool morning air. Shopkeepers coming to their shops are singing: one passes me - Hari Ram, Hari Ram. The streets still empty. The sun just touching the edges of the roofs with gold.

Bermondsey Antique Market, London
Even though it's August, it's chilly this morning, the sky pearly grey like a silver tabby. The market's bustling - not crowded, but purposeful. I stalk the stalls for sight of vintage fountain pens but all I can find is Parker 45s, all in black, all with medium nibs, all priced at a tenner. I buy a little brass lion instead thinking it will go with my Omani lion-shaped padlocks bought in the old souk at Muttrah.I listen in to a chiseller trying to get a price reduced and the stallholder giving as good as he gets; it's like listening to an old married couple squabbling. They've done this before, I think.

There's an Italian guy does coffee and bacon sarnies i the corner. I crack. The bacon is crispy and the coffee hits my bloodstream with a jolt. Fortified, I try the little inside market - and here I find my prey; a whole big big of vintage pens that cleans my wallet out and is still cheap at this price.

Gelati, Georgia
The little wicket gate hangs open, awkwardly, and awkwardly I bend to go under it, and down the steps, into the monastery. A black cat stalks across the lawn and is lost in the monastery buildings.

Inside the church, the early light is pale gold, suffusing the sky blue of the paintings. So many paintings; every arch, every pillar, every inch of wall is covered with images. A priest all in black, and black bearded, comes to cense the church; the censer's chain hisses and rattles, but his feet make no noise at all on the pavement. Everything else is quite still.

Outside, a monk sits on a bench by a waterspout and talks to a cat, which takes umbrage and turns tail. I stand and look at the view of the forested hills and the twisting road below.

Cannaregio, Venice
Out here you feel closer to the lagoon than anywhere else in Venice. No twisting alleys or tall palaces close off the lagoon. I walk past the abandoned bulk of the new Scuola, brickwork that was never meant to be seen - a tale of old failure; there was no money left for marble. A solitary jogger passes me.

The houses are low, the pavements narrow. Grey water of the lagoon, brown water of the canal. As I walk back towards the centre of Venice I smell dark bitter coffee being brewed up. Someone is loading an upright piano into a boat.

Taj Mahal
I can't believe it. All the tourists who came in through the gate with me as it opened have stopped on the steps of the Naubat Khana to take pictures of the sunrise over the Taj, and I am alone here, quite alone with the tombs of Mumtaz Mahal and Shah Jahan, and the cleaner, who is rubbing the white marble till it shines and sprinkling rose water on the tombs.

I take my time looking, drinking in the atmosphere. The stone is like honey, pale honey. The stillness is absolute. As I turn to go, the cleaner motions me over, signs for me to give him my scarf, and tips rosewater on it. All day I move in a rose scented cloud. 

I had a big slab of ham with chervil sauce last night, and coq au vin, and I still feel pleasantly full even though I've started out before breakfast to climb this last ridge and look out over the smaller hills below. That's where the path will lead today, towards Avallon and Vezelay and the great basilica of the Magdalene; but it's too misty to make out where the path leads, and the furthest hills are lost in haze.
I turn to look back, and suddenly the low sun lights up a glittering sprawl of diamonds - the funnel spiders' web alight with flame.

Mornings It's not just the fact that the big tour buses don't arrive till everybody has had breakfast, and they've rounded up the guy who is always late, and called the rota, and fixed all the lunch bookings, and found the guy who is always late has wandered off and they have to find him again...

That's one reason I embrace early rising on holiday, because there's no better way to see places without the crowds. But it's not the only reason.

There's something marvellous about seeing the world before it has put its makeup on. Seeing everything fresh, sometimes fresh with dew, or a thin rime of ice before it melts. The early sunlight that casts long shadows or tinges the world with gold. The expectation of the new day.

A friend once told me he would never, ever get up before eight. I can't be bothered to argue with him. I just feel sorry that there are so many things he'll never experience.