On our traveller perception of a place & finding alternate stories

It was mango season in Egypt. The stall-holders of Souq al-Tawfiqiyya swatted flies away from the fruit piles with colourful feather whisks while spraying jets of water onto the fruit so that the mangoes’ blush-tinged skin glistened slickly. The heat within the narrow street market was nearly unbearable despite it nearing dusk. The fecund tang of over ripe produce hung in the still air. Cairo’s summer temperatures cocooned the entire city like a blanket, smothering us into a fug of indolence and idle loitering. We shopped in slow motion; picking mangoes up, smelling them, putting them down lazily, and waddling to the next stall to feel and prod again. Even the haggling was a half-hearted show, me and the vendor sighing as we carried out the pricing-battle to keep up the appearance of caring.

We were all waiting for the dark when the ripple effect of the Nile’s cooling breeze, like some ancient form of natural Prozac, would lift us out of apathy and restore us to our senses making us sigh in relief that another day in the furnace was finished with. Then the stall-holders at Souq al-Tawfiqiyya would smile at you when you picked up their fruit rather than frown and the thin alleyway, lit up by fairy lights, would thrum with a crowd of people pushing and shoving their way through while trying to manoeuvre past motorbikes and donkeys and carts. Now it was fairly quiet and easy to navigate. As long as you didn’t mind cranky vendors and the slightly off-putting smell, it was the easiest time to come here.

“There are no women here at all,” Louisa said.
I turned around just as she raised a camera to her face and snapped a couple of photos of women buying mangoes.
“What?”
“There are no women on this street.” She checked her last shots back on the digital viewfinder and then raised her camera again. “It’s absolutely bizarre.”
The camera whirred and clicked.
“It’s an entire city without any bloody women.”
I walked the few paces back to her and yanked her camera down from her face. Then I started pointing out women.
“Look there are two there, one in the bright orange floral headscarf and the taller lady beside her with the brown headscarf. You just took a photo of them. Here, a lady has just walked in front of us. She’s practically just barged into you because we’re standing still – the one in the black abbeya. There’s another one just there, with all the plastic shopping bags. Here,” I pointed. “And here, and here, and here.”
“Oh,” she said. “I must have only been looking at the fruit sellers. Well there aren’t any female fruit sellers are there?”
“No Louisa.” I said. “Market work is typically a man’s job in the Arab world.”
She shrugged and took another photo.

I gathered my tour group together and continued the walk through the souq. Later, we’d go back to the hotel swinging a bag of perfectly ripe mangoes and when we sliced them open we’d suck out the sunshine-yellow flesh, peeling it straight off the skin so that our hands were sticky fly-traps and delicate strings of mango fibre hung from our chins. That’s what Louisa would remember from the walk through Souq al-Tawfiqiyya on the first day of her three week tour of the Middle East. I’d remember her words though.

“There are no women here at all.”

And I would wonder how the hell we all became so blind.

The second time I arrived in the Middle East it was to live. I’d been hired as a tour leader for an adventure travel company with a job based in Cairo. At the interview the tour company were vague about what destinations needed new leaders. Initially I applied hoping for India. Nobody was more surprised than me when they rung me up to ask if I’d be interested in the Middle East and I said yes. Returning to Egypt had never been the plan.

The first time I departed Egypt it was by Nuweiba’s tortuously slow ferry. The crossing took five rolling and pitching hours across the Red Sea to Aqaba in Jordan and when I went to use the toilet someone had left a shit on the floor and on top of the toilet seat. At the time I thought it was a fitting final full stop to a nation I was glad to see the back of.

I had found Egypt unfathomable. It threw contradictions at you dart-speed and I had spent much of my initial 2004 journey there ducking for cover from my own muddled perceptions. Within my first five minutes in Egypt, on the Amsaad border crossing from Libya, I had found myself in the middle of a rock-throwing fight between the Egyptian border officials and a bunch of cross-border smugglers who were trying to jump the fence. In the packed immigration shed a fight broke out between two men standing directly in front of me and I had to be pulled out of the way to safety. In Luxor a man trailed behind me as I walked down the street alternating a hopeful hissing sales pitch of ‘sex’ and ‘hash’ with every step. In Aswan a child threw a rock at me. Everywhere I went I was besieged by perfume and papyrus sellers. By the time I got to Dahab in the Sinai, I was exhausted. I sat back on the cushions beside the Red Sea and talked to other travellers, drinking bottles of vodka labelled ‘Finlandia – Product of Cairo’. We were told drinking the local spirits would make us blind but it only ever succeeded in inducing hammering headaches.

One evening a bunch of us had gone dancing and the waiters from the beach-side restaurant we spent most of our time in turned up at the bar as well. They barged onto the dance floor; shimmying up behind us and rubbing their stiff penises up against our backs. Shoving them away didn’t help. They just came back and did it again so that in the end we just gave up trying to dance. One of the guys who worked at the beach camp where we were all staying told a girl to come up to the roof terrace to look at the stars. When they got up there he dropped his pants and told her to give him a blow job. When she ran back down stairs and told us what had happened, all we could think to do was laugh because hey, we said to each other, that was just what happened in Egypt.

Six weeks later, on my first day in Lebanon, Rafiq Hariri and 22 other people were blown up by a terrorist bomb along Beirut’s corniche. That same day I wandered down to the street where it had happened. My shoes crunched on thousands of fragments of broken glass underfoot. Up above hotel curtains flapped freely out of window frames. A crowd had gathered around the small cordoned off section which the police were guarding and a group of young guys wearing skin-tight jeans and bandannas tied around their heads revved past waving the yellow Hezbollah flag. Flicking through the satellite channels on the television that night in the hostel I found that there were twenty channels of porn and at least as many channels devoted to religious readings of the Qur’an. I travelled down to Tyre and took a taxi to Al-Khiam Prison which would later be bombed by the Israelis during 2006’s July War. When I visited Hezbollah were operating it as a macabre museum, with tours led by ex-prisoners who showed you around the tiny cells and explained the torture methods that had been dished out by Israel’s proxy army the SLA when Israel had occupied this chunk of Lebanon. When the tour finished they asked you to make a donation to Hezbollah and then took you to their souvenir shop where you could purchase Hezbollah key rings and miniature Hezbollah flags.

The Middle East, I had decided right there and then, was too confusing. You had to peel back onion layers of history just to attempt to fathom a single answer, and then, when you thought you understood, something would happen that would turn it all upside down again. After a particularly hard day I crashed out in front of the hostel television to watch the international news. There was a report about a woman’s refuge centre in Egypt. The centre was battling to stay open due to a lack of women using it. This wasn’t because Egypt lacked battered wives, the reporter explained, but because the cultural shame of airing your marriage problems in public in Egypt meant that women were unlikely to use it. To highlight the problem the journalist interviewed one of the women staying there whose father had berated her for seeking shelter at the refuge. “Why are you bringing shame on the family by coming here?” He had asked. “I beat your mother every night and you don’t see her running away.”

I’d had enough. On a cold March morning with snow lightly dusting the palm trees of Sultanahmet Park in Istanbul I flew out of the region and washed my hands of the Middle East. It wasn’t a place I expected to ever see again.

But then I came back. And as I settled into life there I began to feel the region had something to teach me. Lessons that took more time than a nomadic romp around its edges could ever unfurl. A couple of years ago it could have easily been me making Louisa’s throwaway remark about not seeing any women in the souq when in fact she was surrounded by them.

We all arrive in the Middle East with a particular concept of what it is already ingrained in our minds. After all, we’ve been fed the same story over and over again until it has become the only story. Blinded by our own perceptions, we choose not to seek out any alternative narrative to our own.

The second time I arrived in Cairo, I had a feeling that I had come full circle. This mark on the map had drawn a line around me for some reason and I was caught within its curvature. The ancient Egyptians had understood the power of circles. Long before they began worshipping the great sun god Ra they had deified the tiny scarab beetle which scuttled along the desert sands. Observing these little black beetles, as they laid their larva into dung and then industriously rolled the balls across the ground, the Egyptians saw that the dung balls were circular like the sun and also like the sun they would bring forth life when the scarab beetle larva sprung forth from them. They named Kephri as god of the scarab beetle and imagined the sun too was slowly being pushed by a beetle across the sky bringing light and darkness in a circular cycle of death and rebirth. Later the cult of Ra assimilated itself into the older legends but the god Kephri lived on as the dawn incarnation of Ra merging with this new impostor. Scarab beetle effigies were placed in tombs as a reminder to the dead that only half their journey had been fulfilled and they had yet to journey full circle to resurrection in the afterlife.

On that second arrival I got a taxi from the airport and drove into the centre. Above, the sky was a sludgy smear of low hanging grey glowering over the city. The springs in the back seat of the car had long ago given up hope and when I sat down I sunk into the seat and failed to rise back up again. Pieces of sponge fought to be set free from the fake leather upholstery, rising up out of the ripped fabric in little yellow geysers of foam.

The front dashboard was covered with a candy-pink fake fur rug and had been decorated with glittering talismans to ward off accidents, or at least provide a disco atmosphere in the event of one. Stickers portraying seductive eyes, laden with kohl, stared down at me from the windscreen. Christmas tinsel snaked across the pink fur. Multiple bands of amber and cherry-red plastic prayer beads were wrapped around the gear stick. Both wing mirrors had been smashed in some previous road altercation but Ahmed the taxi driver had made up for that by installing an oversized rear view mirror which stretched three quarters of the way across the windshield. Hanging down from this, was a collection of silvery baubles and a miniature Qur’an.

Ahmed caught my eye in the mirror as I stared at it and waggled his eyebrows.
“Welcome to Egypt” He grinned. “What kind of music do you like? I like western music.”
“Really? Who do you like?”
“I like Eminem and Celine Dion.”
“Ahmed you can’t like both Eminem and Celine Dion.”
“Why not?” He turned around and the car veered lazily off to the left. The car behind that had been trying to overtake us swerved to miss us and the driver beeped his horn. Ahmed beeped back and waved him on with a dismissive flick of his thin wrist. “You don’t like Eminem and Celine Dion?” He scrabbled around the dashboard to retrieve a homemade mix tape. “My favourite songs are Stan and My Heart Will Go On,” he announced. “Very beautiful.”

The mix tape crackled into life. We wound down the windows – Ahmed had to pass the communal window winder back to me as they had all fallen off the doors – and he pumped up the volume so it blared out onto the street as we sped down the highway. He kept one hand on the steering wheel and waved his other out the window in time to the music in between drags on a cigarette. The entire car shook as we picked up more speed and Ahmed turned the volume up to maximum so we could hear it over the rattling drone of the engine. We passed a highway sign pointing the way to ‘Dwon Twon’.

A maverick seat spring dug into my thigh as I leant near the window and breathed in the sharp, acrid smell peculiar to Cairo. It’s the petrol-tinged perfume of a city where two million cars fight for space on the roads every day; the exhaust fumes mixing with the desert sand which scrapes against your skin. When I swallowed I tasted metal.

I didn’t know it then but it was the start of a love affair with the Middle East and with Egypt; a tempestuous one at times, but a love affair all the same. Surviving the first summer – the summer of mangoes and of Louisa’s comment – was the real turning point. Time seemed to stagnate in Egypt in summer. You could hear resignation in the shudders of the air conditioning units as they groaned and wheezed their way through another day when the temperatures hit 40 degrees and their water overload dripped down on you as you walked down the street. Traffic ground to a halt downtown amid a symphony of car horns. In Cairo, people looked to the past as a way of coping with the city infrastructure’s slow but steady decline into chaos.

“We were once a great nation,” my friend Aisha summed up for me as she sucked on a shisha pipe. “And now we sell papyrus to the tourists.”
She blew the smoke out through her nose and it rose in curling plumes up into the night.
“Oh well. At least we have the pyramids.”

In the evenings that summer I’d walk down the streets near my flat in Zamalek, scuffing up the scattered petal confetti from the Jacaranda trees across the dingy asphalt. A petal drift clogged the potholes and piled up at the curbs. One morning, not long after I had first moved into the flat an abandoned toilet appeared on the corner of my street. It sat there all through summer, slowly gathering a layer of dirt and grime. Enterprising passers-by began using the bowl as a make-shift rubbish bin.

What’s Egypt like to live in? A friend wrote and asked me. It’s hot, I replied. There’s a toilet bowl sitting in my street. If I lean over my balcony on tip-toe I can see the Nile.

When the light began to fade I’d stand out on the flat’s balcony and listen to the local mosque’s microphone click on with a hiss of static and a muffled cough before the muezzin began the song of faith. I’d gather my washing in, dried stiffly in the crisp sun and breathe in the Cairo freshly laundered smell of diesel, desert, and faint whiff of laundry powder. Afterwards, I’d sit out there on the creaky chair as the neighbouring buildings became silhouettes under the eerie yellow tinge of the street lamps and wonder if I’d ever understand this country.

Five years later when I finally left Cairo a friend would muse that people who were attracted to the Middle East were attracted in some way to conflict. But I couldn’t agree with that analogy. Because the Middle East wasn’t just the conflict and chaos that clogged up the news channels to me any more. And it wasn’t the macho world where women were kept cowed at home that Louisa had assumed. It was a place, just like any other, full of different stories and the wonder of every day surprises. Egypt was an unfathomable mystery with an ancient stillness that resonated at the most unlikely moments and I would never completely unravel it. And that was ok because life didn’t run on straight linear lines here. It bent and wobbled. It curved. Like a circle.

And I’d remember when Ahmed the taxi driver had dropped me off in downtown Cairo at the end of the first day of my second arrival in Egypt. It had started to rain; a steady drizzle which turned the sidewalk dust to oozing mud. Egyptians ran between shops with newspapers held high over their heads to protect them from getting wet and tried to avoid the growing litany of puddles which were slowly filling the pavement potholes. He retrieved my pack from the boot and handed it to me. I paid him and said goodbye but just as I was starting to walk away he yelled for me to stop. When I turned around he was scrabbling around amid the pink furry dashboard.

“Here!” He said with a smile and put a little stone into my palm. “Ahlan wa Sahlan. Ahlan wa Sahlan Misr.”
Hello and welcome to Egypt.

When I opened my palm I saw a tiny blue stone scarab beetle.

Life on Mars, in Egypt

I have just come back from Mars. Or, at least, a place so unearthly that it is what I imagine snapshots from a holiday jaunt to Mars – or Uranus, or Jupiter – would look like. Black pitted landscapes of rippling rock. Mineral-rich conical mountains in shimmering oranges and emerald greens. Chalk pinnacles that rise out of the sand in shapes that seem to have fallen straight out of a surrealist painting. It’s a thoroughly alien environment supplanted firmly on earth. This is Egypt’s Western Desert.

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Make Food Not War – Beirut’s Culinary Revolution

For first time visitors Beirut can seem a jazz-hands city, intent on blinding you with fast cars, glamorous dining and fancy boutiques. The construction cranes were busy grinding up above, slapping another high rise to the city skyline, as I walked through the rejuvenated Downtown district. The arcaded pavements radiating out from Place d’Etoile were full of shoppers toting designer bags. It was the kind of scene I’d come to expect in a city that markets itself as a glitzy night life and restaurant destination. Scrape below the glossy veneer though and you find Lebanon’s capital has layers that are easily missed.

Visitors can be forgiven for seeing Beirut as a thoroughly modern Middle East city. After all, the Downtown district was completely obliterated by 15 years of civil war and had to be rebuilt from scratch. There are tiers of history though under the pristine facade. Below the restored Greek Orthodox Saint George Cathedral the crypt hides Beirut’s most surprising museum where archaeologists uncovered a necropolis and the foundations of the original 5th century church. Between the cathedral and the slender minarets of the new Al-Amine Mosque, the remnants of Roman Beirut’s Cardo Maximus lay strewn out in rubble piles of hefty marble blocks across an unkempt plot of land. Down the road the uninspiring modern entrance to the Al-Omari Mosque contrasts with its beautiful prayer hall boasting the distinct Gothic architecture of its Crusader church origins. Beirut is a city where you have to dig a little deeper to find what’s happening underneath.

Lebanese food is the perfect example of this. Levantine cuisine is one of Beirut’s great draw cards for visitors but the dishes offered in most of the capital’s restaurants are only the tip of the iceberg. “There are two entirely different cuisines in Lebanon,” Kamal Mouzawak explained to me. “In restaurants there is mezze and grilled meat and then there’s our private cuisine. The food we cook at home has traditionally been secret. The only way you could access it was by getting an invite to someone’s house.”

Kamal is the founder of Souk el Tayeb; a food enterprise turning Beirut’s dining on its head. They run a weekly farmer’s market every Saturday right in the heart of Downtown bringing Lebanon’s small-scale food producers to the city to sell their produce direct. And on weekdays they run Tawlet restaurant, offering diners that family soul food in a restaurant setting, fuelled by a roster of Lebanon’s best home cooks that serve up their regional specialities in the Tawlet kitchen.

I had come to Tawlet for lunch. Their cheeky motto ‘Make Food Not War’ is a reminder that this is a city still best known for being the epicentre of a long and bloody civil war. “What we set out to do,” Kamal told me. “Is to try to connect the Lebanese through food and celebrate our diversity rather than use it as a reason for conflict.” Today with neighbouring Syria mired in war, they’re now going one step further; starting up a food project with some of Beirut’s ever-expanding population of Syrian refugees.

Syrian women are now serving up their home cooking every weekend at the Souk el Tayeb farmer’s market and this lunchtime they were in the Tawlet kitchen creating their spicy Syrian cuisine for diners. It’s a way of not just helping to generate income for the refugee community but also aimed at preserving Syria’s distinct food heritage. Ibtissam Nesto was one of the cooks in the kitchen. “I’m so proud to be representing Syria by its food and keeping the culture alive this way.” She told me as she set down a tray of kibbeh (fried meatballs) smothered in a pomegranate and chilli paste sauce. “Cooking is our way of showing affection. If I’m not cooking from my heart, you won’t like my food.”

Cooking from the heart was definitely what was going on. Everything that Ibtissam and her fellow cooks produced for lunch sung with the flavours of Syria. As I headed back onto the street a beautifully coiffed woman wobbled past me on skyscraper heels leading a tiny dog bedecked in a diamante-encrusted jacket. Beirut’s slightly over-the-top glamour tag is well-deserved. The city has become adept at hiding behind its shiny facade but with local initiatives like Souk el Tayeb and Tawlet, savvy traveller can easily peel back the layers to find the soul underneath.

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This story first appeared in the April issue of Colours Magazine.

Cappadocia in winter

Cappadocia is beautiful at any time of the year but in winter its show-stopping landscapes take on an ethereal quality. In the valleys the rock cones are dusted with an icing sugar coating of snow while honey-stone villages are sandwiched between the rippling white sheets of the mountains. It’s Narnia for grown ups; sans the witch but definitely still with the Turkish delight.

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Turn off, plug out, drop in

A hotel owner friend of mine is frustrated.

“If I see one more person sitting on the terrace with their eyes glued to their bloody iPhone instead of our amazing view, I’ll throw their iPhone off the terrace.”

She’s written this on Facebook – kind of ironic when complaining about technology – but she has a point.

Like many over-35s, I remember an era of travelling when laptops were still too expensive, and heavy, to lug around in a backpack and if you wanted to contact home you used a public phone box. On my first extended backpacking trip I didn’t even know what the internet was. Even by the time email had been integrated into my travel experience, using it required the patience of a saint to search out the one internet cafe in town with a decent dial-up connection and then the ability to type fast enough to send a message before the next power-cut sharply switched the clunky computer screens back to black.

Surrounded by younger travellers in a hostel recently I came face-to-face with a new style of travelling. The young guy beside me leaned over his tablet-screen chatting to friends back home. A girl with a notebook computer the size of a wallet scrolled through TripAdvisor restaurant reviews. Across the room, a couple slouched into chairs opposite each other with eyes glued to their smartphones. They reminded me of an elderly married couple who used to be regulars at a bar I once worked in. Every night they would come into the bar together, order two pints, and then sit in silence facing each other across the scratched veneer of the table while drinking their beer. As if the long years of living together had sucked their conversation dry. There must have been nine travellers in that room but you could have heard a pin drop. The clacketty-clack of keyboard typing was only finally broken by the lone voice of a head-phoned British boy on Skype talking to his mother.

“I’m back in the hostel…Yeah did you see the photos I put up on Facebook? Can you put some more money in my bank account? I’m running out. Don’t forget to say hi to Dad.”

This new tech-heavy era of gadgetry has fundamentally shifted how we travel but I can’t help feeling ambivalence about the convenience it now provides us. If you know what the phrase Poste Restante¹ means, ever made three precious mix-tapes² to keep you going on the road, and once lugged wads of travellers’ cheques³ around your waist in a money belt, this brave new world of high-tech travel may stir the same mix of fascination and unease in you as well.

This is a travel world of tangled cords and chargers in your backpack and never enough power sockets in your hotel room. A travelling life where you’re no longer forced to read that one rubbish crime novel left on the shelf of the hotel book-exchange because your favourite books, music, film and TV programs can follow you wherever you go. Perhaps more significant to this shift in how we now travel is it’s also a world where family and friends can keep tabs on you, wherever you are, at all times.

It’s kind of like you never left home.

New technology has always played its role in changing and moulding our experiences across the years and this isn’t meant as a diatribe against the modern conveniences of travel. Neither is it a starry-eyed remembrance of the ‘good-old-days’ that never were. I don’t want to sound like a backpacker version of Monty Python’s famous ‘Four Yorkshiremen’ skit:

Backpacker one, “Eh, in my day we had to carry rolls of film around with us if we wanted to take a photo and we only had a guidebook to help with planning.”
Backpacker two, “Luxury! We didn’t even have cameras. We had to sketch pictures if we wanted memories of our trip and the only information we got when arriving in a new town was from a one-eyed mute at the train station.”
Backpacker three, “You were lucky to have a one-eyed mute. We got up each morning and chiselled each landscape into a stone tablet that we then had to lug around in our backpacks and the only travel tips we got came from a donkey tethered in the bazaar.”
Backpacker four, “And you try and tell the young people of today that and they won’t believe you.”

But I do worry if our whole sense of wonder and discovery – the sheer joy of being somewhere completely different and not knowing what the hell comes next – is being crushed by the very technology that now makes our travel lives easier.

It’s harder to get properly lost when your smartphone’s Google Maps app can lead you directly to the main sights. It’s more difficult to feel that excited, but slightly bewildered, sense of being very far away and disconnected from normal life when Facebook and Skype allow instant access to your world back home.

And if we’re so intent on bringing home along with us on this ride into the unknown, are we simply relegating the act of travel to a list of sights we can pose ourselves in front of to prove we’ve been?

In Pico Iyer’s 1988 travel masterpiece ‘Video Night in Kathmandu’ he writes “Abroad, we are not ourselves; and as the normal and the novel are transposed, the very things we might shun at home are touched with the glamour of the exotic.”

But if we deny ourselves the pleasure of flinging off our normal home existence in the first place – remain so thoroughly plugged into the world we left behind – we’ll never give ourselves that opportunity to experience the exhilarating, befuddled brilliance that happens when the unfamiliar smacks us in the face. The serendipitous chance encounters and astounding fuck ups we can make when we’re left to flounder and find our way by ourselves out on the road. The sensory overload of India doesn’t have quite the same overwhelming and visceral sense of awe when you can finish the day in your hotel room watching Homeland on your laptop and scrolling through your Facebook news feed to find out Uncle Mike’s going back to the gym this week and your best friend Claire is cooking spaghetti for tea.

I’m not suggesting we should all strike out on the road like Rimbaud; thoroughly doing a disappearing act on our past life to reinvent ourselves anew. But just to switch off from the chattering drone coming out of ‘back there’ for at least a little while. To give ourselves the opportunity and space to become a part of these new landscapes we’re travelling in and capture more than just photos to post on our blog and Facebook page.

By venturing out from normalcy – shrugging off the ropes of everyday chores and career – we’re already allowing ourselves the first step towards experiencing something new. But by taking that further, bigger – scarier – step in opening ourselves up to a time-out from all we know at home, to be fully connected to where we are right now, that experience could become something incredible, something insane, even something profound.

So lower your camera from your face for awhile and just sit and survey the scene. Go get lost in the traffic-jammed chaos of the city streets and wander aimlessly without a map. If on these wanderings you walk past a restaurant that’s packed with locals go in and eat a meal, even if that place is not recommended by 700 other travellers on TripAdvisor. Stop. Checking. Facebook. Every five minutes. And for God’s sake if you go to my friend’s hotel can you please put down your smartphone for a second and appreciate the view.

It’s when we immerse ourselves fully in the moments along the way that you realise why you left the humdrum roundabout of home behind; the sheer, undiluted thrill of being unmoored from life. Cast adrift into a world unknown and full of possibility. There’s not an app for that. Yet.

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¹An archaic form of receiving correspondence from your loved ones when you had no permanent address. Using paper and a pen, people would write a letter and then mail it to a post office address you had given to them in the hope that you would, at some stage of your travels, be passing near that post office. The post office, if it did indeed receive the letter that had been posted, would then hold it for you for two months. If the happy coincidence of you passing by that same post office occurred in the same time frame of the letter being held there you were able to collect it and receive news from home. Please Note, often this didn’t actually work out.

²A compilation of your favourite songs copied onto a blank cassette tape and played on a portable stereo known as a walkman. Mix-tapes provided a solution to the impracticalities of trying to carry your entire collection of music cassettes around with you in a backpack. Sadly the act of repetitively hearing the same 20-odd songs over and over again also usually caused any love or sentimental value held for said songs to disintegrate completely long before the time you got home.

³An extremely popular form of safely carrying your travel funds before international-linked ATMs became common place. Travellers exchanged hard cash for travellers’ cheques which could then be exchanged for money in the local currency at banks and money-exchange offices throughout the world. The main benefit being that if lost or stolen, the cheque-issuing company would give a full refund if provided with the original purchasing slip. Unfortunately most banks in more far-flung countries demanded that you show them the original purchasing slip while you were exchanging cheques. Thus meaning that many travellers kept their purchasing slip and cheques together for convenience annulling any possibility of claiming a refund if they were indeed robbed.

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This story was first published by Peregrine Magazine.

 

Inside the camel market

It ain’t for the squeamish. Birqash camel market, just outside of Cairo, stinks. The stench of animals swelters stagnantly in the heat until it rubs off on you. This isn’t a tourist attraction although a few intrepid travellers always make it out here – and the market organisers enterprisingly make foreigners buy a ticket to enter. But it is a side of Cairo far removed from pyramids and King Tut’s treasure.

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An Ancient Path of Kindness

After night has fallen, the sacred fish ponds of Şanlıurfa are smooth black mirrors reflecting the backlit Ottoman arches of Rızvaniye Mosque. The effect is only distorted by the occasional ripple trembling across the surface as one of the fat silky carp who inhabit the pond patrol the depths below. During the day, these pampered pets of the city gorge themselves on offerings from visiting pilgrims. Their wide, ugly mouths rise to the edge of the pool, in a wrestling match of belly-flopping bodies, as an all-you-can-eat buffet of fish pellets rain down onto the water. To believers, the carp here aren’t any old fish. These are the lumps of coal from the funerary pyre King Nimrod built in an attempt to kill the Prophet Abraham. Miraculously transformed by God into fish, as the fire was turned into water, they spend their lives as divine beasts revered by all.

Turkey’s southeast Anatolia region is a place alive with sacred myth and legend and the ancient city of Şanlıurfa is the birthplace of monotheism’s most important story. Traditionally regarded as the biblical town of Ur (a title also contended by the Tell al-Muqayyar ruins in Iraq), this is where many Jews, Christians, and Muslims believe that the Prophet Abraham was born and where he struck the first blow for monotheism’s future by challenging the pagan beliefs of King Nimrod and his subjects.

Earlier that day Ömer Tanık had explained how the city’s reverence among pilgrims had, over the years, fostered an ingrained philosophy of hospitality among the locals here. “We didn’t look at the people who came here as paying guests,” he said. “Before there were hotels in Şanlıurfa, people would approach visitors at the fish ponds to come stay in their houses for the night.” Today the spirit of this hospitality lives on in the surrounding hinterland.

We drove out of the city, passing the sprawl of concrete-cube apartment buildings on the suburban outskirts, into a rolling, raw countryside of rock-pitted plateau. Turning off the main highway, the road was blocked by fat-tailed Anatolian sheep idly waddling across the tarmac.  The tiny Kurdish village of Yuvacalı would look like any other rural hamlet in eastern Turkey except for the pimple-like protrusion of the hill it is built around, poking dramatically out of the land. “It’s a settlement mound,” Ömer’s wife, Alison told me. “A man-made hill, produced by layer upon layer of civilisation settling here causing the hill to rise up as they built directly on top of each other.”

In 2009 Ömer and Alison pioneered a tourism endeavour here which offers travellers an experience of rural Anatolian life in village homestay accommodation. The initial experiment began in Ömer’s birthplace, Yuvacalı, but has now spread to other villages in the area. In 2011 the Tanıks joined up with the Abraham Path Initiative to create a trekking route through southeast Anatolia connected by these homestays. Encompassing the ancient villages of this region, walking this trail is a journey into a corner of Turkey long ignored by tourism. It is also a glimpse into a culture of natural hospitality which is rarely seen in modern-day life.

Yuvacalı smells of freshly ploughed earth and livestock. Its squat one-storey buildings are a mix of recent concrete box additions and much older mud-brick dwellings with walls that slouch and sag into the land. Pero Salva’s front yard was a hive of activity as we pulled up. Chickens perched on the crooked wooden fence and berated our noisy arrival. Sheep bleated somewhere nearby. I was ushered inside to the reception room where the walls were painted the same cheery lilac colour that many Kurds have adopted as a uniform shade for their headscarves. Pero’s husband Halil poured strong tea into tiny tulip-shaped glasses as we sat on the floor.

Typical of many of the Kurdish settlements in this area, Yuvacalı’s villagers survive mostly on subsistence farming. When Alison and Ömer first moved here from Istanbul, they did a door-to-door poll of villagers to find out what the major problems were and how they could help. “Among adults here there is 50% illiteracy,” Alison told me, “and only half are fluent in Turkish. Their native Kurdish dialects are the language spoken at home.” This of course has a knock-on effect with the younger generation, who then don’t learn Turkish until they enter the school system and are, by then, struggling to catch up with their peers.

They discovered that in every single village household the income was under US$1 per day, per person. Tourism could help to combat this poverty chain. “The two homestays in the village provide employment for eight families,” Alison said. In a place as rural, and conservative, as Yuvacalı though, bringing tourism into the mix can be a difficult balance to get right. “We don’t want to destroy the fabric of the village,” she said. Kurdish culture is conservative but not particularly because of Islam. Their values stem from living in close proximity to each other. “It comes from lots and lots of people occupying a very small space, trying to get on and being respectful of that fact.” She explained.  Guests at the homestays are expected to be modestly dressed. Women visitors must wear an ankle-length skirt, men must wear long trousers, and alcohol is not allowed.

Kurds make up the largest minority in Turkey, numbering about 14 million, and live mainly in the southeast of the country. It was only after the regional upheavals of the early 20th century that Yuvacalı became a solely Kurdish village though. Before then local oral tradition tells of a vibrant community of Kurds, Armenians, and Jews all living here together. The settlement mound points back to an even earlier history. Today Yuvacalı may seem like a remote, inconsequential outpost, but in the empire-building days of early civilisation it was positioned directly on an important crossroads.

This entire region of southeast Anatolia was the crux of territorial conflicts and commerce, between Hittites, Assyrians, Achaemenid Persians and Seleucid Greeks, Romans and Sassanians, and, later on, Byzantines, Arab conquerors, Crusaders, and Ottomans.  Yuvacalı’s settlement mound is thought to be at least 10,000 years old. Although the mound has never been excavated, surface finds of cuneiform tablets, pieces of flint and mosaic have indicated to visiting archaeologists that the mound here dates back to at least the 8th millennium BC. It is entirely plausible it could be a lot older.

Ömer drove me out to the village of Soǧmatar which sits in a dip between two hills. The houses were half built from stone taken from ancient shrines and sprouted satellite dishes out of flat metal roofs held down by pieces of brick. We scrambled up the flank of one of the hills just as the sun burst down upon the landscape silhouetting a shepherd on horseback upon the opposite hill, surrounded by his flock. The rock surface of the peak was covered in elaborate Assyrian script.

We hiked over to the opposite peak where a half collapsed circular temple dedicated to Venus was a reminder of the religion of celestial worship common in the area before the Prophet Abraham. Today Soǧmatar is made up mostly of Arab nomads who settled here in the 1980s but it was once an important cult sacrifice centre where every moment of life was directed by the movements of the sky. Although an official tourist signpost, at the entrance to the village, briefly explains Soǧmatar’s significance this ancient site, like most in this region, is half-forgotten and completely bypassed by normal tourism. A donkey tethered to a tree kept up a constant mournful braying. A dank, musty cave on the edge of the settlement still hosted the clear outlines of life-sized idols in eroded niches, which had been abandoned as monotheism crept over the land.

This hike formed a small section of the new Turkish Abraham Path which, when walked fully, is a 170km, 10-day trek through this region. The Abraham Path itself is a bold venture to blaze an interconnecting series of walking trails throughout the Middle East which trace the journey of the Prophet Abraham from Turkey, south to Israel and the Palestinian Territories. But this trek is not supposed to simply be a religious pilgrimage. It’s also a journey into our beginnings. In human history, this part of modern-day Turkey is not only the birthplace of monotheism but also the ground where we took our first shaky toddler steps to civilisation. Locked between the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers, this stretch of land makes up the northwest region of ancient Mesopotamia. It was across this countryside that mankind first discarded the hunter-gatherer lifestyle for settlement.

The conversion of belief systems from a sky-worshipping culture to the belief in one god was a slow process that is said to have begun with Abraham on his journey from Ur.  Instead of attempting to exactly mirror a journey that both believers and non-believers could spend forever debating the reality of; today’s Abraham Path instead attempts to forge a trail highlighting the different stages of our common humanity. “It’s not a political path. It’s not a religious path. It’s a cultural path, fundamentally a human path.” William Ury, one of the founders of the Abraham Path, told me. Passing through ancient, half-forgotten temple sites and worship centres such as Soǧmatar offers walkers a chance to connect not only with modern-day village life, but also with the greater history of our own joint humanity.

Back in Yuvacalı, Pero rolled a long plastic tablecloth across the floor and all the family pitched in to begin bringing dishes out of the kitchen. Creamy lentil soup, bright salads of ruby tomatoes and crispy lettuce, smoky sliced aubergines charred to melt-in-your-mouth perfection, trays of thick, comforting home-cut chips, and tiny bowls of tarty cacık (Turkish yoghurt and cucumber salad), and ısot spread (the Urfa region’s famous hot pepper), which glowered a danger-inducing shade of dark red, all appeared in front of me.

Hospitality has always been the thread that binds the cultures of the Middle East together. To be a guest in this part of the world is to be honoured with the best your host can provide, from the copious cycle of cups of tea which punctuates the beginning and end of any visit, to the feast of local produce laid out as a meal when visitors arrive; it is part of a traditional system still very much alive today.

It’s a belief that has its roots in a nomadic past when hospitality was an essential component of survival. It was with this very hospitality that the journey of Abraham which is told in the holy books of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam was able to be accomplished. In the West Abraham is remembered chiefly for the Old Testament story of his willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac as a test of his loyalty to his god (in Islam, the child in the story is Ishmael) and this earlier story of generosity has faded from general knowledge.

Pero and Hilal don’t need any reminding. For them hospitality is a natural part of their culture; as much a part of life as the seasonal agriculture chores which define so much of rural life in this part of the world. By incorporating village stays into the Abraham Path visitors have the opportunity to experience a culture where welcome truly does mean welcome and hasn’t been reduced in meaning by over-tourism. To be a visitor here, if not as rare as it once was, is still an exciting occasion. “This is an ancient path of kindness,” William Ury said. Walking along this trail “is a way of reconnecting the human family footstep by footstep and remembering our collective past.”

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This story was first published in the Sep/Oct issue of Lifestyle+Travel. You can see the original here.

Images of northwest Kenya

The landscapes are big-sky country at their most brutally raw. Moonscape plains of rock. Scraggly bare-branched trees. Hills that twinkle in mineral-rich hues of muddy green and red.  And just when you think the parched land will roll on forever there is the emerald green ribbon of Lake Turkana slashing through the barren wilderness. It’s a harsh land. A bleak land. A place of hand-to-mouth existence eked out in scraps of villages held together by sticks and string. It’s not a place you forget in a hurry.

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Sometimes you just need to suck it up and get a guide

We were lost. John scanned the sea of sandstone that stretched out to the horizon and finally conceded defeat.

Somewhere within the vast pitted landscape of Wadi Arabah we had come unstuck. Just as the Bedouin tea-seller had told us, we should have taken a guide.

That morning, when we’d set out, our intention had been to hike the ultimate Bedouin back-road into Petra that begins near Al-Barid (or Little Petra as it’s more commonly known). A suburb of Petra, Al-Barid features the same grand façades hewn into the rock face, but attracts only a handful of the visitors. Like its more famous sister-site it is cleverly concealed behind colossal sandstone cliffs.

Its creators, the wily Nabataeans, controlled a trade-route empire that stretched from Yemen to Syria and hid their cities from the world to defend against attack.

In Al-Barid we had stopped for a sugar-laden tea, and told the tea-seller our plans. He shook his head and warned us against setting off alone. We shrugged off his well meaning advice, but two hours later we were simply walking in circles, unable to locate the start of the trail or find our way back to the site. Trapped amid wave after wave of weird and weathered rock formations, we were beginning to regret our gung-ho attitude. Two thousand years after their demise, the Nabataeans were still managing to outwit would-be invaders.

Salvation finally arrived as we stood on a rock outcrop, surveying the surroundings for familiar landmarks. Spotting us looking baffled and disoriented, 14-year-old Ahmed arrived grinning on our perch. After laughing at our plight, he agreed to lead us back to Al-Barid’s entrance by a short cut he knew.

Half an hour later, having scaled a rock face, jumped off a large ledge and clambered across a narrow exposed ridge, we were again safely drinking tea at Al-Barid.

“You need a guide?” the tea-seller asked, trying to stop his mouth twitching into an “I-told-you-so” smile. I looked out at the landscape and marvelled at the ingenuity of the Nabataeans who had secreted their cities within it. “Yes,” I said. “I think we do.”

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This story was first published in the UK Independent as part of their ‘On The Road’ Footprint Guidebook author blog.

Images of Algiers

The Algiers kasbah is all white-and-blue loveliness that tumbles down the hill towards the shore. It’s a winding labyrinth of alleyways, rimmed by tall, narrow buildings, that lead you on a merry maze of a stroll. Don’t bother with a map, they said. And they were right. Just head down. You’ll get out eventually.

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