Images of Petra

Who were the Nabataeans?

Imagine what would happen if a bunch of wheeler-dealer nomads, with some seriously incredible ideas about hydraulics, decided to create a capital city amid a hidden canyon to protect and run their spice trading empire from.

Think about the work it must have taken to chisel 40m-high facades into sheer stone and the engineering wizardry of the channel system of terracotta pipes that brought water into the city.

Remember that what you see today is just the monuments, temples and tombs that have withstood 2000 years. This was once a living, breathing empire’s capital that managed to maintain its independence even as the might of the Roman Empire gobbled up the Middle East.

That was who the Nabataeans were.

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For more information on visiting Petra you can read my recent story on hiking Petra’s Bedouin back trails for BBC Travel.

On the good, the bad, and the just plain dumb of Trip Advisor

Back in December 2000 when I was stuck without a bed amid a torrential downpour in Cusco, I would have loved a Trip Advisor-style service to suddenly burst onto the internet scene. Instead, with all the hotels listed in the guidebooks full and the scribbled names of places passed on from other travellers also booked solid, I trudged wet and miserable through the back alleys of Cusco for five hours, with my backpack, trying to find a room.

Travelling days like this seem to now be a thing of the past. Trip Advisor has been at the forefront of a new travel industry wave – giving travellers more easy access and choice than ever before. It’s not surprising that travellers have responded enthusiastically and joined in; rating restaurants, hotels, activities and sights in a free-for-all reviewing frenzy.

I’ve got no beef to grind with the internet’s tourism giant. I don’t think it’s anywhere near a guidebook replacement but I do think it can be a useful medium for people to use in conjunction with one. Unlike a guidebook, hindered by page count restraints and publishing schedules, Trip Advisor has space for every hotel and restaurant in town to be featured. And thanks to the right-up-to-the-minute wonder of the Internet all those new hotels and restaurants manage to start building reputations long before the next guidebook author is due in town.  It should be a win-win situation for all sides.

But it’s not.

Of course everyone realises that many hotels and restaurants often post fake positive reviews on their Trip Advisor sites. But there’s a far more insidious and damaging side to the Trip Advisor fake review game.

In a town I know well, one person is making good money by creating fake Trip Advisor reviews and forum posts for local hotels and restaurants. For the princely sum of US$165 this person will not only post fake positive reviews and forum posts about their client’s business, but also nastily post fake negative reviews on the sites of three of their major competitors.  This is a small town which lives and breathes tourism. It’s the main industry there and competition between hotels and restaurants is already ridiculously high. So what happened when this Trip Advisor entrepreneur started broadcasting their services for sale? Well Hotel A used this service and got more positive reviews meaning that their Trip Advisor rating shot up. They also managed to make their main competition Hotel B have a lower rating than them because of the fake negative reviews this person posted.

Now Hotel B and Hotel C, D, E and F then got wind of this new service and felt like they had no choice but to join in. Otherwise maybe Hotel G, H, I and J were going to use it and go up higher in the Trip Advisor ratings than them. So this person made (and is making) a killing after feeding paranoia to Hotels A through to Z.

Not nice is it. But it does explain how in this town, a fairly new hotel has managed to get over 100 reviews despite being open less than a year while another hotel (who hasn’t yet used this service) has fewer than 100 reviews but has been open for five years.

I guarantee that this isn’t the only town across the world this is happening in. You put a tool like Trip Advisor out into the world and there’s always going to be someone who tries to cheat the system. The trouble is that Trip Advisor doesn’t police their site sturdily enough for people playing the system like this to get caught. Anyone can create a few different user names, log in and begin writing a bunch of bullshit. And some people, with unscrupulous morals, are going to start charging for it.

On a funnier note there’s another reason why travellers shouldn’t take everything on Trip Advisor at face value. This is a REAL review for the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Göreme National Park by Trip Advisor Senior Reviewer Marcia58 (note the fact that she’s what is called a ‘senior reviewer’ hence supposedly more trustworthy with her reviews) :

“This is disappointing to hike. What seems to be the best areas are closed to the public. There are some nice views if you have a car. I took one short hike and turned back due to flies and nothing much to see. I’d skip it.”

Yeah Marcia58, I agree. It really is terribly disappointing:

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Romeo is dead in the town of tantric bliss

I called them The John Travoltas. The skinny boys with greased down and perfectly centre-parted hair, dressed in hip-hugging flares and carefully tucked-in, ironed polyester wide-lapelled shirts. They were always hanging around the guesthouse reception and knocking on my door.

“Jas-see-car, you come motorbike ride?”

“Jas-see-car, come drink whiskey with me.”

“Jas-see-car, why you no liking us?”

“Jas-see-car, you making me ca-razy not talking to me!”

I’d come to Khajuraho to see its temples, famously adorned with graphic sexual depictions. But if the local boys had it their way I’d be starring in their own epic Bollywood Kama Sutra blockbuster before I left.

On the guesthouse rooftop I watched the daylight fade and the weak yellow illumination of the street lamps stamp their flickering glow across the alleyway below. I smelled him before I heard him. The cheap cologne radiated off his pores in a fruity chemical fug. He propped himself up next to me on the cement wall and invited me to a party. “A very merry party,” he explained. “Where, Jas-see-car, we will dance and dance until you are falling in love with me.” Then he launched himself off the wall and shimmied across the rooftop like a reed-thin Fred Astaire who, denied a dame, had developed a major hip-thrusting tick.

The light bulb in my room flickered and died just after 10pm as I was reading in bed. I scrambled for the candle and matches in my pack, cursing under my breath when I stubbed my toe on the edge of the bed frame. Just as I lit the candle there was a knock at the door. “Jas-see-car,” a sing-song voice said softly. “Maybe you are no liking the dark and need some company?”

Khajuraho was the first capital and then the cultural base of the Chandela Rajput Dynasty who ruled over a large swath of central India between the 10th and 12th centuries. Under the rule of King Dhangdev, King Gand and then King Vidyadhar, the town became a flourishing centre of Chandela artistry. Its ornately-decorated temple architecture was its crowning glory.

India has no shortage of temples to visit but Khajuraho’s are something special. Carved into every inch of temple exterior are thousands of exquisitely detailed scenes. Gods, Goddesses, musicians and maidens are all preserved, finely crafted, into stone. What have captured visitors’ imaginations though are the many facade scenes which depict sexual acts.

I stood craning my head upwards at the vast temple walls, staring at the open-air gallery of Medieval pornography. A local tour guide marched past jabbing his walking stick towards the temple. Following behind, was a straggling group of silver-haired tourists, flabby-skinned white knees poking out below billowing walking shorts, laden down with guidebooks and cameras. He turned towards them and raised the walking stick up into the air to rally his troops yelling “This way everybody, for the bestiality scenes.” The group quickened their pace to a shuffle. A few starchy-perm haired ladies tittered behind their hands.

When the British engineer T.S Burt thrashed through the jungle here in 1838, led to the Khajuraho temple complex by his local guides, he was scandalised by the artistic endeavours of the Chandela kings. In a typical display of buttoned-up Victorian hubris he vented his feelings about the discovery in the Journal of the Asiatic Society.

“I found in the ruins of Khajrao seven large diwallas, or Hindoo temples, most beautifully and exquisitely carved as to workmanship, but the sculptor had at times allowed his subject to grow rather warmer than there was any absolute  necessity for his doing; indeed, some of the sculptures here were extremely indecent and offensive…”

Archaeologist Alexander Cunningham brought the Khajuraho temple complex to the attention of the wider world after his survey of the complex carried out between 1852 and 1885. Intrepid Victorian travellers then purposely set off to see the temples with the intention to be outraged and titillated by the Chandela sculptures.

Not much seems to have changed in our view of the sexual content upon the temple walls. A male traveller would later confide to me that when visiting he’d kept looking over his shoulder, afraid to be caught staring too long at the displays of sexual antics. He explained he had felt like a teenager sneaking a furtive peek at his dad’s Playboy collection.

Nobody knows why the artisans here chose to create such a mind-boggling array of erotica. On the exterior of Khandariya-Mahadev Temple lustful groupings of wanton women are entangled with sensuous men in an orgy of positions. Known as mithuna, these scenes of love-making human couples were thought to ward off evil but scholars have been unable to answer why so many were portrayed. The sexual subject matter of the temple carvings has been the stimulus for many theories. One of the more plausible is that as the whole menagerie of daily life has been portrayed on the temple walls, sex, which leads to the creation of life itself, should be celebrated as well.  Whatever the Chandela architects’ reasoning, these are beautifully shaped scenes chiselled into stone with extraordinary skill, and it was all accomplished over a 100 year period of dazzling creativity that ended in AD 1050.

A soundtrack of birdsong and the soft staccato put-put of ceaseless water spray hoses followed me as I strolled between the temples. The western temple complex was a tranquil, green bubble complete with preening peacocks. Lush, manicured gardens were tended by a squadron of sweepers and grass cutters.  On exiting, I was tipped back out onto the drab, dusty streets of reality.

Touts besieged me as I wandered by their shops, shoving cheap plastic trinkets and ratty-edged Kama Sutra postcards under my nose. I headed back to the guesthouse where the John Travolta disciples were lounging around the lobby blasting Hindi Pop from the stereo. The rooms fizzed with unspent teenage energy. “Jas-see-car!” They yelled. “Now you are here we can dance.” A boy proudly showing off the first fluff of a moustache on his upper lip wiggled his way across the scuffed linoleum floor towards me wobbling his eyebrows and head up and down simultaneously. “Jas-see-car! Beautiful Jas-see-car!” The guy behind the reception desk cried while clapping his hands to the beat.

I escaped back outside and wandered out of town along the quiet back lanes. Sedate old lady cows joined me on their afternoon stroll. Two children whizzed by on an ancient bicycle, trilling the bike’s old fashioned bell as they passed. At the Jain temple enclosure the vivid sculptures decorating the Parsvanath Temple depicted snapshots of life’s mundane little moments yet still seemed endowed with a scent of sensuality. A young girl removed a thorn from her foot in one scene. Another hour-glassed ancient babe applied her kohl makeup. Big breasted and nubile apsara (female nymph figures of Buddhist and Hindu mythology) danced across the temple facade and wrapped their arms protectively around strong warrior men, looking longingly into their eyes. The long-gone artisans and inhabitants of Khajuraho seemed as obsessed with romance as my modern-day John Travolta wannabes.

As I paid my room bill that evening the guesthouse gang surrounded me in a circle at the reception table sporting pouting lips and slapstick jilted-lover looks. When I handed over the money, one rolled his eyes and fell back on the old sagging sofa stabbing at his chest with an imaginary dagger in his hand while plumes of dust rose up from the chair.

The parrots were the only other things awake when I left the next morning. Their squawking cacophony accompanied me as I crept out of the guesthouse, winding my way over the snoring bodies of John Travoltas wrapped up in blankets on the reception floor. On the alley corner I woke up a rickshaw driver snoozing in his cab and set off for the bus station. As we passed by the western enclosure the soft buttery-yellow sandstone of the temples seemed to glow in the early morning light.

I was about to board the bus when he turned up. One of the John Travoltas riding a battered motorbike came screeching to a halt right beside the bus door. “Jas-see-car!” he said. “You didn’t say goodbye.” Leaning on the bus, we smoked a cigarette together until the other passengers had all boarded and the bus driver beckoned me inside. When I got to my seat, I pushed open the window and waved. Sitting on his bike, with his hair still ruffled from sleep and not yet fought into that slick centre-part, he looked like an abandoned child.

As the engine rumbled into action he kicked the bike up to the side of the bus under my window and grabbed at his shirt with his fist. “Jas-see-car, my heart is being brokens into many little pieces.” I rolled my eyes and laughed as we rolled out of Khajuraho bus station and onto the road. In this town of ancient tantric temples, the modern day Romeos weren’t having much luck.

Just a simple strip of cloth

I could only see his eyes but I knew Muhammad was smiling. The crinkled creases at the corners of his eyes gave him away. He’d just finished telling me the legend behind the origins of the cheche – the six-metre long turban that Muhammad, like the majority of Tuareg men, wore wrapped mummy-style around his head. The story tells of an Arab raiding party who attacked a Tuareg village where the men had all left to go hunting. Believing they’d struck an easy target, crowing about an easy victory even before they advanced, the Arabs were dumbfounded when the Tuareg women fought back. Unprepared for a full scale battle the Arabs were forced to abandon their raid and flee. Afterwards, licking their wounds, they began to tell a tale about the warrior women of the Tuareg whose men covered their faces in shame at their women’s strength.

“If this story is true”, Muhammad said. “Who do you think should be ashamed? We Tuareg would have been proud to have such fierce women”.

Surrounded by a rippling sea of sand dunes, I breathed in the hot dust whipped up from the 4WD’s wheels. Faced with the harsh reality of the Tuareg’s homeland it’s easy to see the more prosaic reasons why the cheche became part of their traditional costume. My mouth felt like I’d been chewing gravel. My eyes stung from grit. Sweat dripped down my forehead from the congealed mass of my fringe. ‘Eating dust’ is not a catchphrase here. It’s the reality of day-to-day existence in Algeria’s southern Sahara. The cheche provides one of the most effective tools of escaping the worst of what this environment throws at you.

This is Tuareg territory. In the desert outpost of Djanet, where the sugar cube buildings slouched under the glaring sun, they glided down the dusty main drag with the slow, sinuous strides which only those born in hot climates ever master. They wore shiny emperor robes of emerald green, ruby red and Picasso blue, and sat under shop veranda shades drinking endless cups of tea. A proudly independent desert people, the Tuareg once controlled the caravans through the vast depths of the Sahara; trading in ivory, salt and slaves. This profitable business collapsed in the 20th century as the slave trade died out and the advent of the vehicle forged its way into modern life. Still capitalising on their reputation as gurus of the desert lands, the Tuareg trade in tourism these days.

Muhammad and I were following one of the Tuareg’s ancient trading routes, heading for the barren Hoggar Mountain Range. From Djanet we had veered off the bitumen and into the never-never of sand. In a beat-up jalopy of a 4WD, festooned with clinking jerry-cans, supply boxes and the mandatory guerba (a traditional water carrier made out of goat-hide), all swinging off the car frame like a survivalist’s fantasy Christmas tree, we sped across the Erg Admar’s endless yellow waves. In the distance where the land was supposed to meet the sky the horizon blurred into a silvery shimmer. When we stopped the soft soles of my feet were scorched by the griddle-hot ground. Except for our own chatter the only sound was that of the wind swooping over the crests of the dunes, re-sculpting them grain by grain.

Following the trail of an oed (a dried-up river bed), we drove west to a plateau speckled with sparse scrub. Among this pitiful landscape of dirt and dust the tiny Tuareg settlement of Tadent eked out a living as herders and trinket-touts. The air was thick with the smell of dung and campfire smoke. A skinny goat, tethered to a tree, bleated out a sad whine as I got out of the car. Village women approached me silently in flowing puffed-sleeved rainbow gowns of lipstick-pink and lime green flowers looking like bright, sparkly peacocks strutting through a tawny beige world. This was the last settlement stop for miles. Afterwards we veered off the oed and began the traverse higher into the Tassili du Hoggar.

A Dali-esque scene of bizarre mushroom shaped rocks and giant’s marbles lay scattered across a plain of orange sand. It was a stone forest, seeded by volcanic eruption and moulded by millennia of wind. We stopped at the age-old traveller resting places of Youfihakit and Tintaraben. Here, on the overhanging rock outcrops, ancient artists had used the stone walls as their canvases and their graffiti revealed a Sahara which seemed unimaginable now. Elephants, giraffes and ostriches were etched into the rock. A wonderfully detailed anteater glowered down from one huge wall. Muhammad pointed to one engraving showing stick figures chasing a herd of cows. “These pictures are thought to be from 4500 BC”, he said. I marvelled at the age of this art and tried to imagine this arid land as the savannah it was when these artists began to scrape their drawings into the stone.

By the end of the second day my lips were splitting from the constant sand shower and my skin prickled with heat-rash. It was definitely time to try the cheche out for myself. We set up camp surrounded by a landscape plucked from a child’s nightmare. A Grimm’s Brother’s rock formation loomed above us on the cliff while church spire pinnacles cast monstrous shadows on the sand. Muhammad decided to make taguella for dinner. This simple bread made from millet flour, water and salt is the Tuareg’s main sustenance during desert travel. He placed the dough into the campfire ashes and then covered it with sand and hot embers. After twenty minutes he scraped the sand away for the dough to be turned over. Another twenty minutes and the bread was removed, the sand shaken off. It was dense and chewy and tasted of wood-smoke. A treat for me but if Muhammad was travelling in the desert by himself he’d eat little else. After dinner he teased me about my water consumption. I was glugging down a solid three litres every day. “One tea in the morning and maybe a cup of water when we get to camp at night”, Muhammad told me was all he drank.

The 4WD groaned and choked as we wound our way upwards along the narrow ridge into the Hoggar Mountains. In the distance, jagged canine-teeth peaks pierced the sky. We spluttered to a stop near the summit of Assekrem and I climbed the rough-cut steps to the top. In 1904, on this barren summit, the French priest Charles de Foucauld abandoned the world to live in hermitic solitude spending ten years studying Tuareg culture and their language Tamershak. The church he built and made his home is more a shack than a place of worship. A bitterly cold wind howled through the gaps in the window frames and tugged on my clothes.

I sat on a boulder and watched the sun throw a dusky-pink blanket over the craggy mountain tops, holding my jacket tight around me as the wind whipped across the stones. Muhammad came and sat next to me and grinned. We both had our cheches wrapped tightly around our heads. “Now you look like a Tuareg”. He said. But I knew that the soles of my feet were too pale and softly puffy and my blue eyes too weak and watery. Unlike me, the Tuareg have long adjusted to the desert. Their thirst and hunger sated by only a few cups of water and a bit of bread as they travel. Their foot soles thickened to not feel the burning heat of the sand and their clothing cocooning them from the worst of the sun and dust.

As it dipped, the sun set the surrounding peaks aglow and spread fingers of blood-red streaks across the sky. I could see the dark beauty in this landscape; shaped by violent upheaval in the belly of the earth and then carved out by the soft murmurings of the wind. As we walked down from the summit a slither of a crescent moon rose up from behind the peaks and the stars began to stud the darkening sky. This was a primeval land, I thought, where you would never belong fully, where you were constantly challenged by nature itself. I watched Muhammad spring down the steps despite the oncoming dark.  Unless you were Tuareg of course; they had learnt the hard lessons of moulding their life around, rather than against, the desert. I rearranged my cheche closer across my face so it covered my nose against the chill. The simplicity of this strip of fabric summed up the Tuareg’s clever adaptation to the take-no-prisoners toughness of the Sahara. How they became masters of this brutal terrain.

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This story was first published in the January 2013 issue of Perceptive Travel.

On the joy of snail-paced travel

I have always had a knack for enjoying doing nothing. Give me a hammock, a book, and sunlight dappling through from a palm-thatched roof – or a window seat on a long train journey – and I’m perfectly happy. I came to the realisation long ago in my travelling life that I am not a person who tears down walls for something to do. Some of my happiest travel memories revolve around the simple pleasure of people watching. Sipping chai on a hotel balcony while watching the dhobi wallahs scrub clean mountains of laundry in the river below. Sitting at a pavement cafe observing the world go by. It’s when travelling creaks down a few paces to a crawl that I feel the most alive.

Because of this, it was with a large dollop of trepidation that I first became a tour leader. My style of travel had always been slow. Involving six month stints or longer upon the road. There was nothing I adored more than having the luxury of time to spend a month in one place if the mood beckoned me. Travelling on a tour had never attracted me for a variety of reasons. Mostly because the idea of someone else telling me what to do is my ultimate nightmare, but also because they just seemed…a little…quick. Blink and you miss them. Organised tours take the hassle out of your travel plans. Useful if you have one of those things called a career-path and can’t spend a longer time on the road. But how much culture and history can you absorb in a three week jaunt through the Middle East?

For over four years I travelled at lightning bolt speed; the tortoise masquerading as the hare. Employed by one of the world’s largest adventure travel companies, for nine months of every year, it was my job to buzz tourists through an itinerary that covered Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Turkey in the constricted space of 21 days. We hardly had time to catch our breath let alone sit down and smell the flowers. You can’t do the Middle East in three weeks, I’d warn my passengers at the initial group meeting. But I could get them to the major highlights.

It was a life carried out in fast speed. Every ruin or tumbling panoramic view was serenaded with the buzz and click of camera shutters. There wasn’t time to spend all afternoon sitting on a fallen Roman column, just surveying the scene. There was only time for photos. By the end of the second week fatigue would be etched over faces as the get-on-the-bus, get-off-the-bus, endless packing and repacking began to have an effect. On day 21 we’d stagger exhausted into Istanbul, backpacks on weary backs.

Finish a trip. Say goodbye to my passengers. Fly back to Cairo. A couple of days off only if I was lucky. Start another trip. I never unpacked properly because I rarely stayed anywhere longer than two nights. It was travelling on steroids. In the end it began to suck the joy of travelling out of me. My life had become a tour leader hamster wheel.

The afternoon after I resigned I went to visit Ibn Tulun Mosque in Islamic Cairo. Despite living in the city for four years I’d shamefully never got around to going there before. I wandered around its vast airy corridors that framed the dazzling white paving of the courtyard. I stood transfixed while gazing up at the intricate calligraphy which adorned its arches. I sat. For hours; just breathing in the atmosphere of quiet contemplation before climbing the spiral of stairs to the top of the minaret where the helter-skelter view of pigeon coops and satellite dishes which grace Cairo’s rooftops, greeted me at the top.

Having the luxury of slowing down while travelling is something of a frowned upon treat. In a world so obsessed with possessing stuff – where we graduate from needing to own ipod and plasma-screen TV, to mortgage and kids – it’s seen a little naughty to be so lavish with wasting time. Maybe that’s why I love it so much. Having seen the other side of tourism up close, slow travel is a luxury worth wanting. 

Jekyll and Hyde: snapshots of Beirut’s two sides

I love the juxtaposition of Beirut. All battle-scarred and weary on the one hand and flash-the-cash gaudy on the other. It’s a city where soldiers, slouching against tanks, still occupy street corners watching high-heel clad shoppers, clack-clack-clacking down the pavement, swinging designer-label bags. Old Beirut may be no more but it will take the developers a while yet to wipe out the last crumbling, derelict reminders of a city that was once hailed as the Paris of the East and then nearly destroyed itself with war.

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Unearthing Beirut

Walking in Beirut? This is a city where kamikaze drivers rule the roost and the so-called traffic police are more worried about checking out their own getup (think Erik Estrada-circa-CHiPs) than protecting pedestrians. Once you manage to actually get across the road navigation is still a nightmare due to entire blocks of the centre being cordoned off behind developer’s boards as the city’s facelift continues unabated. The soundtrack to a daytime stroll here is supplied by a crescendo of car horns and the staccato beat of construction drills. Who would ever think of running a walking tour – in Beirut – seriously?

I met Ronnie Chatah on a late Saturday afternoon, in the west Beirut suburb of Hamra, when the worst of the day’s sticky heat had been shrugged off the streets. “The Lebanese,” he cheerfully admitted, “don’t walk. This city though can be walked. Traffic is just a recent issue.” Never one to give up a chance to go where danger beckons I said a prayer to the gods of road safety everywhere and pulled on my sturdy walking sandals. Come on Beiruti taxi drivers. Knock me over if you dare.

Sightseeing has never played a big role in Beirut’s tourism promotion – a not surprising fact when you consider that most buildings regarded as ‘sights’ have been obliterated by years of war. Instead Beirut markets itself well as the partying playground of the Middle East; a place of bohemian cafes and ultra-cool nightlife. Modern, stylish and oh so up-to-the-minute, this is the Arab world at its most cosmopolitan and vibrant. Behind Beirut’s jazzed-up new high-rises and shiny glass office buildings though, there lies another whole side of the city that most tourists miss. “It’s so easy to walk by Martyr’s Square and the Holiday Inn and not know their stories,” said Ronnie. Even local tourists seem to misplace their memory.

This wilful amnesia, aided by the shiny veneer busily being slapped across their city’s ancient contours, is letting the Lebanese sweep away their capital’s cobwebs with a demolition ball. No one could blame them for wanting to. There are more skeletons hiding in the closet here than most. Street after street of bullet-scarred facades are a prominent reminder of the brutality of the civil war which ripped apart this city for 15 years, from 1975 to 1990. But as more and more of these buildings fall victim to property developers is the soul of Beirut being squandered along the way?

“Beirut is disappearing. Buildings that have served as landmarks, whole neighbourhoods have been bulldozed away,” Ronnie said as we stopped on the district’s main drag, Rue Hamra. I caught the scent of perfume and over-zealous hair-gel application from the promenading youngsters passing by. During the civil war, when this was the centre of Muslim Beirut, I’d have been as likely to encounter off-duty PLO fighters as strolling shoppers. Hidden away behind a row of new shop fronts is an abandoned cinema which stayed open throughout the war. This was where Yasser Arafat used to watch the latest Hollywood offerings in between skirmishes. The last movie to be played there, fittingly ‘Rambo 3’, (the ‘Rambo’ franchise being a particular favourite of the warring factions at the time, Ronnie told me) is still displayed in the disbanded projector wheel outside.

We threaded our way through Hamra, heading through the old Armenian district of Kantari, to reach the beginning of the infamous Green Line (the no-man’s land which marked the territorial split of the city during the war). On these back streets deserted mansions slumped and withered in a slow, genteel rot.  Most were abandoned when their owners fled the fighting. The few that have been fixed-up look like ornate architectural preening birds of paradise – fine examples of the grand Neo-Ottoman style which once dominated the city. The gutted frame of the old Holiday Inn building presides over the skyline here despite now nestling between modern steel towers. Opened in 1974, it was one of the first buildings to be taken over by the militias with its rooms soon stripped of their opulent fittings and the glamorous guests replaced with gun-toting guerrillas. Like most Beirutis Ronnie remains ambivalent about this battle scarred relic’s future but recognises the role it serves as a sad reminder of the city’s past. “Fascinating buildings like the Holiday Inn are going to disappear soon and once it goes there’s a chunk of history that will go with it,” he said.

Crossing the Green Line during the war would have entailed some fancy footwork to dodge sniper fire. The guns may be gone but the hurtling traffic on Rue Abdel Kader still requires a need for speed and agility. When Ronnie first designed this tour establishing a pedestrian-friendly route was his first hurdle. He admitted they haven’t been completely successful and the tour still criss-crosses a couple of main streets. Still, it’s all part of the Beirut experience and I stepped out onto the road determined not to look like a foolish tourist. Amid the speed and swerve of the cars, the fug of petrol-haze, and the extra annoyance of several curb crawling taxis which decided to try and offer me a ride, I managed, somehow, to make it to the other side without an ambulance having to be called and found myself in the construction ghost town of Wadi Abu Jamil which marks the western tip of the old Downtown.

 The central city is surely Beirut’s weirdest district. Completely levelled after becoming the front line during the war, much of the city makeover has been concentrated here. The redevelopment was the brainchild of the late Rafiq Hariri, twice prime minister of Lebanon, who was murdered on 14 February 2005. Although the real-estate company, Solidere (which was created solely to carry out this work) has been steadily mixing concrete and ploughing dollars into the project for 17 years, much of the old Downtown still has a film-set quality. As if the stage has been set up but the actors have yet to arrive. A lot of this seems due to most of the rebuilding being commercial rather than residential in the government’s hope that Beirut will become the next Dubai; a wish which has yet to be granted. I passed endless shells of empty, sparkling buildings, the padding of my feet echoing off the pristine pavement.

The buildings in Wadi Abu Jamil (the old Jewish quarter) have been finished for five years, Ronnie told me. But because speculative investors keep trading, and property prices keep going up, the buildings remain vacant as there’s no need to rent. The only other people we met were bored looking policemen stationed here due to the presidential palace being down the road. An unexpected sight is the perfectly restored Maghen Abraham synagogue. Beirut once boasted 17 synagogues and a vibrant Jewish community. The city’s Jews upped sticks and left during the war (most heading to Montreal and Geneva rather than Israel) and not long after, the synagogue became yet another architectural victim of the conflict. In 1982 PLO arms dealers in the city used it as an ammunition store believing that Israel wouldn’t dare target it. They did, destroying it completely. When the owners agreed to sell their empty properties to Solidere one of the conditions placed on the sale was that the synagogue be rebuilt. Now it stands as a lonely and unused reminder of one of the city’s many lost communities. 

The streets radiating out from Place d’Etoile, the core of old downtown Beirut, have benefited from painstaking stone-by-stone restoration work. Yes it’s impressive but as we wandered through, it felt more like a historic theme-park than a lived-in city. I took a quick peek into the Solidere office where a scale map of the ambitious master-plan for the city is on display. The entire project isn’t set to be finished for another 30 years. Just beyond, Ronnie showed me the memorial to the journalist Samir Kassir. Assassinated in 2005 (it wasn’t a good year for public figures in Lebanon), Kassir was known for his long running war of words with Solidere; accusing them of the reckless erasing of Beirut’s history. ‘Beirut, outward in its wealth,’ Kassir once said, ‘the city that is also outward in its ruins.’ Ronnie told me that Kassir’s writings played a large role in inspiring him to begin these walks. “In Lebanon there’s a lot of conspiracy fetish and myth. Samir Kassir was one of the few journalists who tried to search out the truth. He opened up debates and questioned our collective amnesia and was an inspirational figure when it comes to Beirut’s past.” 

The groan and clang of construction cranes in a nearby boarded up development area greeted my arrival at Martyr’s Square. Once the beating heart of Beirut it is little more than a sprawling, neglected patch of gravel today. Marooned within this wasteland is the city’s most famous landmark. Pockmarked from sniper bullets, the Liberty Statue is now dwarfed by the colossal new Muhammad Al-Aminne Mosque across the road.  Although little more than an ad hoc car-park (the square’s rejuvenation is part of the last stage of Solidere’s plan) its importance as the symbolic meeting point of their city in the hearts and minds of Beirutis is safe. It was here, on the 14th of March 2005, that over one million Lebanese (about one third of the population) chose to converge to demonstrate over Rafiq Hariri’s assassination and demand full Syrian withdrawal from their nation.

 Dusk was beginning to fall. The slowly fading light an apt companion as we crossed into the spooky dereliction of what was known as ‘deep trench’ or ‘sniper’s alley’ during the war. At the heart of the city’s brutal urban warfare, this ill-fated Bachoura street block formed a frontline where only a couple of metres separated the various Christian militias from the Muslim factions. The yellow light of a street lamp exposed the raw wounds of the buildings around me. Scabs of brickwork oozed plaster, scarred walls revealed glimpses of blackened innards. The whole place dripped a horror movie creepiness which set the hairs on the back of my neck on end.

Rumbles of ricocheting gunfire may have been blasting over the centre during the war but the residents of East and West Beirut never stopped partying. The music at the clubs was just turned up a bit louder to tune out the noise. We crossed a road and arrived in East Beirut’s Monot district; a world-apart from the gloom and tattered dying buildings not more than a few steps away. This is the Beirut of the tourist brochures, known for its cafe culture and nightlife scene. Ronnie’s walk delves below this superficial modern surface to unearth the stories beneath. “It’s about bringing the city to life, making people laugh and taking them on a roller coaster of emotions,” he said. Despite the traffic, the constant construction, and the bland high-rise facade, you can walk in Beirut. And you might just find a hidden narrative to this city which lies beyond the bottom of your cappuccino cup.

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If you’re going to Beirut don’t miss Ronnie Chatah’s Walk Beirut tour. Tours are four hours long and cost US$20 per person.

Al-Quseir: A Place Apart

Al-Quseir is a town of skinny alleyways hemmed in by houses washed in a rainbow of watercolours, slowly peeling and fading away. Some places are more of an atmosphere than a set of mark-off-the-tick-list sights and Al-Quseir is one of these.

It’s a town of pastel-hued, creaky doors, and proudly bright hajj pilgrimage paintings stamped onto walls; where the crumbling coral-block architecture comes complete with wooden balconies of delicate mashrabiya screens, hung with lines of washing flapping in the wind. Once you’ve untangled yourself from the lane-way labyrinth there is the surprise of finding the sea, spreading outwards from the empty beach. The quiet only broken by the yells and cries of young boys, glistening on the pier, egging each other on in daredevil dives.

Once a major gateway to Arabia, the grand Ottoman fort now lies in ruins and the only sign of activity at the port are a few old fishermen mending nets. This sleepy backwater is a little seen part of Egypt’s Red Sea Riviera. Rag-tag Hurghada and glitzy El Gouna with their gaggles of tourists are only an hour up the coast but Al-Quseir has somehow missed the tourism boat. With the peace only punctuated by the trilling of a bicycle’s bell as it zigzags through the winding back streets, this is a place apart from the rest of the Red Sea coast.

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On the purpose of tourism: from the front line of the industry

One of my favourite places for leading tours was always Damascus. With the slumping architecture bearing down upon us amid the labyrinth alleyways, I would begin my group’s introduction to the Old City by taking the winding path that leads to the Shi’a pilgrimage site of Saida Ruqqiyeh Mosque. Invariably, as we threaded our way through the medieval streets, we’d become caught up in the great tide of Iranian pilgrims who were all heading that way as well.

For many in my group it was an uncomfortable situation where we would end up separated from each other; thrown to the mercy of the crowd as it surged forwards, and backwards, and to either side in relentless waves of people. When we finally washed up at the end of the street outside the mosque my group would be sweating, slightly frazzled and usually all looking a bit dazed after this very Damascene version of crowd surfing.

What they didn’t know was that I could have avoided the crowds quite easily by taking another route but had deliberately guided them into the chaos. I didn’t want my clients just to see pretty monuments and nice museums. I didn’t want to keep them swaddled from reality in cotton wool but rather I wanted them to be able to get in there and smell the sweat of the crowds; to become part of a place, if only for an instant.

Cheaper, faster, now…

Like most people who’ve worked on the front line of tourism as a tour leader or guide, I have developed a healthy disrespect for the industry’s marketing jargon. For years there has been a very obvious disconnect between the tourism industry’s love affair with hyperbole and how it actually operates on the ground. The fluffy throwaway phrases in the glossy brochures offering clients ‘once in a lifetime adventures’, ‘off the beaten track experiences’ and the ubiquitous ‘responsible travel’ become hard to swallow when every year you see the trips get cheaper, more ‘extras’ squeezed out, and the itineraries grow ever more homogenized in the quest for competitive pricing.

The industry has been feeding the same line of ‘cheaper, faster, now’, for so long that we seem to have bred a style of tick-list tourism where clients demand more but pay less and see everything but experience nothing. On returning home a tourist may be able to reel off an impressively long list of sights they saw but did they stick around long enough to be able to describe to you the uncomfortable sensation of the layer of gritty sand that sandpapered their sun-parched skin in the desert. They can walk through an ancient, bustling souq but are so busy documenting their visit so that they can remember it later – their camera permanently glued to their face – that they fail to see the stall-vendor in the corner beckoning to them to come drink syrupy tea. Is this the style of tourism we want to be involved in? And more importantly, is this what clients want? I seriously don’t believe so.

As those involved at the top of the tourism tree become more and more focussed on pricing and marketing it’s now more important than ever for those down at the roots of the industry to realise the role we can each play in promoting a different ideal; an approach that, for me, is the true purpose of tourism. Seeking connections between people, places and cultures so that the tourist is no longer just a spectator peeping through the window into an exotic ‘other’ land but part of that world, if only for a minute, themselves.

By their very nature of packing in as much as possible in the least amount of time, it is difficult to do little more than scratch the surface of a destination on a tour. But a good guide or leader can make all the difference in helping to lift the lid off a place and allow tourists to travel not just further but deeper.

We need to foster a sense of inclusion where it’s not ‘us’ against ‘them’. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve overheard guides tell their clients to not talk to anyone in markets and at sights and on the street. If you dive into the market and are comfortable chatting to the vendors, your clients will feel that they can do this too. If you just walk through simply giving a spiel on the history along the way and ignoring everyone, that’s the way your passengers will act as well. For our groups we are the benchmark for how to behave and by using this responsibility wisely we can inspire our clients to go out and make local connections themselves.

Hello Iran…

There was this one time trapped amid the flow of pilgrims in Damascus, when a car insanely tried to navigate down the road and caused the crowd to suddenly tip madly to the side. An elderly Iranian woman, shielding her face from view by clutching the corner of her black shroud in her teeth, lost her footing and grabbed the wrist of one of my female clients in an attempt to regain her balance. This then caused my client to stumble and she in turn reached out and grabbed the shoulder of the tiny Iranian lady in front of her until it looked like it could turn into a domino effect of tourists and pilgrims tumbling endlessly down the street.

I heaved them all onto the narrow ledge of a shop front where I’d managed to shelter the rest of my group until the car to blame for all this chaos finished manoeuvring through the street. We all looked at each other and burst out laughing. There was no ‘us’ and ‘them’. No strange line drawn by different clothing or eye colour, religion or politics. We were simply some people who’d all nearly ended up face-down on the ground.

When the car finally managed to grumble past the Iranian ladies patted my client’s hand to say thank you. Then some young men pushed towards us through the crowd. The ladies waved excitedly back and beckoned them over and suddenly we were all waving madly into their video camera and shouting ‘Hello Iran!’ with the Iranian ladies beside us grinning broadly. We were no longer observers. Just fellow actors in this crazy carnival called the world.

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The above article was first published as part of the ‘Tourism: What’s The Point?’ debate on the Conscious Tourism Blog.

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