On the ‘dangers’ of female travel

This could just be a story about countries deemed dangerous for women to travel to. But it’s more than that. This is a story about our perception of danger and how we’re told time and time again that the unfamiliar and the foreign are more dangerous to us than what is on our own doorstep.

A couple of months back, British tabloid the Daily Mail ran a story in their travel section titled ‘Sex attacks, muggings, and harassment: World’s most dangerous holiday destinations for women (and some of them may surprise you)’. The top ten list declared India; Brazil; Turkey; Thailand; Egypt; Colombia; South Africa; Morocco; Mexico; and Kenya to be the most dangerous countries for female travellers.

We’ll get back to that shortly.  First I want to tell you about a strange encounter I had in Medellin, Colombia in 2001.

After a hard couple of days travelling, I was lounging around at the backpacker hostel for the afternoon when the film ‘A Cry in the Dark’ about the famous Australian dingo-baby-stealing case came on the television (you know, the one with Meryl Streep doing that Australian accent). With nothing else planned, I sat down with the hostel staff to watch it. As the film credits rolled at the end, one of the hostel staff shook their head and quite seriously announced they would never visit Australia. ‘Dingoes steal babies! The police are bad and try to pin crimes on you! And you go to jail!’

So sitting in Medellin, once known as the most violent city on earth, and still tainted with an insalubrious reputation for gang crime during 2001, a local was telling me they would be too scared to holiday in the land of kangaroos and beach barbeques. It was pretty funny.

More seriously though, this is the type of knee-jerk reaction which the Daily Mail attempts to feed on when it splashes a story about female travel safety across its pages. They’re playing on our basic instinct of safety in familiarity and the fear of what is foreign. Note the countries they chose for the list. There’s not a so-called ‘western’ country among them. They’re all in the developing world: Africa, Asia and Latin America. There’s nothing surprising about the list – despite the article title saying so – because it’s the same tired naming and shaming that has been done copious times before to these countries by the travel media.

Despite not considering myself particularly brave, I’ve travelled extensively through nine of the countries above (just South Africa to go) and lived in both Egypt and Turkey for several years. I’d be the first to admit that travelling as a woman is not a walk in the park. It can be frustrating, angering and simply fucking exhausting at certain times. But how are the Daily Mail qualifying the countries above as the world’s most dangerous destinations for women travellers?

If you read the article you’ll see that each country on the list gets a short paragraph of scary statistics on dangers in country. Number one on the list is India which the Daily Mail qualifies for its winning position by stating that ‘gang rapes of local women and tourists have reached worrying levels in parts of the country with reports suggesting that a sexual assault is reported every twenty minutes.’

I don’t want to downplay India’s dismal statistics on sexual harassment and rape. Anyone who has seen Leslee Udwin’s documentary ‘India’s Daughter’ about the gang rape and murder of Jyoti Singh knows that India has a long path to walk in changing ingrained male attitudes towards women. But I wondered how some other countries, which definitely didn’t make the Daily Mail’s list, would fare if I gave them the same treatment.

So using the Daily Mail’s style this is what happens when we apply it to Great Britain:

Millions of female tourists holiday in Great Britain every year but rapes and sexual assaults of women in the country are at a sky-high level with an October 2014 report issued by the Office of National Statistics stating that 22,106 incidences of rape had been reported to police that year by June. An official crime analysis estimates that one in five women over the age of 16 has been a victim of sexual assault in England and Wales.

Drink-spiking with date-rape drugs ketamine, Rohypnol and GHB has become a serious issue at clubs and bars in recent years with a 2014 survey suggesting that one in ten Brits may have been the victim of drink-spiking. Women visiting the capital London should be particularly vigilant about their personal safety, especially while taking transport home at night. Using unlicensed minicabs is particularly dangerous; more than 10 sexual assaults are reported every month in the capital.

And now let’s apply the same treatment to the USA.

Street harassment for women continues to be a serious problem for women in the USA, particularly in large cities such as New York, as shown in the video ‘10 Hours of Walking in NYC as a Woman‘. Rape and gender-based violence is a major issue with the latest figures from the FBI’s crime report stating a staggering 79,770 rapes reported in 2013 – which works out on average to one rape, every six minutes.

Due to lax gun control laws, there is a high incidence of gunpoint robberies and other gun crime throughout the country. Female travellers should remain vigilant at all times, particularly if using public transport and walking at night.

And now let’s stop here for a minute and consider that whopping 79,770 rape statistic because I know my jaw dropped to the ground when I read it for the first time.

Let’s make one thing clear. I’m not saying that India; Brazil; Turkey; Thailand; Egypt; Colombia; South Africa; Morocco; Mexico; and Kenya don’t have a problem with gender-based violence. I’m saying that in reality, gender-based violence is a world-wide issue, not confined to the countries above.

The Daily Mail (and plenty of other media outlets) are simply using people’s fear of the unknown when they select which countries make their grade of ‘most dangerous’ for women travellers. Otherwise why would a country like Spain – where in the popular package tourist resort of Magaluf a series of highly publicised gang-rapes and sexual assaults on tourists have taken place in recent years – not make the list? Because Spain is European and familiar, and just like us.

Over the past 20 years of my travelling life I’ve been called by various people brave, bonkers, fearless, idiotic and stupidly reckless just because of the places I’ve chosen to travel to. Yet, gender-based violence and harassment is as much a problem for women in the western world from Melbourne to Madrid and London to Los Angeles. So should we all just cower at home instead? Fuck that.

Travelling as a female is always going to have certain extra risk factors that male travellers simply don’t need to contend with or worry about but you know what, they’re the same risks and dangers women face everywhere simply by stepping out of their house. So, spare us the scaremongering. The question female travellers should be asking is not ‘which countries should I avoid to be safe’, but instead ‘why the fuck in 2015 am I still more likely than a man to be a victim of violence anywhere’.

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.

On why I don’t have a bucket list

In 2008 I led a one-off tour that started in Cairo and then stretched west across North Africa, meandering all the way to Casablanca in Morocco. Back on a minibus, after an exhausting wait on Egypt’s Sallum border post into Libya, I overheard my elderly tour passenger crow to her husband, “number 66 and another one off the bucket list.”

“Hey Jess,” her husband shouted. “This is our 66th country. How many countries have you been to?”

Here’s a secret.

I don’t have a bucket list.

There. I’ve said it. I have committed the sin of the modern day traveller. I don’t have a top 50 things to do before I die or even a top 20 places to see before I turn 40. When I was 20 I didn’t have a top 100 destinations to tick off a list before I turned 30 either. And when I did turn 30 I wasn’t exactly sure how many countries or bucket-listy places I’d actually been to.

Not long after that tour finished, a friend got me to write down all the countries I’d visited to see who came out on top. After presenting him with the list he pointed out that despite the fact we were living in Cairo and my job had me constantly travelling across the Middle East and North Africa I had managed to forget to write down every single North African and Middle Eastern country, including the one I lived in. I guess I wasn’t made for tick box tourism.

The way my passenger couple had gloated that they’d now been to 66 countries when we’d only been in number 66 for a total of five minutes sums up the bucket list problem to me. It reduces the very act of travelling to a simple list of must-sees and must-dos that we can later brag about. Of course I want to see a country’s most famed monuments and attractions (and you can read more about my attitude towards the travel-snobs who avoid the major sites here) but it always seems to me that it’s the things in between all those must-sees that provide the best and most memorable travel experiences.

In 2004 I went to Libya for the first time (sans passengers) and yes, the grand Roman ruins of Leptis Magna blew me away and I thought the winding lanes of the Sahara Caravan city of Ghadarmes was one of the most enchanting place I’d ever seen but they are not the things that first spring to mind when someone asks me about Libya.

Instead I usually tell them about the shopkeeper in Khoms (the town beside the ruined Roman city) who was so gobsmacked at seeing an independent traveller that he wouldn’t let me pay for my groceries. Or I tell them about the oil engineer in Tobruq who bumped into me on the street and took the day off work to give me a private tour of the WWII cemeteries. His tour culminated in a tea drinking session with Tobruq’s Minister for Tourism who earnestly asked me how they could attract more travellers to town and then, jangling a set of keys before me, opened up Rommel’s operation bunker just for me. I tell them about being held in the Ghadarmes police station for hours because they knew I wasn’t supposed to be here (independent travel was illegal in Libya at this time) but they didn’t know what to do with me (they decided ignoring the issue was the best option and let me go). And I tell them about bizarre bus trips, about hitching rides in dodgy minibuses with even dodgier drivers, and getting lost everywhere because the guidebook maps were so out of date none of them made sense. Mostly though the things I remember from that trip are the people and you can’t put people on a bucket list.

It’s not that I think bucket lists are wrong. Just sometimes they seem to narrow our perspective so we don’t see the bigger picture. If we’re so busy concentrating on ticking off the next country or getting to the next star attraction we tend to miss what’s going on right in front of our noses and it’s sometimes these things that end up being the most amazingly memorable parts to a trip.

On that same Cairo to Casablanca trip in 2008 we were held up for four hours on the Tunisia/Algeria border. By the time everyone was stamped through the Tunisian side the group were a bedraggled and tired mess who just wanted to get to a hotel with a clean-ish toilet. We entered the no-man’s land between Tunisia and Algeria (my passengers’ no 68) under one of those tour group black clouds that threaten to turn into a tour leader nightmare of in-group bickering. The no-man’s land between the frontier posts stretched on in a desolate plain of dirty desert sand for four kilometres up to the shack that served as Algeria’s immigration building. I had no idea about transport here and guessed we were going to have to walk. And then, out of the desert nothingness in the distance a plume of sand rose in the air. We watched and waited as the sound of the thrumping engine got closer until Muhammad pulled up beside us in his car and threw open the passenger door which then theatrically fell off the car body completely to land in the sand beside our feet.

I squeezed people and luggage into the car. Muhammad threw open the bonnet and fixed something with a rubber band. He pushed me into the passenger seat and handed me the door to hang on to. We broke down three times on the short trip between the border posts making what should have been a five minute drive into a half hour circus which starred a hammer, a piece of rope and a copious number of rubber bands (which I began to have a whole new respect for afterwards). In a cloud of dust we arrived in front of Algerian immigration. As we climbed out, the car gave an audible sigh and something exploded in the engine. We entered Algeria laughing hysterically all signs of grumpiness gone.

You can’t put Muhammad and his border transport on a bucket list. It’s just one of those odd moments that can occur on a journey and make you love travelling even more. While bucket lists would have us condense travel to a simple series of tick box sights, it’s moments like these that remind us that travel is more than a wish list of things we must see. It’s also about the bonkers shit that happens along the way. So much of modern life is buried under lists with career goals and five year plans and achievements we should aim for. Let’s not spoil our travel time the same way.

Remembering the real Syria

I had just been kidnapped. Bundled into a car and taken to an unknown destination somewhere in the old city section of Homs.  My kidnapper loomed over me, knife in hand.

“You must eat more,” he yelled, slamming the knife forcefully onto the table. “More!”

Dutiful hostage that I am, I forced another spoonful into my mouth.

Enforced eating isn’t a usual hostage torture procedure but then there are no dank cells or handcuffs here. Instead it’s just endless cups of tea, huge plates groaning under the weight of food and more smiles from the gathered crowd than you could ever expect.

This was my Syria. 

Yet again, I’d been kidnapped by a local family and brought home for lunch.

All I’d wanted to do was buy a bottle of water when I wandered into Nizar’s shop in the midday heat. Instead, he’d quickly locked the shop, hustled me into his car and brought me home to meet his family. And here I was now in their living room, about to explode from food, with his wife Hiyam clucking reprovingly “you’re too skinny, too skinny.” They sat there, my hostage-takers, shaking their heads mournfully as I desperately tried to clear my plate.

Whether being plied with sugar-coated almonds by a sweet vendor in the souq, taking the time to drink tea with the caretaker of a lonely ruin, or becoming the surprise guest of honour at a family lunch, there was a warmth, and joyous spontaneity, to travel here that isn’t found elsewhere.

Ahlan wa sahlan” (hello and welcome) the Syrians said. And they truly meant it.

I had finally cleared my plate. Nizar lit a victory cigarette. Hiyam clapped her hands approvingly while the rest of the family grinned. We sat and chatted over syrupy cups of Arabic coffee as the afternoon rolled on and turned into evening. In the end I got up to leave amid pleadings to stay the night.

We took photos. Babies were plonked into my lap and grandma patted my hand affectionately as the camera clicked and flashed. I staggered out into the twilight, with a stomach stuffed with food and a heart full to the brim with the kindness of strangers.

In a time when Syria is headline news for all the wrong reasons I believe it’s really important to remember what it was like before this tragedy began. Ask anyone who ever travelled through Syria and most will tell you it is one of their favourite countries. I wrote this piece in 2009 and it first appeared, slightly modified, in The Independent’s ‘On The Road’ column. The editor got cold-feet about my use of the term ‘kidnapped’ at the beginning of the story and took it out. My whole point of using the kidnapping analogy was the irony of so many people being terrified of going to Syria when all of us who travelled there regularly knew it was one of the most hospitable and welcoming places in the world. Now I’m republishing the original version here on my blog so that we remember that Syria. The one where total strangers were welcomed like long lost friends.  I don’t know what’s happened to Nizar, Hiyam and their family. I lost contact with them soon after the fighting started. I do know that the part of Homs they lived in has been reduced to rubble.

On the fact that we’re all more similar than we first think

The weather had turned up to Cairo-boil. A sweet and sticky fug of heat settled across the city like a blanket. It was so hot it hurt to breathe. I dreamt of air conditioning at night as I listened to the ancient, wobbling ceiling fan wheezing and shuddering through its circular rhythm to try and whip up a breeze.

On the street, sweaty and frizz-hindered, I looked like a straw-haired scarecrow compared to the Cairo girls. Me in my loosest cotton tops and baggiest pants with forehead damp from sweat while the Cairo girls were all turned out in shiny patent heels and carefully applied eye makeup that never seemed to run.

No matter what the thermometer said, the lycra top ruled the street-fashion of Cairo. A glance around any busy road proved it was the favoured female clothing option. This body-hugging, long-sleeved and clingy top seemed a completely impractical choice for summer in the city to me.

“Aren’t you hot?” I asked Aisha.

“Yes, too hot!”

“Well why don’t you wear something less tight?” I fanned myself with the reference book I was supposed to be using to teach her English. It was too hot to work.

“I love fashion. I adore it.” She said.

I taught her the word ‘shopaholic’ and she rolled it around her mouth with glee. Then she grabbed my hands and clicked her tongue at my unvarnished nails. I’d never be Cairo-cool.

The trouble was to be fashionable in Cairo and still manage to obey the Islamic tenets of modest dress, the stiflingly hot skin-tight lycra top had become an essential wardrobe staple. It is high-necked and long-sleeved which meant that any of the spaghetti-strapped, scooped-backed tops of Western fashion could be layered over it easily. But I couldn’t even imagine how mummifying it would feel to have body hugging lycra next to my skin when the temperature roared to over 40 degrees.

Walking home from the college I remembered my clubbing days in London. Even in mid-winter we would stand shivering in the entry queues, hugging our jackets around us to try and generate warmth because despite the sleety rain and ice-fingered wind we were wearing the most ridiculously skin-exposing, thin-fabric outfits underneath. It didn’t seem to matter what culture or religion we came from. Women will always find a way to lock ourselves in a fashion-cage.

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.

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