I’m not Asia’s greatest fan. Though you’ll find some of the world’s most fascinating natural and cultural sights, I find it irritating that they’re buried amidst jumbles of telephone wires and that reaching them often involves darting out in front of more motorbikes than it should ever be possible to encounter on one road. Nevertheless, I enjoy reading about the place, when I can filter out the bits that I don’t like to be left with a vibrant and enticing locale. There are exceptions, however, and one is most definitely Sri Lanka. I visited last year and cannot wait to return.
The Tea Planter’s Wife by Dinah Jeffries
It’s perhaps no surprise, therefore, to learn that one of my choices is a work of fiction. The story is enthralling but most of all, it captures the essence of the country in which it’s set. Here’s one of my favourite descriptions from the book:
“She took a deep breath of what she’d expected would be salty air, and marvelled at the scent of something stronger than salt.
“What is that?” she said as she turned to look at the man, who, she rightly sensed, had not shifted from the spot.
He paused and sniffed deeply. “Cinnamon and probably sandalwood.”
“There’s something sweet.”
“Jasmine flowers. There are many flowers in Ceylon.”
“How lovely,” she said. But even then, she knew it was more than that. Beneath the seductive scent there was an undercurrent of something sour.
“Bad drains too, I’m afraid.”
She nodded. Perhaps that was it.”
For some reason, though this scene takes place in Colombo, it feels to me like it should be set in Galle Fort. Quite possibly that’s because I grabbed the first train out of Colombo to head for the hill country and quite possibly because Galle Fort oozes history, spice and sewage from every cobblestoned street.
Hokkaido Highway Blues by Will Ferguson
My next choice focuses on an Asian country I also love: Japan. Travelling through Japan ought to have been a challenge, what with the different alphabet and all, but the Japanese go out of their way to make sure they can understand you, even if the conversation can get a little stilted. Here’s the author on the art of Japanese conversation:
“This was conversation by Non Sequitur and I was thoroughly familiar with it by now. The trick was to answer with equally arbitrary statements, until you sound like a couple of spies conversing in code.
“Yes, I can eat Japanese food. Baltimore is very big.”
“How long will you stay in Japan?”
“Until tomorrow, forever. It is very cold in Baltimore.”
He shook my hand. We smiled warmly at each other, clearly this was an International Moment.”
Fortunately, when I reached Kyushu, the lady in the tourist office at Yanagawa defaulted to technology when she realised our language abilities were sorely lacking. Video conferencing with a disembodied head on her computer, I was able to secure a map and a recommendation for lunch. The head seemed very disappointed that I had no further questions and I felt guilty as I thanked it and headed off.
Three Moons in Vietnam by Maria Coffey
Years ago, I found myself sleeping in Michael Caine’s bed. He wasn’t in it, of course – of course! – but he had stayed in that same room and slept in that same bed while filming The Quiet American. The bed was located in Hoi An, in an old Chinese chophouse that had been converted into a guest house. Despite that it heaves with tourists (more so now, I understand, than when I was there) I found Hoi An to be a wonderfully atmospheric place. Maria Coffey describes the place thus:
“It was no problem to while away some time in Hoi An. We explored the fish market along the river bank, where women vendors smoking fat hand-rolled cigarettes squabbled nastily and noisily with each other.”
I don’t remember any squabbling, but I do remember the noise.
Mirror to Damascus by Colin Thubron
On to the Middle East now, and a book set in a city whose history stretches back seven millennia, giving me hope that when the present conflict ends, the city will rebuild and restore. I visited shortly before the war kicked off and was enchanted by the place and its people. Clad in what felt like a mediaeval cloak, I marvelled at the Umayyad Mosque; free of my robes, I haggled in the tiny shops on Straight Street and never felt unsafe in the streets of its old town, even late into the night. In his book, Thubron tackles some of the city’s history:
“Some cities oust or smother their past. Damascus lives in hers.”
Here’s to when Damascus can live freely again.
The 8.55 to Baghdad by Andrew Eames
My final choice is another reminder that time changes everything. Mention Baghdad now and the Iraqi capital is still, to many, a place that instils fear instead of hope. But less than a century ago in 1928, none other than Agatha Christie made the journey from London to Baghdad by train. Her route took her through Syria, where she frequently stayed at the Baron Hotel in Aleppo. (Rumour has it that this historic hotel, which I visited but didn’t overnight in, has so far survived the war almost unscathed.)
Eames quotes the 1928 edition of the Thomas Cook handbook which “advises customers packing for Syria that “There is nothing better for travelling than a suit of Scottish tweed, supplemented by an ulster or other warm overcoat and a good waterproof.” The author had probably never ventured further than Ramsgate.”
Times change and for some places, that’s a good thing.
For many of us, an island holiday is the ultimate in escapism. There’s something about it which engenders a kind of “pull up the drawbridge” mindset perfect for recharging the batteries. What follows puts together those islands that for one reason or another have made a lasting impression on me, with a suggestion for a good time to visit weather-wise.
Gorée – January
Senegal’s Île de Gorée is at once a melancholy and vibrant place. The focus for the country’s remembrance of those lost to the slave trade even though few were ever shipped from its shores, it’s also colourful and charismatic, a favourite of artists and craftsmen. It’s an easy day trip from the Senegalese capital Dakar. In January the weather is sunny and mild, making this the perfect winter escape.
Roatan – February
Honduras might have a hellish reputation in terms of safety and security – its largest city San Pedro Sula is considered to be the murder capital of the world – but the languid island of Roatan off its northern coast is about as far from trouble as you can get. It has all the characteristics you’d expect from a Caribbean island: a laid back welcome, turquoise warm waters and fresh fish dinners. In February, it’s busy enough to feel buzzing, yet you’ll have no problem finding space on the beach to soak up those tropical rays.
La Digue – March
The Seychelles has a reputation for luxury – and all the costs that come with achieving it. The good news is that La Digue manages to offer accommodation for all budgets. Better still, it’s one of the prettiest islands on the planet and compact enough that you can explore it by bike in a few days. In March, the weather’s on the turn, but unless you’re really unlucky, visiting La Digue in the shoulder season means you’ll dodge the worst of the crowds as well as the rain.
St Lucia – April
One of the lushest islands in the Caribbean, St Lucia is also one of the prettiest. But that verdant setting has only been achieved with rainfall totals higher than many in the region. April is statistically the driest month, so time your visit to the island’s cocoa plantations, hot springs, iconic peaks and of course fabulous beaches to hit the best of the weather.
Gozo – May
Malta’s firmly on the beaten track when it comes to Mediterranean escapes, but visit Gozo before the main tourist season kicks into gear and you’ll be impressed. This rural and characterful island combines fascinating historic attractions with impressive coastal scenery.
Lanzarote – June
If you’ve ruled out Lanzarote on account of its nickname, Lanzagrotty, then you need to have a rethink: this place is seriously cool. Avoid the crowds of tourists tied to school holidays and get in ahead of the crowds to explore Cesar Manrique’s fabulous architectural legacy and some of the hottest volcanic scenery on the planet.
Zanzibar – July
There are few islands with names that conjure up as exotic an image as that of Zanzibar. The reality is as satisfying: the narrow alleyways of the capital Stone Town are lined with mansions made from coral stones held together with lime mortar, built by merchants who traded spices, silks and slaves. To the north of the island, you’ll find plenty of excellent beaches where you can enjoy the dry, hot July weather.
Tanna – August
Faraway in the South Pacific lies the archipelago of Vanuatu. Its most fascinating island is without a doubt Tanna. Dominated by one of the most accessible active volcanoes on the planet, visitor interest is piqued by the John Frum cargo cult, and in particular the offshoot Prince Philip movement that think our Queen’s husband is a god. Toast him with kava, the local firewater which numbs your mouth and sedates your brain.
Bali – September
Well on the beaten tourist track, Bali offers a winning combination of culture and relaxation in one neat and tiny package. Its resorts make the best of the sandy beaches and September sees the crowds thin ahead of the October to March wet season. Watch the sunset over the ocean at Uluwatu temple or head inland to the green rice terraces that encircle the pretty town of Ubud.
Kyushu – October
The most southerly of Japan’s big four, Kyushu packs a punch. It’s a good choice for those wishing to get up close to the country’s tectonic action, with mud pools, hells and hot sand baths at Beppu and the active volcano Sakurajima an easy ferry ride from the city of Kagoshima. By October, the humidity that plagues the summer months is long gone, but temperatures are still high enough to make sightseeing a pleasure.
Easter – November
Despite its isolation, remote Rapa Nui is recognisable the world over for its moai, the oversized stone heads that gaze out over the Pacific from all parts of this mountainous island. The five hour flight from the Chilean capital just to get there is arduous, but when you do, you’ll agree it’s well worth the effort. Its history is fascinating, but it’s the location that blows your mind.
Cuba – December
Go there before it changes, they said. So I did. But that was well over a decade ago and the tour companies are still saying it. Nevertheless, I haven’t yet met a visitor who was disappointed. Cuba’s one of those places that gets under your skin, from the old ladies in Havana who’ll puff on their cigars for a dollar to the horses that you’ll still see trotting down the cobbles of backstreet Trinidad. Forget generic Caribbean, this place is unique and special because of it.
So there you have it, my favourites. What are yours?
As the theme tune from “Gladiator” filled the arena, I felt the hairs on my arm stand to attention.
I’d come to watch a spectacle. Jerash’s RACE project had both impressive credentials and great reviews. Ticket clutched in sweaty palm, I hurried into the auditorium, eager to secure a good seat. A Roman soldier adjusted his strap under a stubble-pocked chin, bristle-brush helmet conferring stature, scarlet tunic incongruous under masculine armour. An air of anticipation rippled through the crowd.
A small group of legionaries arrived, interrupting excited chatter, and took their place in the sand of the legendary Hippodrome. Though few in number, they were a formidable sight behind their flag bearer.
Known as the Legion VI Ferrata, “the ironclads”, they treated us to an impressive demonstration of battle tactics and formation marching. As they recreated the classic Roman two-sided shield barrier, it was clear how effective this would have been in war. Not a finger or stray hem was visible outside the shield.
The music played, unashamedly tongue in cheek. A diverse band of gladiators entered the arena ready to fight, clad in robes and armed with assorted weapons: net, shield, trident. All were muscle-bound and postured aggressively. Once they might have been slaves or criminals facing the death penalty, but today they had the best job in Jerash.
“Ave, imperator, morituri te salutant!”
“We who are about to die salute you!”
Passive spectating wasn’t allowed; thumbs up or thumbs horizontal – we had to vote. The loser kept his life with thumbs up. Caught up in the moment, I voted thumbs horizontal, before realising, embarrassed, that everyone else had pardoned him. Feeling audience pressure, next time I voted thumbs up.
A Roman general tore into the stadium in a horse-drawn chariot. Two others followed, kicking up clouds of dust. Their wheels angled outwards, giving the impression of imminent collapse every time their horses tackled the tight turns. The centre of the track was marked by a fragile wooden fence which didn’t seem at all like it might withstand a misjudged move.
Leaning forward over the barrier, I urged the racers on ever more enthusiastically, reminiscent of ‘My Fair Lady’ though with slightly more ladylike language. I cheered myself hoarse for a bearded driver clad in an emerald tunic, who threw himself into the job with gusto and wasn’t going to let anyone pass under any circumstances. My favourite strode to a clear win after the regulation seven laps. I whooped unashamedly and thought it was a pity I couldn’t have put a bet on.
As the winner received his prize and our respect, it was time to clamber down to the track for some photos. Not allowed to take a chariot for a spin (clearly my reputation for a lack of hand-eye-wheel coordination had preceded me) my hero had been swallowed up within a crowd of well wishers. I had to settle for a picture with the runner up – same beard, same tunic but, alas, a lot less balls.
A headline on the news section of the BBC’s website caught my eye this morning. It read: “Iranian dual citizens fight new US visa rules”. I’ve never been to Iran but reading on, this article could have directly affected me, but for a few months. The article explained that any British citizen that had been to Syria in the last five years would no longer qualify for the visa waiver program; in other words, they couldn’t travel on an ESTA and would now have to apply for a visa.
I’ve checked my travel diary, in which I keep a list of the places I’ve been and the dates I visited. One of those is Syria. Now, the country is a no-go zone, but just a few short years ago, it was a different place, largely undiscovered by tourists. I wandered the souks of Aleppo and Damascus, travelling between them across the beautiful countryside on a modern train. I enjoyed a wonderful walk through Hama to a soundtrack of creaking norias. You can find out more about them here:
I went to Syria and neighbouring Jordan in Spring 2010 and the new regulations stipulate a cut off date of March 2011. That means I’m still good to go to one of my most favourite cities, New York, next May. I was worried, though I don’t regret visiting Syria back then for a moment. Nor do I condemn the US government for passing such legislation; countries have a right to determine their own security and their own rules.
It’s not just Brits and it’s not just Syria. The Wall Street Journal wrote: “Coming up with a comprehensive plan has been challenging. Instead, a piece-by-piece approach appears to be emerging. The initial step was legislation to put some restrictions on the visa-waiver program, which allows travelers from the 38 mostly European and Asian nations to enter the U.S. without obtaining a visa. The measure would ban people from those nations who had traveled to places including Iraq or Syria since March 2011 without first getting a visa. The bill, which passed 407-19, is supported by the White House and is expected to be wrapped into a must-pass spending bill and become law by year’s end.”
You can read the exact wording of the bill here:
A list of visa waiver countries can be found here:
Currently, the restrictions affect those who have travelled since 1 March 2011 to Iraq, Syria and “any other country or area of concern designated by the Secretary of Homeland Security” (to be determined within 60 days). If, like me, you’re a fan of visiting unusual destinations, it looks like it’s going to be important to double check you still qualify to travel on an ESTA if you wish to visit the USA.
Before the present conflict kicked off, I visited Syria, spending a few enjoyable days exploring Damascus, Hama and Aleppo before crossing the border into Jordan. It saddens me to see what has happened to this once beautiful country, but I have fond memories of this trip, and especially when I think back to my journey to Jordan’s capital city, Amman…
The taxi driver and his assistant scratched their heads as they unpacked the contents of the boot for the third time. My guidebook had said that service taxis only left when full but this was really stretching the concept. My small suitcase was not the problem. My three travelling companions, a Jordanian man and his two daughters, had with them ten or so large bags of assorted shapes, with most of their purchases loosely tied in black plastic sacks. The souks of Damascus were considerably cheaper than those of Amman and the family had taken full advantage.
At 6am the bus station had been almost deserted and my driver and his hustler had decided to try their luck on the main highway. And so it was that we found ourselves by the side of the road surrounded by packages. As the family’s taxi reversed towards us down the main road and popped open its boot, it was clear this was not going to be a fast transfer. Finally, the sixth, or so, attempt at loading the boot was successful – only a handful of bags on laps – and we were on our way. I considered myself lucky to have the front seat and only a small backpack; I had more space than anyone. The hustler balanced precariously the front driver’s seat as we careered along the road, leaning out of the door so as not to interfere with driver’s control of the pedals and trying to keep the door as close to its frame as was possible. Somehow, he was still in one piece when we dropped him off and set off for the border.
Our driver was in a tremendous hurry. It seemed a matter of personal pride to overtake every vehicle on the road, creating a third lane if need be to ensure that the brake wasn’t required. At breakneck speed, we hurtled through the Damascene suburbs and out onto the main road, scattering trucks, vans and cars by the wayside as we passed. No horn was necessary, such was his unwavering determination to push his way through. Each successful manoeuvre spurred him on more. And then, cornering on two wheels (or so it felt), we pulled in to a bunch of roadside shops and parked up with a jolt out front. For twenty minutes negotiations continued and finally our driver emerged with a box of perfumed tissues, large size and pink, and a two litre bottle of water. The almost full box of similarly fragranced yet blue tissues, and an untouched bottle of water in the passenger footwell were clearly insufficient for his needs.
As abruptly as we had pulled in, we were back on the road and, with the impatience of youth, soon accelerated back up to full speed. Fidgeting between lanes, and often straddling them as was the custom, he continued with his quest to overtake every other vehicle in Syria. Reaching a small town twenty kilometres from the border, we parked up with a small group of other service taxis and loaded the three Jordanians and their considerable luggage into one of them. Several hundred Syrian pound notes were handed over to their new driver. Even without me, it was a squeeze, and the back seat was still covered in black sacks next to the two young women. Taking the pink tissues, but neither bottle of water, the racing driver got out. I was introduced to his “father” who was to take me across the border. A leathery, slim fellow with brown jacket and a worried frown permanently on his face, he was a more considerate road user than his predecessor, though no less fast. After stopping briefly to collect the car’s paperwork, we were on our way.
Some reports had suggested that the border formalities could take up to five hours, but at 8.30am the Nasib border was quiet. The Syrian border officials were courteous and thorough, and, aside from a surprise 500 SYP departure tax not mentioned in my guidebook, I crossed into no man’s land without incident. When I emerged from the immigration building, however, my driver was nowhere in sight. I waited for some time in the sunshine until finally he emerged from the direction of the duty free shop clutching a large bag of cigarettes. Leaving one pack of 200 smokes in the bag, he stripped off the cellophane wrapping of the other two and threw it, together with the cardboard cases onto the floor. Every compartment of the taxi was used to store the now loose packets, two in the ashtray, six so perfectly in the armrest it could have been designed for the purpose and three more under the passenger sun visor. What wouldn’t fit were carefully placed, slowly and very deliberately, in his many pockets. Finally, we were ready to set off. Around the corner, a couple of dollars were palmed to an official, a friend, and after a brief exchange of pleasantries, we entered the Jordanian zone.
Each car arriving at the Jabir crossing is searched meticulously, first passing over the top of an official in a pit and then, boot and bonnet open, undergoing a thorough investigation of the rest of the car. My suitcase was opened and questions asked about a small packet of paracetamol tablets. Inexplicably, the driver’s cache of cigarettes remained intact. I didn’t see a packet exchange hands. Money changed and visa purchased, we entered Jordan.
Before dropping me in the Abdali district, we had one last stop to make. Calling in on his customer by a parade of shops, the cigarettes were painstakingly retrieved from each of their hiding places and the carrier bag eventually handed over in exchange for 24 JD. One very happy old man turned his taxi around and headed back to the border.