Where Have You Been, What Did You Learn?
Sorry about delays and omissions in your usually fine service – I was meant to tackle various site issues but I was back in the hospital, which is not terribly conducive to posting, or for that matter thinking. One of the problems was the loss of my image bank, a collection of thousands of photos that have appeared here. Plus, most of what was under approval last week seems to have gone, along with all my pre-prepared pieces. Enough about the bit behind the curtain. Onward.
Over the years, the blog has been a peculiar mix of passive and active experience, but what it lacks now is the buzz of new direct experience. Stuck at home and only able to manage short distances without losing my breath, I’m no longer jazzing on the thrill of the new, except vicariously. What was to have been my big ‘retirement’ adventure was first delayed, then cancelled. This year I was due in Calcutta, Iceland, St Petersburg and at my home in Barcelona, where I imagine 18 months of mail has wedged the front door shut. I appreciate how nice it was to have even had the choices in the first place, but I still miss sharing new influences. (The shot above was the outside dining room I’ve used as the setting for the upcoming ‘Hot Water’ from Titan.)
For a while in my thirties I traveled so much that I started submitting pieces to the travel section of The Sunday Times. They were horrified. Their readers want to know when the silver Dior workout water bottle becomes available – a snip at £620.00. They can’t afford one, you understand, but they adore the idea of it. So my investigation into the fraudulent ecology of The Maldives and human rights in Mali didn’t go down well. I see now that I was aiming at the wrong readership. They wanted aspirational, I gave them investigative.
My main regrets are that I saved the Big Three, South America, China and Russia, for last and now won’t get there (especially since I chose Russian over Spanish at school and spent years studying it). These were the stamina-draining trips I’d planned for later life, and were going to furnish me with new book ideas. I lost an all-expenses-paid gig in Buenos Aires and the LGBT+ situation in Russia kept me away.
My experiences in the British countryside have been universally unwelcoming and disastrous. I have no intention of trying to explore my own rainswept little country again, partly because a trip to Cornwall (if you can find anywhere to stay) is quadruple the cost of visiting Southern Europe, and is somehow harder to reach than Russia. What I dislike most is the low light that softens shadows and drains the life from every scene; the very thing so many love. I like my countryside like the landscape of Dali’s youth; hard, amber rock, olive trees, raw bright skies, sharp lines.
Having been laid a little low the last few days, today I’m reposting one of the travel pieces my editor spiked for being too negative…
I hate the King of Sweden. In the last few days he’s played havoc with my holiday plans. It began on the flight. ‘The King would like you to join him in first class,’ whispered the steward, bending close to my ear before realising his mistake, dashing my hopes and sliding away to the distinguished Swedish gentleman seated immediately behind me. As we coasted into Muscat airport, I watched a crimson-suited band assemble, and waited while the King took a leisurely stroll up the red carpet to be greeted by the Sultan of Oman.
It was a glamorous beginning. But when the King began to tour the country in the Sultan’s company, I realised his travel schedule was pretty much the same as mine. The difference was that he could get whole areas closed wherever he went. First the two largest forts in Nizwa, a town South-East from the capital of Muscat, were shut to the public so that he could visit them. I crossed them off my itinerary with a shrug.
But then the King took over the luxurious Thousand Nights Desert Hotel, where I was supposed to be staying, with the result that I was bumped to a venue without electricity. I wouldn’t have minded if his trip was providing an important contribution to the world banking crisis, or essential to the Middle Eastern discussion of global warming. But no, as the head of the World Scouting Federation he was in Oman on dib-dib-dib business. Everywhere he ventured, smartly turned out Omani scouts stood at the roadside sporting giant pink and mauve flags, nervously awaiting the king’s arrival. It was clearly a big event in the scout world.
Killing time outside the souk in Nizwa, waiting for the royal procession to pass, I spoke to a merchant selling rifles, knives and canes. What would Sweden, a pacifist country, make of these?
‘Our love of rifles is misunderstood,’ he explained. ‘They hold an important ceremonial purpose, together with the curved knives. Guns are fired into the air for celebration at weddings and circumcisions. We do not hunt with them. Every Friday there is a weapons market, a tradition dating back over four centuries.’ It was suddenly easy to see how news footage of celebrating Arabs could be misinterpreted. ‘What about the canes?’ I asked, pointing at three distinct varieties of decorated whippy sticks. ‘They are for beating children,’ he replied, more prosaically.
Human settlement in Oman dates back to the Stone Age. Its name probably originates in the Arab tribes that migrated from the Uman territory of Yemen, which it borders. Now it’s a country that exists in distinct Muslim faiths and tribal zones, roughly matching city, desert and woodland. After a civil war that ended in the mid-seventies Oman has embraced tourism, but my delight in finding the country so unspoiled was mitigated by the fear that all this might soon change. Already some beaches suffer from shipping lane pollution, the ubiquitous plastic water bottle mars landscapes and around 15 animals and birds face extinction. But where Dubai has bling, Oman has grace. The Sultan has brought in social housing, cheap healthcare, good roads and low taxes, at least for as long as the oil holds out.
Determined now to avoid all things Swedish I head into the desert to stay with Bedouins, who are slowly abandoning their camels for jeeps. Still technically polygamous, my host explained that it was simply too expensive to keep three wives. ‘You need a plasma TV, a 4×4, a bigger house, a pool. Before you could have bought another wife with a good camel.’
Dates still provide incomes, but the ancient mud villages where they were harvested have been outgrown. Follow the line of palms through river beds and you’ll find the shells of ghost towns where only the ornately carved wooden doors of crumbling houses remain in dusty, deserted alleys. You already see them turning up in Paris converted into coffee tables. Meanwhile, new homes of white cement offer larger, cooler rooms, and have been constructed next to these abandoned shells. They follow the lines of wadis, the emerald pools that form as rivers make their way from the mountains to the sea.
Omani archaeologists face a familiar dilemma – do you restore old buildings or leave the past to return to dust? We passed a forgotten graveyard with odd headstones – two for a man, three for a woman. ‘An extra one to make sure your wife does not come back,’ my guide joked. At the moment these temperate havens are visited by a handful of French, German and English tourists who are still rare enough to inspire waving frenzies from local schoolchildren.
With the gilt rubbing away from Dubai, Oman seems keen not to make the same mistakes. There are no high-rises here, no footballers’ sea-villages, but the country’s new prosperity means roads are connecting previously unvisited towns. A spectacular turtle beach is filling with camping tents, and a hotel can’t be far behind. When I asked a tribesman how he got such a perfect crease in his white dishdash, he explained, ‘Now I send it to the dry cleaners.’ Bedouins are replacing their palm-husk roofs with plastic sheeting, and it’s hard to begrudge them even though it might spoil our photo opportunities.
But there’s still more of the old here than the new. A reason is provided by Oman’s powerful connection with faith and its Portuguese history; the past can’t be truly forgotten when it is all around you. If you visit, don’t go with a tourist mentality; the people are delightful and keen to talk over a glass of tea.