onsdag 7. desember 2011

About the reasons to travel: The baobab


A baobab tree in the Sine-Saloum delta region of Senegal.

A recent blog post about "inspirational travel quotes" lured the grumpy old man inside me to come forward. Because who needs wise and witty one liners to remember the joys of travelling?

Not this grumpy Norwegian. I don't find inspiration in reading that John A. Shedd once wrote or said or mumbled “a ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for” or that Britain's imperialistic politician Benjamin Disraeli once claimed that "travel teaches toleration".

Between Joal-Fadiout and Sine-Saloum is
Senegal's biggest baobab tree. And yes,
you can step inside of it.

I prefer other sources of inspiration. Like the world itself. It's deeply fascinating, with all its wildly diverse habits and customs.

A very good example - that I learned from my friend Yacine in Senegal in 2006 and was reminded of today, reading up before a trip to Benin in January - is the baobab tree. This African tree can be, and is, used for almost every purpose.

To quote the guidebook Visage du Bénin by Colette Tshaou Hodonou:

* Its leaves make an excellent vegetable rich in calories, iron, proteins, cellulose, ascorbic acid and calcium.
The trunk of Senegal's No. 1 baobab.
* They are used in medicinal preparations against fever, malaria, stomacj pains, asthma, Guinea worm, diarrhea, dysentery, urinary affections, intestinal inflammations and excessive perspirations.
* Fibers of the trunk make resistant stringings, mats, nets and baskets.
* The infused bark heals inflammations, fever, and fight rachitis.
* The pulp of its fruit is very rich in vitamin C, dissolved in water gives an efficient beverage to fight children's diarrhea. This beverage also cures intestine and liver inflammations and malaria.
* The crushed shell of the fruit gives an excellent disinfectant.
* The powdered wood is used as fertilizer in fields.
* The trunk is a great reservoir of water. Its natural or dug cavity seves as a barn, a water tank and receives the corpse of great warriors for the eternal rest.

Now if all those uses of a strange looking tree don't tempt you more to go see for yourself than a meagre quote by someone, you are very different from me. Which in itself could be a proof of how fascinating a place this world really is.
Me in the entrance/exit of Senegal's biggest baobab.

torsdag 1. desember 2011

Maids in Hong Kong: Homeless every Sunday

The space under the HSBC building is popular.

Every Sunday, year-round, Chater Road in the center of Hong Kong Island is closed to traffic. The space under the HSBC building is cleared and the escalators are stopped. Instead the space is dominated by maids. Every place near the metro station Central where there is a few square metres of available floorspace, a maid will have rolled out her carpet and put up camp.

About 300.000 foreign housekeepers are working in Hong Kong. Most of them are so called «resident maids» – living in their employer's house. Sundays are their day off. That means they are not allowed to stay at home. They are thrown out. Therefore they spend the day outside – in every weather and season.

– In the summer it can get horribly hot. There is no aircondition here. And winter days can get cold.
Lalit C. smiles. She has made herself quite comfortable under the HSBC building, with a pillow under her head and a thick blanket to sit on. She has been a foreign worker in Hong Kong for two years. Almost all her Sundays have been spent here. She is not allowed to return home until 8 PM.
Her friend Lorna has to stay out even longer. Her boss demands their appartement for himself for 13 hours, from 09 AM to 10 PM, even when it's raining like this Sunday. But that don't make them complain.
– This is better than our working days. This is our home every Sunday. You can call it a kind of picnic, Lalit says.

From the outside the maid's quarter seems quiet, a pocket that the buzzing sounds of the city can't reach. As soon as you step inside though, you discover that the place is not quiet. On the contrary.
The air is full of sounds, of voices, laughter, singing, dices being thrown, knitting needles, and music blasting out of radios.
The maid's Sunday is not just a picnic. The weekly day off is also a day to go shopping, to meet friends and relatives, play games and do your hobbies. On sunny days there is group dancing in the middle of Chater Road. Other women do crosswords, play Scrabble, bingo, cards, or flock around portable TVs.
Christina July, Lenta and Devina start their day singing in the church Life in Christ Fellowship. Afterwards they go to Chater Road to practice new songs for next weekend. The lyrics are handwritten in a sketchbook.
– Come rain or sunshine, we are here, Christina July says.

On rainy days you can find maids on most places with a roof.

Not all employers throw out their maid on her day off. They don't have to. Most of them will go out voluntarily. The more than 100.000 Filipinos go to Central, and the almost as many Indonesians go to Causeway Bay further east.
A glance into an apartment inside the new luxury skyscraper in 31 Robinson Road explains a lot about why. Even though the flat is priced at almost 2,2 milliond USD, the maid's room» is a sad sight. It's situated behind a sliding door on the kitchen: a closet of 1,80 x 1,20 meters and a tiny bathroom. That is not a place to relax.
The rules from Hong Kong Labor Department define a minimum standard for the income of those who will emply a maid, and the department has set a minimum wage for the maids of 3.740 Hong Kong Dollar (481 USD) a month.
The emplyer must also arrange and cover accommodation. But the rules do not specify what kind of accommodation it must be.

A few years ago a survey (sorry, I've lost the URL) showed that many maids lived in rooms reminding of storage sheds. Many host families refused them any privacy. One maid told that she was not allowed to read on her room. If she kept the lights on for more than 15 minutes, the wife in the house would enter the closet and turn it off.
The situation is not much better now. For Lalit C. «home» is a bunk bed in the same room as the grandmother of the house, who «snore both here and there», according to a giggling Lalit.

Most maids from The Philippines are relatively young when they come to Hong Kong. Many of them have husband and children back home. Still they choose to stay for years - it's been estimated that 120.000 foreign maids have been in Hong Kong for at least seven years - for the simple reason that the work allows them to send money home.
Marlene is a little luckier. She's not separated from her husband by a several hours long flight. She and Nael even share the same employer: she is maid in their house, he is caretaker in their summer house. Her boss even lets her stay at home on Sundays. Still, she goes to HSBC.
– As soon as I get home I will think about work. Here I can relax, she explains. This Sunday Nael is also off duty. That means they can see each other twice this week. Normally they only see each other on Thursdays.
Marlene and Nael have lived almost five years in Hong Kong. Their children of 12 and 13 remain in The Philippines.
– We talk to them on the phone, Marlene says. – It's hard. But we must make the sacrifice. Here we earn lots of money that we can send to the kids.


torsdag 17. november 2011

Budapest: Bagpipes in a box


What a great city Budapest is! And err... what a remarkable street musician I found near Matthias Church in Buda's Castle District.

As you have probably already guessed, the Scots are not the only ones who drive people insane with bagpipes. Also in Hungary, folk music used to consist of village bagpipers before Roma string bands took over.

So what better than a music box with bagpipe music? At least, it's something you won't find anywhere.

onsdag 26. oktober 2011

How knowledge enhances travel


Church of John the Baptist in Cavucin, Cappadocia.
Well established and celebrated sights can be frustrating, as can its lesser-known cousins; the romanesque architecture of a small parish church, the chapel decorated by some baroque painter of the Bolognese school...

In the guidebook they might be highly praised, but just the same: Sometimes you can stare at the vaults or walls for ages - and just don't get it.

No magnificence. No magic. No reason to ditch the sunlight and wine at a pavement café.

That is absolutely OK. We are absolutely free to decide what was the highlights of any travel, and don't have to love everything that's considered see-worthy. 

However, two experiences in the last month have made me realize that the feeling of "I don't feel anything about this place at all" sometimes might stem from pure lack of knowledge.

Case study 1: Prado, Madrid
Last month I was reading Dutch author Cees Nooteboom's travel book "Roads to Santiago" (in parts great, in others a wilderness of words), where a full chapter is devoted to Diego Velázquez and his portraits of Spain's King Philip IV and his daughter Maria Theresa, who was married into becoming queen of Austria. 

Nooteboom gives a blazing account of genetic weeknesses from inbreeding,  religious lunacy and a system where royal marriage was the highest form of politics, that made everyone suffer - and how the painter's close relationship (he lived in the court for 30 years) allowed him to capture all these intimate tragedies on canvas.  

Several (all?) of the paintings described is in Madrid's Prado Museum, and the book leaves little doubt that Nooteboom loves studying them

Which leaves me to my trip to Madrid in 2002. For nearly a week I stayed just across the street from Prado, without ever going there. Thus, I never saw the Velázquez paintings that now really intrigue me.

The thing is, I think that was just as well. Judging from the b/w photopraphs in the book, a full appreciation of them - like Nooteboom's - presuppose a degree of biographical knowledge of the paintings' subjects that I wasn't even near in 2002, but that he has after reading several biographies about them.

Some knowledge is thus a prerequisite for his full travel experience. 

Cappadocian dovecotes, seen from the outside.

Case study 2: A church in Cappadocia
Not even two weeks after reading the Velázquez chapter, I stumbled on another discovery of the joys of knowledge.

I was horseriding in Turkey's remarkable Cappadocia landscape when the retiree Osman showed my guide Doruk and me the way up a nine floors high dovecote dug-out inside a cliff face. There Osman explained us how the bigger holes in the wall were for the nests, and the smaller ones underneath were for the poles where the pigeons would perch; and how the small openings to the outside world allowed pigeons to enter the cave but not the bigger predatory birds.

The climb up nine floors, by old wooden ladders through narrow openings in the limestone roofs, was definitely one of the highlights of my Turkey trip. 

On a more personal level, a great travel revelation came to me later the same day. In the last hour before sunset I had climbed the abandoned old town of Cavucin to see the old Church of John the Baptist, high up in the cliffs.

Just 24 hours earlier, I would have thought the church a sorry sight; with damaged frescos and most arches and windows filled in with rocks. But now, with Osman's tour fresh in mind, I recognised the holes in the wall and the filled-in windows as something else: A dovecote! An old, fresco adorned rock church from the Byzantine times that had later served as shelter for pigeons (in fact, this means it could be called a kind of manure factory, since cappadocians kept pigeons for the manure). With this knowledge, the church visit was fascinating instead of being a disappointment.

So, maybe I should go to the Prado next time I am in Madrid. Or see some dovecotes or barns before I visit more churches.

And a Cappadocian (disused) dovecote on the inside.

torsdag 13. oktober 2011

Beauty written in stone - Yerevan's khachkars

The khachkar maker Varaz in his simple studio in central Yerevan.


In Armenia's capital Yerevan, the most beautiful things may be found in worn-down, forgotten backstreets.

On map, it looked like a nice idea. To head for the street lined by park on the Lonely Planet map, just a few blocks south, before crossing from the west side to the east of central Yerevan.

In reality the street wasn't so pretty. Just out of asphalt, out of shops - out of luck it seemed - and devoid of any greenery. We trod on nevertheless. Yerevan doesn't seem to be a dangerous city, and besides, it was still broad daylight. Therefore, we could see nothing wrong in walking on the sunny side of a shady street.

That turned out to be pure luck.

At first I only saw a man climb a ladder leading up against a wall. When I looked more carefully - finding his climbing a bit weird - I discovered the fascinating truth:

The tools of the khachkar trade.

The man, Varaz, was making one of Armenia's most famous pieces of art, a khachkar, merely gaining a few extra meters to get an overview of what he was doing. 

Thus, he was a living example of an old and proud history. At least since 9th century kharchkars - carved memorial stones (the word means 'cross stone') - have been made by the Armenians, mainly for salvation of the soul but also to commemorate military victories or the completion of a bridge, a church etc.

- It takes me about two months to make one, he explained, pausing from his work when he noted our interest. He even invited me into the canvas "shed" to study more of his kharchkars - patting on one of them to persuade me stand on it for new photo opportunities. 

The kharchars would be placed in churches, Varaz told before pointing at one of them.

- That one is going to Canada.

"It must be an Armenian church called Kanahda or something," I thought. But then I checked his master Varazdat Hambardzumyan's homepage, where I learned that his seals of God - as he calls them - have been exported to both the US, Denmark, The United Arab Emirates, and Canada.

Next day, we went to the World Heritage monastery Geghard, where some gorgeous examples of Armenia's 40,000 surviving kharchkars can be found - as well as a fantastic monastery, situated deep inside a gorge and partly carved into the cliff.
Inside Geghard monastery outside of Yerevan.

There, standing before two elaborately carved kharchkars, each with a cross flanked by complex patterns of leaves and grapes, Hyur Service's guide Sona informs me of an interesting fact:

No matter how skillful the master, he will always leave in at least one mistake so that the carvings are not symmetrical.

- Because only God can make something perfect, she explains.

So maybe that is what Varaz was doing up on that ladder. Not checking that he was carving right, but rather the opposite: Making sure something would be wrong.

(This blog post owes several facts to Armenia, The Bradt Travel Guide- a guidebook that is hopeless on practical information (just as this blog) but strong on insight. For practical help, look no further than Lonely Planet's book Georgia, Armenia & Azerbaijan- published in 2008 but still useful.)

Some of the khachkars outside - or actually, on top of - Geghard.

lørdag 10. september 2011

Potosí: To travel or not to travel


Gonzalo Marino is 18 years and have worked four years in Cerro Rico.

Few places will test your coinscience like Potosí. The mining town on the Bolivian altoplano is part of "the gringo trail" in Bolivia. At the same time, these mines are among the worst working places of South America - and the world.

And these very mines are the tourist attraction.

Thus, in Potosí you go sightseeing in this world's darkest corners. As a tourist you put on helmet, boots and protective clothing, and poke around in a tour group among the poor miners who have to work there.

The tourists do it because they can. The miners because they must. And while the tourists are more than satisfied when they leave the mine three hours later, the miners must go there every day, in long shifts, until their lungs cannot stand it anymore. Most miners get silicosis and die, at young age, the majority after 25-35 years in the mines (other sources give lower numbers, some as low as 10-15 years).

Is this OK? Can you, as a tourist, defend morally that poor people are turned into a "tourist attraction"?

The blogger Aracely of 2Backpackers is in doubt, but finally concludes with a hesitating yes.

My yes is firmer. Yes, there are many problems both with the Potosí tours and with guided tours into slums and favelas. But on the other side: Wouldn't it be even worse if tourists only kept to their privileged rich man's bubble, with air-con, longdrinks and high fences to keep reality out?

As a 12 year old Julio Vera was child worker in the mines. Now he is a guide,
showing among other things how the miners make offerings to the devil, El Tio.

Shouldn't travellers try to learn a little about how life is for the people they visit? That kind of informed tourism is what the human rights organisations wanted when I asked them about travelling in suppressive regimes this spring (sorry, link is in Norwegian).

The harsh reality exists anyway.

If you choose to see it, respectfully, you can - if nothing more - show solidarity with the people whose destiny was sealed when they were born in Bolivia, Botswana or Burkina Faso instead of in Boston or Bournemouth.

Another thing is that the tourist industry gives people more options, also in Potosí. My guide, Julio Vera, had been a miner himself, starting when he was 12. Now he is a tourist guide.

That's social mobilty in practice!

I am not so sure that the miners mind the onlookers so much either. From this photo it doesn't look like 71 year old Don Panco bear any grudges - as he has just started his 24 hours shift.

More of my photos from Potosí can be found here (again, text in Norwegian).

PS! For the best preperations before a tour in the mines, I recommend the documentary The Devil's Miner about child workers in Potosí's silver mountain Cerro Rico.

tirsdag 6. september 2011

Coober Pedy: Six Feet Under


Don't run, don't walk backwards, don't walk outside of roads
after dark, look after your kids! Velcome to Coober Pedy.
Coober Pedy must be one of the ugliest towns in the world. The nature is grim; just harsh, red stone desert that looks poisonous. There's no coincidence that films like «Mad Max Thunderdome», «Priscilla, queen of the desert» and «Pitch Black» used the place as location.

The climate is hostile too. So merciless is the heat that half the town's population of 1.900 live underground to escape it.

Maybe that's also why the town looks as it does: The town center spreads in all directions, laid off machinery and car-wrecks are everywhere, and the buildings look like tired warehouses in a harbour that ships no longer use.

Ouside of town things are even worse. There, the flat gravel surface is broken by between one and two million unmarked mines and as many gravel piles.
All this holes make it dangerous to wander freely around Coober Pedy. You've got the danger of falling, the danger of explotions, of being overrun by machinery, and the danger of being hit when a «blower» empties the loose dirt from a mine.

Warning signs on all entry points inform the tourists. That most of the signs are also perforated by bullets, only makes the point stronger: Coober is a harsh place.

But the mines are the whole point. 80 per cent of the world's opals are dug in South Australia. That fact has attracted hardy adventurers from 40 nations.

Now tourists have started following in their 4WD trailmarks. In «White man in a hole», which is what Coober Pedy means translated from aboriginal, they can experience something alltogheter different.

Almost a mile outside of town is Tom's Working Mine where the guide Charlie Skrenya took me deep into the deeps of a modern mine. On the way he explained why the ground around here is as full of holes as a Swiss cheese.

– No one can predict where we will find opals. They can be anywhere. All you can do is to drill and see what you find. It's nothing but a gamble. That's also the reason why no big companies bother with opals, only small companies of one or two people, Charlie explained. And admitted that he spent almost 20 years trying to find his own fortunes underground before he turned to more the predictable tourist industry.

The prospecting rules makes the surface even more perforated: For 45 australian dollars anyone can buy a permit for opal searching. The only requirement is that you deliver the application in person. And you cannot claim an area of more than 200 by 200 meters. You must register your claim within the next day, but don't have to pay anything the first two weeks.

In other words: The rules make it cheaper to drill a new hole every day.

Even more fascinating are the people of Coober Pedy. Many of them are just as extreme as the place itself.

For most of them, the rich opal mine was never more than a dream. Still they have stayed, to give it one more chance, and one more, and one more...

– I came here in 1986. Because I was stupid, said Charlie, who is born Hungary.

In Catacomb Church, one of the town's three dugout churches, I met Brandon, who came in 1975.

– My wife and I were gonna give it two years. When they had passed we hadn't found anything. We found it too embarrasing to go back. Everyone in Melbourne had predicted that we would be broke here. Therefore we couldn't go back empty-handed. It was a matter of pride, he said smiling.

The history of Coober Pedy is also full of women. Strong women. Like Faye Nayler. She came here as a cook in the 60s, and after loosing her job because she refused to serve bad meet, she started her own café.

Today you can visit her home, dug out using picks and shovels by her and two other women. Today's owners Colin og June Maclean welcome visitors six days a week.

Colin Maclean in his kitchen.
– I would hate to live in a house above ground here. Down here the temperature is always between 23 and 25 degrees, said Colin. And there is yet another big advantage of «dugouts»:

– If the furniture don't fit in, you can dig more space for them.

If you're lucky you might even find an opal.

onsdag 17. august 2011

Georgia: Paying it forward


A backsteet in Tbilisi's Old town, not many meters
from the main, pedestrian tourist street.
Take a look at this picture from the old town in Georgia's capital Tbilisi. I'd say it tells something about the country's economy. The photo is not taken at complete random, but this wasn't the only street where the houses are leaning like palm trees over the street, and the roofs shed tiles in every storm.

After the breakup of the USSR and the 2008 war against Russia, Georgia is a dirt poor country. Therefore, the generosity of the Georgians is even more impressive.

Like this little banality that welcomed me into the country:

I was taking bus 37 from the airport to the centre of Tbilisi. What I didn't know, was that you don't buy the tickets from the driver but from an automat.

That didn't worry me much. I had several 1 lari coins after changing my Ukrainian money on the airport, so I put my backpack under my seat and started working the automat.

Or so I thought. As it turned out, bus 37's ticket machine only accepts coins of 10, 20 and 50 tetri (the subunit of lari, 100 tetri=1 lari). I was contemplating to go without a valid ticket, at a - for me - unknown risk, but first I had one last straw: I asked the two elderly ladies in simple greyish coats and plastic bags on their laps if they could change one of my lari coins.

They don't answer. Instead they smile and one of them walks up to the machine and pays my ticket. And all my attempts on persuasion are useless. They want to pay. They insist.

Now this is a small gift. For me, from oil-rich Norway, 50 tetri is absolutely nothing.

But for a Georgian? These two ladies don't look like particularly wealthy people, even for Georgia's standards.

That means poor in my book. Georgia's GDP per capita of $4900 only gives the country a 150th place in the world, and according to the UNDP, Georgian households spend a mere $3913 on private consumption a year, more than 1000 dollars less than e.g. Iranians. 13,44 per cent of the population lived on below $1,25 in 2005 - before the 2008 war with Russia.

Nonetheless, they paid for me - a wealthy North European on vacation (how many of the Georgians can afford that?).

And I accepted. I think that's the only decent thing to do. Respect your fellow people's urge to be helpful, generous and kind - and that even poorer people have the right to decline your payment.
Window shopping in Tbilisi also involves potatoes...

I guess that, instead, we can learn from it. To be generous too. To pay it forward, or as Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: "But the benefit we receive must be rendered again, line for line, deed for deed, cent for cent, to somebody."

Personally I rarely see people short of cash on the Oslo subway. Instead I have donated money to the Norwegian Refugee Council, who works for people even worse off than the Georgian ladies.

tirsdag 9. august 2011

The kindness of a stranger


Broad, dusty street in a town somewhere along the road between Inezgane (Agadir's transport hub) and Laâyoune in Western Sahara.

Hamoud was the first to teach me anything about camels except what I had read in a book: "A camel can smell water from far away. If you ever run out of water, stick to the camel no matter what happens," he said.

I was lazily looking out the bus window. There was nothing there, except some sand-drizzled bushes spread out like rocks in a flat no man's land. It was Hamoud's landscape, here he was at home and I was definately on strange ground, completely devoid of any survival skills. Now, at least I knew one thing: stick to the camel, more experience would come later on.

From here I would have to manage alone anyway. Hamoud and I had been sitting beside eachother all the way from Inezgane, for several hours the skinny Saharawi with donkey teeth and I had kept every hint of the monotony the landscape offers away; we had conversed on music and death, the dream of Europe and Morocco's occupation of Western Sahara, we had been singing, and Hamoud had assisted me in bying my first ever turban in Goulmine where the bus stopped for a break. Now our acquaintance was over, he and his sister were set for Tan Tan, while I wouldn't rest until Laâyoune.

Roadside café in Morocco.

"Join us for tea. Laâyoune is a long journey from here," Hamoud insisted before going off in the outskirts of Tan Tan, but I turned the offer down. My ticket held a promise of even more miles towards the south, and I wanted to push on. Little did I know about how lonely I would feel once at the bus station.

There it all stopped. Every rice bag and bulging suitcase was unloaded from the bus' hold, and one after another my fellow passengers disappeared into the low, square brick buildings of the town. I was the only one still there. And the ticket collector. After some hesitation I approached him.

"There is no bus from here to Laâyoune," he replied.
"But I hold a ticket there, from your company," I complained, ready to hand him the paper note I had been clutching since I realized that something was brewing; on the note it surely read "La-y---e", even though the hand writing would have made even a blind doctor blush.

"Let me see!" the ticket collector commanded and as soon as I opened my palm in front of him, he pinched the note, and studied it short-sighted only to tear it into pieces before my eyes, small piches of paper that he let fall to the dust and earth; my ticket! I mumbled some phrases of kind-of-french from my Linguaphone but the words refused all intelligent shape. I had to resign. I would have to continue on taxi brousse.

Taxi brousse, grand taxi, bush taxi
- depending on where in Western Africa you are travelling - have one advantage: The driver will never screw you (except sometimes by demanding you pay for your luggage). The con is that they won't drive until full, and that the drivers have an understanding of the word full that differs substantially from ours; in "my" Mercedes Benz we would be four people squeezing into the back seat while a married couple was sharing the passenger seat in front.

While waiting for the last two seats to fill up, I couldn't help from missing Hamoud, regretting my rush to get to Laâyoune, which I had no pressing need to reach until at least the next day.

I also thought that there was a lesson to be taught: Never decline the kindness of a stranger. Or alternatively always doublecheck the tickets before you buy them.

The market in Goulmime, where the bus stopped for a short break.

Sunset - time for prayers.

Three in the front seats and four in the back, that's the way in a Moroccan bush taxi.

onsdag 3. august 2011

A siesta in Praiano


The waves won't move his cradle, but at least he has the sound of the ocean, the man who sleeps in his boat on shore in Praiano. (Sorry for the photo quality, it's a scanned dias.)

Armchair travelling has never been easier. Guidebooks, newspaper stories, advertisement brochures and - maybe even more so - blogs don't just tell us what we can and should see, with photos already showing it, but also contain all sorts of practical information about business hours, prices, timetables, the whereabouts of the post office, and which beach bar that offers the most beautiful sunset.

A traveller can easily be fooled into making the journey nothing but a walkthrough of all this information.

Probably just as common is to fool oneself into unrealistic expectations like those described by Alain de Botton in "The Art of Travel": The decision on where to go and the anticipation on what we will see there, are often made based on just three glossy photos in a brochure. When we actually arrive we are disappointed because reality also includes things like power lines, posters, and office buildings that are just as square and soulless as the ones at home.

I'm glad to say the world has more to offer. I guess that's the reason why some of us are constantly planning our next adventure with a backpack, a phrasebook and an open mind.

Take the picture above. It's from Praiano, a small village on the Amalfi Coast, one of Europe's most famous - and dramatic - stretches of coast. On Unesco's World Heritage List, written up in glowing terms by John Steinbeck, and described in detail in guidebooks (most publishers, like Frommer's,Lonely PlanetandThe Rough Guidehave their own books on Naples and Amalfi alone).

But still, neither the detailed guidebooks nor my simplistic preconceptions prepared me for the one moment that I remember best from my first trip to Amalfi:

I had given up renting a moped or bike (too expensive), so I set out from Atrani to Positano by foot. In Praiano I went down to the tiny harbour on the pebbly beach for a rest. I pulled up my tripod, and started taking photos of the boats lying there. Just then an elderly fisherman came walking by, almost passing me before he clambered on board one of the wooden boats I was studying. There he went to sleep, covering his face with a handkerchief and one arm. A nap, a siesta, a stolen half-hour somewhere his wife would never find him. I have no way of knowing. The fantastic parenthesis was not described or explained anywhere (and I would never wake up a sleeping man to ask him).

So, you say, a sleeping man? It's not exactly the Sistine Chapel. But still, it's this kind of moments that stick. Because they could not be planned, and not be imagined by an armchair traveller. Moments like these only come to the ones who travel.

Ironically this blog can lead someone to do just that: walk down to the harbour in Praiano hoping to see an old fisherman take a nap in one of the boats lying there.

They can just forget about it. But I still recommend Praiano. Maybe there, they will see another next-to-nothing episode that they had never imagined.

torsdag 28. juli 2011

The no longer strangers


Campaign meeting or party - or both? Chinguetti, November 2006.

It has been almost one week since the horrors of terror hit Norway. We have mourned, we have kept together (as I am writing almost 1,2 million are holding hands online at VG. We have also been reminded of the dark thoughts that run quite freely in the corners of internet, the thoughts that most of us normally choose to close their eyes to when they appear before our eyes.

Enough said. This is not going to be a blog about immigration or right-wing paranoia.

This is a blog about travelling. And about how meeting other people can make clear what should be obvious: That "the others" are no more static than us, defined by a lot more than traditions, honour and a sacred book.

It was November 2006, in the country which full name is Islamic Republic of Mauritania, a country that was religious in more than name; alcohol was for example impossible to get in the whole country except for a few luxury hotels.

I was in Chinguetti, an old caravan town an religious center, according to the inhabitants themselves (and Michael Palin) the seventh holiest town of Islam. Everything seemed strange. Instead of streets there was sand, camels, centuries old Islamic libraries. And both men and women went in robes, the women also covered their hair.

In other words, a deeply traditional town deep in the desert. But not in every sense. Not the people.

Admittedly, my host A wanted to get a wife number two, and hopefully four in some years. Admittedly, his wife N was 14 when they married. And admittedly he paid for her in camels. But on their kitchen wall there was a poster of Britney Spears.

Dream woman 1 and 2. the wife and Britney Spears.

Another girl, K, had her hair covered but was flirting openly: - My teacher in school is no good. I want you to teach me English. I want the tuition the be at home, and I want to study only at night, she said, her friends laughing. Her idol? Christina Aguilera.

I visited Chinguetti in a golden age, just before the first election after the coup d'etat of 2005. Gigantic tents stood in the desert, and there it was obvious that the campaign was a social happening, not just about politics. Electric guitars played in the night, people were dancing; only one thing was really different from a European festival: They were drinking tea.

Campaign in Mauritanian.

The young students I joined later in evening, were drinking tea too. And they wore long, blue robes. But their dream women were Jennifer Lopez, Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears, and their favourite music was hiphop. Soon, one of them started rapping while banging the beat against the tea tray, and several students were dancing break on the floor.

They were robe-clad muslims, ok, but first of all they were youths.

There are rabid extremists in Mauritania too, just as we now have seen that "our own" extremists can be dangerous.

But are they connected to reality? The society they claim to fight for, has changed years ago - for the better. Both when it comes to hiphop loving Mauritanians and Norway's constitutional religious freedom.

To most of us, this is pretty obvious. Others seemingly don't get it. Maybe they should travel to Mauritania (but not now, see the British travel advisory for more informasjon).

For more information about Chinguetti and how it saw as many as 30.000 camels gathering there at the same time during the days of the great desert caravans, read this excellent article by Smithsonian magazine. There, you can also read about the sad fact desertification is threatening this medieval Unesco world heritage site.

The oldest manuskripts in Biblioteque Moulaye M'Hamed Ould Ahmed Cherif are 900 years old, and made of gaselle leather.

torsdag 21. juli 2011

Saepinum: Roman ruins in mezzogiorno


Not only do sights lead to tourism, the effect does also work the opposite way. Just go to Saepinum far inside the valleys of Italy's forgotten Molise.

There you will find the remains of a small roman provincial town, beautifully placed in the foothills of the Matese mountains. The theatre is there, and the same goes for the columns of the temple, the walls of the baths, market and forum. And everything is remarkably well preserved. 

OK, I'll admit it has never been Pompeii. The town was probably as sleepy and easy forgotten as today's Sepino, the modern town a few kilometres to the south. And Saepinum lacks the dramatic story. It never saw sudden death, and it never drowned in ash and burning rocks like the more famous ruin town south of Naples.
But. Roman ruins in mint condition. Imagine if it was in Tuscany...

It isn't. It's in the southeast of Italy, in a poor region where little has changed since... Molise is el mezzogiorno at it's worst - used as an expression of backwardness, poverty and crime - a part of Italy where life stops at midday. And it doesn't spin much faster the rest of the day.

I have wanted to see Saepinum for years, after reading about it in my favourite travel guides for backwatery holidays in a rental car: The Rough Guide to Italy.

This March I finally went there. But I almost didn't make it. The ruins are not signposted from the main road SS17, only Sepino is, and even that name is listed as number three from top.

So I missed it at first try. But I persevered. By the center of Sepino a sign showed the way to zona archeologica, from there I only drove the wrong way once (keep right 50 meters after the probably closed tourism center).

Finally I was in Saepinum. Alone. There are some farmhouses built within and around the ruins, and even a farmhouse that uses the backside of the theatre as walls. But there are no guides, no ticket office, no fences. Even the café outside the ruins was closed.

In the grass between the ruins I saw sheeps manure (some years ago nomadic shepherds used to pass through the ruins when they moved their sheep flocks between summer and winter pasture), and during my visit I saw two possibly tourists and one farmer walking her dog.

Apart from that, the roman town was mine. It might have felt like that when the nobles of old went on their Grand Tour. A little lonely. And with a sense that this must hold greater opportunities.