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.

onsdag 20. juli 2011

About The hard life

I'm one of the lucky few who could make a living from travelling. For years I only had to write about it, and sometimes take photos (unless I traveled with a photographer).
My stories have been published in VG, Norway's most-read newspaper, Dagbladet, Aftenposten, Magasinet Reiselyst and Vagabond, among others.

So why a blog about travelling?
The seed was sown at a seminar with the rest of the travel section, in Svolvær, Lofoten. It was after some glasses of red wine, and we were talking about good food, good wine - in short: the good life.

The good life is a common theme in travel stories. But in my eyes, a real travel experience is a lot more than that.
- I'm gonna start a blog called "The hard life," I told my colleagues, a bit intoxicated and inspired by the young man I met a little earlier, cutting fish by the docks. He had quit his job to become a fisherman, and now he lived with with the captain, two men in a small fishing vessel. His salary came from the fish they caught, plus what he earned as a doorkeeper in a local bar.
That's the kind of man I would like to read about. But those stories, about how a tired doorkeeper go home to his boat after closing hour, knowing he'll be awoken by the captain in two hours, are rarely told in the travel stories.

Since then it's been almost six months. I haven't hurried. But here it is: the blog The hard life. I hope you like it.