Welcome, Marhaba, Ahlan wa Sahlan, Selamat Datang…

Standing Buddha at Bamiyan, Afghanistan, now destroyed by the Taliban

Standing Buddha at Bamiyan, Afghanistan, now destroyed by the Taliban

This blog showcases my travel writing and photography, and shares experiences, images and anecdotes more frankly – and more immediately – than commercial print media allow.

My independent travels began in 1960s Tasmania, then took off with the Seventies Asian overland thing – now they call it a gap year – a consular posting in the United Arab Emirates and a stint as an adventure tour guide in South East Asia.
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Eyam, Eye of the Storm

When Catherine Mompesson remarked one summer evening, “How sweet the air smells”, her husband realised she would be dead within days.

Eyam, Derbyshire, Peak District, England.  Homes of plague victims in this village which quarantined itself during the Great Plague of the 17th CIn August 1666, that sweet-smelling sensation was the first step towards a rapid and certain death from bubonic plague. George Mompesson recognised only too well the hallmarks of the virulent disease which had devastated Eyam, the remote English village of which he was rector and, effectively, leader. For months he and Catherine had devoted themselves to caring for the afflicted – and burying them, for no cure was known.

For perhaps three hundred years Black Death, plague epidemics, had broken out sporadically across England. Some communities were wiped off the map but alone amongst them Eyam’s devastating losses – and the village’s quiet heroism – have passed into history.

Eyam is one of a cluster of ancient villages on the slopes above the River Derwent, seven miles north of Bakewell in the rugged Peak District of northern England. It is a region of craggy bluffs, high, windswept uplands and sheltered forests, one of Britain’s most picturesque. For centuries people here prospered from mining lead, albeit in hazardous conditions.

The first to succumb to the plague was George Viccars, a tailor boarding with the young miner’s widow Mary Cooper in a cottage which still stands on the main street. One summer’s day in August 1665 Viccars opened a consignment of fabric brought from London, possibly as second-hand clothing. Finding the material damp, he spread it to dry by the fire. Soon he fell violently ill and, within days, died in an agony of suffering.

We now know that bubonic plague thrives amidst warm weather, poverty and poor sanitation, transmitted between rats and infected fleas. The ancient nursery rhyme…

Ring a ring of roses

A pocket full of posies

Atishoo, atishoo

We all fall down.

…is not as light-hearted as it seems. The ring of roses was the tell-tale pattern of eruptions across a stricken body. Those still unaffected often carried posies, supposed to ward off the disease. Sneezing fits also characterised the onset of the infection and of course once you fell down you never got up…

Within about a fortnight of the first fatality, the disease spreads rapidly. Inevitably, herbal remedies, poultices, charms and spells failed to clear the ‘foul air’ or ‘miasma’. The only miasma lingering over Eyam was the haze of superstition and witchcraft so characteristic of those times. But however ignorant of the workings of infectious disease, Mompesson and the villagers did discern a glimmer of the truth about the curse which had settled upon them. Isolation could stem it fanning out from Eyam to engulf others.

The villagers’ self-imposed quarantine resulted from an historic agreement between Mompesson and his Puritan predecessor, recently evicted. At a time when religious differences often ended in bloodshed, Mompesson, a relatively young man, consulted with the veteran Thomas Stanley, who still commanded a loyal following. Together they urged the villagers, pious Christians, to give of themselves so that others might live. Virtually all complied.

There would be no further funeral services nor churchyard burials; families would bury their own dead without delay. Locking up the church, Mompesson began conducting open-air Sunday services in a natural amphitheatre called the Delph south of the village. Thirdly and most importantly, Eyam cut itself off from the world so that others might live.

Neighbouring villagers and the Earl of Devonshire agreed to leave food for collection at the village boundaries. At a place now called Mompesson’s Well the coins left in payment could be ‘cleansed’ in running water, whilst at the Eyam Boundary Stone they were inserted into holes drilled in the rock, topped up with vinegar.

Catherine Mompesson had sent away her children but refused to leave her husband’s side. She became one of three or four hundred fatalities, almost half of Eyam. Traditionally the present vicar’s wife tends her grave on Remembrance Day each year.

By the Christmas of 1666 it became apparent that the contagion had passed after fourteen long months. Entire families had been wiped out in what was Britain’s last major outbreak of bubonic plague.

Eyam, Derbyshire, Peak District, England.  Churchyard of St Lawrence (1150)  in this village which quarantined itself during the Great Plague Eyam today largely retains its seventeenth-century character, slumbering under ominous winter skies during our visit. Mompesson’s Well and the Boundary Stone can still be seen in the fields beyond the village. A single street stretches either side of the church of St Lawrence, dating from 1150 AD although, like so many, modified by heavy-handed Victorian restorers. A finely-carved eighth-century Celtic cross stands in the churchyard, close by Catherine’s grave. The grim stone facades of the three Plague Cottages bear plaques recording their history, in particular the beginnings of the outbreak. A little further on, the village stocks still await witches, thieves and wrongdo’ers.

Bruny Island too brave for Avis

Bruny Island, southeast Tasmania, is a delightful retreat, a sleepy island community of tiny towns and empty beaches. Sweeping beaches, craggy capes and secluded inlets are the hallmarks of these two half islands joined by a spit of sand. The holiday villages hold fond memories for generations of Tasmanians. Chugging down the Derwent, the beach picnic at Dennes Point and the long grind home on the ferry were pieces in the jigsaw of a Hobart childhood.

But the islanders are not standing still, with boutique cheesemakers and confectioners, holiday cottages, launch cruises and other small-scale, tourism-oriented businesses mushrooming. Bruny is a 15-minute car ferry ride from Kettering on the Tasmanian mainland. But it’s a journey too far for Avis Car Rental, which arbitrarily bans its customers from taking cars across. Other companies do not seem to have the same hang-up; Tasmania has plenty of back roads more remote or less well-maintained than those on Bruny.

I’ve asked why, but haven’t yet heard back. I’m sure the local tourism operators would be curious to know why a multinational car rental operator wants to cut them out of the loop. And ditto for Kangaroo Island, South Australia.

BTW, more pix of Tasmania are here.

Botswana: In search of the next Precious Ramotswe

Leave aside the luxury safari camps of the Okavango Delta, with their promise of ‘Big Five’ game sightings and sybaritic indulgence under star-lit African skies, and you are not left with many obvious reasons to visit the sprawling, semi-desert republic of Botswana. Indeed, Lonely Planet suggests that less-affluent travellers might better spend their time in neighbouring countries.

At the Broadhurst Mall, Gaborone

At the Broadhurst Mall, Gaborone

However, since Scots author Alexander McCall Smith introduced the charmingly unaffected Precious Ramotswe and her No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency to the world of books (and subsequently, film and TV) even the dusty fringes of Gaborone, the capital, have drawn glimmers of interest from McCall Smith’s growing army of fans. I’d arrived in South Africa with no fixed plans, but soon chafed at being warned not to roam the streets at night. A bus ticket across the border to Gaborone seemed an easy choice.

I didn’t find the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency (after all, it is a figment of the author’s imagination) but in Mochudi, the dusty overgrown village where our unlikely heroine spent her formative years, I took note of the Giggles Hair Salon, Nix Business Services (Company Formation, Biz Consultation, Funeral Programs) and the Club Triple Zero Nightclub, all doing business from tin sheds or mud-walled cabins. More entrepreneurs in the making… (and here are some more pix). And BTW, I did make it by hook or by crook up to big-game country.

To go or not to go

I’d love to visit Yemen and see the towering mudbrick skyscrapers of San’a and the ancient towns of the Hadhramaut; to experience a culture where men spend most afternoons spaced out on a homegrown weed called qat… In the Seventies we overlanders traversed Afghanistan; I relished more recent visits to East Timor, Burma and the Solomon Islands. Lots of once-suspect destinations warrant a closer look, including some on Dubya’s ‘Axis of Evil’.

Herat, Afghanistan (1974)

Herat, Afghanistan (1974)

But you won’t find me in Yemen just yet. There are just too many reasons why not, including the suspicion that will surely attach to independent travellers returning from an apparent nest of terrorist sympathisers. I’d rather not build up a case file with hyped-up security agencies.

Nigel Brennan had no local contacts or expertise when he set off to make his name as a freelance photojournalist based in strife-torn Somalia, which has no credible government and a fearsome reputation for famine, piracy, conflict and kidnapping. Continue reading

The ethics of giving to beggars: an expat’s dilemna

Another despatch from my Jakarta-based friend Kevin…

I’ve been thinking recently about the ethics of giving to beggars.

A couple of days ago I was walking past an old woman sitting on the bridge outside a bus station, holding a plastic cup. So I reached into my pocket where I thought I had a 200 Rupiah coin and a 2000 Rupiah note, and was very generously going to place it in the plastic cup. Except that when I started to put it in, I was horrified to see it was a blue 50,000 Rupiah note, so I quickly pulled back and left just the 200 Rupiah coin (that’s 2c to you). Fortunately she was sitting on the ground, and I was mobile, so able to quickly walk away and hide my embarrassment, and presumably her scorn.

Shantytown, Pasar Ikan, Jakarta

Shantytown, Pasar Ikan, Jakarta

What is a measured response to beggars? People here would very rarely give more than 1000 Rupiah and beggars usually don’t acknowledge the donation, which is a necessary routine to observe Zakat, a Muslim’s religious obligation to give alms. Many local people say the beggars are rounded up by by Fagin-type characters who give them food and board if they sit around all day and beg.

During Ramadan there was a bit of debate about the official announcement that 2.5% of annual income was the expected amount to be donated. Continue reading

Push along to Pushkar, this November

For a week at the full moon of the Hindu month of Kartika – this year, 2-10 November, a dusty throng of camels and their nomadic owners joins Hindu holy men, pious pilgrims and spectators from far and wide as they descend on this desert outpost in Rajasthan for the annual camel fair. Beyond the fairground the desert tribespeople camp out with their camels, flanks freshly branded, and tricked out with pom-poms and flower-bedecked harness.

For more than two thousand years pious Hindus have come to Pushkar to worship Lord Brahma, the Creator, and to seek absolution by bathing in the sacred waters of the Tank. This is the only surviving temple dedicated to the Creator of the Hindu universe; elsewhere, his cult his given way to the worship of Vishnu the preserver, Shiva the destroyer and other deities.

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